The proletariat of Western Europe at the centre of the generalization of the class struggle

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(Critique of the Theory of the ‘Weakest Link')

1. From the beginning, the workers' move­ment has insisted on the world-wide character of the communist revolution. Internationalism has always been a touchstone in the struggles of the working class and the program of its political organizations. Any deviation from this essential principle has always been syn­onymous with a break with the proletarian camp and a passing over to the bourgeois camp. However, while for over a century it has been clear to revolutionaries that the movement of the communist revolution is bound up with the process towards the world-wide generalization of workers' struggles, the characteristics of this process haven't been clearly understood in all phases of the history of the workers' movement. There have actually been regressions on this question: thus for over 60 years, the workers' movement has been tied down with two ideas:

  • that world imperialist war creates the most favorable conditions for a revolutionary outbreak
  • that it's in the countries where the bourgeoisie is weakest (the "weakest link in the capitalist chain") where such a movement will first arise, then extending to the most developed countries.

These two ideas do not belong to the classic heritage of marxism left us by Marx and Engels. They appeared during the course of the First World War and were part of the errors sanct­ified by the Communist International, trans­formed into a dogma by the defeat of the world revolution.

However, contrary to other false positions of the CI, which were energetically fought against by the communist left, these two ideas for a long time enjoyed the favor of authentic revolutionary currents[1], and today remain the alpha and omega of the perspective defended by the Bordigist groups. This is largely due to the fact that these errors -- as has often happened in the workers' movement -- derived from an intransigent defense of authentic class positions.

Thus:

  • the first error came out of the defense of the correct slogan ‘turn the imperialist war into a civil war', adopted by the Stuttgart Congress of 1907 and taken up during the First World War by Lenin and the Bolsheviks against the pacifist currents who called for ‘arbitration' to put an end to the conflict, and against the ‘jusqu' au boutistes' who held that peace was only possible through the victory of their own country;
  • the second error came out of the struggle waged by the revolutionaries, and not­ably the Bolsheviks, against the reformist and bourgeois currents (Mensheviks, Kautskyites, etc) who denied that there was any possibility of a proletarian revolution in Russia and who ass­igned the proletariat there the task of simply supporting bourgeois democracy.

The triumph of the proletarian revolution in Russia demonstrated the validity of the princi­pal positions defended by the Bolsheviks, notab­ly that the world war, a characteristic of the 20th century, showed that the capitalist system as a whole had entered its phase of hist­oric decline, posing the necessity for the socialist revolution as the only alternative.

On the other hand the international isolation of this first proletarian attempt tended to hide the partial character of these positions and the erroneous nature of some of the arguments used in their defense. The victory of the world counter-revolution finally led to these weaknesses being used to justify the bourgeois politics of the so-called ‘workers' parties. The denunciation of these bourgeois politics cannot therefore be limited to a simple reaff­irmation of the true positions of Lenin and the CI, as the Bordigists propose. It requires a critique of the errors of the past, a reject­ion of all formulations which are vulnerable to being taken up by the bourgeoisie.

2. The ICC has for some time now been engaged in a critique of the thesis which holds that the best conditions for the revolution, and for the generalization of the struggles which lead up to it, are provided by imperialist war[2]. On the other hand, while we have implicitly rejected it in our analyses, the theory of the ‘weakest link' has not yet been explicitly and specifically criticized. This is what we propose to do in the present text, since.

  • the two theses are closely linked, both with regard to the historic conditions which gave rise to them, and to the view of the capitalist world and of the revolution which underlies them: any critique of one, if it is to be complete, must be a critique of the other;
  • even more than the thesis of war as the condition for the revolution, the thesis of the weakest link opens the door to dangerous and even bourgeois analyses. It is based on a version of the theory of the ‘unequal development of capitalism', which contains the seeds both of the idea of ‘socialism in one country'[3] and of the third-worldism of the Maoists and Trotskyists, and which, even inside the proletarian camp, have led the Bordigists and someone like Mattick to say that the bourgeois democratic revolution is on the agenda in certain ‘geo­graphic areas', and to hail the ‘progressive' nature of Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh[4]
  • even groups who have unambiguously rejected all third-worldist temptations have had some difficulty in dispensing with the conception of the ‘weakest link' in their analysis of the situation in Poland after the summer of 1980, and have therefore shown tenden­cies to overestimate the level of the struggle (this was notably the case with the Communist Workers Organization with its slogan ‘Revolution Now'), and also to overestimate the importance of the defeat for the world proletariat const­ituted by the imposition of military law on 13 December 1981.

