Why the proletariat has not yet overthrown capitalism, Part 2

Printer-friendly version

The coming century will be decisive for human history. If capitalism continues to rule the planet, then before 2100 society will be plunged into such barbarism that it will make the 20th century look like a minor headache and either reduce human-kind to the stone-age, or destroy it altogether. If humanity does have a future, then it is wholly in the hands of the world proletariat, whose worldwide revolution alone can overthrow the domination of the capitalist mode of production whose historic crisis is responsible for today's barbarity. But to do so, the proletariat must find in the future the strength to carry out its task, which has been lacking up to now.

In the first part of this article, we tried to understand why the proletariat's past revolutionary endeavours failed, and above all its greatest, the revolution that began in Russia in 1917. We showed that the terrible defeat it suffered at the end of this attempt caused it to miss the appointment with history that followed: capitalism's great crisis in the 1930s, and World War II. In particular, we showed that at the end of the last war, "The proletariat had reached rock bottom. What it was told, what it thought, was its greatest victory - the triumph of democracy over fascism - was in fact its most utter historic defeat. Capitalist order was guaranteed by the workers' euphoric belief in their "victory", and their resulting belief in the "sacred virtues" of bourgeois democracy: the same democracy which had led them twice into imperialist butchery and crushed their revolution in 1920".

In Europe, the main battleground of both the war and the revolution, the Allied victory paralysed the class struggle for several years. The workers' bellies were empty, but their heads filled with the euphoria of "victory". Moreover, the state capitalist policies of every government in Europe provided a further means of mystification. These policies corresponded to the fundamental needs of European capital with its economy laid to waste by the war. Nationalisations, and a certain number of "social" measures (such as the state's taking charge of the health system), were all completely capitalist measures. They allowed the state better to plan and co-ordinate the reconstruction of a productive potential in ruins. At the same time, they allowed a more efficient management of labour power. For example, the capitalists had every interest in the good health of the workforce, especially when the workers were being asked to make an exceptional effort, in difficult conditions and with a shortage of labour power. But these capitalist measures were presented as "workers' victories", not only by the Stalinist parties whose programmes included the complete nationalisation of the economy, but also by the social-democrats, in particular the British Labour Party. This explains why throughout Europe, the left parties, including the Stalinists, were to be found in government after the war, either in coalitions with parties of the democratic Right (such as the Christian Democracy in Italy), or alone (in Britain, the Labour leader Attlee replaced Churchill as prime minister, despite the latter's immense popularity and his inestimable services to the British bourgeoisie).

Two years after the war, the promises of a better future, with which the socialist and Stalinist parties had persuaded the workers to accept the most terrible sacrifices, had been broken. The workers undertook a series of struggles. In the spring of 1947, a strike at Renault, the biggest factory in France, forced the Stalinist party (whose leader Maurice Thorez constantly called on the workers throughout industry to "work first, make demands afterwards") to leave the government. The party, through the CGT union which it controlled, then launched a series of strikes both to allow the workers to "let off steam" before they got out of hand, but also to put pressure on the other fractions of the bourgeoisie in order to force their way back into the government. But the other bourgeois parties turned a deaf ear. They had no doubts about the Stalinists' loyalty in defence of the national capital - but the Cold War had begun, and the bourgeoisie's ruling fractions throughout Europe had lined up behind the United States. Wherever the Stalinists took part in government, they either seized power completely if they were in the Russian zone, or were thrown out altogether in the Western zone.

From this time on, workers' conditions in the Western zone slowly began to improve. Needless to say, this had nothing to do with any bourgeois generosity. The billions of dollars of the Marshall Plan, which had just begun to arrive, were designed to tie the West European bourgeoisie firmly to the US bloc, and to undermine the influence of the Stalinist parties, which were henceforth at the head of the workers' struggles.

