World Revolution

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When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels implored workers of the world to unite, they announced a new vision of international politics: world socialist revolution. Although central to Marxist thought, the importance of world revolution evoked little debate until World War I. It was Vladimir Lenin who revitalized it, made it central to Bolshevik political theory, and provided an institutional base for it. Although other Marxists, such as Nikolai Bukharin and Rosa Luxemburg, devoted serious attention to it, Lenin's ideas had the most profound impact because they persuasively linked an analysis of imperialism with the struggle for world socialist revolution.

In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), Lenin argued that modern war was due to conflicts among imperialist powers and that any revolution within the imperialist world would weaken capitalism and hasten socialist revolution. The contradictions of capitalism and imperialism provided the soil that nourished world revolution. In the fall of 1917, when Lenin cajoled his comrades to seize power, he argued that the Russian Revolution was "one of the links in a chain of socialist revolutions" in Europe. He believed in the imminence of such revolutions, which he deemed essential to the Bolshevik revolution's survival and success. His optimism was not unfounded, as revolutionary unrest engulfed Central and Eastern Europe in 19181920.

In 1919 Lenin helped to create the Communist International (Comintern) to guide the world revolution. As the revolutionary wave waned in the 1920s, Stalin claimed that world revolution was not essential to the USSR's survival. Rather, he argued, developing socialism in one country (the USSR) was essential to keeping the world revolutionary movement alive. Other Bolshevik leaders, notably Leon Trotsky, disagreed, but in vain. Nonetheless, until it adopted the Popular Front policy in 1935, the Comintern pursued tactics for world revolution. Unlike previous Comintern policies, which sought to spark revolution, the Popular Front was a defensive policy designed to stem the rise of fascism. It marked the end of Soviet efforts to foment world socialist revolution.

See also: lenin, vladimir ilich


McDermott, Kevin, and Agnew, Jeremy. (1997). The Comintern: A History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Nation, R. Craig. (1989). War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left, and the Origins of Communist Internationalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

William J. Chase

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World Revolution