Documents in: Bahasa Indonesia Deutsch Español Français Italiano Japanese Polski Português Russian Chinese Tagalog
International Communist League
Home Spartacist, theoretical and documentary repository of the ICL, incorporating Women & Revolution Workers Vanguard, biweekly organ of the Spartacist League/U.S. Periodicals and directory of the sections of the ICL ICL Declaration of Principles in multiple languages Other literature of the ICL ICL events

Subscribe to Workers Vanguard

View archives

Printable version of this article

Workers Vanguard No. 1006

3 August 2012

Toronto Historical Materialism Conference

Revisionists Still Trying to Bury Leninism

In May, comrades from the Canadian and U.S. sections of the International Communist League intervened in a Historical Materialism (HM) conference held in Toronto, where some 400 people attended dozens of sessions over three days. One theme of debate was the 1922 Fourth Congress of the Communist International (CI), following the release by the Historical Materialism Book Series of a useful new English-language volume of the Congress proceedings, edited by leftist historian John Riddell. The Historical Materialism Book Series describes itself as a “publishing initiative of the radical left” and is influenced by the Cliffite Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain among others. Haymarket Books, associated with the American International Socialist Organization (ISO), is publishing paperback editions of the HM series.

HM and Haymarket render a useful service in publishing English-language works of interest to the workers movement. However, HM conferences are driven by the stock-in-trade reformist politics of the SWP and the ISO as well as the SWP-affiliated Canadian International Socialists, whose historic leaders—Paul Kellogg and Abigail Bakan—had a high profile at the Toronto event. These groups from their origins sided with their respective bloody “democratic” imperialist ruling classes against the Soviet degenerated workers state (see “The Bankruptcy of ‘New Class’ Theories,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 55, Autumn 1999). Since the fall of the USSR, they echo the bourgeoisie’s “death of communism” triumphalism and continue to bury the lessons of the Russian Revolution. Illustrating this were comments at one session by Bakan, who assisted Riddell with the Fourth Congress volume and yet asserted that the CI Congresses are not a textbook for leftists today.

On the contrary! The early Communist International provides a vital guide. Although we cast a critical eye on the Fourth Congress in particular, the ICL stands programmatically on the first four CI Congresses (i.e., those that occurred prior to the 1923-24 Stalinist political counterrevolution that resulted in the degeneration of the Soviet workers state). Emerging out of the Russian workers revolution of October 1917, these Congresses represent the highest theoretical and programmatic generalization of revolutionary lessons that the proletariat has ever achieved. The Russian Revolution, carried out under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, was a shaping event of the 20th century: capitalism was swept away and in its place a workers state based on workers and peasants councils (soviets) was established. It was viewed by Lenin and Trotsky as the opening shot in a revolution that could only be completed on the world stage.

The CI’s 1919 founding manifesto stated that as “representatives of the revolutionary proletariat of the different countries of Europe, America, and Asia,” its members were the heirs and executors of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. It proclaimed that its task was “to generalize the revolutionary experience of the working class, to cleanse the movement of the corroding influence of opportunism and social patriotism, and rally the forces of all truly revolutionary parties of the world proletariat.”

Communist parties were only beginning to form in 1919. Advanced workers in most countries were still organized under the banner of the social-democratic Second International, whose leaders helped bring workers to the slaughter of World War I by peddling poisonous nationalism and embracing the war aims and colonial ambitions of their “own” imperialist rulers. The Bolshevik Party under Lenin had by 1912 achieved a thorough political and organizational split from the opportunists in Russia, the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks also had acquired an unequaled wealth of practical experience under a rapid and varied succession of conditions and methods of struggle.

The Bolsheviks politically defeated the pro-capitalist opportunists in leading the Russian proletariat to power. Revolutionary workers uprisings that broke out in Central Europe right after WWI were smashed in large part due to the immaturity of the new Communist parties leading them. The CI sought to accomplish a final split of young Communist parties from the Social Democracy and to forge a more politically homogeneous international.