In Eastern Europe, the Stalinist parties under Moscow's orders refused the American manna, and the situation took longer to improve slightly. However, the workers' anger could not be expressed in the same way. At first, the workers were called to support the communist parties, which promised them the moon, all the more so because the communists not only took part in the governments set up after the "Liberation" (as in most of the Western countries), but also took the lead in these governments thanks to the support of the Red Army, and eliminated the "bourgeois parties". The workers were presented with the mystification of the "construction of socialism". This mystification had a certain success, as for example in Czechoslovakia, where the February 1948 "Prague coup" - in other words the Stalinists' seizure of government power - was carried out with the support of many workers.

Nonetheless, in the "people's democracies" the main instrument of control over the working class soon became brute force and repression. The workers' uprising of June 1953 in East Berlin and many other towns in the Soviet occupation zone was bloodily crushed by Russian tanks[1]. In Poland, the workers' anger, which first found expression in the great Poznan strike of June 1956, was defused by the return to power on 21st October of Gomulka (a Stalinist leader expelled from the party in 1949 for "Titoism", and imprisoned between 1951 and 1955). In Hungary, however, the workers' rising which began a few days later was savagely put down by the Russians from 4th November onwards, leaving 25,000 dead and 160,000 refugees[2].

The workers' risings in the "socialist countries" between 1953 and 1956 were clear proof that these countries had nothing "working class" about them. But every sector of the bourgeoisie spoke the same language to prevent the workers from drawing the real lessons from events.

In the Eastern bloc, the "communist" propaganda, and the Stalinist leaders' constant references to "marxism" and "proletarian internationalism" were the best means to turn the workers' anger away from a class perspective and increase their illusions in bourgeois democracy and nationalism. On 17th June 1953, an immense procession of East Berlin workers headed down the great avenue Unter den Linden towards the West. Their aim was to seek the solidarity of the West Berlin workers, but they were also under the illusion that the Western authorities would help workers in the East. These same authorities closed off their sector, and with their usual cynicism changed the name of Unter den Linden to the Avenue of 17th June. Similarly, while the Polish workers' demands in June 1956 obviously included many class economic demands, they were also strongly coloured with democratic, and above all nationalist and religious illusions. This is why Gomulka, who presented himself as a patriot who had stood up to the Russians, and who freed Cardinal Wyszynski (interned in a monastery since 1953) immediately after his return to power, was able to regain control of the situation by the end of 1956. The workers' insurrection in Hungary, despite organising in workers' councils, remained strongly marked by democratic and nationalist illusions. Indeed, the insurrection itself had been sparked off by the bloody repression of a students' demonstration demanding that Hungary adopt the "Polish way". The measures decided by Imre Nagy (an old Stalinist sacked from his post as party leader by the hard-liners in April 1955) were intended to exploit these illusions in order to regain control of the situation: he announced the formation of a coalition government and Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. This last measure was unacceptable for the USSR, and it intervened with tanks.

The intervention of Russian troops gave nationalism a further impetus in the East European countries. At the same time, it was abundantly exploited by the "democratic" and pro-American fractions of the West European bourgeoisies, while their Stalinist parties used this very propaganda to portray the Hungarian workers' insurrection as a chauvinist, even a fascist, movement, in the pay of US imperialism.

Throughout the Cold War, even when it was tempered by the policy of "peaceful co-existence" after 1956, the division of the world into two opposing blocs was thus a primary mystification of the working class. As we saw in the first part of this article, during the 1930s the identification of the Stalinist USSR with communism provoked a profound demoralisation in some sectors of the working class, who wanted nothing to do with a "Soviet-style" society and turned back to the social-democrats. At the same time, most workers continued to hope for a proletarian revolution and followed the Stalinist parties in their claims to defend the "socialist fatherland" and the "anti-fascist struggle", thus making it possible for the latter to enrol them in World War II. During the 1950s, the same kind of policy continued to divide and disorientate the working class. A part of the class wanted to hear no more of communism (identified with the USSR), while the rest remained under the ideological domination of the Stalinist parties and trade unions. Thus, during the Korean War the confrontation between East and West was used to set different sectors of the class against each other, and to enrol millions of workers behind the Soviet camp in the name of the "anti-imperialist struggle". For example, on 28th May 1952, the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Peace Movement which it controlled organised a great demonstration in Paris against a visit by the American general Ridgway, commanding US forces in Korea. Ridgway was accused (wrongly as it turned out) of using bacterial weapons, and was greeted by a demonstration of tens of thousands of workers (mostly PCF militants) denouncing "Plague Ridgway" and demanding France's withdrawal from NATO. There were violent confrontations with the police, and the PCF's number two, Jacques Duclos, was arrested. The PCF's determination in confronting the police, and the arrest of its "historic" leader renewed the "revolutionary" image of a party which only five years earlier had occupied the palaces and ministerial positions of the bourgeois Republic. At the same time, the colonial wars provided a further opportunity to turn the workers away from their class terrain, once again in the name of the struggle against imperialism (not capitalism), against which the USSR was presented as the champion of "the peoples' rights and freedom".

