The Historic Conditions for the Generalization of Working Class Struggle

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Preliminary considerations: Economic and Political struggle

1. The events of Longwy and Denain made us understand and adopt as a central theme of our intervention the conception of "extension"; the events of Poland, that of "generalization".

These two terms relate not only to qualitatively different responses, but also to different situations.

2. If the economic struggle of the proletariat contains a political element, and vice versa; if -- in contrast to Lenin's thesis -- it is not possible to separate the struggle of the proletariat that takes place within ‘trade unionist' limitations from the struggle for socialism (these two threads forming one whole); if it is impossible to divide the character of the proletariat (which is historically unique, being at one and the same time exploited and revolutionary), -- it is nonetheless true that these two aspects, the economic and political struggle (which are constants in the struggle of the class) represent particular moments in the time and scope of the class struggle. In consequence they never remain in the same relationship or the same balance. Just as we must reject any idea which tends to divide the class struggle (and therefore the unity of the class) we must not fail to appreciate the significant specificities of the two aspects and what they reveal (as the revolutionary syndicallists did at the end of the last century and ­the beginning of the 20th).

3. We can also establish the relationship of the economic and the political struggles within the general struggle of the proletariat and within the historic periods of capitalist society. This relationship changes along with the change in period, to the point of being completely overturned. The former is determined by the latter which is, in its turn, determined by the evolution of capitalism and the development of its internal contradictions.

In the ascendant phase of capitalism revolution was not objectively and practically on the agenda, and given that situation, the struggle in defense of economic interests[1] necessarily took precedence over the political struggle within the overall struggles of the proletariat. Revolutionary (political) upsurges, however important they may have been, could only be circumstantial and isolated phenomena in that epoch. This was as true for June 1848 as it was for the Paris Commune. In short, the economic struggle was at that time the predominant aspect of the global struggle of the class. This balance tended to be overthrown as capitalism entered its decadent period. 1905 was a demonstration of that tendency in the ‘changeover' period, and the process had been fully accomplished by the onset of World War One.

4. As has already been explained elsewhere (see International Review, no.23; ‘Proletarian Struggle in Decadence') economic struggle in the ascendant period inevitably developed in a corporatist form, ie occupation-based, limited and very dispersed. This was also the case because the prolet­ariat was facing a capitalism with millions of bosses and small, widely dispersed and isolated factories. The unions were the appropriate form for this stage and content of struggle. But through the change in period, when a highly concentrated and centralized capitalism moved into the phase of decadence taking on the economic-­political form of state capitalism (a change which made political struggle of the proletariat predominant), the economic str­uggle of the class underwent profound changes. It encountered the impossibility of maintaining permanent unitary organs strictly for economic defense; the inevit­ability of a fusion between economic defense and the general political character of the struggle; the need for mass active participation in the struggle through mass strikes and general assemblies. These new conditions of ‘economic' struggle posed imperative demands which boil down to two points; the autonomy and self-organization of tine class; and the extension of the struggle.

5. The extension of the struggle, which is absolutely inseparable from the overt and generalized self-organization of the class as a whole, must of necessity go beyond all partial divisions, be they occupational, factoryist, regionalist, between unemployed and factory workers. However, it remains within a national framework, within the geo-political boundaries of a particular country. Extension generally has its point of departure on the terrain of economic demands, the struggle against austerity and the effects of the crisis on the daily lives of the workers. We would distinguish this from generalization essentially by the following criteria: firstly, generalization means the struggle extending beyond national boundaries with other countries; secondly, this can only be done by the struggle taking on, very directly, a rev­olutionary political character.

The object of these theses is to look at the historic conditions for generalization. This can only be done by detaching this question from other considerations and relevant questions, which although they must be taken into account, can also cloud the issue and hinder this examination. We hope we've managed to do this in this preliminary section and so now we'll move on to look at generalization.

6. In Principles of Communism, a pamphlet written in October/November 1847, which seems to serve as a draft outline for the Communist Manifesto, Engels wrote; "Question 19 - Will this revolution be made in one country? Answer - No. Major industry, in creating the world market has drawn the peoples of the world so closely together, particularly the most advanced nations, that each nation is dependent on what happens in every other. It has furthermore regim­ented social development in the advanced countries to the point that, in all countries, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat have become the two decisive classes in society, and the struggle between these classes has become the major struggle in our epoch. The comm­unist revolution, therefore, will not be a purely national one, it will erupt simultaneously in all the developed countries, ie in England, America, France and Germany."

