Allan Armstrong is in the process of writing Volume Four of the Internationalism from Below series. This volume is entitled, Communists, nation-states and nationalism during the 1916-21/3 International Revolutionary Wave’.
Due to the Coronavirus lockdown, Allan has not been able to complete the research to finish this. However, the part which deals with the situation in Latvia, Finland and Ukraine, between the February 1917 Revolution and the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in March in 1918, has been finished. This begins with an examination of the role of Social Democrats, including the Leninist wing of the Bolsheviks and the Radical Left in addressing the ‘National Question’. It also outlines the beginnings of a renewed ‘Internationalism from Below’ approach, which was later to develop in Ukraine.
This part of Book Four can be accessed at:-
This E&L website will give notice when the full book is available.
COMMUNISTS, NATION-STATES AND NATIONALISM DURING THE 1916-21/3 INTERNATIONAL REVOLUTIONARY WAVE
i) The four waves of twentieth century international revolution
ii) The effects of the ebbing revolutionary tides
iii) Political ‘memory loss’ after the end of the International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21
2. THE FIRST ATTEMPT TO SET UP A POST-NATIONAL WORLD ORDER
A. DIFFERENT TIMELINES OF REVOLUTION
i) April 1916 to March 1921 or ‘October’ 1917 to August 1991?
ii) Past and current attempts to create a ‘post-national’ world order
iii) Old challenges re-emerge in new guises
iv) Timelines in the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave
B. OTHER CENTRES, OTHER TIMELINES – LATVIA
ii) The LSDP and the ‘National Question’ in Latvia
iii) The revolutionary timeline in Latvia
C. OTHER CENTRES, OTHER TIMELINES – FINLAND
i) The revolutionary timeline in Finland
ii) From February to August 1917 – rapid progress along the Finnish revolutionary timeline
iii) An ‘internationalism from below’ alternative?
iv) From August 1917 to May 1918 – the Finnish revolutionary timeline is broken
D. OTHER CENTRES, OTHER TIMELINES – UKRAINE
i) The two revolutionary timelines in Ukraine
ii) Timeline 1 – the Russian revolution in Ukraine
iii) The Ukrainian Left after the February Revolution
iv) Timeline 2 – the Ukrainian revolution up to July 4th, 1917 and the missed ‘internationalism from below’ opportunity
v) Two timelines collide – towards the October Revolution
vi) From October 25th (OS) to February 7th (NS) – Ukrainian revolutionary timeline fractured as Russian social imperialism turns to ‘Bayonet Bolshevism’
3. 1918 – THE LOST YEAR OF THE REVOLUTION?
A. THE FIRST WAVE OF REVOLT BEYOND THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE
i) The longer-term implications of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk
i) The four waves of twentieth century international revolution
Volume Four takes up the impact of the three trends found within the Internationalist Left – the Leninist wing of the Bolsheviks, the Radical Left and the ‘Internationalism from Below’ advocates – when dealing with the ‘National Question’ during the International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21/3. These trends had developed in the period of ‘High Imperialism’ up to the First World War. Volume Three showed how these arose in response to a growing awareness of the significance of Imperialism and to the experience of the 1904-7 International Revolutionary Wave.
The twentieth century witnessed four major international revolutionary waves between 1904-7, 1916-21/3, 1943-7 and 1968-75. The most recent of these waves saw the defeat of the mighty US military machine in Vietnam, and the ending of discriminatory legislation against black Americans. In the major industrial countries, wages and the social wage attained their highest levels as a proportion of GDP. The women’s, youth and gay movements also brought about major advances in personal freedoms. This was the period when the most advanced economic and social legislation was achieved in the liberal democracies.
Another international revolutionary wave occurred from 1943 until about 1947. This began with the Resistance movements in Nazi German-occupied Europe and Japanese-occupied Eastern Asia and Pacific. It was a time of rising expectations for the millions drawn into the war – including black Americans, Indians, Vietnamese and Filipinos, as well as for workers determined not to return to the hardships of the Depression.
However, the biggest upheaval of the twentieth century occurred between the Dublin Rising of 1916 and the suppression of the Kronstadt Revolt in Russia in 1921. In retrospect, the 1904-7 International Revolutionary Wave, already addressed in Volume Three, has been seen as a precedent for that which occurred between 1916-21. But, the geographical extent and depth of the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave was considerably greater.
