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Once again on crisis and revolution

Once again on crisis and revolution
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A little more than a month after the «representatives of the most revolutionary section of modern mankind» had gathered in Moscow for the First Congress of the Communist International, Lenin and Trotsky responded to one of the questions that had been posed to Marxist theory by the harsh voice of facts, a question that was to be cynically exploited by the Mensheviks and centrists of the entire world. It was not by chance that the responses of these two great revolutionaries were significantly parallel. To paraphrase Lenin, the question can be formulated this way: why was it as easy as «lifting a feather» to begin the socialist revolution «in Russia, the country of Nicholas and Rasputin», but «infinitely more difficult» to begin it in Europe (with it inversely being infinitely easier to continue it on its course in Europe than in Russia) (1). Or to paraphrase Trotsky: how can we explain this phenomenon which seems inexplicable at first sight, namely that «in contradistinction to the direction of capitalist development from West to East, the proletarian revolution unfolds from East to West» (2), that is to say, from the most backward countries of Europe (Russia, then Hungary and finally Bavaria) towards the most developed ones. Why did it happen that the revolution followed a path going in an inverse direction to that of the impetuous movement of the export of financial capital (and correspondingly of the capitalist transformation of the essentially agrarian lands still shackled with pre-bourgeois relationships and modes of production), a path which culminated on the threshold of fortresses so much more difficult to seize, those of European and world imperialism. Does this «incongruity» (as Trotsky said) or this «contradiction»(as Lenin spoke of it) constitute a refutation of Marxism and a condemnation of the October Revolution? Or does it furnish, on the contrary, a brilliant confirmation of the first and an historical validation of the second?

If we refer today to these twin texts of 1919 it is not to dwell with that side of the question which concerns the «contradiction between Russia's backwardness and its «leap» beyond bourgeois democracy» (3), the theoretical explanation of which harassed Lenin's mind at his Moscow work desk and Trotsky's on the train as it travelled from one end of the immense network of the civil war to the other, like a tireless shuttle weaving the thread of victory. Our aim instead is to find the key to the opposite side of the question, a phenomenon which appeared yesterday but which appears still more today: that is, the explanation of the «contradiction» between the very advanced degree of capitalist development in the West and the fact that it obstinately remains in the morass of bourgeois democracy; the explanation of its horrible delay in leaping beyond this morass towards the socialist revolution. This is a subject of burning urgency which we have dealt with before (4) but which life itself demands that we take up again in line with those formulations of over a half-century ago which possess the power and force of all the greatest Marxist writings.

• • •

Both texts answer this question identically with Trotsky dealing with it more completely on the theoretical level and Lenin answering it essentially polemically and politically. Trotsky wrote the following in analysing the situation in England, which is the «oldest capitalist country in Europe and the world» and at the same time «the most conservative from the standpoint of the proletarian revolution», especially during the last half century:

«While Marxism teaches that class relations arise in the process of production and that these relations correspond to a certain level of productive forces; while Marxism further teaches that all forms of ideology and, first and foremost, politics correspond to class relations, this does not at all mean that between politics, class groupings and production there exist simple mechanical relations, calculable by the four rules of arithmetic. On the contrary, the reciprocal relations are extremely complex. It is possible to interpret dialectically the course of a country's development, including its revolutionary development, only by proceeding from the action, reaction and interaction of all the material and super structural factors, national and world-wide alike, and not through superficial juxtapositions, or through formal analogies» (5).

It is precisely the accumulation of an entanglement of former objective and subjective factors which, in the first post-war period, prevented the curve of development of the revolutionary crisis from corresponding directly to the curve of development of the economic crisis within countries which, from the point of view of the productive forces, were the most ripe for revolution. Thus, through one of the numerous «freaks»(or so it seemed) of the historical dialectic, the explanation of the «incongruity between England's capitalist development and her socialist movement, as conditioned by a temporary combination of historical forces» was precisely in this fact (which Marxists certainly do not consider to be a reason for discouragement): owing to her «early entry onto the path of capitalist development and world robbery», England has assured a privileged position «not only for her bourgeoisie but also for a section of her working class» and has accumulated an arsenal of counterrevolutionary resources that had been amassed from its long parliamentary tradition and from the art, acquired through it, of utilising the most refined ways of material and ideological corruption of the oppressed classes.

