World Revolution, 1917-1936

Issue section: 
(429)

The republishing of this key work by one of the 20th century’s most important Marxist thinkers is very welcome. This is CLR James’s first book, originally published in 1937. James provided the first ever history and systematic analysis of the Communist International and a searing indictment of the crimes of Stalinism.

As Høgsbjerg explains in his fascinating introduction, the book took considerable courage to produce, being published just as the Moscow trials of the Bolshevik leaders of 1917 were getting under way. In a world of economic crisis, with the growing fascist threat, world war imminent and the workers’ movement suffering defeat after defeat, Russia seemed a beacon of hope for millions.

Trotsky had been analysing the degeneration of the Soviet Union since his expulsion from the official communist movement in 1927. Yet his writings were not widely available in English at the time and only told part of the story.

James goes back to Marx to show that the perspective of international workers’ revolution is central to the Marxist worldview. He explains that while the leaders of the Second International paid lip service to the slogan “Workers of the world unite”, they abandoned it in practice, backing their own governments in the First World War.

Lenin was persuaded it was time to start again but it took the October Revolution to make it a reality. James shows that for the Bolsheviks it was taken as read that the new workers’ state could not last for long in isolation.

To survive, the revolution would have to spread to the advanced countries such as Germany or Britain. For Lenin, the foundation of the Communist International was not an optional extra but the key to his revolutionary strategy.

James explains that once capitalism had ridden out the post-war revolutionary wave, the Bolsheviks were on the back foot. He rightly identifies the final defeat of the German Revolution in 1923 as the key turning point, leading to the adoption of the Stalinist doctrine of “socialism in one country”.

He incorrectly blames Stalin for the failure of the KPD to lead the working class to power, exaggerating the influence of Stalin over Comintern policy at this time. Indeed James dates the victory of Stalinism to this period, whereas the bureaucratic counter-revolution did not take place until 1927-28.

James roots the decline of the Comintern as a revolutionary force in the rise of the bureaucracy. By the early 1930s it was effectively a counter-revolutionary force as communist parties became tools of Kremlin foreign policy. Most criminally, the KPD’s ultra leftism allowed Hitler to come to power without a shot being fired. As James predicted, in Spain the guns of the Stalinists were turned on revolutionary workers.

The book was a manifesto for Trotsky’s Fourth International. There are hints, however, of James’s disagreements with Trotsky that would lead to his break with him in 1940.

Following Trotsky, James argues that revolutionaries should defend the Soviet Union because, despite the rule of the bureaucracy, the means of production were collectively owned. James would, however, later come to regard Stalinist Russia as a form of state capitalism. Despite this and other criticisms, World Revolution is a key part of the revolutionary Marxist tradition and well worth reading today.