Why we need a communist international

In June, the International Marxist Tendency will be launching a new Revolutionary Communist International, to boldly bear the clean banner of communism on every continent. In this article, Alan Woods explains the historic importance of this step, tracing the rise and fall of previous Internationals and showing the importance of the RCI in the struggle for communism today. Register now for our founding conference!

Communism is internationalist, or it is nothing. Already, at the dawn of our movement, in the pages of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explained that the workers have no country.

The founders of scientific socialism were not working to create a German party, but an international. Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht devoted their lives to the same objective.

Their internationalism was not a caprice, or the result of sentimental considerations. It flowed from the fact that capitalism develops as a world system. Out of the different national economies and markets there arises one single, indivisible and interdependent whole – the world market.

Today, this prediction of the founders of Marxism has been brilliantly demonstrated, in almost laboratory fashion. The crushing domination of the world market is the most decisive fact of our epoch.

There is no more modern book than Marx and Engels’ Manifesto. It explains the division of society into classes; it explains the phenomenon of globalisation, crises of overproduction, the nature of the state and the fundamental motor forces of historical development.

However, even the most correct ideas can achieve nothing unless they find an organisational and practical expression. That is why the founders of scientific socialism always worked tirelessly for the creation of an international organisation of the working class.

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Marx and Engels played a key role in the formation of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), known today as the First International. In the beginning, that organisation had a very heterogeneous composition. Marx and Engels were obliged to fight to establish ideological clarity.

The battle for ideas was conducted on two fronts: on the one hand, they had to combat the reformist ideas of the opportunist trade union leaders.

On the other hand, they were obliged to wage a constant battle against anarchist, ultra-left and sectarian tendencies. Things have not changed very much today. The communists are faced with exactly the same problems and have to fight against the same enemies. The names may have changed but the content is just the same.

But Marx and Engels did not confine their work to the theoretical struggle. The International did not stand apart from the everyday problems of the working class. It was constantly engaged in practical work in the workers’ movement.

Contrary to the mendacious presentation of bourgeois enemies of communism, there was absolutely nothing authoritarian in the methods of Karl Marx. On the contrary, in dealing with workers with reformist leanings, he showed immense tact and patience. He wrote to Engels:

“It was very difficult to frame the thing so that our view should appear in a form acceptable from the present standpoint of the workers’ movement. [...] It will take time before the re-awakened movement allows the old boldness of speech. It will be necessary to be fortiter in re, suaviter in modo [mild in manner and bold in content].”

That is very good advice for communists today who wish to conduct serious work in the mass organisations of the working class.

The end of the First International

The International made great strides forward. But the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 dealt a mortal blow to the organisation. The orgy of reaction that ensued made it impossible to function in France, and everywhere the International was persecuted.

But the real reason for its difficulties is to be found in the upswing of capitalism on a world scale that followed the defeat of the Commune. Under these conditions, the pressures of capitalism on the labour movement resulted in internal quarrels and factionalism.

Feeding off the general atmosphere of disillusionment and despair, the intrigues of Bakunin and his followers intensified. For these reasons, Marx and Engels first proposed moving the headquarters of the International to New York, and finally decided that it would be better to dissolve the International, at least for the time being. The IWA was formally wound up in 1876. For a time, there was no international.

The Second International

The IWA succeeded in laying the theoretical foundations for a genuine revolutionary international. But it never was a real mass workers’ international. It was really an anticipation of the future.

The Socialist International (Second International) was launched in 1889, and began where the First International had left off. Unlike the First International, it had a mass base. In its ranks were the mass parties and trade unions in Germany, France, Britain, Belgium, and other countries.

The period of 1871-1914 was the classical period of Social Democracy. At least in words, it stood on the basis of revolutionary Marxism. However, it was the misfortune of the new International to arise during a period of tremendous capitalist upswing.

On the basis of a long period of economic growth, it was possible for capitalism to give concessions to the working class, or, more correctly, to its upper layer. Gradually, a privileged labour aristocracy took shape.

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The Social Democratic leaders became convinced that it was possible to achieve their objectives without a revolution. They came to believe that slowly, peacefully, gradually, by means of reforms, the problems of the working class could be resolved.

They contrasted this ‘practical’ politics to what they considered to be the outdated theories of Marxism, although they continued to echo the language of class war in May Day speeches.

Men like the former disciple of Marx, Eduard Bernstein, tried to provide a theoretical basis for this backsliding by attempting a revisionism of Marxism.