In the same way the seemingly mysterious process of the complex interplay of class relations in France becomes clear once we consider: 1) the «extremely viable, tenacious, stubborn and petty bourgeois» French village, 2) the «bond of common remembrances and traditions between a considerable section of the French working class and the left elements of bourgeois democracy» which had its roots in the lasting memories of 1789 and 1793, and 3) the typical ambivalence of a ruling class that on one hand seduced «the popular masses, including the workers, by a dramatic display of anti-dynastic, anticlerical, republican, radical and other tendencies» and, on the other hand, «availed itself of the advantages accruing from its primogeniture and from its position of world usurer in order to check the growth of new and revolutionising forms of industrialism within France herself», thus exporting her capitals abroad. And Trotsky adds: «An analysis of the economic and political conditions of the French evolution, and furthermore not only on a national but an international scale, can alone provide an explanation of why the French proletariat, split up after the heroic eruption of the Paris Commune into groups and sects, anarchist on the one wing, and «possibilist» on the other, proved incapable of engaging in open revolutionary class action, of struggling directly for state power».

Finally, a clear parallelism existed between Germany's dizzy capitalist development after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (a development late compared to Britain and France but an advantage precisely for this reason because it allowed for the possession of an ultramodern technology and a «science» of management and organisation unknown to the first-born children of the industrial revolution) and, on the other hand, the no less extraordinary growth of the organised labour movement and of the standard of living of the great masses. This upsurge of the labour movement saw its end in the transformation of German social democracy, the jewel of the Second International in its best days, into «a living... incarnation of organisational fetishism» in the service and in the interest of the capitalist counterrevolution (6).

But for Trotsky this explanation could not limit itself to the analysis of the peculiarities of the historical development in the major Western countries. Its scope was more general and almost assumed the appearance of a law (this concept will be taken up again at the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921) :

«Capitalist production in its «natural» evolution is constantly expanding reproduction [...]. Expanded capitalist production deepens capitalist contradictions. The proletariat grows numerically, [...] becomes organised and educated, and thus forms an ever-growing power. But this does not at all mean to say that its class enemy - the bourgeoisie - remains at a standstill. On the contrary, expanded capitalist production presupposes a simultaneous growth of the economic and political might of the big bourgeoisie. It not only accumulates colossal riches but also concentrates in its hands the state apparatus of administration, which it subordinates to its aims. With an ever-perfected art it accomplishes its aims through ruthless cruelty alternating with democratic opportunism. Imperialist capitalism is able to utilise more proficiently the forms of democracy in proportion as the economic dependence of petty-bourgeois layers of the population upon big capital becomes more cruel and insurmountable. From this economic dependence the bourgeoisie is able, by means of universal suffrage, to derive - political dependence.»

«A mechanical conception of the social revolution reduces the historical process to an uninterrupted numerical growth and a steadily mounting organisational strength of the proletariat until, comprising «the overwhelming majority of the population», the proletariat without a battle, or virtually without a fight, takes into its own hands the machinery of bourgeois economy and the state, like a fruit ripe for plucking. In reality, however, the growth of the proletariat's productive role parallels the growth of the bourgeoisie's might. As the proletariat becomes organisationally fused and politically educated the bourgeoisie is in its turn impelled to perfect its apparatus of rule and to arouse against the proletariat ever-newer layers of the population, including the so-called new third estate, i.e., the professional intellectuals who play a most prominent role in the mechanics of capitalist economy. Both enemies gain in strength simultaneously.»

«The more powerful a country is capitalistically - all other conditions being equal - the greater is the inertia of «peaceful» class relations ;all the more powerful must be the impulse necessary to drive both of the hostile classes - the proletariat and the bourgeoisie - out of the state of relative equilibrium and to transform the class struggle into open civil war. Once it has flared, the civil war - all other conditions being equal - will be the more bitter and stubborn, the higher the country's attained level of capitalist development ; the stronger and more organised both of the enemies are ; the greater the amount of material and ideological resources at the disposal of both» (7).

