The Historic Course
The Second International Conference of groups of the Communist Left (November 1978) showed that there is today an extreme confusion in the ranks of the revolutionary movement about the present historical period, and more precisely about:
-- the existence of a historic alternative (proletarian revolution or generalized imperialist war) opened up by capitalism entering a new phase of acute crisis (the summit of this confusion obviously being reached by those groups who don’t even see that there is a crisis);
-- the possibility of making pronouncements about the nature of the historical course (war or revolution);
-- the nature of the present course;
-- the political and organizational implications of the analyses made about the course;
More generally, there are misunderstandings about:
-- the possibility and necessity for revolutionaries to make predictions;
-- the existence of different periods in the course of the class struggle and in the nature of the balance of forces between bourgeoisie and proletariat.
This text aims to give answers to all these questions.1. Can revolutionaries make predictions?
The very nature of all human activity presupposes foresight, prediction. For example, Marx wrote:
“The operations carried out by a spider resemble those of a weaver, and many a human architect is put to shame by the bee in the construction of its wax cells. However, the poorest architect is categorically distinguished from the best of bees by the fact that before he builds a cell in wax, he has built it in his head.” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I)
Every human act works in this way. Man constantly uses foresight. Only by transforming hypotheses based on an initial series of experiences into predictions, and by confronting these predictions with new experiences, can the researcher verify (or invalidate) these hypotheses and advance his understanding.
Based as it is on a scientific approach to social reality, the revolutionary thought of the proletariat necessarily functions in this way. The only difference is that, in contrast with researchers, revolutionaries cannot create the conditions for new experiments in laboratories. Only social practice can confirm or refute the perspectives they put forward, verify or invalidate their theory. All aspects of the historical movement of the working class have been based on predictions. It is this which allows the forms of its struggle to adapt to each epoch in the life of capitalism; above all, the communist project is based on prediction, particularly on the perspective of the collapse of capitalism. Like an architect’s plan, communism is first conceived -- obviously in its broad outlines -- in the minds of men before it can be built in reality.
Thus, contrary to Paul Mattick for example, who considers that the study of economic phenomena can’t provide any predictions that can be useful in the activity of revolutionaries, the definition of a perspective -- in other words, prediction -- is an integral and very important part of revolutionary activity.
Having established this, the question which must be asked is the following: what is the field of application of prediction for revolutionaries?
-- the long term? Certainly, the communist project can’t be based on anything else.
-- the short term? Obviously, it’s part of human activity so it must be part of the activity of revolutionaries.
-- the middle term? Because it can’t be restricted to generalities like long-term predictions, and because it has less elements at its disposal than short-term prediction, it’s undoubtedly the hardest kind of prediction the proletariat can make, but it’s not something that can be neglected because it directly conditions its mode of struggle in each period in the life of capitalism.
The question can thus be posed more precisely: in the context of middle-term predictions, can and should we foresee the evolution of the balance of forces between bourgeoisie and proletariat? This presupposes that you admit that such an evolution can take place, and that you have answered the preliminary question.2. Are there different periods in the course of the class struggle?
It may seem strange to pose such an elementary question. In the past, it seemed so obvious that revolutionaries hardly thought about posing it at all. The question they asked wasn’t “is there a course in the class struggle?”, or “is it possible and necessary to analyze it?”, but simply “what is the nature of the course?”. It’s on this question that there have been debates between revolutionaries. In 1852, Marx described the particularly uneven course of the workers’ class struggle:
“Proletarian revolutions … constantly engage in self-criticism, and in repeated interruptions of their own course. They return to what has apparently already been accomplished in order to begin the task again ... they seem to throw their opponent to the ground only to see him draw new strength from the earth and rise again before them, more colossal than ever; they shrink back again and again before the indeterminate immensity of their own goals ...” (Marx, 18th Brumaire)
Over a century ago, the question appeared to be clear. But it has to be said that the terrible counter-revolution that we’re only just coming out of has left so much confusion in the revolutionary milieu (cf the letter from Ferment Ouvriere Revolutionnaire (FOR) to Revolution Internationale published in RI, nos 56-57) that we do have to pose questions like this all over again.
Confusions in this area are based on an ignorance of the history of the workers’ movement (but, as Marx said, ignorance is no excuse). Studying the workers’ movement allows us to confirm what Marx said about this alternation between forward thrusts in the proletarian struggle (some of them extremely powerful like the movements of 1848-49, 1864-71, 1917-23) and retreats (as in 1850, 1872, 1923) , which have led to the disappearance or degeneration of the political organizations which the class secreted in the period of rising struggle (the Communist League, created in 1847, dissolved in 1852; the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) , founded in 1864, dissolved in 1876; the Communist International, founded in 1919, degenerated and died in the mid-1920s. The Socialist International followed a broadly similar course, but not in such a clear way). It’s probably because of the extreme length of the counterrevolution (half a century) which followed the post-1917 revolutionary wave, during which the working class everywhere was in an extremely weak position, that we find revolutionaries today who are incapable of understanding that there is this alternation between periods of advance and retreat in the class struggle. An unprejudiced study of the workers’ movement and of Marxist analyzes (even though it’s much more comfortable not to study and not to ask questions!) would have allowed these revolutionaries to shake off the weight of the counter-revolution. It would also have allowed them to see that outbreaks of class struggle take place when capitalist society is in crisis (economic crisis as in 1848, or war, as in 1871, 1905, 1917). This is because of:
-- the weakening of the ruling class;
-- the necessity for the workers to resist the deterioration of their living standards;
-- the exposure of the contradictions of the system, which tends to elevate class consciousness.3. Can we make predictions about the historic course of class struggle?
