The racist police killings and brutal state violence in the US have sparked a powerful movement of massive proportions, causing millions to reject a system that is based on oppression and exploitation. Peaceful protestors are learning important lessons on the nature of the state on the basis of batons, teargas, and rubber bullets—and drawing very radical conclusions as a result. The demand to “abolish police ” has gained widespread traction, showing that people are fed up and want a complete transformation of the way society is run, not just small reforms.
But one cannot speak of abolishing police and the rest of the law enforcement apparatus without first getting rid of the capitalist state that created the need for the current laws and their enforcement in the first place. The following piece by Alan Woods, originally written in 1997, provides a detailed overview of the role of the state and the Marxist approach to this question: Can the apparently insurmountable power of the state be overcome? Why does the state require the use of force? Do we really need a violent revolution, or can we just peacefully take over the already-existing state apparatus? What does it mean for the working class to “seize power?”
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The question of the state in capitalist society is of key importance for Marxists. We do not see it as an impartial arbiter standing above society. The fundamental essence of every state, with its “armed bodies of men,” police, courts and other trappings is that it serves the interests of one class in society, in the case of capitalism, the capitalist class.
Marxism sets out from the idea that “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one,” that the state consists ultimately of armed bodies of men, that it is an instrument of the ruling class for the oppression of other classes. We have never at any time denied that the working class, in moving to transform society will inevitably encounter the resistance of the possessing classes or that this resistance can under certain conditions result in civil war.
Without the aid of the reformists, Stalinists and the trade union leaders, it would not be possible to maintain the capitalist system for any length of time. This is an important idea which we have to stress continually. The leaders of the trade unions and reformist parties in all countries have colossal power in their hands—far greater than at any other time in history. But as Trotsky explains, the labor bureaucracy is the most conservative force in society. They use their authority to support the capitalist system. That is why Trotsky said that in the last analysis, the crisis of humanity was reduced to a crisis of leadership of the proletariat.
The development of the productive forces has brought about a considerable increase in the relative weight of the working class within society. For all their heroism, the proletarian uprisings of the 19th century were in effect condemned to isolation and defeat as a result of the overwhelming preponderance of the peasantry and of the urban petite bourgeoisie, which gave a colossal advantage to the state apparatus of the ruling class. The uprising which led to the “Paris Commune” of 1871 fell victim to just these circumstances, and to make matters worse, the weakness of the Commune was compounded by a number of very serious shortcomings on the part of the leadership.
In the course of the century now coming to a close, the socialist revolution could have been accomplished many times over. And if, apart from the 1917 revolution against the tsarist empire, the working class has nowhere succeeded in achieving and holding onto power for any length of time, the explanation is to be found not in the level of development of the productive forces nor in the resulting balance of forces between the contending classes, but essentially in the political bankruptcy of the leadership of the workers’ organizations.
The socialist revolution has been delayed by the reformist degeneration of the leadership of the working class. But this has meant that the material foundation of the future socialist society (the general level of development of productive capacity and technique) which the working class in power will inherit from capitalism will be on an incomparably higher level than that which the Bolsheviks inherited from tsarism in 1917, or than that which the British, French, or German workers would have inherited had they succeeded in taking power in the 1920s or 1930s.
Together with the development of the means of production, there has been a sharp decline in small-scale ownership. The control of the economy has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, with a corresponding increase in the size of the working class. In France, for instance, at the time of the 1936 revolutionary crisis, half of the population earned its living from agriculture, whereas today the rural population is only 6% of the population as a whole. The wage-earning class has grown not only in numbers, but also in terms of its potential for struggle. A properly organized general strike under modern conditions would bring the economy of a given country to a complete standstill, particularly in the more economically developed areas of the world. The decisive question is that of the leadership and of the degree of preparation of the working class, both organizationally and politically.
What general conclusions can be drawn from what has been said above? Firstly, we can say that the increased level of urbanization and the ever-higher degree of technical sophistication of industry means that the working class will find itself in a generally more favorable position at the outset of the revolution than was the case in the past. Secondly, as a general rule it can be said that the stronger the revolutionary party, the greater its success in rallying the working class to its program and in winning the sympathy of the rank and file of the armed forces, then the more swiftly will it overcome the resistance of the ruling class and the less violence and loss of life will occur.
A peaceful transformation of society would be entirely possible if the trade union and reformist leaders were prepared to use the colossal power in their hands to change society. If the workers leaders did not do this, then there could be rivers of blood, and this would entirely be the responsibility of the reformist leaders.
As a matter of fact, as we shall see, the workers could have taken power in France, Italy, Spain, Britain and Germany, many times in the course of the last seven decades, if there had been a revolutionary party capable of performing this task. Many revolutionary opportunities have been lost through the betrayals of reformism and Stalinism. The working class may have to pay in blood for these crimes of the leadership. It all depends on the class balance of forces nationally and internationally, and above all on our ability to win over the decisive sections of the working class to the program of Marxism.
We have never at any time denied the possibility of violence and civil war under certain conditions. But, as against the bourgeois and the reformists who always try to frighten the workers with the specter of violence and civil war, and the sects who lose no opportunity to advertise their enthusiasm for “bloody revolution,” thereby rendering a great service to the bourgeois and the reformists, we insist that we stand for a peaceful transformation of society, and place all the blame for any violence on the shoulders of the ruling class and the reformist leaders.
We make it absolutely clear that we are in favor of a peaceful transformation of society, that we are prepared to fight for such a transformation, but at the same time we warn that the ruling class will fight to defend its power and privileges. This is the traditional position of Marxism, which has been expounded hundreds of times in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and in the writings and speeches of the IMT.
Dialectics or formalism?
The basic position was outlined in State and Revolution, where Lenin writes:
Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, smash the “ready-made state machinery,” and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.
Marx explained that the working class cannot simply base itself on the existing state power, but must overthrow and destroy it. That is ABC for a Marxist. But after the ABC, there are other letters in the alphabet. In State and Revolution, Lenin castigated the reformists for presenting the socialist revolution as a slow, gradual, peaceful change. But the same Lenin was capable of asserting in 1920 that in Britain, because of the enormous power of the proletariat and its organizations, it would be entirely possible to carry through the socialist transformation peacefully, and even through parliament, provided the trade unions and Labour Party were led by Marxists.
Lenin’s position on the revolution was concrete and dialectical, not formalistic and abstract. Lenin approached the revolution in the light of the concrete historical conditions prevailing in each country. Of course, the basic tasks of the proletariat remain the same in all countries. It is necessary for the working class to constitute itself as a class in and for itself, to possess a revolutionary party with a correct Marxist leadership; it is necessary to overcome the resistance of the exploiters; to smash the state, and so on.
Yet such general considerations, while perfectly valid and correct, do not at all exhaust the question of the concrete forms and stages by which the revolution will unfold, far less the specific tactics which must be pursued. These cannot be learned by rote like recipes from a revolutionary cookbook. Such a manual does not exist, and, if it did, would do more harm than good to those who attempted to use it.
The conditions in which the revolution unfolds will differ from one country to another, and from one period to another. That is obvious. And it is also obvious that the specific tactics of the revolutionary party will also differ according to these conditions. Such questions as the specific weight of the proletariat in the population, its relations to other classes, the strength of its organizations, its experience, cultural level, national traditions and temperament, all enter into the equation.
Above all, the decisive factor is the strength and maturity of the subjective factor—the revolutionary party and its leadership (although even this observation is not of absolute validity; there have been cases where the revolution has been carried out—though not consolidated—without a revolutionary party, as in the Paris Commune, Hungary 1956, or Venezuela today). This is the key question. But exactly how the party is built, and above all how it gains leadership of the mass movement is the most decisive question of all. We shall see later how the Bolshevik Party became the decisive factor in 1917, with what tactics and with what slogans.
The basic ideas of Marxism are the same as a hundred years ago. But our task is not to repeat half-digested ideas like a parrot, but to develop ideas creatively, and above all to be able to apply them to the living movement of the proletariat and its organizations. The latter do not exist outside of time and space. If we are not to become a sterile sect, but really to sink roots in the mass organizations, it is necessary to set out from the real labor movement and the working class as it has been historically conditioned at a given moment in time. This was always the method of the great Marxist thinkers of the past, as we will show.
How Marx and Engels posed the question
Basing themselves on the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels pointed out that:
… One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes…” (Preface to the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto.)
These are elementary propositions for any Marxist. But Marxism is not merely the repetition of basic ideas, no matter how correct. If this were the case, every petty sectarian would be as great a Marxist as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky put together. It is necessary to deepen and extend theory in the light of experience. This method can be seen in the writings of Marx and Engels, whose views on the state evolved over a period of decades.
From the very outset, the founders of scientific socialism were very careful in how they approached the question of violence, realizing not only the danger of the proletariat being drawn into premature uprisings and adventures, but that a clumsy presentation of this question would be a propaganda gift to the enemies of Communism. Thus, in the first programmatic statement of Marxism, The Principles of Communism, Engels expresses himself very cautiously:
Question 16: Will it be possible to bring about the abolition of private property by peaceful means?
Answer: It is to be desired that this could happen, and the Communists certainly would be the last to resist it. The Communists know only too well that conspiracies are not only futile but even harmful. They know only too well that revolutions are not made deliberately and arbitrarily, but are everywhere and at all times the essential outcome of circumstances quite independent of the will and the leadership of particular parties and entire classes. But they likewise perceive that the development of the proletariat is in nearly every civilized country forcibly suppressed, and that thereby the opponents of the Communists are tending in every way to promote revolution. Should the oppressed proletariat in the end be goaded into a revolution, we Communists will then defend the cause of the proletarians by deed as well as we do now by word. (Engels, Principles of Communism, Marx and Engels Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 89.)
At the end of his life, Engels reconsidered the question of revolutionary tactics in a famous preface to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France. Engels’s words were later used by the leaders of the German Social Democracy in an attempt to justify their reformist policies. However, even the most superficial reading of these lines shows that Engels did not reject the notion of insurrection, but was only warning against adventurism, ill-timed uprisings and conspiracies by minorities (“Blanquism”):
The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required, and it is just this work that we are now pursuing, and with a success which drives the enemy to despair. (F. Engels, Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850, in K. Marx and F. Engels’s Collected Works, Vol. 27, p. 520.)
What is important to grasp here is Engels’s insistence on the need for the revolutionary party to win the masses, as the prior condition to carrying out the revolutionary transformation of society. This requires a more or less lengthy preparatory period of patient propaganda, agitation and organization, utilizing all kinds of work, including trade union and parliamentary work, in order to win over the widest layers of the working class. This is a subject we shall return to.
Under certain conditions, Marx and Engels did not rule out the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power to the proletariat, although, at the time, they believed that the only country where conditions existed for this perspective was Britain.
In the Preface to the 1886 English edition of Capital, Engels writes:
Surely, at such a moment, the voice ought to be heard of a man whose whole theory is the result of a life-long study of the economic history and condition of England, and whom that study led to the conclusion that, at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means. (Capital, Vol. I, p. 17.)
Although he added that Marx “hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a ‘pro-slavery rebellion’ to this peaceful and legal revolution.”
In 1918, Lenin wrote an interesting article entitled Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, which contains a most profound appraisal of the position of Marx and Engels in relation to the tactics of the proletariat in the socialist revolution. Let us bear in mind that this is the same Lenin who one year earlier wrote State and Revolution. Lenin drew attention to the fact that Marx and Engels, at a certain moment, considered that in Britain the opportunity existed of winning socialism peacefully, and even of the workers “buying out” the bourgeois. While pointing out that the circumstances in Britain had changed (as we will explain in a moment), Lenin here makes a more general point, specifically answering Bukharin and the “Left Communists” who argued that it was impermissible in principle to suggest that it was possible for a workers’ state to “buy out” the bourgeois:
Marx said: under certain circumstances the workers will not at all refuse to buy out the bourgeois. Marx did not tie his hands—or those of the future leaders of the socialist revolution—as to the forms, ways and means of bringing about the revolution, since he understood perfectly well that a host of new problems would then arise, that the whole situation would change in the course of the revolution, that it would change frequently and considerably in the course of revolution. (Lenin, On Britain, pp. 355–56)
Marx on Britain
Why did Marx single out Britain as the one country where a peaceful revolution was possible? The reason given by Lenin which is most frequently cited is the fact that, at that stage, Britain was “still the model of a purely capitalist country, but without a military clique and, to a considerable degree, without a bureaucracy. Hence, Marx excluded Britain, where a revolution, even a people’s revolution, then seemed possible, and indeed was possible without the preliminary condition of destroying the ‘ready-made’ state machinery.” (Ibid., p. 352.)
As a result of certain historical peculiarities (an island power which did not require a big standing army but maintained its domination of Europe by a combination of naval power and the policy of “divide and rule”) the state in Britain was weaker than in other European countries, where the absence of such natural defenses created the necessity for large standing armies, with all the attendant evils of bureaucracy and militarism. Marx was writing at a time when British capitalism was still in its progressive phase of development, before the rise of imperialism and monopoly capitalism. Lenin explains that, by 1917, Marx’s distinction was no longer valid, since, in the epoch of imperialist decay, the state in both Britain and the USA was basically the same as in the other developed capitalist countries.