• • •

However this picture of such prophetic clarity which in fact gives the reasons both for the «revolution which failed» (or which in truth did not even begin in the West at the time) and for the genesis of fascism after the social-democratic led counterrevolution, should not be mechanically applied to the situation today. This would be the case if we made an abstraction of the collection of factors that alter the unstable equilibrium between classes and it is something which, on our part, we must guard against. For more than a half-century the inertia of the democratic and reformist traditions has grown to the same extent that the Stalinist counterrevolution disorganised the proletariat as a class force and distorted or prevented its «political education». Certainly, the proletariat has increased numerically, but «numbers weigh only in the balance, if united by combination and led by knowledge». These two fundamental requirements are inseparable because neither organisation without knowledge nor knowledge without organisation can have any weight on the balance of the class struggle, and it is precisely these two factors which were destroyed by the joint work of Stalinism and social democracy.

The French national tradition may have grown pale, Westminster may no longer be the dazzling light it once was, the lustre of the German «organisational fetishism» may have grown tarnished through the enforced division of that nation ; but other material and ideological resources to enslave, to stupefy, to corrupt and to paralyse the exploited class have taken their place which are even more subtle and insidious and therefore more tenacious in their effects (for instance «democracy» in the shop, in the factory, in the school, in the neighbourhood, in the town council, in the region, etc.). The myth of the sovereign individual who is consulted by means of the ballot is more and more denied by the growing concentration and centralisation of the capitalist economy and of its apparatus of domination. The myth of the «fatherland» is more and more being denied by the international character of capital. Yet these two myths live, in a tenacious inertia, within the «inverted conscience» of the labour organisations.

The whole experience of both of the world post-war periods can be summed up in two lessons : 1) the capitalist «peace» is only a whole chain of conflicts constantly springing up on the local, regional and even continental level, and 2) the internal reforms continuously turned out by the bourgeoisie are rendered vain, even when they achieve a minimum of accomplishment, because of the growing uncertainty of the ground on which they lay. However, what is propagated more than the ideology of peaceful coexistence based on «equitable» exchanges? What is more institutionalised than the practice of «contractual politics» in regard to wages, employment and the «guarantee» of rights which takes place between the trade unions, the organisations of management and the government ? These devices no longer are purely super structural factors, they are themselves objective material forces, deeply rooted and incorporated in the «system». They are instruments for the mobilisation of the working class against itself, such as even the merely verbal cudgel of the foreman in the great automaton of the mechanised factory described by Marx. They are vehicles of the subtly reformist work which, with its thousand-and-one «social» measures (such as social security and public relief), provides the zest for the pickup of the economy after the periodic blood baths. As we have written in one of our texts, «where industrial production flourishes [these reformist measures] create a new type of economic reserve for the worker, a small material guarantee which can be lost, analogous in a certain sense to that of the artisan and the small peasant ; the worker therefore has something to risk and (as Marx, Engels and Lenin have recognised before in the case of the «labor aristocracy») this makes him hesitant and even opportunist at the moment of the trade union struggle and, worse still, at the moment of the strike and of violence»(8). Thus, he who thinks he can measure the degree of maturity of the preliminary conditions for the revolution according to simple statistical diagrams showing the internal contradictions of the existing mode of production and neglects to consider the massive weight of the counter forces stubbornly acting within the working class, would fail to understand the terrible gap still dividing the economic crisis and the proletarian revolution.