History shows that revolutionaries can commit major errors in this domain. For example:
-- the Willich-Schapper tendency in the Communist League, who didn’t understand the reflux in the struggle after 1849 and were pushing the organization towards adventurist actions;
-- the Bakuninist current in the IWA, which was still expecting an imminent revolution after the crushing of the Commune of 1871, and turned its back on long-term preparation;
-- the KAPD, which was unaware of the retreat in the revolution in the early 1920s, and lost itself in voluntarism and even putschism;
-- Trotsky, who declared in 1936 that “the revolution had begun in France” and at the lowest ebb of the class struggle in 1938, founded the still-born ‘Fourth International’.
However, history has also shown that revolutionaries have had the means to analyze the course correctly and make accurate forecasts about the future of the class struggle:
-- Marx and Engels who understood the change of perspective after 1849 and 1871;
-- the Italian Left, which understood the reflux in the world revolution after 1921 and drew the correct conclusions about the tasks of the party and about the meaning of the events in Spain in 1936.
Experience has also shown that, as a general rule, these accurate forecasts weren’t a matter of chance but were based on a very serious study of social reality; on a general analysis of capitalism, especially the economic situation, but also of the social struggle, on the level of both combativity and consciousness. In this way:
-- Marx and Engels were able to see that there had been a reflux in the revolution in the early 1850s and that the crisis of 1847-48 was being followed by a period of economic recovery;
-- Lenin and the Bolsheviks foresaw a revolutionary upsurge during the First World War, based on the fact that the imperialist war was a manifestation of the mortal crisis of capitalism, and would put the system in a situation of extreme weakness.
But although it is a necessary precondition for a proletarian upsurge, the crisis of capitalism isn’t a sufficient precondition, contrary to what Trotsky thought after the 1929 crisis. Similarly, workers’ combativity isn’t a sufficient indication of a real, durable upsurge if it’s not accompanied by a tendency to break with capitalist mystifications. This is what the minority of the Italian Fraction failed to understand when they saw the mobilization and arming of the Spanish workers in July 1936 as the beginning of the revolution, when in fact the Spanish workers had been politically disarmed by anti-fascism and were unable to mount a real attack on capitalism.
We can thus say that it is possible for revolutionaries to make forecasts about the evolution of the balance of forces between bourgeoisie and proletariat; and that, far from approaching this task as though they were taking part in a lottery, they can use criteria drawn from experience which, although not infallible, do enable them to avoid going forward blindly. But certain revolutionaries raise another objection: “even if it is possible to make forecasts about the historic course, it’s of no interest for the class struggle and in no way conditions the activity of communists. All this is intellectual speculation with no impact on practice”. We must now deal with these arguments.4. Is it necessary to make forecasts about the historic course?
In answering this question, we could almost say that the facts speak for themselves, but the counter-revolution has caused so much havoc among certain revolutionary groups that they’re either plainly ignorant of these facts or are incapable f interpreting them correctly. To convince ourselves of the necessity for a revolutionary organization to have a correct analysis of the historical perspective, it’s enough to remind ourselves of the tragic fate of the German Left, which, despite the value of its programmatic positions, was completely disoriented, dislocated and ultimately destroyed by its errors on the course of the class struggle. We should also remember the sad end of the minority of the Italian Fraction who joined up with the anti-fascist militias, and the no less pitiful fate of the Union Communiste who carried out a policy of critical support for the left socialists of the POUM, hoping that it would give rise to a communist vanguard capable of putting itself at the head of the ‘Spanish Revolution’. We can see that a failure to understand the problem of the course have a disastrous impact on revolutionaries.
The analysis of the course of the class struggle directly conditions the organization and intervention of revolutionaries. When you’re swimming upriver you swim at the side of the stream; when you’re going downriver, you swim in the middle. Similarly, the relationship that revolutionaries have with their class differs according to the course of the struggle. When the class is moving towards revolution, they have to put themselves at the head of the movement; when the class is falling into the abyss of the counter-revolution, they have to struggle against the stream.
In the first case, their essential preoccupation is to avoid being cut off from the class, to follow attentively each of its steps, each of its struggles, in order to push forward the potentiality of the struggle as far as it will go. Without any neglect of theoretical work, direct participation in the struggles of the class has a privileged place. On the organizational level, revolutionaries can have a confident and open attitude towards the other currents that arise in the class. While firmly standing by their principles, they can hope for a positive evolution of these currents, for a convergence of their respective positions. The task of regroupment can thus be given maximum attention and effort.
It’s quite different for revolutionaries in a period of historic reflux. Then the main task is to ensure that the organization can resist this reflux and preserve its principles from the pernicious influence of bourgeois mystifications, which will tend to drown the whole class. Their task is also to prepare for the future resurgence of the class, by dedicating most of their weak forces to the theoretical work of drawing up a balance-sheet of past experience, notably the causes of the defeat. It is clear that this will tend to cut revolutionaries off from the rest of the class, but this is something they have to accept the moment they admit that the bourgeoisie has triumphed and the proletariat has been dragged off its class terrain. Otherwise they run the risk of being dragged in the same direction. Similarly, on the level of regroupment, without ever turning their back on this effort, it would be pointless for revolutionaries in such periods to hold out a very positive perspective; the tendency would be rather towards the organization turning in on itself and jealously guarding its own positions, towards the maintenance of disagreements which couldn’t be surpassed because of the absence of class experience.