Although the ICC, as a fundamental part of its perspective, has on several occasions strongly reaffirmed the necessity for the world-wide generalization of the class struggle, it has not up to now made explicit the characteristics of this generalization. In particular, it has not up to now expressly replied to two questions:

  • will this generalization take the form of a convergence of simultaneous movements touching all countries in the world?
  • if this generalization takes the form of an earthquake with shockwaves irradiating towards all countries, where will the epicenter of the earthquake be? Can it be in any zone of capitalism, and more particularly can it be outside its main industrial concentrations, in the so-called ‘weak links'?

Behind this question of the ‘weakest link', the whole vision of the historic perspective of the revolution is at stake. Thus it is necessary to take another look at the general conditions for the proletarian revolution.

3. Following on from the classic view of marxism, as contained for example in the Communist Manifesto, the conditions for the comm­unist revolution, in a schematic way, are as follows:

  • a sufficient development of the produc­tive forces, to the point where the relations of production which had formerly allowed them to expand have become fetters further growth, and where the material conditions exist for a process of overturning these relations of production (the material necessity and possibility of the revolution);
  • the development of a revolutionary class charged with the task of "carrying out the sentence passed by history", "gravedigger" of the old society that is now moribund.

These conditions, which are valid for all the revolutions in history (notably the bourgeois revolution), take a particular form in the case of the proletarian revolution:

  • the material premises for the revolu­tion are given (or not yet given) on a world level, and not on the level of a country or region of the world: the development of the productive forces, the historic crisis of the capitalist relations of production;
  • this crisis of the relations of produc­tion takes the form of a crisis of overproduc­tion, of the saturation of solvable markets(and not of human needs obviously);
  • for the first time in history, the rev­olutionary class is a class which is exploited in the old society; having no economic power of its own, this class, much more than any other historic class, draws its force from its num­bers, its concentration at the point of produc­tion, its education and its consciousness.

4. Since the First World War, the material conditions for the communist revolution have indeed existed on a world scale. On this point Lenin was quite right, deriving the proletarian nature of the revolution in Russia not from the specific conditions in that country (as the Mensheviks did, and later on, as the various councilist groups did and still do), but from the world situation. The fact that it's the whole of capitalism that has entered its dec­adent phase does not however mean that there are not enormous differences between various regions of the world at the level of the devel­opment of the productive forces, and of that principle productive force, the proletariat. Far from it.

The law of the unequal development of capitalism, on which Lenin and his epigones base their theory of the weakest link, was expressed in the asc­endant period of capitalism through a power­ful push by the backward countries towards cat­ching up with and even overtaking the most dev­eloped ones. But this tendency tends to reverse itself as the system as a whole reaches its objective historic limits and finds itself in­capable of extending the world market in relat­ion to the necessities imposed by the development of the productive forces. Having reached its historic limits, the system in decline no long­er offers any possibility of an equalization of development: on the contrary it entails the stagnation of all development through waste, unproductive labor and destruction. The only ‘catching up' that now takes place is the one that leads the most advanced countries towards the situation existing in the backward countries -- economic convulsions, poverty, state capital­ist measures. In the 19th century, it was the most advanced country, Britain, which showed the way forward for the rest: today it is the third world countries which, in a way, indicate the future in store for the advanced ones.

However, even in these conditions, there cannot be a real ‘equalization' of the situation of the different countries in the world. While it does not spare any country, the world crisis exerts its most devastating effects not on the most powerful, developed countries, but on the countries which arrived too late in the world economic arena and whose path towards develop­ment has been definitely barred by the older powers[5].