The Fourth Congress and the “Workers Government”

The ICL has a critical appraisal of the Fourth Congress’s treatment of the call for a “workers government.” We agree with Trotsky who in the 1938 Transitional Program made clear that the call for a workers government “represented nothing more than the popular designation for the already established dictatorship of the proletariat,” which also accords with Lenin’s views. Prior to the October Revolution, Lenin wrote The State and Revolution to prepare the working class for the seizure of power. In it, he described how a state—that is, the whole repressive apparatus of the ruling class, centrally the army, police and courts—emerges out of the “irreconcilability of class antagonisms.” Citing the conclusion drawn by Marx and Engels after the Paris Commune of 1871, Lenin emphasized that workers can’t simply “lay hold of the ready-made state machinery” but must crush it and replace it with a workers state.

But various reformist leftists take weak or ambiguous aspects of the decisions at the Fourth Congress to justify their own opportunist and class-collaborationist practices today. A case in point is the confused CI resolution that endorsed multiple interpretations of what constitutes a “workers government.” It detailed how this slogan could mean the dictatorship of the proletariat on the model of the October Revolution but also argued that “not every workers’ government is truly proletarian, that is, a revolutionary instrument of proletarian power.” The resolution allowed that the “workers government” designation could apply to Communists participating in a capitalist government run by Social Democrats, i.e., a bourgeois government dressed up in workers clothing. This latter interpretation was defended at the Historical Materialism conference.

For revolutionaries, it is an absolute betrayal of the working class to politically support or participate in a bourgeois government or to hold an executive post at the national, state or local level. However, this view—the illusory and ultimately deadly idea that workers parties could run a bourgeois state in workers’ interests—had been championed by an increasingly dominant section of the Second International. In the early years of the CI, the young Communist parties struggled to fully break with this reformist programmatic heritage. “Ultraleft” currents wrongly rejected parliamentary tactics altogether, while right-wing currents continued to cling to illusions in bourgeois parliamentarism, not assimilating the lessons imparted by Marx and Lenin on the state. The “workers government” debate at the Fourth Congress reflected these different political tendencies.

As an ICL comrade remarked at the Toronto conference:

“The proceedings of the Fourth Congress, usefully put together in John Riddell’s book, show that the debate on the ‘workers government’ slogan was extremely ill-prepared and extremely confused. Many delegates, not just ultralefts who opposed the united front on principle, spoke against the idea of coalition governments with social democrats and against the idea of so-called ‘workers governments’ based on parliamentary forms.”

He continued, “In contrast, the German leadership, the KPD, who were the central pushers of the final version of the ‘workers government’ resolution as adopted, were trying to do something on the ground in Germany—which was to form coalition governments with Social Democrats in various German regional states. At different points, that was opposed and pushed back by elements in the CI leadership, but in the end it went through.”

The consequences were enormous. In 1923, the German workers—plagued by hunger and massive inflation—were in a state of revolutionary turmoil. Unrest was fueled by the French occupation of the heavily industrial western part of Germany, a result of reparations that had been imposed on Germany after its defeat in WWI. In October, the German Communist Party (KPD) entered Social Democratic governments in the states of Saxony and Thuringia. Ignominiously, an insurrection was called off and a golden opportunity for revolution was lost, undermined by elements in the KPD and in the Soviet leadership (as Lenin was on his deathbed). As our comrade noted, looking for a halfway house between bourgeois and proletarian power “only leads to disaster.” (For more on the “workers government” slogan, see “A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 56, Spring 2001.)

In the main presentation on the “workers government” in Toronto, John Riddell accurately captured the Fourth Congress debate, noting that the CI resolution left room for a “workers government” to take office “while the capitalist state, or most of it, was still around,” a position that he embraced. Riddell began by addressing Greece today, where an economic crisis fueled by the austerity diktats of the German-dominated European Union (EU) has engulfed the country. Riddell was critical that the leftist Antarsya and Syriza coalitions had not joined forces, arguing that “if united, the left-wing, anti-austerity parties in Greece could have won the election.” Defending the idea that working-class organizations should consider managing the bourgeois state, he said: “The value of the workers government position rather lies in alerting us to a possibility and expanding our framework of thought and imagination,” adding that “even before the onset of workers revolution, workers can find a way to pose the issue of governmental power and to struggle for it.”

This perspective is precisely that of the Greek Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), a cofounder of Syriza that is associated with the American ISO. In a May 23 interview on the ISO’s Web site, a DEA leader explained: “We have declared before the people that the only government we will take part in or form is a government of the left, a government that will change the Memorandum [EU austerity terms] and all the laws that [sic] of the last three years, during the period of the crisis.” But such a “government of the left” would simply run the bourgeois state to help save the Greek and European capitalists. Syriza gives a “left” cover to the continued brutal exploitation of the Greek working class, while seeking to tinker with the EU-imposed terms of surrender.

