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Abstract and Keywords

Two years after the revolution in Russia, the social revolution was once again fermenting on the ruins of the empires defeated in the war. The First World War was turning into a civil war and not only in countries defeated in the war. The year 1919 saw the spread of workers’ and soldiers’ councils and a series of anti-colonial revolts in the Middle East and Far East. As yet, the link between these and the October Revolution was largely symbolic, since the Communist International generally learned of events only after the fact even as it endeavoured to integrate them within a global theoretical framework. Nevertheless it felt as though revolution were spreading like a contagion, at the same time as a wave of repression no less generalized was building up. Opening in revolutionary struggle, the year 1919 would end in victory for counter-revolution.

Keywords: civil war, Communist International, council, counter-revolution, anti-colonial, First World War, imperialism, repression, October Revolution

The year 1919 was one that began with hopes of world revolution, at least in Europe. Two years after the revolution in Russia, the social revolution was once again fermenting on the ruins of the empires defeated in the war. The First World War, which had set nations and empires against one another, was turning into a civil war that threatened to split societies apart. The tremors caused by the war were not confined to the defeated powers, for there were insurrectionary strikes and land occupations in Italy, campaigns against high prices in France, Britain, and the USA, general strikes in Switzerland and Catalonia, and everywhere governments came under pressure from voices on the streets. A revolutionary moment in Europe, the year 1919 also witnessed a series of revolts and protest movements which, from the Middle East to the Far East, constituted the first generalized challenge to colonial domination. Whether political, economic, social, and/or national, the expectations raised by the war were immense. The upheavals can be analysed from a geopolitical point of view in terms of the state of a particular country at the end of the war and of its socioeconomic structures. But the diversity of demands and the variety of forms of protest should not conceal the underlying synchrony of events. The war had united different peoples in the same temporal space. Impeded by censorship so long as war lasted, Bolshevik slogans were now being disseminated by refugees and soldiers travelling home in their millions. As yet, the link with the October Revolution was primarily symbolic, for the Communist (Third) International generally learned of events only after the fact even as it endeavoured to integrate them within a global theoretical framework. Nevertheless there was a sense that revolution was spreading like a contagion.

In a wider perspective, 1919 crystallized the opposition between two rival plans to reorder the world, between two universalist projects. The first was that of the communists, partisans of a revolution on the soviet model; the second was that of the victorious powers, who gathered in Paris from January to June in order to negotiate the peace treaties on the basis of a compromise between the ‘Fourteen Points’ of Woodrow Wilson and the claims of the victor nations. The year saw a dictatorship of the proletariat confront bourgeois democracy, a confrontation that was as much military as ideological. Since the victory (p. 110) of the Entente over the empires of central Europe, communist Russia had supplanted German militarism as the principal enemy and was now the target of an international crusade in Europe. Henceforward, the ‘red peril’ would structure politics in a way that transcended national borders. Barely out of the First World War, the world was entering another war, one according to Eric Hobsbawm that would last thirty-one years, nothing less than a European civil war, according to Ernst Nolte. The injustices and frustrations sparked by the victors’ peace, combined with the fear provoked by the revolutionary outbreaks, would ultimately favour the appearance of a third force, namely fascism, hostile to both communism and democracy. Opening in revolutionary struggle, then, the year 1919 would end in victory for counter-revolution. Communism had reached its awkward age.

The War is a Revolution, a Multitude of Revolutions

Twentieth-century communism emerged out of the Great War. Yet the war had begun by wiping out the revolutionary ideal of the nineteenth century. In August 1914 patriotic elan had swept away internationalist solidarity and struck down the Socialist International, since it had proved incapable of opposing the onset of war in spite of decades of pacifist and antimilitarist propaganda. The threat of revolution and of the ‘red spectre’, which bourgeois Europe had feared would emerge during any preparations for war, vanished following the ‘crime of 4 August 1914’, when the Social Democrats in the Reichstag voted for war credits. The rallying of German socialists was followed by their French counterparts, who proceeded to join the government, and by the majority of social-democratic parties. Only in Russia, Serbia, and Great Britain did a few parties, sparsely represented in the respective parliaments, refuse to back the ‘Union sacrée’. From the first, V. I. Lenin, L. D. Trotsky, and I. O. Martov denounced the ‘imperialist war’. In September the Bolshevik leader even called for the war to be transformed into a ‘civil war’, stating that the first duty of any revolutionary is to struggle for the defeat of their own government. The Pole, Karl Radek, the Scot, John MacLean, the Dutch Tribunist Henriette Roland-Holst, the Dutch activists Anton Pannekoek and Hermann Gorter, later known as ‘council communists’, the Bremen left radicals, the Berlin group of Julian Borchardt, the Swiss Fritz Platten, and the French Vie ouvrière group of Pierre Monatte and Alfred Rosmer—they all took the same position. Yet revolutionary defeatism found little echo, even among the handful of socialists opposed to the war. These tried to re-establish international networks at conferences organized by the socialist parties of neutral countries in Switzerland. In Germany a wing of the revolutionary movement formed in autumn 1914 around Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring, Leo Jogiches, and Rosa Luxemburg. This group, which took the name of Spartacists, nevertheless opposed the idea of splitting the labour movement. When they were expelled from the German party, along with other opponents of the war, in spring 1917 they joined the Independent (p. 111) Social-Democratic Party (USPD), led by centrists such as Karl Kautsky and Hugo Haase. Although in a minority, the extreme radicals nevertheless joined what was known as the Zimmerwald Left, the nucleus of the future International they hoped to found.