We can thus see that the analysis of the course has a considerable impact on the mode of activity and organization of revolutionaries and that this has nothing to do with ‘academic speculations’. Just as an army needs to know at every moment the precise nature of the balance of forces with the opposing army, to see whether it should attack or retreat in good order, so the working class needs to have a correct appreciation of the balance of forces with its enemy, the bourgeoisie. And it’s up to revolutionaries, as the most advanced elements of the class, to provide the class with the maximum amount of material for making this appreciation. This is one of the essential reasons for their existence.
In the past, revolutionaries have always assumed this responsibility with more or less success; but the analysis of the historical course takes on an even greater importance when capitalism enters into its period of decadence, since the stakes involved in the class struggle are that much higher.5. The historic alternative in the period of capitalist decadence
In line with the Communist International, the ICC has always insisted that the decadence of capitalism is “the epoch of imperialist wars and proletarian revolutions”. War isn’t specific to decadent capitalism, just as it isn’t specific to capitalism in general. But the form and function of war changes according to whether the system is progressive or whether it has become a barrier to the development of society’s productive forces.
“In the epoch of ascendant capitalism, wars (whether national, colonial, or of imperial conquest) represented the upward movement of ripening, strengthening and enlarging the capitalist economic system. Capitalist production used war as a continuation by other means of its political economy. Each war was justified and paid its way, by the opening up of a new field for greater expansion, assuring further capitalist development.
In the epoch of decadent capitalism, war, like peace, expresses this decadence and greatly accelerates it.
It would be wrong to see war as negative by definition, a destroyer and shackle on the development of society, as opposed to peace, which would appear as the normal and positive course of continued development of production and society. This would be to introduce a moral concept into an objective, economically determined course.
War was the indispensable means by which capital opened up areas external to itself for development, at a time when such areas existed and could only be opened up through violence. In the same way, the capitalist world, having historically exhausted all possibility of development, finds in modern imperialist war the expression of its collapse, which can only engulf the productive forces in any abyss, and accumulate ruin upon ruin in an ever accelerating rhythm, without opening up any possibility of the outward development of production.
Under capitalism there exists no fundamental opposition between war and peace, but there is a difference between the ascendant and decadent phases of capitalist society, and thus a difference in the function of war (and in the relation of war to peace) in the respective phases. While in the first phase, war has the function of assuring an expansion of the market, and so of the production of the means of consumption, in the second phase production is essentially geared to the production of means of destruction, ie to war. The decadence of capitalist society is strikingly expressed by the fact that, whereas in the ascendant period wars served the process of economic development, in the decadent period economic activity is geared essentially to war.
This does not mean that war has become the aim of capitalist production, since this is always the production of surplus value, but that war becomes the permanent way of life in decadent capitalism.” (Report on the International Situation, July 1945 Conference of the Gauche Communiste de France)
We can draw three conclusions from this analysis of the relationship between decadent capitalism and imperialist war:
1. Left to its own dynamic, capitalism can’t escape imperialist war: all the bourgeoisie’s babbling about ‘peace’, all the Leagues of Nations and United Nations, all the goodwill of capital's’ ‘great men’ can’t change this, and periods of ‘peace’ (ie periods when war isn’t generalizing) are simply moments during which capital is reconstituting its forces for even more destructive and barbaric confrontations.
2. Imperialist war is the most significant expression of the historic bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production; it highlights the urgent necessity to supersede this mode of production before it drags humanity into the abyss of destruction; this is the real meaning of the CI’s formula cited above.
3. In contrast to wars in the ascendant period, which only affected limited areas of the planet and didn’t condition the whole of social life in each country, imperialist war is extended onto a world scale and subordinates the whole of society to its needs, in particular the class which produces the bulk of all social wealth: the proletariat.
Because it’s the class which can put an end to all wars and which holds the only possible future for society -- socialism; because it’s the class which stands in the front line of the sacrifices imposed by imperialist war; because, excluded from any property, it’s the only class that really does have no fatherland, that is really internationalist: for all these reasons, the proletariat holds in its hands the fate of the whole of humanity.
In a more direct sense, the ability of the proletariat to react to the historic crisis of capitalism on its own class terrain will determine whether or not this system will be able to impose its own solution to the crisis: imperialist war.
When capitalism entered its decadent phase, the implications of the question of the historic course could hardly be compared to what they had been in the previous century. In the twentieth century, the victory of capitalism means the nameless barbarism of imperialist war and the threat of the extinction of the human race. The victory of the proletariat means the possibility of the regeneration of society, the “end of human prehistory and the beginning of its real history”; “leaving the kingdom of necessity and reaching the kingdom of freedom”. These are the stakes revolutionaries must have in mind when they examine the question of the historical course. But this isn’t the case with all revolutionaries, notably those who refuse to talk about the historic alternative (or, if they do talk about it, don’t know what they are talking about) and those for whom imperialist war and proletarian upsurge are simultaneous or even complementary.6. The opposition and mutual exclusion of the two terms of the historical alternative
On the eve of World War II there developed within the Italian Left the thesis that imperialist war would no longer be the product of the division of capitalism into antagonistic states and powers, each struggling for world hegemony. It was claimed that the system would only resort to this extreme measure in order to massacre the proletariat and hold back the upsurge of the revolution. The Gauche Communiste de France argued against this conception when it wrote:
“The ‘era of wars and revolution’ does not mean that the development of war corresponds to the development of revolution. These two courses, though their source is the same historic situation of capitalism’s permanent crisis, are nevertheless essentially different and the relationship between them is not directly reciprocal. While the unfolding of war becomes a factor directly precipitating revolutionary convulsions it is never the case that revolution is a factor in imperialist war.
