The 1919 Platform of the Communist International: A Milestone in Revolutionary History

In March 2019 we commented on the 100th anniversary of the founding Congress of the Third International (leftcom.org). This meeting took place as the working class carried out a battle against capitalism on a scale not seen before or since. [1] As that article notes, this initial conference was attended by delegates who predominantly represented forces that were still in the process of politically defining themselves while assimilating and developing revolutionary praxis. Despite such limitations, the Congress adopted a Platform that was, and remains, rich in sharp formulations regarding the nature of the imperialist epoch and the potential for working class revolution.

A century ago a working class world revolution was a real possibility. 1919 also saw soviet republics established in Hungary, Slovakia and Bavaria whilst intense class war raged not just in old Europe but across the planet. That revolutionary wave eventually subsided and we have experienced counter-revolution and the retreat of the working class since. However, the contradictions of capitalism never go away. These reproduce crisis and class struggle even if they are separated by long periods in which the class seems almost absent from the fight. Today, the possibility of our class achieving its revolutionary potential seems far less imminent than in 1919 but it still exists as the one global antithesis to a mode of production that is dragging humanity down the road to war and environmental catastrophe. If today’s communists are to play a role in recovering our class’s consciousness as “a class for itself” then reflecting on the 1919 Platform is no mere exercise in historical nostalgia. It is a significant contribution to our ability to understand and carry out our revolutionary responsibilities. This commentary is a contribution to that task. It will focus both on the Platform itself, and on the related discussion on the significance of that first conference.

The Presentation of the Platform

The Platform was drafted and presented by Nikolai Bukharin of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) and Max Albert [2], who, with his Spartakusbund comrades was a founding member of the German Communist Party. Both in the initial presentations, made on the second day of the proceedings (3rd March 1919) and in the Platform itself, adopted on the fifth day (6th March) there are a number of key themes that merit revisiting.

Significantly, between those two sessions the Congress had resolved that the gathering would constitute the Founding Congress of the Third International. This was a decision which had to be won in debate against the position of Albert who argued that the meeting should only be considered as a “preparatory conference”. This position was made clear at the start of Albert’s presentation on the Platform.

KPD Indecisiveness

We have dealt more than once with the tardiness which marred revolutionaries in Germany organising towards a clear political break with Social Democracy and the Second International. That same hesitation is clearly reflected in Albert’s opening comments, “... the German comrades [i.e. the recently formed KPD] declared that we do not want to proceed to founding the International just yet. Instead, want to hold a preparatory conference ...”. [3]

Albert justified that approach with a number of intertwined arguments. To avoid misrepresenting his approach we will use direct quotes. He started off with a criticism of the Second International with which all the delegates would have agreed. He referred to “the conferences, where resounding resolutions were drawn up and plans were hatched for great actions”. He continued with a concise description of the abject collapse that happened at the outbreak of the First World War when

“... all those resolutions were ignominously abandoned and all the international’s work was wrecked. All the resolutions were trampled underfoot, and the actions taken were in direct contradiction to what had been resolved”.

In response to that political collapse, Albert correctly asserted “That is why workers are mistrustful”. To be more accurate, the most class conscious workers were mistrustful of the social patriots but were enthusiastically supportive of the possibility of proletarian revolution.

His observation about mistrust (and worse!) of the social patriots felt by politically advanced layers of workers flowed into a different argument which echoed the prevarication which had already been displayed by Spartakusbund towards the SPD and USPD in Germany. Arguing for an indeterminate delay to founding the International, Albert claimed support from an undefined set of “workers”. Based on an assumed empathy with that group, Albert argued for a delay in the raising of the banner of a new and revolutionary International. His approach was that “we must first state what we want and what basis there is for further struggle; then they [workers] will say whether they are ready to found the new International and join it”.

Albert also argued another reason why it was premature to found the International. That argument is paraphrased in two paragraphs in our article on the founding of the Comintern.

