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   Vol. 69/No. 4           January 31, 2005  
Crisis, boom, and revolution
1921 reports by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, with preface by Jack Barnes
(feature article)
Below is the prefatory note by Socialist Workers Party national secretary Jack Barnes to reports Bolshevik leaders V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky presented in 1921 to the Third Congress of the Communist International. We publish it along with excerpts from those reports. These materials will appear in issue no. 12 of New International, a magazine of Marxist politics and theory. They will be published as an appendix to “Capitalism’s Long Hot Winter Has Begun,” the political report and summary by Barnes adopted by delegates to the July 2002 SWP national convention.

The report by Barnes points to the convergence of Washington’s accelerating militarization drive with the economic conflicts among imperialist powers being deepened by the opening stages of a depression. It explains the beginnings of a political transformation of those workers who take the lead to reach for and use union power and join with others to resist as the social consequences of the capitalist crises grow.

New International no. 12 will be published in February together with a companion volume, no. 13. Both will be published at the same time in Spanish as issues 6 and 7 of Nueva Internacional.

The preface and translations that follow are copyright © New International 2005. Reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.

“Capitalism’s long hot winter has begun,” the political report and summary adopted by the 2002 Socialist Workers Party convention, refers several times to two reports debated and approved by the Third Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow in 1921: “A Very Unstable Equilibrium: Report on the Tactics of the Russian Communist Party” by V.I. Lenin, and “The World Economic Crisis and the Tasks of Communists” by Leon Trotsky. Because of the light they shed on how to come to grips with central political questions before convention delegates, these two reports sparked considerable interest.

In preparing the SWP convention, the party’s National Committee recognized that we were addressing a special challenge: Not only how to orient the party to act in face of the “long, hot winter” world capitalism has now entered, but how to lead it to act confidently and responsibly. When enough indications accumulate that the direction of capitalist development, and thus the class struggle, has shifted, we must act and act now on that knowledge. We do so even when concrete manifestations of the unfolding political logic—accelerating financial and economic crises, increased militarization, spreading wars, and increasing social and economic pressures on a growing majority of the working class—are still visible only in partial and scattered ways.

Once we understand the algebra, we need to act before it’s possible to do all the arithmetic. If, before acting, we wait until we can substitute constants for most political variables, it will be too late. In the midst of these changing conditions, we will have squandered opportunities to act as part of a small but recognizable emerging working-class resistance, to join with others in affecting its outcome and politicizing its militants, to learn from the experiences, and to transform the revolutionary workers movement in the process.  
Valuable political tools
In presenting the above perspectives to the 2002 SWP convention, I emphasized that Lenin and Trotsky’s 1921 reports are valuable in that they allow worker-bolsheviks today to better understand and use the political tools that enable us to analyze shifts we are in the midst of in capitalism’s long-run trends and their consequences for communist strategy and party building today. The Bolshevik leaders’ analysis was developed in the heat of revolutionary activity, applying what they had internalized from studying similar earlier efforts by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the founding leaders of the modern communist movement, to apply the materialist dialectic to turning points in history. Mastering this historical materialist method is necessary if we are to orient ourselves politically to such shifts.

A revolutionary proletarian party not only organizes its own members and supporters to act on the evidence of such changes and their logic; it takes responsibility for encouraging other class-struggle-minded, fighting workers and farmers to do the same. Militants won to this perspective may occasionally overreach what the relationship of class forces allows. Such mistakes will be made. We know that. But we remain convinced by 150 years of revolutionary working-class history that the costs of political indecision and delay are far more dangerous and difficult to correct.  
Two different turning points
Extracting lessons from Lenin and Trotsky’s analysis in the reports printed here is made more complex by the fact that the turning point vanguard workers act on today bears little resemblance to the concrete historic period more than eighty years ago during which the Bolsheviks were inspiring, educating, and leading millions in class combat. The Communist International, organized in 1919, was a product of the most exhilarating event of the twentieth century: the victorious conquest of power by the Bolshevik-led workers and peasants of Russia in October 1917, and the extension of this power to large parts of the tsarist empire in Europe and Asia to become the first union of soviet socialist republics.