Nevertheless, the underdeveloped character of the state, and the relative weakness of the military-bureaucratic caste was only one element in Marx’s opinion that a peaceful transformation might have been possible in 19th century Britain. But it was by no means the only reason. The strength of the British working class and its organizations was one of the main reasons which made Marx think that the workers might take power peacefully, although he was careful to add that the ruling class could organize a “slave holders’ rebellion” to try to overthrow the workers’ government.
In the above-mentioned article, Lenin goes on to specify what were concrete reasons which made Marx and Engels consider the idea of a peaceful revolution to be possible in Britain:
The submission of the capitalists to the workers in Britain could then have been secured by the following circumstances: 1) the complete predominance of the workers, the proletarians, among the population owing to the absence of a peasantry (in Britain in the seventies there were signs fostering the hope that socialism would make exceedingly rapid progress among the rural workers); 2) the excellent state of trade union organization of the proletariat (at that time Britain was the leading country in this respect); 3) the relatively high cultural level of the proletariat trained by the century-old development of political liberty; 4) the long habit of Britain’s excellently organized capitalists—at that time they were the best organized capitalists in the world (now they have lost that primacy to the Germans)—of settling political and economic problems by compromise. It was these conditions that enabled the idea to arise then that the peaceful submission of Britain’s capitalists to its workers was possible.” (Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, ibid., pp.356–57)
These lines show very clearly that, in Lenin’s view, the question under discussion is not at all limited to the historical peculiarities of the state in 19th century Britain. He explains that the basic conditions that gave rise to the possibility of a peaceful transformation of society flowed from the exceptionally favorable class balance of forces, which in turn was a result of the fact that Britain at that time was the only country in the world where capitalist industry had developed to the full extent.
If it is true that the British state is now more similar to the state in other capitalist countries, it is no less true that the development of the productive forces over the last 100 years, and especially since 1945, has meant an enormous strengthening of the working class everywhere. This means that the class balance of forces has been transformed, greatly to the advantage of the proletariat. In Marx’s day, the working class was a majority of society only in Britain. At the present time, the proletariat is the decisive majority of society in every advanced capitalist country, whereas the mass social reserves of reaction, especially the peasantry have been largely whittled away. This has very great consequences for the future prospects of the socialist revolution, above all in the advanced countries of capitalism.
The Class balance of forces
The disappearance of the peasantry in France and other countries is a fact of the first order of importance in weakening the mass social reserves of reaction. Let us recall that the peasantry formed the backbone of Bonapartist and, to some extent, fascist reaction in the past. Does this fact, in and of itself, guarantee that reaction is off the agenda? Not at all.
As a matter of fact, even in Britain, where the working class has constituted the overwhelming majority of the population for more than a hundred years, and where the peasantry does not exist, there would be the possibility of Bonapartist reaction, probably under the guise of some kind of royalist-Bonapartist coup (although the Monarchy nowadays is not the force it once was, nevertheless it still has considerable reserves of support among backward layers of the population) if the working class fails to transform society. And this is even more true of countries like Italy, Spain and Greece, where the extreme weakness of capitalism is expressed in a deepening political crisis and continual instability.
How do we expose the danger of reaction to the advanced workers and youth? It is necessary to warn the workers and youth of the threat of reaction. Above all, it is necessary to arm the cadres with a clear understanding of fascism and Bonapartism. A Bonapartist regime would be unstable, and probably would not last more than a few years. Nevertheless, the experience of Chile, Greece, and Argentina shows that such a regime would represent a nightmare for the working class. The “democratic” bourgeois would not hesitate to unleash the fascist gangs against the workers’ organizations, or to use murder, torture and all kinds of intimidation in order to defend their class rule.
However, it is necessary to maintain a sense of proportion. The shrill hysteria of the sects, for whom fascism is always “just round the corner” merely miseducates the minority of workers and youth who are unfortunate enough to fall under their influence. They have no understanding of fascism—or anything else. They do not take into account the nature of the present period, the real class balance of forces, or the interests of the bourgeois.
The blind alley of capitalism tends to drive sections of the petit bourgeois and lumpen proletariat insane. Under certain conditions, they can support the working class, when the latter shows in action that it is prepared to put itself forward as the real Master of society. But if the working class is paralyzed by its leaders, these layers can swing towards reaction.
The steady increase in racist attacks in all countries is a reflection of the impasse of capitalism, and the frenzied reaction of layers of demoralized lumpens. During the period of economic upswing, capitalism needed large numbers of immigrants as cheap labor. Now they act as scapegoats for the crisis of capitalism.
It goes without saying that Marxists must be at the forefront of the struggle against racism. But the fight against racism is a CLASS STRUGGLE, not a racial struggle. The interests of the black, Asian, Turkish and Arab workers are the same as their white brothers and sisters. This must be hammered home at all times. Nothing is more injurious to the cause of the struggle against racism than attempts to split workers along racial lines.
At the same time, we must explain, as Trotsky explained, that the fight against fascism is a physical fight. There is no question of passively accepting fascist assaults on immigrants. Defense forces must be organized. But on a CLASS basis. Attempts to set up defense groups based on immigrants or racial minorities in isolation from the rest of the working class merely play into the hands of the racists, as does the idea that only immigrants must lead the movement against racism. We must fight for the setting up of joint defense committees of black and white workers, through the shop stewards committees, trades councils, trade unions, etc.
It is necessary to link the struggle against racism and fascism with the perspective of the socialist transformation of society. Without this, even the election of a socialist government will not solve the problem. On the contrary, the policies of the labor leaders, aimed at conciliating the bourgeois, will only serve to aggravate the crisis and prepare the way for reaction. A policy of counterreforms will further alienate the petit bourgeois, and even drive sections of them into the arms of the fascists.
When the ruling class can no longer hold the working class in check by “normal” means, they will not hesitate to call in the military. More correctly, they will TRY to move in the direction of a military dictatorship. The way to this would be prepared by a move towards parliamentary Bonapartism, like the regimes of Von Papen and Schleicher in Germany before Hitler.
If the Marxist tendency were strong enough, it would be necessary to wage an energetic campaign for a united front of workers’ parties and organizations to prevent this from happening.
The entire situation is different to the period between the two world wars. Then, the fascists had massive social reserves in the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie, including the students. Now all that has changed. The working class is a thousand times stronger, the peasantry has all but disappeared, and large sections of the white-collar workers—teachers, civil servants, bank workers, etc.—have drawn much closer to the proletariat.
Under these circumstances, the bourgeoisie will have to think twice before moving towards an open dictatorship. If the labor movement were armed with genuine socialist policies, such a move could end in the total overthrow of bourgeois rule.
Lenin explained that one of the features of a prerevolutionary situation is a ferment in the middle layers of society. Driven to despair by the crisis of capitalism the petit bourgeoisie thrashes about in all directions, looking for a way out.
If the working class and its organizations gave a bold lead, the petit bourgeois masses would swing behind it. But in the absence of such a lead, the middle layers can swing in all kinds of directions. At the present time, the ferment in the petit bourgeoisie in Europe reflects itself in all kinds of reactionary phenomena—the Northern League, Berlusconi, the MSI, Le Pen, the German Republicans, the Austrian Freedom Party, and so on.
However, once the working class begins to move, all that can change very quickly. Especially if the right comes to power, and their program is put to the test, their base in the petit bourgeoisie will evaporate very quickly.
The existence of these reactionary movements is the price we have to pay for the failure of the Socialist and “Communist” leaders to take power in the past. The only way to ensure that the road to reaction is blocked in the future is by waging a relentless struggle to win over the advanced workers and youth to a genuine socialist program, and through them, the masses.
Lenin and “defensism”
The difference between abstract politics and the dialectical method is shown by the evolution of Lenin’s position on revolutionary tactics in the period 1914 to 1917. In August 1914, the split in the 2nd International created an entirely new situation. In the light of the unprecedented betrayal of the Social Democracy, it was necessary to regroup and reeducate the small and isolated forces of Marxism internationally. Lenin in this period laid heavy emphasis on the basic principles of revolutionary internationalism, above all the impossibility of returning to the old International, and implacable opposition to all forms of patriotism (revolutionary defeatism). In order to combat the doubts and vacillations of the Bolshevik leaders, Lenin gave the sharpest possible expression to these ideas, such as “turn the imperialist war into civil war,” and “the defeat of one’s own bourgeoisie is the lesser evil.” It is arguable that, on occasion, he exaggerated. It would not be the first time that, in order to “straighten the stick,” Lenin bent it too far in the other direction. On the fundamental issues, there is no doubt whatever that Lenin was right. But unless we understand his method, not just what he wrote but why he wrote it, we can end in a complete mess.
Ultraleft and sectarian groups always repeat Lenin’s words without understanding a single line. They take his writings on war as something absolute, outside of time and space. They do not understand that, at this time, Lenin was not writing for the masses, but for a tiny handful of cadres in a given historical context. Unless we understand this, we can make a fundamental mistake. In order to combat chauvinism, and stress the impossibility of any reconciliation with the Social Democracy, and particularly its left wing (Kautsky and the “center”), Lenin used some formulations which were undoubtedly exaggerated. Such exaggerations, for example, led him to characterize Trotsky’s position as “centrism” which was entirely incorrect. Endless confusions have arisen from the one sided interpretation of Lenin’s position of this period.
When Lenin returned to Russia after March 1917, he fundamentally modified his position. Not that his opposition to the imperialist war was any less, or his opposition to social chauvinism any less implacable. He continued to be vigilant with regard to any backsliding on the part of the Bolshevik leaders on the question of the war. But here it was no longer a question of theory, but of the living movement of the masses. Lenin’s position after March 1917 bore little resemblance to the slogans he had advanced earlier. He saw that, in the concrete circumstances, the mass of the workers and peasants had illusions in “the defense of the Revolution,” as they understood it. It was absolutely necessary to take this into account, if the Bolsheviks were to connect to the real mood of the masses. If Lenin had maintained the old position, it would have been merely doctrinaire. It would have entirely cut the Bolsheviks off from the real movement of the workers and peasants. Only hopeless sectarians and doctrinaires could fail to see the difference.
In a speech to the delegates of the Bolshevik faction of the Soviets, Lenin explained:
The masses approach this question not from the theoretical but from a practical point of viewpoint. Our mistake lies in our theoretical approach. The class conscious proletariat may consent to a revolutionary war that actually overthrows revolutionary defensism. Before the representatives of the soldiers the matter must be put in a practical way, otherwise nothing will come of it. We are not at all pacifists. The fundamental question is: Which class is waging the war? The capitalist class, tied to the banks cannot wage any but an imperialist war. The working class can. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 20, p. 96.)
As a matter of fact, the slogans of “revolutionary defeatism” played no role in preparing the masses for the October revolution. Not “the defeat of Russia is the lesser evil” but “Peace, Bread and Land” and “All power to the Soviets” were the rallying cry of the Bolsheviks which led to the victory of the October insurrection. We will examine the concrete content of these slogans later.
The point is that without flexible tactics which take into account the real level of consciousness of the workers’ movement, it is impossible to win over the masses. But before it is possible to speak of the conquest of power, it is first necessary to conquer the masses. Without this, all talk of the insurrection, overthrowing the state, inevitable civil war, revolutionary violence, military preparations and all the rest becomes mere chattering.
“Every vegetable has its season.” There is a time and place for every slogan. It is characteristic of the sectarian psychology to imagine that slogans stand outside time and place. Since, for them, politics is a matter of small circles with no contact with the real world, the outlook of the masses is a matter of indifference. The situation is radically different with a genuine Marxist tendency which strives to win over the masses, beginning with the advanced layers.
When Lenin returned to Russia, a section of the Bolshevik Party, under the influence of impatience, wanted to move too far ahead of the class. Echoing the ultralefts and anarchists, they raised the revolutionary slogan “Down with the Provisional government.” This was the slogan of insurrection. What attitude did Lenin take? He completely opposed it. Why? Because such a slogan did not at all correspond to the real stage the movement was at. Lenin, who was a revolutionary to the fingertips, nevertheless implacably opposed this slogan, and instead oriented the Party towards the conquest of the masses with the slogan “patiently explain.”
Is this not another example of the abandonment of the revolutionary position of the violent seizure of power? Was it not Lenin’s duty to advocate civil war? As a matter of fact, so far from advocating it, at a certain point Lenin even denounced those who claimed that he stood for civil war. He quite correctly denied that the Bolsheviks stood for violence, and placed full responsibility for violence on the shoulders of the ruling class. This did not at all suit the ultralefts who failed to understand that nine tenths of the task of the socialist revolution is the work of winning over the masses by propaganda, agitation, explanation and organization. Without this, all talk of civil war and insurrection boils down to one of two things—either the kind of empty chattering characteristic of bar room socialists, or else irresponsible adventurism, or, in the scientific terminology of Marxism, Blanquism.