Imperialist war does not develop in response to rising revolution; quite the reverse, it is the reflux following the defeat of revolutionary struggle, the momentary ousting of the menace of revolution which allows capitalism to move towards the outbreak of a war engendered by the contradictions and internal tensions of the capitalist system.” (ibid.)
Other theories have also arisen more recently, according to which “with the development of the crisis of capitalism, both terms of the contradiction are reinforced at the same time: war and revolution don’t exclude each other mutually but advance in a simultaneous and parallel manner, without it being possible for us to know which one will reach its culminating point before the other. The main error in this conception is that it totally neglects the factor of class struggle in the life of society, just as the conception developed by the Italian Left was based on an overestimation of the factor. Beginning from the phrase in the Communist Manifesto which says that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”, the Italian Left applied this mechanically to the analysis of imperialist war and saw imperialist war as a response to the class struggle; it failed to see that, on the contrary, imperialist war could only take place thanks to the absence or weakness of the class struggle. Although it was wrong, this conception began from correct premises; the mistake lay in the way these premises were applied. In contrast, the theory of parallelism and simultaneity of the course towards war and the course towards revolution plainly casts aside this basic Marxist premise, because it holds that the two principal antagonistic classes in society can go on preparing their respective responses to the crisis – imperialist war for one, revolution for another – completely independently of each other. If it can’t be applied to something which is going to determine the whole historic alternative for the life of society, the schema the Communist Manifesto has no reason for existing and we can consign Marxism to a museum alongside other outmoded products of human imagination.
In reality, history itself disproves this conception of ‘parallelism’. In contrast to the proletariat which doesn’t have any contradictory interests within itself, the bourgeoisie is a class profoundly divided by the antagonism between the economic interests of its various sectors. In an economy where the Commodity reigns supreme, competition between factions of the ruling class is, in general, insurmountable. Therein lays the underlying cause of the political crises which plague this class, as well as the tensions between countries and blocs, which can only sharpen as the crisis makes competition more intense. The highest degree of unity which capital can achieve is at the national level; it is one of the essential attributes of the capitalist state that it has to impose this discipline on the various sectors of national capital. Beyond this we can say that there is a certain ‘solidarity’ between nations of one imperialist bloc: this expresses the fact, that, alone against all the others, a national capital can do nothing and is obliged to give up a part of its independence in order to defend its overall interests. But this doesn’t eliminate:
-- rivalries between countries of the same bloc
-- the fact that capitalism can never unify itself on a world scale (contrary to Kautsky’s theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’). The blocs continue to exist and the antagonism between them can only worsen.
The only moment when the bourgeoisie can attain unity at a world level, when it can silence its imperialist rivalries, is when its very survival is threatened by its mortal enemy, the proletariat. History has shown that at such moments it’s capable of displaying a solidarity which it lacks at all other times. This was illustrated:
-- in 1871, in the collaboration between Prussia and the Versailles government (the freeing of French soldiers who were used during the ‘bloody week’).
-- in 1918, when the Entente showed its solidarity towards a German bourgeoisie threatened with proletarian revolution (the freeing of German soldiers who were then used to massacre the Spartacists).
Thus the historic tendencies towards war or revolution develop not in a parallel and independent way, but in an antagonistic and mutually determining manner. What’s more, as the responses of two historically antagonistic classes, imperialist war and revolution mutually exclude each other not only for the future of society, but also in the day-to-day manner that these two alternatives being prepared.
The preparation of an imperialist war means that capitalism has to develop a war economy, and it’s the proletariat which has to bear most of its weight. Already the workers’ struggle against austerity is holding back these preparations and shows that the class isn’t prepared to make the even more terrible sacrifices which the bourgeoisie will demand during an imperialist war. Thus, the class struggle, even when it’s for limited objectives, means that the proletariat is breaking the bonds of solidarity with ‘its’ national capital -- the very solidarity that the bourgeoisie demands so strongly during a war. It also expresses a tendency to break with bourgeois ideals like ‘democracy’, ‘legality’, ‘the country’ and phoney ‘socialism’: ideals in whose defense the workers will be called upon to massacre themselves and their class brothers. Finally, the class struggle allows the proletariat to forge its unity, an indispensable factor if the class is going to prevent -- on an international scale -- a showdown between the imperialist gangsters.
When capitalism entered into a phase of acute economic crisis in the mid-1960s, the perspective outlined by the CI was opened up again: “Imperialist war or proletarian revolution”, as the specific response to the crisis of each of the two principal classes of society. But this doesn’t mean that the two terms of this perspective can develop in a simultaneous manner. The two terms appear in the form of an alternative, ie they reciprocally exclude each other:
-- either capitalism imposes its response and that means that it has first defeated the resistance of the working class;
-- or the proletariat imposes its solution, and it goes without saying that this means staying the murderous hands of imperialism.