The First World War was a war without precedent. Its duration and the intensity of the war effort necessitated a mobilization of all elements of society on a scale never seen before. Total war imposed enormous sacrifices on the great majority, made all the more unbearable because so many profited from it. The traditional division between home and front, between shirkers and those who sacrificed their lives, quickly became blurred, particularly once populations began to go hungry as a result of the economic blockade. National cohesion began to crumble, as economic strikes gripped many sectors in several countries. In Britain there was the movement by shop stewards and there were strikes by textile workers, in France there were strikes by metalworkers, in Germany and Austria demonstrations against shortages, and in Russia and Italy food riots. In Turin workers set up barricades. Discontent passed like a contagion from the rear to the front. At the front the final offensives ended in a bloodbath without fundamentally modifying the balance of forces. The daily experience of death and the perception of pointless sacrifice wore down the nerves of the combatants. In France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia mutinies broke out, soldiers manhandled their officers, or threatened to march on the capitals or deserted en masse, as the Italians did after the defeat at Caporetto in 1917. Usually the contestations were less a challenge to the war itself than a criticism of the way it was being conducted; and in most countries, the protests were circumscribed and authority was restored, at least for a time. In Russia the crisis ran deeper. Totally discredited, the autocratic tsarist government collapsed in the face of five days of demonstrations (23–27 February 1917) by women and workers followed by a spontaneous mutiny by the soldiers of the capital.

The form of the regime that emerged from the February Revolution was uncertain. As in 1905, soviets, that is to say councils of workers’, soldiers’, sailors’, and later peasants’ deputies, which were subject to frequent election and accountable to their constituents, appeared spontaneously. The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which sought to coordinate local soviets across Russia, comprised delegates from the Socialist Revolutionaries, the successors to the Populists (Narodniks), the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, namely the two factions of the Russian Social Democratic Party who had split in 1903 around the question of the form of the party, plus anarchists and syndicalists. The Provisional Government, which comprised liberal members of the former Duma (mainly, from the Constitutional Democratic Party), was the executive power but counted on the support of the Petrograd Soviet. The government thus consisted of a coalition of heterogeneous forces united only by their opposition to tsarism. Very much in a minority, the Bolsheviks refused all support for the Provisional Government. Upon his return from Switzerland on 3 (16) April 1917, Lenin defined the programme of the party in the ‘April Theses’: an immediate peace, uncompromising opposition to the bourgeois Provisional Government, and all power to the soviets. For the Bolsheviks, who did not intend that the revolution should remain at the bourgeois stage, February was only a step towards the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war. Without authority over (p. 112) the state apparatus, and denied democratic legitimacy, three iterations of the Provisional governments succeeded one another between February and October, control passing from the liberals to the moderate socialists. Yet each proved unable to cope with the problems inherited from the old regime. Reforms that had been promised and the election of a Constituent Assembly to determine the shape of the new regime were postponed. Yet the government was not in a position to impose the necessary measures to compel a continuation of the war. After the disastrous June Offensive, peasants left the front en masse in order to participate in the break-up of the landlords’ estates. Everywhere a process of radicalization of the masses got underway, a Bolshevization of society. In September the Bolsheviks won elections in many local soviets and the following month had a majority of delegates at the First All-Russian Conference of Factory Committees. Membership of the party rose from twenty-four thousand in January to a quarter of a million. In October, together with their allies, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, they won a majority in the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. By this time, the dual power of the spring had disappeared and there was a power vacuum. On 24–25 October (6–7 November, new-style), the Military Revolutionary Committee in Petrograd, directed by Trotsky, carried out a coup. However this was, according to Marc Ferro, the culmination of a vast social movement, multiform and spontaneous, a movement that encompassed different revolutions, each largely autonomous, each contributing in its own way to the dissolution of power. There was the revolt of soldiers against the conduct of their officers; peasant uprisings to seize the land; the imposition of workers’ control in the factories; and the movement of non-Russian peoples for national independence. The momentary convergence of these movements was reflected in the first measures adopted by the new government of workers and peasants: a decree on land that legalized the seizure and redistribution of landed estates; the decree on peace; the decree on workers’ control of production and the declaration of the rights of the peoples of Russia.

