How the Communist Parties became “frontier guards of the USSR”

By Max Shachtman

The defeat of the September 1923 insurrection in Bulgaria and the October retreat in Germany, followed a few months later by the crushing of the Reval uprising in Esthonia, opened up a new period of development in Europe, replete with far-reaching consequences. The retreat in Germany gave the bourgeoisie the breathing space it sought and needed... In England, the MacDonald Labour government came into power for the first time. In France, the liberal Herriot ministry was established....

Among the terrific effects of the fatal German retreat, could already be discerned the following: the big post-war tidal wave of revolution had definitely ebbed. A period of bourgeois democratic pacifism was opening up in Europe. In Central Europe, at the very least, the Communist movement was weakened by the defeats suffered: and these same defeats had given the social democracy a new lease on life.

None of these symptoms of the period was acknowledged by the Comintern leadership. When they were pointed out by Trotsky, who proposed that the International should direct its course in harmony with the newly created situation, he was simply attacked as a liquidator. As late as the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, in [mid] 1924, Stalin, Zinoviev, Bukharin and all the other Trotsky-baiters proclaimed that the revolutionary situation was right ahead, that the October defeat was a mere episode and that the Opposition had lost faith in the revolution!

As the weeks extended into months, they threw a cold light upon this light-minded analysis. It became clear to all that the revolutionary wave had actually receded. In the minds of those who accused the Opposition of “liquidationism” arose the conviction that the revolution in Western Europe was postponed for a long, long time to come. What remained to be done, thought the bureaucrats, was to consolidate what had already been conquered — Russia — and to cease expending energy upon a western European revolution which had dropped to the bottom of the agenda.

It is under these circumstances, and with this pessimistic frame of mind into which the Centrist [Stalin] and Right wing [Bukharin] party bureaucracy worked itself, that the theory of “socialism in one country” was developed. According to this theory, which deals with the fundamental question dividing the Left Opposition from the Right wing and the Centrist faction in the Communist movement, a classless socialist society can be built up in one single country alone, the Soviet Union, even if the proletariat in the more advanced countries does not succeed in seizing power.

The mere formulation of the theory reveals that its authors could have produced it only if their belief in the world revolution was shattered. It is impossible to conceive that Russia will complete a classless society sooner than the workers of one country or another in Europe will seize power.

Lozovsky, the head of the Red International of Labour Unions, only expressed what was uppermost in the minds of his associates at that time when he wrote that the stabilisation of Europe would last for decades... If that were the case, the Leninist dictum that we are living in a period of wars and proletarian revolution no longer held good. In any case, the revolution was a long way off. Then what point is there in bending our energies upon revolutions outside of Russia which will not take place, especially when there is so much to be “done at home,” and more especially, when “we have all the prerequisites needed to build up a socialist society by ourselves”?

Utopian socialists and nationalists have advocated the theory of socialism in a single country before this time. In Germany today [1933], the theory of an “independent” national economy, which progressively diminishes its connection with world economy to the vanishing point – “autarky,” as it is called – is the reactionary ideal of Hitler’s Fascists.

In the Communist movement this idea was never heard of until the fateful days of 1924. Marx and Engels specifically polemicized against the idea of a national socialist utopia in all their writings...

The program of the Bolshevik party under which it carried out the 1917 revolution does not contain a reference to this theory. The program of the Young Communist League of Russia, adopted in 1921 under the supervision of Bukharin and the Central Committee of the party, says that Russia “can arrive at Socialism only through the world proletarian revolution, which epoch of development we have now entered.” The draft of an international program at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922, submitted by Bukharin and Thalheimer, says not a word about the possibility of building a socialist society in one country alone. The same congress, in its unanimously adopted resolution on the Russian revolution, “reminds the proletarians of all countries that the proletarian revolution can never be completely victorious within one single country, but that it must win the victory inter nationally, as the world revolution.”...

Lenin asserted “in many of our works, in all our speeches and in the whole of our press that matters in Russia are not such as in the advanced capitalist countries, that we have in Russia’ a minority of industrial workers and an overwhelming majority of small agrarians. The social revolution in such a country can be finally successful only on two conditions: first, on the condition that it is given timely support by the social revolution of one or several advanced countries... Second, that there be an agreement between the proletariat which establishes the dictatorship or holds State power in its hands and the majority of the peasantry. We know that only an agreement with the peasantry can save the social revolution in Russia so long as the revolution in other countries has not arrived.”