"Attendance was also unavoidably restricted to those who were able to be present in Moscow while the wars waged by the White armies and their imperialist backers still raged and the area controlled by the Soviets endured a blockade imposed by the imperialist powers. This partly accounts for the absence of delegates from areas where significant class struggles were taking place such as Italy or Spain.

It is also indisputable that the selection of those attending the Conference reflected the state of flux amongst revolutionaries. In many of the national territories, both those present at the Congress and those that were not, the process of organisational definition was far from complete. Many Communists who supported the revolutionary wave were still organising as fractions and tendencies within a range of organisations. For example, the US SLP (Socialist Labor Party) that Reinstein was notionally delegated from would split, with only part of its left wing joining the Third International. In contrast, the two representatives from Switzerland represented different fractions. Platten was listed as representing the opposition within the Swiss Social Democratic Party while Leonie Kascher was delegated from the Swiss Communist Group." [4]

Even if other delegates understood Albert’s objections, it was clear from the debate that the meeting as a whole saw the declaration of the new International as a necessary part of the existing situation of the sharpest proletarian struggle in the history of capitalism. Here we turn to the discussion leading to the decision to found the International.

Revolutionaries as the Vanguard of the Proletarian Revolution: Why the International?

The decisive decision to overcome the KPD’s prevarications was taken the day after the initial presentations of the platform. It resulted from a motion moved by four delegates. Christian Rakovsky was a member of the Russian Communist Party but was recognised as the delegate of the Balkan Revolutionary Social Democratic Federation. J. Gruber moved on behalf of the Communist Party of German Austria [5], Otto Grimlund on behalf of the Left Social Democratic Party of Sweden, whilst the fourth delegate was Endre Rudnyánszky of the Hungarian Communist Party.

The motion consisted of four short points:

  1. The necessary struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat requires a homogeneous and united international organisation of all Communist forces that stand on this platform.
  2. Founding it is all the more necessary because an attempt is now being made in Bern, which may be repeated elsewhere in the future, to revive the old, opportunist International and to bring together all the confused, undecided forces among the proletariat. A sharp break is therefore required between the revolutionary proletarian forces and the social traitors.
  3. If the Conference meeting in Moscow were not to found the Third International, the impression would arise that the Communist parties were divided. That would weaken our position and increase the confusion in the undecided forces among the proletariat of all countries.
  4. Therefore, constituting the Third International is an absolute historical necessity and the International Communist Conference meeting in Moscow must make it a reality. [6]

Albert responded to the debate, putting forward and expanding the points that he had made when presenting the Platform. To summarise his objections, in the order they were made, Albert argued the following:

  1. A shared understanding had been established around support for councils/soviets as opposed to bourgeois democracy; however
  2. The Communist forces were insufficiently organised or defined.
  3. The reorganisation of the reformists at the Bern Conference would not be stopped by the declaration in Moscow. Forces gravitating to the re-founded Yellow International had acted according to their political positions and would not be attracted to the Third International.
  4. There was insufficient clarity about the basis for unity – “about each party’s methods and goals”.
  5. Communist Parties, in any meaningful sense, only existed in very few areas. Elsewhere the process was at a much earlier stage which was reflected in the nature of organisations represented at the Congress.
  6. Many of the territories with a powerful proletariat were not even represented at this initial meeting.

The debate that followed was one sided with all the other speakers arguing in favour of the “historical necessity” of founding the International there and then. In addition to the four signatories of the motion, other speakers included Zinoviev for the Russian Communist Party, Angelica Balabanoff representing the ongoing Zimmerwald Committee together with representatives of Communist forces in Poland, France and Finland. The final speaker was Joseph Fineberg, a member of the British Socialist Party who had been granted credentials as the representative of the “British Communist Group”.