It was in Russia, the ‘weakest link in the capitalist chain’ according to Lenin, that an inherently global process was first victorious because of particular circumstances. Like the French Revolution before it, however, the October revolution had effects that went well beyond its territory. For the Bolsheviks, the complete victory of the socialist revolution was unimaginable without the cooperation of the more economically advanced countries. The Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) would prove to be the first in a federation of soviet socialist republics that would eventually stretch across the globe. The Decree on Peace, published the day after the seizure of power, was intended to spur the spread of the revolution by forcing a choice upon the belligerent powers: immediate peace or revolutionary war. For Lenin, the seizure of power, exit from the war via a democratic peace, and proletarian revolutions in Europe were part of a single process. The Decree advances a position first articulated by the Petrograd Soviet in March, namely, a demand for an ‘immediate peace’. This was not a socialist peace, but a ‘just and democratic’ peace without annexations or indemnities, and one that recognized the right of all nations to self-determination. There was no reference to class struggle or to revolution, just a belief that people would refuse to continue to fight once the secret treaties were published that revealed the imperialist aims of their governments. The (p. 113) principal target of the appeal was the proletariat of the industrialized countries, and the expected result was not an end to fighting but a general uprising of the people against the capitalist system responsible for the war. But the Decree on Peace did not have the effect intended: the governments of the central European empires, like those of the Entente, refused to negotiate a just and democratic peace. German soldiers, far from rising up against their government, prepared to march on Russia. The soviet leaders were then confronted by contradictory demands: either to stabilize their regime by signing a separate peace that reinforced German imperialism or to launch a defensive revolutionary war pending the outbreak of proletarian revolution in Europe.

At the end of January 1918 troubles broke out in Budapest. A strike movement gripped factories in Vienna, then in Berlin and Leipzig. This enabled the soviets to refuse to sign a separate peace. At the end of February, however, the German army invaded Ukraine and broke through the Baltic Front. A majority emerged around Lenin in favour of signing an immediate peace, even though its terms were humiliating. For the Left Communists, such as Bukharin and Radek, and for many European revolutionaries, the treaty was seen as prioritizing Russia’s national interest and betraying the world revolution. In forcing soviet leaders to choose between permanent revolution or cohabitation with capitalism, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk raised a problem that would recur thereafter, where the interests of the Soviet state were in contradiction with those of the international revolution. The signing of the Treaty in March 1918 did not provide the Bolsheviks with the respite they hoped for. Hostilities resumed when the Germans intervened militarily to sustain anti-Bolshevik governments in Finland, the Baltic, Crimea, and the Caucasus. This German advance in turn spurred the Allies to despatch military contingents to Russia, officially to defend the integrity of Russian territory. Yet the intervention of the Allies changed character in May 1918 when the Czech Legion, some forty thousand soldiers who had joined the Russian Army after becoming prisoners of war, rebelled against the Bolshevik attempt to disarm them as they crossed Russia en route to evacuation from Vladivostok. The Czech troops assisted the Socialist Revolutionaries in setting up anti-Bolshevik governments in the Volga, Urals, and western Siberia. Following the arrival of British and American troops in Arkhangel’sk and Murmansk, of French troops in Odessa and Japanese troops in eastern Siberia, the civil war in Russia became an international crusade against Bolshevism. By autumn 1918 Soviet Russia was reduced to the territory of ancient Muscovy, completely encircled militarily, and isolated by a cordon sanitaire aimed at stifling the regime economically. It was at this moment that the hoped for breakthrough arrived.

With a time lag of more than a year and with different configurations in each country—the national movement, for example, was much stronger in Austria-Hungary than in Germany—the forces that had contributed to the disintegration of Russia in 1917 now provoked the collapse of the central European empires and their allies, their armies having been in retreat since summer. The revolutionary wave began in September with a mutiny by Bulgarian soldiers in Radomir. The Turkish Army then collapsed, and was obliged to conclude an armistice on 20 October. The disintegration spread to the Austro-Hungarian Army, which withdrew from the military alliance. The national committees that took (p. 114) power precipitated the break-up of the Habsburg empire: Czechoslovakia proclaimed its independence, as did the southern Slavs (Croats, Slovenes, Dalmatians) and Poles, while Austria and Hungary saw their territories severely amputated. Sometimes governments existed simultaneously, as in Hungary where alongside the Provisional Government of Count Mihály Károlyi, which was supported by the Hungarian National Council, there was a council of soldiers and a council of workers in Budapest. In Germany the revolt was initiated by sailors at Kiel who refused to fight in a war that was now lost. The mutiny spread to the ports, and demonstrations took place in Bremen, Leipzig, Hamburg, and Munich. The movement grew and radicalized as it took up the slogans of the councils of workers and soldiers. From there things unfolded very quickly: the emperor abdicated, Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed a republic from the balcony of the Reichstag, while not far away the Spartacist, Liebknecht, announced the German socialist republic. In Bavaria the councils backed a general strike and an assault on the barracks. Workers’ councils appeared in Poland—in Lublin, Łódź, Warsaw, and the mining region of Dąbrowa; one also appeared in Reval (Tallinn) in Estonia. The force of these upheavals was particularly strong in the defeated countries. But the after-effects of the war made themselves felt across the continent, including countries that were victorious or had been neutral. The Dutch socialist David Winjkoop launched an appeal to form a commune in Amsterdam and a federal socialist republic of the Netherlands. On the day of the armistice, Switzerland experienced the first general strike in its history. In Zurich and Basle minority groups, the Altkommunisten and the anarchists, helped to toughen workers’ demonstrations repressed by peasant soldiers. In January 1919 the workers of Catalonia went on strike for forty-three days. Strikes broke out on an unprecedented scale—in Britain in January, in the USA in February, in France and Italy, for a reduction in working hours and a rise in wages during the spring. Revolt was also stirring among the soldiers of the Entente who after the armistice were used to maintain order or to intervene in Soviet Russia. Finally, the end of the war coincided with the first wave of anti-imperialist revolts in the European colonies in which people demanded, in return for their participation in the war effort, the right to determine their own affairs.