Stalin himself, who first formulated the theory of national socialism, wrote in the first edition of his Problems of Leninism that

“the main task of socialism — the organisation of socialist production — still remains ahead. Can this task be accomplished, can the final victory of socialism in one country be attained, without the joint efforts of the proletariat of several advanced countries? No, this is impossible ... For the final victory of socialism, for the organisation of socialist construction, the efforts of one country, particularly of such a peasant country as Russia, are insufficient. For this the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries are necessary.”

It is only in the second edition of the same work, printed in the same year, that he turned this clear and definite conclusion inside out and presented the still cautious formula which has since been developed into an unrestrained nationalistic gospel:

“After the victorious proletariat of one country has consolidated its power and has won over the peasantry for itself, it can and must build up the socialist society.”

Nothing that has ever been said can refute our characterisation of the origin and essence of this theory, born in the womb of reaction and conceived by a defeatist state of mind. The Left Opposition argued that to build a socialist society in the Soviet Union, the aid of the proletarian revolution in a more advanced country or countries would be required. Together with Stalin and Bukharin, the international apparatus of the Comintern argued that a socialist society could be built up without the “state aid” of the workers in other countries - provided there is no military intervention from the foreign bourgeoisie! And to prevent this intervention, to act merely as frontier guards for the Soviet Union, has now become the principal task of the Communist parties. The emphasis is significant. Previously, the main task of the various parties was the revolution in their respective country, the victory of which is the highest guarantee for the victory of world socialism – including socialism in Russia. Now the Communist parties have been reduced to the position of “Friends” of the Soviet Union.

The “practical” significance of this theoretical dispute cannot be overstated. Socialism is not built in one day. Only petty-bourgeois anarchists believe that the “free society” will be established on the morrow of the overthrow of the bourgeois state. The Marxists know that “the road of organisation,” in Lenin’s words, “is a long road, and the task of socialist construction demands a long-drawn out, stubborn work and real knowledge which we do not possess to a sufficient degree. Even the next generation, which will be further developed, will probably hardly be able to achieve the complete transition to socialism.” If it is argued, as Stalin does, that this long road will be travelled its full length “alone,” before the workers in the other countries have overthrown their bourgeoisie, then the world proletarian revolution has been postponed – at least in one’s mind – for an indefinite period.

The Opposition believed and declared: The proletarian revolution in the West is far closer to realisation than is the abolition of classes and the establishment of a socialist society in Russia. If it is not closer, then the proletarian revolution in Russia is doomed!

This simple truth was repeated a thousand times by Lenin, who had not a grain of “pessimism” or “disbelief in the Russian revolution” in his makeup. “We do not live,” he wrote, “merely in a state but in a system of states and the existence of the Soviet republic side by side with imperialist states for any length of time is inconceivable.” This idea is permeated to the letter with realistic Marxian internationalism.

What is this internationalism?... It arises directly out of the development of world economy. The imperialist stage of capitalism, its expansion on a world scale, the tremendous and vital importance of exports and imports for the maintenance of capitalism, monopolies extending to the ends of the earth, the mutual dependence of one country upon another - these are some of the phenomena of world economy.

Capitalism has not matured for the socialist revolution in this or that country, large or small, backward or advanced. It has matured for socialism on a world scale. This fact not only creates the basis for a living internationalism, but also for the transformation of the old society by the triumphant proletariat.

But if each country can build an enclosed socialist society by the efforts and resources of its own proletariat, then internationalism becomes a sentimental phrase for holiday resolutions. If it can be completed in backward Russia alone, then surely it can be done in more advanced Germany, in France, in England, and certainly in the United States. What need then have the Communists for a highly centralised international of action of their own?

Furthermore: the development of all existing society up to now, and particularly of modern capitalist society, has been towards increasing world interrelations and interdependence. Capitalism reaches its highest stage of evolution, it develops to its most majestic economic heights, not by retiring into its national shells, but by projecting from each national territory those links which bind it inseparably to the rest of world economy. The economy of the United States, or of France, or of India, is merely the “national” manifestation of a world economy. The countries of the most backward culture, technique and living standards are those that play the smallest role in world economy; and vice versa.

