Explaining how the strategic thinking of the Communist International developed, as background to the key role the ComIntern played in facilitating the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
Welcome to episode 15 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
For the past few episodes, we’ve been focused on the development of events and ideas in China as sections of the intelligentsia became radicalized during the Warlord Era in the second half of the 1910s. But as these radicalized intellectuals moved toward the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, another important actor came into the picture, which I want to discuss and give some background on.
I’m talking about an organization called the Communist International, or the ComIntern for short. The ComIntern was an organization set up in the Soviet Union in 1919 to facilitate and coordinate the international spread of communist revolution. Another name for the ComIntern was the Third International. This was because, dating back to the time of Marx and Engels, this idea of having an international organization to coordinate the efforts of international communism was not a new one. But the ComIntern was set up with the idea of correcting what were seen as the weaknesses of its predecessors.
The First International, or the International Workingmen’s Association, had been founded in 1864 and split into anarchist and Marxist wings in 1872, each of which soon petered out. The idea behind the First International was to coordinate international labor movement cooperation, especially as the labor movement was on the upswing in western Europe and there was common interest in preventing foreign workers from being brought in to end strikes. There were larger political aspirations, however, in that the International also expressed solidarity with and sought to aid national liberation efforts in Poland and Ireland.
But in practice, the short life of the First International was largely taken up with infighting between the Marxists and the anarchists. Despite this, it has significance for us in discussing China in 1920 because it attempted to organizationally embody an idea that was central to the ComIntern, and indeed central to Marxism. It’s the idea expressed by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto that “The working men have no country.” That the proletariat is an international class with class interests that encompass the liberation of the entire planet. One of the principles, or values, that follows from this idea that the proletariat has no country is a sense of international brotherhood and friendship which is one of the ideas that I personally find most appealing about Marxism. Any notion that the lives of the people of the United States, for example, are worth more than the lives of people in other countries, or that policies should be adopted for one country’s benefit at the expense of the people of other countries, is totally anathema to Marxism. So even before Marx and then Lenin analyzed the economic processes of global capitalism and the development of imperialism as a world economic system of exploitation of weaker countries by more powerful industrialized countries, there was a basic ethical anti-imperialism to Marxism which came before even the material economic analysis of global conditions.
The Second International was founded in 1889. This time, the idea was to be a little more ideologically coherent and avoid the infighting that had characterized the First International, so anarchists were excluded. By 1889, industrialization had become very advanced in western Europe, and you had large unions which had won some victories and you had growing socialist parties which represented large numbers of workers. The largest of these parties, and the most successful politically, was the German Social-Democratic Party. The German party was so successful, that by 1912 it had the most Reichstag seats of any German political party, winning almost 35% of the vote. The problem, was, that with this institutionalization, the party, which maintained fairly radical principles on paper, in practice became quite conservative. This process reached its climax when World War One broke out in 1914. Despite pledges to oppose any war during the years leading up to World War One, most of the leadership of almost all of the parties which belonged to the Second International ended up taking stands in support of the war.
In 1912, at a Congress in Basel, Switzerland, the parties of the Second International had adopted a resolution which stated that: “If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.
“In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”
In fact, nothing of the sort happened, except in Russia, where the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party led by Lenin adopted a policy called ‘revolutionary defeatism’ which called for the defeat of Russia in the war and for the soldiers to turn their guns around and overthrow the Tsar. Their policy was of course ridiculed as totally unrealistic by the learned leaders of international socialism. The realistic option pursued by the German Social-Democratic Party was to support the war as the majority party in parliament.
In the wake of the Second International’s total betrayal of its most basic principles in 1914, Lenin wrote a series of pieces which tried to come to grips with the way in which the parties of the Second International had come to represent the interests of the labor aristocracy. He developed an idea which began with Marx and Engels when they wrote about the working class in England, when they tried to come to terms with why the working class in the most advanced industrial country of their time was not very revolutionary-minded. In theory, where capitalism was most advanced and emerging, Marx and Engels had originally thought that would be where communist revolution would originally break out. But as they looked at Britain’s role in the world (something we explored in some of our earlier podcasts, where we looked at British attacks on China, for example), they analyzed that Britain’s role as the most powerful great power allowed it to create conditions which were materially very privileged for a part of the working class in England, and that this constituted something called the labor aristocracy, which was essentially bought off and its potential revolutionary energies had been neutralized. Lenin argued that the leaders of the parties of the Second International had come to represent not the proletariat, but the labor aristocracy.