Furthermore, as the revolutionary movement gained confidence, it openly proclaimed its opposition to the whole basis of the existing economic, social and political order – capitalism and imperialism, whilst its leading proponents came out in favour of a communist alternative. This was a counter to the one-time revolutionary Social Democracy of the Second International, whose leaders had discredited themselves in the First World War. As the soviet appeared in the ‘Russian’ epicentre of the International Revolutionary Wave, Communists saw this as the modern form of the 1871 Paris Commune. This was outlined in Lenin’s State and Revolution, written just before the October Revolution (1). In March 1919 a new specifically Communist International, the Third International, was declared. (2)
The 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave had a major impact, not only upon the century’s later two social upheavals, but also on all movements and thought over the following seventy years. However, this wave was rolled back internationally and contained within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and the infant Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), formed in November 1922. This particular revolutionary wave left behind a profoundly divided legacy.
The initial gains and further demands for workers’ control, and the ending of women’s and national oppression, were offset by the effects of a ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’. In retrospect, 1921 can be seen as the ending of this particular International Revolutionary Wave, although possibilities still remained up until the crushing of the Communist led opposition in Hamburg, Germany in October 1923.
The earlier vision of communism, bringing about emancipation, liberation and self-determination (in its widest sense) as the negation of capitalist exploitation, oppression and alienation, was diluted and then largely abandoned. As the prospects for international revolution receded, the new official USSR state-backed Communism was understood from a much narrower nationally based economic developmentalist perspective. National state ownership was now counterposed to private ownership. Official Communists argued that only the national state could promote the necessary modernisation, which the bourgeoisie, or private capitalists, had not or would not undertake in a world already dominated by the major imperial powers.
ii) The effects of the ebbing revolutionary tide
Instead of experiencing the benefits of a rising tide in an International Revolutionary Wave, those looking for international support soon faced an ebbing tide. Unable to ease the heavy burdens, the revolution was forced back to the territorial remains of the Russian Empire. During this period, workers’ militias only appeared episodically outside the new Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Their attempts to promote armed insurrection were quickly crushed. The Red Army had no permanent success beyond the borders of the RSFSR, highlighted by its defeat outside Warsaw in 1920. But invading imperial armies were on Russian revolutionary ‘soil’ from 1917, with the Japanese only finally evacuating the Far Eastern Republic in October 1922.
The 1918-21 Civil War, and the direct (e.g. German, British, French, American and Japanese from 1917-22) and indirect (e.g. Polish from 1919-20) imperialist-backed invasions, the famines, and the major flu epidemic (1918-20) all mightily contributed to the problems facing the infant Soviet regime and the Russian Communist Party (bolshevik) – RCP(b). Furthermore, the desperate economic conditions accentuated by wars continued from 1914 to 1922, whilst backward social conditions, including high illiteracy, prevailed in many regions.
However, White counter-revolution and the linked imperialist interventions were defeated within the RSFSR itself. Instead, in the face of continued external imperial pressures, a creeping internal ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’ occurred. The possibility of international revolution was increasingly abandoned in favour of the defence of the new USSR. Retreats were all but inevitable under the prevailing international conditions. But some of the negative features, which allowed the growing ‘counter-revolution in the revolution’ to take the form it did, were already to be found in the Bolshevik Party in the earlier stages. And one of these negative features stemmed from how the RCP(b), the RSFSR and USSR handled the ‘National Question’.
With the ebbing of the International Revolutionary Wave, the new RSFSR state was forced back on the pursuit of conventional diplomacy, with all the duplicity that involved. In Germany, which had been seen as the main bridge to an international revolutionary breakthrough, Bolshevik leaders resorted to deals with the revanchist Right (3). This was politically justified on the grounds that Germany too was now a victim of US/British/French imperialism. This culminated in the Treaty of Rapallo in April 1922 with its secret clauses for the benefit of the Reichswehr high command (4). This was a new and dangerous use of the theory of Imperialism and ‘national oppression’ developed in the First World War by the Bolsheviks.
And to try and manouevre between the various imperialist powers other treaties and deals were made. The first was with Estonia – the Treaty of Tartu in 1920 (5). Another was made with Poland – the Peace of Riga in 1921 (6) and with the UK – the Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement in March 1921 (7). Bolshevik leaders began to accept that the major capitalist powers, particularly the UK and USA, were not facing immediate revolutionary overthrow.
Initially, in recognition of the hypocrisy of the capitalist powers in making deals, the leaders of the RSFSR pursued a more revolutionary course clandestinely through the Third International. But once the International Revolutionary Wave ended, the defence of ‘The Revolution’ became defence of the USSR. Eventually the policies of the RCP(b), the Third International and the new USSR were virtually identical. The Third International had to be purged of critical voices. Any now dissident Communist who advocated a course of action different from the leaders of the RCP(b), or the All-Union Communist Party (after 1925), found themselves up against Party officials backed by state power. They faced state sanctions – territorial expulsion, imprisonment or execution.