As for Antarsya, which includes the Greek Socialist Workers Party (affiliated with the British SWP), it ran candidates in the June 17 election in its own name. However, Antarsya’s purpose was simply to pressure Syriza to the left from the outside, as was made clear in numerous declarations. Following the elections, its efforts have focused on building a pressure group around the Syriza opposition in parliament.

The ICL’s Greek section gave critical support to the Stalinist Greek Communist Party (KKE) in these elections. Despite its reformism and nationalism, the KKE campaigned in opposition to the EU and NATO and refused to participate in any class-collaborationist coalition with bourgeois parties (see “Vote KKE! No Vote to Syriza!” WV No. 1005, 6 July).

The “Anti-Imperialist United Front”

Another HM conference session further addressed the Fourth Congress, concentrating on questions of “Race, Gender, Nation and Class.” An associate of the Prometheus Research Library, our working Marxist archive, spoke on the crucial intervention of the Communist International in driving home the centrality of the fight for black freedom to proletarian revolution in the U.S. (see page 9). Among the other presentations in that session was one on women in the pre-1947 Indian Communist Party and another on “Islamism and Marxism.” The latter painted Islam and Marxism as complementary and compatible, drawing on weaknesses of the Fourth Congress in doing so. In fact, the ICL is also critical of the treatment by the Fourth Congress of the “anti-imperialist united front” as well as of pan-Islamism.

The Fourth Congress passed a resolution endorsing the “anti-imperialist united front,” tacitly posing an ongoing political bloc with bourgeois nationalism. Such a perspective could only tie the colonial workers and peasants to their own venal exploiters, who in turn are tied to the imperialists by a thousand threads. The ICL’s Declaration of Principles notes: “The ‘anti-imperialist united front’ is the particular form that class collaboration most often assumes in the colonial and ex-colonial countries, from the liquidation of the Chinese Communist Party into Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang in the 1920s to decades of prostration of the South African ‘left’ before the African National Congress (ANC).”

Similarly, the Fourth Congress opened the door to support of pan-Islamism, which had a hearing among workers in Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, by endowing Islamic political currents with “anti-imperialist” credentials. The Congress declared that “to the degree that the national-liberation movements extend in scope, the religious-political slogans of pan-Islamism will be more and more replaced by specific political demands.” That resolution stands in sharp contrast to one from the Second CI Congress in 1920 that took a hard position against pan-Islamism. The Second Congress’s “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions,” drafted by Lenin, argued that the CI “must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in colonial and backward countries” but insisted that it should “under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement.”

The disruptions in the imperialist centers brought on by WWI had by 1920 spurred the development of industry in the colonial world and correspondingly the emergence of a small but concentrated proletariat. The Second Congress was breaking new terrain in addressing the emergence of Communism in the colonies, where even bourgeois-nationalist movements were relatively new, reflecting the weak and late development of a native capitalist class. This situation together with the extremely limited implantation of Marxist ideas in these countries had the Second Congress looking primarily toward Western Europe, where revolutions appeared imminent. The sweeping away of capitalist property forms by a workers revolution in an imperialist center would immediately impact its colonies by ending imperialist subjugation. The CI fought to put the struggle against colonial and national oppression front and center as against the pro-imperialist politics of the Social Democracy.

At the conference session on “Race, Gender, Nation and Class,” an ICL comrade noted that “the Comintern leadership had to fight against indifference to the fight against colonial oppression, that’s a given.” But he added, “I want to speak to the other side, which is the strategy within the colonies, and I want to defend the Second Congress against the Fourth,” observing that “Lenin at the Second Congress put forward the idea of unconditional independence of the proletarian movement against all forms of bourgeois nationalism, in which he explicitly included pan-Islamism, however embryonic.” Our comrade also noted that Lenin stressed the importance of fighting against illusions in bourgeois nationalism, even as the Communists defended national liberation movements against colonialism.