Here Engels is not concerned with res­ponding to the aberrant theory of ‘social­ism in one country' in whose name the Stalinist counter-revolution took place, but with the revolution itself. It is the revolution itself which "will erupt simult­aneously in all the advanced countries". This thesis, elaborated for the first time by Engels, and although it is insufficient­ly developed and supported in this text, is nevertheless a fundamental tenet of Marxist theory and the Marxist movement. It expresses the concept of the essential int­ernational generalization of the proletar­ian revolution, both in its content and its scale.

7. We also find this thesis at the heart of the Communist Manifesto, as well as in the other works of Marx and Engels, both before and after the 1848 revolution. In Class Struggles in France, for example, Marx, commenting on the defeat in June, wrote:

"Finally, with the victories of the Holy Alliance, Europe has assumed a form in which any new proletarian uprising in France will immediately coincide with a world war. The new French revolution will be forced to leave its natural soil immediately and to conquer the European terrain, on which alone the social revolution of the nineteenth century can be carried out."

Not only is the essential international character of the revolution strongly reass­erted ("the terrain on which alone the social revolution of the nineteenth century can be carried out"), but it is further re-emphasized as the historic basis of the revolution is made clear; ie the economic crisis of the capitalist system.

"A similar movement is going on before our own eyes. Modern bourgeois society with its relation of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world that he has called up by his spells." (The Communist Manifesto)

8. There might perhaps be some doubt as to the reality of the decline of the capital­ist system in 1848! History has given the lie to this ‘reality' and revolutionaries, beginning with Marx and Engels, have had to correct this error. Only those who adhere to the ‘letter' rather than the ‘spirit' can still today support the idea that the proletarian revolution was on the agenda in 1848 -- that it was already possible and even a necessity. As a matter of fact, it does say in the Communist Manifesto that:

"The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and as soon as they overcome these fetters they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, and endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them."

That 1848 did not see the generalization of the proletarian revolution (which was to begin in England and America) was undoubtedly due to the fact that the historic conditions were not then ripe, despite what Marx and Engels believed. 1848 heralded the opening of an era of expansion for capitalism. But what is fundamental, and still stands as the great advance made by the Communist Manifesto, is the analysis which locates the inevitability of the proletarian revolution in the economic crisis of the capitalist system. This is the backbone of all Marxist theory.

Nevertheless, this affirmation -- both of the determinism of the crisis and of the imperative need for the internationalization of the revolution -- remained far too general, ie too abstract and with little inter-connection, so that it didn't express concretely the historic conditions necessary for the internationalization of the revolution. For example, although they understood the bourgeois character of the 1848 German revolution, Marx and Engels believed for some time, in the heat of the moment, that it was possible to graft the proletarian revolution on to it. This was their vision of the ‘permanent revolution' expressed in ‘The Address to the Central Council of the Communist League' in March 1850. (Again, this response was to be proved false and rapidly abandoned). They should have recognised that the bourgeois revolution does not constitute a determinant for the proletarian revolution, nor even a condition for its generalization. As Engels wrote in ‘Some notes on the History of the Communist League' in 1855, they should have been aware that "a new period of unparalleled prosperity had opened up": and he recalled what they wrote in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, at the end of 1850:

"In the presence of general prosperity when the productive forces of bourgeois society are expanding with all the luxuriance possible within the bourgeois framework, there can be no question of a true revolution. A true revolution is only possible in periods when there is conflict between two factors, modern forms of production and the relations of bourgeois production."

9. In the wake of the experiences and lessons of the 1848-50 revolutions, Marx and Engels broke with "these radical makers of revolutions" and firmly upheld the premise of the economic crisis as the basis of revolution. They impatiently awaited and scrutinized the return of the crisis (see their correspondence between 1854 and 1855) and effectively foresaw its recurrence in1856. But their hopes were again dashed for they still held to the view in the Manifesto, that saw, in the cyclical crises, a continual return to the possibility of revolution. There is an abyss between the cyclical crises and the permanent crisis of capitalism. The cyclical crises do indicate the inherent contradiction within the capitalist system between the productive forces and the relations of production, but these remain latent and not explosive. They are even a stimulant in as much as they force capitalism to seek out solutions, most notably in the quest for new markets. In fact, the cyclical crises which followed on from each other in the latter half of the last century never gave rise to revolutionary upsurges, still less to their generalization. Marx and Engels were henceforth convinced of this fact, and were amongst the first to caution the Paris workers against a premature insurrection, one doomed to failure; likewise they were the most severe critics of Blanquism and the voluntarist deviations of Bakunin and his followers, those great experts on revolutionary phraseology and adventurist activity.