As the International Revolutionary Wave ebbed, the soviets were increasingly dominated by a single party, the RCP(b). The initial commune-type leading role envisaged for the soviet was soon abandoned, However, unlike the crushing of soviet-like bodies and workers’ councils outside the RSFSR, the soviets within the RCP(b) and RSFSR Party-State remained. But now they acted solely as the subordinate local agents of the state. The defeat of the Kronstadt Rebellion in March 1921 marked the final end of independent soviets (8).
Immediately after this, the Party-State leaders signalled their domestic retreat with the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) (9). Initially seen as a temporary expedient, NEP soon formed the longer-term basis for the USSR becoming a state managed, but still largely privately-owned economy. Yet, it was to take until 1926 before the Bolshevik stance in the International Revolutionary Wave of the Russian Revolution being tied to the spread of international revolution was finally reversed (10). Now there was no immediate prospect of international socialist support, it was hoped that the USSR’s external protectionist shell could shield it from internal penetration by outside imperial forces. Foreign trade and investment remained under state control.
The creation of the new USSR, and the subordination of the Third International to its international defence was accompanied internally by the dismissal of the previously supported right of neighbouring, ex-Tsarist and constituent republics to independence. Raising this demand was now seen to be the result of hostile imperialist forces, e.g. in Georgia. And where the demand was raised within the RSFSR, soon to be the USSR, e.g. in Russian Turkestan, this was dismissed as ‘National Bolshevism’ and again seen as the plaything of outside powers.
Before the First World War, Lenin had written that “it would be wrong to interpret the right to national self-determination as meaning anything but the right to a separate state” (11). He defended this position against those, often inspired by the Austro-Marxists, who argued for federalism and cultural autonomy. However, federalism and cultural autonomy became the constitutional basis of the new USSR. The purpose was the same as for the Austro-Marxists, to maintain the unity of the existing state.
The Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Transcaucasian Federative Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) were the initial constituent units (12) of the new USSR. Other SSRs, which joined later were created from above by the Party/State, not by a process of voluntary accession. The former autonomous Turkestan within the RFSFR was broken up into new Turkmen and Uzbek SSRs along with various autonomous SSRs and oblasts in 1924 (13).
After the consolidation of the USSR, official Communism became far more assiduous in suppressing dissident Communists than it did in opposing ‘private’ capitalist adversaries, with whom it was tomake many deals and compromises worldwide. Up until 1941, official Communism killed many more Communists than the Nazis (with whom it sometimes made alliances). The purpose behind official Communist attempts at the worldwide elimination or marginalisation (depending on their degree of control) of dissident Communists, in the political or trade union arenas, was to suppress any new challenge to the Party-State.
The later dissident Communist traditions, which publicly emerged in opposition to the liquidation of their particular factions within ‘The Party’, did not champion a genuine communism alternative. In 1921, Trotsky played his part in the suppression of Kronstadt, simultaneously breaking any link he once had with the soviet model of Communism. He also sowed the seeds of his own later destruction by supporting a clampdown on any remaining inner-Party democracy. Many dissident Communist groups went on to see themselves as Party leaderships in-waiting, believing a combination of a renewed Party-state and nationalised property could open the road to socialism.
It is common, amongst the remnant revolutionary Left, to blame the defeat of the ‘Russian’ Revolution entirely on external factors. It is often claimed that, only once all the wider international possibilities of revolutionary struggle had been exhausted, did internal counter-revolutionary or ‘pro-capitalist’ leaderships come to the fore, e.g. with the accession of Stalin to full power in 1928, if you are a Trotskyist; or Khrushchev’s ‘1956 Turn’, if you are a Stalinist or Maoist. Yet there were no mass workers’ uprisings in 1928 to defend the Left Opposition. Those workers who rose in Hungary in 1956 certainly did not do so in defence of Stalin’s legacy. Nor did workers lift a finger to defend ‘their’ workers states, when they crumbled between 1989 and 1991. But sailors and workers did rise in Kronstadt in 1921 to defend the soviet democracy. Their aims were made clear in the Petropavlosk Resolution (14).
Communists do not need to champion another retrospective ‘saviour’ who could have made things different. Those who blame the wider international failure on the lack of ‘The Revolutionary Party’ ignore the very material and historical reasons why a Bolshevik-style Party was formed in Tsarist Russia before 1917, but not elsewhere. Those who blame the bureaucratisation of the USSR on the lack of a correct ‘Revolutionary Leadership’, ignore their own chosen leader’s complicity in this process.