The nature of the present course -- whether it’s towards imperialist war or class war -- is thus an expression of the evolution of the balance of forces between bourgeoisie and proletariat. It’s this balance of forces which we’ve got to study, as most revolutionaries before us have done, Marx in particular. But we’ve got to have the criteria in order to make such an evaluation, and these criteria are not necessarily identical to those used in the past. The definition of these criteria presupposes that we know what these criteria were in the past, that we can distinguish between those which are still valid and those which have become obsolete given the evolution of the historic situation, and finally that we take into account possible new criteria which this evolution has brought out. We cannot mechanically apply the scenarios of the past -- although we must begin from a study of these scenarios. This is particularly true when we examine the conditions which permitted the outbreak of imperialist war in 1914 and 1939.7. The conditions for imperialist war in 1914 and 1939
“... it is the cessation of class struggle, or more precisely the destruction of the proletariat’s class power and consciousness, the derailing of its struggles (which the bourgeoisie manages through the introduction of its agents into the class, gutting workers’ struggles of their revolutionary content and putting them on the road of reformism and nationalism) which is the ultimate and decisive condition for the outbreak of imperialist war. This must be understood not from the narrow, limited viewpoint of one nation alone, but internationally.
Thus the partial resurgence, the renewed growth of struggles and strike movements in Russia (1913) in no way conflicts with our assertion. If we look a little closer, we can see that the power of the international proletariat, on the eve of 1914 -- its electoral victories, the great Social Democratic parties, the mass union organizations, pride and glory of the IInd International -- were only a facade hiding a ruinous ideological condition under its veneer. The workers’ movement, undermined and rotten with an authoritative opportunism, could only topple like a house of cards at the first blast of war.
Reality cannot be understood in the chronological photography of events, but must be seized in its underlying, internal movement, in the profound modifications which occur before they appear on the surface and are registered as dates. It would be committing a serious mistake to remain faithful to the chronological order of history, and see the 1914-18 war as the cause of the collapse of the IInd International, when in reality the outbreak of war was a direct result of the previous opportunist degeneration of the international workers’ movement. The fanfares of internationalism sounded louder on the outside, while within the nationalist tendency triumphed. The war only brought into the open the ‘embourgeoisement’ of the parties of the IInd International, the substitution of their original revolutionary program by the ideology of the class enemy, their attachment to the interests of the national bourgeoisie.
The internal process of the destruction of the class’ consciousness revealed its completion in the outbreak of war in 1914, which it had itself permitted.
World War II broke out under the same conditions. We can distinguish three necessary and successive phases between the two imperialist wars.
The first was completed with the exhaustion of the great revolutionary wave after 1917, and sealed by a string of defeats, with the defeat of the Left and its expulsion from the Comintern with the triumph of centrism, and with the USSR’s commitment to its evolution towards capitalism through the theory and practice of ‘socialism in one country’.
The second stage was that of international capitalism’s general offensive aimed at liquidating the social convulsions in Germany, the centre where the historical alternative between socialism and capitalism was decisively played out, through the physical crushing of the proletariat, and the installation of the Hitler regime as Europe’s gendarme. Corresponding to this stage came the definitive death of the Comintern and the collapse of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which, incapable of regrouping revolutionary energies, engaged through coalition and fusion with opportunistic groups and currents of the socialist left, in an orientation towards the practice of bluff and adventurism in proclaiming the formation of the IVth International.
The third stage was that of the total derailment of the workers’ movement in the democratic countries. Under its mask of the defense of ‘liberties’ and workers’ ‘conquests’, threatened by fascism, the real aim was to join the proletariat to the defense of democracy -- that is, its national bourgeoisie, its national capital. Anti-fascism was the platform, capital’s modern ideology which the proletariat’s traitor parties used as wrapping for their putrid merchandise of national defense.
In this third stage occurred the definitive passage of the so-called Communist Parties into the service of their respective capitals, the destruction of class consciousness through the poisoning of the masses, their adhesion to the future inter-imperialist war by means of the ideology of anti-fascism, their mobilization into the ‘Popular Front’, the derailment of the strikes of 1936, the ‘anti-fascist’ Spanish war; at the same time the final victory of state capitalism in Russia was revealed in its ferocious repression of the slightest impulse to revolutionary action, its adhesion to the League of Nations, its integration into an imperialist bloc and installation of the war economy in preparation for imperialist war. This period also saw the liquidation of numerous revolutionary groups and Left Communists thrown up by the crisis in the CI, who, through their adhesion to anti-fascist ideology and the defense of the ‘workers’ state’ in Russia, were snatched into the cogs of capitalism and lost forever as expressions of the life of the proletariat. Never before has history seen such a divorce between the class and the groups that express its interests and its mission. The vanguard found itself in a state of complete isolation and reduced quantitatively to negligible little islands.