This kind of campaign continued in many countries throughout the 1950s and 60s, especially with the USA's growing commitment to the war in Vietnam from 1961 onwards.

If there was one country where the world's division into two opposing blocs weighed especially heavily, and where the counter-revolution had been particularly crushing, it was Germany. For decades, the German proletariat had been the vanguard of the world working class. Workers all over the world knew that the fate of the revolution would be determined in Germany. And this was proved true between 1919 and 1923. The German proletariat's defeat determined the defeat of the world proletariat. And the terrible counter-revolution that followed, in the hideous guise of Nazism, was, with Stalinism, the clearest expression of the counter-revolution that battened on the working class in every country.

After World War II, Germany's division between the two great imperialist blocs made possible, on both sides of the iron curtain, a thorough destruction of consciousness within the working masses, leaving the German proletariat, no longer the vanguard but the rearguard of the European working class, in terms both of its combativeness and its consciousness.

However, what really paralysed the working class throughout this period, and maintained its ideological submission to capitalism, was the system's apparent prosperity as a result of the reconstruction of Europe's war-shattered economies.

Bourgeois economists and politicians call the period between 1945 and the serious world recession of 1975 the "glorious thirty years", since they ignore the difficulties that the world economy was already undergoing in 1967 and 1971.

We will not go into the causes here, either of the rapid economic growth during this period, or of its end; we have already dealt with both at length in the International Review[3]. What is important is that the open crisis which began to develop from 1967 onwards (with a slowdown in the world economy, recession in Germany, devaluation of sterling, rise in unemployment) was a new confirmation of marxism, which has always:

- declared that capitalism is unable to overcome definitively its economic contradictions, which in the final analysis are responsible for the convulsions of the 20th century (and in particular for the two World Wars);

- considered that capitalism is at its strongest politically and socially during its periods of prosperity[4];

- based the perspective of a proletarian revolution on the bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production[5].

In this sense, the working class' ideological subjection to capitalism, and all the mystifications which kept the workers from any idea of putting capitalism into question, could only be overcome with the end of the post-war boom.

This is precisely what happened in 1968.

The end of the counter-revolution

In 1967, the bourgeoisie's ideologues were still singing the praises of the capitalist economy; some, who claimed to be revolutionaries and even marxists, talked of nothing but bourgeois society's ability to "integrate" the working class[6]; even the groups of the Communist Left which had emerged from the degenerating Third International could see no light at the end of the tunnel. Yet that year, a small review called Internacionalismo (later to become the ICC's publication in Venezuela) published an article entitled "1968, a new convulsion of capitalism is beginning", which ended thus:

"We are not prophets, and we do not claim to guess when and how future events will unfold. But we are certain and conscious that the process in which capitalism is engaged today cannot be stopped with reforms, devaluations, or any other kind of capitalist measures, and that this process is leading directly to the crisis. And we are equally sure that the inverse process of developing class combativeness, which can be seen all around us today, will the lead the working class to a direct and bloody struggle for the destruction of the bourgeois state".

The one great merit of our comrades who published this article, was to have remained faithful to the teachings of marxism which were to be strikingly verified a few months later. May 1968 in France saw the outbreak of the biggest strike in history, involving the largest ever number of workers (almost 10 million) stopping work at the same time.