The amplitude, the profoundness and the duration of the devastation's committed by Stalinist and social-democratic opportunism can be measured by considering a period of fifty years of recurring crises, even if it is only a general overall picture. When Trotsky wrote these lines we have quoted, the force of inertia of social conservatism persisted but it could not transform, as has been done today, the organised labour movement into a heap of ruins and the post-war bourgeois world into a paradise of orderly reconstruction under the banner of the affluent society and the welfare state. And it is true that the revolution in the ultra-ripe capitalist countries had been «infinitely more difficult to begin» than in «barbarian Russia» for having clashed with the enemy bulwark of the «strong government» which was at first democratic, then fascist. But it was at the cost of enormous efforts that the bourgeoisie (and its social-democratic lackeys) extinguished this flame at its birth. Stalinism's victory with its cry of «stabilisation of capitalism» was followed a little more than two years later by the American and the world «Black Friday» of 1929 ; the short-lived uprisings of this period did not bring forth the proletarian revolution but Nazism's bloody ascent. Then came the war, which was not even resisted by an outcry (as Trotsky had expected, forgetful of what he had written in 1919 and 1921). On the contrary, a flood of proletarian blood was offered in a useless sacrifice in the name either of «socialism in one country» or universal democracy. It was under these conditions that the second post-war period was born, that orgy of an unprecedented accumulation of capital on the ruins of a massacre, that bacchanal of a strong and at the same time hypocritically «generous» democracy. On the plane of the immediate organisations of the working class, a path to a new cycle of integration in the state was opened. This was made possible by the super-opportunism of the parties which controlled these organisations, since these parties did not combat this integration but in fact aided it. And this in itself opened the way, on the economic and political level, to a renewed cycle of capitalist accumulation and concentration. Corresponding to the increasing weight of dead labour is an increasing numerical weight of living labour but while the movement of the first is aggressive, the second is almost always in a state of rest.

In 1951 our Party stated that we were at the deepest point of the downturn of the political movement and that a revolutionary renewal was conceivable only after many years. We wrote the following : «The length of the present period of downturn corresponds to the severity of the wave of degeneration as well as to the ever-larger concentration of enemy capitalist forces. On one hand, Stalinism embodies the worst characteristics of the two preceding [opportunist] waves and, on the other hand, there exists a process of capitalist concentration which is by far superior to that which immediately followed World War I»(9). Perhaps it would be more exact to say that the two phenomena are a condition for one another. On one hand, the process of capitalist concentration and accumulation was able to start all over again on an unprecedented scale because the world party had already been destroyed, that is to say the vital organ of the working class, which is the only class capable of resisting capitalism with its «everyday struggles» for the increase in wages and the reduction in the hours of work, and capable of crushing it later in a revolutionary civil war. And on the other hand, opportunism was nourished by the unhindered renewal of this accumulation and concentration, flourishing thanks to the «social expenses» of the newest productive boom.

With the international communist movement in a state of paralysis from 1926, the United States was able to emerge (with arduous effort) from the crisis of the «Black Friday» by putting into practice, with the New Deal, the politics of a collaboration between government, management and the unions which from then on became a ritual. In the year 1974-1975 capitalism has entered into the crisis with this same collaboration already functioning. If it can pretend to «guarantee» wages, pensions, and employment, this is because it has been assured of its survival a long time in advance. But this is not all. When the crisis is in full swing, the cry that is heard from the heart of the unions and the «workers» parties is more domestic investment, social reforms, an end to the waste of public money, etc. This differs only in form from that which the bosses launch :«Stimulation of the Economy!», «A Greater Productivity!», «A Strong Government !» (with this government certainly still being democratic, but only more vigorous against criminality, absenteeism and parasitism at the present, and against any possible upsurge tomorrow). In the hour of peril, capitalism returns to the same methods it used in the epoch of the transition from manufacture to big industry when, as Marx recalled, Dr. Ure yelled (after Cunningham) that «Order must in one way or another be established» and «Arkwright created order» (10). But the modern Arkwrights need the indispensable support of «working class» spokesmen who call for «responsibility», «self-discipline» and «co-management of the crisis» at the level of both the individual enterprise and the nation. Didn't Berlinguer, the Secretary General of the Italian C.P., repeat for the thousandth time that «administrative and political efficiency, stringency and stability in the interests of the Italian people [and it is not just in Italy but in all other countries of the world that the Berlinguers repeat this] can be guaranteed today only by turning left, that is to say through the objectively irreplaceable contribution of the Italian Communist Party with its links with the working classes and with its qualities of honesty, competency and loyalty towards its allies and unselfishness and passionate devotion to the real interests of the workers and the nation» (11). Not only did opportunism restrain from interfering with capital's monstrously enlarged accumulation, but it gave it a helping hand !