“The immense revolutionary wave, which burst out at the end of the first imperialist war, threw international capitalism into such terror that it had to dislocate the proletariat’s very foundations before unleashing another war.” (Ibid)
We can add the following elements to this luminous passage:
-- the opportunist evolution and treason of parties of the IInd International was made possible by the characteristics of capitalism when it was at its zenith. Economic progress, the apparent absence of profound convulsions, the reforms that capitalism was able to grant to the working class -- all this nourished the idea of a gradual, peaceful, legal transformation of bourgeois society into socialism;
-- one of the essential elements in the disarray of the proletariat between the two wars was the existence and policies of the USSR, which either repelled the workers from any socialist perspective; or led them into the clutches of social democracy; or, for those who still saw the USSR as the ‘socialist fatherland’, led them to subordinate their struggles to the defense of its imperialist interests.8. The criteria for evaluating the historic course
By analyzing the conditions which made it possible for the two imperialist wars to break out, we can draw the following general lessons:
-- the balance of forces between bourgeoisie and proletariat can only be assessed on a world scale, and can’t be based on exceptions which may arise in secondary areas: it’s essentially by studying the situation in a few large countries that we can deduce the real nature of this balance of forces;
-- in order for an imperialist war to break out, capitalism needs first to inflict a profound defeat on the proletariat -- above all an ideological defeat, but also a physical one if the proletariat has shown a strong combativity (Italy, Germany and Spain between the wars);
-- this defeat must not just leave the class passive but must get the workers to adhere enthusiastically to bourgeois ideals (‘democracy’, ‘anti-fascism’, ‘socialism in one country’); adhesion to these ideals presupposes:
a. that they have a semblance of reality (the possibility of an unlimited, problem-free development of capitalism and ‘democracy’, the proletarian origins of the regime in Russia);
b. that they are in one way or another associated with the defense of proletarian interests;
c. that this association is defended among workers by organizations which have the confidence of the workers, due to the fact that, in the past, they did defend their interests. In other words, those bourgeois ideals are propagated by former proletarian organizations which have betrayed the class.
In broad outline these are the conditions which, in the past, allowed imperialist wars to break out. That is not to say that, a priori, a future imperialist war would need to have identical conditions. But to the extent that the bourgeoisie has become conscious of the dangers involved in a premature outbreak of hostilities (despite all its preparations, even World War II gave rise to working class reactions in Italy in 1945 and Germany 1944-45), it would be a mistake to consider that it would launch itself into a confrontation unless it knew it has the same degree of control as it had in 1939, or at least 1914. In other words, for a new imperialist war to be possible, then at least the criteria listed above must be present, and if not, some others which can compensate for them.9. The comparison between today’s situation and the situation in 1914 and 1939
In the past, the principal terrain where the historic course was decided was in Europe, notably in its three most powerful countries, Germany, Britain and France, plus secondary countries like Spain and Italy. Today the situation is partially similar, to the extent that Europe is still at the heart of the confrontation between the two imperialist blocs. Any evaluation of the course must therefore include an examination of the situation of the class struggle in this continent, but it wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t take into account the situation in Russia, the US and China.
If we look at all these countries, we can see that, for several decades, the proletariat has nowhere suffered a physical defeat; the most recent defeat of this kind took place in a country as marginal as Chile.
Similarly, in none of these countries has there been an ideological defeat comparable to what happened in 1914, leading the workers to adhere enthusiastically to the national capital:
-- old mystifications like ‘anti-fascism’ or ‘socialism in one country’ have been worn out, mainly because of the absence of a fascist bugbear and the exposure of the real nature of ‘socialism’ in Russia etc;
-- belief in a permanent, peaceful progress for capitalism has been seriously shaken by over half a century of convulsions and barbarism; the illusions which developed during the post-war reconstruction are now being undermined by the crisis;
-- chauvinism, even if it does maintain its hold over a certain number of workers, doesn’t have the same impact it had in the past:
a. its foundations have been shaken by the development of capitalism itself, which daily abolishes national differences and specificities a little bit more;
b. apart from the two main powers, Russia and USA, it comes up against the necessities of mobilizing the population not behind a country but behind a bloc;
c. to the extent that the workers are being asked to make sacrifices to get over the crisis in the name of the ‘national interest’, the workers will more and more be able to see this ‘national interest’ as the direct enemy of their own class interests.
At the present time, chauvinism, under the mask of national independence, can only find a real refuge in the most backward countries:
-- the defense of ‘democracy’ and ‘civilization’ which now takes the form of Carter’s campaigns about ‘human rights’, and which sets out to achieve an ideological unity for the whole western bloc, is not having a great deal of success today; it may affect the habitual petition-signers of the intellectual milieu, but it has little impact on the new generations of workers who can’t see the connection between their own interests and these ‘human rights’, which are in any case cynically flouted by the very people who promote them;
-- the former workers’ parties -- Social Democrats and ‘Communists’ -- betrayed the class too long ago to be able to have the same impact as in the past. For sixty years the Social Democrats have been loyal managers of capitalism. Their anti-proletarian function is clear and has been recognized by many workers. And it’s these parties which, in most West European countries, have today taken on the task of leading governments that are synonymous with austerity and anti-working class measures. As for the Stalinist parties, it can hardly be said that the workers have confidence in them in countries where they are in power: the workers there hate them. In countries whose membership of the western bloc keeps the CPs in opposition -- and thus allows them to have a certain impact on the class -- this impact can’t be used directly to mobilize the class behind the US bloc, which the CPs portray as the ‘main enemy’ of the peoples of the world. In order to be really effective, the treason of the workers’ party must be fairly recent. Like a match it can only be used once for a massive mobilization behind imperialist war. This was the case with the Social Democrats, whose open treason took place in 1914, and to a lesser extent with the ‘Communist Parties’ who betrayed in the 1920s before playing the role of drum-majors for the war in the 1930s (the lapse between the two dates was partially compensated by the fact that the CPs were formed precisely as a reaction to the treason of Social Democracy). Today, the bourgeoisie no longer enjoys this decisive advantage. The leftists, especially the Trotskyists, have certainly done enough dirty work to pose as the successors to the Social Democrats and Stalinists, but they suffer from two fundamental handicaps: on the one hand, their impact is far less than that of their elders, and, on the other hand, before this impact could really grow, they would openly reveal their bourgeois nature as specialized touts for the left parties.