Working people worldwide were drawn to the possibility of learning from and emulating a living proletarian revolution and its leadership, which had shown for the first time ever how to organize workers, peasants, soldiers, and sailors to conquer—and defend—workers power.

In March 1918, just four months after the conquest of power, the Bolsheviks adopted the name communist, signaling an unequivocal break with all elements of the world Socialist movement that, with the guns of August, had politically gone over to imperialism, ceasing to subordinate their lives and work to advancing the line of march of the working class toward power, the dictatorship of the proletariat. By proclaiming to the workers of the world that new name as their name, the Bolsheviks underscored the fact that the toilers of the expanding union of soviet socialist republics were reknitting the continuity with the revolutionary proletarian world movement that Marx, Engels, and their comrades had begun building in the mid-nineteenth century at the convention that voted to issue the Manifesto of the Communist Party.

Between 1918 and 1920 revolutionary or prerevolutionary situations erupted in Germany, Hungary, and Italy, and mighty battles were fought by workers and farmers in Britain, France, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere. As the Comintern’s Third Congress opened in June 1921, workers and peasants in Soviet Russia and worldwide were still celebrating the Red Army’s recent crushing of the counterrevolutionary, landlord-capitalist armies that had waged a murderous three-year civil war to turn back the revolution. Invading forces from fourteen countries, including France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other imperialist powers, had also been repelled.  
Postwar depression
In the wake of World War I, capitalism had entered a period “of prolonged and profound depression,” Trotsky told the Communist International congress. The roots of that convulsion, he added, could have been seen “as far back as 1913,” the eve of the interimperialist slaughter in which 8.5 million soldiers died, another 21.2 million were wounded, and factories, livestock, and railroads across Europe were decimated.

As it turned out, despite ebbs and flows, neither that social and economic crisis, nor the wave of revolutionary opportunities impelled by the Bolshevik victory, were to run their course for another twenty years: a period marked by the triumph of fascism in Italy; the Great Depression of the 1930s; the victory and bloody consolidation of National Socialism in Germany; and, most importantly, renewed if failed opportunities for the socialist revolution—prerevolutionary and revolutionary situations in Europe and Asia—that were exhausted only with the defeat of the Spanish revolution in 1939, making the second imperialist world war then inevitable.

The concrete character of the historic turning point today, analyzed in “Capitalism’s Long Hot Winter Has Begun,” is very different from that of 1921. As is the world relationship of class forces. One difference is the international political standing of communism among workers, farmers, youth, and others. In the years following the October Revolution, the political respect the Bolshevik leadership had earned, and the confidence millions of workers worldwide had in them, became a powerful objective factor in the international class struggle.

Today, more than three-quarters of a century later, broad mass political attraction to communism among militant working people and youth has—for the moment— been exhausted. At best, communism is seen as a perhaps heroic and historically interesting, although bypassed, movement. At times it is put forward by academic “Marxists” in eviscerated form—its revolutionary working-class heart, the inevitable march toward state power, cut out. At worst, it is identified with the Stalinist counterfeit of Marxism and all the counterrevolutionary, political crimes against and betrayals of the working class committed in its name around the world.  
Finest examples
The political course and communist continuity hammered out by the Comintern in Lenin’s time, however, are revolutionary and working-class to the core. The reports by Lenin and Trotsky printed here are among the finest examples of the materialist dialectic used as a guide to revolutionary action by working-class leaders. Our job is to learn from and apply Lenin and Trotsky’s living, practical example of how Marxists approach the interrelationship between deep-going economic and financial trends in international capitalism, shifts in long-term patterns of imperialist politics and the worldwide class struggle, and sea changes in working-class resistance. Our responsibility—and opportunity—is to act accordingly, in response to today’s trends, and build revolutionary proletarian parties as part of a world communist movement.

