World Revolution 1917-1936 The Rise and Fall of the Communist International

First published by Seeker & Warburg, London, 1937

Written in 1937, World Revolution was a contemporary attempt to synthesize the experience of the revolutionary movement after World War I. In judging its significance, it is worth bearing in mind the circumstances that gave rise to it.

The sheer weight of the apparatus of the Soviet Union and of the Comintern had established a virtual monopoly over Marxist thought by the mid 1930s. Dissident currents, had been successfully marginalised and reduced to small group existence by massive propaganda or terror. Early in 1934 a dozen or so members of the Communist League, the first British Trotskyist organisation, at the instigation of Denzil Harber and Stewart Kirby and with Trotsky’s support, had left the parent body to set up a faction, later called the Marxist Group, inside the Independent Labour Party, which had itself parted company with the Labour Party a couple of years earlier. By this time CLR James had made contact with members of the Labour Party in Nelson in Lancashire, but when he came down to live in Boundary Road in North West London he was recruited into the Trotskyist movement and joined the Marxist Group working in the ILP.

Trotskyism was not a popular standpoint during the mid-1930s in Britain. At the same time the Stalinised Communist party was enjoying a period of rapid growth. The increase in the power of Nazi Germany made the USSR seem an attractive ally, even in some establishment circles, and the adoption of the policy of the Popular Front enabled the Communist party to make a far wider appeal than it had ever done before, setting the tone for the ideological life of the left for the next decade. This was anathema to James, who saw Stalinism as dangerous, disastrous and ultimately responsible for the failure of world revolution.

A difficult and challenging read for today’s generation, James provided an important and hard hitting critique of the left’s sycophantic relationship to the Soviet bureaucracy at the time. The book too provides great testimony to James’ unflinching internationalism, uncompromising anti-imperialism and willingness to argue what needed to be said regardless of how popular it may be.

The book came out in early 1937 to a hardly surprising, less than enthusiastic reception. The Communist Party refused even to allow advertisements for it and, where they were obliged to recognise its existence, such as in Gollancz’s Left Book Club, they attacked it with great hostility. No less hostile was the reaction of the British colonial authorities, who forbade the export of copies to India. This did not prevent it from being smuggled in and exercising some influence. G Selvarajatnan, later leader of the great strike in the Madras textile mills was converted to Trotskyism upon reading it, and Leslie Goonewardene’s Rise and Fall of the Comintern published ten years afterwards in Bombay was largely based on it.

The 1993 Humanities press edition is available free to read in full here with a lengthy and detailed introduction by Al Richardson some of whose notes have been incorporated above.

The book was first published by Secker & Warburg, London, 1937, by Pioneer Publications, New York, 1937; reprinted by Kraus, Nendeln, 1970, Hyperion Press, Westport, Conn., 1973; reprinted by Humanities Press/Socialist Platform in 1992 and extracts feature in “Stalin Ruins the Chinese Revolution” in Future; “After Hitler, Our Turn” in Spheres and “The Revolution Abandoned” in Rendezvous.