But the material basis for the national-reformist degeneration of the Second (Socialist) International was rooted in the objective conditions of capitalism, which seemed to provide evidence that the revisionists were correct.

However, the whole edifice of reformism was blown sky-high in 1914, when the leaders of the International voted for the war credits and supported “their” bourgeoisie in the imperialist slaughter of the First World War.

The war, and the Russian Revolution that flowed from it, heralded the beginning of a new and stormy period of revolution and counter-revolution. It was on this material basis that a new workers’ international was born.

The Communist International

Already in 1914, Lenin drew the conclusion that the Second International was dead as an organ for changing society. He proclaimed the new Third International, although at that time the numbers of revolutionary internationalists were pitifully small.

The internationalist tendency was isolated from the masses, who were under the influence of the social chauvinist leaders and intoxicated by the fumes of patriotism. Great events were required to change the situation. This occurred in 1917 with the outbreak of revolution in Russia.

Lenin and Trotsky led the Russian working class to the conquest of power and in 1919 they were able to declare the founding of the Third (Communist) International.

The Comintern, as it became known, stood on a qualitatively higher level than its two predecessors. Like the IWA it stood for a clear revolutionary, internationalist programme. Like the Second International, it had a mass base of millions.

Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Communist International maintained a correct revolutionary line. It seemed that the fate of the world revolution was in good hands.

However, the isolation of the Russian Revolution under conditions of frightful material and cultural backwardness reflected itself in the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution.

The bureaucratic faction led by Stalin gained the upper hand, especially after Lenin’s death in 1924. The rise of Stalinism in Russia stifled the tremendous potential of the Third International.

The Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union played havoc with the inexperienced and immature leaderships of the Communist parties abroad.

‘Socialism in one country’

In 1928, Trotsky predicted that the acceptance of the ‘theory’ of socialism in one country would inevitably lead to the nationalist degeneration of the Communist parties. That prediction has been entirely validated by history.

That so-called theory marked a decisive break with Leninist internationalism. It was an expression of the national limitedness of the outlook of the bureaucracy, which looked on the Communist International merely as an instrument of the foreign policy of Moscow. Having used the Comintern for his own cynical purposes, Stalin dissolved it in 1943 without even the pretence of a congress.

Trotsky and the Left Opposition attempted to defend the spotless traditions of October against Stalinist reaction. They stood for the Leninist traditions of workers’ democracy and proletarian internationalism. But they were fighting a losing battle against the powerful tide of history.

In 1938, Trotsky proclaimed the Fourth International, offering a clean revolutionary banner to the new generation. But it was destroyed by the mistakes of its leaders after Trotsky’s assassination.

Without the guidance of Trotsky, the Fourth International ended up as an abortion. Decades later, all that is left of that organisation is a myriad of splits and sectarian groups, each one more bizarre than the other.

They have achieved nothing except to sow endless confusion and discredit the very idea of Trotskyism in the eyes of many working-class militants.

Today, what remains of the Fourth International are the ideas of its founder, Leon Trotsky, which retain all their relevance and importance. These ideas were kept alive by the tireless work of the late comrade Ted Grant and are represented today by the International Marxist Tendency.

Degeneration of the Communist Parties

communist third international Image public domainHaving used the Comintern for his own cynical purposes, Stalin dissolved it in 1943 without even the pretence of a congress / Image: public domain

We are proud of our ideological heritage. However, we must face facts. Today, 150 years after the founding of the First International, due to a combination of objective and subjective circumstances, the revolutionary movement has been thrown back, and the forces of genuine Marxism reduced to a small minority.

The reasons for this are to be found mainly in the objective situation. Decades of economic growth in the advanced capitalist countries have given rise to an unprecedented degeneration of the mass organisations of the working class. This has isolated the revolutionary current, which everywhere has been reduced to a minority of a minority.

The collapse of the Soviet Union set the final seal on the degeneration of the former Stalinist leaders, most of whom have capitulated to the pressures of capitalism and passed over openly to the camp of reformism.

But there is another side to the coin. The present crisis exposes the reactionary role of capitalism, and places on the order of the day the revival of international communism.

The tide of history

For decades we have been obliged to swim against the current. But now the tide of history has begun to turn.

Everywhere, beneath the superficial veneer of calm and tranquillity, there is a seething undercurrent of rage, indignation, discontent and above all frustration at the existing state of affairs in society and politics.

Even in the United States, there is widespread discontent and a questioning of the existing state of affairs, which was not present before.

