Comintern: Leninist-Trotskyist tradition

New context, new focus

In the second of three articles, Moshé Machover examines the colonial question in Lenin’s wake(1)

Following World War I and the October revolution, most revolutionary Marxists who had not been swept in the patriotic maelstrom that wrecked the Second International regrouped in communist parties affiliated to the Communist International.

In this nascent communist movement, the pre-1918 debates on national self-determination had lost much of their topicality. Those old debates were primarily concerned with the subordinate and oppressed nationalities in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. However, the situation of most of these nationalities changed dramatically following the war.

On the one hand, the international bourgeoisie, now under increasingly confident American leadership, adopted the principle of national self-determination, urged by Woodrow Wilson:

National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.2

Colonial peoples had been explicitly excluded from self-determination a month earlier by Wilson himself, in his famous 14-point programme, and were offered a hypocritical fudge as consolation prize. Wilson’s fifth point stated:

A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the [colonial] government whose title is to be determined.3

But in Europe the imperialist victors regarded the formation of bourgeois nation-states from the ruins of the old continental empires as serving their interests, and they applied national self-determination proactively to formerly subordinate nations of the now defunct Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as to those of the former Russian empire which were not included in the new Soviet state.

On the other hand, the first constitution of the Soviet state (1918) granted the “workers and peasants” of each of its peoples “the right to decide … at their plenary sessions of their soviets … whether or not they desire to participate, and on what basis, in the federal government and other federal soviet institutions.”4 For the mainstream of the communist movement, this somewhat vague provision resolved the problem of these nationalities.5

One way or the other, most of the central- and east-European nationalities whose right to self-determination had been debated in the Second International were now either ensconced in their own independent bourgeois states or happily liberated by the October revolution. The question of these nationalities was upstaged in the Comintern by the colonial question.

Colonial allies

But the liberation struggle of colonial peoples was now felt to have immediate strategic importance. This had not been so in the time of the Second International, when even the left, resolutely opposed to colonialism, tended to assume that the socialist revolution in the developed countries would herald the liberation of colonial and semi-colonial peoples. Now the liberation struggle of these peoples was assigned an active role in helping to bring down the world capitalist order and facilitating the victory of socialism.

This major political shift was underpinned by a combination of interrelated theoretical notions, promoted by Lenin and his co-thinkers, about the nature of the contemporary epoch and the state of the post-war world. First, there was the idea that imperialism was a new phase of capitalism. Second, that this phase was terminal. And third, that the Russian Revolution was but the inaugural act, ushering revolutionary upheaval on a global scale.

The belief that imperialism was a recent development, dating from the final decades of the 19th century, was shared by Lenin and other contemporary Marxists who wrote on the subject, including Parvus, Hilferding and Luxemburg; it can be traced back to Kautsky, the most influential Marxist theoretician of the Second International.6 But Lenin went further in regarding this phase as heralding capitalism’s impending demise. His well-known pamphlet, written in 1916 and published in mid-1917, was entitled Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. Was “highest” supposed to mean ‘highest so far’ or ‘as high as it can get’? That Lenin had the latter meaning in mind is borne out by a remark he makes near the end of the pamphlet: “From all that has been said in this book on the economic essence of imperialism, it follows that we must define it as capitalism in transition, or, more precisely, as moribund capitalism.”7

“Moribund” means ‘about to die’ or ‘in terminal decline’. Moreover, in the immediate post-war years this looked quite plausible. It did not seem unreasonable to expect that the October revolution would be followed by socialist revolutionary upheavals in advanced capitalist countries.

In this new worldwide struggle, liberation movements in the colonies would be objectively important allies of the socialist revolution, because they were ranged against a common enemy: imperialism. Even where these liberation movements are led by bourgeois or petty bourgeois elements and have ‘bourgeois-democratic’ nationalist aims, they would nevertheless undermine world imperialism and thereby help to bring about the demise of moribund capitalism.

