Political consciousness and international unity

What is the link between national and international revolution? What is the role of the workers' international? Mike Macnair continues his series on communist strategy

It has been a running undercurrent in this series that the class struggle between capitalist and proletarian is international in character and therefore requires the proletariat to organise as a class internationally.

The point surfaced in the second article in the form of Marx's and Engels' criticisms of the Gotha unification (Weekly Worker January 23). It reappeared in the third: the commitment of the coalitionist right in the Second International to managing the capitalist nation-state involved them in the logic of attacks on the working class for the sake of 'national competitiveness' (March 30); and in the fourth: the Kautskyan centre's national horizons ultimately led it to support feeding the European working class into the mincing machine of World War I (April 13).

The question of internationalism as an element of working class strategy was also critical in understanding the split in the Second International, in the subsequent articles: fighting for unity of the workers as an international class unavoidably involved splitting with the coalitionist right, which placed (and places) loyalty to the nation-state before loyalty to the working class.

The Comintern characterised the Second International's collapse in the face of 1914 as resulting in part from its failure to organise real international unity, and proposed as an alternative a much more tightly centralised and disciplined international. Yet the Comintern was dissolved in 1941, leaving behind the looser Cominform of communist parties which, like the socialist parties, were fundamentally nationalist in their strategic horizons.

The Trotskyists founded their 'Fourth International' in 1938 as a "world party of socialist revolution" - something in theory even more centralised than the Comintern. In 1953 this "world party" broke up into two competing organisations, the International Secretariat of the Fourth International (ISFI), the predecessor of today's Fourth International, in which the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire is the strongest group, and the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI).

The European core of the ISFI has remained relatively stable as an international organisation (the same cannot be said for its politics). The current Mandelite FI has become unequivocally an organisation like the Second International. That is, it is a loose coordination of national parties (in this case, mostly grouplets), whose leaders meet periodically and pass diplomatic resolutions.

The ICFI 'tradition' has given rise to a bewildering range of 'internationals' - Healyite and sub-Healyite variants, Lambertiste and sub-Lam- bertiste, Lorista and sub-Lorista, Morenista and sub-Morenista, Spartacist and sub-Spartacist, and so on. Almost all of these 'internationals' are the international fan clubs of national organisations in the main historic centres of Trotskyism: France, the US, Britain and Argentina.

Meanwhile, Trotskyist organisations that were originally purely national in character, such as the French Lutte Ouvrière, the British Militant (both Grantite and Taaffeite wings) and the British Socialist Workers Party and Workers Power, have created their own 'internationals' or 'international tendencies'.

This plethora of international sects has had the effect among broad layers of activists of discrediting the entire idea of an organised workers' international political movement. 'Internationalism' has as a result become reduced to two elements. The first is efforts to promote and/or reform the United Nations and the 'international rule of law'. Whatever their aims, these actually serve to give political support to the global, US-led, capitalist system of nation-states.

The second is fundamentally liberal 'international solidarity campaigns' around hot spots in global politics, based on moral hatred of suffering and injustice rather than on a positive strategy for international action of the working class. These campaigns do some useful work but lead nowhere and rarely reach deeply into the working class.

To the extent that there is a 'strategy' involved in 'anti-imperialist internationalism' of this sort, it is the Maoist/third-worldist idea of 'surrounding the cities': ie, that revolution in the colonial world can overthrow the imperialist world order. The present character of the Chinese and Vietnamese regimes - and all the other formerly radical third-worldist regimes - all too clearly shows the falsity of this strategy.

There appeared around 2000 to be a small glimmer of hope for a renewed broad international movement in the anti-globalisation movement and the World Social Forums. But the bureaucracies of the major national parties and unions and the NGOs supporting this movement have combined with the dominance of anarchistic 'movementist' ideas in the ranks to produce a series of, no doubt interesting, periodic talking shops.

The 'direct action' alternative in the anti-globalisation movement largely represents merely an opportunity for some youth to have a barney with the police. After the first media shocks of the 1990s, this has had about as much practical political effect as if the same militants were to expend the same energy fighting the police after football matches.

The root of this catastrophe is that the Second, Third and Fourth Internationals shared a common false conception of the role of the international action of the working class in revolutionary strategy, and that the Third and Fourth superimposed on this error a particular variant of the Comintern's Bonapartist centralism, the idea of the "general staff of world revolution". The result has been to produce international sects on the one hand, and a reaction away from proletarian internationalism and international organisation in negative-dialectical response to the international sects.