Using these tools enabled us to come to the central political conclusion of “Capitalism’s Long Hot Winter Has Begun” and its implications for the organization and activity of proletarian revolutionists today:

Like most other workers, communists participating in this convention must get used to the fact that this world—a world almost none of us have yet known in our political lives—is the one we are facing today. And it is the one we will be living and fighting in for some time. We’re in the very opening stages of what will be decades of economic, financial, and social convulsions and class battles…. We must begin acting on this reality today, or we will be politically caught short when wars erupt, deeper social crises explode, pogroms are organized and attempted, and union battles can become matters of life and death. The party that exists tomorrow can only grow out of the party we put together today.


The publication in New International of this appendix fills out a package of related materials now easily available from Pathfinder Press, especially Trotsky’s 1923 letter, “The Curve of Capitalist Development,” available in issue 10 of New International. In addition, two talks by Trotsky from 1924 and 1926 are published together in the pamphlet Europe and America: Two Speeches on Imperialism.

Steve Clark, managing editor of New International, took responsibility for excerpting Trotsky’s 1921 report, preparing the annotation of both it and the report by Lenin, and supervising the translation checks. The English text of Trotsky’s report, translated by John G. Wright and first published at the close of World War II in Pathfinder’s The First Five Years of the Communist International, has been checked against the original Russian and corrected. The English translation of Lenin’s report, available in volume 32 of his Collected Works, was also checked against the Russian and corrected.

December 2004

The following are excerpts from the report “A Very Unstable Equilibrium: Report on the Tactics of the Russian Communist Party” that V. I. Lenin presented July 5, 1921, to the Third Congress of the Communist International in Moscow.

I think that to make a case for our party’s tactics we must first of all examine the international situation. We have already had a detailed discussion of the economic position of capitalism internationally, and the congress has adopted the corresponding resolutions on this subject. I deal with this subject in my theses very briefly, and only from the political standpoint. I leave aside the economic basis, but I think that in discussing the international position of our republic we must, politically, take into account the fact that a certain equilibrium has now undoubtedly set in between the forces that have been waging an open struggle, arms in hand, against each other for the supremacy of one or another leading class. It is an equilibrium between bourgeois society, the international bourgeoisie as a whole, and Soviet Russia. It is, of course, an equilibrium only in a limited sense. It is only in respect to this military struggle, I say, that a certain equilibrium has been brought about in the international situation.  
Inflammable material
It must be emphasized, of course, that this is only a relative equilibrium, and a very unstable one. Much inflammable material has accumulated in capitalist countries, as well as in those countries that up to now have been regarded merely as the objects and not as the subjects of history, i.e., the colonies and semicolonies. It is quite possible, therefore, that insurrections, great battles, and revolutions may break out in these countries sooner or later, and quite unexpectedly too. During the past few years we have witnessed the direct struggle waged by the international bourgeoisie against the first proletarian republic. This struggle has been at the center of the world political situation, and it is there that a change has taken place. Inasmuch as the attempt of the international bourgeoisie to strangle our republic has failed, an equilibrium has set in, and a very unstable one it is, of course.

We know perfectly well, of course, that the international bourgeoisie is at present much stronger than our republic, and that it is only the peculiar combination of circumstances that is preventing it from continuing the war against us. For several weeks now, we have witnessed fresh attempts in the Far East to renew the invasion, and there is not the slightest doubt that similar attempts will continue. Our party has no doubts whatever on that score.

The important thing for us is to establish that an unstable equilibrium does exist, and that we must take advantage of this respite, taking into consideration the characteristic features of the present situation, adapting our tactics to specific features of this situation, and never forgetting for a minute that the necessity for armed struggle may arise again quite suddenly.

Our task is still to organize and build up the Red Army. In connection with the question of food supplies, too, we must continue to think first of all of our Red Army. We can adopt no other line in the present international situation, when we must still be prepared for fresh attacks and fresh attempts at invasion on the part of the international bourgeoisie.

In regard to our practical policy, however, the fact that a certain equilibrium has been reached in the international situation has some significance, but only in the sense that we must admit that, although the revolutionary movement has made progress, the development of the international revolution this year has not proceeded along as straight a line as we had expected.