Socialism assumes a vastly higher stage of development than that reached by capitalism in its most flourishing days, a higher culture, technology, and living standard. It means not only the abolition of classes, but the elimination of the difference between worker and peasant, between town and country, the abolition of agriculture by means of its industrialisation. But this, in turn, means that a socialist society must develop much further along the economic and technological (that is, the cultural) road than capitalism.

The theory of socialism in one country implies (and its spokesmen state explicitly) that this is to be accomplished by rendering the Soviet Union entirely independent of the rest of the world. But this can be “accomplished” only by taking the road back from capitalist evolution which went in the opposite direction. The Marxists, in opposition to this reactionary, Utopian idea, declare that the road to socialism presupposes an increasing participation in world economy, not only in the future socialist world economy, but right now, under the conditions of the capitalist world market. For this capitalist world economy is one to which, according to Lenin, “we are subordinated, with which we are connected and from which we cannot escape.”

Against the Stalinist theory, the Opposition put forward again the classical formula of Marx and Engels: the revolution in permanence. This formula, first advanced by the founders of scientific socialism to express the interests of the proletariat at the time when the progressive bourgeoisie, having come to power, sought to establish “order” and bring the revolutionary advance to a halt, was first outlined by Trotsky at the time of the first Russian revolution. In his conception, the approaching revolution in Russia could not stop at the bourgeois democratic stage after the overthrow of Tsarist absolutism, but would be driven on inexorably to the socialist stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But it could not remain at this point, either, for the contradictions facing a socialist dictatorship in a single country, and a predominantly agricultural land at that, could be solved only on the international arena. The proletariat, therefore, far from setting itself the Utopian goal of a nationally isolated socialist re public, would inscribe upon its banner the slogan of the permanent revolution; that is, the maintenance of the dictatorship in one land was dependent upon the extension of the proletarian revolution on a world scale, or at least in several of the advanced capitalist countries of Europe.

But if the proletarian revolution in the West is, nevertheless, delayed in coming -what shall we do then? Shall we give up power in the Soviet Union? is the “annihilating” poser put by the Stalinists. Not at all! Lenin and Trotsky, who never believed in the utopia of national socialism, stood for six years at the head of the proletarian dictatorship and never once proposed to “give up power.” What they did and what the Left Opposition today proposes to do, was to retain the power in the first fortress conquered by the proletariat. In this fortress, while looking forward to the assistance of the workers in other countries, the position of the socialistic elements in the country must be strengthened as against the capitalist elements. This means the utilisation of the “two levers” at the command of the proletariat: the long lever of international revolution and the shorter lever of laying and strengthening the foundation for a socialist economy at home.

What it certainly does not mean is that the workers and peasants of Russia should be duped with the grandiloquent illusion that at the end of another five years, “socialism will have been established” – on the basis of Russia alone and regardless of what happens to the revolution in Europe, Asia and America...

This pernicious theory, which was finally written into the fundamental program of the Communist International in 1928, has brought the greatest harm to the revolutionary movement inside of the Soviet Union and out. From it flowed that unbroken chain of blunders, defeats, catastrophes and setbacks which the Communist movement has suffered since 1924. Among the first of the events in which this theory disclosed its significance was the British General Strike of 1926.

After the German October [1923] retreat, the Opposition advanced the idea that the immediately revolutionary situation [in Europe] was at an end. The official viewpoint, propounded at the Fifth Comintern Congress in 1924, was that the revolutionary wave was first beginning to break. Four months after the decisive German defeat, Zinoviev announced that “Germany is apparently approaching a sharpened civil war.” Stalin added: “It is false that the decisive struggles have already been fought, that the proletariat has suffered a defeat in these struggles and the bourgeoisie has grown stronger as a result.”

Entirely blind to the fact that a period of capitalist stabilisation had set in as a result of their own blunders and shortcomings, the party bureaucracy oriented the Comintern on the basis of an imminent revolutionary upheaval and civil war. But when it became clear even to the blind that the perspective of the Fifth Congress was utterly false, the bureaucracy, intent upon maintaining its own prestige, bolstered up its now discredited predictions by inventing revolutionary phenomena. In a word, the ultra-radical phrasemongering of the Fifth Congress led the officialdom directly to opportunism, to painting in revolutionary colours those movements and men who had little or nothing in common with the revolution.

As the revolution did not appear where it was predicted (in Germany and Bulgaria), strenuous efforts were made to discover the revolution where it did not exist. It was in this period, therefore, that scarcely a shrewd petty bourgeois or labour politician on three continents was not hailed as an “acquisition” to the revolutionary movement.