The Communist League that issued the Communist Manifesto was a small group, mainly composed of migrants, together with some supporters among Paris artisans and a section of the left wing of the British Chartist movement. "Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London and sketched the following manifesto, to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages" (Communist manifesto). The migrant core of the league, and Marx's and Engels' combination of "German philosophy, French socialism and English political economy" reflected the international character of the larger democratic movement of which this was part.

The voice of this tendency was to be amplified by the 1848 revolution in Germany, albeit the actual Communist League did not survive the defeat of this revolution. This revolution in turn was part of a European revolutionary wave extending from France to Hungary which from beginning to end took place within the space of a couple of years.

The First International was launched on the back of the campaigns of British radicals and the workers' movement in 1862-63 to prevent Britain intervening on the side of the south in the US civil war. The immediate moment of its launch in 1864 was an appeal by London trade union leaders to Paris workers' leaders for joint action in support of the Polish struggle for independence. Its activity consisted of a combination of international strike support - both financial and through urging secondary action - with political interventions against national oppression (Poland, Ireland) and against threats of war.

The Second International was prepared by attempts in the early 1880s to unite European socialists, but took its real impetus as a movement from the Chicago Haymarket massacre of 1884 and the consequent struggle for May Day as an international workers' festival. The international was formally founded in 1889 and made the struggle for May Day a symbolic centre of its work.

An international of symbols

The Second International remained until 1900 merely a series of socialist congresses that passed resolutions, without a leading body equivalent to the general council of the First International, which could respond rapidly to events or organise strike solidarity. In 1900, the International Socialist Bureau was established. The online catalogue of the archives held in Amsterdam by the International Institute of Social History suggests - although the IISH's holdings may well be defective - that the ISB was, proportionately, considerably less active than the general council of the First International had been.

The First International had been an international of practical tasks; the Second International was, starting from May Day, mainly one of symbols. Why? The fundamental explanation is that its leaders thought that the struggle for workers' power was one conducted within the boundaries of single countries: following Marx and Engels, that "the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie" (Communist manifesto).

It is not clear how far Marx and Engels still believed this in their later lives. After all, the 1864 'Inaugural address' of the First International had asserted that: "Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts."

And Engels, in his 1875 letter to Bebel criticising the Gotha programme, had commented that the German party should be "conscious of its solidarity with the workers of all other countries and will, as before, always be ready to meet the obligations that solidarity entails. Such obligations, even if one does not definitely proclaim or regard oneself as part of the 'international', consist, for example, in aid, abstention from blacklegging during strikes, making sure that the party organs keep German workers informed of the movement abroad, agitation against impending or incipient dynastic wars and, during such wars, an attitude such as was exemplarily maintained in 1870 and 1871, etc."

However, after the split with the Bakuninists, Marx and Engels had supported the move away from maintaining the international as such in favour of building national parties that organised working class political action at national level. The logic of this policy was, as we have already seen, to place the major emphasis on the growth and strength of these national parties, ultimately if necessary implying the pursuance of a revolutionary-defencist policy in war (Weekly Worker April 13).

Strategic problem

Marx and Engels did not much discuss the relation between the national revolutions supposed by the claim that "the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie" and the international character of the workers' movement posed by the Communist League and the First International.

Nor did Marx, in his critique of the Gotha programme, draw out the strategic implications of his comment that "the 'framework of the present-day national state' - for instance, the German empire - is itself, in its turn, economically 'within the framework' of the world market, politically 'within the framework' of the system of states. Every businessman knows that German trade is at the same time foreign trade, and the greatness of Herr Bismarck consists, to be sure, precisely in his pursuing a kind of international policy."

It is commonly said that generals tend to plan to fight the last war. 1848 was an international revolutionary wave in which more or less simultaneous national upsurges were obviously part of a common international movement. Marx and Engels fairly clearly saw this experience of their youth as a model for the future revolutionary moment.

It did not appear. Instead, the period was dominated by a series of national movements and short European wars: the Crimea in 1854-56, the Franco-Austrian war (1859) and unification of Italy (1860), the Austro-Prussian war (1866) and the Franco-Prussian war (1870), which led to the Paris Commune.

The defeat of the Commune in 1871, the split in the international with the Bakuninists in 1872, and the defeat of the Spanish revolution in 1873 shifted at least Engels' thinking towards what was to become Kautskyism: the patient work of building up the organised forces of the working class, carried on mainly through national politics. In the parties of the Second International, this evolved into a clear conception that the working class could take power in individual countries as the conditions in these countries became 'ripe' for socialism.