The thrust of the arguments against Albert and the KPD was that further delay was unwise and unnecessary given the material reality of the unfolding revolutionary situation. It was also argued that the work of a preliminary conference had started and had been continuing since the Zimmerwald conference. Jukka Rahja, of the Finnish Communist Party made the point that “Founding the Third International is also vital because it would have tremendous importance now as the centre of the worldwide revolutionary labour movement”. Rakovsky argued that “Failure to [found the International] would arouse the suspicion in the rest of the world that the Communists cannot agree among themselves”. Rudnyánszky put the need to found the International precisely in the context of the living revolutionary process. he expressed an understanding that,

"... the Third International ...has already existed for a long time. The International was born in the struggle of the Russian proletariat against the Russian bourgeoisie ...The German Communist proletariat has begun the same kind of fight, and the revolutionary Communist proletariat of Hungary is in the midst of one today..." [7]

At the end of the debate a vote was taken and the motion was carried unanimously with the exception of five votes for abstention by the German Party. The session ended with two short but significant developments. The representatives of the Zimmerwald Left declared the dissolution of the Zimmerwald Association, the structure bequeathed from the 1915 Conference. [8]

Albert made a short statement which gives a valuable example of the workings of “democratic centralism” in a healthy organisation. Again, we make no apologies for quoting it in full:

"Comrades, as requested by my party and in accord with my personal convictions I have done my utmost to postpone the founding of the Third International. It has now been founded nevertheless. I cannot conceal my grave doubts and deep concerns that the International does not yet have the strength and power we want it to have. But I assure you that when I return to Germany I will do all in my power to convince my comrades to declare as soon as possible that they too belong to the Third International." [9]

Essential Insights Plainly Expressed: Imperialism

Revolutionaries reading the Platform will discover a series of sharply written formulations. This is no accident. They were developed at the height of the class struggle. The circumstances provided fertile ground for those steeped in Marxism to reflect on the material reality of that struggle and generate shared understandings of lasting value.

Building on works such as Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy and Lenin’s Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, the Platform summarised imperialism’s essential dynamics. The Congress adopted the analysis which highlighted the unbridgeable gulf between Communists and all those who, then and now, spread reformist illusions about a fictional non-predatory capitalism. The Platform adopted by the Congress took an understanding of Imperialism as its starting point. It is worth quoting at some length to show a rich and vital understanding expressed so accessibly.

"Capitalism sought to overcome its own anarchy by organising production. mighty capitalist associations formed, such as syndicates, cartels, and trusts, replacing the numerous, competing entrepreneurs. Bank capital merged with industrial capital. The finance capitalist oligarchy came to dominate all of economic life; _it used its organisation, based on this power, to achieve exclusive supremacy. Monopoly took the place of free competition. Capitalists in association replaced the individual capitalist; organisation replaced insane anarchy._

However, the more that capitalist organisation replaces anarchy within each country, the more acute become the contradictions, competition, and anarchy in the world economy. The struggle among the largest, best-organised predator nations led with iron necessity to the monstrous imperialist World War. Greed for profits drove world capital to fight over new markets, new spheres for capital investment, new sources of raw materials, and the cheap labour power of colonial slaves." [10]

The Nature and Tasks of the Proletarian Revolution

While revolutionary “praxis” was developing as layers of the proletariat struggled to build a new order, the Congress analysed and summarised the unfolding process. Contemporary Communists are familiar with the tangled web that “strivers after truth”, weave around the “Period of Transition” [PoT] (some well-intentioned others not so.) The time spanning the process between political power being snatched from the bourgeoisie and the future situation where all the filth of class society will have been eliminated clearly becomes more than a theoretical issue once there has been a successful breach in capital’s political and economic power. For the Congress, seeing the first moments of the process unfold allowed them to comment on both specific aspects and also the underlying features.

Regarding the overall PoT, the formulation in the Platform is neat and precise.

"The proletarian state is an apparatus of repression like every other, but it is wielded against the enemies of the working class. Its purpose is to break and eliminate the resistance of the exploiters, who use every means in a desperate struggle to drown the revolution in blood. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which openly gives the working class the favoured position in society, is at the same time a provisional institution. As the bourgeoisie’s resistance is broken, and it is expropriated and gradually transformed into part of the work force, the proletarian dictatorship wanes, the state withers away, and with it, social classes themselves." [11]

In the Russian territory, and tragically briefly in other areas, such as Bavaria and Hungary, that generation of Communists were confronting unprecedented questions about production and distribution under the control of the Workers' Councils (Soviets). Grappling with the complexities of the challenge the Platform commented on both the generality and specifics.