Here is what Lenin has to say on the subject:
To speak of civil war before people have come to realize the need for it is undoubtedly to fall into Blanquism. (CW, Vol. 21, p. 43, International Publishers, New York, 1929, our emphasis.)
Not the Bolsheviks, but the bourgeoisie and their reformist allies constantly raised the specter of violence and civil war. How did Lenin react? Did he give “fearless” revolutionary speeches, taking up the gauntlet and throwing it back into the enemy’s face? Did he openly talk about the inevitability of civil war? On the contrary, he repeatedly denied any suggestion that the Bolsheviks advocated violence. On April 25 he protested in Pravda against “dark insinuations” of “Minister Nekrasov” about “the preaching of violence” by the Bolsheviks:
Mr. minister, worthy member of the “People’s Freedom Party,” you are lying. It is Mr. Guchov who preaches violence when he threatens to punish the soldiers for removing the authorities. It is the Russkaia Volia, the progrom newspaper of the progrom “republicans” and friendly to you that preaches violence.
The Pravda and its followers do not preach violence. On the contrary, they declare most clearly, precisely, and definitely, that our main work should at present be concentrated on explaining to the proletarian masses their proletarian problems, as distinguished from the problems of the petty bourgeoisie which has succumbed to chauvinist poison. (Lenin: Collected Works, vol. XX, Book 1, p. 171.)
On May 4 the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks passed a resolution written by Lenin. The aim of the resolution was to restrain the Petrograd local leadership which was running ahead of events. It aimed to put the responsibility for any violence on the Provisional Government and its supporters, and to accuse the “capitalist minority of reluctance to submit to the will of the majority.” Here are the two paragraphs from the resolution:
1. Party agitators and speakers must refute the despicable lies of the capitalist papers and of the papers supporting the capitalists to the effect that we threaten with civil war. This is a despicable lie, for at the present moment, when the capitalists and their government cannot and dare not use violence against the masses, when the mass of soldiers and workers freely expresses its will, freely elects and replaces all public officers, — at such a moment any thought of civil war is naive, senseless, monstrous; at such a moment there must be full compliance with the will of the majority of the population and free criticism of this will by the dissatisfied minority; should violence be resorted to, the responsibility will fall on the Provisional Government and its supporters.
2. The government of the capitalists and its newspapers, by their noisy denunciation of the alleged civil war, are only trying to conceal the reluctance of the capitalists, who admittedly constitute an insignificant minority of the people, to submit to the will of the majority. (Collected Works, vol. XX, Book 1, p. 245.)
Lenin understood that the working class learns from experience, especially the experience of great events. The only way in which a small revolutionary tendency can gain the ear of the masses is by following the course of events shoulder to shoulder with the masses, participating in the day-to-day struggle as it unfolds, advancing slogans which correspond to the real stage of the movement, and patiently explaining the need for a complete transformation of society as the only way out.
Shrill calls to insurrection and civil war will not win over the masses, or even the advanced layer, but only repel them. As we see from the above, this is true even in the middle of a Revolution. It is a hundred times more true at the present time, when the question of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is far from being uppermost in the minds of even the most advanced workers. On the contrary, it is necessary to put the onus for violence and civil war on the shoulders of the reformist leaders who have it in their hands to take power peacefully and, by their refusal to do so, make bloodshed inevitable.
“All Power to the Soviets”
Everyone knows that this was the central slogan of Lenin and Trotsky in 1917. But very few people have understood the real content of this slogan. What, concretely, was the meaning of the slogan “All power to the soviets?” Civil war? Insurrection? The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks? Far from it. The Bolsheviks were in a minority in the soviets, which were dominated by the reformist parties, the SRs and Mensheviks. The central task was not the seizure of power, but winning over the majority who had illusions in the reformists.
The Bolsheviks based their “patient explanation” on the idea, constantly reiterated in the writings and speeches of Lenin from March right up to the eve of the October insurrection that the reformist leaders should take power into their own hands, that this would guarantee a peaceful transformation of society, that the Bolsheviks were wholeheartedly in favor of this, and that, if the reformist leaders were to take power, the Bolsheviks would limit themselves to the peaceful struggle for a majority inside the soviets.
Here are a couple of examples of how Lenin put the question (there are many more):
“Apparently, not all the supporters of the slogan ‘All Power Must Be Transferred to the Soviets’ have given adequate though to the fact that it was a slogan for peaceful progress of the revolution—peaceful not only in the sense that nobody, no class, no force of any importance, would then (between February 27 and July 4) have been able to resist and prevent the transfer of power to the Soviets. That is not all. Peaceful development would then have been possible, even in the sense that the struggle of classes and parties within the Soviets could have assumed a most peaceful and painless form, provided full state power had passed to the Soviets in good time.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 25, p. 184, our emphasis)
“No other condition would, I think, be advanced by the Bolsheviks, who would be confident that really full freedom of propaganda and the immediate realization of a new democracy in the composition of the Soviets (new elections to them) and in their functioning would in themselves secure a peaceful forward movement of the revolution, a peaceful outcome of the party strife within the Soviets.
Perhaps this is already impossible? Perhaps. But if there is even one chance in a hundred, the attempt at realizing such a possibility would still be worthwhile.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. XXI, book I, pp. 153–54)
“Our business is to help do everything possible to secure the ‘last’ chance for a peaceful development of the revolution, to help this by presenting our program, by making clear its general, national character, its absolute harmony with the interests and demands of an enormous majority of the population.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. XXI, book I, p. 257.)
“Having seized power, the Soviet could still at present—and that is probably their last chance—secure a peaceful development of the revolution, peaceful elections of the deputies by the people, a peaceful struggle of the parties inside the Soviets, a testing of the programs of various parties in practice, a peaceful passing of power from one party to another.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. XXI, book I, pp. 263–64)
And here is how Trotsky sums up the position in The History of the Russian Revolution:
The transfer of power to the Soviets meant, in its immediate sense, a transfer of power to the Compromisers. That might have been accomplished peacefully, by way of a simple dismissal of the bourgeois government, which had survived only on the good will of the Compromisers and the relics of the confidence in them of the masses. The dictatorship of the workers and soldiers had been a fact since the 27th of February. But the workers and soldiers were not to the point necessary aware of that fact. They had confided the power to the Compromisers, who in their turn had passed it over to the bourgeois. The calculations of the Bolsheviks on a peaceful development of the revolution rested, not on the hope that the bourgeois would voluntarily turn over the power to the workers and soldiers, but that the workers and soldiers would in good season prevent the Compromisers from surrendering the power to the bourgeois.
The concentration of the power in the soviets under a regime of soviet democracy, would have opened before the Bolsheviks a complete opportunity to become a majority in the soviet, and consequently to create a government on the basis of their program. For this end an armed insurrection would have been unnecessary. The interchange of power between the parties could have been accomplished peacefully. All the efforts of the party from April to July had been directed towards making possible a peaceful development of the revolution through the soviet. “Patiently explain”—that had been the key to the Bolshevik policy. (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. II, pp. 312–13, our emphasis.)
But maybe Lenin and Trotsky were only bluffing? Maybe they only put forward the idea of a peaceful transition in order to gain popularity with the workers, making allowance for their reformist pacifist illusions? To imagine such a thing would be not to understand anything of the method of Lenin and Trotsky, based on fearless revolutionary honesty. In his testimony before the Dewey Commission, Trotsky puts this very clearly: “I believe that the Marxist, the revolutionary, policy in general is a very simple policy: ‘Speak out what is! Don’t lie! Tell the truth!’ It is a very simple policy.” (The Case of Leon Trotsky, p. 384.)
The Bolshevik Party did not have two different programs, one for the educated few and one for the “ignorant” workers. Lenin and Trotsky always told the truth to the working class, even when this was bitter and unpalatable. If in 1917, that is in the midst of a revolution, when the question of power was poised point blank, they insisted in the idea that a peaceful transformation was possible (not “theoretically” but actually possible), on condition only that the reformist leaders took decisive action, it could only be because this was actually the case. And so it was. Had the soviet leadership acted decisively, the revolution would have taken place peacefully, without civil war, because they had the support of the overwhelming majority of society. In pointing this simple fact out to the workers and peasants, Lenin and Trotsky were not telling lies, or abandoning the Marxist theory of the state, but merely saying what was obviously true to the mass of workers and peasants.
Lenin maintained this position up until July, when he changed it. Why? Because of the cowardice of the Mensheviks and SRs who refused to take power, the initiative inevitably passed to the reaction. Behind the shirt tails of the Russian popular front (the Provisional Government) the ruling class was regrouping and preparing its revenge. The result was the reaction of the “July Days.”
On the basis of the July raids, Lenin drew the conclusion that a peaceful outcome was now impossible, that civil war was inevitable, and that it was necessary for the party to place insurrection on the order of the day immediately. As a matter of fact, Lenin was mistaken, as Trotsky points out in The History of the Russian Revolution. Lenin, who was in hiding in Finland, later admitted that he was out of touch. The real reason for his stand was his fear that Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin would vacillate and not proceed to prepare to take power. In this he was not mistaken. It is a law that, as the date of the insurrection approaches, the leadership of the revolutionary party comes under extreme pressure from alien classes, and a section begins to vacillate.
However, Trotsky’s position was undoubtedly correct. He understood the need to continue the work of winning over the soviets right up to the moment of the insurrection, and even proposed (against Lenin’s opposition) that the date of the insurrection should be postponed to coincide with the congress of soviets where the Bolsheviks would win the majority. Thus, even in the course of an insurrection itself, the question of legality, far from being relegated to an unimportant position, assumes a crucial role in winning over the more inert layers of the masses.
By bringing out the contradiction between the words and deeds of the reformist leaders, the Bolsheviks prepared the way to winning over the decisive majority in the soviets, and also in the army (which was also represented in the soviets). This was the real way in which the Bolshevik Party prepared for insurrection in 1917, not by talking about it, but by actually penetrating the masses and their organizations with flexible tactics and slogans which really corresponded to the demands of the situation, and connected with the consciousness of the masses, not lifeless abstractions learned by rote from a revolutionary cookbook.
The only reason why a peaceful revolution was not immediately achieved in Russia was because of the cowardice and treachery of the reformist leaders in the soviets, as Lenin and Trotsky explained a hundred times.
Unless and until the revolutionary party wins the masses, it is pointless and counterproductive to place the emphasis on the alleged inevitability of violence and civil war. This was never the method of the great Marxist thinkers in the past, but was always a characteristic of the ultra left sects on the fringes of the labor movement, who live in a “revolutionary” dream world all of their own, which bears no relation to the real world. In this hothouse, shut away from reality, small groups can while away the time endlessly debating the “insurrection” and mentally “preparing” themselves for the “inevitability of civil war” while the real task of building the revolutionary organization entirely escapes them.
In what way does a Marxist tendency concretely prepare for power? By winning over the masses. In what way can this task be achieved? By working out a program of transitional demands which, setting out from the real situation of society and the objective needs of the working class and the youth, links the immediate demands to the central idea of expropriating the capitalists and transforming society. As Lenin and Trotsky explained many times nine-tenths of the task of revolution consists precisely in this. Unless this fact is grasped, all talk about armed struggle, “military preparations” and civil war is reduced to irresponsible demagogy.
As we have pointed out, when the Bolsheviks were a small minority in the soviets, which were entirely dominated by the reformist parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries who were striving for an alliance with the bourgeoisie, they did not play with insurrection, but stressed the need to win a majority in the soviets (“patiently explain”). The workers and peasants trusted the reformist leaders then as now. The Bolsheviks had to take this fact as their starting point. And so do we.
So long as they were in a minority, Lenin and Trotsky did their utmost to restrain the workers and soldiers, to avoid a premature confrontation with the state. All their emphasis was on peaceful agitation and propaganda. For example, Lenin opposed an armed demonstration in June. For their pains, Lenin and Trotsky incurred the anger of sections of the workers who had moved a bit too far ahead of the class. They were accused of opportunism for not pushing the question of armed insurrection into the foreground.
To such criticism, they merely shrugged their shoulders. They understood that the most pressing task was to win over the majority of the workers and soldiers who remained under the influence of the Mensheviks and SRs. By skillful and flexible tactics, the Bolsheviks succeeded in gaining the majority in the soviets in the months before October. That, and that alone, explains the relatively peaceful character of the October insurrection. The reason was not primarily military, but the fact that nine-tenths of the work had already been accomplished beforehand.
Was the October revolution peaceful?
For there to be a revolution does there have to be violence? To the sectarian mind the answer is always in the affirmative. Marxists look at the question in a more rounded out manner, looking at the many factors that come into play: the balance of class forces, the nature of the leadership of the working class, the tactics and program adopted, and so on.