Bourgeois agrarian leaders like Green of Nebraska [in the USA], Radic of Yugoslavia, the Catholic adventurer Miglioli of Italy were hailed as the “leaders of the revolutionary peasants” in the hotch-potch of the “Red Peasants’ International.” The World League Against Imperialism was formed by the Comintern as a refuge for those discredited labour politicians, pacifists and bourgeois nationalists standing in need of protection from the rising militancy of the masses who were losing their illusions. American White House lobbyists, Arabian princes, Egyptian nationalists, British labour misleaders, French Freemasons and bourgeois journalists, German and Austrian and Czech doctors and lawyers, guerrilla chiefs and unemployed politicians from Mexico, Catalonian irredentists, Gandhists from India — all of them found a haven in the anteroom of the Comintern. The Kuomintang of the Chinese bourgeoisie was admitted, against Trotsky’s vote, as a fraternal party into the councils of the Communist International!

Of all the discoveries made in this quest after will-o’ the-wisps that were to prop up the fantastic edifice of the [mid-1924] Fifth Congress, the Anglo-Russian Committee proved to be one of the most pernicious. The Committee was made up of the Councils of the trade unions of England and Russia, formed as a result of a British trade-union delegation’s visit to the Soviet Union at the end of 1924.

The original aim of the Committee was to further the establishment of international trade-union unity.

“The creation of the Anglo-Russian Committee,” wrote the Opposition in 1927, “was, at a certain moment, a thoroughly correct step. Under the influence of the leftward development of the working masses, the liberal labour politicians, just like the bourgeois liberals at the commencement of a revolutionary movement, took a step towards the left in order to retain their influence in the masses. To hold them there was entirely correct.”

But the scope and attributes of the Committee were speedily extended far beyond its original objective. From a temporary bloc between a revolutionary and a reformist organisation for a clearly defined and limited goal, the Committee was endowed by Stalin and Bukharin with capacities and objectives which it could not possibly have. It became, according to Stalin in 1926, “the organisation of a broad movement of the working class against new imperialist wars in general and against an intervention in our country, especially on the part of England, the mightiest of the imperialist states of Europe.” The Moscow committee of the party announced that “it will become the organisatory centre that embraces the international forces of the proletariat for the struggle against every endeavour of the international bourgeoisie to begin a new war.”

In vain did the Left Opposition argue against the falsity of this conception which set up the British labour leaders of the Purcell, Cook, Hicks, Swales and Citrine stripe as the revolutionary organisers of the world’s working class against imperialist war and for defence of the Soviet republic. As had become the custom, its arguments were not dealt with. It was simply accused of opposing the united front policy and of being in the pay of [Tory leader] Sir Austen Chamberlain!

The Stalinist conception of the role and nature of the Anglo-Russian Committee flowed directly from the theory of socialism in one country. According to the latter, Russia could build up its own nationally isolated socialist economy,“if only” foreign military intervention could be staved off. This is the idea which impelled the Stalinists to search frantically for ‘anti-interventionists’ and to convert the Communist parties into Soviet border patrols. [British trade union leader] Purcell, who needed the alliance with the Soviets as a shield from the attacks of the revolutionary militants in England, was hailed as one of the organisers of the struggle against the military intervention, which alone could prevent Russia from building a socialist society. The trade-union bloc quickly became a political bloc between the reformists of England and the Russian party bureaucracy, not for a moment but for a long time. Hymns of praise were sung to these British labour lieutenants of the bourgeoisie in all the languages of the Comintern. The Committee was designated as the staunch bulwark of the world proletariat against war and intervention. Only the Opposition declared that the “more acute the international situation becomes the more the Anglo-Russian Committee will be transformed into a weapon of English and international imperialism.”

Later events fully confirmed this unheeded warning.

The first really serious test of the Anglo-Russian Committee was the British general strike of 1926, which broke out in the midst of the great miners’ strike. Just as metals are best tested in fire, so all the assurances of friendship for Russia, of loyalty to British labour and enmity to British imperialism, freely given by Purcell and Co., were subjected to a decisive test in the flames of the genera] strike. And just as the Opposition had warned, the British General Council, its Left wing as well as its Right, displayed a disgraceful cowardice and treachery, an unshaken loyalty to the ruling class, a hatred and fear of the revolutionary proletariat.