His most concentrated expression of this idea was in a contribution he made in 1920 to the Second Congress of the ComIntern:
“The industrial workers cannot fulfill their world-historical mission of emancipating mankind from the yoke of capital and from wars if these workers concern themselves exclusively with their narrow craft, narrow trade interests, and smugly confine themselves to care and concern for improving their own, sometimes tolerable, petty bourgeois conditions. This is exactly what happens in many advanced countries to the ‘labor aristocracy’ which serves as the base of the alleged Socialist parties of the Second International.”
So, if the comforts and privileges that some of the workers gained in wealthy, industrialized countries meant that those workers, the ‘labor aristocracy,’ began to serve as the base of support for socialist parties which represented only the interests of that privileged layer of workers, and not of the working class as a whole, by doing things like sending hundreds of thousands of workers to meet their deaths in World War One, then what were the strategic implications for the Third, or Communist, International, so as to avoid becoming transformed into a bunch of sell-outs like had happened with the big parties of the Second International, like the German Social-Democratic Party?
One of the main lessons that Lenin and the leaders of the Communist International drew from the collapse of the Second International was that, as Lenin put it, “it is therefore our duty, if we wish to remain socialists to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses.” So, if the workers who belonged to the strongest unions in the most advanced industrial countries, like Britain and Germany, had been somewhat ‘bourgeoisified,’ then instead of taking those workers and the narrow conception of their own interests that many of those workers had as the basis for Social Democratic, or Communist, political activity, like the German Social-Democratic Party had done, the party instead should find its social base among the masses who were not as well off, who had not been essentially bribed by the spoils of looting other countries or by the abundance of goods which were now being produced in the heartlands of the industrial revolution.
As an aside, just to clarify some terminology, it was at this time that parties which supported the Russian Revolution began to use the name Communist instead of Social-Democrat. At the time of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks were officially known as the Russian Social-Democratic Party. But in order to distinguish themselves from the many sellout parties in the Second International which had supported World War One, after the revolution broke out in 1917 they went back to Marx and Engels’s original term for their political trend, and started calling themselves the Communist Party. So, if today the word ‘communist’ sounds much more hardcore than the word ‘social-democrat,’ this is the time that this distinction dates from. Up until the Russian Revolution, all these guys were calling themselves Social-Democrats.
In case you are wondering, well, where is the line to be drawn between the ‘labor aristocracy’ on the on hand, and the ‘real masses’ on the other hand, that’s a great question. And I think there is not a really great answer. Or rather, if we look at how Lenin answered this question, we can see that, for him, this quickly became as much a political question as a question of political economy. This is what Lenin said when he was trying to figure out where to draw this line. In this following passage which I will read for you here, from his article “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” Lenin uses a term which many of you will not be familiar with, called Kautskyism. Kautsky was the main theoretician of the German Social-Democratic Party, so he’s just referring to that guy when he uses the term. Here’s the quote:
“One of the most common sophistries of Kautskyism is its reference to the ‘masses.’ We do not want, they say, to break away from the masses and mass organizations! But just think how Engels put the question. In the nineteenth century the ‘mass organizations’ of the English trade unions were on the side of the bourgeois labor party. Marx and Engels did not reconcile themselves to it on this ground; they exposed it. They did not forget, firstly, that the trade union organizations directly embraced a minority of the proletariat. In England then, as in Germany now, not more than one-fifth of the proletariat was organized. No one can seriously think it possible to organize the majority of the proletariat under capitalism. Secondly—and this is the main point—it is not so much a question of the size of an organization, as of the real, objective significance of its policy: does its policy represent the masses, does it serve them, i.e., does it aim at their liberation from capitalism, or does it represent the interests of the minority, the minority’s reconciliation with capitalism? The latter was true of England in the nineteenth century, and it is true of Germany, etc., now.