For the Bolsheviks the world revolution was on the march. It was thus an urgent task to found a new International to establish ‘the closest contact between the different parts of the revolutionary proletariat and the complete unity of the countries in which the revolution has triumphed’.1

Revolutions and Counter-Revolutions in Europe

The Bolsheviks, who had now assumed the name ‘Communist’, made great efforts to present the foundation of the Third International as a continuation of the Zimmerwald movement, in order to avoid the impression that it was an organization controlled by (p. 115) Moscow designed to break Russia’s isolation at a time when foreign intervention was in full swing. The foreign militants who succeeded in getting to Soviet Russia for the founding Congress were few. Of the fifty-one delegates who took part in its work, more than forty were members of the foreign sections of the Russian Communist Party, groups organized by the Bolsheviks from soldiers recruited in the prisoner-of-war camps or from radicalized refugees in Russia. In autumn 1918 some of these had returned to participate in the foundation of communist parties in their own countries. They included the Czech, Ferdinand Effenberger, the Austrian, Karl Tomann, and among the Germans, Ernst Reuter, who would become the secretary of the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1921, along with Werner Rakow, the Comintern’s point man. The most striking example of the importance of these groups in the international dissemination of communism was in Hungary, where six of the eighteen members of the central committee of the Hungarian Communist Party, formed at the end of November 1918, were former prisoners of war, like Béla Kun. A Polish communist workers’ party was formed in December through the unification of several socialist groups, but it was skeletal and did not manage to send a representative. Only the KPD, which was formed on the night of 31 December to 1 January 1919 by Spartacists, communist internationalists from Bremen and Hamburg, and by the Borchardt group in Berlin, looked anything like a mass party. But even then, the independents of the USPD and the revolutionary factory delegates in Berlin refused to join the new party. Moreover, the mandate that Rosa Luxemburg handed to Hugo Eberlein in the name of the central committee of the KPD ran contrary to the wishes of the Bolsheviks in that it considered it premature to found a new International in the absence of true communist parties in Europe, although it did not renounce this move in principle. Much friendly pressure and many incidents enabled the Bolsheviks to overcome the reservations of the German delegate to the first Congress who abstained from voting against the foundation of the International, an act that was otherwise carried by the delegates. Communists thus became a global party. Nevertheless the International remained essentially a symbol, an expression of solidarity with the soviet republic.

According to the analysis of the Third International, the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war marked the onset of the communist revolution. ‘The task of the proletariat now is to seize state power.’2 Concretely, the revolution consisted in destroying the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie and organizing a new proletarian state apparatus in the form of a government of workers’ councils. The tactic envisaged was mass action by the proletariat, including armed struggle. The recourse to civil war, understood as being the inevitable culmination of class struggle where crisis had become acute, was a component element in the history of Bolshevism and the revolutionary movement in imperial Russia more broadly. Civil war, however, was scarcely an element in the arsenal of the European Social Democrats, above all in Germany. During her imprisonment, Rosa Luxemburg wrote several essays somewhat critical of the Russian Revolution, and in particular she reproached the Bolsheviks for their use of violence and for the Red Terror that had been launched by the Cheka. The Bolshevik dictatorship, she noted, was the ‘almost inevitable result of a succession of dramatic circumstances including (p. 116) the shortcomings of the German proletariat and the occupation of Russia by German imperialism’; yet ‘the danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics’.3 In an article that served as the programme of the Spartacist League, she subsequently declared that the ‘Spartacist League will never undertake a conquest of power other than via the clear and unequivocal will of the great majority of the proletarian masses of Germany’.4 In reality, the uprising of January 1919, far from being a planned insurrection directed by the young German Communist Party, was the culmination of spontaneous clashes between revolutionaries and the government that had been going on for over a month. These clashes made the Spartacist leadership nervous, but they were supported by the party base, which comprised young workers who wished to pass immediately to the social revolution, and by the USPD which wished to replace the SPD at the head of the government.