The logic of this evolution was to be most fully brought out in Kautsky's Preparations for peace (October 1914): "Democracy can only find its best expression in a state which consists of one nation, speaking one language. Modern production brings the people ever into closer touch with each other. The more the inner divisions fall away, the more all the members of the state speak the same language, the more intensively can economic, intellectual and political life proceed. And within this method of production is arising the cooperation of the lower classes' intellectual and political life, which means additional strength to every nation. In a national state both these tendencies combine and strengthen one another. In a state of various nationalities they come into hostile collision with each other, and have a paralysing effect on the economic and political process, all the stronger as development progresses."

The nation-state is here made not only the present the workers' movement has to face, but also the necessary future of humanity.


We have already seen the underlying problem with this approach. Capitalism is from the beginning an international social formation, and the nation-state is in relation to the world market merely a firm. The state-firm retains liquidity by borrowing on financial markets. These, if they are national in form, are international in substance: this was already true of the 17th century Amsterdam and 18th century London financial markets. An attempt in a single country to break with capitalist rule - or even to significantly improve the position of the working class - will thus be met with withdrawal of credit by the capitalists, leading to an immediate crisis of state liquidity and more general economic dislocation.

If a socialist government responds by expropriations, the immediate effect is to break the incentive structure of the capitalist market in the country and increase economic dislocation. In addition, the response of international capital will then take the form of blockade and war. It thus becomes immediately necessary to move to generalised planning under economic autarky. This was the situation of the Bolsheviks in 1918-19; it has been repeated with varying results - usually the collapse of the socialist government - many times since.

The result is, in fact - as it was in the former tsarist empire - economic regression. Hence the socialist party loses its majority support and is forced - if it is to continue its course - to minority dictatorship and increasingly systematic repression. In countries that are not self-sufficient in food, energy and raw materials - ie, most advanced capitalist countries - the result would be mass starvation. The socialist government would collapse into a capitalist government far more rapidly than happened in Russia and China.

The exception that proves the rule is the results - which stretched down to the 1980s - of 1941-45. The deep global crisis of British world hegemony, culminating in the 1939-45 war, and the particular form of that war yielded the result that in 1941-45 the USSR was massively strengthened. In the ensuing 'cold war' there could appear to be a series of 'national revolutions' that in reality were possible because the countries (most clearly Cuba) were brought into and subsidised by the autarkic, bureaucratic 'planning' system of the Soviet regime. Equally, the US, now hegemonic over the capitalist countries, consciously encouraged social democratic and nationalist reform in capital's front-line states as an instrument to secure them from being added to the 'Soviet empire': part of the policy of 'containment'.

The offensive of the working class in the late 1960s and early 1970s destroyed the policy of containment and led the US to turn to a global policy of aggressive 'roll-back of communism' under the banner of 'human rights'. The fall of the USSR has finally destroyed the foundations of the policy of concessions for the sake of containment. The exception is now over. It still proves the rule because it was international events and dynamics - World War II and the cold war - that enabled the supposedly 'national' revolutions and reforms. Capitalism is an international system and it is international events and movements that enable radical change in individual nation-states.

The importance of symbolic unity

The Second International offered mainly symbolic unity of the international workers' movement. But this symbolic unity was profoundly important to the development of workers' parties in the individual countries.

This point is clearest at the fringes. In Britain and the US, May Day became in the 1890s the focus of the early stages of development of class political consciousness after the later 19th century slough of 'pure trade unionism'; and in the early 20th century the connection to the Second International pushed the more advanced trade unionists towards politics, and the socialist groups towards unity.

Similarly, relations to the international movement pushed the French, Italian and Russian socialist groups towards unity in a single party, actively encouraged by the Kautskyan leadership; and the single party then advanced class political consciousness at a level that the divided socialist groups could not. There are no doubt other examples.

In fact, the same is true in Germany itself. In 1875 Liebknecht wrote a 'Lassallean' programme for Gotha, imagining that this was necessary to achieve unity. In reality, the Lassallean General Association of German Workers was desperate for unity and would have accepted it on any terms. It had been losing ground to the 'Marxist' Eisenachers because of its hostility to broad trade unions, its dictatorial internal regime and the clear opposition to the imperial state, which had been expressed by the Eisenacher MPs' refusal to vote for war credits in 1870. The Eisenachers' roughly democratic character, support for trade unions and internationalism were all legacies of the First International.