When we started the international revolution, we did so not because we were convinced that we could foresee its development, but because we were compelled to do so by a number of circumstances. We thought: either the international revolution comes to our assistance, and in that case our victory will be fully assured, or we shall do our modest revolutionary work in the conviction that even in the event of defeat we shall have served the cause of the revolution and that our experience will benefit other revolutions.

It was clear to us that without the support of the world revolution the victory of the proletarian revolution was impossible. Before the revolution, and even after it, we thought: either revolution breaks out in the other countries, in the more developed capitalist countries, immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must perish. In spite of this conviction, we did all we possibly could to preserve the Soviet system under all circumstances, come what may, because we knew that we were not only working for ourselves, but also for the international revolution….

What, in that case, must we do now? We must now thoroughly prepare for revolution and make a deep study of its concrete development in the advanced capitalist countries. This is the first lesson we must draw from the international situation. As for our Russian republic, we must take advantage of this brief respite in order to adapt our tactics to this zigzag line of history….

The following are excerpts from the report “The World Economic Crisis and the Tasks of Communists” presented by Leon Trotsky June 23, 1921, to the Third Congress of the Communist International.

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 interclass 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 that is always in the process of either disruption or restoration. But at the same time this equilibrium has great resilience, the best proof of which is the fact that the capitalist world has not toppled to this day.  
Post-World War I upsurge
The last imperialist war was an event that 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 its equilibrium and the first to enter the road of revolution….

When in the initial postwar period we observed the unfolding revolutionary movement, it might have seemed to many of us—and with ample historical justification—that this ever-growing and ever-strengthening movement must terminate directly in the conquest of power by the working class. But now almost three years have already elapsed since the war. Throughout the world, with the single exception of Russia, power continues to remain in the hands of the bourgeoisie. In the interim the capitalist world did not, of course, remain standing still. It has been undergoing change. Europe and the entire world have lived through a period of postwar demobilization, an extremely acute and dangerous period for the bourgeoisie—the demobilization of people and the demobilization of things, that is, industry—the period of wild postwar commercial boom followed by a crisis that has yet to end.

And now we are confronted in its full scope by these questions: Does development actually proceed even now in the direction of revolution? Or is it necessary to recognize that capitalism has succeeded in coping with the difficulties arising from the war? And if it has not already restored capitalist equilibrium upon new postwar foundations, is it now either restoring or close to restoring that equilibrium?…  
Boom and crisis
Bourgeois and reformist economists who have an ideological interest in embellishing the plight of capitalism say: in and of itself the current crisis proves nothing whatever; on the contrary, it is a normal phenomenon. Following the war we witnessed an industrial boom, and now—a crisis; it follows that capitalism is alive and thriving.

As a matter of fact, capitalism does live by crises and booms, just as a human being lives by inhaling and exhaling. First there is a boom in industry, then a stoppage, next a crisis, followed by a stoppage in the crisis, then an improvement, another boom, another stoppage, and so on.

Crisis and boom blend with all the transitional phases to constitute a cycle or one of the great circles of industrial development. Each cycle lasts from eight to nine or ten to eleven years. By force of its internal contradictions capitalism thus develops not along a straight line but in a zigzag manner, through ups and downs. This is what provides the ground for the following claim of the apologists of capitalism, namely: since we observe after the war a succession of boom and crisis, it follows that all things are working together for the best in this best of all capitalist worlds.

It is otherwise in reality. The fact that capitalism continues to oscillate cyclically after the war merely signifies that capitalism is not yet dead, that we are not dealing with a corpse. So long as capitalism is not overthrown by the proletarian revolution, it will continue to live in cycles, swinging up and down. Crises and booms were inherent in capitalism at its very birth; they will accompany it to its grave. But to determine capitalism’s age and its general condition—to establish whether it is still developing or whether it has matured or whether it is in decline—one must diagnose the character of the cycles….  
Curve of capitalist development
The gist of the matter, comrades, may be depicted as follows: Let us take the development of capitalism—the growth of coal production, textiles, pig iron, steel, foreign trade, etc.—and draw a curve delineating this development. If in the deflections of this curve we have expressed the true course of economic development, we shall find that this curve does not swing upwards in an unbroken arc but in zigzags, looping up and down—up and down in correspondence with the respective booms and crises. Thus the curve of economic development is a composite of two movements: a primary movement that expresses the general upward rise of capitalism, and a secondary movement that consists of the constant periodic oscillations corresponding to the various industrial cycles….