But was it not already too late? Within months the state strengthened itself substantially. Profiting from his dual role as Chancellor of the Reich and president of the council of people’s commissars, Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democrats, set the foundations of a new regime even before the convocation of a Constituent Assembly. The signing of an agreement with the army, followed by one between the trade unions and the employers, guaranteed the continuity of the old social structure, the bureaucracy of the Wilhelmine state, and, above all, the military hierarchy. With the support of the Minister of War, the socialist Gustav Noske, a paramilitary Freikorps was formed, composed of volunteers trained by officers and this proceeded to disarm the civilian population of the capital. Faced by eighty thousand soldiers stationed by General W. Lütwitz around Berlin, the workers could count on only a few units of the League of Red Soldiers and the security forces in the capital under the command of Emil Eichhorn. It was the dismissal of Eichhorn, USPD prefect of police, that served as a pretext for the outbreak of hostilities. Refusing to comply, Eichhorn gained the support of all left organizations in Berlin, which called for demonstrations against the government. For Rosa Luxemburg it was simply a protest movement, but the representatives of the USPD in Berlin, and above all the revolutionary factory delegates, felt that it was necessary to respond to the mass mobilization—caused partly by the abandonment of promises to socialize industry—by seeking to overturn the government. Fearing they would be outflanked by the base, Wilhelm Pieck and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the newly founded KPD, approved—against the advice of the party’s central committee—the formation of a revolutionary committee to direct operations. After six days of clashes, the uprising in Berlin was bloodily suppressed, leaving the young communist power crushed and condemned to the underground. On 15 January, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested and summarily executed. Hundreds of fatalities ensued. Clashes between the revolutionaries and the government forces continued for several months across the country. As in Berlin, these were more revolts than armed insurrections and the local authorities almost everywhere were able to restore order without calling in the army. In Bremen and Düsseldorf, where left-wing groups were strong within the councils, the revolutionaries (p. 117) came to power for a few weeks. Solidarity from the Ruhr miners suggested that the movement might be coordinated on a national scale. In Bremen the revolutionaries were beaten before such coordination could be achieved, but in Leipzig and above all in central Germany the revolutionaries reacted at the end of February when a general strike received massive support. In early March the movement in Berlin was smashed by Noske’s troops with more than a thousand victims, among them Leo Jogiches, KPD organizer and lover of the murdered Rosa Luxemburg. In April the Freikorps conducted punitive operations in Düsseldorf, Magdeburg, Braunschweig, Leipzig, and elsewhere. Nevertheless the social revolution was gaining ground in Bavaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine—where anarchists had organized rural communes (the Makhnovshchina)—and soon in Italy. This was the spring of the council movement.

In Bavaria the assassination by an extreme right-wing officer of the leader of the November revolution, the independent socialist Kurt Eisner, led to the proclamation in April of a republic of councils. Supported at first by a diverse coalition of independent socialists, anarchists, and non-party intellectuals (among them the writer, Ernst Toller), the republic passed into communist control for two weeks. Its programme was that of the Spartacist League but its activities concentrated on organizing a red army and the struggle against the forces of counter-revolution. The repression of the council republic was particularly violent. The army and the Freikorps purged Munich of ‘reds’ with machine guns. In Hungary the commune lasted rather longer at 143 days. Under constant pressure for months from demonstrations and from a Communist Party that had grown to forty thousand members by March, and faced by the imminent occupation of part of the territory of the republic by the Entente, the Hungarian socialists who separated from the party’s right wing signed an agreement to govern with the communists whose principal members were in jail. This pact of 21 May 1919 entailed a fusion of the socialist and communist parties, the formation of a government based on councils of workers and peasants, the annulment of elections to a Constituent Assembly, and the creation of a proletarian army. Twelve communists entered the revolutionary council of government which was officially led by a socialist, but its true leader was Béla Kun, minister of foreign affairs. The first measures adopted—the creation of a new currency, which was rapidly devalued, a ban on private trade, and the abolition of private property in all means of production—aggravated the economic chaos inherited from the old regime. In the countryside the nationalization of large estates frustrated the peasants who had begun to divide up the land. Very quickly, the collapse of production and the disappearance of a market in food led to poverty, rationing, and inflation. The government was torn between its right wing, the socialists, and its left, those communists closest to Tibor Szamuely. The latter headed the security services and the paramilitaries known as Lenin’s Boys, which were notorious for their abuses, provoking protest from socialist ministers as well as widespread tension in the population. If the government retained any popular support it was because it put up national resistance to the Entente and to intervention by the Romanian and Czech armies. From the start, the Hungarian council republic was implicated in a war in which the victory of socialist revolution or of counter-revolution was at stake in central Europe and the Balkans. The Hungarian (p. 118) communists received support from foreigners, including a brigade organized in Vienna, and hoped to join forces with soviet Ukraine, which was then led by C. Rakovskii, who headed the southern bureau of the Comintern. But there was to be no breakthrough. Almost at once, the Hungarian Army, composed of volunteers and of conscripts chosen by the trade unions, crumbled in the face of the Romanian Army. For its part, the Red Army in Ukraine was forced to retreat before the forces of A. I. Denikin, who settled comfortably on soviet territory in spite of resistance from Makhno’s insurrectionary guerrillas. At the end of April, Romanian troops, supported from the 1 May by the Czechs, threatened the Hungarian capital. This sparked an upsurge on the part of the workers of Budapest, more than forty thousand of whom enrolled in the Red Army, following an appeal from Kun. In June the Hungarian Army managed to roll back the Romanian and Czech troops. On 16 June, with assistance from some Hungarians, the Slovakian republic of councils was proclaimed at Presov. But the counter-offensive of the Hungarian Red Army ground to a halt following a peasant uprising in the west of the country and a railway workers’ strike. On 29 June the Slovakian council of republics was wiped out by the Czech Army. In Hungary, despite the resignation of Kun and his colleagues, who fled to Vienna, fighting continued until 6 August, when Romanian forces took over Budapest. The repression meted out against revolutionaries by Admiral Miklos Horthy’s forces ended in several thousand executions and tens of thousands of arrests.