An event of such size was the sign of a fundamental change in society: the terrible counter-revolution which had fastened on the working class at the end of the 1920s, and continued for two decades after World War II, had come to an end. And this was soon to be confirmed throughout the world by a series of struggles such as had not been seen for decades:

- the Italian "hot autumn" of 1969 saw massive struggles in all the main industrial centres, and an explicit questioning of trade union control;

- the uprising, during the same year, of the workers of Cordoba in Argentina;

- the massive strikes by the workers of the Baltic coast in Poland during the winter of 1970-71;

- a series of other struggles in the years that followed in virtually all the European countries, and especially in Britain (the world's oldest capitalist country), Germany (the most powerful country in Europe and the leading light of the workers' movement since the second half of the 19th century), and even Spain (still at the time in the grip of the ferocious Francoist dictatorship).

At the same time as this awakening of the workers' struggle, the idea of revolution returned in strength. It was discussed by many workers in struggle, particularly in France and Italy where the struggles had involved the greatest numbers. This proletarian reawakening was also expressed by a growing interest in revolutionary thought, for the writings of Marx and Engels, and of other marxists such as Lenin, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg, but also of the militants of the Communist Left like Bordiga, Gorter, and Pannekoek. This interest was concretised in the emergence of a whole series of little groups trying to renew the links with the Communist Left, and drawing their inspiration from its experience.

We will not deal here, either with the evolution of the workers' struggles since 1968, nor of the groups which claim the heritage of the Communist Left[7]. What we will try to do, is to show why the 1967 forecast by our comrades in Venezuela has still not come to fruition, three decades later, in "the direct and bloody struggle for the destruction of the bourgeois state".

Our organisation has highlighted the obstacles encountered by the proletariat throughout the last thirty years. What follows is thus essentially no more than a summary of what we have said on other occasions.

The first cause of the length of the road that leads today to the communist revolution is an objective one. The revolutionary wave, which began in 1917, and spread to many other countries, was a response to a sudden and terrible drop in working class living conditions: the world war. It took only three years for the proletariat, which had gone to war with a light heart and completely blinded by the bourgeoisie's lies, to open its eyes and raise its head against the barbarism confronting it in the trenches and the terrible exploitation on the home front.

The objective reason for the development of workers' struggles after 1968 was the aggravation of capitalism's economic situation, bringing workers' living conditions increasingly under attack. But contrary to the 1930s, when the bourgeoisie had completely lost control of the situation, the present open crisis did not develop over a period of a few years, but in a process covering several decades. The slow rhythm of the crisis' development was a result of the ruling class' ability to learn the lessons of its past experience, and systematically put into operation a whole series of measures which have allowed it to "manage" the descent into the abyss[8]. This does not alter the insoluble nature of the crisis, but it has allowed the ruling class to spread out over a whole period, both geographically and temporally, its attacks on the working class, and so to hide even from itself the fact that the crisis has no way out.

The second factor that explains the length of the road to proletarian revolution, is the ruling class' deployment of a whole series of political manoeuvres aimed at exhausting the struggle, and preventing the development of working class consciousness.

We can summarise the main features of the bourgeoisie's different strategies since 1968 as follows:

- faced with the first upsurge of workers' struggles, which took it by surprise, the bourgeoisie played the card of the "left alternative", calling on the workers to end their struggles in order to allow the left-wing parties to put in place a different economic policy which was supposed to put an end to the crisis;

- this policy paralysed the workers' combativeness for a while, until a new wave of struggles that began in 1978 (in 1979, for example, Britain went through the highest period of workers' struggle since the General Strike of 1926, with 29 million strike days lost); the bourgeoisie in the most advanced countries (particularly Germany, Britain, the USA, Italy) played the card of the left in opposition: the so-called workers' parties and the unions under their control adopted a more radical language aimed at sabotaging the workers' struggles from within;

- this policy largely explains the ebb in workers' struggles from 1981, but failed to prevent a renewal of large-scale combats that began in the autumn of 1983 (strikes in the public sector in Belgium, then in Holland, the British miners strike of 1984, the Danish general strike of 1985, massive strikes in Belgium in 1986, a series of strikes in Italy during 1987, notably in the education sector, etc).