After nine days of the general strike, when a revolutionary situation was engendered in which the power of the ruling class rested not so much in itself as it did in the strength which the labour leaders enjoyed in the working class, the General Council deliberately delivered the death blow to the struggle. In face of the extremely militant mood of the workers, the pitiful helplessness of the bourgeoisie, of such occurrences as the refusal of numerous armed regiments to proceed against the strikers – all the trade-union lackeys of the bourgeoisie rushed to the government buildings to confer with the king’s ministers on how to crush the movement.

The “red” veneer with which the Left labour leaders had coated themselves was wiped off in a patriotic frenzy. The financial aid sent to the striking miners from Russia was indignantly rejected with the epithet of “that damned Russian gold.” The red flag was hastily dropped for the Union Jack. Purcell and his colleagues proved to be not “the organisatory centre that embraces the international forces of the proletariat for struggle,” but a most reliable prop of a desperate ruling class. A more annihilating indictment of the Stalinist view and corroboration of the Opposition’s, could hardly be imagined.

Where was the Committee as a whole during those stirring days of struggle and treachery? As Kautsky said plaintively about the Second International in 1914: It was only an instrument of peace; in times of war it was worthless.

More correctly, it was worthless to the revolutionists, to Russia. To the British partners in the concern, it had a distinct value. Purcell, Swales and Hicks utilised to the maximum the prestige accruing to them out of their formal and inexpensive collaboration with the Bolshevik representatives in the Anglo-Russian Committee. Instead of helping to emancipate the British masses from the chains of their false leaders, the A-RC served these leaders as a “Bolshevik” shield from the blows of the rank and file, particularly of the Communists. Purcell, under attack of “his own” Communists, could easily defend his treason by saying: The Russian Communists are different; they do not attack us as you do. Quite the contrary, they sit together with us in harmonious conference.

The Opposition promptly demanded that the prestige enjoyed among the British workers by the A-RC and its Russian half in particular, be employed to expose the treachery of the British leaders. It demanded a demonstrative break with Purcell and Co. so that the latter could no longer hide behind the Russian trade unions. Stalin and Bukharin violently opposed the break – just as violently as, a few years later, they opposed any and every united front not merely with the Purcells but with the “social-fascist” workers who still followed the reactionary leaders.

For more than a year after the abominable betrayal of the General Strike, Stalin continued to maintain his “united front” with Purcell. The Anglo-Russian Committee would prevent British intervention in Russia and thereby enable the Soviet republic... to build up socialism undisturbed.

This fatal course was pursued until the Berlin conference of the Committee in April 1927. Did the Committee protest against the bombardment of Nanking [in China] by British gunboats? Did it protest against the police raid upon the Arcos, the Soviet trading organisation in London? Did it say a single word about the treachery of its British partner during the general strike and the miners’ strike? It did none of these things. But for that, it did adopt an astounding resolution in which Russians and Englishmen both declare:

“The only representatives and spokesmen of the trade union movement are the Congress of the British Trade unions and its General Council;

“... thinking, at the same time, that the fraternal union between the trade union movements of the two countries, incorporated in the Anglo-Russian Committee, cannot and must not violate or restrict their rights and autonomy as the directing organs of the trade union movement of the respective countries; nor interfere in any manner whatsoever in their internal affairs.”

This document, which could not but have a stunning effect upon the British Communists, and the Minority Movement in particular, registered the high-water mark of capitulation to Purcell and Co. (who in turn “capitulated” to [Prime Minister] Baldwin and the bourgeoisie at every decisive moment). All of this was done in the name of socialism in one country. The failure of Communism to act in a revolutionary manner in England, the prohibition against drawing the basic lessons of the Anglo-Russian Committee experience and the resultant decisive defeat to the movement -set back the Communist forces in Great Britain for years.

The Anglo-Russian Committee was one disappointment after another to those who accepted these illusions as Bolshevism. It was a classic example of how the united front should not be made. The vindication of the stand point of the Left Opposition, however, was attained at the cost of a new step in the bureaucratic-reformist degeneration of the ruling regime in Russia and the International.

It was not to be the last of such costly vindications. For the same period produced those catastrophic consequences of Stalinist policy which ruined the Chinese revolution.

• From The Genesis of Trotskyism, pamphlet published November 1933

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