As we can see, none of the conditions which made it possible for the proletariat to be dragooned into the imperialist conflicts of the past exist today, and it’s hard to see what new mystification could now take the place of those which have been used up. Such an analysis was already the basis for the position taken by Internacionalismo comrades when, at the beginning of 1968, they said that the coming year would be rich in promise for the class struggle against the re-emerging crisis. It was this same analysis which allowed Revolution Internationale to write in 1968, before the Italian Hot Autumn of 1969, the insurrection of the Polish workers of 1970 and the whole wave of struggles which lasted until 1974:
“Capitalism has at its disposal less and less mystifications which it can use to mobilize the masses and hurl them into a massacre ... in these conditions, the crisis has, from its first manifestations, appeared to be what it really is: its initial symptoms are going to give rise to increasingly violent mass reactions in all countries … the whole significance of May ‘68 was that it was one of the first and one of the most important reactions by the mass of workers to a steadily deteriorating world economic situation.” (RI, Old Series, no.2)
It is this analysis, based on the classical positions of Marxism (the ineluctable character of the crisis and the provocation of class confrontations by the crisis), and on the experience of over half a century, which allowed our current -- while many other groups only talked about the counter-revolution and saw nothing coming -- to forecast the historic reawakening of the class after 1968, as well as the present resurgence after the reflux of 1974-78.
But there are still revolutionaries who, ten years after ‘68, have still not understood its significance, and prognosticate a course towards a third world war. Let’s look at their arguments.10. Arguments in favor of the idea of a course towards World War II
a. The Present Existence of Local Inter-Imperialist Conflicts
Certain revolutionaries have clearly understood that so-called national liberation struggles are a mask for inter-imperialist conflicts (a mask that is wearing so thin that even a current as myopic as the Bordigists is sometimes forced to recognize this). The fact that these conflicts have been going on for decades hasn’t led them -- quite rightly -- to the conclusion that they are signs of a revolutionary upsurge, which is what the Trotskyists think. We agree with them on this point. But they go further and conclude that the mere existence of these conflicts and their recent intensification signify that the class is beaten on a world scale and cannot prevent a new imperialist war. The question they fail to pose reveals the error of this approach: why hasn’t the multiplication and aggravation of local conflicts already degenerated into a generalized conflict? Some, like the CWO (cf the Second Conference of November 1978) reply because the crisis isn’t deep enough or that the military and strategic preparations haven’t been completed. History itself refutes such interpretations:
-- in 1914, the crisis and the scale of armaments were less advanced than today when the conflict over Serbia degenerated into world war;
-- in 1939, after the New Deal and Nazi economic policies, which had partially re-established the situation of 1929, the crisis was no more violent than it is today; also, as this time, the blocs aren’t completely constituted since the USSR was virtually on the side of Germany, and the USA was still ‘neutral’.
In fact the conditions for a new imperialist war are more than ripe. The only missing ‘military’ element is the adhesion of the proletariat … but it’s by no means the least.
b. The New Arms Technology
For some people, following in the footsteps of those who once said war was impossible because of poison gas or aeroplanes, the existence of atomic weapons prevents any resort to a new generalized war, which would threaten society with total destruction. We’ve already denounced the pacifist illusions contained in such a conception. On the other hand, some people consider that the development of technology makes it impossible for the proletariat to intervene in a modern war, since it would mainly use highly sophisticated arms handled by specialists, rather than masses of soldiers. The bourgeoisie would then have a free hand to wage atomic war without fear of the kind of mutinies which took place in 1917-18. This analysis ignores the fact that:
-- atomic weapons are a long way from being the only weapons at the bourgeoisie’s disposal. Expenditure on classical armaments is much higher than on nuclear weapons;
-- when the bourgeoisie goes to war, it doesn’t do so a priori to destroy as much as possible. It does so to seize markets, territories and wealth from its enemy. That’s why, even if it will use them in the last resort, it has no interest in using atomic weapons straight away. It still faces, therefore, the problem of mobilizing men for the occupation of conquered territory. As in the past, capital still has to mobilize tens of millions of workers if it’s going to wage imperialist war.
c. War by Accident
In the process of generalizing an imperialist conflict, there is an involuntary aspect which escapes the control of any government. This leads some people to say that, whatever the level of class struggle, capitalism could plunge humanity into generalized war ‘by accident’, after losing control of the situation. Obviously, there’s no absolute guarantee that capitalism won’t serve up a menu like this, but history shows that the system is much less likely to slide in this direction if it feels threatened by the proletariat.
d. The Insufficiency of the Proletariat’s Response
Some groups, like Battaglia Comunista, consider that the proletariat’s response to the crisis is insufficient to constitute an obstacle to the course towards imperialist war. They consider that the struggle must be of a ‘revolutionary nature’ if it’s really going to counteract this course, basing their argument on the fact that in 1917-18 only the revolution put an end to the imperialist war. Their error is to try to transpose a schema which was correct at the time to a different situation. A proletarian upsurge during and against a war straight away takes the form of a revolution:
-- because society is plunged into the most extreme form of its crisis, imposing the most terrible sacrifices on the workers;
-- because the workers in uniform are already armed;
-- because the exceptional measures (martial law etc) which are in force make any class confrontation frontal and violent;
-- because the struggle for war immediately takes on the political form of a confrontation with the state which is waging the war, without going through the stage of less head-ons economic struggles.