The most striking characteristic of these movements, which expressed a profound development in working class consciousness, was the growing difficulty that the classic union apparatus had in controlling the struggle, which led to the more and more frequent use of organs that presented themselves as outside, or even against, the unions (such as the "coordinations" in France and Italy during 1986-88), but which in fact were nothing other than "rank-and-file" union structures.

Throughout this period, the bourgeoisie used a whole series of manoeuvres designed to contain workers' combativeness, and retard the development of their consciousness. But this anti-proletarian policy was given a powerful boost by the development of the decomposition of capitalist society. This was the result of the fact that although the proletariat's historic resurgence at the end of the 1960s had prevented the bourgeoisie from answering its systemic crisis in its own way - by world war, just as the crisis of 1929 had been the prelude to World War II - the working class could not prevent the continued development of the characteristics of capitalism's decadence without overthrowing the whole of capitalism itself.

"The world situation may be in a temporary stalemate, this does not mean that history has come to an end. For two decades, society has continued to suffer the accumulation of all the characteristics of decadence, exacerbated by a plunge into the economic crisis which the ruling class shows every day it is unable to overcome. The bourgeoisie's only project for society is to resist, on a day-to-day basis and with no hope of success, the irretrievable collapse of the capitalist mode of production.

Deprived of the slightest historic project capable of mobilising its strength, even the suicidal project of world war, capitalist society can only rot on its feet, plunging ever further into an advanced social decomposition and generalised despair"[9].

Capitalism's entry into decomposition, the final phase of its decadence, weighed more and more heavily on the working class throughout the 1980s:

"At the outset, ideological decomposition obviously affected first and foremost the capitalist class itself, and by rebound the petty-bourgeois strata which have no real autonomy. We can even say that the latter identify particularly well with this decomposition, inasmuch as their specific situation - the absence of any historic future - echoes the major cause of ideological decomposition: the absence of any immediate perspective for society as a whole. Only the proletariat bears within itself a perspective for humanity, and in this sense it is within the ranks of the proletariat that the greatest capacity for resistance to decomposition lies. However, the proletariat itself is not immune from decomposition, all the more so in that the workers live in close proximity to the petty-bourgeoisie, which is decomposition's main vehicle. The elements which constitute the proletariat's strength are in direct opposition to the various aspects of ideological decomposition:

- collective action, solidarity, confront atomisation, ‘"every man for himself', and the search for individual solutions;

- the need for organisation confronts social decomposition, the destruction of the relationships which form the basis of life within society;

- the proletariat's confidence in the future and in its own strength is constantly undermined by the general despair invading society, of nihilism and 'no future';

- consciousness, lucidity, coherence and unity of thought, the taste for theory, have to make their way with difficulty through the mirages of drugs, sects, mysticism, the rejection of reflection and the destruction of thought characteristic of our epoch.

An aggravating factor in this situation is obviously the fact that a growing proportion of the young generations of the working class suffer the devastating effects of unemployment even before they have had the opportunity to experience the collective life of the class, in the workplace and in the company of their comrades in work and struggle. Unemployment, is a direct result of the economic crisis, and not in itself an expression of decomposition. Nonetheless, its effects in this phase of decadence make it a major element of decomposition. Although in general it helps to unmask capitalism's inability to offer a future to the proletariat, it is also today a powerful factor that tends to "lumpenise" certain sectors of the class, particularly amongst the young workers, which weakens correspondingly its present and future political capacities. Throughout the 1980s, which saw a sharp rise in unemployment, this situation was expressed in the absence of significant movements or attempts at organisation by unemployed workers. The contrast with the proletariat's ability during the 1930s, notably in the US, to organise the unemployed, illustrates only too well decomposition's effect in preventing unemployment becoming a factor in the development of proletarian consciousness"[10].

In 1989, in a situation where the working class was finding great difficulty in developing its consciousness, came an immense historical event, itself a sign of capitalism's decomposition: the disintegration of the East European Stalinist regimes, which the entire bourgeoisie had always presented as "socialist":

"The events presently shaking the so-called ‘socialist' countries, the de facto disappearance of the Russian bloc, the patent and definitive bankruptcy of Stalinism on the economic, political and ideological level, constitute along with the international resurgence of the proletariat at the end of the sixties, the most important historic facts since the end of the Second World War. An event on such a scale cannot fail to have its repercussions, and indeed is already doing so, on the consciousness of the working class, all the more so because it involves an ideology and a political system that was presented for more than half a century by all sectors of the bourgeoisie as ‘socialist' or ‘working class'.