A key document expressing these ideas is Lenin’s Draft theses on national and colonial questions for the second congress of the Communist International, dated June 5 1920.8 In this document Lenin addresses briefly the question of national minorities and underprivileged nations in advanced capitalist countries - he mentions explicitly two examples: Ireland and the American negroes (!) - but his main focus is on the colonies:

The world political situation has now placed the dictatorship of the proletariat on the order of the day. World political developments are of necessity concentrated on a single focus - the struggle of the world bourgeoisie against the Soviet Russian Republic, around which are inevitably grouped, on the one hand, the Soviet movements of the advanced workers in all countries, and, on the other, all the national liberation movements in the colonies and among the oppressed nationalities, who are learning from bitter experience that their only salvation lies in the Soviet system’s victory over world imperialism.

Consequently, one cannot at present confine oneself to a bare recognition or proclamation of the need for closer union between the working people of the various nations: a policy must be pursued that will achieve the closest alliance, with Soviet Russia, of all the national and colonial liberation movements. The form of this alliance should be determined by the degree of development of the communist movement in the proletariat of each country, or of the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement of the workers and peasants in backward countries or among backward nationalities.

Lenin makes it clear that the “closest alliance” he advocates is temporary and conditional, by no means amounting to merger; communists should maintain their programmatic and organisational independence:

With regards to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind: …

  • the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;
  • the need to combat pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc …
  • the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries; the Communist International should support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks: ie, those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations. The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is in its most embryonic form.

Split of the Leninist tradition

The principled revolutionary spirit of Lenin’s Draft theses cannot fail to inspire us even today. But with the benefit of hindsight we can see that the strategy outlined in them had a fatal fault: it posited an over-optimistic assessment of the state of the world. World capitalism, though crisis-ridden, was not moribund; attempts to establish proletarian power elsewhere - first in Hungary then in Germany - were fragile, short-lived and ended in bloody defeat. In this situation attempts to apply the strategy were doomed to fail.

Two early attempts of this kind were alliances formed by the Comintern with the Turkish and Chinese nationalist movements, led respectively by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Chiang Kai-shek. Neither Turkey nor China were colonies, but former imperial powers that had been defeated and assigned the status of semi-colonies. In both cases alliance with the Comintern was advantageous to the nationalists, but ended disastrously for the local communists. The world capitalist order was not nearly so frail as to be genuinely threatened by these nationalist movements, whose real aim was to accommodate their countries in this world order rather than to overthrow it, notwithstanding occasional protestations to the contrary.

At first it was possible to hope that the defeats of workers’ revolutions outside the Soviet Union were temporary setbacks. But, as the 1920s wore on, such hopes could only be sustained by increasing doses of unrealistic faith. At that point Leninism - or, more correctly, the movement that claimed to uphold the Leninist tradition - underwent a major historical split.

The mainstream majority, led by Stalin, accepted in effect that a world socialist revolution was not a realistic prospect for some time to come. Indeed, while vocally professing socialism in name, it rejected it in essence by giving the old word a new perverted meaning. ‘Socialism’ was redefined to describe the tyrannical regime set up in the USSR, in which the working class was alienated, atomised, exploited and oppressed. The Stalinised ‘official’ communist parties, while professing to struggle for worldwide proletarian power, were in effect turned into obedient instruments of that ‘socialist’ state. In the colonies, national liberation was regarded as a first, separate ‘bourgeois-democratic’ stage. The second stage, that of ‘socialism’ (in the perverted sense), was deferred until eventual incorporation in the Soviet bloc. Nationalist movements, struggles for national liberation, were now judged according to how they related to the USSR. Independence of the workers’ movement was abandoned, where that suited Soviet foreign policy.

The dissident minority that split or was ejected from the Comintern coalesced for the most part under the leadership of Trotsky. It continued to adhere to the old Leninist creed, in spirit as well as in word. In particular, it continued to stand by the strategy of the Draft theses, which is substantially endorsed in the section on “backward countries” of Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional programme, the founding document of the Fourth International.9

But this loyalty to 1920 Leninism came at a cost: denial of reality. The Transitional programme echoes and amplifies Lenin’s 1916 and 1920 diagnosis and prognosis. In 1916 Lenin had described imperialism - the “highest” stage into which capitalism entered in the late 19th century - as “capitalism in transition”. Trotsky’s 1938 document echoes this description in its very title and repeatedly in the whole text: the entire current historical epoch was “transitional”. Lenin had used a quasi-medical metaphor to clarify what he meant by this description: namely, capitalism was “moribund”. Trotsky sharpens this diagnosis: the heading atop the title Transitional programme is: The death agony of capitalism. How much closer to death could it get?