Thus the law of uneven development, which, at one time, allowed for a certain equalization of economic situations, now appears as a factor which aggravates inequalities between countries. While the solution to the contradictions of this society -- the world proletarian revolution -- is the same for all countries, it remains the case that the bourgeoisie as a whole enters its period of historic crisis with considerable differences between the various geo-economic zones.

It's the same for the proletariat, which con­fronts its historic tasks in a unitary fashion, while at the same time facing considerable differences from one country to the next. This second point derives from the first one, to the extent that the characteristics of the proletariat in one country, and notably those which determine its strength (number, concen­tration, education, experience) are closely dependent on the development of capitalism in that country.

5. Only by taking into account these differences bequeathed to us by capitalism, by integrating them into the general perspective of the revol­ution, can we establish the latter on a solid basis. We must avoid drawing false conclusions from correct premises, and above all avoid ex­pecting the revolution to begin in places where it cannot, as in the theory of the weakest link developed by the ‘Leninists'.

The argument of the latter is based on trans­posing an image from physics -- the chain subjected to tension breaks at its weakest point -- applying it to the social sphere. They thus totally ignore the difference between the in­organic world, and the living, organic world, above all the human world, which is a social sphere.

A social revolution is not simply the breaking of a chain, the breakdown of the old society. It is at the same time an action for the con­struction of a new society. It is not a mech­anical event but a social fact indissolubly linked to the antagonism of human interests, to the aspirations and struggle of social classes.

Imprisoned by a mechanistic vision, the theory of the weakest link looks for the geographical points where the social body is weakest, and bases its perspective on these points. This is the root of its theoretical error.

Marxism -- that of Marx and Engels -- never saw history in this way. For them, social revolut­ions did not take place where the old ruling class was weakest and its structures the least developed, but, on the contrary, where its structure had reached the highest point compatible with the productive forces, and where the class bearing the new relations of product­ion destined to replace the old ones was strong­est. Whereas Lenin banked on the points where the bourgeoisie was weakest, Marx and Engels looked for and based their perspective on the points where the proletariat was strongest, most concentrated and best placed to carry out the social transformation. Because, while the crisis hits the underdeveloped countries most brutally precisely as a result of their econ­omic weakness and their lack of a margin for maneuver, we must not forget that the source of the crisis lies in overproduction and thus in the main centers of capitalist development. This is another reason why the conditions for a re­sponse to this crisis and for going beyond it reside fundamentally in the main centers.

6. The unconditional defenders of the theory of the weakest link will reply that the October 1917 revolution confirms the validity of their conceptions, since we know from Marx that "man demonstrates the validity of his thought in practice". The question is how you read and interpret this "practice", how you distinguish the exception from the rule. And, from this point of view, we should not make the 1917 rev­olution any more than it meant. Just as it does not prove that the best conditions for the proletarian revolution are given by war, so it also does not prove the validity of the theory of the weakest link, for the following reasons:

a) despite its overall economic backward­ness, Russia in 1917 was the fifth industrial power in the world, with immense concentrations of workers in several towns, notably Petrograd. At that time, Putilov, with its 40,000 workers, was the biggest factory in the world;

b) the 1917 revolution took place in the middle of a world war, which limited the poss­ibility of the bourgeoisie of other countries coming to the aid of the Russian bourgeoisie;

c) the country concerned was the most extensive in the world, representing one sixth of the surface of the planet. This further obstructed the response of the world bourgeoisie, as could be seen during the civil war;

d) it was the first time the bourgeoisie had been confronted by a proletarian revolut­ion, and was surprised by it. Thus:

  • in Russia itself, the bourgeoisie did not understand in time the need to withdraw from the imperialist war;
  • on an international scale, the bourge­oisie took a major risk by continuing the war for another year.

On this last point, we must note that the bour­geoisie quickly drew the lessons of October 1917. As soon as the revolution began in Ger­many in November 1918, it stopped the war and collaborated closely to crush the working class (liberation of German prisoners by the countries of the Entente, derogation of the armist­ice and peace agreements which enabled the German army to retain a contingent of 5000 machine gunners).

The bourgeoisie's growing awareness about the proletarian danger was further confirmed before[6] and during[7] the Second World War. Thus, clear-sighted revolutionaries were not surprised to see the formidable collaboration between the various sectors of the world bourgeoisie in the face of the struggles in Poland in 1980-81.