Firstly, it is not possible to talk about “the 1917 revolution.” There were not one but two revolutions in 1917, moreover separated by a period of reaction from July to September, including a military offensive, and followed by a reactionary uprising and four years of civil war in which Russia was invaded by 21 armies of foreign intervention, in which millions of people were killed. It was thus a period of revolution and counterrevolution, not a simple “triumphal procession.” Anyone who presents it as such would be justly ridiculed as a fool or an ignoramus. However, the assertion that the October revolution was a peaceful affair (insofar as any revolution can be considered such) comes not from the IMT but from Lenin and Trotsky. Let us quote a couple of examples. First, in relation to the February revolution.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Petrograd achieved the February Revolution. The rest of the country adhered to it. There was no struggle anywhere except in Petrograd. There were not to be found anywhere in the country any groups of the population, any parties, institutions, or military units which were ready to fight for the old regime. This shows how ill founded was the belated talk of the reactionaries to the effect that if there had been cavalry of the Guard in the Petersburg garrison, or if Ivanov had brought a reliable brigade from the front, the fate of the monarchy would have been different. Neither at the front nor at the rear was there a brigade or regiment to be found which was prepared to do battle for Nicholas II. (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 158)
And the October Revolution? In The History Trotsky describes in detail the ease in which Petrograd was taken. The peaceful nature of the revolution was ensured by the fact that the Bolsheviks, under Trotsky’s leadership, had already won over the Petrograd garrison. In the chapter The Conquest of the Capital, he explains the manner in which the workers took control of the key Peter and Paul fortress:
All the troops of the fortress garrison accepted the arrest of the commandant with complete satisfaction, but the bicycle men bore themselves evasively. What lay concealed behind their sulky silence: a hidden hostility or the last waverings? “We decided to hold a special meeting for the bicycle men,” writes Blagonravov, “and invite our best agitational forces, and above all Trotsky, who had enormous authority and influence over the soldier masses.” At four o’clock in the afternoon the whole battalion met in the neighboring building of the Cirque Moderne. As governmental opponent, Quartermaster-General Poradelov, considered to be a Social-Revolutionary, took the floor. His objections were so cautious as to seem equivocal; and so much the more destructive was the attack of the Committee’s representatives. This supplementary oratorical battle for the Peter and Paul fortress ended as might have been foreseen: by all voices except thirty the battalion supported the resolution of Trotsky. One more of the potential bloody conflicts was settled before the fighting and without bloodshed. That was the October insurrection. Such was its style. (Ibid., pp.211–12, our emphasis.)
It took a little longer to establish soviet power in Moscow, mainly because of the mistakes of the local Bolsheviks. But Trotsky insisted repeatedly that the Bolshevik Revolution was largely peaceful until the foreign powers intervened to crush it in blood.
In the Minneapolis Trial of 1941, Cannon referred to the insurrection in Petrograd as “just a little scuffling, that’s all” (Socialism on Trial, p. 64). This was later taken up by the ultraleft Grandizo Munis who demanded that the SWP should openly advocate violence and civil war and denounced the defense policy at the Trial as “opportunism.” In reality, the position taken by the leaders of the SWP at least in this instance was strictly in accordance with the advice of Trotsky in the previous period.
“Our formula in this case,” replied Cannon, “also is the formula of the Marxist teachers. They not only insisted on the desirability of a peaceful change of society, but in certain exceptional circumstances, considered such a peaceful revolution possible. We, on our part, rejected any such prospect in the United States, but at the same time declared our preference for it and accused the ruling bourgeois as the instigators of violence. In this we were completely loyal to Marxist doctrine and tradition.” (Munis and Cannon, What policy for revolutionists—Marxism or Ultra-leftism, p. 36.)
By the way, the ultraleft policy advocated by Munis in the given circumstances would not only have cut off the Trotskyists from the American working class. It would have meant the total destruction of the party. (It was destroyed later by the false policies of the SWP leadership, but we have dealt with that question elsewhere). All the arguments which Lenin and Trotsky used in relation to the Russian Revolution are a hundred times more valid today. The balance of class forces is infinitely more favorable for the proletariat, especially in the advanced capitalist countries. Without the betrayals of the Social Democrats and Stalinists, the working class could have taken power many times in the course of the past seven decades in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Britain, Germany.
Trotsky’s position on violence
The assertion that a mass movement of sufficient strength can, under certain conditions, bring about the transfer of power without civil war is not an invention of the IMT. In his testimony to the Dewey Commission, at one point Trotsky was asked whether the political revolution in the USSR would inevitably signify a bloody overthrow of the Stalinist ruling caste. We reprint his comments in full:
Finerty: In other words, even in the political revolution and the overthrow of the bureaucracy, you would not contemplate as a necessary, even a defensive means, the personal destruction of the bureaucracy, or their personal extermination?
Trotsky: I am sure that when the hour of the revolution comes, the political revolution, in Russia, it will be such a powerful uprising of the masses that the bureaucracy will become immediately disoriented and disorganized, just as the Tsarist regime in the February revolution.
Finerty: So, Mr. Trotsky, it does not lie within your political philosophy either to exercise individual acts of terror against the bureaucracy or mass terror against it?
Trotsky: Mass terror depends upon the circumstances of the bureaucracy itself. I repeat, I hope, even in the critical moment, this powerful and terrible bureaucracy would be absolutely pitiful, and then even the revolution could be more bloodless than the February Revolution in our country and also the October Revolution. But I cannot carry any responsibility for that. If the bureaucracy will oppose the masses they will naturally take severe measures. But individual extermination, no. It is not a revolutionary perspective.
Finerty: And not a political necessity?
Trotsky: Not a political necessity. (The Case of Leon Trotsky, pp. 376–77)
Let us bear in mind that we are talking here about a monstrous totalitarian dictatorship, based on the suppression of all rights, a regime whose tools of the trade were murder, torture and concentration camps. In spite of this, Trotsky held out the prospect of a revolutionary movement so powerful that it would paralyze the bureaucracy, leaving it helpless.
Was this just a pipe dream of Trotsky? On the contrary. Just look what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989. The mass movements against the Stalinist regimes in East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia so shook the demoralized bureaucracy that it just collapsed like a house of cards, despite the fact that it held in its hands the most monstrous means of destruction. True, in the absence of the subjective factor, the collapse of the bureaucracy has led back to capitalism. But this does not affect the substance of the argument. Trotsky has explained long ago that the laws of revolution and counterrevolution are similar. The fact remains that the transition from one social regime to another was accomplished peacefully, without civil war. The ruling bureaucracy, in the moment of truth, surrendered without firing a shot.
Let us consider concretely what this means. The totalitarian state in Russia and Eastern Europe was probably the most powerful apparatus of repression in history. It appeared to be indestructible. Even the bourgeoisie spoke of it as a “granite monolith” which they believed would last for centuries (until the final moment of truth, the Stalinist Bureaucracy shared this illusion). It is characteristic of a doomed ruling elite to place a superstitious faith in the power of the police, secret police and army. But Marxists proceed from real social relations, not the numbers of policemen, spies and soldiers who draw their pay from the state, or even the existence of modern fighter bombers and other technical means of destruction (this is the oldest argument in the book, and one which, if correct, would rule out the possibility of every revolution in history).
All the technical means of destruction were in the hands of the Bureaucracy. Yes, and plenty of policemen and soldiers to use them—at least on paper. Yet in the moment of truth, none of this was of any use. In the Bible, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down after Josuah ordered a blast on the trumpets. The Stalinist regimes collapsed even without such a musical accompaniment. Why did the ruling elite not simply order in the fighter bombers, which would be the obvious solution? Or the tanks, or any of the ample means of repression at their disposal? A simple order would be sufficient. Why was the order never given? Because the bureaucracy was utterly demoralized and paralyzed by the mass movement. Like De Gaulle in 1968, they realized that “the game was up,” and resistance was useless.
How to explain the paralysis of the Bureaucracy? Their demoralization was the result of the impasse of the regime, which was unable to develop the means of production. As early as 1973, we predicted the collapse of Stalinism precisely because the Bureaucracy had ceased to develop the productive forces, and consequently had been transformed from a relatively progressive force to an absolute block on society. The same is now increasingly true of the bourgeoisie in the West. What stands in the way of a revolutionary transformation is not the strength of the bourgeoisie and its state, but the temporary inertia of the working class, which is only gradually becoming aware of the depth of the social crisis.
In the coming period of storm and stress, revolutionary opportunities will arise in one country after another. The events of 1968 will be repeated on an even higher plane. The state in the hands of the bourgeoisie in the West is powerful, but in many ways no where near as powerful as the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989. Lenin explained that every real revolution always begins at the top, with a crisis of confidence in the ruling class, which feels unable to rule in the old way. The second condition is that the middle class should be in ferment, vacillating between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The third condition is that the working class should be prepared to struggle to transform society. The final condition is the existence of a strong revolutionary party with an experienced and far-sighted leadership.
Hungary 1919 and Germany 1918
Under exceptionally favorable conditions, the crisis of the ruling class, faced with a mass movement of sufficient dimensions, can lead to the collapse of the regime without a fight. In Hungary, this process could be seen in 1919, when the Hungarian bourgeois regime likewise just handed over power to the Communist Party without firing a shot, although the mistakes of the inexperienced Communist Party led to defeat, as Trotsky pointed out:
The prostration of Count Karolyi before the Entente ended in the peaceful transfer of power by consent to the workers’ parties without any revolution. The Communists of the party of Bela Kun hurried to unite with the Social Democrats. Bela Kun gave evidence of a complete bankruptcy, especially on the peasant question, which led rapidly to the collapse of the soviets. (Trotsky On France, p. 118, our emphasis)
Similarly, the 1918 revolution in Germany took place painlessly. A general strike, a mutiny in the army and navy where the soldiers placed the reactionary officers under arrest (the lucky ones, that is), workers’ and soldiers’ committees were set up, and power was in the hands of the working class. In all, 19 people lost their lives. More people are killed in traffic accidents in a large city on a busy weekend. What was the problem? The masses of workers and soldiers, newly awakened to political life, inevitably turned to the existing mass organizations. In Germany, that meant the Social Democracy, under the leadership of the same reformist leaders who had betrayed the working class in 1914.
Noske and Scheidermann betrayed the revolution, and handed power back to the bourgeoisie. The German working class and the whole world paid a terrible price for that betrayal 15 years later, with the rise of Hitler, the gas chambers and the Second World War. Here is a striking example of how the refusal of the reformist leaders to take power, even when it is possible by peaceful means, prepares the way for rivers of blood in the future. That is the essential lesson we must hammer home at every opportunity.
The most striking example of the processes we are analyzing was the Portuguese revolution of 1974. Here all the processes can be seen very clearly. After nearly 50 years of dictatorship, first under Salazar, then under Caetano, the dictatorship collapsed like a rotten apple. The inner contradictions which undermined the regime were reflected in the state apparatus, with the crystallization of an opposition tendency in the officer corps.
The interminable and sanguinary colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau played an important role in this. The Portuguese officer caste was not typical of the armies of other imperialist states. Normally, the officer caste is made up of the sons of wealthy families, who live a secure and comfortable life behind a desk. This was different. The wars in Africa meant that military service was not a comfortable sinecure, but a dangerous business, which did not hold much attraction for the “gilded youth.” Instead, many officers came from the middle class. They were “students in uniform.” Sections of these officers began to study the ideas of “Marxism,” and became influenced by them. Motivated by hostility to the war and the corrupt dictatorial regime, they became secretly converted to Socialism, Communism, Maoism.
Thus, the coup of the 25th April 1974 took a peculiar turning. The young officers who overthrew Caetano and proclaimed the revolution, without clearly understanding where they were going, opened the floodgates to the masses. After decades of fascist and Bonapartist rule, with no lead from the top, we saw the magnificent movement of the Portuguese proletariat. On the first of May 1974, there were 3 million workers on the streets, out of a total population of only 8 millions. Alongside the workers, there were soldiers and sailors, demonstrating with arms in hand.
In such conditions, there could be absolutely no talk of “civil war.” A civil war presupposes the existence of forces prepared to fight in defense of the existing order. After the 25th April, these forces did not exist. The formula of “armed bodies of men” does not apply here. What forces were prepared to fight the working class? If we ask the question concretely, it answers itself. The armed bodies of men were on the side of the masses. Let us just quote one example. When the workers of the big Lisnave shipyards in Lisbon struck and marched on the ministry of labor, the troops were ordered out. Faced with a militant demonstration of more than 5,000 helmeted shipyard workers, the reaction of soldiers was vividly expressed by the following eye-witness account:
Before lunch the rumor circulated that we were going out and we soon guessed it was to Lisnave … We formed up at midday and the commander told us that he’d received a telephone call about a demonstration at Lisnave led by a minority of leftist agitators and that our job was to prevent it taking place. We were armed as we had never been before with G3s and four magazines.
