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Socialists Should Take the Right Lessons from the Russian Revolution

The following article was first published in ‘Jacobin’ and is reposted by permission. Eric develops here themes discussed more fully in his new book, Revolutionary Social Democracy: Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882–1917). A list of related posts by on this website is appended to the article. A comment on this article by Mike Taber will be posted here on August 16, 2021.

By Eric Blanc: Socialists have rightly taken inspiration from the Russian Revolution for generations, but many of the lessons drawn from it are wrong for our own time. To make change today, we need to take democratic socialism seriously as a theory and practice.

Palace Square in Moscow, May 1, 1917

Radicals have lived under the political shadow of the Russian Revolution for more than a hundred years. Inspired by the example of 1917, generation after generation of socialists sought to learn and implement what they took to be the core political lessons of the Bolsheviks.

Though millions of activists gave everything to this project and played important roles in winning gains for working people across the world, Leninist parties have never come close to making their own revolution in advanced capitalist democracy. The tragedy of the Bolsheviks’ inspiring example was not only that they so quickly succumbed to the horrors of Stalinism, but that they over-projected a revolutionary approach ill-suited for parliamentary contexts.

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International Red Aid 1922–1937

Uniting to Defend Class War Prisoners

MOPR: International Red Aid

By John Riddell: As rightist repression against jailed worker revolutionaries spread across Europe in the 1920s, the Communist International initiated a united-front international defense effort, whose influence soon extended far beyond the limits of the Communist movement.

The initiative came from Polish Communists seeking to aid compatriots jailed or forced into exile in the Soviet republic. Initially, the goal was to raise funds within Soviet Russia; the prestigious Society of Old Bolsheviks offered to help these efforts.

In December 1922, the Comintern’s Fourth Congress adopted an appeal to all member parties to: “Take the initiative … to organise material and moral assistance to vanguard fighters for the cause of communism who are locked in prison, forced into exile, or for any reason excluded against their will from our fighting ranks.” (See text of resolution, below.) The campaign bore the name International Organization for Aid to Revolutionaries and was usually referred to as MOPR (its Russian acronym) or International Red Aid.

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Socialist Participation in Capitalist Governments

A Debate in the Second International, 1900–1904

Introductory Note by Mike Taber

Should socialists accept positions as ministers in capitalist governments? What stance should they take toward bourgeois parties?  These questions, which remain the subject of debate today, have aroused heated controversies in the socialist movement for over 120 years. The Second (or “Socialist”) International, formed in 1889, took up this question at its congresses in 1900 and 1904.

Karl Kautsky (1854-1938)

An examination of these debates is now possible through the lens of the resolutions adopted at Second International congresses. All of these resolutions are now available in the just-published book, Under the Socialist Banner: Resolutions of the Second International, 1889-1912, on sale for $11.37 from Haymarket books.

The debate on socialist participation in bourgeois governments was sparked by the so-called Millerand Affair in France. Alexandre Millerand was a member of the Independent Socialist group in the French parliament. In June 1899 he accepted a position in the capitalist government as minister of commerce. This move led to a wide-ranging exchange of views in the working-class movement, given that socialists had always rejected accepting posts in capitalist governments.

Karl Kautsky, the Second International’s generally acknowledged authority on Marxism, presented a resolution to the 1900 Paris Congress that condemned socialist participation in capitalist governments under “normal” circumstances, but left the door open to it under “exceptional” ones. “If in some special instance the political situation necessitates this dangerous expedient,” Kautsky’s resolution stated, “that is a question of tactics and not of principle.” Counterposed to the Kautsky resolution was one put forward by Jules Guesde and Enrico Ferri, opposing such participation under all circumstances.

A long debate on this question took place in a congreess commission and on the floor of the congress itself. At the debate’s conclusion, the Kautsky resolution received 29 votes, against 9 for the Guesde-Ferri resolution. Nevertheless, the ambiguities of the Kautsky resolution, and the dissatisfaction these engendered, meant that the question would inevitably come up again. It did so at the next international congress in 1904, held in Amsterdam.

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New Book on Second International’s Marxist Years

Comments by Socialist Historians

Haymarket Books has just published ‘Under the Socialist Banner: Resolutions of the Second International, 1889-1912’. Edited by Mike Taber, this book is the first collection ever assembled in English of all the resolutions adopted by the Second International during its Marxist Years.

Despite weaknesses and contradictions that led to the Second International’s collapse in 1914, its resolutions during these years remain a resource for those studying the socialist movement ‘s history and objectives. Many of the topics dealt with – war and militarism, immigration, trade unions and labor legislation, women ‘s rights, colonialism, socialist strategy and tactics – remain just as relevant today.

Order now from Haymarket Books, 206 pages, special offer, 40% price reduction, US$11.37.

Amsterdam Congress of Second International, 1904

Jean-Numa Ducange

‘Texts that still question us today’

 “Under the Socialist Banner is a fundamental work for understanding the history of the international workers’ movement: it presents with talent essential texts which still question us today. Mike Taber’s introduction gives context of the elaboration of the main resolutions of the international congresses (especially those concerning peace between peoples). These texts are the foundations of socialist conceptions that have recently regained momentum in the political life of several countries, notably the United States. It is essential to read them to understand a major episode of emancipation.”

— Jean-Numa Ducange, author of Jules Guesde: The Birth of Socialism and Marxism in France


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A Bold New Dimension of Socialist History

Revolutionary Social Democracy: Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882-1917), by Eric Blanc

Eric Blanc’s new book, Revolutionary Social Democracy: Working-Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882-1917) re-examines the development of revolutionary politics in Russia from an empire-wide perspective. By expanding our geographic scope to include the imperial borderlands, the Eric’s book challenges long-held assumptions about the development of Marxist approaches to state power, working-class revolution, tactics in the labour movement, and party organisation.

Eric Blanc’s views on the character of socialist revolution were the subject of an extensive debate on this website in 2019. For a list of relevant articles see “The Democratic Character of Socialist Revolution.”

The library edition of Eric’s Revolutionary Social Democracy was published on 17 June 2021 by Brill, Historical Materialism Book Series, 2019. A paperback edition from Haymarket Books will appear early next year.

Published here are the first two sections of the introduction to Eric Blanc’s path-breaking study. Sign up here for a 40% discount on the paperback edition. These texts are copyright © 2021 Eric Blanc and are reposted with permission.

To read the Table of Contents or purchase the hardcover library edition, click here.


Revolutionary Social Democracy: Introduction

By Eric Blanc: Activists for well over a century have debated what, if anything, from Russia’s revolutionary experience should be emulated by socialists abroad. During this same period, historians have plumbed the depths of Moscow’s archives, while sociologists have systematically compared the 1905 and 1917 upheavals with other revolutions. Yet the vast majority of these contributions share a common flaw: they have looked only at central Russia, instead of the empire as a whole.

The Russian Revolution was far less Russian than has often been assumed. Most inhabitants of imperial Russia were from dominated national groups – Ukrainians, Poles, Finns, Latvians, Jews, Muslims, and Georgians, among others. The same was true for most Marxists within the empire. But since these non-Russian socialist parties have been ignored or marginalised, the hegemonic accounts of revolutionary Russia remain at best one-sided and at worst deeply misleading.

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Centennial of the Communist Movement in Canada

May 23, 1921 — May 23, 2021

The following talk was given at a webinar held on May 13, 2021, by Socialist Action (Canada).

By John Riddell: Ten days from today we will celebrate the centennial of the Communist movement in Canada. It was born on May 23, 1921, at a one-day conference of 22 delegates at Fred Farley’s farm close to Guelph, Ontario.

The founders of the Communist Party of Canada explained the significance of the new organization as follows:

It will be a party of action, seeking contact with the workers, a party in which the theorists and doctrinaires as such will find small place, a party of workers, with them in their daily struggles against capitalist oppression, seeking always to build up a united front of the working class for Industrial Freedom and Emancipation from wage slavery.[1]

Before the birth of Communism, Socialist forces in Canada were organized in three currents. The first of these – the Social Democratic Party of Canada (SDP) was based in Ontario and took inspiration from the Social Democratic parties in Europe. The SDP was oriented to electoral action. The party broke apart under the shock of the First World War.The Socialist Party of Canada, by contrast, was based in the Western Provinces, and was radical, labor based, and sectarian: a combination of militant unionists and abstract theoreticians.[2] As early as 1916, before the Russian revolution, the Socialist Party called for a new revolutionary International. But when the Communist International was founded in 1919, the Socialist Party refused to join.

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‘International Workers Aid’ 1921–37

Comintern Global Solidarity in Action

Part 5 of a nine-part series on the Communist International’s auxiliary organizations.

By John Riddell: The International Workers’ Aid (IWA), also known by its Russian acronym MRP, was launched as an emergency campaign to help alleviate a widespread famine in Soviet Russia.

Founded in Berlin on September 12, it grew into a global movement seeking not only to assist economic construction in the Soviet republic but to bring aid and lend political support to embattled and oppressed working people around the world.

Arguably the Communist International’s broadest and most successful global initiative, the IWA showed the potential of global solidarity aid programs independent of capitalist governments, an approach subsequently exemplified above all in the renowned worldwide solidarity efforts of revolutionary Cuba.  

The IWA’s director, Willi Münzenberg, estimated its global membership in 1926 at 15 million adherents, organized in sections in every European country, the USA, India, China, and many other countries.

Comintern Initiative

The IWA was initiated at the International’s Third World Congress by a letter to Münzenberg from Comintern President Grigorii Zinoviev.[1] Münzenberg headed the movement and was its driving spirit until its dissolution in 1935.

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The Communist Women’s Movement: An Overview

A Survey of Comintern Auxiliary Organizations, Part 4

An annotated collection of documents of the Communist Women’s Movement, edited by Mike Taber and Daria Diakonova, is in preparation as part of the Comintern Publishing Project, with the goal of publication by Brill and Haymarket Books in 2022.

From its inception, the modern socialist movement upheld the social equality of women and opposed the pervasive discrimination to which they were subjected. The socialist movement itself, however, was overwhelmingly masculine in composition, and its members were far from immune to male chauvinist prejudices. Meanwhile, women were widely excluded from political rights.

The revolutionary socialist movement saw women’s emancipation as central to the achievement of socialism. As Clara Zetkin wrote in 1920:

The demand for women’s equality signifies much more than sweeping away received prejudices, customs, and practices; much more than sweeping away male privilege. It becomes a struggle against bourgeois class rule and the bourgeois class state, and merges with the onward drive of the proletariat to win state power.[1]

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The Communist Youth International

A Survey of Comintern Auxiliary Organizations, Part 3

An annotated collection of documents of the Communist Youth International, edited by Mike Taber, is in preparation as part of the Comintern Publishing Project, with the goal of publication by Brill and Haymarket Books in 2023.

The Comintern’s youth wing, sometimes referred to by its Russian acronym, KIM, was the direct continuation of the International Union of Socialist Youth Organization founded in 1907 under the aegis of the Second International.

When the outbreak of war in 1914 shattered the world socialist movement, the IUSYO soon reconstituted itself at a gathering in Switzerland in March 1915 on the basis of militant opposition to the imperialist war. For its appeal, see “1915: The Youth Challenge to War.”[1] The ISUYO elected the German youth leader Willi Münzenberg as its international secretary and launched a journal, Jugend-Internationale. In 1917 the youth International and its journal rallied to support the Soviet government in Russia.

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Pan-Africanism and Communism: An Interview with Hakim Adi

The following interview of Hakim Adi by Selim Nadi first appeared in Salvage.Zone on March 2, 2018, and is reposted by permission. Hakim Adi is known globally as a historian and exponent of African liberation. He is author of the book “Pan-Africanism and Communism” (Africa World Press). Subheads have been added by the blog editor.

Hakim Adi

For another look at these issues, see “The Long March to Post-Capitalist Transition: Pan-Africanist Perspectives,” by Ameth Lô.

By Hakim Adi and Selim Nadi

Both an Ideology and a Movement

Selim Nadi: How would you define Pan-Africanism?

Hakim Adi: Pan-Africanism can be considered both an ideology and a movement that grew out of the common struggles of those of African descent both in Africa and in the African diaspora against enslavement, colonial rule and the accompanying anti-African racism and various forms of Eurocentrism.

The phrases Pan-African and Pan-Africanism did not emerge until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but an embryonic form of Pan-Africanism was in evidence in the eighteenth century with such abolitionist organisations as the British-based Sons of Africa, led by former enslaved Africans such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, which recognised the needs to Africans to unite together for common aims.

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)

Pan-Africanism has assumed different forms at different times, but its key feature is a recognition that Africans, those from the continent and in the diaspora, face common forms of oppression, are engaged in a common struggle for liberation and therefore share a common destiny. Pan-Africanism therefore recognises the need for the unity of Africans, in order to achieve liberation, but also the desirability of the unity of continental Africa. It generally embraces the view that Africans in the diaspora share a common origin with those in the continent and recognises that those in the diaspora are entitled to return to their homeland.

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The Red International of Labour Unions (RILU)

A Survey of Comintern Auxiliary Organizations, Part 2

RILU logo

By John Riddell: “In the 1920s, the Red International of Labour Unions was by far the most powerful and important of the auxiliary organizations related to the Comintern,” according to its historian, Reiner Tosstorff.[1] E.H. Carr goes further, suggesting that the Red International “sometimes seemed to rival the Communist International itself in importance.”[2]

The Red Trade Union International, often referred to by both the acronym RILU or the Russian short form, Profintern, unified several distinct threads of the pre-1917 labour movement. RILU sought to incorporate three revolutionary traditions: revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism, revolutionary oppositionists in the pro-Social Democratic unions, and the trade-union expression of anti-colonial freedom movements.


Survey of Comintern Auxiliary Organizations: Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Red International of Labour Unions (RILU or Profintern).
  3. Communist Youth International (KIM)
  4. Communist Women’s Movement
  5. International Workers’ Relief (MRP)
  6. International Red Aid (MOPR)
  7. Communist Work in Cooperatives
  8. Red Sport International (Sportintern)
  9. Peasant International (Krestintern)

The most authoritative syndicalist currents invited to join RILU were the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), based in the U.S. but with branches in other English-speaking countries; the revolutionary syndicalists who would soon form the Unitary General Confederation of Labor (CGTU) in France; and the National Confederation of Labor (CNT) in Spain. The IWW never joined RILU, but a large body of syndicalists in France, Spain, and other countries did so.

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Comintern Outreach: The Auxiliary Organizations

Part 1: Introduction

By John Riddell: Clustered around the early Communist International’s world congresses were gatherings of an array of related organizations, ranging from the massive Red International of Trade Unions (RILU) to a small gathering of Proletarian Culture (Proletkult) enthusiasts.

These auxiliary bodies greatly expanded the Comintern’s influence in the working class and beyond, establishing a presence in diverse sectors of cultural life, broadening the scope of its global campaigns, and providing an channel for increased recruitment.

In this regard, the Comintern reproduced the approach of many parties in the pre-1914 Second International, and particularly that of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Indeed, the youth and women’s affiliates of the Comintern had actually been founded as part of the older International.

The Comintern Publishing Project, initiated by John Riddell and now directed by Mike Taber, includes three volumes of annotated documents on auxiliary organizations, all now in preparation, covering the Communist Women’s Movement (CWM), the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), and, the Communist Youth International (CYI).

The present survey will provide brief overviews of eight of the Comintern’s auxiliary organizations, focusing on its opening years, 1917-24. This list is far from exhaustive. The international Proletkult initiative is cited below; a report on the International Union of War Veterans will appear in the Publishing Project’s forthcoming volume on the trade union international. The most comprehensive treatment of this topic remains that found in E.H. Carr’s monumental history of the Russian revolution (The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 3, chapter 30; Socialism in One Country, vol. 3, chapters 44 and 45).

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‘Meticulous Research and Clarity’

A Review: ‘The Communist Movement at a Crossroads

The newly available records of the Comintern Executive Committee from 1922-23 show the importance of the organisation before its later Stalinization, argues Chris Bambery.

By Chris Bambery: One of the great successes of the neoliberal offensive we have been living under for four decades is the effective removal of the 1917 Russian Revolution as a source of inspiration for those looking to change the world.


The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923, ed. Mike Taber, trans. John Riddell (Haymarket Books, 2019, 796pp.


True, the lazy idea that Lenin led to Stalin was already around, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union it became the dominant narrative.

That Stalin would have had anyone who wrote a pamphlet like Lenin’s State and Revolution under his rule shot is neither here nor there. Nor that Trotsky, the second figure in the October Revolution, led a fight against the coming to power of Stalin and then the creation of a dreadful dictatorship on the basis of defending the Bolshevik tradition, a fight involving tens of thousands of party members who would go onto the camps and a death sentence.

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A Socialist Woman’s Experience with Sexism

By Suzanne Weiss: The following study was first published in ‘Against the Current,’ March-April 2021. It is reposted with permission from http://suzanneberlinerweiss.com.

Contents:

  1. Barriers to Women’s Political Participation
  2. Women in Party Controversies
  3. A Transformative Feminist Radicalization
  4. My Party Loses Its Way

1. Barriers to Women’s Political Participation

From its beginnings in the 1800s, modern socialism has embraced equality and liberation for women. The socialist movement has made a major contribution to political, cultural, and intellectual changes challenging women’s second-class status. For many women, joining a socialist movement opened the road to developing their talents, achieving social influence, and contributing to social change.

At first, the socialist movement was almost entirely male. Beginning in the late 1800s, women socialists played an increasing role, including in leadership positions. Although few in number, their involvement ran far ahead of women’s participation in mainstream political life.

During the early years of my socialist activity, the Second Wave of feminism brought large numbers of women into leadership positions in the socialist movement as in political life as a whole. Nonetheless, all socialist groups and their members carry, to varying degrees, the imprint of the sexist world in which they exist. Women in the socialist movement face continuing barriers, some specific to these groups.

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Second-Wave Feminism: Accomplishments and Lessons

The following article is reprinted from “Against the Current,” no. 211 (March/April 2021)  with kind permission of ATC and Nancy Rosenstock.

By Nancy Rosenstock: August 26, 1970 marked the public emergence of second-wave feminism, coming 50 years after the winning of women’s suffrage.

The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and early 1970s had a profound effect on society. It also had a profound effect on those of us who were a part of it. Working collectively for women’s liberation, reveling in the joy and sisterhood that comes from that, was a life-changing experience.

I had the good fortune to be one of those women, as a member of Boston Female Liberation — one of the first and most widely respected radical feminist organizations of that time. I was also on the national staff of the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC) in 1971.

August 26, 1970. New York City. Fifty thousand answered the call put out from a coalition of 54 groups. Photo by Howard Petrick

What is second-wave feminism? What did it accomplish? What can a new generation learn from it?

Coming on the heels of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, women began to fight for their rights as part of a broader radicalization of youth that was unfolding, starting in the late 1960s.

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