“Engels draws a distinction between the ‘bourgeois labor party’ of the old trade unions—the privileged minority—and the ‘lowest mass,’ the real majority, and appeals to the latter, who are not infected by ‘bourgeois respectability.’ This is the essence of Marxist tactics!
“Neither we nor anyone else can calculate precisely what portion of the proletariat is following and will follow the social-chauvinists and opportunists. This will be revealed only by the struggle, it will be definitely decided only by the socialist revolution. But we know for certain that the ‘defenders of the fatherland’ in the imperialist war represent only a minority. And it is therefore our duty, if we wish to remain socialists to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and the whole purport of the struggle against opportunism. By exposing the fact that the opportunists and social-chauvinists are in reality betraying and selling the interests of the masses, that they are defending the temporary privileges of a minority of the workers, that they are the vehicles of bourgeois ideas and influences, that they are really allies and agents of the bourgeoisie, we teach the masses to appreciate their true political interests, to fight for socialism and for the revolution through all the long and painful vicissitudes of imperialist wars and imperialist armistices.
“The only Marxist line in the world labor movement is to explain to the masses the inevitability and necessity of breaking with opportunism, to educate them for revolution by waging a relentless struggle against opportunism, to utilize the experience of the war to expose, not conceal, the utter vileness of national-liberal labor politics.”
So as we can see, Lenin wrote about this split within the working class between a labor aristocracy and the ‘lower and deeper’ sections of the masses in both economic and political terms. On the one hand, yes, the labor aristocracy was created by material conditions of relative privilege. On the other hand, Lenin considered where to draw the line between those better off workers and the rest of the working class to be essentially a political question: he said, hey, we don’t know exactly where this line is drawn, we just need to fight to win over as many of the workers as we can, while making sure that we are always representing the workers’ fundamental interests, and we do that by basing ourselves on the ‘lower and deeper’ sections of the masses.
And it’s interesting to speculate on what Marx or Engels or Lenin would make of the privileges that many workers have today compared to the German and British workers of 100 years ago. These labor aristocrats of a century or more ago had longer work days, more precarious existences and less material benefits than almost everyone in countries like the United States and Western Europe today, but also were less well-off even compared with many workers in the global South today. But as much as this question interests me, and hopefully you, this has been a bit of a digression. Because while going lower and deeper to find a social base for the communist parties of the Third International in the industrialized countries was a very important strategic shift from the practice of the Second International, we’re most concerned with another major strategic shift that the ComIntern undertook, and which differentiated it from the Second International even more.
This other strategic shift that we are interested in stems from the ways in which the Russian Revolution differed from what Marxists had expected a socialist revolution to look like, and where they had expected it to take place. Up until the Russian Revolution took place, Marxists, including the leaders of the Bolsheviks in Russia, had expected socialist revolutions to first break out in the most advanced industrialized countries, like Britain or Germany. And even once the Russian Revolution broke out, there was a strong feeling that they would need support from revolutions which they hoped would follow in the west, in particular in Germany. The general idea was that for socialism to exist, you needed to have a large industrial working class. And Russia was a country mostly made up of peasants, not really too unlike most of the world where there had not really been much industrial development, like China.
Russian revolutionaries had expected that before they could have a socialist revolution, that they would first have to have a bourgeois-capitalist revolution, which would subordinate the Tsar and the big landowning nobles to an emergent capitalist class. In broad strokes, this was what Marx’s theory of how economic development spurred on political revolution predicted would happen. It is worth noting, however, that in the particulars of how they developed, no country in the world exactly fit Marx’s predicted model. In their particulars, the revolutions in Britain, the United States and France differed in significant ways from the ideal type of Marx’s theoretical model. And of course Germany had never even had a bourgeois or capitalist revolution. So the Russian revolutionaries had the choice between being pious Marxist theologians, or going ahead and making their revolution and discovering how reality differed from the ideal type that Marx had theorized, and then adjusting Marx’s theoretical model based on the lessons of their experience of revolution. Of course, the Bolsheviks opted for the latter choice, even though there were other Marxists in Russia who disagreed with them and even fought against them because they thought that Russia could only have a capitalist revolution and not a communist one.
