Book Review from the February 1939 issue of the Socialist Standard
"The Communist International," by F. Borkenau. Faber & Faber. 12/6. 442 pages
A by no means insignificant reason for the lamentable condition of the international working-class movement is to be sought in the baneful influence of events in Russia. Hypnotised by its mythical Socialist character, bull-dozed by its offspring, the Communist International, thousands of militant workers have fallen victims to its spell. Fortunately, numbers of workers everywhere, under the hard blows of reality, are beginning to come to their senses. Anything that tends to hasten this process can only be welcomed, and therein lies the importance of this book. Written by a former official of the German Communist Party, it is a painstaking and scrupulous attempt to reveal the origins of Russian Bolshevism and its influence, through the Comintern, on the world Labour movement.
Dr. Borkenau is of the opinion that the Communist International has served three main purposes during its history. In its first years it was “mainly an instrument to bring about revolution"; later it was “mainly an instrument in the Russian factional struggles”; and at the moment it is "mainly an instrument of Russian foreign policy." A safe generalisation, and one not necessarily conflicting with the author’s view, would be that the Comintern at all times was subordinated to the needs, either real or imagined, of the Russian State. For even during its early and "heroic” period, when, possibly, the Soviet leaders did sincerely desire and work for revolution elsewhere, attempts at revolution were always encouraged for the advantage it was thought they would bring to the newly- launched State.
Although the Communist International did not formally come into existence until March, 1919, the Germany of the January of that year was one of the countries where Russian influence first made itself felt. Under the influence of the Russian events and its chief protagonist in Germany, Radek, a small group of militant and romantically-minded workers, known as the Spartacists, rose in armed revolt. Rosa Luxemburg, a member of this group, and those closely associated with her, strongly advised against this senseless act. Inevitably, this heroic, but unbelievedly muddle-headed, attempt to seize power was drowned in blood. One of the tragic aspects of this pitiable farce was the death of Rosa Luxemburg, whose ghastly murder was a great loss to the German working-class movement in particular, and to the international working class in general. Dr. Borkenau pays a moving tribute, marred only by a colossal piece of masculine conceit, to this truly remarkable woman. The sharp differences between Luxemburg and Lenin, particularly on the question of leadership, where Luxemburg, the Socialist, opposed the essentially bourgeois "Jacobin" revolutionary, Lenin; Luxemburg's critical attitude towards the Russian Revolution; her whole life and work, no less than the manner of her death, make the " Lenin-Liebknecht-Luxemburg” commemoration meetings, and the Communist claim that "Luxemburg" belongs to them, an insult to the memory of one of the finest individuals who ever championed the cause of the working class.
In Hungary, Finland, Germany in 1921 and 1923, and in China in 1927, the tale of intrigue, duplicity, treachery and disastrous incompetence of the Communist International unfolds itself. The description of the fantastic escapades fostered by the self-appointed "revolutionary general staff” would simply be unbelievable were it not for the factual evidence which Dr. Borkenau so abundantly provides. We must content ourselves with selecting as "high spots" the 1921 rising in Germany, and the catastrophe known as the Canton "Soviet" of 1927.
In 1921, Bela Kun, a leading Hungarian Communist, arrived from Russia, where he had witnessed at Kronstadt the bloody suppression by Lenin and Trotsky of the last remnants of Soviet democracy. Convinced of the desperate situation of the Soviet regime, he persuaded the Central Committee of the German Communist Party to stage a rising, the outcome of which he hoped would assist the Soviet Power to maintain itself. Completely isolated from the workers, the Communists sat down to work out the details of the "rising." As the German workers proved completely unresponsive to calls for an armed revolt, it was decided that a little "assistance" would not be misplaced. Hence we have, for example, the Communists of Breslau deciding to start the "Revolution" by blowing up their own party premises, to stage the explosion in the toilet, and, moreover, seriously debating whether to blow up the toilet when occupied or not! Fortunately, commonsense(!) prevailed. The toilet went up in the air without a victim. During this time the Communists also called for a General Strike. But the German workers didn’t want to strike! Were the Communists dismayed! Not a bit of it! They simply mobilised their unemployed members and set them to literally drag the employed workers out of the factories. Paul Levi, one of the few independent spirits connected with the German Communist movement, commenting in a pamphlet, Our Road, on the fist fights between Communist unemployed and the employed workers, stated that: "Even more pathetic reports arrived from Berlin. We learn that it was a terrible thing to watch how the unemployed, crying loudly at the pain of the thrashings they had received, were thrown out of the factories." Levi was excluded from the party, and although the Communists were subsequently forced to admit the accuracy of his indictment—and this was upheld by Lenin—he was never reinstated.
Already before the senseless attempt to form a "Soviet" at Canton in December, 1927, the Chinese Communists had been bloodily defeated ; by Chiang-Kai-Shek. As Dr. Borkenau says: "The root of the . . . catastrophe in China lies in this duplicity, in this child-like conviction that your adversary will not understand your intentions, though you express them quite openly, that he will continue to co-operate with you as long as you want it, and allow himself to be overthrown when it suits you." The Chinese Communists thought they could use Chiang; instead he used them, and then mercilessly destroyed them. Stalin, who was for the most part responsible for this disastrous policy of double-dealing, was faced with the criticism of the opposition in Russia. To retrieve his prestige, a German Communist, an unscrupulous, daring and irresponsible careerist by the name of Heinz Neumann, was sent to China, where, with the support of the remnants of armed Chinese Communists, he staged the Canton "Commune." Formed amidst the general indifference of the populace, this " Soviet" lasted 58 hours, important sections of the workers taking up arms against it. At the end of this adventure, a frightful massacre of Communists took place, involving the whole of the Chinese Communist leaders. Only Heinz Neumann escaped. It is perhaps one of the minor ironies of history that Neumann escaped death then, and later, at the hands of Hitler, only to be shot by his Russian "comrades" at Moscow in May, 1937.
Dr. Borkenau supplies what is to us one of the most convincing reasons for the never-ending purges, denunciations, jailings, shootings and persecutidns that have decimated the ranks of many Communist parties, in particular the Russian Party. The Communists, in spite of the lip-service they pay to "objective reality," are, in fact, incorrigible "subjectivists." If social reality conflicts with what the latest dogma from Moscow says it ought to be—well, so much the worse for reality. Living in a world of their own, perhaps the most dangerous illusion ever held by them is that the working class is simply bursting with revolutionary ardour and only restrained by the nefarious tactics of treacherous Labour leaders. But if the workers do adopt a policy of which the Communists approve, and disaster, nevertheless, results, then the leaders have not fully understood, were not really " Bolshevised," or have misapplied, sabotaged or betrayed the infallible directives given by infallible people in Moscow. Therefore—off
with their heads! If the "workers’ State" has finally been achieved, as in Russia, and, nevertheless, paradise obstinately refuses to make an appearance, are the causes to be sought in a mistaken appraisal of social conditions? Of course not! It must lie the treachery of some of the leaders. Consequently, we have the spectacle of men who have grown old and broken in the services of the Revolution being dragged out from political obscurity and butchered to satisfy the need of a scapegoat.
Perhaps one of tlie most interesting and revealing chapters in this book is the one entitled "The Structure of the Communist Parties." The instability of the membership of the Communist parties is well known, and in Germany it reached such proportions as to justify the use of a technical term, "fluctuation," a term which was subsequently applied to all the non-Russian parties to describe the staggering influx and exit of members. Basing himself on a careful analysis of the available statistical material, Dr. Borkenau concludes that in the German party a nucleus of only five per cent. remained faithful, whatever happened. And since, as he says, "the Germans have a well-justified reputation for the stubbornness with which they stick to allegiances once established,” there is no reason to suppose that any other Communist Party is any better in this respect. The social composition of the parties varies as to the policy pursued, whether "right" or “left." It is a noticeable fact that, in Great Britain, the Communist Party has, at the moment, attracted many who formerly they would have dubbed "middle- class elements." In Spain the process has gone so far that the party there has almost lost its proletarian character.
Summing up, Dr. Borkenau reaches the scathing conclusion that "an iron guard, unshakable, integrating the experience of a generation of revolutionary fighters, is the official ideal of a Communist Party. Shifting masses, imbued with a deep hatred of the old mass organisations and their humdrum activities, but without any stability or fixed conviction of their own, are the reality."
Apart from the fact that the author talks of the specious economic arguments of Karl Marx without in any way attempting to justify such strictures, the book also contains one or two minor inaccuracies. That these latter have been seized on so avidly by Communist apologists, in an attempt to discredit the book as a whole, merely serves to demonstrate the weakness of the Communist case. Dr. Borkenau also asserts that the workers in the majority have hitherto shown no desire for Socialism: a statement with which every Socialist will readily agree. But when he goes on to conclude that they never will do, he assumes the role of a prophet, and we, as Socialists, will do our best to see that, in due course, experience will confound him.
Nevertheless, this remains an extremely valuable book, which all workers ought to read. Propagandists for Socialism will find it invaluable when faced with Communist opposition. As far as members of the Communist Party are concerned, if blind devotion to a myth has not entirely impaired what critical faculties they ever possessed, we can only implore them to get hold of it at all costs. We freely concede that in the ranks of the Communist Party are to be found many workers abounding in enthusiasm, energy, capacity for self-sacrifice, and devotion to a cause which they quite sincerely identify with the cause of the working class. But these very qualities, which could be of inestimable advantage to the working class, are transformed into a veritable curse because of the blind, uncritical, unquestioning devotion to an illusion. This book should go a long way towards dispelling that illusion.
A. H. M.