… the demonstration began and a human torrent advanced with shouts of “the soldiers are the sons of the workers,” “tomorrow the soldiers will be workers,” and “the arms of the soldiers must not be turned against the workers.” The commander soon saw that we were not going to follow his orders, so he shut up. Our arms hung down by our side and some comrades were crying. Back at the barracks, the commander wasn’t too annoyed but told us that in future we would have to obey orders … the following day in the barracks, things were more lively. Before morning assembly many comrades were up and shouting the slogans of the demo: “the soldiers are the sons of the workers,” “down with capitalist exploitation.” (Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 95)
The force that saved capitalism in Portugal after the 25th of April was not the army, but, in the first place, the leaders of the “Communist” Party, who immediately announced that it was necessary to support the so-called “progressive” general Spinola. Behind the protective facade of the Provisional Government, Spinola prepared a counterstroke. One year later, he attempted to launch a coup. What forces did he command? A small group of soldiers drawn from the most backward section of the army, the paratroops. On the 11th March, the paratroopers surrounded the barracks of one of the most radical regiments in Lisbon, the RAL-1, but could not be persuaded to fire. The spontaneous movement of the workers and other sections of the soldiers, who fraternized and appealed to the paratroops, rapidly ended the mutiny. Within a few hours, the paratroopers were explaining: “We are not fascists. We are your comrades.” The “slave-owners’ rebellion” collapsed almost immediately.
Marx once said that the revolution needs the whip of the counterrevolution. Spinola’s attempted coup provoked the workers into action. The bank workers occupied the banks, and demanded that the government of the MFA nationalize the banks. Following their example, the insurance workers did the same. The left wing officers proceeded to nationalize the banks and insurance companies, the real power basis of reaction in Portugal, which between them owned more than 60% of the economy.
This struck a heavy blow not only against the reaction, but against capitalism in Portugal. This fact was recognized by The Times, which carried an editorial with the title, Capitalism is Dead in Portugal. And this should have been the case. With the crushing of Spinola’s attempted coup, power was in the hands of the workers and soldiers. Yet again, only the cowardice and betrayals of the leaders of the CP and SP saved the day. The Socialist Party, which had been very weak, with a mere 200 members one year before the Revolution, began to grow rapidly. Under the pressure of the masses, the SP leaders adopted a very radical policy—in words. Mario Soares gave speeches calling for the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Socialist paper Republica published articles by Trotsky. In the first democratic elections in 50 years, no less than 91.1% of the electorate voted. The SP got 37.8% of the vote. The CP got 12.5%, and its ally the MDP another 4.1%—a total of 54.4% for the workers’ parties.
Under these circumstances, there is not the slightest question, not only that the revolution in Portugal could have been carried out peacefully, but that it could have been done through parliament. The bourgeoisie was completely demoralized by the swift collapse of the March coup. Spinola had fled to Brazil. The working class was roused. Without any lead from the top, workers’ councils were being elected in the factories. Popular clinics and cultural centers flourished. Unemployed workers helped in the countryside. Children taught adults how to read. Hundreds of factories and farms were abandoned by their owners and taken over by the workers, who were drawing revolutionary conclusions. A militant from the Setenave shipyard expressed the situation thus:
“Even at Setenave we don’t have workers’ control. How can we if we don’t control the banks? Our attitude is that we want to know everything … We want to control decisions but we do not take responsibility. We don’t believe we can have workers’ control alone.” (Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 104.)
What was required? The formation of a Communist-Socialist government, pledged to carry the Revolution through to the end. A couple of decrees would have sufficed to eliminate the power of the landlords, banker and capitalists and formally establish a nationalized planned economy. Immediate measures to raise pensions and wages, lower the working day and improve the living standards of the small peasants and shopkeepers. An appeal to the workers, peasants and soldiers to take over the land and factories, set up democratically elected committees, and arrest any counterrevolutionary elements. Such measures, resting on the revolutionary movement of the masses outside parliament would have been more than enough to ensure a peaceful transition.
Would such a policy have led inevitably to civil war? As always, the revolutionary movement of the masses had a profound effect in the army. The idea of elected committees spread from the factories to the barracks. The attempt to set up a national network of “revolutionary councils of soldiers, sailors and workers” even got the support of a section of the officers associated with Otelo de Carvalho. The spread of revolutionary ideas in the armed forces was acknowledged by the conservative officers of the “Group of Nine,” who stated in their Manifesto:
We see a progressive deterioration of state structures. Everywhere wildcat and anarchistic forms of the exercise of power have taken over little by little even reaching as far as the armed forces.
An autonomous soldiers’ movement, the SUV (Soldados Unidos Vencerão—“Soldiers United Will Win”) was set up in September. SUV called a demonstration in the northern city of Porto on 10 September:
As soldiers aren’t allowed to sing in public we started whistling. However by the end everybody ends up singing … singing the Internationale. The number of people on the demonstration grew in front of our very own eyes.
It was estimated that around 30,000 workers marched behind a contingent of 1,500 soldiers that day. SUV began to expose the reactionary officers to the soldiers, which had been obscured by the prestige of the MFA.
The day after the SUV demonstration was the anniversary of [the military coup in] Chile and we wanted to have a minute’s silence. The officers said no. We put bullets in our guns—and held our minute’s silence.
The soldiers began to advance demands which faced up to inequalities between them and the officers. They began to agitate for pay increases and free transport. A single trip to see their family was enough to wipe out almost a month’s pay for many soldiers.
In the general headquarters of Porto there were three separate mess halls, one for soldiers, one for NCOs, and one for officers. Three days after the Porto demonstration, some soldiers calmly walked in and sat down to eat in the officers’ mess. The next day all the soldiers occupied the officers’ mess. Since that day there has been a struggle to eliminate the separate mess halls and unify them.
This is not the place to deal in detail with the way in which the Portuguese Revolution was derailed. But the conduct of Cunhal and Soares was undoubtedly the decisive factor. They had every possibility of carrying out a peaceful revolution, under the most favorable conditions, but instead shipwrecked the revolution and turned the hopes of the masses to ashes. This means that new and terrible obstacles will be placed in the path of the working class, which might signify that the next time will not be so peaceful. That will depend on many factors, but above all on our ability to create a viable mass Marxist tendency in Portugal.
Revolution in the West
Both Lenin and Trotsky emphasized that the socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries would differ in important respects to the Russian Revolution. In one sense, it would be more difficult. In Lenin’s phrase, in tsarist Russia, capitalism broke at its weakest link. Capitalism in North America, Western Europe and Japan has accumulated enormous reserves of fat, especially over the last half century. Lenin pointed out that in countries like Britain, the ruling class has developed to a fine art the tactic of corrupting the leaders of the labor movement. This is now true of all the advanced capitalist countries to an unparalleled degree.
Since the Second World War, the reformist and Stalinist leaderships have degenerated to an extent which puts the past in the shade. By an irony of history, they have all embraced “the market” just when it is beginning to break down. Trotsky explained that the crisis of humanity is reduced, in the last analysis, to the crisis of leadership of the workers’ organizations, and this is more true today than when it was written. The crisis of capitalism signifies also the crisis of reformism. The next period will see a whole series of inner convulsions and splits in the reformist parties and trade unions. At a certain stage, mass left wings will crystallize which will present big opportunities for the Marxists.
However, it is not a foregone conclusion that we will succeed in winning over the decisive sections of the advanced workers and youth. Revolutionary politics is both a science and an art. We need a scientific perspective which enables us to understand the general processes, and not be thrown off balance by episodic twists and turns, and the ephemeral moods of the masses. But this is not enough. It is necessary to educate the cadres in flexible tactics and the art of connecting the finished scientific program of Marxism with the necessarily unfinished, confused and incoherent aspirations of the masses. Failure to do this would reduce us to a sterile and impotent sect. We have to see, in the words of the German poet Goethe, which Marx frequently quoted: “Theory is grey, my friend, but the tree of life is evergreen.”
Marxists do not work in a vacuum. The long period of capitalist upswing after 1945 has had an effect on the consciousness of the working class, including the advanced layer. There is no automatic mechanism whereby the experience of one generation of workers can be transmitted to the next. Every generation has to relearn the lessons of the past through experience. The present generation is passing through some particularly painful experiences, but they will learn. If we are present in sufficient numbers, the learning process will be shorter and easier.
It is necessary to find a common language with the workers, without making concessions in principle. Before the War, a whole generation had been brought up on the basis of the Russian Revolution. Revolution, war and counterrevolution were familiar ideas, at least to the advanced layers. But this is no longer true. In the advanced capitalist countries (though not in the colonial world) there has been, to a certain extent, a blunting of class consciousness, reflecting a certain “softening” of the contradictions in society. That is beginning to change. The new period which we are entering into will be a convulsive one. The old illusions in reformism will be burned out of the consciousness of the workers.
However, it is necessary to take the class as we find it. The Russian revolutionary Herzen used to say of his friend Bakunin that he always mistook the second month of pregnancy for the ninth. This is the organic sickness of ultra lefts in every period. Such mistakes will only produce abortions! At the present stage, we are still in the process of winning over the ones and twos, of attempting to sink roots in the labor organizations and win the ear of the activists. The way in which we proceed in this will be decisive for the future.
Trotsky on “If America Should Go Communist”
The revolution in advanced countries will be both more difficult and easier than in Russia. The Russian Revolution did not encounter serious resistance until Russia was invaded by 21 imperialist armies, when it was obliged to resort to terror in order to survive. However, Trotsky explains that in, say, a socialist America, this would not be necessary. How did Trotsky recommend the Trotskyists to approach the American workers before the War? We have a good example of Trotsky’s method in the records of the Dewey Commission:
LaFollette: There is one more question I would like to put: I want to ask what your opinion is of the idea that the revolutionary terror must almost necessarily lead to the Thermidorian terror.
Trotsky: Also, in such a general form I cannot accept it and cannot deny it. Terror in a revolution is an indication, a symptom of weakness, not of strength.
LaFollette: Of weakness?
Trotsky: Of weakness—such terrible means. The revolution on a low basis must have more terror that a revolution on a higher basis. In a revolution on a low basis you incur more danger of counterrevolution. (The Case of Leon Trotsky, p. 372.)
The matter by no means ends there. On many occasions Trotsky returned to this question. The barest acquaintance with his writings proves that Trotsky’s approach to the question of revolutionary violence was exactly the same as our own. This is what Trotsky has to say on the subject in a little pamphlet entitled If America Should Go Communist where we read the following:
Actually American soviets will be as different from the Russian soviets as the United States of President Roosevelt differs from the Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II. Yet communism can come in America only through revolution, just as independence and democracy came in America. The American temperament is energetic and violent, and it will insist on breaking a good many dishes and upsetting a good many apple carts before communism is firmly established. Americans are enthusiasts and sportsmen before they are specialists and statesmen, and it would be contrary to the American tradition to make a major change without choosing sides and cracking heads.
However the American communist revolution will be insignificant compared to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, in terms of your national wealth and population, no matter how great its comparative cost. That is because civil war of a revolutionary nature isn’t fought by the handful of men at the top—the 5 or 10 percent who own nine-tenths of American wealth; this handful could recruit its counterrevolutionary armies along from among the middle classes. Even so, the revolution could attract them to its banner by showing that support of the soviets alone offers them the prospect of salvation.
Everybody below this group is already economically prepared for communism. The depression has ravaged your working class and has already dealt a crushing blow to the farmers, who had already been injured by the long agricultural decline of the post-war decade. There is no reason why these groups should counterpose determined resistance to the revolution; they have nothing to lose providing, of course, that the revolutionary leaders adopt a farsighted and moderate policy toward them.
Who else will fight against communism? Your corporal’s guard of billionaires and multimillionaires? Your Mellons, Morgans, Fords and Rockefellers? They will cease struggling as soon as they fail to find other people to fight for them.
The American soviet government will take firm possession of the commanding heights of your business system: the banks, the key industries and the transportation and communication systems. It will then give the farmers, the small tradespeople and businessmen a good long time to think things over and see how well the nationalized section of industry is working. (Trotsky, If America Should Go Communist, Writings 1934–35, p. 74)
What is the meaning of these lines? While not denying for a moment the need for a revolutionary struggle for power (how could any Marxist do such a thing?). Trotsky tells the American worker the obvious truth that, given the overwhelmingly favorable class balance of forces, given a serious Marxist leadership with a correct attitude to the small farmers and petty bourgeoisie, the big capitalists would find themselves isolated, paralyzed, suspended in midair. This was precisely what happened in France in 1968, even without a Marxist leadership, although the revolution was betrayed by the Stalinists, as we shall see.
Trotskyism versus sectarianism
War and revolution are the fundamental tests for any revolutionary tendency and above all its leadership. We base ourselves firmly on the policy and method of Lenin and Trotsky. The approach of our tendency on all fundamental questions has not varied for the last 50 years, and has been tested in practice, and shown to be correct.