Given many later dissident Communists’ earlier commitment at the highpoint of the International Revolutionary Wave, an initial reluctance to accept that a counter-revolution was occurring within the revolution is understandable. But the ever-increasing number of arbitrary arrests, exiles to concentration camps and summary executions of workers, peasants, Communists, Social Democrats and Anarchists all aided those entrenching Party/State power.
Today, we still seek inspiration from the heroic Paris Communards who went down to defeat in 1871. We do this without taking an uncritical attitude to their politics and their actions. Nor do we feel the need to justify every speech or action of a particular individual or party. A critical approach is the only way to really learn and prepare for the future. It is in this spirit, that Volume Four examines how the ‘National Question’ was handled in the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave.
This process means subjecting ‘revolutionary icons’ to a much more searching investigation. Luxemburg’s legacy was itself trampled upon as the counter-revolution took increasing hold in the USSR and the Comintern. Most of the attacks upon this deeply committed revolutionary Social Democrat were malevolent and misplaced. Yet Luxemburg did have weaknesses with regard to the ‘National Question’. These have already been highlighted in Volume Three. Their influence on the Radical Left (including influential Bolshevik members) brought about major setbacks during this International Revolutionary Wave.
That ultimate ‘revolutionary icon’, Lenin, also needs to be subjected to more serious scrutiny. He, more than any other provided a lead to Communists on the ‘National Question’. But this was a changing and sometimes vacillating lead. These political changes came about as the result of the impact of the major social and national forces unleashed within the International Revolutionary Wave. Mainstream historical debate has championed either Lenin, ‘the hero’, or Lenin, ‘the villain’, with the latter gaining ground since the collapse of the USSR. However, it is possible to take another view – of Lenin, ‘the tragic figure’.
But another trend, which had already developed as a component of the International Left before the First World War, were the ‘Internationalism from Below’ advocates. They were even to impact on the Bolsheviks in Ukraine. This volume outlines the significance of their contribution. Parts 1B and 1C look at the consequence of not following an ‘Internationalism from Below’ path in Latvia and Finland. This is not done to show that the adoption of the ‘correct line’ would have led to the triumph of the revolution. There were specific historical reasons why ‘Internationalism from Below’ was not adopted by revolutionary Social Democrats and later by Communists in these nations; just as there were specific historical reasons why there were no Bolshevik-type parties outside the Russian Empire in 1917. However, the manner in which struggles for national self-determination were dealt with affected the form the ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’ took.
iii) Political ‘memory loss’ after the end of the International Revolutionary Wave of 1916-21
The ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’ has also led to the ‘forgetting’ of the ‘Internationalism from Below’ way of addressing the ‘National Question’. Today we live in a more integrated world, but one where the ‘National Question’ is far from having been resolved. It has re/appeared in old and new forms. Therefore, the purpose of this contribution is to show what is valuable today in the ‘Internationalism from Below’ thinking dating from the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave.
One problem, which has resulted from this counter-revolution, and its associated ‘The Party’ or aspiring ‘Revolutionary Leadership-in-waiting’ as the answer to all problems, is together they have held back the critical thinking needed to appraise the 1916-21 International Revolutionary Wave. Some ask whether the Bolsheviks had any choice but to cling on to power in the face of the dreadful vengeance White counter-revolution would have brought in its train. Yet, when necessary, revolutionaries in Russia had plenty of experience of moving over state borders to escape repression and to live to fight another day. And the Bolshevik leaders themselves signed treaties, which abandoned many workers and peasants to the hands of the counter-revolution and reaction.
There was a major downside to the USSR’s survival as a protectionist imperialist state, which came to be based upon the exploitation of workers and peasants alike. Large numbers of workers were killed, imprisoned and even enslaved under the prolonged ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’, particularly after Stalin achieved dictatorial power from 1928. And beyond the boundaries of the USSR, but still within the long reach of the Third International, and later the Cominform bureaucracies, many millions, who took part in social upheavals, found themselves struggling, not only against the bosses, landlords, armies and police, but also against those official Communists who took their inspiration from the legacy of the ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’. The Party-approved ‘Socialism’ these officials advocated was a managerial top-down affair.
The social forces which took most inspiration from ‘The Party’ model included the politically excluded minor functionaries and bureaucrats who remoulded Social Democratic parties, or built new ‘Third World’ nationalist parties, on similar bureaucratic centralist lines. Although many sincere class fighters joined official Communist ranks, it was often the opportunists, careerists, and ‘yes’-men and women who found their way into the leadership. Sometimes Communist Parties attracted people motivated by a jealousy at being excluded from the existing order, rather than a desire for its revolutionary overthrow.