10. The bloody obliteration of the Paris Commune seemed to offer the proof, not of the futility of the communist revolution (which remained a historic necessity and probability) nor of the indispensible need of its generalization if it were to triumph,      but rather of the immaturity of conditions; invalidating and confirming at one and the same time the perspective set out by Marx in ‘Class Struggle in France', that the "new French revolution will be fated to leave its natural soil immediately and to conquer the European terrain, on which alone the social revolution of the nineteenth century can be carried out". The defeat of the Commune and the ensuing great leap forward of global capitalism brought with them decades of disarray for the workers' movement. On the one hand it gave rise to anarcho-syndicalism which threw overboard all theoretical study and, regardless of cost, feverishly sought the revolution in the immediate economic struggle and looked there for the conditions of generalization. It believed it had finally discovered all these in the ‘general strike', a creation of their own imagination and of their desire for a panacea for all ills. On the other hand, it produced a separation within the class struggle between the economic struggle (unions) and the political struggle (parties). Within the heart of the socialist movement there arose a confrontation between a majority who remained unaware of the new conditions, and who were moving more and more openly towards the gradualism and reformism of bourgeois democracy, and a widely dispersed minority who were striving to maintain their position on the basis of revolutionary Marxism.

Despite the persistence and indeed the growth of the class struggle, the revolution and the conditions for its generalization seemed a long way from reality, from the real evolution of capitalism. Socialism became a distant ideal, the object of theoretical research and abstract speculation. The problem with the class struggle in the last decades of the nineteenth century lay not so much in the difficulties revolutionaries found in seeing the correct response, but in the situation itself, which did not quite contain it, or more precisely, would not allow it to reveal its secrets.

The mass strike

11. 1905 came as a crack of lightning in a tranquil sky. Not because the movement was not foreseen; on the contrary. The whole       world was waiting for it, particularly the socialists who had in fact prepared for it. The aging Engels had already foreseen these events sometime before his death. But what was surprising was the impulsive strength of the young Russian proletariat, and the faint-heartedness of the bourgeoisie. The socialists had prepared for this, but not amidst such political disarray and confusion. The Mensheviks saw it simply as an anti-feudal revolution and assigned to the proletariat a simple role of support for a bourgeois government. The Bolsheviks saw it as a bourgeois democratic revolution with a predominantly working class partic­ipation -- though it also prefigured a "democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants". Others, such as Trotsky and Parvus, spoke of a "workers' government" and took up again the old slogan of ‘perman­ent revolution'. The models to which everyone referred were the bourgeois revolutions of 1789 and 1848. At the basis of all these analyses lay the specificity of conditions in Russia. The context of the global situation and the historic period of capitalism was shunted into the background. And yet we were seeing absolutely new phenomena: the total impotence of the bourgeoisie, who sought refuge in the embrace of the Tsarist monarchy; the immobility of an immense peasant population and of an army largely made up of peasants; a spontaneous movement of a sort never seen before, which involved the vast majority of workers, who organized themselves, took the initiative in all cities, forced the authorities to retreat and largely went beyond the socialist part­ies and their dictates; finally, the emergence of a new form of proletarian organization, which united the economic and political struggle, the workers' soviets. And while the socialist parties were bickering over the nature of these events and their perspectives, the workers were acting spontaneously, organizing themselves in a centralized way, showing a surprising creative ability. All this put into question the classic conception of the role and function of the political party, ie its relation to the class, the role it played in the nineteenth century as organizer of the class. It also put into question the classic mode of action of past struggles. Corporatist and unionist strikes were superseded by a new and more dynamic mode, with a mass character, as Luxemburg recognized in the Mass Strike.

1905 is the prime example of extension and spontaneous self-organization of the proletariat's struggle. Its repercussions in other countries were weak, but were nevertheless an indication of the tendency towards generalization.

The right wing of the Second International, the majority, surprised by the violence of events, failed to understand anything of what was taking place, but showed its resounding disapproval of and disgust for the development of the class struggle -- thus foreshadowing the process which was to lead them into the camp of the class enemy. The left wing found in these events a confirmation of its revolutionary positions, but was far from appreciating their true significance and from understanding that the capitalist world was at the turning point in its evolution from apogee to its decline. The new situation imposed the need for profound theoretical reflection, for a re-examination of the evolution of capitalism; above all, for an analysis of its final epoch, imperialism, and the movement towards the collapse of capitalism. This study was very sketchy and inadequately developed, because events were moving on very quickly.