All the attempts of the bourgeoisie to restore the economic equilibrium only serve to destroy the social and political equilibrium. The bourgeoisie finds itself trapped in a crisis for which it has no solution. That is the key to understanding the present situation.

The crisis finds its expression in instability in every sphere: economic, financial, social, political, diplomatic and military.

The future that this system offers can only be one of endless misery, suffering, disease, wars and death for the human race. In the words of Lenin: capitalism is horror without end.

It is an irony of history that the leaders of the mass workers’ parties are clinging to decrepit capitalism and the market even when they are collapsing before our eyes.

The only solution

The central problem can be simply stated. It is a problem of leadership. In 1938, Trotsky stated that the crisis of humanity can be reduced to the crisis of the proletarian leadership. That completely sums up the present situation.

Lacking a solid base in Marxist theory, the so-called Left has capitulated and given up the fight for socialism. In its place, there is a gigantic vacuum. But science teaches us that nature abhors a vacuum. This confronts us with a very concrete challenge.

The workers and youth fervently desire to change society. But they can find no organised expression for their efforts. At every step, they find their path blocked by the old bureaucratic organisations and leaderships that have long ago abandoned any pretence to stand for socialism.

All over the world, a new generation of class fighters is rapidly taking shape on the basis of the crisis of capitalism. This is bringing about a profound change of consciousness, especially among the youth.

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The latest polls from Britain, the USA, Australia and other countries provide us with a very clear indication that the idea of communism is spreading rapidly.

These young people do not need to be convinced. They are already communists. But they see no alternative in any of the existing organisations. On the contrary, they are repelled by them.

They are looking for a clean banner, an organisation that has broken radically with treacherous right-wing reformism and cowardly ‘left’ opportunism.

The potential for communism is enormous. Our task is to make this potential a reality. But how is this to be achieved?

We are faced with a flagrant contradiction. Today the ideas of Marx are more valid and necessary than ever. But ideas, in and of themselves, are insufficient.

We have to take the necessary practical measures to find this new generation of communists and recruit them to our banner. This necessarily means that we have to provide the ideas with concrete, organisational expression.

The need for a new international is not an arbitrary decision. Nor is it the expression of any subjective desire or unthinking haste. It is something that is clearly demanded by the whole situation.

marx Image public domainToday the ideas of Marx are more valid and necessary than ever / Image: public domain

Is the time right for such a bold step? For some people, of course, the time will never be right. They will always find a thousand reasons why we should delay taking a decision. But we cannot make a programme and policy out of hesitation and doubt.

It may be objected that our numbers are too small for us to take such a step. But every revolutionary movement in history has always begun as a small and seemingly insignificant minority.

In 1914, the forces at Lenin’s disposal were pathetically small. But that did not deter him from proclaiming the need for a new communist international. There were many doubts, even among his own supporters, but history proves that he was right.

It is quite true that our forces are very small when compared to the enormous task in front of us and we have no illusions on that score. But that situation is already beginning to change significantly.

We have important work to do, and that work, which is reaching a decisive stage, is already bearing important fruit. That is clearly shown by the remarkable success of the ‘Are you a Communist?’ campaign.

We are growing rapidly everywhere. That is no accident. We are now swimming together with the current of history. Above all, we have the correct ideas. That is ultimately the only guarantee of success.

What is required is a genuine communist party, which bases itself on the ideas of Lenin and the other great Marxist teachers, and an international on the lines of the Communist International during its first five years.

That is the task we have set before us. It is an absolutely necessary and urgent task that admits no delay.

From small beginnings, under the most difficult conditions imaginable, the International Marxist Tendency has already built an organisation of thousands of the best workers and youth in many countries.

This is a great achievement. But it is only the beginning. The time has now come to take a decisive step: the launching of the Revolutionary Communist International.

We appeal to every worker and young person who agrees with this aim to help us to achieve our final goal: the victory of international socialism.

Against capitalism and imperialism!

For the socialist transformation of society!

Join us in the struggle for world revolution!

Workers of the world, unite!

London, 11 March 2024

This article is included in issue 45 of In Defence of Marxism magazine, which is themed around the proud history of revolutionary struggles on the African continent. The issue contains articles on the histories of Cameroon and Ethiopia; a Marxist critique of Franz Fanon; as well as writings by Lenin and Trotsky on the colonial struggle. It is a must-read for communists who want to understand the revolutionary history of Africa and fight for communism internationally today. Get your copy now!

IDOM Issue 45

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