“The proletarian dictatorship will be able to accomplish its economic task only to the degree that the proletariat can establish centralised agencies to administer production and introduce workers management. To that end it will have to use the mass organisations that are most closely linked to the production process." [12]

"In the sphere of distribution, the proletarian dictatorship must replace the market with the equitable distribution of products. To accomplish this the following measures are in order: socialisation of wholesale firms; takeover by the proletariat of all distribution agencies of the bourgeois state and the municipalities; supervision of the large consumer cooperatives, which will continue to play a major economic role during the transitional period; and the gradual centralisation of all these institutions and their transformation into a single system distributing goods in a rational manner." [13]

In contrast to the distortions of both democratic and anarchist critics, the Platform had workers’ self-activity at the centre of its vision. The section including the two paragraphs immediately above concluded, “During this time of great upheaval the council power will have to steadily centralise the entire administrative apparatus, while also involving ever broader layers of the working population in direct participation in government.” [our emphasis] [14]

The Congress and its Platform was entirely unambiguous about the necessary separation between the new revolutionary International and the remnants of the Second Internationalist parties that had just met, as the Platform described “... to unify their forces by founding the Yellow 'International' in Bern, the better to serve Wilson’s League of Nations.”

The Platform clearly differentiated the new International from all the strands in the Second Internationalist framework.

"... it will not be enough to split with the outright lackeys of capital and the hangmen of the communist revolution, the role played by the right wing Social-Democrats. It is also necessary to break with the centre (the Kautskyites), who abandon the proletariat in its hour of greatest need and flirt with its sworn enemies."

The Platform also recognised that new forces were being attracted to the Communist programme from beyond the former Second International. For example, in the USA we have already commented that a fraction of the Socialist Labour Party would join the Third International. Prominent IWWer Bill Haywood also solidarised with the revolutionary wave but sadly moved to Russia in 1921 when the first signs of counter-revolution were already visible. Similarly in many European countries including Germany, Netherlands and Britain various organisations and fractions from beyond the main Second Internationalist background worked towards founding Communist Parties in their national territories. [15]

Reflecting such developments, in the section headed “The Road to Victory”, the Platform noted that,

"a bloc is needed with the forces in the revolutionary workers’ movement who, although not previously part of the Socialist party, now for the most part support the proletarian dictatorship in the form of council power. Certain forces in the syndicalist movement are an example of this." [16]

The final declaration of the Platform resounds with the revolutionary optimism that ran throughout the Congress as the proletarian movement directly struggled for power in Bavaria and Hungary as well as Russia. The comrades at the Congress declared the Communist vision for a future world in a form that is a total negation of the counter-revolutionary slogans around “socialism in one country”. The Platform’s closing proclamation epitomises the Communist vision “Long live the international republic of proletarian councils!” [17]

Questions Unanswered

It was inevitable that, given the circumstances of the Congress, including the weaknesses highlighted by Albert, not all issues could be fully analysed or a communist approach to this new epoch of capitalism could be worked out. There are at least three examples where clarity was not achieved. These were around the Communist approach to the national question, the role of trade unions and what the Platform referred to as “revolutionary utilisation of bourgeois parliament”. On that last point it is useful to quote the relevant section of the Platform.

"The revolutionary epoch requires the proletariat to use methods of struggle that bring all of its strength to bear. That means mass action and its logical consequence, direct confrontations with the bourgeois state machinery in open battle. All other methods, such as revolutionary utilisation of bourgeois parliament, must be subordinated to this goal." [our emphasis] [18]

In all cases, these issues were to return at later congresses of the International. This would be either at the Second Congress in 1920 [19], where the Communist forces had achieved better organisation and political definition, or at later Congresses which were increasingly politically derailed as the counter-revolution strengthened its grip.