Although theoretically a victor power, Italy found itself in a situation very similar to that of the defeated powers. Frustrated in its territorial ambitions, the government was confronted in the spring by a series of wild strikes against the cost of living. Hundreds of shops and warehouses were pillaged in Forli, Milan, and Florence, where a republic of soviets was declared that lasted all of three days. The crisis got worse with the demobilization of war industries, provoking true proletarian revolts. Peasants returning from the front occupied the latifundia in Lazio, and in the Po Valley landless labourers occupied the lands of large tenant farmers, the red flag at their head. Smallholders and day labourers organized cooperatives and unions while the landowners and industrialists financed private militias, among them the combat units, or fasces, formed by Benito Mussolini in March. The swing of the pendulum from revolution to counter-revolution was particularly marked in Italy where two years of social struggle concluded with the fascists coming to power. However, elsewhere repression was as common as protest in 1919: the British police charged demonstrators in the Battle of George Square in Glasgow; in Buenos Aires the repression of a general strike in the tragic week led to the death of over two hundred workers; in Switzerland strike leaders were jailed; in the USA anarchists and other radicals (including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman) were expelled; in Romania and Yugoslavia demonstrations were suppressed. Repression also affected Austria, where the Communist Party, which had refused an insurrection in spite of pressure from Hungary, was provoked into action by the Social Democratic minister of the interior and then drowned in blood. The culture of violence inherited from the war was to permeate European society for a very long time.

(p. 119) Anti-Imperialist Contestation

The significance of the October revolution was very different in the East than in Europe. For populations under colonial rule, communism crystallized aspirations for national independence. This was paradoxical at first sight, since Marxism as an internationalist ideology did not favour nationalism. Yet Russia was a multinational state and Lenin from the start of the war challenged those Marxists who refused to integrate the national question into their tactics. For him, recognition of the right of peoples to self-determination was not an end in itself but a means to reinforce the class struggle. Nationalist movements proved important in precipitating the dissolution of the tsarist empire and the fall of the Provisional Government. The issue proved to be even more critical in the case of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Aspirations to national independence were also significant in the United Kingdom, which was confronted in 1916 by the uprising in Ireland, then by real civil war from 1919. Nationalist movements spread from Europe to the colonies, and the skill of the Bolsheviks lay in assimilating the colonial question to the national question and re-emphasizing the distinction between oppressor states and oppressed nations (colonized or minority peoples), a distinction that Lenin considered to be at the heart of imperialism. The anti-colonial policy of the Soviets was thus an extension of their nationalities policy. Both were seen as preliminaries to the socialist revolution. The Decree of 2 (15) November 1917 on the right of the peoples of Russia to secede lent credibility to the Bolsheviks’ anti-imperialist stance. They published the secret treaties that inter alia envisaged the annexation of Constantinople by Russia and proceeded to renounce the rights acquired by tsarist Russia in Persia, Afghanistan, and China. They also launched an appeal to ‘all the toiling Muslims of Russia and the East’ to throw off the yoke of imperialism, which was soon extended to Arabs, Turks, and Hindus. This appeal was not only addressed to the former subjects of the tsar but also to peoples colonized by the Western powers and in those states characterized as ‘formally independent’, such as Turkey, China, or Persia. The diversity of the political status of these countries in the Bolsheviks’ eyes merely masked the common reality of their subordination to Western capitalism. The Bolsheviks saw national liberation movements as an emanation of the bourgeois stage of the revolution and did not think they could achieve emancipation from colonialism by themselves. ‘Colonial slaves of Africa and Asia. The hour of the proletarian dictatorship in Europe will for you mark the hour of your deliverance.’5 Yet the colonies were also seen as the weak point in the capitalist system and it was useful, especially in a context when the imperialist powers had launched a general offensive against the soviet republic, to build a bridge between the struggles of workers in the West and those of the masses in the East. After the defeat of the Central Powers, the British occupied parts of Turkey, the Caucasus, Persia, and central Asia. In the East the Japanese and the White army of Admiral A. V. Kolchak blocked Soviet access to the Far East.

The war had fomented national aspirations in the colonies. Colonial troops had fought on Europe’s battlefields. Local economies had participated in the war effort of (p. 120) the metropolis. In return, the peoples of the colonies now demanded that the principle of self-determination, enunciated by Woodrow Wilson, be implemented, or at least that their political status be upgraded. It was on the US president, rather than on the Soviets, that the hopes of the national liberation movements were placed, as is testified by the visits made to Paris during the peace negotiations by nationalist leaders such as Hồ Chí Minh. The extension of the right of self-determination to the peoples of the colonies hardly figured in the plans of the British and French, who favoured limiting this right to the peoples of Europe. Far from wishing to renounce their colonies, the victorious powers intended to annex new territories that had belonged to the defeated empires, and this provoked a series of nationalist revolts in the Middle and Far East. It was the gap between the principles proclaimed by Wilson and the policies embodied in the peace treaties that allowed the Soviets to get closer to nationalist movements that had once been alien to them.