We are proud of the fact that we are the continuers of the ideas, methods and traditions of Marx, Engels, Lenin and, above all, Leon Trotsky in whose writings (especially his last writings) we have the distilled essence of the Marxist method as applied to the concrete conditions of the modern epoch. Just compare the rich, creative, dialectical approach of Trotsky, say, to the military policy of the proletariat in the Second World War to the arid schemas of the sects, who imagine that they are great revolutionaries because they are able to quote a few lines from Lenin which they have not understood.
Our tendency has had plenty of experience with this kind of thing in the past. During the Second World War, the Workers International League (WIL) in Britain defended Trotsky’s proletarian military policy against the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), who allegedly stood for Lenin’s policy of “revolutionary defeatism.” The RSL accused us of a “very serious departure” from the point of view of Lenin and Trotsky, for not repeating word for word the arguments of Lenin in 1914–15, not realizing that the situation was entirely different.
In practice, the WIL stood for revolutionary defeatism, but translated into a language which the workers could understand and identify with in the given context. To have repeated like parrots the slogans “the main enemy is at home” and “turn the imperialist war into a civil war” at a time when Hitler was running amok, physically annihilating the workers’ organizations in Europe, would have been utter madness. As a matter of fact, the RSL never advocated these “rrrrrrevolutionary” ideas in the workers’ organizations or anywhere else, except the bedroom! They would have got a rather rough reception had they attempted to do so.
Only on one occasion did one particularly obtuse representative of this group actually defend their position in the Labour Party. He actually moved a resolution in his local branch, stating that “the victory of Germany was the lesser evil,” and then wondered why he was expelled! As always, this kind of terminological radicalism is strictly for internal consumption. Small ultraleft groups, isolated from the class, have nobody to talk to but themselves. Since nobody is listening, they can say anything they like, no matter how bizarre. As typical sectarians, the RSL spent the whole of the War arguing to each other in internal bulletins. That was their only activity. On the other hand, the policies and methods of our tendency got a significant echo among the workers, not only in the factories and unions but in the armed forces.
The WIL conducted highly successful work in the army, navy and air force during the War. Contrary to the expectations of Trotsky, the British ruling class was compelled to permit democratic rights in order to get the support of the workers for the alleged “War against fascism.” Even in the armed forces, there was a surprising amount of latitude for revolutionary work (within the limits of military discipline, which our comrades, following Trotsky’s advice, always scrupulously observed). One of our comrades was elected President of the “Forces parliament” in Egypt, standing on the program of the Fourth International. Another comrade was asked by the officer in charge of political education to give lectures to the troops on politics, as he seemed to know more about it, and used his position to put forward Trotskyist ideas. Another, who had been promoted to officer in the air force was so successful in winning over the airmen that he was given an honorable discharge from the RAF, and spent the rest of the War trying to get back.
This work in the armed forces was only possible on the basis of our correct policies and methods. It could never have succeeded on any other basis. The shrill ultraleftism of the RSL, based on a few quotes from Lenin taken out of context and misunderstood, completely paralyzed them and doomed them to impotence. This “rrrrrrevolutionary” nonsense could not get the ear of the workers. They would have been regarded as lunatics or traitors. For example, when Pierre Frank had the bright idea of distributing a leaflet in Britain after the fall of France in 1940, calling on the workers to “seize the factories,” the British workers were actually working 18 hours a day voluntarily to help what they saw as a “War against Hitler.” Here we see the same nonsense, the same barren formalism which tries to inflict a ready-made schema on reality without regard for time or place. It is a fundamentally wrong method, the method of abstract politics, which has nothing in common with the method and approach worked out by Trotsky and continued by our tendency.
What was the position advocated by the WIL? We said to the British workers: “We agree Hitler is our enemy. We are not pacifists. We are in favor of defeating the nazis. But we cannot entrust this task to Churchill and the ruling class, who backed Hitler and applauded the destruction of the German labor movement. The only force that can defeat the nazis is the working class. Therefore, we demand that the Labour Party break from the coalition, take power into its own hands and transform society. Then we can wage a revolutionary war against Hitler.”
Alongside this program, we put forward transitional demands in line with Trotsky’s proletarian military program, such as the creation of military schools for the training of workers’ officers, and control of military training by the trade unions. This was to give a concrete content to the slogan “arm the workers.” While the RSL sectarians were delivering revolutionary speeches to each other (in the bedroom), the WIL was conducting genuinely revolutionary work in the factories, shop stewards’ committees and trade union branches. By combining an implacable firmness on principles with the necessary flexibility in tactics, we were able to get a favorable echo in the labor movement—including the Communist Party. On this basis, we built one of the most successful organizations in the history of international Trotskyism, the RCP, while the RSL withered and disappeared.
The correctness of our approach to War and military policy was testified to by the ruling class. On the very first day of the War, every branch of the WIL was raided by the police. They saw the danger posed by our policy and tactics, whereas they treated the RSL as an irrelevance, which it undoubtedly was. Wherein lay the mistake of the RSL? In adopting an abstract position in relation to the Leninist policy on war and revolution. In attempting to apply certain slogans and ideas without regard to the real situation of society, the labor movement, or the consciousness of the working class. It is a poor substitute for a real policy.
The Stalinists committed all kinds of mistakes, both of an ultra left and opportunist nature. But even they were never guilty of such madness. Such elementary mistakes would be impossible for any tendency that was really rooted in the class. That is the essence of the problem.
How not to pose the question
How do we pose the question? Not by repeating revolutionary phrases about civil war, but by explaining the fundamentals of Marxism, and above fighting to win the masses.
The increased power of the proletariat, which is now the decisive majority of the main industrialized countries, undoubtedly creates favorable objective conditions for the socialist transformation of society. As we have explained many times, the development of the productive forces and the disappearance of the peasantry in the period since the Second World War has enormously strengthen the working class. The problem is that the class is not conscious of the fact, and the reformist leaders go to great lengths to convince the workers that they are weak and the bourgeois and its state is strong. Part of the trick is to frighten the workers with the idea that revolution inevitably means violence, civil war, the streets running with blood and so on.
Curiously, the ultra left sects are always harping on the same theme, not realizing that they are falling into a trap prepared by the bourgeois and their reformist allies. Some time ago, comrade Ted Grant was interviewed on British television, about the time of his expulsion from the Labour Party. Not surprisingly, one of the questions asked was “are you in favor of violence?” to which Ted replied: “Are you in favor of the plague? Of course I am not in favor of violence. We stand for the election of a Labour government which must pass an enabling act to nationalize the banks and the big monopolies.” Naturally, the interviewer would have been delighted if, instead of this answer, he had received a diatribe on the need to smash the state, the inevitability of civil war, etc.
The whole issue at stake is how we pose the question of power in such a way that we can win over and mobilize the masses for an offensive against capital. That will only be achieved by linking the day-to-day struggles of the workers (“economic demands”) to the idea of expropriating the banks and big monopolies. That can only be done in a transitional manner, not by abstract discussions on the need for a violent overthrow of the state by military means. Let us see how Trotsky posed the question.
In The Transitional Program, which represents the summing up of the Marxist position on how to carry out the socialist transformation of society, Trotsky explains the precise relationship between “economic” demands and the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. His attitude towards this is clearly shown in the discussions on the transitional program, which, by the way, were internal discussions, intended precisely to educate and develop the leading cadres of the Trotskyist movement:
Trotsky: The slogan “expropriation” in the program does not exclude compensation. In this sense, we often oppose expropriation to confiscation. Confiscation excludes compensation, but expropriation can include compensation. How much compensation is another question. For example while agitating we can be asked, what will you do now, transform the owners and bearers of power into tramps? No, we will give them decent compensation necessary for their life, insofar as they are unable to work—that is, the older generation. It is not necessary to imitate the Russians. They suffered intervention from many capitalist nations; it deprived them of the possibility of giving compensation. We are a rich people in the United States, and when we come into power we will give compensation to the older generation. In this sense it would not be favorable to proclaim confiscation without any compensation. It is better to use expropriation than confiscation, because expropriation can be equal to confiscation, but can include also some compensation.
We should show that we are not a revengeful people. In the United States it is very important to show that it is a question of material possibilities, but we will not personally destroy the capitalist class. (Trotsky, The Transitional Program, p. 197)
To the sectarian mind, it seems to be impermissible “in principle” that a revolutionary tendency could suggest that we could pay any compensation to the bourgeoisie, just as it is supposedly ruled out that the workers might take power without “inevitable civil war.” That is the difference between genuine Marxism and mere formalism. In essence, Trotsky is repeating the same method that Marx and Engels applied when they said that, under certain conditions, the proletariat might consider offering to “buy out” the capitalists, on condition that they handed over the factories peacefully, without resistance.
It goes without saying that neither Trotsky nor they entertained any illusions that the bourgeoisie would not fight with every means at their disposal to hold onto their power and wealth. But this depends precisely on what means are really at their disposal in the decisive moment. And that, in turn, depends to a large extent on the ability of the revolutionary party to combine absolute firmness on principles with absolute flexibility and intelligence in the field of tactics.
Real living examples of revolution are the test of any theory. May 1968 was such a historical example. These events reveal that defeat of the working class has not come about by such a thing as the “strong state” but by the ineptitude of the reformist and Stalinist leaders who were not prepared to mobilize the full force of the working class.
The French events of 1968 represented the greatest revolutionary general strike in history. Although there were only about 3 million workers organized in the unions, ten million struck and occupied the factories. The students, teachers, professional people, peasants, scientists, footballers, even the girls of the Follies Bergères were all drawn into the struggle. The red flag flew over factories, schools, universities, labor exchanges, even astronomical observatories. Power was really in the hands of the working class. The government was powerless, left suspended in midair by the uprising. The “strong state” of De Gaulle was paralyzed. This mighty movement took place at the height of the post-war economic upswing in capitalism.
The French events of 1968 were not only not foreseen by anyone except our tendency, they took every other trend completely by surprise, because, with the exception of ourselves, they had all written off the European working class. Let us begin with the bourgeois. Did they anticipate the movement in France?
In May 1968, The Economist published a special supplement on France written by Norman Macrae to mark ten years of Gaullist rule. In this supplement, Macrae sings the praises of the successes of French capitalism, pointing out that the French had a higher living standard than the British; ate more meat; owned more cars and so on. And he cited the “great national advantage” of France over her neighbor across the Channel: its trade unions were “pathetically weak.” The ink was hardly dry on Macrae’s article when the French working class astonished the world with a social uprising unequalled in modern times.
The fact is that the May events were not foreseen by the strategists of capital, either in France or anywhere else. Still less were they foreseen by the Stalinist and reformist leaders who strained might and main to derail the movement once it began, but who played no role whatsoever in preparing or organizing them.
Things were even worse when it came to the 57 varieties of pseudo-Marxist sects, in which France has been so fruitful—to her cost. These intellectual ladies and gentlemen (most of whom, by the way, have spent decades arguing about “armed struggle,” insurrection and the rest) not only did not foresee any movement of the French workers. They specifically denied any such possibility. Let us take one of their leading “theoreticians,” André Gorz. This individual wrote, in an article that saw the light of day in the middle of the uprising that “in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes or armed insurrections in support of their vital interests.” (A. Gorz, Reform and Revolution, in The Socialist Register 1968. Our emphasis.)
Nor was Gorz alone in his appraisal of the situation. Ernest Mandel spoke at a meeting in London only one month before these great events. In the course of his lecture, he spoke about everything under the sun, but never mentioned a single word about the situation of the French working class. When this contradiction was pointed out to him by one of our comrades from the floor, his reply was that there would be no movement of the French workers for the next twenty years.
During the May events, the university was, of course, occupied by the students. In the central courtyard there were a lot of stalls on which one could see the papers of all the left groups. They were all monthlies at that time, and had not had time to publish a new edition after the strike had begun. Without exception, they all dedicated the front page to Vietnam, Bolivia, Cuba, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong—in fact, everything and anything except the French working class!
These other trends did not expect it, because they had, in effect, written off the working class in the advanced capitalist countries as “corrupt” and “bourgeoisified.”
Incidentally, many of them found a comfortable refuge in endless discussions about the “armed struggle” in the cafes of Paris, which relieved them of any necessity of seeking contacts with the real world and problems of the French workers, which, had they done so, would have furnished them with more than enough information to forewarn them of the impending social explosion.
Unfortunately, we had no group in France to be able to intervene effectively in these events. The main lesson of 1968 is that, once the workers are on the streets it is too late for us. You cannot improvise a revolutionary organization. It must be created in advance.
1968 was a revolution
It is not only a question of the disappearance of the peasantry. The development of industry means that the proletariat itself is much stronger than it was in the 1930s, let alone the time of the Paris Commune, when practically all the workers were in small workshops. Even in 1931 nearly two thirds of all industrial enterprises in France employed no wage workers at all, and another third of them employed less than ten. Only 0.5% of industrial enterprises employed more than a hundred. The fundamental change was shown in 1968 in the key role played by giant factories such as the Renault works in Flins, with a total workforce of 10,500, of which 1,000 participated in pickets and a minimum of 5,000 attended daily strike meetings at that plant alone.
