Duncan Hallas

The Comintern

Workers and Peasants


Duncan Hallas, The Comintern, International Socialism (1st series), No.69, May 1974, pp.13-4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This is the third in a series by Duncan Hallas on the early years of the Communist International. The theories and tactics developed in those years have many lessons for a new generation of revolutionaries. The two previous articles – in IS66 and IS68 – dealt with the background to the founding of the International and the problems faced in building it. This article looks at its formulation of the relationship between workers’ struggles in the advanced countries and revolutionary developments in the Third World. The series is based on a book later to be published by Pluto Press.

The question was posed as follows: are we to consider as correct the assertion that the capitalist stage of economic development is inevitable for backward nations ...? We replied in the negative. If the victorious revolutionary proletariat conducts systematic propaganda amongst them, and the Soviet governments come to their aid with all the means at their disposal – in that event it will be mistaken to assert that the backward peoples must inevitably go through the capitalist stage of development. – Lenin: Speech at the Second World Congress.

In 1847 Marx had predicted the inevitability of the development of large scale industry, the growth of a large modern working class and the destruction of the older classes in society, the independent craftsmen, peasants and petty producers. The prediction had been brilliantly vindicated but the process was an uneven one. Essentially, large scale industry was confined to Europe and North America apart from a few enclaves in the rest of the world. For the majority of the world’s population, primitive forms of production were still the norm.

Even in Europe uneven development was marked, above all in agriculture, where the process of capitalist concentration was very slow. Apart from Britain (more exactly England and Lowland Scotland) numerically large peasantries survived in every European country, including such advanced states as France and Germany. No doubt, in the long run, peasant agriculture was doomed. Meanwhile a perspective of revolution in the near future required a policy to win, or at any rate neutralise, the mass of the peasants.

In Russia, where the peasants were a large majority of the population, the Bolsheviks had, as Lenin wrote, “entered into an informal (and very successful) political bloc with the petty bourgeois peasantry by adopting the Socialist-Revolutionary agrarian programme in its entirety, without a single alteration”. [1] The Socialist-Revolutionary party was the main peasant party during 1917 and the substance of its programme was “the land to the peasants”.

Many European Communists were uneasy about this policy. They pointed to the undeniable fact that a land owning peasantry was an obstacle to the development of socialism. They failed to see that peasant support was essential to the overthrow of capitalism. The “centrists” [1*] took the same line. At the Second World Congress, Crispian of the German Independent Social Democrats accused the Russians of opportunism on the agrarian question. Serrati, leader of the centre group in the Italian Socialist Party took a wholly negative view of peasant movements. “Everyone knows that the movement for the occupation of lands – which was carried out, especially in Sicily, by veterans and Popolari (the PPI, a Catholic party with substantial peasant support) – was a demagogic and petty bourgeois movement.” [2] Therefore turn one’s back on it! This in a country with a massive peasantry and after the disastrous experience of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.

Hungary in 1919 was a country in which the peasant majority of the people lived on the estates of great landowners under near-feudal conditions. The Soviet Republic was established peacefully on 21 March. The old regime had collapsed under the impact of military defeat, army mutiny and the insistence of France and Britain that territories containing 30 per cent of all Magyar speakers be transferred to the Anglo-French client states, Romania, Czechoslovakia. and Yugoslavia.

The Soviet government included the social-democrats, who played a vacillating and treacherous role, as well as the Communists, and it enjoyed the support of practically the whole working class. A Red Army was hastily organised. “The Soviet government nationalised industry and the banks, introduced an eight hour working day, disestablished the Church (the biggest single landowner), introduced free school tuition and handed over palaces, villas and sanatoriums for the use of the working people.” [3]

What it did not do was to give the mass of the people, the peasants, a stake in the new order. In spite of advice and entreaties from Moscow, the great estates were simply nationalised and “the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship hardly changed anything in the Hungarian countryside, the day labourers saw no changes, and the small peasants got nothing.” [4]

Romanian and Czechoslovak armies, directed by French officers, invaded Hungary. The Red Republic held out with desperate determination for 133 days, until 1 August. After its fall a white terror practically destroyed the workers’ movement. The great magnates recovered their estates.