This meant that, once the Russian Revolution had succeeded, and once it seemed clear that at least for the near future Russia would have to soldier along alone on the socialist path without aid from a revolution in richer countries like Germany or France or England, an implicit question was raised, which was soon made explicit and argued over at great length by revolutionaries around the world: If Russia could have a socialist revolution, then why couldn’t just about any other country in the world have one?
In 1918, the Bolsheviks began to systematize their thinking on this question, with Stalin articulating their policy as it was developing in the following terms:
“The great worldwide significance of the October Revolution chiefly consists in the fact that:
“1) It has widened the scope of the national question and converted it from the particular question of combating national oppression in Europe into the general question of emancipating the oppressed peoples, colonies and semi-colonies from imperialism;
“2) It has opened up wide possibilities for their emancipation and the right paths towards it, has thereby greatly facilitated the cause of the emancipation of the oppressed peoples of the West and the East, and has drawn them into the common current of the victorious struggle against imperialism;
“3) It has thereby erected a bridge between the socialist West and the enslaved East, having created a new front of revolutions against world imperialism, extending from the proletarians of the West, through the Russian Revolution, to the oppressed peoples of the East.”
Especially on point three there, you can kind of picture Stalin looking at a map of the world and looking at how Russia goes all the way to the Pacific Ocean across Asia and thinking, ‘hey, we’re kind of a bridge to the east.’
By 1920, Lenin, in another of his contributions to the Second Congress of the ComIntern, articulated the new strategic shift for Marxist revolutionaries toward revolution in the global South in the following terms:
“The question was posed as follows: are we to consider as correct the assertion that the capitalist stage of economic development is inevitable for backward nations now on the road to emancipation and among whom a certain advance towards progress is to be seen since the war? We replied in the negative. If the victorious revolutionary proletariat conducts systematic propaganda among them, and the Soviet governments come to their aid with all the means at their disposal—in that event it will be mistaken to assume that the backward peoples must inevitably go through the capitalist stage of development. Not only should we create independent contingents of fighters and party organizations in the colonies and the backward countries, not only at once launch propaganda for the organization of peasants’ soviets and strive to adapt them to the pre-capitalist conditions, but the Communist International should advance the proposition, with the appropriate theoretical grounding, that with the aid of the proletariat of the advanced countries, backward countries can go over to the Soviet system and, through certain stages of development, to communism, without having to pass through the capitalist stage.”
So if we look at this shift that took place in international communist strategy which took place between the collapse of the Second International at the beginning of World War One, and which involved theorizing new strategic possibilities based on the success of the Russian Revolution, we can sum up the shift this way: On the one hand, there was a realization that the prosperity of most industrialized countries created a social base for the capitalist class among the workers themselves, what is called a ‘labor aristocracy,’ and that this meant that the communists in these countries had to base themselves on the worse off sections of the workers, or else the communist parties would become sellouts, like the leaders of the Second International. And then, based on the success of the Russian Revolution in a huge, rural country where most people were peasants, even as the revolution in the most industrialized countries where Marxists had expected socialism to be realized first started to seem like a more difficult proposition due to the ‘bourgeoisification’ of a significant section of the workers, it now seemed possible that in countries where there was only a small working class, that dedicated communist parties might be able to lead revolutions. And suddenly, the scope of international communist organization grew immensely. From the First and Second Internationals, which occupied themselves almost exclusively with European affairs, the Third International, the ComIntern, would become a global force for revolution.
Which brings us back to China, where in March 1920 a man named Gregory Voitinsky, the chief of the Far Eastern Bureau of the ComIntern, arrived in China and sat down with Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu and asked them what they thought of all these ideas.
We’ll talk about that in our next episode.