In 1936, when the correlation of class forces was infinitely less favorable, in a situation that was not one tenth as advanced, Trotsky said that the CP could have taken power without meeting any effective resistance:
If the party of Léon Blum was really Socialist it might, basing itself upon the general strike, have overthrown the bourgeoisie in June, almost without civil war, with a minimum of disturbance and of sacrifices. But the party of Blum is a bourgeois party, the younger brother of rotten Radicalism. (Leon Trotsky, On France, p. 178, our emphasis.)
The relation of forces in 1968 was vastly more favorable. A peaceful transformation was possible, if the CP leaders had acted as Marxists should act. It is essential to stress this. But, equally, because of the betrayal of the Stalinists, who refused to take power when the most favorable circumstances existed, the French workers may have to pay with civil war in the future.
The events of May were more than a general strike. This was a revolution, betrayed by the Stalinists. Whoever does not understand this, understands nothing. Every section of the proletariat was involved in struggle. The colossal scope of the movement, its sweep and élan, were in the best revolutionary traditions of the French working class. And this was achieved without any lead whatsoever from the tops of the CP and SP.
What is a revolution? Trotsky explains that a revolution is a situation when the mass of normally apathetic men and women begin to participate actively in the life of society, when they acquire an awareness of their strength and move to take their destiny into their own hands. That is just what a revolution is. And that is what happened on a colossal scale in France in 1968.
The class balance of forces was here expressed, not as a mere abstract potential or statistic, but as an actual power on the streets and in the factories. The French workers flexed their muscles, and became aware of the enormous power in their hands. Some idea of this is conveyed by the following description of the mighty demonstration of a million which took over the streets of Paris on the 13th of May:
Endlessly they filed past. There were whole sections of hospital personnel in white coats, some carrying posters saying “Où sont les disparus des hôpitaux?” (“Where are the missing injured?”). Every factory, every major workplace seemed to be represented. There were numerous groups of railwaymen, postmen, printers, Metro personnel, metal workers, airport workers, market men, electricians, lawyers, sewermen, bank employees, building workers, glass and chemical workers, waiters, municipal employees, painters and decorators, gas workers, shop girls, insurance clerks, road sweepers, film studio operators, busmen, teachers, workers from the new plastic industries, row upon row upon row of them, the flesh and blood of modern capitalist society, an unending mass, a power that could sweep everything before it, if it but decided to do so. (Quoted in Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 12.)
Once in struggle the workers began to take initiatives which went far beyond the limits of a normal strike. The printers and journalists imposed a kind of workers’ control of the press. Bourgeois papers had to submit their editorials for scrutiny, and had to publish the declarations of the workers’ committees. De Gaulle’s plan to hold a referendum was frustrated by the action of the workers. The general was unable even to get ballot sheets for a referendum printed because of the strike of the French printing workers and the refusal of their Belgian colleagues to scab. The class balance of forces is not purely a matter of the relative numerical strength of the working class as opposed to the peasants and middle class in general. Once the proletariat enters into decisive struggle, showing itself to be a powerful force in society, it quickly attracts the exploited mass of peasants and small shopkeepers who are crushed by the banks and monopolies. This was evident in 1968, when the peasants set up roadblocks around Nantes and distributed free food to the strikers.
Workers took control of petrol supplies in Nantes, refusing entry to all petrol tankers which did not carry authorization from the strike committee. A picket was placed on the only functioning petrol pump in the town, which made sure that petrol was only issued to doctors. Contact was made with the peasant organizations in the surrounding areas, and food supplies were arranged, with prices fixed by the workers and peasants. To prevent profiteering, shops had to display a sticker in the window with the words: “This shop is authorized to open. Its prices are under permanent supervision by the unions.” The sticker was signed by the CGT, CFDT and FO. A liter of milk was sold for 50 centimes compared to the normal 80. A kilo of potatoes was cut from 70 centimes to 12. A kilo of carrots from 80 to 50, and so on.
Since the schools were closed, teachers and students organized nurseries, playgroups, free meals and activities for the strikers’ children. Committees of strikers’ wives were set up and played a leading role organizing food supplies. Not only the students, but the professional layers were infected with the bug of revolution. The astronomers occupied an observatory. There was a strike at the nuclear research center at Saclay, where the majority of the 10,000 employees were researchers, technicians, engineers or graduate scientists. Even the Church was affected. In the Latin Quarter, young Catholics occupied a church and demanded a debate instead of mass.
The myth of the “strong state”
The contingency plans of the French government were similar to the plans of every ruling class in history, when faced with revolution. The government of Tsar Nicholas (“the bloody” they called him) was not short of its military contingency plans before February 1917. But whether such plans can be put into effect is entirely another matter, as Nicholas found out to his cost. Merely to repeat after the event that “the government had contingency plans” tells us nothing at all. It would be astonishing if such plans did not exist, and not only in France! What is decisive in a revolution is not the plans of the regime, but the real balance of forces in society. Incidentally, De Gaulle, who was quite an astute bourgeois, was fully aware of the real situation (although, as we will see, he initially underestimated it, and made a very serious error as a result. In common with all the others, he too was not expecting the French workers to move).
The fact of the matter is that the movement caught the ruling class and the government entirely off guard. They were terrified of the movement of the students, as the then Prime Minister, Pompidou admits in his memoirs:
Some people … have thought that by reopening the Sorbonne and having the students released I had shown weakness and set the agitation going again. I would simply answer as follows: let’s suppose that, on Monday 13 May the Sorbonne had remained closed under police protection. Who can imagine that the crowd, swarming towards Denfert-Rochereau, would have fail to break in, carrying everything before it like a river in flood? I preferred to give the Sorbonne to the students than to see them take it by force. (G. Pompidou, Pour Rétablir une Vérité, pp. 184–85)
Elsewhere he adds:
The crisis was infinitely more serious and more profound; the regime would stand or be overthrown, but it could not be saved by a mere cabinet reshuffle. It was not my position that was in question. It was General De Gaulle, the Fifth Republic, and, to a considerable extent, Republican rule itself. (Ibid., p. 197)
What did Pompidou mean when he said that “Republican rule itself” was in danger? He meant that the capitalist state itself was threatened with overthrow. And in this, he was quite right. After Pompidou tried to defused the crisis by reopening the Sorbonne the movement merely acquired fresh momentum with a demonstration of 250,000. Terrified that the students would join forces with the workers and storm the Elysée, the presidential palace was evacuated.
It is true that De Gaulle in the first stage placed his confidence on the Stalinist leaders to save the situation. He said to his naval ADC, François Flohic, “Don’t worry, Flohic, the Communists will keep them in order.” (Philippe Alexandre, L’Elysée en péril, p. 299) What do these words prove? Neither more or less than the fact which we have always maintained that the capitalist system could not exist without the support of the reformist (and Stalinist) labor leaders. This support is worth much more to them than any amount of tanks and policemen. De Gaulle, as an intelligent bourgeois, understood this perfectly. However, the essence of a revolution is that the masses begin to participate actively in events, begin to take matters into their own hands. The General’s confidence did not last long. He was forced to cut short his presidential trip to Romania because of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Paris. His biographer, Charles Williams, graphically describes De Gaulle’s state of mind on the eve of his broadcast to the nation on May 24th:
There is no doubt that, after the exhilaration of Romania, the General had been badly shaken by what he had found on his return to France. During the ensuing three days, he seemed to at least one visitor, who had not seen him for some time, to be old and indecisive, his stoop accentuated. It seemed as though it was all getting too much for him.
The broadcast of 24 May, when it came, was a complete flop. The General looked, and sounded, shifty and scared. True, he announced a referendum on “participation,” but it was not clear what the precise terms of the question would be, and it seemed to those who heard him to be suspiciously like a device. He said that it was the duty of the state to ensure public order, but his voice lacked its old resonance, and the phrases, although still in the same solemn language, somehow no longer carried conviction. He came across as an old man, tired and wounded. He knew it himself. “I missed the target,” he said that evening. The best that Pompidou could say was: “It could have been worse. (C. Williams, The Last Great Frenchman. A life of General De Gaulle, pp. 463–64, our emphasis.)
But De Gaulle’s mood, on the morning of the 25th, had turned for the worse. He was, in the words of one of his ministers, “prostrate-stooped and aged.” He kept on repeating, “It’s a mess.” Another minister found an old man who “had no «feel» for the future.” The General sent for his son Philippe, who found his father “tired” and noted that he had hardly slept. Philippe suggested that his father might make for the Atlantic port of Brest—shadows of 1940—but was told that he would not give up.
From 25 to 28 May De Gaulle remained in a state of profound gloom. Pompidou’s negotiations with the trade unions had been a farce. He had simply given them all they asked for: sweeping increases in pay and social benefits, and an increase in the minimum wage of 35 per cent. The only snag was that, even after the deal had been signed, the CGT had insisted that it would have to be ratified by their membership. George Séguy, the CGT leader, hurried off to the Paris suburb of Billancourt, where 12,000 Renault workers were on strike. When the agreement was put to them, they humiliated Séguy by turning it down flat. The accords of Grenelle, as they were called, were stillborn.
The Council of Ministers met at 3 p.m. on 27 May, soon after the Renault workers’ rejection of the Grenelle accords. The General presided, but it was noted that his heart and mind were elsewhere. He stared at his ministers without seeing them, his arms flat on the table in front of him, his shoulders hunched, seemingly “totally indifferent” to what was going on around him. There was a discussion about the referendum; the General apparently heard only bits of it. (Ibid., pp. 464–65, our emphasis.)
These extracts from a sympathetic biography paint a vivid picture of total disorientation, panic and demoralization. De Gaulle, the same man who had placed his faith in the Communists to “keep them in order,” according to the US ambassador, now told him that “the game’s up. In a few days the Communists will be in power.” Why? Quite simply because De Gaulle saw the sweep of the revolutionary movement and did not believe they could hold the line, even with the services of the Stalinist leaders.
There is a self-evident contradiction here. On the one hand, De Gaulle is supremely confident in the knowledge that the CP leaders will keep the masses under control. The next minute, he is seized by the “terrifying idea” that the CP leaders will be “propelled to power in spite of themselves.”
Evidently there is a problem, and a serious one! Not only do innumerable witnesses assert that De Gaulle was completely prostrate and demoralized, but on at least two occasions he contemplated fleeing the country. His own son urged him to escape via Brest, and other sources state that he considered remaining in West Germany, where he had gone to visit general Massu. De Gaulle was a clever and calculating politician who never acted on impulse, and rarely lost his nerve. If he told the US ambassador that “the game is up, and in a few days the Communists will be in power,” it is because he believed it. And not he alone, but the majority of the ruling class.
The French ruling class still disposed of a formidable machine of repression. How formidable? Let’s see. There were some 144,000 police (armed) of various categories, including 13,500 of the notorious CRS riot police, and some 261,000 soldiers stationed in France or West Germany. If one approaches the question from a purely quantitative point of view, then one would have to rule out not just a peaceful transformation, but the possibility of revolution in general, and not just in France in 1968. From this point of view, no revolution could ever have succeeded in the whole of history. But the question cannot be posed in this way.
In every revolution, voices are raised which attempt to frighten the oppressed class with the spectre of violence, bloodshed and the “inevitability of civil war.” Kamenev and Zinoviev spoke in exactly the same way on the eve of the October insurrection:
The enemies of the insurrection in the ranks of the Bolshevik party itself found, however, sufficient ground for pessimistic conclusions. Zinoviev and Kamenev gave warning against an underestimation of the enemy’s forces. “Petrograd will decide, and in Petrograd the enemy has … considerable forces: 5,000 junkers, magnificently armed and knowing how to fight, and then the army headquarters, and then the shock troops, and then the Cossacks, and then a considerable part of the garrison, and then a very considerable quantity of artillery spread out fanwise around Petrograd. Moreover the enemy with the help of the Central Executive Committee will almost certainly attempt to bring troops from the front…”
And Trotsky answers the objections of Kamenev and Zinoviev as follows:
The list sounds imposing, but it is only a list. If an army as a whole is a copy of society, then when society openly splits, both armies are copies of the two warring camps. The army of the possessors contained the wormholes of isolation and decay. (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 1042)
According to the celebrated aphorism of Mao, “power grows from the barrel of a gun.” But guns have to be wielded by soldiers, and soldiers do not live in a vacuum, but are influenced by the moods of the masses. In any society, the police are more backward than the army. Yet in France the police, to quote the headline of The Times (31 May) were “seething with discontent.”
They are seething with discontent over their treatment by the Government … and the branch dealing with intelligence about student activity has been deliberately depriving the Government of information about student leaders in support of an expenses claim.
… Nor have the police been impressed by the Government’s behavior since the troubles broke out. “They are terrified of losing our support,” said one man.
Such dissatisfaction is one of the reasons for the apparent inactivity of the Paris police in the past few days. Last week, men at several local stations refused to go on duty at the crossroads and squares of the capital. (The Times, 31/5/1968, our emphasis.)