Marx famously wrote that “no social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed”.10 With this obviously in mind, Trotsky claims in the preamble to the Transitional programme that by the time of writing capitalism had indeed exhausted its potential for developing the productive forces, thus satisfying Marx’s necessary condition for perishing:

The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth.

With hindsight we can see quite clearly that this claim is false. Since 1938 there have been at least two technological revolutions in industry - scientific-technical (1940-70), information and telecommunication (1985-2000) - and the start of a third one, exemplified by smart robots, such as the driverless car, and by nanotechnology. In agriculture there has been the green revolution of the 1970s and the current one, based on genetic modification. The level of material wealth today is very much greater than in 1938 - although, of course, it is very unequally spread.

Moreover, during the alleged “death agony” of capitalism, this mode of production has spread to vast new areas of the globe and encompassed huge numbers of human beings not previously engaged in it. (The capitalist system has long been globally hegemonic, but until relatively recently large areas of the world and a majority of humans, including a majority of direct producers, were not directly involved in capitalist relations of production.)

Trotsky goes on to imply that, while the material conditions for a proletarian revolution “have not only ‘ripened’ - they have begun to get somewhat rotten”, the revolution has failed to materialise because of “the crisis of the revolutionary leadership”. The working class is disastrously misled by social democrats and Stalinists.

This proposition is essentially counter-factual, and as such is impossible to conclusively refute (or indeed to prove). Had the international proletariat been better led, would it have been able successfully to achieve political power? Was an absence of proper leadership all that stood between humanity and socialism? There is hardly any evidence for this. If it were true, then surely we would have witnessed major widespread working class revolutionary upheavals that were let down by deficient or treacherous leadership. However, the only major country in which something like this occurred after the early 1920s is Spain (which is duly mentioned by Trotsky). But in any case, from an orthodox Marxist point of view, if Trotsky was wrong about the maturity of the material conditions for the demise of capitalism - incapacity for further development of the productive forces - then an excellent leadership would not have availed for the proletariat to overthrow this social order.

In 1938, on the eve of World War II (which Trotsky correctly predicted), the unreality of the Transitional programme may not have been evident. But orthodox Trotskyists go on repeating the same claims even today, long after they have been refuted. This continued denial of reality is buttressed by an over-generous reinterpretation of the terms, “moribund”, “death agony” and “transitional epoch”.

As an aside, I must make an elementary philosophical point. Any strategy requires two sorts of input: a general theory about how the real world works; and data about the actual state of reality. But we live in an uncertain universe: no general theory is flawless, and no-one can have complete knowledge of the current state of the world. Any strategy we adopt, any decision we make, can only be based on a provisional theory and partial information. Therefore a judgment as to whether a past strategy or decision was correct or mistaken at the time must be relative to that past time and to what was known then. If a decision or strategy turns out in retrospect to have failed, it does not follow that it was faulty at the time it was devised, given the information available at that time. Hindsight makes all the difference: we are not entitled to use it to indict those who acted without its benefit. But it is a valuable asset, which it is unwise to waste by sticking to a strategy that may have seemed reasonable when formulated, but has since been confuted by subsequent events.

However, from the plain fact that capitalism has not been moribund since 1880 or thereabouts, and that it has not been undergoing a prolonged death agony since 1917 or 1938, but has so far been able to recover from major crises, develop the productive forces, globalise and spread to new domains, it does not follow that it will go on like this indefinitely. Although several cries of ‘Wolf, wolf!’ have proved to be spurious, it would be foolish to assume that the wolf will not materialise, perhaps pretty soon. Capitalism is certainly not eternal. It will eventually come up against a combination of internal contradictions and external constraints, and will then be ripe for overthrow. Indeed, there are currently some indications that the capitalist system may be going into a tailspin. Whether it will restabilise or crash to its doom will be known only in retrospect. The former seems more likely, but revolutionary socialists ought to be prepared for either eventuality.


Between the two world wars hardly any colony became independent. Two partial but notable exceptions were Egypt and Iraq. Neither were colonies in the strict sense. Egypt was a British protectorate, which was granted independence in 1922, following a popular revolution. Iraq was ruled by Britain under a League of Nations mandate and was granted formal independence in 1932.