If only because of this last point -- the bour­geoisie today won't be surprised as it was in the past -- it would be quite pointless to wait for a replay of the 1917 revolution.

As long as the important movements of the class only hit the countries on the peripheries of capitalism (as was the case with Poland) and even if the local bourgeoisie is completely outflanked, the Holy Alliance of all the bourgeois­ies of the world, led by the most powerful ones, will be able to set up an economic, political, ideological and even military cordon sanitaire around the sectors of the proletariat involved. It's not until the proletarian struggle hits the economic heart of capital,

  • when it's no longer possible to set up an economic cordon sanitaire, since it will be the richest economies that will be effected;
  • when the setting up of a political cor­don sanitaire will have no more effect because it will be the most developed proletariat con­fronting the most powerful bourgeoisie; only then will the struggle give the signal for the world revolutionary conflagration.

Thus it is not when the proletariat attacks a ‘weak link' of world capital that the latter is in danger of being overthrown. It's only when the class attacks the strongest links that the revolutionary process can get underway.

As we said before, the image of the chain to de­pict the reality of the capitalist world is a false one. A better image would be of a net­work, or rather of an organic tissue, a living body. Any wound that does not reach the vital functions heals up (and we can trust capital to secrete the antibodies it needs to eliminate the risk of infection). Only by attacking its heart and head will the proletariat be able to defeat the capitalist beast.

7. For centuries, history has placed the heart and head of the capitalist world in Western Europe. The world revolution will take its first steps where capitalism took its first steps. It's here that the conditions for the revolut­ion, enumerated above, can be found in the most developed form. The most developed productive forces, the most important working class concentrations, the most cultivated proletariat (because of the technological needs of modern production) are centered in three major zones of the world:

  • Europe
  • North America
  • and Japan.

But these three zones are not equal in their revolutionary potential.

To begin with, central and eastern Europe are attached to the most backward imperialist bloc: the important working class concentrations that exist there (in Russia there are more industrial workers than in any other country) are working with a backward industrial potential and are faced with economic conditions (above all, scar­city) which are not the most favorable to a movement whose aim is to create a socialist society. Moreover, these countries still suffer most heavily from the weight of the counter­revolution in the form of a totalitarian regime which is certainly rigid and thus fragile, but in which democratic, unionist, trade unionist and even religious mystifications are much hard­er to overcome by the proletariat. These coun­tries, as has been the case up till now, will probably see more violent explosions, and each time that this proves necessary, these outbreaks will be accompanied by the appearance of forces for derailing the movement like Solidarity. In general they will not be the theatre for the dev­elopment of the most advanced class conscious­ness.

Secondly, areas like Japan and North America, while they contain most of the conditions necessary for the revolution, are not the most favorable for the unleashing of the revolutionary process, owing to the lack of experience and ideological backwardness of the proletariat.

This is particularly clear in the case of Japan, but it also applies to North America, where the workers' movement developed as an app­endage to the workers' movement in Europe and where, through specific elements such as the ‘frontier', and then through the highest work­ing class living standards in the world, the bourgeoisie has had a much firmer ideological grip over the workers than in Europe. One of the expressions of this phenomenon is the absence in North America of big bourgeois parties with a ‘working class' coloring. Not that these parties are expressions of proletarian conscious­ness, as the Trotskyists claim, but simply because the weaker level of experience, politicization and consciousness of the workers, their stronger adherence to the classic values of cap­italism, enables the bourgeoisie to do without more elaborate forms of mystification and control.

It is thus only in western Europe, where the proletariat has the longest experience of struggle, where it has already been confronted for decades with all the ‘working class' mystifications of the most elaborate kind, can there be a full development of the political consciousness which is indispensable in its struggle for revolution.