The 1919 Platform: Understanding our Legacy

The platform was approved by the Congress at a session on the fifth and final day, 6th March 1919. A century later the Platform’s concise description of the continuing historic phase remains an accurate summary. As the struggle between the two great classes within capitalism raged across the globe the Congress understood that “A new epoch is born: The epoch of capitalism’s decay, its internal disintegration; the epoch of the proletarian, communist revolution.” [20]

With the benefit of hindsight we know that, despite its vigour and commitment from many millions of workers, the revolutionary wave would be defeated and the capitalist class would reassert its worldwide power. The whole of humanity has paid a massive price as the depravities of the imperialist order now clearly offer not only wars and preventable disasters but the real prospect of the total collapse of human society or even the complete destruction of the conditions for humanity’s survival. The intensity of the crisis that capitalism has imposed has sharpened exponentially since the revolutionary minority met in 1919. Nevertheless, their declaration is still a fully appropriate appeal for those who want to work with us to help build the next International – an essential tool in the proletariat’s unavoidable struggle for a sustainable future. [21] As the Congress proclaimed:

"... humanity itself faces the danger of complete destruction. Only one force can save it, and that is the proletariat... The end result of the capitalist mode of production is chaos, which only the largest productive class, the working class, can overcome. This class must establish a real order, the communist order. It must break the domination of capital, make wars impossible, destroy all national borders, transform the whole world into a community that produces for itself, and make the brotherhood [22] and liberation of the peoples a reality." [23]

KT

Notes

[1] References to the Platform and the Congress proceedings are from Founding The Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress: March 1919 (Anchor Foundation, 1987). The abbreviation FTCI has been used in references in the text.

[2] Max Albert was the party name used by Hugo Eberlein during the Congress.

[3] FTCI p. 113 All subsequent quotes in this section are taken from p.113 or p. 114

[4] leftcom.org.

[5] Gruber was the party name used by Karl Steinhardt. German Austria was a shortlived geo-political entity following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the revolutionary wave. It roughly equates to contemporary Austria.

[6] FTCI, p.167

[7] All quotes in this paragraph from FTCI, pp. 176-7

[8] For more on the Zimmerwald Left see leftcom.org

[9] FTCI, pp. 181-2

[10] FTCI, pp. 241-2

[11] FTCI, pp. 243-4

[12] The reference to mass organisations appears to flow from the conditions at that time in Russia. The comment apparently links to the approach to the trade unions, which we refer to in the next section on “Questions Unanswered”. It might also refer to local peasants’ organisations.

[13] FTCI, p. 246

[14] This and the following two quotes come from FTCI, p. 247

[15] In Britain the Socialist Labour Party and the Workers’ Socialist Federation were two significant contributors. In Germany the International Socialists who had formed from various groups that had split from Social Democracy before the war had joined with the Spartakusbund to form the German Communist Party and in Holland the Tribune group of Gorter and Wijnkoop set up the SDP which later formed the main part of the Communist Party of the Netherlands.

[16] FTCI, p. 247

[17] FTCI, p. 248

[18] FTCI, p. 247

[19] The Internationalist Communist Tendency (ICT) will publish reflections on the Second Congress during the centenary year, 2020.

[20] FTCI, p. 242

[21] For our vision of how this can be carried out see On the Future International at leftcom.org

[22] The use of the word “brotherhood” at this point is part of the terminology which also involved the customary use of “man or man-kind” for “humanity” in the language used at the Congress. That use of language inherited from capitalism should not over-shadow the work carried out by prominent early Communists such as Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai to support the twin tasks of involving masses of proletarian women in the new Communist movement and also ensuring that the needs of women were central to the agenda of revolution. A brief summary of that struggle is reflected in the Congress’s Resolution, moved by Kollontai, on the Need to Draw Women Workers into the Struggle for Socialism (FTCI, p. 250).

[23] FTCI, p. 242

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

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