Gravely weakened by World War I, Britain could no longer sustain direct political control of these countries. Instead, it relegated the task of safeguarding property rights, and especially British investments, to formally independent but compliant monarchies. British military presence was reduced to relatively small garrisons, left to secure the British-controlled Suez Canal (vital gateway to India) in Egypt, and oil assets in Iraq.

This mode of decolonisation, exceptional at the time, was followed on a grand scale after World War II. The main colonial powers, Britain and France, were totally exhausted and within four decades after that war gave up almost all of their colonial possessions. The same applied to the lesser colonial powers, Holland, Belgium and Portugal. Indirect imperialist (‘neocolonial’) control of formally independent countries was, of course, favoured and urged by the now undisputed capitalist hegemon, the USA.

The protection of property was left in reliable local hands. In some cases, local leaders who were not considered sufficiently safe for capital were assassinated, mysteriously disappeared or killed in suspicious accidents. Several such incidents occurred in former French colonies, where the victims included Ruben Um Nyobé and his successor, Félix-Roland Moumié (Cameroon); Barthélemy Boganda (Central African Republic); and Mehdi Ben-Barka (Morocco, assassinated with Israeli assistance). Victims in former Portuguese colonies included Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique); and Amílcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde). And in the very heart of darkness, Belgian colonialism (with American and British complicity) was guilty of the murder of Patrice Lumumba.

In many colonies ­- beginning with the greatest, India - decolonisation occurred without a war of liberation. But some colonial peoples had to wage bitter armed struggle before the old master let go of them. Britain’s colonial wars included those in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden; France fought for years before withdrawing from Indochina and Algeria; Holland waged a colonial war in Indonesia; and Portugal fought in its African colonies, until the blowback from these wars led to the Carnation Revolution in Portugal itself.

The Portuguese case is the only one that came even remotely close to Trotsky’s scenario of permanent revolution, foreshadowed in Lenin’s Draft theses: colonial liberation struggles lead without interruption to a movement towards a socialist revolution in both colonies and metropolis. But in the case of Portugal this movement was not actually consummated. In any case, as Trotskyists are the first to point out, a socialist revolution cannot come to fruition if it is confined to an underdeveloped ex-colony or even to a small European country, such as Portugal.

The Trotskyist permanent revolution strategy failed - and was bound to fail - in the decolonisation era following World War II, because the global situation that it presupposed did not materialise. The strategy envisaged a stagnant, moribund world capitalism in its death agony, fighting off a revolutionary upsurge of a working class that has shaken off its discredited social democratic and Stalinist leaderships.

Instead, global capitalism recovered remarkably quickly from the devastation of the war and enjoyed a period of prolonged vigour and growth. Under unchallenged US hegemony, it confronted not a worldwide proletarian upsurge, but a Stalinist bloc that split into three parts. The context in which decolonisation took place in the post-war period turned out not to be transition from capitalism to socialism, but the cold war.

Viewed in this context, it is perhaps not surprising that - as one of the ironies that history so often insists on serving up - a Stalinist counterpart or caricature of the Trotskyist permanent revolution scenario did materialise in some important struggles against colonial or quasi-colonial oppression. A genuine liberation struggle led without interruption to establishing a Stalinoid state that joined the Soviet bloc - first in Yugoslavia, then in China (although these two subsequently split off from the bloc), later on in Cuba, and finally in Vietnam. In a parody of Lenin’s Draft theses, several former colonies - such as India under Nehru, Indonesia under Sukarno and Egypt under Nasser - while not going beyond the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ stage, became useful allies of the Soviet bloc in the cold war.

Some general lessons

Looking back, it is clear that revolutionary socialists in the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition entertained exaggerated hopes that colonial liberation struggles would contribute to the overthrow of global capitalism or be capable of being transformed without interruption into revolutionary struggles for socialism. I have argued that the reason why these hopes could not be fulfilled is that they were premised on a mistaken assessment of the state of the world, the expectation that capitalism was terminally stagnant and moribund.

Of course, all this does not mean that it was an error to support the liberation struggle of colonial and other oppressed nations. It goes without saying that socialists have a duty to oppose all forms of social domination and oppression. But support for these struggles should have been tempered with the realisation that, given the actual state of the world, colonial liberation struggles were unlikely to seriously undermine the global capitalist system.