The Fourth Congress discussion on proletarian independence in the colonies occurred immediately after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been instructed by the CI to enter the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang (GMD). This ultimately led to catastrophe for the young CCP. In May 1925, a Chinese workers revolution was sparked by a general strike in Shanghai that quickly spread throughout the country. The growing strike movement eventually pitted workers against the GMD. Even with the nationalists taking the lead in suppressing the uprising in 1926, the CCP remained inside the GMD. By this time, Stalin and his then-ally Nikolai Bukharin called the shots in the CI, which opposed requests from the CCP leadership to leave the GMD, even though the GMD had insisted that the CCP hand over a list of its members working within the GMD. The decisive crushing of the Chinese Revolution occurred in Shanghai in April 1927 when GMD leader Chiang Kai-shek carried out a coup, slaughtering tens of thousands of Communists and trade unionists (see “The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 53, Summer 1997).

The bloody defeat of the Chinese Revolution shows where the “anti-imperialist united front” leads: not to “national liberation” from the imperialist yoke but rather to the subordination of the neocolonial masses to their own tinpot rulers and ultimately to bloody defeat. It was in the aftermath of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution that Trotsky generalized his theory of permanent revolution, which deepened and transcended the earlier debates in the CI, as pointed out by one of our comrades at the HM conference. Trotsky extended the model of the Russian Revolution, wherein the Bolsheviks stood in complete independence from, and fought against, the bourgeois liberals and vied for (and won) the allegiance of the poorest peasants and the oppressed peoples by championing their interests in the course of fighting for socialist revolution.

The crass pandering by the reformists before all manner of nationalist movements and even religious reaction was on display at the HM session on Egypt, where the ISO’s Ahmed Shawki was one of the speakers. A sharp debate took place between the ICL and the ISO over the pandering to the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists, which has ties to both the ISO and the SWP. Some attendees sympathized with the ISO/SWP view, arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organization “big enough and tough enough” to challenge the Mubarak dictatorship and that it had contradictions that leftists could exploit. Shawki demagogically railed against us for holding up Trotsky and Lenin to “lecture” people and hailed the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood who “physically put themselves out there” defending Tahrir Square and “made the revolution.”

But there was no social revolution in Egypt, nor was there any independent political expression of the working class as against the military, religious reactionaries and bourgeoisie. In opposition to the ISO, an ICL spokesman defended permanent revolution and argued that the “fundamentalists are precisely those forces that represent and are ideologically linked to the ruling class in every way, but also they are the mortal enemies of the Copts, of women, of peasants and of the organized working class itself.” She continued: “The clearest example of that is Iran in 1979, where all the [leftist] supporters of Khomeini ended up killed by Khomeini.” The ISO’s program is merely a recipe to keep workers and the oppressed under the neocolonial yoke.

As the philosopher George Santayana put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Socialist revolution remains the only fundamental solution to the ills of our time. This is still the epoch of imperialism—where finance capital holds sway and a handful of the most powerful capitalist countries dominate the globe—the same epoch that gave rise to WWI and the Russian Revolution. The inability of capitalism to fulfill even the minimal needs of the masses can be seen in the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, in the ravages of the recession on workers and the downtrodden, from the U.S. to Greece and beyond. The struggle between anti-Communist revisionism and revolutionary Marxism is the difference between disappearing the lessons of the past in order to repeat the same betrayals and studying the past to point the road to a victorious outcome. 


Workers Vanguard No. 1006

WV 1006

3 August 2012


Amid Ongoing Anti-Immigrant Crackdown

Obama’s Cynical Ploy for Latino Vote

No Deportations!

Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!


Democratic Mayor Emanuel Out to Gut CTU

Chicago Teachers: Strike to Win!


Anaheim: Outrage Over Cop Killings


Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!

(Class-Struggle Defense Notes)


Lockouts and the Class Struggle

(Quote of the Week)


Carlos Montes Saddled with Probation


After Four-Week Lockout in New York

Cuomo, Con Ed Strong-Arm Union into Concessions


On “White Privilege” and the RCP



South Africa: Populist Demagogue Malema and the ANC

Break with the Bourgeois Tripartite Alliance!

Forge a Leninist-Trotskyist Party to Fight for a Black-Centered Workers Government!


Toronto Historical Materialism Conference

Revisionists Still Trying to Bury Leninism


The Black Freedom Struggle and the Comintern

Presentation at Toronto Conference