How are the cyclical fluctuations blended with the primary movement of the curve of capitalist development? Very simply. In periods of rapid capitalist development the crises are brief and superficial in character, while the booms are long-lasting and far-reaching. In periods of capitalist decline, the crises are of a prolonged character while the booms are fleeting, superficial, and speculative. In periods of stagnation the fluctuations occur upon one and the same level….

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 twenty 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….

Cyclical fluctuations will continue to take place but, in general, the curve of capitalist development will slope not upwards but downwards….  
The working class after the war
From the standpoint of the revolution, in general and on the whole, all this creates for the working class a very favorable and at the same time an extremely complex situation. After all, what lies ahead of us is not a chaotic, spontaneous assault, the first stage of which we observed in Europe in 1918-19. It seemed to us…that in the period when the bourgeoisie was disorganized this assault could mount in ever-rising waves, that in this process the consciousness of the leading layers of the working class would become clarified, and that in this way the proletariat would attain state power in the course of one or two years. That was a historical possibility. But it did not materialize.

History has…granted the bourgeoisie a fairly prolonged breathing space…. What has been destroyed, or burned, or ruined, has not come to life again; but the bourgeoisie proved well able to find its bearings in these straitened conditions; it restored its state apparatus and managed to utilize the weakness of the working class. From the standpoint of revolutionary perspectives, the situation has become more complicated, but still remains favorable. It is perhaps with greater assurance that we can say today that on the whole the situation is fully revolutionary. But the revolution…has its own fluctuations, its own crises, and its own favorable conjunctures.

Immediately after the war, the bourgeoisie was in a state of highest confusion and alarm—the workers, especially those returning from the army, were in a peremptory mood. But the working class as a whole was disoriented… unsure of what and how to demand, dubious of what road to take….  
Bourgeoisie makes its move
The movement, as we saw at the beginning of this report, assumed an extremely stormy character, but the working class lacked a firm leadership. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie was ready to make very great concessions. It kept up the financial and economic war regime (loans, emission of paper currency, grain monopoly, relief for the unemployed working masses, etc.). In other words, the ruling bourgeoisie continued to disorganize the economic foundation and to disrupt more and more the productive and financial equilibrium in order to bolster the equilibrium between the classes during the most critical period….

At the present time the bourgeoisie is proceeding to solve the question of restoring the economic equilibrium. Involved here are not temporary concessions or sops to the working class but measures of a fundamental character. The disorganized productive apparatus must be restored. Currency must be stabilized, since the world market is unthinkable without a universal world equivalent, and, therefore, equally unthinkable without a universal equivalent is a “balanced” national industry, one tied up with the world market.  
‘Stabilization’ and resistance
To restore the productive apparatus is to curtail work on consumer goods and to step up work on the means of production. It is necessary to augment accumulation, that is, to intensify labor and slash wages.

To stabilize the currency it is necessary, apart from refusing to pay intolerable debts, to improve the trade balance, that is, import less and export more. And to this end it is necessary to consume less and produce more, that is, once again slash wages and intensify labor.

Every step toward the restoration of the capitalist economy is bound up with boosting the rate of exploitation and will therefore unfailingly provoke resistance on the part of the working class. In other words, every effort by the bourgeoisie to restore the equilibrium in production or in distribution or in state finances must inescapably disrupt the unstable equilibrium between the classes. Whereas during the two postwar years, the bourgeoisie was guided in its economic policy primarily by the desire to mollify the proletariat, even at the cost of further economic ruination, at the present time, in the epoch of unprecedented crisis, the bourgeoisie has begun mending the economic situation by steadily increasing the pressure on the working class.

England provides us with a most graphic illustration of how this pressure engenders resistance. And the resistance of the working class acts to disrupt economic stability and transform all speeches about the restoration of equilibrium into so many empty sounds….  
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