There may be a useful lesson here regarding current struggles against other forms of social domination and oppression, such as those on grounds of gender and race. Of course, socialists must support these struggles unconditionally. But we should do so without entertaining the illusion that under present conditions their main demands are incapable of being accommodated to a large extent within capitalism. Only in a revolutionary situation of intensive class struggle embracing large parts of the globe will there be a confluence of those other streams - which in normal times could be contained by reforms - into the main current that will breach the dams of the capitalist system.

However, the fact that the strategy of the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition on the colonial question has turned out to be mistaken should not lead revolutionary socialists to discard cardinal principles that were well understood by our movement in the past and have remained valid.

One such principle is that the working class must retain its political and organisational independence. This was stressed by both Lenin and Trotsky in the context of colonial liberation struggles, but it is by no means confined to the Leninist tradition, or to that context. It goes back to the Communist manifesto. This, of course, does not exclude temporary alliances for specific purposes with movements or parties based on other classes; but it does exclude long-term ‘popular fronts’, let alone mergers, with such forces as, for example, petty bourgeois green parties.

Another principle that was upheld by revolutionary socialists before World War I and remains valid is opposition to nationalist secessionism. In the first article in the present series I observed that, although Lenin, Luxemburg, and others on the Marxist left disagreed on important aspects of the national question, they all subscribed to Luxemburg’s dictum that “a general attempt to divide all existing states into national units and to re-tailor them on the model of national states and statelets is a completely hopeless and, historically speaking, reactionary undertaking.”11 Even for Lenin the default position was advocacy of non-secession; and positive support for separation was seen as an exception, a measure of last resort. The direct context of that old debate was the situation of the various nations in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, some of which were severely oppressed. As I have pointed out, that context disappeared following the war and the Russian Revolution.

But the debate has re-emerged in our time in relation to nationalist separatist movements of groups that are not victims of severe national oppression, such as the Scots, Catalans and Québécois. Regrettably, some socialists have chosen to support these secessionist demands - not because they believe that separation and formation of a new statelet is needed for genuine national liberation, as the only escape from national oppression, but in an opportunistic use of nationalism as a response to what is essentially a class problem: the unpopularity of a rightwing central government. This is a betrayal of a valuable revolutionary socialist tradition.

In the third and last article in this series I will address the specific issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is exceptional in several ways - not least in being a complex conjunction of a two-sided national problem and a colonial-type problem.


1. The first article (‘Colonialism and the natives’ Weekly Worker December 17 2015) outlined some of the debates on colonialism and the national question in the Second International. As further reading, I would like to recommend an important anthology that covers the topic and period addressed - all too briefly and sketchily - in that article. This work, Discovering imperialism: social democracy to World War I (Leiden 2011, reprinted Chicago 2012), is a massive collection of articles written between 1897 and 1916, many of them not hitherto available in English (some by authors unknown to most present-day readers). It is translated and edited by Richard B Day and Daniel Gaido, who have added a valuable 80-page introduction.

2. President Wilson’s address to Congress, February 11 1918: www.gwpda.org/1918/wilpeace.html.

3. Speech to US Congress, January 8 1918: www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/content/wilson-14points-speech.html.

4. Constitution of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic July 10 1918, article 1, chapter 4, clause 8: www.marxists.org/history/ussr/government/constitution/1918/index.htm.

5. However, for the very different view of dissident Ukrainian communists, see C Ford, ‘Outline history of the Ukrainian Communist Party (Independentists): an emancipatory communism 1918-1925’ Debate Vol 17, No2, 2009, pp193-246.

6. The belief that imperialism was a late 19th century development has been criticised by Mike Macnair in his introduction to K Kautsky Past and present colonial policy (1898 - English translation by B Lewis and M Zurowski, November Publications, London 2013; available from http://cpgb.org.uk/pages/books/32/karl-kautsky-on-colonialism-2013.

7. VI Lenin Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism: a popular outline (1917): www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/index.htm.

8. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/jun/05.htm.

9. L Trotsky The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International: the mobilisation of the masses around transitional demands to prepare the conquest of power: the Transitional Programme 1938: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/index.htm.

10. K Marx, preface to A contribution to the critique of political economy (1859).

11. R Luxemburg, ‘The national question’ (1909): www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1909/national-question/index.htm.