In the five years after the First World War, revolutionary contagion spread around the world. It showed the extraordinary possibilities that arise when the masses become active in making their own history.
Capitalism is a world system. Much recent talk about ‘globalisation’ imagines it to have assumed this form only recently. Here, by contrast, is Marx describing the early development of the system in The Communist Manifesto of 1848:
‘The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East India and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.
For Marx, ‘the establishment of modern industry and the world market’ went hand in hand. Globalisation is as old as capitalism. It predates the digital technology of the early 21st century, the radio communications of the 20th, and the telegraph cables of the 19th. It predates the slave trade in the 18th century and the first colonies in the 17th. It goes back to the very birth-pangs of the system in the trade networks of 15th and 16th century merchant-capitalists.
Capitalism is not only global; it is also highly pervasive. Once it has a grip in one part of the world, it spreads rapidly. What makes it so is the competitive character of a world divided into rival corporations and states. Those who fail to develop economically, remaining trapped in pre-industrial social systems, are doomed to defeat.
The steel and guns of the conquistadors beat the stone weapons of the Aztecs and the Inca. Europeans conquered India with flintlocks and fire-discipline. Machine-guns and artillery crushed the Zulus and the Dervishes.
This is the basic reason that bourgeois revolutions ‘from below’ – in Holland, Britain, America, and France – were soon followed by bourgeois revolutions ‘from above’ – in Italy, Germany, Japan, Turkey, and many other places. Because capitalism unleashes an industrial revolution, other ruling classes are forced to embrace change or fall behind in geopolitical struggle.
So the imperatives of economic and politico-military competition ensure that industrialisation, once in motion, leapfrogs across the world. The globalisation of commerce becomes the globalisation of industry.
If capitalism is a world system, it follows that the working class is an international class. Workers are divided by nationalism, but this does not reflect their true interests.
To take on the bosses, who operate globally, workers have to unite across national boundaries. To achieve social emancipation, they have to destroy the nation-state and create an alternative democratic state. To defend their gains against counter-revolution by international capital, they have to spread their struggle across the world.
There is no such thing as ‘socialism in one country’. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and many other leading Marxist thinkers have all stressed that proletarian revolution has to be world-wide or it will fail.
A socialist ‘siege economy’ can only ever be a temporary measure. Eventually, either poverty and insecurity will force the revolution to turn in on itself and create new forms of exploitation and militarisation in order to survive. Or the workers’ state will succumb to hostile pressure – some combination of economic boycott, internal civil war, and foreign military aggression.
This knowledge was fundamental to the thinking of the Bolshevik leaders after the October Insurrection. It was the reason they prioritised the creation of the Communist International (aka the Comintern or Third International) in 1919.
The Bolsheviks wanted to create a revolutionary international to replace the Second International of social-democratic parties which had broken up as its respective constituents voted to back their own governments at the outbreak of the First World War. The new Comintern was to be the high command of world revolution.
The first four congresses of the Comintern were genuinely revolutionary assemblies of growing size and importance. The First Congress (March 1919) comprised 51 delegates from 33 countries, the Fourth (November-December 1922) 408 delegates from 61 countries.
How realistic was the aim of world revolution?
Revolution is infectious. Because capitalism is a world system, its major crises are always international in character. Similar conditions provoke similar responses, and news of revolution elsewhere can quickly shatter thin veneers of conformity and obedience.
The American Revolution inspired the French Revolution. The 1848 Revolutions spread across Europe. The Arab Spring has produced revolutions across the Middle East.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 triggered the most powerful wave of global revolution in human history.
The convulsions were not restricted to Germany and Italy. They were felt across the whole of Europe and beyond.
At the end of 1918, the liberal-nationalist government in Hungary collapsed and was replaced by a radical ‘Soviet’ government of Communists and Social-Democrats led by Bela Kun. In April 1919, a ‘Soviet Republic’ was also established in Bavaria, and in that same month revolutionaries attempted to seize power in Vienna.
A fleeting glimpse was offered of a possible alternative future: Budapest, Bavaria, and Vienna might have formed a revolutionary bloc in the heart of Europe.
It was not to be. In each case, the revolutionaries were not strong enough to prevent reformists from derailing the revolution. One of the Bavarian revolutionary leaders, facing execution after the Soviet Republic’s overthrow, summed up the experience of working with Social-Democrat and Independent-Socialist ‘allies’:
‘The Social-Democrats start, then run away and betray us. The Independents fall for the bait, join us, and then let us down. And we Communists are stood up against the wall. We Communists are all dead men on leave.’
The point is simple. Revolution was possible. What frustrated it again and again was the trust workers still placed in reformist leaders committed to the defence of capitalism and the state.
Nor was the revolutionary ferment restricted to defeated states like Austria-Hungary and Germany or weak ones like Russia and Italy. Britain, France, and Spain were all swept by the revolutionary mood.
British troops mutinied because of delays sending them home from France, and they refused to go into action against Bolshevik forces when dispatched to Russia.
Engineering strikes in Glasgow led to bitter clashes with the police and the deployment of troops in 1919. The formation of a ‘triple alliance’ of mining, transport, and rail unions terrified the government in early 1920.
Spain had its ‘Three Bolshevik Years’ (1918-1920: Trienio Bolchevista), with bread riots, mass strikes, peasant land-seizures, violent street clashes, and the proclamation of ‘Bolshevik republics’ in Spanish towns. ‘Here, as everywhere else,’ wrote American novelist Dos Passos, ‘Russia has been the beacon fire.’
The contagion jumped continents. Australia, Canada, and the US experienced mass strikes as workers fought to build unions, raise wages, and improve conditions.
It also passed from the major metropolitan countries to the colonial periphery. Irish Republicans waged guerrilla war to win independence. Egyptian crowds demanded an end to British rule. Strikes, demonstrations, and riots swept India. And Chinese students triggered a mass movement against colonialism.
Between 1918 and 1923, the future of humanity hung in the balance. Mainstream historians deny the potential and prefer to gloss over the period with crude and disdainful references to ‘anarchy’. They are more comfortable with the cold manoeuvres of generals and the dull routines of statesmen.
We should not allow them to bury the history of revolution. We need to know what extraordinary possibilities arise when the masses become active in making their own history. Even world revolution becomes possible.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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