Until the global corporations, backed primarily by US state power, finally undermined the basis for post-World War Two national statified capitalist development, the state-backed, official Communist Parties played their part in maintaining the essential foundations of existing world order, whilst trying to maintain and expand their own niche presence within it. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many Communist Party functionaries and ideologues revealed their essentially managerialist role by effortlessly transferring their services to corporate capitalism and its political parties, think-tanks and media. Their bureaucratic skills proved useful to their new masters. Five Year Plans may have disappeared from the wider political lexicon, but countless workers now face corporate development plans, target-setting and glossy managerial propaganda sheets with as much contact with reality as the old Soviet Weekly!
And such was their commitment to ‘communism’ that many former official Communists became leading advocates first of US-led neo-liberalism, then of Right national populism. One person who has followed this trajectory is Vladimir Putin, former USSR KGB officer (1979-91), one-time liberal, Our Home-Russia politician and Boris Yeltsin’ appointee (1995-99), before becoming the right populist President of the Russian Federal Republic in 1999 and holding effective power ever since (15).
Although the collapse of the USSR has removed the main material backing for the Party-state model of ‘socialism’, this also led to a political vacuum. Corporate globalisers loudly proclaimed the end of all opposition to the ‘free market’, ‘free trade’ and ‘liberal democratic’ capitalism – “There is no alternative!” Since the 2008 Crash their national populist adversaries have been every bit as committed to corporate power. Only now they want this enforced through protectionist trade deals and corporate courts, supplemented with an authoritarian populist state. They do not think that domestic or international deals should be restricted by the inherited limited national institutions, such as Congress or Westminster, or by the existing limited international institutions such as the UN or multilateral trade deals such as NAFTA or the EU (16). And where the state machinery is not sufficient to impose their will, then right populist leaders like Trump ate quite prepared to resort to non-state armed militias.
The disastrous human and environmental legacy bequeathed by Party-states, invoking the words ‘communism’ or ‘socialism’ in their support, can still be used to frighten. This is done in order to cover up the current massive human and environmental crimes of corporate capitalism. One indication of this is seen in the slogans, “Another World Is Possible” or “System Change not Climate Change”. It is seen when ‘the free market’ is countered with ‘public ownership’, ‘free trade’ with ‘fair trade’, and ‘liberal democracy’ with ‘popular democracy’. These alternatives have a nebulous character and often boil down to a call for a nicer, reformed capitalism. However, much of the reluctance to move towards an overall and integrated vision of an alternative world order stems from a justified contempt towards official ‘Communism’ and its Party-State regimes, and the fear of being tarred with the same brush.
The conditions of the 1916 to 1921 International Revolutionary Wave can not be repeated today. Yet very real debates and struggles took place, which still have relevance. Alternatives, suppressed at the time, but which can inspire our own struggles today, are very much worth studying. It is always best to learn beforehand from past mistakes, rather than being forced to repeat them again at considerable cost in the course of ongoing and future struggles.
- 1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/
- 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_Congress_of_the_Comintern
- 3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germany–Soviet_Union_ relations,_1918–1941#Revolution,_end_of_World_War_I
- 4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germany%E2%80%93Soviet_Union_relations,_1918%E2%80%931941#Treaty_of_Rapallo_1922_and_secret_military_cooperation#Treaty_of_Rapallo_1922_and_secret_military_cooperation
- 5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Tartu_(Russian–Estonian)
- 6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_of_Riga
- 7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Soviet_Trade_Agreementhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kronstadt_rebellion#The_Kronstadt_
- 8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Economic_Policy#Policies
- 9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialism_in_one_country#Background
- 10. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch01.htm
- 11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcaucasian_Socialist_Federative_Soviet_Republic
- 12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkestan_Autonomous_Soviet_Socialist_Republic
- 13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kronstadt_rebellion#Petropavlovsk_resolution
- 14. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Putin
- 15. Allan Armstrong, The Continuing Shift to the Right in the Transition from Neo-Liberalism to Right Populism at https://allanarmstrong831930095.files.wordpress.com/2020/03/right-populism.pdf
Volume 1. The historical development of nation-states and nationalism up to 1848
Volume 2. The world of nation states and nationalism between the Communist League and the early Second International (1845-1895)
Volume 3, Revolutionary Social Democracy, Nation-States and Nationalism in the Age of High Imperialism and the Second International (1889-1916)
and for an application of ‘Internationalism from Below’ to the UK see:-
From Pre-Brit to Ex-Brit: The Forging and the Break-up of the UK and Britishness