The Soviet government, headed by Bela Kun, had made a number of avoidable errors, but the one great error that was decisive was the doctrinaire refusal to compromise, to make serious concessions to the peasants. As a result some three Hungarians out of four had, as they saw it, nothing to lose by the defeat of the working class. The Second World Congress of the International declared: “It is urgently necessary that the conditions of the rural masses, the most exploited of them, should be immediately and appreciably improved by the victory of the proletariat, at the expense of the exploiters, for without that the industrial proletariat cannot rely confidently on support from the countryside or on the provisioning of the towns with food.” [5]

These considerations were of still greater importance in the colonial world. By world standards even Hungary was an advanced society. “The vast majority of the world’s population, over a thousand million, perhaps even 1,250 million people, if we take the total population of the world at 1,750 million,” Lenin declared in his report on the national and colonial questions, “in other words about 70 per cent of the world’s population belong to the oppressed nations, which are either in a state of direct colonial dependence or are semi-colonies, as, for example Persia, Turkey and China ... It would be utopian to believe that proletarian parties in these backward countries, if indeed they can emerge in them, can pursue Communist tactics and a Communist policy, without establishing definite relations with the peasant movement and without giving it effective support.” [6]

But what, in any case, was the perspective for these countries? The material basis of socialism, a developed industry and a high productivity of labour, did not exist in them. The human basis of socialism, a modem working class, was weak or even absent. Must they, then, follow the path taken by the advanced countries, the path of capitalist development?

Lenin’s answer, endorsed by the Second World Congress, was a conditional negative. If the working class gained power in a number of advanced countries, if it came to the aid of the backward ones “with all the means at ... [its] disposal”, then the capitalist road of development was not inevitable. Nearly 40 years earlier Engels had written to Kautsky in a similar though less confident vain. “Once Europe is reorganised [i.e., socialist], and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilised countries will of themselves follow in their wake; economic needs, if anything, will see to that.” However he added cautiously, “But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arrive at socialist organisation, I think we today can advance only rather idle hypotheses.” [7]

There was, nonetheless, a difference between Lenin’s view in 1920 and Engels’ view in 1882. For Engels, the role of the backward countries was essentially passive. For Lenin, they had an active part to play. The difference arose from Lenin’s conception of the development of imperialism, especially the export of capital from advanced imperialist states to backward colonial and semi-colonial ones, leading to “the rentier state ... a state of parasitic, decaying capitalism”. [8]

The rentier capitalism of Britian and France could be attacked in India and China as well as in Britain and France: “Our policy must be to bring into being a close alliance of all national and colonial liberation movements with Soviet Russia.” [9]

For the Communist Parties of the advanced countries the eighth condition for affiliation to the International required:

A particularly explicit and clear attitude on the question of the colonies ... Every party ... is obliged to expose the tricks and dodges of “its” imperialists in the colonies, to support every colonial liberation movement, not merely in words but in deeds, to demand the expulsion of their own imperialists from these colonies ... and to carry on systematic agitation among the troops of their country against any oppression of the colonial peoples. [10]

But this did not mean seeing national liberation struggles in themselves as socialist struggles:

A resolute struggle must be waged against the attempt to clothe the revolutionary liberation movements in the backward countries, which are not genuinely communist, in Communist colours. The Communist International has the duty of supporting the revolutionary movement in the colonies and backward countries only with the object of rallying the constituent elements of the future proletarian parties – which will be truly Communist and not only in name-in all the backward countries and educating them to a consciousness of their special task, namely that of fighting against the bourgeois-democratic trend in their own nation. The Communist International should collaborate provisionally with the revolutionary movement of the colonies and backward countries, and even form an alliance with it, but it must not amalgamate with it; it must unconditionally maintain the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is only in an embryonic stage. [11]



1*. The “centrists” were the current in the international working class movement who stood between the out-and-out reformists and the revolutionaries. The Italian Socialist Party and the German Independent Social Democrats were the most significant centrist parties. See the earlier part of this series in IS66 and IS68.



1. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.31, p.72.

2. Cammet: Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism, p.132.

3. Institute of Marxism-Leninism of USSR, An Outline History of the Communist International, p.61.

4. Lenin, op. cit., Vol.31, pp.249-50.

5. Degras: The Communist International 1919-1943: Documents, Vol.1, p.160.

6. Lenin, op. cit., Vol.31, pp.240-41.

7. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, p.351.

8. Lenin, op. cit., Vol.22, p.278.

9. Degras, op. cit., Vol.1, p.141.

10. Degras, op. cit., Vol.1, p.170.

11. Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, adopted by the Second World Congress on the Communist International, July 1920.


Last updated on 19.10.2006