The disappearance of Stalinism is the disappearance of the symbol and spearhead of the most terrible counter-revolution in history.

But this does not mean that the development of the consciousness of the world proletariat will be facilitated by it. On the contrary. Even in its death throes, Stalinism is rendering a last service to the domination of capital: in decomposing, its cadaver continues to pollute the atmosphere that the proletariat breathes. For the dominant sectors of the bourgeoisie, the final collapse of Stalinist ideology, the ‘democratic', ‘liberal' and nationalist movements which are sweeping the Eastern countries, provide a golden opportunity to unleash and intensify their campaigns of mystification.

The identification which is systematically established between Stalinism and communism, the lie repeated a thousand times, and today being wielded more than ever, according to which the proletarian revolution can only end in disaster, will for a whole period gain an added impact within the ranks of the working class. We thus have to expect a momentary retreat in the consciousness of the proletariat; the signs of this can already be seen in the unions' return to strength. While the incessant and increasingly brutal attacks which capitalism cannot help but mount on the proletariat will oblige the workers to enter the struggle, in an initial period this will not result in a greater capacity in the class to develop its consciousness. In particular, reformist ideology will weigh very heavily on the struggle in the period ahead, greatly facilitating the action of the unions"[11].

Our forecast in 1989 was wholly confirmed during the 1990s. The ebb in consciousness within the working class could be seen in a loss of confidence in its own strength, provoking a general ebb in its combativeness whose effects can still be felt today.

In 1989, we defined the conditions which would make it possible for the working class to recover:

"Given the historic importance of the events that are determining it, the present retreat of the proletariat - although it doesn't call into question the historic course, the general perspective of class confrontations - is going to be much deeper than the one which accompanied the defeat of 1981 in Poland. Having said this, we cannot foresee in advance its breadth or its length. In particular, the rhythm of the collapse of Western capitalism - which at present we can see accelerating, with the perspective of a new and open recession - will constitute a decisive factor in establishing the moment when the proletariat will be able to resume its march towards revolutionary consciousness.

By sweeping away the illusions about the ‘revival' of the world economy, by exposing the lie which presents ‘liberal' capitalism as a solution to the historic bankruptcy of the whole capitalist mode of production - and not only of its Stalinist incarnation - the intensification of the capitalist crisis will eventually push the proletariat to turn again towards the perspective of a new society, to more and more inscribe this perspective into its struggles"[12].

And indeed, the 1990s were marked by the ability of the world bourgeoisie, especially its most important fraction in the United States, to slow the rhythm of the crisis and even to create the illusion of "light at the end of the tunnel". One of the fundamental causes of the low level of combativeness in the working class today, as well as its difficulty in developing its self-confidence and consciousness, lies in the illusions that capitalism has succeeded in fostering as to its economic "prosperity".

This being said, there is another, more general element which explains the difficulties in the proletariat's politicisation, which would allow it to understand, even embryonically, what is at stake in its struggles, in order to increase their extent:

"To understand all the data of the present period, and the period to come, we must also take account of the characteristics of the proletariat which is in struggle today:

- it is made up of workers' generations which have not suffered defeat, unlike those which grew up in the 1930s and during World War II; consequently, unless they suffer a decisive defeat, which the bourgeoisie has not yet succeeded in inflicting on them, they will keep their reserves of combativeness intact;

- these generations benefit from the irretrievable exhaustion of those great themes of mystification (the fatherland, democracy, anti-fascism, the defence of the USSR), which were used in the past to enrol the proletariat in imperialist war.

It is these essential characteristics which explain why today's historic course is towards class confrontations and not imperialist war. However, the proletariat's present strength is also its weakness: precisely because only undefeated generations have proved capable of finding the road to class struggle once again, an enormous rift lies between this generation and the one that fought the decisive battles of the 1920s, for which the proletariat is paying a heavy price:

- a great ignorance about its own past and the lessons of that past;

- backwardness in the formation of the revolutionary party.