That is why even the economic struggle of resistance against capital is so slow in reviving. That is why, after the blood bath of the second imperialist war, capitalism could accumulate a gigantic quantity of productive forces (and, alternately, of destructive ones) without that class which has been historically called to crush it even simply trying to authoritatively and definitely take possession of it ; without it even recovering its own program, the principles of its own strategy and tactics, and its own party organisation. That is why there has been an awful delay of the political class crisis in relationship to the social and economic crisis of capitalism.

• • •

Some may say to us that the simple fact of acknowledging this delay is to recognise defeat. However this objection is hardly better than the reasoning of those who criticised Lenin and Trotsky in 1921 (and above all these two who had been the most intolerant in regard to the demagogic proclamations) for having warned that we must not have the illusion that the bourgeoisie of the advanced capitalist countries, after having been condemned by the tribunal of history, would simply wait for the execution of the verdict. They claimed that this warning was evidence that Lenin and Trotsky had lost all faith in the explosive potential of the post-war crisis and in the revolutionary potentialities of the European proletariat (12).

For Marxists, historical facts as well as statistical figures know neither optimism nor pessimism. They simply signify a harsh recollection of the always vast and today immense tasks which must be faced and accomplished in confronting an adversary whose tentacles, thanks to opportunism, are very deeply entwined around the members of the working class. These tasks must be performed in line with well defined strategical and tactical positions, as well as according to the relationships of force and their perspectives of development. In the long run, the economic crisis will act as an «accelerator» on the antagonisms which smoulder, still unexpressed within the heart of the capitalist mode of production and bourgeois society. The frantic burst which the forces of social conservation try to impress on the renewed cycles of production and enlarged reproduction of capital will heighten the opposition between the volume of the latter, on one hand, and, on the other, the narrowness of the private nature of the appropriation of the products and the national basis of their production which seeks a place on a world market teeming with far from peaceful competitors. It will upset an equilibrium that has been realised through great difficulty, thus aggravating the always existing disequilibriums, destroying the economic and social «guarantees» which had appeared eternal and causing the «material reserves» to vanish which even the proletarians thought had been acquired forever as so many «rights» engraved on tablets of bronze. Slowly but with brusque jolts it will rouse the economic struggle from its lethargy and will strain to break the forces which would try to discipline this struggle by crushing or containing it.

That is why, from now on, the inertia of the factors which delay the renewal of the class struggle must be courageously looked in the face. Today more than ever there is no worse defeatism than the irresponsibility of those who cry : «There is no more place for opportunism ; it can no longer exist !» or «The objective conditions for the revolution are all present ; all that is missing is only revolutionary leadership !». The first thesis is false and as such is paralysing : as for the second the absence of a revolutionary leadership, even if this was all that was lacking, is far from being a mere trifle, because it represents more than half of that whole of conditions necessary for a revolution. As Lenin explained in 1921, «the revolution is not made to order ; it develops». Or as we wrote in one of our texts in the same year, «One cannot create revolutions, one leads them». But «to develop them» and «to lead them» means to have been able to prepare oneself for them in time. This preparation can neither be achieved in isolation nor can it limit itself to a theoretical, political, and organisational formation of well selected «cadres». It is effected through a daily confrontation with the enemy forces, whether it is those that sabotage the most modest struggle for a less miserable wage, for a less bestial workday, for an unemployment relief which would not be tantamount to a death sentence ; or whether it is those that channel the dispersed economic struggles, compatible with the existence of the bourgeois regime, into the conservative bed of democracy, thus preventing them from passing through that qualitative leap to the general political battle to crush the bourgeois state. It is cemented by battling the «inertia» of the trade unionist struggle, in order to assure a minimum of class autonomy for this struggle and in order to arouse within the most combative proletarians a sense of the antagonism between capital and labour, an antagonism which has been clouded by a thousand ideological veils and by all the material «benefits» that have been given to the workers. In short, it will be accomplished through a difficult re-ascent beginning at a very low point of social tension and maintaining a clear - but never demobilising - consciousness of the present and future responsibilities which this implies.