In Egypt, which had officially become a British protectorate in 1914, a nationalist revolt erupted on 9 March 1919, led by the Wafd Party of Saad Zaghloul in response to the refusal of the metropolis to consider independence. The explosion of popular anger that resulted from the arrest and deportation to Malta of the Wafd leadership spread to several regions, then to different religious communities and finally to all sections of the population, thus assuming the form of a vast revolution. The repression carried out by the British under General Allenby led to thousands of deaths. After being freed, Saad Zaghloul went to Versailles but was unable to prevent international recognition for a British protectorate in Egypt. Simultaneously, the enactment of new repressive laws in India triggered a resurgence of nationalist activity in that country. Mahatma Gandhi, the head of the Indian National Congress, began a satyâgraha—mass non-violent action—to protest against the exile of two nationalist leaders. The British responded with the massacre at Amritsar in Punjab: almost four hundred were killed and over one thousand wounded. Uprisings followed in Bombay, Calcutta, Ahmedabad, and Delhi. In April, too, the young king Amanullah renounced the treaty signed by his predecessor that had made Afghanistan a British dependency. Determined to separate his country from the British sphere of influence, Amanullah declared war on the British in May. British troops succeeded in crushing the Afghan forces, but subsequently had the greatest difficulty containing revolts by Pashtun tribes in Waziristan. In this mountainous region on the southeast frontier of Afghanistan, which had been incorporated into the empire in 1893, the British resorted to aerial bombardments, as they would do the following year during the tribal uprising in Mesopotamia to defeat the combatants. The British withdrew from Afghanistan owing to the conflicts that broke out in India, which allowed the Soviets for the first time to apply a policy that accorded with both the national and international interests of the RSFSR. The support that they offered to the ‘only existing independent Muslim state’ (Lenin, November 1919) weakened British imperialism, but it also accorded with Russian national interests, which had been directed against the British in this region since the nineteenth century. The Soviets pursued a similar policy in Persia. Having renounced the rights Russia had gained in 1907 as a result of the Anglo-Russian Convention, the Soviet government condemned the Anglo-Persian (p. 121) Agreement of 1919, which placed the entire country under British influence. British troops operating in the Caucasus and central Asia blocked the first emissaries sent by the Soviets to Persia, but in May 1920, after the defeat of White leaders Kolchak and Denikin and the partial withdrawal by the British, the Soviets sent an expeditionary corps to Enzeli, a port on the Caspian Sea, to support the republic of Gilan led by Kūchik Khān, a revolutionary nationalist opposed to the government in Tehran. The Soviets also supported the nationalist movement in Tabriz, which proclaimed the secession of the republic of Azerbaijan from Persia.6 The situation was very similar in Turkey, which was under partial occupation by the Allies. There the nationalist movement took the form of a revolt against British policy. In August 1919 Mustapha Kemal, commander of the Turkish army in Anatolia, repudiated the authority of the Sultan in Constantinople and assumed the leadership of nationalist resistance to the occupying Allied forces. The Soviets, who supported Turkish resistance to Allied demands to open the Black Sea straits and gain free access for their warships, gave their support to Kemal’s government in its struggle against a foreign imperialism that threatened both countries.

The same configuration was to be found in the Far East where the Japanese empire, in occupation of the maritime provinces of Siberia, was the common enemy of the Soviets and local nationalists. In Korea, which had been annexed by Japan in 1910, a declaration of independence signed by thirty-three representatives of political and religious groups provoked a huge popular uprising across the country. A civil government replaced the military government. But the non-violent demonstrations that unfolded at the funeral of the last king of the Chosŏn dynasty provided the Japanese with a pretext to unleash repression. Those who managed to escape went into exile in Shanghai where they formed a provisional republican government. Others returned to Russia where there were already important communities of Korean workers organized into national soviets.7 One party in the government-in-exile, which regrouped the forces of the opposition from September, hoped to obtain satisfaction by sending a delegate to Versailles. For others, such as Yi Donghwi, co-founder of the Union of Korean Socialists and later of the Korean Communist Party, Korean independence henceforth depended on friendship with Russia. The rapprochement of nationalists with Soviet Russia was even more marked in China, where the upholding by the Versailles peacemakers of the economic and judicial privileges enjoyed by the Western powers in China and the transfer of German privileges in Shandong province to the Japanese aroused violent protests, known as the May Fourth Movement. This movement of students, workers, and merchants, considered by most historians to be the origin of communism in China, encouraged the diffusion of Bolshevik ideas among progressive intellectuals such as Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao.

Conforming to the foreign policy interests of Soviet Russia, the support given by the RSFSR to nationalists fighting imperialism aroused some criticism from foreign militants. During preliminary discussions to prepare the Congress of the Peoples of the East, Giacinto Serrati, leader of the maximalist wing of the Italian Socialist Party, worried that an appeal to the bourgeois or feudal forces in India, Egypt, or elsewhere would compromise communist international work. The debate rebounded during the Second (p. 122) Congress of the Comintern, at which delegates from India, China, Korea, Turkey, and the Dutch East Indies, as well as from the Caucasus and central Asia, participated for the first time. The commission on the national and colonial question discussed theses by Lenin and by the Indian delegate, M. N. Roy. Both theses emphasized that the liberation of oppressed peoples would require world proletarian revolution, but contrary to Lenin, Roy distinguished clearly between ‘bourgeois-democratic’ movements that ‘do not reflect the aspirations of the masses’ and ‘movements of the poor, illiterate peasants and workers’. According to him, the communist vanguard, however small, should never be subordinated to ‘bourgeois democratic’ movements, even if these were branded as ‘national-revolutionary’.8 The theses of M. N. Roy were amended and adopted as supplementary to those of Lenin, but it was Lenin’s conception that became dominant, as the First Congress of the Peoples of the East demonstrated when it met in Baku in September 1920. A total of 1,891 delegates from 37 nationalities, among them 1,273 communists, responded to the invitation of the Comintern executive committee to communists and to ‘representatives of international revolutionary organizations and individuals with an anti-imperialist orientation but no party affiliation in the countries of the East’.9 Everyone applauded when Grigorii Zinoviev, chair of the newly created Comintern, called on the delegates to wage a holy war against British imperialism, but behind this unanimity there were political differences. Turkey illustrated the difficulties faced by the Soviets when choosing allies and the problems that could ensue for communists in the east. The Turkish delegation comprised 235 people, ranging from communists to representatives of Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist government, via representatives of religious and Pan-Turkic groups. Upon their return from the Congress, the two principal representatives of Turkish communism, along with sixteen others, were seized and drowned by Kemal’s agents. The Turkish communist movement, one of the most dynamic in the region, was thereby eliminated. Yet this did not prevent the Soviet Union signing a friendship treaty with Turkey on 16 March 1921. Disillusion on the part of communists in the east would be even greater in China, where the nationalists of the Guomindang, long supervised by Soviet advisers, would turn against the Chinese Communist Party in 1927. The subordination of communists to ‘revolutionary national’ movements that was feared by Roy was evident in the way the Soviets conducted the fight against global imperialism. Even in Russia, criticism began to be raised of ‘soviet colonialism’ by Georgii Safarov and Khristian Rakowski, as territories from Azerbaijan in the spring of 1920 to Turkestan, Georgia, and Armenia were reincorporated into the Soviet state.


Despite the ebbing of the first revolutionary tide and the violent repression that it provoked, the hopes aroused by the October Revolution did not disappear. Enthusiasm remained, as can be seen in the formation of communist parties and groups in most countries in the Americas and Asia. To some degree, ‘communism was in fashion’, to (p. 123) use an expression from the preamble to the ‘Twenty-One Conditions’ that regulated adhesion to the Comintern. Even if it was often a minority phenomenon, Bolshevism seemed to be prevailing, especially among the younger generation, over other currents in the labour movement such as anarchism, which had been much more influential than Marxism in some countries before the war, and social democracy, which had been discredited because of its support for the war and its role in the repression. The failure of the council movement was blamed on the fact that revolutionaries had maintained the alliance with moderate socialists. So it was considered necessary to build authentic communist parties through a process of purges and splits in the labour movement. If the revolution had failed at the barricades, it was now advancing on the bayonets of the Red Army. Although surprised by the attack of the Polish army of Józef Piłsudski, Poland’s Chief of State, in April 1920, the Red Army succeeded during the summer in getting to the gates of Warsaw. But hopes for a revolution in Poland proved short lived. Polish workers did not rise up against their government and Soviet troops were forced to retreat behind the Curzon line. Disillusionment in Germany would be even greater following defeats of the uprising of March 1921 and of October 1923. The period of capitalist destabilization was passing, as the Third Congress of the Comintern recognized.

In Soviet Russia itself the Bolsheviks won the civil war but the country was left utterly isolated and exhausted, the population on the edge of starvation, and society bruised by violence. Worker demonstrations and the Kronstadt rebels denounced the usurpation of power by the Bolsheviks by reference to the ideals of 1917, but they were suppressed. Menaced by peasant insurrection, the regime authorized the re-establishment of an embryonic market economy (NEP). Having aroused so much enthusiasm across the world in 1919, Soviet power was becoming little more than a label in Russia, a cover for a dictatorship of the party that was becoming steadily more monolithic.

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                              (1) . Letter of Invitation to the Foundation Congress of the Third International. <>.

                              (2) . Letter of Invitation.

                              (3) . Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution (1918). <>.

                              (4) . ‘Was will der Spartakusbund?’, Rote Fahne, 14 December 1918.

                              (5) . ‘Manifeste du premier congrès de l’Internationale communiste aux prolétaires du monde entier’, Thèses, manifestes et résolutions, 32. This ringing phrase is missing from the English translation at <>.

                              (6) . Vladimir Genis, Krasnaia Persiia. Bol’sheviki v Giliane, 1920–21: Dokumental’naia khronika, (Moscow: MNPI, 2000).

                              (7) . VKP (b), Komintern i Koreia, 1918–41 (Moscow: Rosspen, 2007), 4–6.

                              (8) . M. N. Roy, Selected Works of M. N. Roy, T.1, 1917–22 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 165–8.

                              (9) . Jane Degras, The Communist International 1919–1943, Documents, vol. 1–3 (London: Oxford University Press, 1956–65), 105–9.