These characteristics explain the extremely uneven nature of the present course of workers' struggles. They allow us to understand the moments of the proletariat's lack of self-confidence, because it is unaware of its potential strength against the bourgeoisie. They also show the long road that stretches before the proletariat, which will only be able to make the revolution if it has concretely integrated the experience of the past, and created its class party.

The proletariat's historic resurgence at the end of the 1960s put the formation of the party on the agenda. It did not happen, because:

- of the half-century gap that separates us from the old revolutionary parties;

- of the disappearance, or the more or less pronounced atrophy of the left fractions which emerged from them;

- of many workers' distrust towards any political organisation (whether bourgeois or proletarian) ... an expression of the proletariat's historic weakness faced with the need to politicise its struggle"[13].

We can see, then, just how long is the proletariat's road to communist revolution. The length and depth of the counter-revolution, the almost total disappearance of the communist organisations, capitalism's decomposition, the collapse of Stalinism, the ruling class' ability to control the collapse of its economy, and to sow illusions in it: it would seem that during the last thirty years, indeed since the 1920s, nothing has been spared the proletariat on its road to revolution.

The fundamental nature of the proletariat's difficulties on the road to revolution

At the end of the first part of this article, we mentioned the different appointments with history that the proletariat has missed during the 20th century: the revolutionary wave which put an end to World War I, but which ended in defeat, the collapse of the world economy in 1929, the Second World War. We have seen that the proletariat did not miss its appointment with history at the end of the 1960s, but at the same time we have measured how many obstacles it has encountered since, which have slowed down its road towards proletarian revolution.

The revolutionaries of the last century, Marx and Engels first among them, thought that the revolution would take place during their century. They were mistaken, and were the first to recognise their mistake. In reality, the conditions for proletarian revolution only came together at the beginning of the 20th century, to be confirmed by the first worldwide imperialist slaughter. In their turn, the revolutionaries of the early 20th century thought that, now the objective conditions for communist revolution were met, the revolution would take place during their century. They too were mistaken. When we go back over all the historic events which have prevented the revolution from taking place to date, we might be left with the impression that the proletariat has suffered from "bad luck", that it has been confronted with a series of catastrophes and unfavourable circumstances, none of which were inevitable. It is true that history was not written in advance, and that it could have evolved differently. The Russian revolution, for example, could have been crushed by the White armies, which would have prevented the development of Stalinism, the proletariat's greatest enemy during the 20th century, the spearhead of history's most terrible counter-revolution, whose negative effects are still with us, thirty years after it came to an end. Nor was it inevitable at first sight that the Allies would win World War II, thus relaunching for a long time to come the ideology of democracy which, in the developed countries, has been one of the most effective poisons against the development of working class consciousness. Similarly, another outcome to the Second World War could have been the disappearance of the Stalinist regime, which would have avoided the antagonism between two blocs being presented as a struggle between capitalism and socialism. We would never have experienced the collapse of the "socialist" bloc, whose negative ideological consequences weigh so heavily on the working class today.

That being said, the accumulation of obstacles that have confronted the proletariat during the 20th century cannot on the whole be considered as a mere succession of "misfortunes". Fundamentally they are an expression of the enormous difficulty of the proletarian revolution.

An aspect of this difficulty is the bourgeoisie's ability to make use of the different situations it finds itself in, and to turn them systematically against the working class. This is the proof that the bourgeoisie - despite the long death agony of its mode of production, despite the barbarism whose development all over the world it is quite unable to prevent, despite the rot eating away at its society and despite its ideological decomposition - remains vigilant and capable of great intelligence when it comes to preventing the proletariat's advance towards revolution. One reason that the predictions of past revolutionaries as to the timing of the revolution failed to come about, is that they under-estimated the strength of the ruling class, and particularly its political intelligence. Revolutionaries today will only really be able to contribute to the proletarian struggle for revolution if they are able to appreciate this political strength of the bourgeoisie - and notably the Machiavellianism it is capable of when necessary - and warn the workers against the traps laid by the enemy class.