Capitalism can recover from the present crisis - whose date we had exactly foreseen - only by creating conditions for still greater and deeper crises and also, at the outermost limit, for a third World War, which today is only a threat but which tomorrow could become a ferocious reality. If there is a «train which must not be missed» it is not that of a revolutionary crisis of which, as some irresponsible people pretend, all the objective conditions exist - except one, which of course is the essential one. Instead that which must not be lacking is the preparation of the elementary subjective preconditions for the revolution. These preconditions do not fall from the sky ; they spring from the naked ground of social conflicts and only so if the party, as embryonic as its physical force may be, fertilises this soil with its action, tenaciously fighting for the immediate objectives as well as for the final aims of the proletarian movement, accepting the field of the economic struggle but building in it and beyond it the groundwork of the class war for communist revolution.

This is the «great occasion» which, in spite of all adversities, the present economic crisis offers the proletarian vanguard.

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  1. The quotations are from the Political Report of the Central Committee at the 7th Congress of the R.C.P. (B), (Lenin, Works, Vol. 27, p. 87). Lenin takes up the same idea in The Third International and its Place in History, April 15, 1919, Works, Vol. 19. [back]
  2. L. Trotsky, En Route: Thoughts on the Progress of the Revolution, Izvestia, April 29 - May 1, 1919 - Reprinted in The First Five Years of the Communist International. New York, Monad Press, 1972, vol. I, p. 61. [back]
  3. Lenin, The Third International and its Place in History. [back]
  4. «Crise et revolution», in Programme Communiste no. 62 [back]
  5. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 53 (Our emphasis). [back]
  6. «History has been so shaped», Trotsky wrote in a preceding article, «that in the epoch of imperialist war the German Social Democracy proved - and this can now be stated with complete objectivity - to be the most counterrevolutionary factor in world history. The German Social Democracy, however, is not an accident; it did not fall from the skies but was created by the efforts of the German working class in the course of decades of uninterrupted construction and adaptation to conditions prevalent under the capitalist-Junker state. The party organisation and the trade unions connected with it drew from the proletarian milieu the most outstanding, energetic elements, who were then moulded psychologically and politically. The moment war broke out, and consequently when the moment arrived for the great historical test, it turned out that the official working-class organisation acted and reacted not as the proletariat's organisation of combat against the bourgeois state but as an auxiliary organ of the bourgeois state, designed to discipline the proletariat. The working class was paralysed, since bearing down upon it was not only the full weight of capitalist militarism but also the apparatus of its own party. The hardships of war, its victories, its defeats, broke the paralysis of the German working class, freed it from the discipline of the official party. The later split asunder. But the German proletariat remained without a revolutionary combat organisation. History once again exhibited to the world one. of its dialectic contradictions : precisely because the German working class had expended most of its energy in the previous epoch upon self-sufficient organisational construction, occupying the first place in the Second International both in party as well as trade union apparatus - precisely because of this, in a new epoch, at the moment of its transition to open revolutionary struggle for power the German working class proved to be extremely defenceless organisationally»(Trotsky, «A Creeping Revolution», Pravda, April 23, 1919, op. cit., p. 45). [back]
  7. En Route..., op. cit., pp. 57-58. [back]
  8. Partito rivoluzionario e azione economica [The Revolutionary Party and the Economic Struggle], 1952 - Published in Partito e classe, Edizioni il programma comunista, Milano, 1972 - French translation in «Le Prolétaire» n° 121. [back]
  9. Tesi caratteristiche del partito [The Party's Essential Theses], 1951 - Published in In difesa della continuita del programma comunista, Edizioni I1 programma comunista, Milano, 1970 - French translation in Défense de la continuité du programme communiste, Editions Programme Communiste, Paris, 1973. [back]
  10. Capital, vol. I, chapter XIV, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1970. p. 368. [back]
  11. L'Unita, 16-2-1975. [back]
  12. It is not by chance (nor is it a question of «personalities») that the most seething critics of the time, the theoreticians of the offensive at all cost and in all situations, later fell to the bottom of the ladder. First of all was Pogany who reappeared in the US under the name of Pepper and became the propagandist for the «Farmer Labour Party» of Senator La Follette before ending up as second fiddle to Stalin in the struggle against the Left Opposition. [back]

Source: «communist program», N° 1, October 1975

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