The working class is an international class. It can only attain full political consciousness of its character as a class - become a class 'for itself' - if this character is expressed in international unity of the workers' class movement. The symbolic unity offered by the Second International was less than was needed for the proletariat to take power, but still necessary for the proletariat to get as far as it got in the run-up to 1914.

We can see the same phenomenon in the fate of communist and Trotskyist parties/groups after the dissolution of the Comintern. The allegiance of the 'tankies' to the USSR and its leadership was a deformed and bastardised form of internationalism, but it was a form of internationalism nonetheless. The Eurocommunists, as they lost their internationalism, also lost their ability to promote any sort of class politics and became, if anything, more liberal than the socialists.

Among the Trotskyists, in the split of 1953 the 'Pabloite' ISFI prioritised the unity of the international movement, while the 'anti-Pabloite' ICFI prioritised the organisational independence of their national parties. The result was that the ISFI and its successors remained more open and democratic than the successors of the ICFI, which universally wound up creating Stalinist internal regimes and Cominforms round their national 'parties'. As the ISFI's successors in the 1980s began to theorise the idea that only the sovereign national parties, not the 'international', should act as such, they also moved more generally towards Eurocommunist non-class politics.

Even in distorted forms, then, the struggle for international unity of the working class and the struggle for class independence stand and fall together.

The Russian question

If the policy of the Second International was fundamentally one of separate national revolutions, there was an undercurrent that suggested a repeat of 1848. This was expressed in Marx's and Engels' responses to the Russian Narodnya Volya, and became current among Russian Marxists - most explicitly in Trotsky's Results and prospects, but also in Lenin's Two tactics. The idea was that the fall of the tsarist regime would rapidly trigger a European-wide workers' revolution - an 1848 on a higher level.

This was a view held by Marx and Engels at the time of the Crimean War, and the correspondence with the Narodniks and Russian prefaces to the Manifesto revived it. It was, in fact, a reasonable but mistaken response to the defeat of 1848. Russian intervention had played an important part in 1848 in defeats in Poland and Hungary, and the tsarist regime was one of the principal guarantors of the European regime of the Congress of Vienna and the Holy Alliance that backed it. Knocking Russia out of the picture should, therefore, let loose the national-democratic movements in central Europe (Poland, Hungary, etc). This would bring down the Austro-Hungarian and German regimes and trigger European-wide revolutionary aspirations in the style of 1848.

It was a mistake because 1815 was fundamentally a British-sponsored settlement placing a pressure-lid on continental politics for the benefit of Britain. True, the tsar, the king of Prussia and the emperor of Austria had provided most of the soldiers to defeat France; but the money that funded their armies had been raised and mobilised through London at the behest of the British government.

The 1847 economic crisis led to the British-imposed lid being blown off all across Europe in a revolutionary explosion. The primary change that ensued - the regime of Louis Napoleon in France - freed French capital from the British-imposed chains of 1815, so that the French state could begin to compete on the military-international level with Britain.

As a result, in the ensuing period Germany and Italy were driven towards unification in order to emulate France, and governments began to use (or returned to using) war and imperialism as a means to bleed off the internal contradictions of domestic politics and economics. Hence after the Crimean war, the idea that the tsarist regime in any strong sense guaranteed European political stability or was the policeman of Europe was illusory.

In 1914-18 the point was emphatically demonstrated. Far from the Russian revolution triggering the European revolution, the European war triggered the Russian revolution. The central European national movements then proved to be a bulwark first of German, then of Entente, policy against the Russian revolution. The Russian revolution did, at one remove, trigger revolutionary movements in Hungary, Germany and Italy. It did so not by the route envisaged by Marx and Engels, but through the symbolic international unity of the workers' movement.

At first, October 1917 seemed to show that the working class could take power. This image promoted revolutionary attempts elsewhere. But the impulse rapidly ebbed. As disturbing news began to filter west, even Luxemburg, in prison, was hesitant. As the character of the Soviet regime was rendered more explicit in the theses of the 1920 and 1921 Comintern Congresses, the ban on factions and the Kronstadt events, the majority of the existing militant left activists of the workers' movement in western Europe took their distance from the Bolsheviks. This was reflected in the 1921 splits from the Comintern of both the larger part of those among the left of the Kautskyan centre who had flirted with it, and the 'left communists' (larger then than they later became).

These splits foreshadowed the future: the nature of the Soviet regime was to become a primary political obstacle to any attempt of the working class to take power into its own hands in western Europe, and ultimately to international class-political consciousness more generally.

The image of an international chain of national revolutions starting with Russia was, nonetheless, to be the governing idea of Comintern international strategy and, after it, that of the Trotskyists.