1914 War, 1917 Revolution, 1939 War

12. 1914 arrived, fully confirming their analysis of the new historic period, summed up by Lenin in the phrase; "imperialist wars and proletarian revolutions". Never­theless it became clear that the capitalist system had entered its historic phase of decadence. The world war was the clearest manifestation of this; the era of proletar­ian revolution had arrived.

The strong points of this analysis were,

a) Capitalism as a system had periods of development and decline.

b) The cyclical crises of the ascendant period could not be the determinant of prol­etarian revolution. Only the period of decadence of the entire capitalist system made revolution necessary and possible.

c) This revolution can therefore only be a global one and the more speedily it generalizes to the majority of the major indust­rial countries, the greater will be its chance of success.

This was not simply a return to the pos­itions expressed by Engels in the Principles of Communism, but a strengthening of them, with a precision about the historic period of revolution which only reality allowed to be developed fully. But there is a whole series of questions remaining to be clarif­ied: the definition of imperialism and the question of the saturation of markets[2]; the theorization of a so-called law of ‘uneven development of capitalism'[3]; the theory of the "weakest link"[4]; and the anachronistic adherence to the old methods of struggle which were totally inadequate for the new period -- parliamentarism, trade unionism, the united front, national liber­ation, etc. In other words it was precisely the questions which touched on the problem of generalization which were the least elaborated and to which clearly false prem­ises were given.

13. Furthermore, since revolutionaries saw the eruption of world war as the irrefutable proof of the ‘catastrophic collapse' of cap­italism under the weight of its own contradictions, and thus as the basic objective determinant of the revolution, they believed that the world war provided the necessary conditions for the generalization of the revolution. Wasn't it true that revolutions at that time were closely tied to capitalism's wars? This was true for the Paris Commune -- which followed directly the Franco-Prussian war -- and also for 1905, which followed the Russo-Japanese war. Using these examples revolutionaries logically began to reason in these terms: that world war necessarily creates the conditions for the generalization of the revolution.          

The eruption of the Russian revolution and the revolutionary wave which followed it served as proof, reinforcing this conviction which has remained dominant amongst revolutionaries to this day. For example, is it not the case that the Bordigists and many other revolutionaries attach so little importance to the question of the historic course because they rely on the war which must in their eyes give birth to the revolution? But if we look at more recent experiences in history the arguments put forward in favor of that idea are far from being as convincing as they appear. It is true that wars can determine the social convulsions which lead to revolutionary explosions and even victories. But these victories are isolated, and of short duration as in the case of the Commune and of 1905 (which were also in an historically immature period), or of Hungary. Even if the proletariat managed to retain power for a fairly long time, its isolation rapidly condemns it to degeneration and ultimately counter-revolution -- as the Russian revolution shows.       

14. Why? Because there cannot be a successful revolutionary movement which does not contain and develop the tendency towards internationalization of the struggle, just as there can be no real internationalization of struggle which is not revolutionary. This implies that the conditions for a triumphant revolution lie in the economic and political situation and a balance of forces favorable to the proletariat (against capitalism) on a global level. War is certainly a peak in the crisis of capitalism, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that it is also a ‘response' by capitalism to the crisis. It is an advanced moment of barbarism which as such does not greatly favor the conditions for the generalization of the revolution.

Let's look closer. Already, during the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg issued a warning from her prison, and drew attention to the fact that the bourgeoisie was in the process of massacring the finest flower of the proletariat -- its youth, the best fighters of the revolutionary class. The Second World War showed in its technique and in its organization, the capacity of the bourgeoisie to multiply this massacre (by at least 2-1/2), to snuff out any tiny glimmerings of class struggle and liquidate any organization of the working class.

This applied to the army as well as to the civil population.

On the level of ‘massacres', the implications of a new war, with all the developments in modern technology, are better not thought of. On another level, the First World War was a war fought in the trenches, which allowed a certain amount of contact between soldiers of enemy camps; hence the keynote of intervention -- fraternization -‑ and the possibility of its realization. This was not the case n the Second World War, in which the infantry played a secondary role. In any future war people will be massacred in their hundreds of thousands, like at Hiroshima, without even having seen ‘the enemy'.