But the situation is quite different when war hasn’t yet been declared. In these circumstances, even a limited tendency towards struggle on a class terrain is enough to jam up the war machine, since:
-- it shows that the workers aren’t actively drawn into capitalist mystifications;
-- imposing even greater sacrifices on the workers than the ones which provoked their initial response runs the risk of provoking a proportionately stronger reaction.
Thus, at the beginning of the twentieth century there were many threats of imperialist war, many opportunities for unleashing a generalized war (the Russo-Japanese war, Franco-German conflicts over Morocco, Balkans conflicts, invasion of the Tripolitaine by Italy). The fact that these conflicts didn’t generalize was to no small extent linked to the fact that, up until 1912, the working class (through mass demonstrations) and the International (special motions at the Congresses of 1901 and 1910, Extraordinary Congress on the question of war in 1912) mobilized themselves each time there was a local conflict. And it wasn’t until the working class, anaesthetized by the speeches of the opportunists, stopped mobilizing itself against the threat of war (between 1912 and 1914) that capitalism was able to unleash an imperialist war, starting with an incident (the Sarajevo assassination) which seemed much less serious than the previous ones.
Today the revolution doesn’t have to be knocking at the door for us to say that the course towards imperialist war is barred.
e. War as a Necessary Condition for Revolution
The fact that, up to now, the great revolutionary upsurges of the proletariat (1871 the Commune, 1905, and 1917) arose out of wars led certain currents, like the Gauche Communiste de France, to consider that a new revolution could only come out of a new war. Although wrong, such an argument was more defensible in 1950; holding on to it today betrays a fetishistic attachment to the schemas of the past. The role of revolutionaries isn’t to recite catechisms learned from history books with the idea that history is going to repeat itself in an immutable way. In general history doesn’t repeat itself, and although we must know about it in order to understand the present, the study of this present with all its specificities is even more necessary. The scenario of revolution coming only out of imperialist war is doubly wrong today:
-- it ignores the possibility of a revolutionary upsurge coming out of economic crisis (this was the scenario envisaged by Marx, if that’s any comfort to the fetishists);
-- it’s based on a perspective which is by no means ineluctable (as the result of the 1939-45 war showed); and it presupposes a step -- a third generalized war -- which, because of the means of destruction that exist today, contains a strong risk that humanity will once and for all time be deprived of the possibility of building socialism, or even of safeguarding its own existence.
Finally such an analysis can have disastrous implications for the struggle.11. The implications of an erroneous analysis of the course
As we have seen, an erroneous analysis of the course has always had grave consequences. But the degree of gravity depends on whether the course is towards class war or imperialist war.
To be in error when the class is in reflux can be catastrophic for revolutionaries themselves (the example of the KAPD), but it has little impact on the class itself since, in such periods revolutionaries only have a small audience in the class. On the other hand, to make a mistake when the class is on the move, when the influence of revolutionaries is growing, can have tragic consequences for the whole class. Instead of pushing the whole class to struggle, of encouraging its initiatives, of developing the potential of its struggles, a Jeremiah-like attitude at such a moment will help to demoralize the class and will become an obstacle to the movement.
That’s why, in the absence of decisive criteria proving that they’re in a period of defeat, revolutionaries have always emphasized the positive side of the historic alternative, have based their activities on the perspective of rising class struggle, not of defeat. The error of a doctor who gives up on a patient when he’s still got a chance of living, no matter how small, is much worse than that of the doctor who keeps trying when the patient has no chance.
That’s why today, it’s not so much up to the revolutionaries who foresee a course towards class war to provide irrefutable proof of their analysis: rather that’s the task of those who propose a course towards war.
It’s quite impossible to say to the working class right now that -- although we’re not quite sure -- the perspective before it is one of new imperialist war, during which it might -- perhaps -- be able to fight back. If a chance exists, however small, for the struggle of the class to prevent the outbreak of a new imperialist holocaust, the role of revolutionaries is to put all their strength behind this chance and encourage the struggles of the class as much as they can, pointing out what’s at stake in these struggles, for the working class and the whole of humanity.
Our perspective doesn’t foresee the inevitability of the revolution. We aren’t charlatans, and we know quite well -- in contrast to certain fatalistic revolutionaries -- that the revolution isn’t “as certain as if it had already taken place”. But, whatever the final issue of the struggle today -- which the bourgeoisie is trying to muzzle in order to inflict on the class a series of partial defeats which will be a prelude to a more definitive defeat -- capitalism, right here and now, is unable to impose its own response to the crisis of its relations of production without directly confronting the proletariat.
Whether these struggles are going to result in victory, in revolution and communism, depends in part on the ability of revolutionaries to be equal to their tasks, notably in defining a concrete perspective for the movement of the class.