This is in no way a ‘Euro-centrist' view. It is the bourgeois world itself which began in Europe, which developed the oldest proletariat with the greatest amount of experience. It is the bourgeois world itself which has concentrat­ed in such a small part of the globe so many advanced nations, which greatly facilitates the growth of a practical internationalism, the joining up of proletarian struggles in the different countries. (It's no accident that the British proletariat was at the centre of the foundation of the 1st International, or that the German proletariat was so crucial to the foundation of the IInd International). Finally, it is bourgeois history itself which has placed the frontier between the two great imperialist blocs of the late 20th century in Europe (and more specifically in Germany, the ‘classic' country of the workers' movement).

This does not mean that the class struggle or the activity of revolutionaries has no sense in the other parts of the world. The working class is one class. The class strug­gle exists everywhere that labor and capital face each other. The lessons of the different manifestations of this struggle are valid for the whole class no matter where they are drawn from: in particular, the experience of the struggle in the peripheral countries will influ­ence the struggle in the central ones. The revolution will be worldwide and will involve all countries. The revolutionary currents of the class are precious wherever the proletariat takes on the bourgeoisie, ie, all over the world.

Neither does it mean that the proletariat will have won the war once it's overthrown the capitalist state in the main countries of Western Europe: the last great act of the revolution, the one that will probably be decisive, will be played out in the two huge imperialist monsters: the USSR and above all the USA.

What it does mean, basically, is:

  • that the world-wide generalization of struggles won't take the form of a convergence of a series of simultaneous struggles in var­ious countries, all on the same level and all equally important, but will develop out of battles in the vital centers of society;
  • that the epicenter of the coming revol­utionary earthquake will be in the industrial heart of western Europe, where the best condit­ions exist for the development of revolutionary consciousness and a revolutionary struggle. The proletariat of this zone will be in the vanguard of the world proletariat.

It also means that it's only when the proletariat of these countries detaches itself from the most sophisticated traps laid by the bourgeoisie, particularly the trap of the left in opposition that the chimes will ring for the world-wide generalization of proletarian struggles, for the revolutionary confrontation.

The road leading to this is long and difficult. The mass strike developed in Poland but then fell into the trade unionist impasse. It's when this impasse is overcome that the mass strike, and with it, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, the rev­olution, can come into their own, in western Europe as in the rest of the world.

The road is long, but there is no other road.

FM


[1] In May 1952, our direct ‘ancestor', Internationalisme, could still write: "The process that leads to the development of revolutionary consciousness in proletariat is directly linked to the return of the objective conditions which will enable this consciousness to arise. These conditions can be summarized in one general point: the proletariat is ejected from society, capitalism is no longer able to ensure the material conditions of its existence. This condition is provided by the culminating point of the crisis. And the culminating point of the crisis, in the era of state capitalism, is to be found in the war."

[2] See the texts in International Review n°26.

[3] The preface to the selected works of Lenin in French is enlightening: "In the articles, "The Slogans of the United States of Europe', and ‘The Military Program of the Proletarian Revolution' which are based on the law of the uneven development of capitalism, discovered by him, Lenin drew the brilliant conclusion that the victory of socialism was in the beginning possible in a few capitalist countries, or even just one." "Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. It therefore follows that the victory of socialism is at first possible in a small number of capitalist countries, or even in one capitalist country on its own." (p. 651, French Edition). "This was the greatest discovery of our era. It became the guiding principle for the whole activity of the Communist Party in its struggle for the victory of the socialist revolution and the construction of socialism in our country. Lenin's theory about the possibility of the victory of socialism in one country gave the proletariat a clear perspective for its struggle, giving free rein to the energy and initiative of the workers of each country to march against their national bourgeoisie, inspiring the party and the working class with a firm confidence in the possibility of victory." (Institute of Marxism-Leninism, Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1960).

[4] The Bordigists reached the heights of this aberration when they criticized the pusillanimity and lack of combativity of Allende and the democratic Chilean bourgeoisie, and when they sang about the ‘radicalism' of the massacres committed by the Khmer Rouge.

[5] The spectacular development of certain third world countries (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Brazil), owing to the very particular geo-economic conditions, should not be the tree that hides the forest. What's more, for most of these countries, the hour of truth has arrived - a collapse even more spectacular than their ascent.

[6] See the report on the historic course to the 3rd Congress of the ICC (International Review n°18)

[7] See the text on the conditions for generalization for the 4th Congress of the ICC (International Review n°26)