In the revolutionary movement in Russia it should be said that the soldiers were the last bastions to be won over or just neutralized. It was the sailors, the "floating proletariat", who were the armed wing of the revolution. This was even clearer in Germany. The reason for this was very simple: the army was not a place where there was a concentration of workers, but a place where the workers were submerged in a mass of peasants and other strata.

The bourgeoisie showed in the Second World War how fully it had assimilated the lessons of how to deal with the dangers of workers' revolts. In 1943 Britain volunt­arily held back from using the advantage given to it by the collapse of Mussolini's army, and did not invade the north. It left it to the German army to instigate the repression of the workers in Milan and Turin As Churchill explained this was the policy of "leaving the Italians to stew in their own juice for a necessary period of time". The same policy was used by the Russian army when it halted for three days in front of the gates of Warsaw and Buda­pest -- to give the retreating German army enough time to accomplish its bloody task. Then came the rapid advances of the Russian and American armies in Germany -- to replace as quickly as possible the defeated Hitlerite apparatus and crush any embryonic attempts at an uprising.

But what is still more important, and which greatly diminishes the effectiveness of revolutionary defeatism, is the fact that the war produced victors as well as vanquished. In the defeated countries, as well as revolutionary anger against the bourgeoisie, there was a desire for revenge produced in the general population. This of backward tendency penetrated even into the ranks of revolutionaries, as is witnessed by the tendency in the KAPD which advocated national-communism, and the struggle against the Treaty of Versailles which was to become the axis of the KPD's propaganda. Worse still was the effect produced amongst the workers in the victorious countries. As the aftermath of the First World War had already shown, and still more so the Second, what prevailed was a spirit of lassitude if not of chauvinistic delirium pure and simple -- even if alongside this there was a real, though slow, upturn in the class struggle.

15. No -- war does not create the most favorable conditions for the generalization of the revolution. Contrary to the thesis on war which implies the view of an extrem­ely rapid progression which surprises the bourgeoisie (on the Russian model), the revolution emerges, as Luxemburg said at the founding congress of the German CP, as a long and painful process, full of false starts, advances and retreats in the strug­gle. It is in this process that the conditions mature for generalization, the raising of consciousness and the capacity for self-organization. Revolutionaries must cease making their impatience a point of reference and learn to work in the long term, as reality dictates.

16. We have defined the period of reconstr­uction as an interval in the cycle of ‘crisis - war - reconstruction - crisis', the movement of decadence. What is fundam­ental is not the intermediary terms (war and reconstruction) but the starting point and the finishing point. None of the inter­mediary phases are fatal; only the extreme points (‘crisis - crisis') mark the fixed character of the historic period.

War is only posed after a proletarian defeat which will give the bourgeoisie a free hand to lead society into the deepest of catastrophes. This situation does not exist today. Since the beginning of the conjunctural crisis at the end of the six­ties, the proletariat has again taken up its struggle and through ups and downs has developed it -- Poland today being the high­est point for the last half century.

But Poland is not the final point and it would be pure adventurist verbiage to demand that it be more than it is. In Poland an advanced position has been reach­ed and occupied by a section of the proletarian army. Now the mass of the class must join them. While it waits to do so the proletariat has no interest in sacrificing one of its most combative parts in premature military confrontations, which, being isolated, will be destined to defeat. Vict­ory can only be gained by a generalized advance of the class.

The conditions for generalization can be found in the crisis itself. The inevitable submersion of capitalism in a deeper and deeper crisis creates the inexorable march towards the generalization of the struggle, the condition for the opening of the revol­ution on a global level and for its final victory.


[1] To avoid any misunderstanding, let us define more precisely this term ‘economic'. By this we understand anything which concerns the general and immediate living conditions of the class: this is distinct from the term ‘political' which refers strictly to the future historic goals of the proletariat.

[2] The failure to give an exact definition of imperialism led to a division of the world into imperialist and anti-imperialist countries, and thus made a link between the proletarian revolution and national liberation struggles.

[3] This theory put into question the indispensible unity of simultaneous revolutionary waves, and later allowed Stalin to develop his theory of ‘socialism in one country'! Uneven development was a factor in the development of the bourgeois revolutions and in the beginnings of capitalism. The development of capitalism has led to the development of interdependence and thus the unification of global production, which finds its fulfillment in the phase of decadence as all countries are dragged into barbarism.

[4] By sticking to the letter and making an axis of this theory one ends up giving preference to the maturity of the conditions for revolution in the under-developed countries at the expense of the highly industrialized nations with a more concentrated, more experienced proletariat. This denies completely everything Marx and Engels said on the subject.

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