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Vol. 75/No. 6      February 14, 2011

Communists in 1920s confront
world capitalist crisis
(Books of the Month column)

Below is an excerpt from the first volume of The First Five Years of the Communist International by Leon Trotsky, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for February. The Communist International was founded in 1919 at the initiative of V.I. Lenin, Trotsky, and other central leaders of the Bolshevik Party to build a world movement of communist parties to lead workers and peasants to overthrow capitalist exploitation and colonial oppression. The report below on the world economic crisis coming out of World War I—the first imperialist slaughter—and the tasks of the International was presented by Trotsky at the Third Congress in June 1921. Copyright © 1945, 1972 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

With the imperialist war we entered the epoch of revolution, that is, the epoch when the very mainstays of capitalist equilibrium are shaking and collapsing. Capitalist equilibrium is an extremely complex phenomenon. Capitalism produces this equilibrium, disrupts it, restores it anew in order to disrupt it anew, concurrently extending the limits of its domination. In the economic sphere these constant disruptions and restorations of the equilibrium take the shape of crises and booms. In the sphere of inter-class relations the disruption of equilibrium assumes the form of strikes, lockouts, revolutionary struggle. In the sphere of interstate relations the disruption of equilibrium means war or—in a weaker form—tariff war, economic war, or blockade. Capitalism thus possesses a dynamic equilibrium, one which is always in the process of either disruption or restoration. But at the same time this equilibrium has a great power of resistance, the best proof of which is the fact that the capitalist world has not toppled to this day.

The last imperialist war was an event which we rightfully appraised as a colossal blow, unequaled in history, to the equilibrium of the capitalist world. Out of the war has actually risen the epoch of the greatest mass movements and revolutionary battles. Russia, the weakest link in the capitalist chain, was the first to lose her equilibrium and the first to enter the road of revolution in 1917—in the month of February. Our February Revolution had great repercussions among the working masses of England. 1917 in England was the year of the greatest strike struggles through which the English proletariat succeeded in checking the war-produced process of declining living conditions among the toiling masses. In October 1917 the working class of Russia took power. Strike struggles extended throughout the entire capitalist world, beginning with the neutral countries. In the autumn of 1918 Japan passed through a zone of tumultuous “rice” disorders, which according to some figures involved upwards of 25 percent of the population and which were met with cruel repressions on the part of the Mikado’s government. In January 1918, mass strikes took place in Germany. Toward the end of 1918, following the collapse of German militarism, revolutions took place in Germany and Austria-Hungary. The revolutionary movement keeps expanding. The most critical year for capitalism—at any rate for European capitalism—arrives: the year 1919. In March 1919 a Soviet Republic is formed in Hungary. In January and March 1919 fierce battles between the revolutionary workers and the bourgeois republic break out in Germany. In France there is tension in the atmosphere during the period of demobilization, but the illusions of victory and the hopes for its golden fruits still remain too strong; the struggle does not even begin to approximate here the proportions it assumes in the conquered countries. In the United States toward the end of 1919 the strikes acquire a mighty sweep, embracing the railway workers, the miners, the steel workers, etc. Wilson’s government unleashes wild repressions against the working class… .

That the revolution hasn’t taken place to this very day throughout the world, or at least in Europe, does not at all signify “the bankruptcy of the Communist International,” for the program of the Comintern is not based on astronomical data. Every Communist who has to any measure thought out his ideas understands this. But inasmuch as the revolution has not come hot on the tracks of war, it is absolutely self-evident that the bourgeoisie has utilized the breathing space afforded it, if not to surmount and eliminate he most frightful and terrible consequences of the war, then at least to camouflage them, patch them up, etc., etc. Has it succeeded in accomplishing this? In part, yes. To what extent? It is here that we touch the essence of the question which involves the restoration of capitalist equilibrium… .

At the given moment capitalism has entered a period of prolonged and profound depression. Strictly speaking, this epoch should have set in—insofar as one can prophesy about the past—as far back as 1913 when the world market as a result of 20 years of turbulent development had already become inadequate for the development of German, English and North American capitalism. These giants of capitalist development took it fully into account. They said to themselves: In order to avoid this depression which will linger for many years, we shall create an acute war crisis, destroy our rival and gain unchallenged domination over the world market that has become too constricted. But the war lasted far too long, provoking not only an acute crisis but a protracted one; it destroyed completely Europe’s capitalist economic apparatus, thereby facilitating America’s feverish development. But after exhausting Europe, the war led in the long run to a great crisis in America, too. Once again we are witnessing that selfsame depression which they had sought to escape, but which has been intensified many-fold owing to Europe’s impoverishment… .

On the basis of this economic depression the bourgeoisie will be compelled to exert stronger and stronger pressure upon the working class. This is already to be seen in the cutting of wages which has started in the full-blooded capitalist countries: in America and in England, and then throughout all of Europe. This leads to great struggles over wages. Our task is to extend these struggles, by basing ourselves on a clear understanding of the economic situation… . Many comrades say that if an improvement takes place in this epoch it would be fatal for our revolution. No, under no circumstances. In general, there is no automatic dependence of the proletarian revolutionary movement upon a crisis. There is only a dialectical interaction. It is essential to understand this.  
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