Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks were driven by the idea of ‘world revolution’ or ‘international revolution’. This internationalism was based on the Marxist idea that socialist revolution in Russia would kick-start more socialist revolutions in Europe and worldwide.
Many believed the Russian example, coupled with rising global socialism, would motivate the working classes to take up arms against their class enemies.
As socialism grew, nation-states, the constructions of ruling elites, would weaken and collapse. National borders would become secondary to borders of class and privilege. Patriotism, xenophobia, racism and sexism would dissolve, giving way to comradeship and socialist unity.
Lenin and most of his Bolshevik allies were committed to this vision of international revolution. It became a pivotal theme in Bolshevik propaganda during World War I.
In some of this propaganda, Russian soldiers were urged to view German soldiers as their fellow workers rather than their enemy. They were urged to fraternise with and embrace their class brothers, not kill them. It was better to mutiny and turn their guns on the real enemy: the officers and generals who led them into war.
The idea of international revolution was not a new one, nor was it peculiar to Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Internationalism dates back to Marx, who predicted the fall of national borders before the fall of class borders.
The famous socialist anthem The Internationale, which dates back to the Paris Commune in the early 1870s, has international revolution as its central theme:
“And if those cannibals keep trying
To sacrifice us to their pride
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
We’ll shoot the generals on our own side.
So comrades, come rally
And the last fight let us face
The internationale unites the human race.”
Revolution in Germany
At the time of the Bolshevik seizure of power, the next most likely place where socialism might take root was Germany. After suffering terribly from years of war brought about by Kaiserism, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders believed that Germany was ripe for revolution.
Socialism already enjoyed significant support in Germany. The Social Democrat Party (SPD) was the largest political party in Germany and the largest socialist party in the world. Though the SPD supported the war effort initially, it regained its strength and independence as the war progressed.
In 1918, a more radical communist faction of the SPD emerged, buoyed by the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia. In March 1919, radical socialists seized power in Budapest and established the Hungarian Soviet Republic. In Bavaria, a southern province of Germany, socialists formed militias, overthrew the local monarch and took control of the government.
The Bolsheviks decided to encourage and support these revolutions by convening the Communist International, or Comintern, a congress of international delegates. The role of the Comintern was to monitor the progress of the international revolution, as well as to support, supply and train socialist parties and revolutionary groups abroad.
The first Comintern was convened in Moscow in March 1919. It included delegates from left-wing parties around the world, including the Baltic states, Germany, France, Britain, the USA, Japan and Australia.
Unfortunately for the supporters of international socialism, neither of the two newly-founded European soviet regimes lasted long. The Hungarian Soviet collapsed after four months while the Bavarian socialists lasted barely a month before being toppled by right-wing reactionaries. There was little inclination for socialism in Europe from 1919 onwards.
The decline of internationalism
The stalling of the international socialist revolution was devastating for the Bolsheviks, particularly for Lenin and Leon Trotsky, and economically costly for the Soviet regime in Russia.
International socialists had pinned their hopes to future uprisings in neighbouring countries. They had accepted the surrender of critical resources, territory and population in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk because with revolution imminent in Germany, it would be returned to socialist hands.
The failure of European socialism meant that Bolshevik Russia found itself increasingly isolated and with little support outside its borders.