But there is another, still more fundamental reason for the proletariat's immense difficulty in carrying out the revolution. It has already been pointed out in this oft-quoted passage from Marx's 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: "Proletarian revolutions (...) constantly engage in self-criticism, and in repeated interruptions of their own course (...) they shrink back again and again before the indeterminate immensity of their own goals, until the situation is created in which any retreat is impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! Here is the rose, dance here!"[14].

And indeed, one reason for the great difficulty for the vast majority of workers in turning towards the revolution lies in the vertigo that seizes them when they think that the task is so enormous as to be impossible. The task of overthrowing the most powerful class that history has ever known, the system which has allowed humanity to take gigantic steps forward in its material production and mastery of nature does indeed seem to be impossible. But what makes the working class dizzier still is the immensity of the task of building a radically new society, liberated at last from the woes which have crushed human society ever since it existed, from scarcity, exploitation, oppression, and war.

When prisoners and slaves constantly wore shackles on their feet, they sometimes became used to the constraint to the point where they felt as if they would be unable to walk without their chains, and sometimes even refused to have them removed. What has happened to the proletariat is not dissimilar. It bears within itself the ability to free humanity, and yet it lacks the self-confidence to march consciously towards that goal.

But the time is coming when "the conditions themselves [will] cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta!". If it remains in the hands of the bourgeoisie, human society will never reach the next century, other than in shreds, nothing human any longer left in it. As long as this extreme has not been reached, as long as a capitalist system survives, there will necessarily be its exploited class, the proletariat. And there will therefore remain the possibility that the proletariat, spurred on by capitalism's total economic bankruptcy, will at last overcome its hesitations and take on the enormous task that history has confided to it: the communist revolution.


[1] See our article on the 1953 insurrection published in the International Review no.15

[2] See our article on the class struggle in Eastern Europe between 1920 and 1970, in the International Review no.27.

[3] See also our pamphlet on The Decadence of Capitalism

[4] "Thereby what he had hitherto deduced, half a priori, from gappy material, became absolutely clear to him from the facts themselves, namely, that the world trade crisis of 1847 had been the true mother of the February [Paris] and March [Vienna and Berlin] revolutions, and that the industrial prosperity, which had been returning gradually since the middle of 1848 and attained full bloom in 1849 and 1850, was the revitalising force of the European reaction" (Engels, Introduction to Marx's ‘The Class Struggles in France', 1895, in Marx-Engels, Lawrence and Wishart, p.643).

[5] "A new revolution is only possible as the result of a new crisis; but it will come, just as surely as the crisis itself" (Marx, The class struggles in France, in Surveys from exile, Pelican, p.131).

[6] This was particularly the case with Herbert Marcuse, ideologue of the 1960s student revolts, who considered that the working class could no longer constitute a revolutionary force, and that the only hope for the overthrow of capitalism lay in the marginal sectors such as the blacks and students in the US, or the poor peasants in the Third World.


[7] We have already done so in many articles in the International Review. See in particular the report on the class struggle to the ICC's 13th Congress, published in International Review no.99.

[8] See our series of articles "Thirty years of capitalism's open crisis", in International Review nos.96 and 98.

[9] Communist revolution or the destruction of humanity, Manifesto of the 9th ICC Congress. On this question, see in particular our article "Decomposition, the final phase of capitalist decadence", in International Review no.62

[10] ibid.

[11] "Theses on the economic and political crisis in the Eastern countries", in International Review no.60

[12] Ibid.

[13] Resolution on the international situation at the ICC's 6th Congress, published in International Review no.44.

[14] In Marx, Surveys from Exile, Pelican. The Latin phrase comes from one of Aesop's fables. It is the reply made to a boaster who claimed he had once made an immense leap in Rhodes: "Here is Rhodes: leap here and now". But the German phrase, "Hier ist die Rose, hier tanze!" (here is the rose, dance here) is Hegel's variant, in the Preface to the Philosophy of Right. The Greek Rhodos can mean both Rhodes and rose.

General and theoretical questions: