2018: SIMULTANEOUS REVOLUTION?
2018: SIMULTANEOUS REVOLUTION?
1848, 1918 …. OR WHEN?
Paper given at the “Echoes of Revolution” conference at the University of East Anglia, February 2018.
In the heady days of 1968 (another of this year’s anniversaries), those of us who rejected the theory of “socialism in one country” were sometimes accused of advocating, or at least of believing in the possibility of, simultaneous world revolution. The debate had a long history; it can be traced back to Lenin’s polemic from 1918, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Here Lenin noted parenthetically that “a simultaneous revolution in a number of countries is a rare exception” in the middle of a sentence which stressed that a successful revolution must be international: “If the exploiters are defeated in one country only … they still remain stronger than the exploited, for the international connections of the exploiters are enormous.”i But Stalin, who developed the practice of quoting Lenin’s writings as though they were a sacred text, turned the phrase into a stick to beat Trotsky with. Trotsky’s position was dismissed as “the same theory of the simultaneous victory of socialism in the principal countries of Europe which, as a rule, excludes Lenin’s theory of revolution about the victory of socialism in one country.”ii The argument was repeated time and again. In 1935 Moissaye J. Olgin’s Trotskyism: Counter-Revolution in Disguise insisted: “The denial of the possibility of Socialism in one country is the basis of all the ideas and policies of Trotskyism. This denial, in turn, is composed of two major premises. (1.) The denial of the possibility of a victorious proletarian revolution in one country when there is no simultaneous revolution in one or several other countries; (2.) The denial of the possibility of building Socialism in one country where a proletarian revolution has taken place—if there is no simultaneous revolution in other countries. This is contrary to historical facts and contrary to the very essence of the Leninist understanding of the proletarian revolution.”iii And in 1967 Nicolas Krasso told readers of New Left Review that “Trotsky repeatedly proclaimed the impossibility of the revolution in Russia resisting counter-revolutionary assault without the assistance of simultaneous revolutions in Western Europe.”iv
Of course simultaneous revolution in a literal sense, with the state overthrown on the same day in several countries, is an extremely unlikely eventuality. But history has given us several examples of revolutionary movements spreading to several countries in a relatively short space of time. Two of the most significant are 1848, when a revolutionary wave spread across Europe within a single year, and the aftermath of 1917, when the Russian Revolution sparked off a series of potentially revolutionary situations in Europe and beyond.
In the last week of February 1848 the French king, Louis-Philippe was overthrown and a Republic was proclaimed. On February 29 there were demonstrations in Stuttgart; on 3 March workers demonstrated in Cologne; on 7-9 March there were disturbances in Berlin; on 11 March a mass meeting demanded reform in Prague; on 12 March a popular meeting demanded independence in Budapest; on 13 March street fighting in Vienna led to the resignation of Metternich, the leading statesman of the Austrian Empire; on 22 March the republic was proclaimed in Venice, there was a Polish insurrection in Poznan and the first National Assembly met in Romania; in the next few days there were insurrections in Madrid and Barcelona; on 10 April a mass Chartist demonstration assembled in London.
Seventy years on came the so-called “October Revolution” in November 1917, preceded by Ireland’s Easter Rising in April 1916, and followed in 1918 by the Barcelona bread riots and the first wave of the German Revolution in November 1918. In 1919 came an anarchist rising in Argentina, the Egyptian revolution, the Hungarian soviet republic in March and the Bavarian soviet republic in April, with the Biennio Rosso in Italy in 1919 and 1920. Germany remained central with the March Action in 1921 and the abortive Hamburg rising in October 1923, followed by aftershocks in Britain 1926 and China 1927.
For such a process to occur both objective and subjective factors are required, though the two are generally intertwined in a complex fashion. The world, or a part of it, has to be sufficiently integrated economically and socially for the idea of spreading the revolution to seem plausible and indeed necessary. Means of communication must enable news of events to be passed on rapidly. But it is also necessary for working people to have a sense of a shared condition with workers in other countries. Such consciousness does not emerge spontaneously, but requires the evolution of international organisation, which in turn needs individuals to undertake the often risky task of travelling to different parts of the world.
In February 1848 Marx and Engels published the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Here they argued that the world market had made capitalism into an international system:
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.v
Of course this was prediction rather than description; this account fitted the world of 1968 far better than that of 1848. But the potential tendencies had to be there – otherwise the prediction would not have been possible. Marx and Engels were depicting a world in which the different nations and cultures were increasingly interdependent; their notion of “world literature” predicts a situation in which the same films are shown and the same records played in cities all round the globe.
By 1918 the world market had grown far beyond its embryonic state in 1848. And the world war which ended that year had been a struggle between empires; if the Ottoman and Habsburg empires were finished, the British and French empires, which had come out on the winning side were now reaching the peak of their extent and influence. What few yet realised was just how fragile those empires were; in a little over four decades they would be gone with the wind. But the “national independence” which had been fought for so bitterly was proving elusive; the “universal inter-dependence of nations” was increasingly inescapable.
But if the system of exploitation was increasingly unified, several other factors were necessary for a unified revolt against it. In particular for revolution to spread one material factor was necessary – means of rapid and effective communication. Until the time of the French Revolution the speed at which information could be communicated was more or less limited to that of a person on horseback; it was thirteen days before the news of the fall of the Bastille reached Madrid. (We can leave aside the lighting of hilltop bonfires, which could communicate only one prearranged binary alternative: Troy has – or has not – fallen.)
Already in the late eighteenth century the speed of coaches and horses was being considerably increased by careful organisation. “Between the 1760s and the end of the century the journey from London to Glasgow was shortened from ten or twelve days to sixty two hours.”vi But it was in the course of the French Revolution that one of the most important advances in communication was made. This was Claude Chappe’s semaphore telegraph, which in 1794 was perfected to the point where it could send a message from Lille to Paris in less than an hour; it was later used by Napoleon to coordinate the empire and army. The importance of this was recognised by the followers of Babeuf, the most advanced revolutionary thinkers of the period, who referred to it in their “Draft Economic Decree”: “Telegraphic lines accelerate communication between the administrations of the départements and the intermediate administrations, and between these and the supreme administration.”vii Eventually this gave way to the electric telegraph. And railways began to spread across Europe. In 1845 48,000,000 passengers used railways in the UK.viii
Hence by 1848 information spread rapidly across Europe. Thus, for example, in June 1848 Marx and Engels were in Cologne, publishing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. When the workers’ rising of June 1848 exploded they obviously wished to have as much detailed information as possible. They read reports in the French, German, Belgian and British press, but also received extensive private correspondence from their various contacts in Paris. They normally expected to receive newspapers and letters from Paris within one day, though there were some delays at the time of the June fighting.ix Not surprisingly they got some things wrong, but there is no doubt that they were well-informed about the course of events.
By 1918 there were even more means of communication. China Miéville has described 1917 as a “revolution of trains”.x But as well as railways and the telegraph there was now radio. On 19 May 1922 Lenin wrote to Stalin, drawing his attention to two reports which showed that “it is technically quite feasible to broadcast human speech over any distance by wireless; furthermore, it is also possible to use many hundreds of stations that could broadcast speeches, reports and lectures delivered in Moscow to many hundreds of places throughout the Republic, situated hundreds and, under certain conditions, thousands of versts away from Moscow.” He urged the use of radio “from the standpoint of propaganda and agitation, especially for those masses of the population who are illiterate”.xi The famous Tatlin’s Tower, the never constructed Monument to the Third International, was intended to house an information centre, transmitting news via telegraph, radio and loudspeaker.
Air travel was also opening new channels of communication. In 1926, at the time of the British general strike, L’Humanité, paper of the French Communist Party, regularly carried pictures from Britain. These were announced as “exclusive” and were sent by air.xii Meanwhile L’Humanité was appealing to sailors and dockers to boycott transport to Britain in solidarity, but such are the contradictions that life throws up.
But technology alone does not produce a simultaneous – or near-simultaneous – revolution. The subjective factor is also essential. Working people in several countries need to acquire some sort of international consciousness, an awareness that they are victims of the same system, and that their fellow workers in other countries are essentially like them, facing the same problems and the same situations as they do.
The French Marxist Paul Lafargue argued that national consciousness was a step on the way to international consciousness. Awareness of belonging to a larger unit – the nation – was a stage towards recognition of being part of an even larger unit, humanity. “Patries (homelands), when they were formed, were a first and necessary stage towards the human unity we are tending towards and of which internationalism, engendered by the whole of modern civilisation, represents a new and equally inevitable stage.”xiii
Lafargue had a valid point, but perhaps the process was more contradictory than he recognised. Until the eighteenth century the vast majority of humanity scratched a living out of the earth, generally in wretched and miserable conditions. There were two escape routes towards a life based on a more collective form of organisation – the factory and the army.
National consciousness does not arise spontaneously; it has to be created by the efforts of national ruling classes, especially when they are seeking to mobilise the population for war. War when it comes produces horrific slaughter and immense human suffering. But its results are often a massive upheaval in existing social organisation which obliges populations to rethink the way in which they see themselves and the world. The period since the French Revolution has seen huge changes in the way people perceive their place in the world.
Thus under the French Third Republic enormous efforts were made to instil national consciousness into a new generation of school students who were destined for the trenches of a looming world war. Education was removed from the hands of the Church to be put directly under the control of the state: this was justified by the principle of laïcité – secularism – which remains a contentious issue in France today. But the world war which laïcité prepared gave rise to a mass Communist Party committed initially to the principles of internationalism.
My own generation grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War; our parents had seen two world wars within their lifetime. In our homes, there was often on the living room wall a map of the world, with the territories of the British Empire coloured in red, to remind the new generation like myself of Britain’s place in the world. But if the map was printed on reasonably sturdy paper it would have lasted longer than the Empire, which was effectively gone by the mid-sixties.
The revolutions of 1848 had taken place in a Europe which had been shaped by the Napoleonic conquests. The destruction of the Holy Roman Empire produced a new pattern of national states which would eventually give rise to the establishment of modern Germany and Italy. In France many thousands of peasants who had previously never travelled more than a short distance from their native village had been conscripted into a conquering army and had seen the world from the summers of Egypt to the snows of Russia. Those who survived acquired a different understanding of their place on the globe.
The decades preceding 1848 saw the emergence of a new awareness of international solidarity. In Europe at least there was a growing recognition that working people in different nations faced the same problems and the same enemies. The arrival of a Saint-Simonian mission in London in 1832 aroused British interest in French revolutionary thought and in June 1834 James Morrison’s Pioneer published an exchange of correspondence between a group of workers in Nantes and the Owenite Grand National.xiv
With the development of Chartism as a mass movement in the late 1830s the concern with international contacts began to grow. The emergent sentiment of trade-union solidarity was not confined by national borders. In September 1840 the French Christian Socialist newspaper L’Atelier reported what appears to be the first recorded financial contribution from British workers in support of a foreign strike; a group of English tailors sent a small sum of money to assist their fellow-workers in Paris.xv
In 1844 political refugees in London from Germany, Poland and Italy formed an organisation to be known as the Fraternal Democrats; their programme gave one of the first statements of the perspective of an internationalist organisation:
Convinced…that national prejudices have been, in all ages, taken advantage of by the people’s oppressors to set them tearing the throats of each other, when they should have been working together for their common good, this society repudiates the term “Foreigner”, no matter by or to whom applied. Our moral creed is to receive our fellow men, without regard to “country”, as members of one family, the human race; and citizens of one commonwealth – the world.xvi
It was initiatives like this which prepared the internationalist consciousness which was manifested in the rapid spread of revolution in 1848 and which survived despite the short-term defeats of the period.
In the autumn of 1850 the Austrian General Haynau, who had played a key role in the crushing of the Hungarian rising, visited London. There were strong feelings among working people, as was shown by this report in Red Republican.
On Wednesday, September 4th HAYNAU (whose arrival in England had been carefully concealed by the daily press) presented himself at the vast brewing establishment of Messrs. BARCLAY, PERKINS, and Co., …. News of the Marshal’s infernal presence ran like wild-fire over the vast works. Immediately, inspired by one holy sentiment of hatred towards the whole-sale man-butcher, the brewers, dray-men, and labourers turned out, crying, “Down with the Austrian butcher!” His assassinship perceiving that he was in ill odour, and remembering that his brutal battalions were not at hand to enable him to play the “hero,” concluded discretion to be the better part of valour, and proceeded to beat a hasty retreat. This he found a somewhat difficult task. A truss of straw dropped upon his head was the signal for a shower of dirt, grains, &c. His hat was struck over his eyes, and he was hustled from all sides. His clothes were torn from his carcase, which, however, received a covering of dirt and filth instead. Meanwhile intelligence of the unwelcome presence of the military barbarian had spread through the neighbourhood, and on reaching the outside of the gates he encountered a new host of enemies, consisting of a new body of brewers’ men, together with coal-heavers, wharf labourers, lightermen, &c. The assemblage included a great number of women, who naturally were foremost in assailing the shameless woman-flogger. …. It is likely, too, that his worst fears would have been realised, that he would there and then have died a mad dog’s death, had not the “George” public-house afforded a momentary refuge – in the dust-bin! …. xvii
1914 was a massive victory for nationalism. Across Europe working people went willingly to war, persuaded by a mixture of nationalist propaganda, plain lies, and threats and coercion.xviii But by 1918 things had changed a great deal. Workers who often had never previously travelled beyond the frontiers of their native country found themselves drawn into combat – and fairly rapidly recognised that their so-called “enemies” were in a very similar situation to themselves. National consciousness and identity evaporated quite rapidly.
Thus one of the characters in EM Remarque’s celebrated novel of the war, All Quiet on the Western Front, makes the point very clearly:
“…but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.”xix
In 1914 Henri Barbusse was over military age, but he volunteered to fight. His novel Under Fire (Le Feu) was published in 1916 and won the prestigious Goncourt Prize the same year (whereas most of the celebrated novels of the First World War – Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Aldington’s Death of a Hero – were written and published well after the end of hostilities.). It gave a vivid picture of the reality of trench warfare while it was still going on. Under Fire circulated widely among serving soldiers and was read in the trenches by men who found in it an authentic representation of their own condition and who appreciated that Barbusse had given them a voice.
Barbusse soon became determined to be a witness to the reality of war. In one of the most remarkable passages of the book Barbusse depicts a soldier who declares: “There is one figure who has risen above the war and who will shine by the beauty and extent of his courage …. Liebknecht”.xx If, as seems likely, Barbusse was quoting something he had actually heard, it is a remarkable indication of how a member of the French army could identify with a leading German anti-war campaigner. (There is other evidence that Liebknecht was known and admired in the French trenches.xxi)
We have a remarkable document of consciousness in the German Navy in the shape of the diary of Richard Stumpf. Stumpf, a tinsmith, served as an ordinary seaman in the German Navy from 1912 to 1918. Throughout this period he kept a highly articulate diary, noting his own attitudes to events and those of his fellow seamen. Stumpf was a conservative, a Catholic and a nationalist, but he was also deeply indignant at the privileges of the officers. The diary provides a fascinating insight into how people and their ideas change. He recorded his experience of the mutinies at the end of the war, and the way he and his fellow-sailors were beginning to realise their power; he was becoming increasingly aware of the contradiction between his own conservatism and his hatred and resentment of the officer class. He noted, almost in surprise: “Within the past two days an unbelievable change has taken place within me. [I have been converted] from a monarchist into a devout republican.”xxii
His diary is a testimony to the way in which normally conservative working men could be radicalised in the context of the war. In June 1917 he wrote:
As a good German and as a Catholic, I hope that we might emerge from this war with a total victory…. From the opposite point of view everything is different. Then I am not a German but a proletarian, and as such, I hope for a great, but not an annihilating defeat. Why should I feel this way? Past experience tells me that the lower classes stand to benefit from a defeat while the rich stand to lose.xxiii
A neat statement of Lenin’s position of “revolutionary defeatism” – from someone who had probably never heard of Lenin.
Again we have an indication of how molecular changes during the course of the war prepared the way for a revolutionary upsurge at the war’s end. The changing apprehension of national identity had a radical impact on the way the war was actually fought. In an interesting study called Trench Warfare, Tony Ashworth has shown how large sections of the front developed what he calls the “live and let live” system of temporary and unofficial truces:
Live and let live was a truce where enemies stopped fighting by agreement for a period of time: the British let the Germans live provided the Germans let them live in return. Essentially, the term live and let live denoted a process of reciprocal exchange among antagonists, where each diminished the other’s risk of death, discomfort and injury by a deliberate restriction of aggressive activity, but only on condition that the other requited the restraint. The “profound difference” between the quiet sector and the active sector was, therefore, the exchange of peace, according to the rules of live and let live on the former, and the exchange of aggression according to the rules of kill or be killed – the high command policy for normal trench war – upon the latter. The quietness of a sector did not signify either a social void or vacuum between enemies but the replacement of one form of exchange with the enemy by another, which trench fighters found more consistent with their needs.
Truces were usually tacit, but always unofficial and illicit. The agreement between antagonists was unspoken and expressed in certain actions – or non-actions – which were meaningful to front fighters but not always to others. Truces were illegal at all times for they were neither created not legitimated by authority but explicitly forbidden. The unofficial policy of live and let live was the antithesis of the official kill or be killed.xxiv
Similar patterns of fraternisation and mutual abstention from killing could be found in other armies, notably in the relations between French and German soldiers.xxv
Another aspect of the impact of the First World War was that many soldiers were drafted in from Africa, India and the West Indies to provide the manpower required in the trenches. Numbers of these, disgusted with their racist treatment at the hands of their European officers, would go on to play an important part in the anti-colonial movements of the 1930s.xxvi
So it is not surprising that, as working people developed a recognition of common interests and situations, news of revolution received a warm welcome. It is reported that in 1848, when the French Republic was proclaimed, there was rejoicing in the streets of London within a few hours. The news was despatched, probably by an individual, via train from Paris to the channel coast. It was then conveyed by a specially hired ferry to Dover where it was transmitted via a newly installed telegraph link to London. The information clearly found its way to the press very quickly.xxvii
In his 1850 novel Alton Locke, Charles Kingsley set out to try to understand the psychology of revolutionaries – “How Folks Turn Chartists”. The hero received a message from his friend Mackaye: “Louis Philippe is doun! – doun, doun, like a dog, and the republic’s proclaimed”. And Alton Locke responded: “The incubus of France had fallen! and from land to land, like the Beacon-fire which leaped from peak to peak proclaiming Troy’s downfall, passed on the glare of burning idols, the crash of falling anarchies.”xxviii
Likewise in 1951 Aneurin Bevan recalled how news of the Russian Revolution was received in the South Wales coalfield:
I remember so well what happened when the Russian revolution occurred. I remember the miners, when they heard that the Czarist tyranny had been overthrown, rushing to meet each other in the streets with tears streaming down their cheeks, shaking hands and saying: “At last it has happened.”xxix
But for such internationalist consciousness to be effective it had to be embodied in organisation. In the half century before 1848 there were many efforts to establish organisations that would bring together the oppressed and exploited across frontiers. A key figure in this process was Philippe Buonarroti, a member of Babeuf’s “conspiracy”. Buonarroti was arrested along with Babeuf and others and put on trial at Vendôme in 1797. Babeuf was executed; Buonarroti went to prison and then spent many years in exile in Geneva and later Brussels. Babeuf’s movement had been broken, but many of the individuals who had been around Babeuf continued to be active in one way or another. Buonarroti was constantly attempting to regroup such activists. The new organisations that Buonarroti tried to set up were of necessity much more clandestine and hierarchical – but also of necessity international. His History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality, published in 1828, passed on the socialist ideas developed by Babeuf to those who would go on to make the revolutions of 1848. Without Buonarroti’s tenacity that continuity might have been lost.xxx
Alongside Buonarroti’s various organisations there developed other secret societies. The most influential of these were the carbonari. These operated in Italy, France and to some extent in Germany, and provided a means of carrying forward the Babouvist tradition. In fact, they form the vital link of continuity between Babeuf and later socialists. Necessarily, by the very fact of their close-knit and clandestine form of organisation, they could not play the role of genuine mass organisations, and from the point of view of the development of working-class and socialist consciousness their role was limited. However, they did succeed in carrying out some acts of genuine agitation. They were active in Lyon, seeking, among other things, to use it as a base to spark off a rising in Piedmont.
Between 1831 and 1834 there were massive struggles by the silk-workers of Lyon, rising to the level of strike and full-scale insurrection. This led to a rapid development of working class political awareness; one expression of this was the launching of a working class newspaper, L’Écho de la Fabrique. The agitation in Lyon coincided with the emergence of trade unions in Britain, and with the struggle for the Reform Bill, and on 27 May 1832 Arlès-Dufour contributed to L’Écho de la Fabrique an address entitled “To Our Brothers in England”. This called on English workers to “Remain united, associated, organised… your enemies are also ours”. This can be seen as one of the very first declarations of proletarian internationalism.
The same issue of L’Écho de la Fabrique contained an article by Antoine Vidal, a Saint Simonian, which developed the argument for international fraternity.
Let the thinking man, the being blessed with a generous soul, look within himself and ask why, when he is obliged to work ceaselessly and to earn his living by the sweat of his brow, why should he be the enemy of one who makes the same efforts and bears the same sufferings, just because he was born on the banks of the Thames or under the burning skies of Andalusia? Is this man not an industriel just as he is? [The Saint-Simonian term industriel meant one engaged in production whether as employer or worker.] Do they both not equally need the association of peoples to come and improve their lot? What are the rivalries of nations alongside this need for peace and prosperity? Whose blood do wars devour, if not that of proletarians? ….
There will be no true happiness for industriels until regular relations wipe out for them the distances which separate Lyon and Manchester, Cadiz and Bordeaux, Vienna and Brussels. There can be no possible improvement in the lot of the proletarian until all peoples are closely linked and form a single chain, of which each manufacturing city will be a link; and when at last industriels find brothers and not rivals on the banks of the Rhône, the Thames, the Danube and the Tagus. ….
By 1918 there had been two international socialist organisations. The International Working Men’s Association had disintegrated in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, and the Second International had failed to prevent the rush to war in 1914. Already in his April Theses, which Lenin presented to his followers on his return to Russia in 1917, there was a call for a new international:
We must take the initiative in creating a revolutionary International, an International against the social-chauvinists and against the “Centre”.xxxi
And despite the many other urgent tasks facing the new régime work proceeded throughout 1918 building up to the founding congress of the Third International in 1919.
For many years on the left the Communist International (Comintern) was presented as a model of how a revolutionary international should be built. But as Pierre Broué showed in his massive history of the Third International,xxxii the formation of the Comintern was a complex process, in which individuals, networks of personal contacts, the various “foreign sections” based on ex-prisoners-of-war in Russia, small political groups and mass parties all interacted in the context of a unique revolutionary wave emerging from the war and the Russian October. Those who seek to reduce this to the shibboleth that all revolutionary parties come simply from splits within existing working-class institutions should study Broué and think again. Thus in France, revolutionary syndicalists like Rosmer, Monatte and Martinet played a key role in the formation of the French Communist Party even though they had never felt any inclination to “enter” the Socialist Party. And if they had played an even larger role, while the corrupt parliamentarians like Cachin had been excluded, the Communist Party might have been better able to face up to the demands of the new period.xxxiii
The real problem was that the overwhelming majority of the established leadership of the working class had betrayed in 1914. The Comintern’s task was therefore to forge a new leadership, at every level from Central Committee to shop steward, within the few brief years before the revolutionary wave began to subside. The amazing thing is not that there were mistakes and that bizarre shortcuts were pursued, but that so much was achieved. Thus the Comintern leadership found itself in a race against time. Paradoxically, the Russians had to try to teach other parties to rely more on their own concrete analysis of circumstances, and less on imitation of the Russian example. This is the message of Lenin’s magnificent but despairing speech to the Fourth Congress, when he warned “We have not learnt how to present our Russian experience to foreigners”.xxxiv Broué provides a neat example of the tendency to see the world through Russian eyes when he cites the repeated practice of the Italian Communists of referring to Mussolini’s blackshirts as “armed gangs of Whites” – something hardly calculated to clarify the issues for the average Italian worker.xxxv
The Third International was very much a European affair. But efforts were also made to spread revolutionary organisation further, especially in Asia. In 1920 the Communist International took what Zinoviev, the president of the Comintern, called “a second step forward”.xxxvi This was the Baku Congress of September 1920, with which the Bolsheviks made a symbolic declaration of their opposition to imperialism and attempted to lay the foundations for an organisational expression of this opposition.
The Bolsheviks’ vision was of a world where colonialism and racism would be abolished and forever forgotten. According to Radek, it was necessary to “reconstruct mankind on a new basis of freedom, where there will not be people of different-coloured skins with different rights and duties, where all men share the same rights and duties”.xxxvii Hence the Executive Committee of the International invited representatives of the oppressed peoples to gather at Baku. It was an appropriate place. Baku was in Azerbaijan, one of the countries of the former Tsarist Empire which had become independent in 1918, and which was “at the junction between Russia and the East”.xxxviii It was also a centre of oil production, and the Bolsheviks recognised the importance that oil would have in the twentieth century. When the American John Reed addressed the delegates, he asked them: “ Don’t you know how Baku is pronounced in American? It’s pronounced oil?”xxxix
The journey was a dangerous one. The British government made every effort to prevent delegates from getting to Baku. A steamboat carrying Iranian delegates was attacked by a British aircraft; two delegates were killed and several wounded. British warships tried to prevent Turkish delegates from crossing the Black Sea. Two Iranians were killed on the Azerbaijan border by the Iranian police.xl
Nonetheless delegates came in large numbers. It is difficult to establish precise figures, but according to the stenographic report of the Congress there were 1891 delegates, including 1273 Communists. Non-Communist delegates were warmly welcomed. Many of the delegates came from the countries of the former Tsarist empire and from the Middle East. There were 100 Georgians, 157 Armenians, 235 Turks, 192 Persians and 82 Chechens – but also 14 Indians and 8 Chinese. In his introductory address, Zinoviev predicted that the Russian Revolution would only be a small episode in a much bigger process: “When the East really gets moving, then not only Russia but all of Europe will seem only a small corner of the vast scene.”xli
The British delegate, Tom Quelch, reminded his listeners that there was an objective basis for unity. He began his speech with a quotation from Karl Marx, who said that “the British working class would be free only when the peoples of the British colonies were free”. Therefore he insisted that “the enemy of the British working class, the British capitalist class, is at the same time the enemy of the peoples of the East, the oppressed East.”xlii
Congresses had their importance. But they only became a concrete achievement if they mobilised thousands and thousands of individuals into activity. In particular international organisation could only function if large numbers of activists, often at great personal risk, were willing to cross frontiers in pursuit of their goals. Revolution spread so rapidly in 1848 because in the preceding period so many men and women had changed countries in search of work or to escape repression. When they developed new relations of solidarity with the natives of their homes, they helped to contribute to an emerging international consciousness.
Thus in Paris in May 1848 the various radical clubs organised a petition to the National Assembly calling on the government to intervene militarily against Russia in defence of national independence for Poland. The club leaders were supported by a massive demonstration, perhaps as many as 50,000, led by representatives of the Polish émigrés in Paris, but supported by thousands of unemployed workers from the National Workshops. News had just reached Paris of bloody repression in Poland, and feelings were high. There had been a long tradition of support for Poland in France and the issue clearly captured the popular imagination. If the minorities, in the clubs and secret societies and small workers’ newspapers had not been campaigning on the question of Poland over the previous two decades, then the Polish question would not have acquired the proportions it did in 1848. And the presence in Paris of many Polish émigrés undoubtedly had a significant influence.
Escape from repression and the pursuit of opportunities for revolutionary agitation led many activists to travel repeatedly across frontiers. To take one example among many, there is the career of Guillard de Kersausie, whom some have claimed played a key role in the June 1848 rising in Paris.
Théophile Joachim René Guillard de Kersausie was born at Guingamp in the Côtes-du-Nord in 1798.xliii His mother was the niece of an aristocratic soldier who had fought in the American War of Independence, La Tour d’Auvergne. He served with distinction in Spain and rose to the rank of captain. In 1830 he resigned from the army in protest when the republic was not proclaimed, and henceforward devoted himself entirely to revolutionary activity, in France and abroad. Kersausie was sentenced to jail in January 1836, but benefited from an amnesty in May 1837. At this point he decided to leave France, aware the police would make it impossible for him to operate effectively. Kersausie saw no frontiers to the cause of human emancipation. In 1839 Raspail described him as a “Polish citizen, by your enrolment under the flags of the Polish insurrection”.xliv Other reports put him in London, Switzerland, Naples and Messina.xlv
Kersausie returned to Paris by 1848. He retained his links with Raspail and was soon active in the frenetic political debate between February and June. In April he was adopted as an election candidate by the Société républicaine centrale on a list that also included Albert, Louis Blanc, Flocon, Cabet, Raspail and Blanqui, although he was not elected.xlvi He was thus a popular figure of the republican left.
After the June rising had been suppressed, the government immediately launched a major enquiry into the causes of the insurrection. Kersausie’s name occurs a handful of times in the report, and it is obvious that although the authors would have liked to find evidence against him, it was not sufficient to arrest him. He remained in Paris, at liberty, until the following year, and was probably involved in the demonstration of 13 June 1849.xlvii At this point he decided that the game was up, and left the country; he was tried and sentenced in absentia for his role in June 1849.xlviii He is said to have fled to London with Delescluze, the future communard and others, and later to have lived in Switzerland under the pseudonym Quercy.xlix He appears to have kept contact with the international revolutionary movement; he presented Garibaldi with the sword of honour belonging to his great uncle.l The last description we have of him is in a letter by Proudhon, writing from Brussels in 1860. He describes him as “a thin, bent little old man, already rambling, the poor fellow is over sixty” [!!]. Proudhon concludes that “at least we have the satisfaction of telling ourselves that [he] is quite full of hope and not depressed”.li He died, still in exile, on 24 August 1874.lii
The organisation of the Communist International could not have come into being without the involvement of many individuals who crossed frontiers by bending legality or by using illegal means. Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917 on the notorious “sealed train” is well-known; Radek’s colourful account provides many details.liii
But Lenin’s intervention in 1917 was possible only because of the activity of many rank and file militants. Thus Alexander Shlyapnikov became a Bolshevik in 1905. By 1907 he was a highly skilled metal turner and fitter, but faced with the threat of conscription into the army, he decided to leave Russia and move to Western Europe. For a time he was a factory worker, employed in an automobile factory at Asnières-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris. Between 1908 and 1916 he found jobs as a skilled metalworker in France, Germany, England and Scandinavia, and visited the United States. He thus developed a good knowledge of the political traditions of countries outside Russia; in particular he had contact with French syndicalists, learning to appreciate a revolutionary current very different from Bolshevism. He came to Britain in 1915; with the wartime demand for skilled labour, he rapidly got a job at the Fiat car factory in Wembley and became a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. But between the outbreak of war in 1914 and 1917 Shlyapnikov visited Russia three times, something involving considerable difficulty and risk. He established routes for smuggling literature into Russia, and was able to get a good understanding of the state of organisation and consciousness inside Russia. Without the work of organisers like Shlyapnikov Lenin’s return to Russia would have been far less effective.liv
In France anti-war campaigning brought many hundreds into illegal activity. One of these was Marguerite Thévenet, later to be the lifelong partner of Alfred Rosmer. During the war Thévenet took responsibility for accompanying groups of children from the regions worst affected by the conflict. This meant frequent journeys to Switzerland, and in the course of these she first began to develop her skills in smuggling anti-war literature across frontiers. She brought into France issues of Demain, the anti-war review published in Switzerland by Henri Guilbeaux. MarcelMartinet’s anti-war poems Les Temps maudits (Accursed Times) were published in Switzerland in 1917; they were banned in France but circulated clandestinely; with Marguerite Thévenet’s assistance copies were typed on thin paper and enclosed in letters sent to soldiers at the front.lv
Thévenet helped to maintain contact between the French opponents of the war and the writer Romain Rolland in Switzerland. Rolland has left us a vivid description of her:
Mlle Marguerite Thévenet came to see me (for the first time) on 5 March 1916 … She brought me news from friends. I didn’t much like the carbonaro style which she gave to an exchange of matters of no great importance. She produced a letter from her hat, and two or three more from her bodice; I was expecting to see her take off her stockings.lvi
Thévenet became a founder-member of the French Communist Party. During the party’s founding congress in December 1920 there was a carefully staged dramatic interlude.
Frossard, the Secretary of the Socialist Party, was in the middle of a two-and-a-half hours’ speech when the lights went out; when they came on again German Communist Clara Zetkin was on the platform. She spoke for twenty minutes, then, while the delegates sang the Internationale she vanished again.lvii The appearance of this veteran German revolutionary, despite a French government ban, so soon after the end of the war, was a magnificent internationalist gesture. And to get Zetkin to Tours, a long way from the German border, at the time of a high-profile Congress which must have been under heavy state surveillance, was an extraordinary feat.
After the congress, Zetkin wrote, as she often did, a personal letter to Lenin, stating “During my stay I have learnt to value Madame Rosmerlviii as one of the most lucid, loyal, energetic and politically intelligent ‘men’ in the French movement.”lix Thévenet had a reputation for smuggling people across frontiers; according to Maurice Chambelland, a close associate of Rosmer and Monatte, “she had no rival in outwitting officials”. She also took responsibility for providing accommodation for “illegal visitors”, delegates from the Comintern, in particular, Mátyás Rákosi. She organised a route across frontiers for books and pamphlets published in Petrograd, in particular documents from the Black Book, which made public the diplomatic correspondence concerning the Franco-Russian alliance 1910-16, discovered in the Russian archives by René Marchand.lx
Chambelland says that she helped to organise Zetkin’s visit. Some sources claim that the visit was organised by René Reynaud and André Le Troquer (later president – equivalent of speaker – of the National Assembly!), and that she was driven to the Congress in the car of Auguste Mougeot, an anarchist plasterer and painter, and a friend of the Rosmers.lxi So it seems quite likely that Thévenet played some part in planning the event.
The sheer physical problem of getting delegates to Moscow for the early congresses of the Comintern involved many difficulties; Alfred Rosmer recalled a boat journey from Stettin to Tallinn:
The only embarrassing moment was when we caught sight of two other passengers, travelling clandestinely, the Englishman Murphy and the American Fraina, who, in the evening, were taking the risk of emerging from the coal-bunker where they had had to be accommodated. Although it was in no way my fault, Murphy always bore me a grudge for it.lxii
Throughout the 1920s revolutionary militants from France were harassed by state authorities if they attempted to visit Russia; delegates to the early congresses of the Comintern risked jail on their return. The police had good knowledge of the various routes used by militants to visit Russia; if they did not always block their journeys, they made them more difficult, which imposed a financial burden on the various left organisations.lxiii
Yet for a short time in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution it was possible to argue that workers across Europe had a common interest. In September 1922 Victor Serge addressed an appeal to French workers – who only four years earlier had faced German soldiers in opposing trenches – to support the impending German revolution:
Are you a Communist, a syndicalist or a libertarian? I haven’t enquired, for in face of the practical conclusions – or better to call them obligations – imposed by this situation, I don’t think that your personal opinions are of any great importance.
On the day when the action starts, whatever your political alignment, you must support with all your strength the German Communists: because they will be, as they always were, the first to face the danger…..
Build the strong revolutionary organisation which tomorrow will enable the French proletariat to save the German revolution – that is the urgent great task to which you must contribute with all your strength, if you don’t want to play into the hands of international reaction by your passivity or your incompetence!lxiv
Economic and political interdependence, means of rapid communication, but also circumstances which brought workers from different lands into physical proximity, political organisations which advocated internationalism and put it into practice, with devoted militants willing to cross frontiers legally or illegally: these were some of the factors that made “simultaneous revolution” a practical possibility in 1848 and again in the aftermath of 1917.
Have there been any other such moments when “simultaneous revolution” seemed a possibility?
In 1945 a second world war had reshaped the planet; there were insurrectionary possibilities from Vietnamlxv to Italy. But the new order that emerged was a world polarised between two power centres – Washington and Moscow. And both were concerned to preserve their own hegemony rather than allow any outbreak of simultaneous revolution. Moscow sufficiently controlled the loyalty of radical movements around the world as to be able to hold them in check.lxvi The Communist International, born of the hopes and aspirations of 1917, had, by the 1930s, in the words of one of its finest historians, Pierre Broué, become no more than a “dependency of the Moscow political police”,lxvii and in 1943 it was wound up.
1968 was, for those of us who lived through it, an annus mirabilis of revolutionary hope. By now television had made the whole world a much more united place. When US police attacked those demonstrating against the Vietnam war, demonstrators chanted “The whole world’s watching”.lxviii
The years following saw a series of “revolutionary rehearsals” in Chile, Portugal, Iran and Poland.lxix In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, Moscow’s hegemony was fading, but there was an absence of alternative leadership. That absence, however, was not simply a failure of will; it needs to be explained in terms of the objective conditions.
1989, when social change spread rapidly from China to Eastern Europe, will be seen by many as a year of counter-revolution rather than revolution. My own view would be to see it, in Chris Harman’s words, as “neither a step forward nor a step backwards, but a step sidewards.”lxx But if revolutionary hopes were awakened, they were soon disappointed.
Today the world is more tightly integrated than ever before. Climate change ensures that all our fates are closely tied together. National solutions – though they will doubtless be proposed in ever shriller tones – are bound to be illusory. Yet the subjective expression of internationalism has become weaker. Trotsky still has his heirs, but most of them have the good sense to be proposing to “reconstruct” (or some synonym thereof) the Fourth International rather than to actually be it.lxxi The Fifth International seems to have died along with Hugo Chávez.lxxii Rosa Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism” remains our choice, with barbarism now looking rather more unpleasant than anything Luxemburg could have envisaged. (As István Mészáros has put it, the choice is “barbarism if we are lucky”.lxxiii) Socialism, by definition, must be international; the alternative looks a lot more probable.
My thanks to Steve Cushion and Merilyn Moos for comments on a first draft.
iVI Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918) at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/equality.htm
ii JV Stalin, “The October Revolution and the Tactics of the Russian Communists”  at https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1924/12.htm
iiiMJ Olgin, Trotskyism: Counter-Revolution in Disguise, New York, 1935, at https://www.marxists.org/archive/olgin/1935/trotskyism/05.htm
iv N Krasso, “Trotsky’s Marxism”, New Left Review I/44, July-August 1967.
vK Marx & F Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm#007
viE Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, New York, 1996, p. 9.
viiP Buonarroti, Conspiration pour l’égalité dite de Babeuf,Paris, 1957, [first published Brussels, 1828], volume II, pp. 204-14.
viiiHobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, p. 298.
ixK Marx & F Engels, Collected Works volume 7, London, 1977, pp. 121, 123.
xC Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, London, 2017, p. 319.
xiVI Lenin, Collected Works volume XXXIII at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/may/19.htm
xiiL’Humanité, 7 May 1926, p. 3.
xiiicited J-P Hirou, Parti socialiste ou CGT?, Pantin, 1995, pp. 43-4.
xivH Collins & C Abramsky, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement, London, 1965, p 4.
xvCollins & Abramsky, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement, p. 6.
xvicited by R Palme Dutt, The Internationale, London, 1964, pp. 32-33.
xviiThe Red Republican, 14 September 1850.
xviiiSee K Weller, “Don’t be a Soldier!” The radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914-1918, London, 1985.
xixEM Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, London, 1929, p. 224.
xxH Barbusse, Le Feu, Paris, 1917 at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/48212/48212-h/48212-h.htm
xxiJ Chuzeville, Un Court Moment révolutionnaire, Paris, 2017, p. 55.
xxiiR Stumpf, War, Mutiny and Revolution in the German Navy, ed. D Horn, New Brunswick NJ, 1967, pp. 418-9, 420, 426.
xxiiiR Stumpf, War, Mutiny and Revolution in the German Navy, p. 332.
xxivT Ashworth, Trench Warfare, London, 1980, p 19.
xxvSee M Ferro, M Brown, R Cazals & O Mueller, Frères des tranchées, Paris, 2006
xxviI am grateful to Steve Cushion for making this point.
xxviiI am grateful to Keith Flett for information on this point.
xxviiiC Kingsley, Alton Locke, London, 1970, pp. 284-5.
xxixA Bevan in Labour Party Annual Conference Report, 1951, p. 121, cited by R Vickers, The Labour Party and the World Vol.1: The evolution of Labour’s foreign policy, 1900-51, Manchester, 2003, p. 64.
xxxSee J M Schiappa, Buonarroti (1761-1837): L’Inoxydable, St Georges d’Oléron, 2011.
xxxiVI Lenin, “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution” at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/04.htm
xxxii P Broué, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste, Paris, 1997.
xxxiiiFor recent studies reconsidering the early years of the French Communist Party and in particular drawing out the role of the revolutionary syndicalists, see F Ferrette, La Véritable Histoire du Parti Communiste Français, Paris, 2011 and Chuzeville, Un Court Moment révolutionnaire.
xxxivVI Lenin, “Five Years Of The Russian Revolution And The Prospects Of The World Revolution: Report To The Fourth Congress Of The Communist Internatioinal, November 13, 1922” at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/nov/04b.htm
xxxv Broué, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste, p. 237.
xxxviBaku: Congress of the Peoples of the East (stenographic report), London, 1977, p. 11.
xxxviiBaku: Congress of the Peoples of the East, p. 51.
xxxviiiP Broué, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste, Paris, 1997, p. 181.
xxxixA Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, Chicago, 2016, p. 93.
xlJ Riddell [ed.], To See the Dawn, New York, 1993, p. 21.
xliBaku: Congress of the Peoples of the East, p. 34.
xliiBaku: Congress of the Peoples of the East, p. 70.
xliiiOn Kersausie see I Birchall, “The Enigma of Kersausie: Engels in June 1848”, Revolutionary History 8/2 (2002) at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/2002/xx/kersausie.html
xlivF.-V. Raspail, De la Pologne sur les bords de la Vistule et dans l’émigration, Paris 1839, pp 1-2.
xlvE de Mirecourt, Raspail, (Paris, 1869), p 27.
xlviMDommanget, Auguste Blanqui et la révolution de 1848, Paris, 1972, p. 144.
xlviiJ. Trévédy, “La Famille Limon du Timeur”, Bulletin de la société archéologique du Finistère, tome 33, 1906, p 243.
xlviiiTrévédy, “La Famille Limon du Timeur”, p 243; J. Maitron (ed.), Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français, Paris 1964ff., tome 2, p 319.
xlixA Saint-Ferréol, Les Proscrits français en Belgique, (Brussels, 1870), I 47, II 19.
lTrévédy, “La Famille Limon du Timeur”, pp 243-4.
liP-J Proudhon, Lettres au citoyen Rolland, (Paris, 1946), pp 44-5.
liiTrévédy, “La Famille Limon du Timeur”,, p 243.
liii Karl Radek, “Through Germany in the Sealed Coach” (1924) at https://www.marxists.org/archive/radek/1924/xx/train.htm
livBC Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik, Chicago, 2016.
lvM Chambelland, “Discreet Marguerite”, Revolutionary History 7/4 (2000), pp. 11-12; translated from La Révolution prolétarienne, February 1962.
lviR Rolland, Journal des années de guerre 1914-1919, Paris, 1952, p. 685.
lviiG Badia, Clara Zetkin, féministe sans frontières, Paris, 1993, p 216.
lviiiIn fact the Rosmers only married in 1932, though they had been partners since World War I.
lix Letter of 25 January 1921, in R Stoljarowa & P Schmalfuss (eds), Briefe Deutscher an Lenin 1917-1923 (Berlin, Dietz Verlag, 1990).
lxM Chambelland, “Discreet Marguerite”.
lxiBadia, Clara Zetkin, p 217. See also obituary of Mougeot in La Révolution prolétarienne, January 1962
lxiiRosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, p. 34.
lxiii R Mazuy, Croire plutôt que voir?, Paris, 2002, p. 24.
lxivCorrespondance internationale No. 72, 23 September 1922.
lxvSee I Birchall, “The Young Ho Chi Minh”, at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/09/vietnam-paris-nguyen-ai-quac-le-paria-french-left-de-gaulle/
lxviSee I Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith, London, 1974.
lxviiP Broué, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste 1919-1943, Paris, 1997, p. 597.
lxviiiThanks to Steve Cushion for this point.
lxix See C Barker (ed.),Revolutionary Rehearsals,London, 1987.
lxxC Harman, “The Storm Breaks: The Crisis in the Eastern Bloc”, International Socialism 2:46, Spring 1990.
lxxiSee the list at http://www.broadleft.org/trotskyi.htm
lxxiii See “Barbarism on the horizon. An interview with István Mészáros” at https://blogdaboitempo.com.br/2013/11/18/barbarism-on-the-horizon-an-interview-with-istvan-meszaros/