On 13 May a police union body representing 80 per cent of uniformed personnel issued a declaration that it
considers the prime minister’s statement to be a recognition that the students were in the right, and as a total disavowal of the actions by the police force which the government itself had ordered. In these circumstances, it is surprised that an effective dialogue with the students was not sought before these regrettable confrontations took place. (Le Monde, 15 May 1968.)
If this was the position with the police, the effect of the revolution on the rank and file of the army would have been even greater. As it was, despite the lack of information, there were reports of a ferment in the armed forces, and even a mutiny in the navy. The aircraft carrier Clemenceau, due to go to the Pacific for a nuclear test, suddenly turned back and returned to Toulon without explanation. There were reports of a mutiny on board and several sailors were said to have been “lost at sea.” (Le Canard Enchainé, 19th June, a fuller report was published in Action 14th June, but this was confiscated by the authorities).
A leaflet published by members of the RIMECA (mechanized infantry regiment) stationed at Mutzig near Strasbourg indicates that sections of the army were already being affected by the mood of the masses. It included the following section:
Like all conscripts, we are confined to barracks. We are being prepared to intervene as repressive forces. The workers and youth must know that the soldiers of the contingent WILL NEVER SHOOT ON WORKERS. We Action Committees are opposed at all costs to the surrounding of factories by soldiers.
Tomorrow or the day after we are expected to surround an armaments factory which three hundred workers who work there want to occupy. WE SHALL FRATERNIZE.
Soldiers of the contingent, form your committees! (Quoted in Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 26.)
The production of such a leaflet was clearly an exceptional example of the most revolutionary elements among the conscripts. But, in the midst of a revolution of such massive proportions, is it possible to doubt that the rank and file of the army would have rapidly been “infected” by the bacillus of revolt? The strategists of international capital did not doubt it. Neither did their French counterparts. In a state of panic, which we have already documented sufficiently, De Gaulle suddenly vanished.
It turns out that De Gaulle went to Germany to consult with general Massu. It does not require much imagination to work out what he asked him. “Can we rely on the army?” The answer is not contained in any of the written sources, for obvious reasons. The Times sent its correspondent to Germany to interview French soldiers, the big majority of whom were working-class conscripts. One of those interviewed by The Times answered the question whether he would fire on the workers thus: “Never! I think their methods may be a bit rough, but I am a worker’s son myself.”
In its editorial, The Times asked the key question: “Can De Gaulle use the army?” and answered its own question, saying that he could perhaps use it once. In other words, a single bloody clash would be sufficient to break the army in pieces. That was the appraisal of the most hard-headed strategists of international capital at the time. There is no reason to doubt their word on this occasion.
Who saved De Gaulle?
It was not at all the army or the police (who were so demoralized that even the reactionary intelligence branch, as we have seen, was refusing to collaborate with the government against the students) that saved the situation for French capitalism. It was the monstrous betrayal of the Stalinist and trade union leaders. This conclusion is not just ours, but finds support in the most unlikely source. In the entry on May 1968 in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we read the following:
De Gaulle seemed incapable of grappling with the crisis or even understanding its nature. The Communist and Trade Union leaders, however, provided him with a breathing space; they opposed further upheaval, evidently fearing the loss of their followers to their most extremist and anarchist rivals.
What was the main weapon used by the Stalinists to persuade the workers not to attempt to take power? That the state was strong, that there would be violence and civil war. Let them speak for themselves. According to Waldeck-Rochet, the party’s general secretary:
In reality the choice to be made in May was the following:
- Either to act in such a way that the strike would permit the essential demands of the workers to be satisfied, and to pursue at the same time, on the political level, a policy aimed at making necessary democratic changes by constitutional means. This was our party’s position.
- Or else quite simply to provoke a trial of strength, in other words move towards an insurrection: this would include a recourse to armed struggle aimed at overthrowing the regime by force. This was the adventurist position of certain ultraleft groups. (L’Humanité, 10 July 1968, our emphasis.)
Note how skillfully this Stalinist bureaucrat plays on the fears of the masses. Like labor bureaucrats everywhere, he knows that many workers fear the prospect of violence and bloodshed. This fact is a book sealed with seven seals for the ultra left sects, who immediately fall into the trap set for them by the bourgeois and the bureaucrats. This is one reason they will never win the masses in a thousand years. The kind of terminological radicalism which is a normal hallmark of sectarians is merely the other side of the coin of their complete lack of confidence in the working class, their superstitious faith in the “strong state” and, above all, their organic inability to penetrate the working class, or even find a common language with the workers.
How would a genuine Marxist tendency have acted under such circumstances? By advancing the slogan of insurrection and civil war? That is just what the sects did. Indeed, they attempted to put it into practice (without the masses!). This is the distilled essence of petty-bourgeois ultraleftism and adventurism, which always plays into the hands of the right wing. No. The Marxists would have acted in the same way as Lenin. They would have conducted systematic work in the CP, YCL and unions building up points of support over the whole of the previous period. During the May Events, the main slogan of the Marxists would have been the setting up of elected committees to coordinate and direct the struggle, and to link these up on a local, regional and, ultimately, on a national basis. At the same time, they would have demanded that the CP take power, expropriate the capitalists and transform society.
Could this have been done peacefully? As we have seen, Trotsky in 1936, said that the Socialist leaders could have simply brushed aside the resistance of the ruling class. What would he have said in a situation like this, which was a thousand times more favorable? In answer to the speeches of Waldeck Rochet and company, who were attempting to frighten the workers with the specter of bloodshed and civil war, we would have pointed out, as Lenin pointed out a hundred times in 1917, and as Trotsky did in 1936, that the reformist (Stalinist) labor leaders, with the overwhelming support of the masses, could take power peacefully, with a minimum of effort, without civil war, and that this was the only way of avoiding violence. And this was undoubtedly a million times more true in France than in Russia in 1917. This, and not the shrill ultraleftism of the sects, was the only way to get the ear of the Communist workers, defeat the Stalinist leadership and win over the masses to the idea of revolution.
Defense and offense
From the point of view of formal logic, defense and offense are immutable opposites. However, in practice, they frequently pass into each other. A defensive struggle, under certain conditions, can be transformed into an offensive struggle, and vice versa. There are many points of comparison between the wars between nations and wars between the classes. But there are also differences. A bourgeois standing army is prepared, financed and armed for decades in preparation for war. The general staff can choose when and where hostilities begin. Of course, even here, it is not a purely military question. Clausewitz explained that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” The military acts of bourgeois governments are determined by the class interests of the bourgeoisie. For this reason, Marxists have always pointed out that the question of “who fires the first shot” is an entirely secondary consideration which does not have any bearing on the concrete character of a war.
This general proposition is correct. But does it mean that the question of the responsibility for the outbreak of hostilities is beside the point? To imagine such a thing is to completely misunderstand the conduct of war. Why is it that every government in every war always tries to put the blame for starting it on the shoulders of the enemy? Is this an accident? Or a whim? On the contrary. War is not just a military question, but involves politics. The mobilization of public opinion, at home and abroad, in support of the war is a fundamental question, which can only be resolved on the political plane. Engels explained that in warfare the importance of morale to the physical is three to one. Hence, the fundamental task of diplomacy is to convince “public opinion” that its particular army acted only in selfdefense, in response to intolerable provocation, “enemy aggression” and so on. A government which did not act in this way would commit an intolerable blunder, and do enormous damage to its war effort.
All this is a thousand times more true in the socialist revolution. The proletariat, unlike the ruling class, does not possess an army, and will never possess an armed force capable of taking on the forces of the bourgeois state, provided that the latter remains intact. Whereas conventional war is mainly a military question, in which diplomacy plays a significant but subordinate role, the task of the socialist revolution is therefore mainly the political task of winning over the masses and the armed forces. The roles are reversed.
In point of fact, the overwhelming majority of the struggles of the working class begin as defensive struggles: struggles to defend living standards, jobs, democratic rights, etc. Under certain circumstances, particularly with correct leadership, these defensive struggles can prepare the way for an offensive, including a general strike, which poses the question of power. However, even in the course of a revolution, it is necessary to place all the responsibility for violence on the shoulders of the ruling class, in order to win over the masses, not only of the working class, but also of the petit bourgeoisie. It is therefore not only correct, but absolutely essential that we should present the movement in a defensive light.
However, it may be objected that the insurrection has an offensive character. Again, as an abstract general proposition it is correct. Danton pointed out that the slogan of insurrection is “De l’audace, de l’audace, et encore de l’audace!” (Audacity, audacity and yet more audacity!). But that does not at all exhaust the question of revolutionary tactics. The truth is always concrete. In the class struggle, as in normal warfare, it is necessary to assess under what conditions it is possible to go onto the offensive, and when it is necessary to adopt a defensive position. Warfare would be a very simple matter if it only consisted of a simple rule, applicable to all circumstances. But the general who only knew one command—”Attack!”—would swiftly lead his army to annihilation. It is necessary to learn how to attack, but also to retreat in good order, to tack, veer, maneuver, avoid giving battle under unfavorable circumstances, and so on. The whole history of Bolshevism is full of examples of the kind of skillful and flexible tactics reflected in the writings of Lenin, and summed up in Left Wing Communism.
The problem was that, after 1917, the young and inexperienced leaders of the Communist Parties in the first five years of the Communist International had not had time to absorb and digest the lessons of the history of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution. They had read State and Revolution and Lenin’s writings of the War period, and were able to repeat mechanically the slogans about the need to smash the bourgeois state, civil war, the criticism of reformism and parliamentarianism, the impermissibility of uniting with the Social Democracy. But they had not understood a single word of what they had read. They did not understand the method of Lenin. For the entire period from 1917 till his death, Lenin struggled to straighten them out, even demonstratively declaring that, if these were “Lefts,” he was a “Right.”
The “Left” Communists considered Lenin and Trotsky to have succumbed to opportunism. In practice, they held that the tactics and methods advocated by them represented a “very serious departure from the point of view of Lenin and Trotsky,” which “will mean that the International will never be able to fulfill its historical mission.” The clearest expression of this was the “theory of the offensive” put forward by the leaders of the German CP.
Starting from the fact that the Communist Parties were not yet the decisive majority of the class, Lenin advanced the slogan of the united front, of patient work in the mass organizations, of participation in bourgeois parliaments, as a means of winning the masses. This was the prior condition for socialist revolution. But the “Lefts” were not satisfied. They scornfully dismissed Lenin’s advice to “turn to the masses,” considering that the only possible policy for a revolutionary party was “revolutionary offense.” Lenin and Trotsky fought tooth and nail against this “theory,” which led to a bloody defeat in March 1921. This was an extreme example of an ultra left trend that was very widespread at the time, and which has resurfaced many times in the history of the movement. It was always combated by Lenin and Trotsky, and even before them by Marx and Engels.
Despite its very “revolutionary” appearance, this kind of approach has nothing in common with the real methods of Bolshevism of which it is merely an abstract caricature. We have already mentioned the defense testimony in the Minneapolis Trial. One of the criticisms of the ultra left Munis was precisely that Cannon presented the question of violence as a question of selfdefense. “Why not,” asked Munis, “raise the voice at this point and call upon the workers to organize their own violence against the reactionary violence?” And Cannon replied:
Why not? Because it was not necessary or advisable either to raise the voice or issue any call for action at this time. We were talking, in the first place, for the benefit of the uninitiated worker who would reading the testimony in the paper or in pamphlet form. We needed a calm and careful exposition in order to get his attention. This worker is by no means waiting impatiently for our call to violent action. Quite the contrary, he ardently believes in the so-called democracy, and the first question he will ask, if he becomes interested in socialism, is: “Why can’t we get it peacefully, by the ballot?” It is necessary to patiently explain to him that, while we would prefer it that way, the bosses will not permit it, will resort to violence against the majority, and that the workers must defend themselves and their right to change things. (Munis and Cannon, What policy for revolutionists-Marxism or Ultra-leftism, p. 25)
That “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with the new”—this is an axiom known to every student of Marxism. It is wrong to entertain or disseminate illusions on this score, and we did so at the trial. But it is a great mistake to conclude from this that the violence and the talk about violence serve the revolutionary vanguard advantageously at all times and under all conditions. On the contrary, peaceful conditions and democratic legal forms are most useful in the period when the party is still gathering its forces and when the main strength and resources, including the resources of violence, are on the other side. Lenin remarked that Engels was “most correct” in “advocating the use of bourgeois legality” and saying to the German ruling class in 1891: “Be the first to shoot, Messrs. Bourgeois!”
Our party which must still strive to get a hearing from the as yet indifferent working class of America has the least reason of all to emphasize or to “advocate” violence. This attitude is determined by the present stage of class development and the relation of forces in the United States. (Ibid., pp. 30–31)
The slightest acquaintance with the history of the Russian Revolution, before during and after October, will suffice to demonstrate this. On the eve of the October Revolution, there was a difference of opinion between Lenin and Trotsky concerning the date of the insurrection. Lenin wanted to move straight to the seizure of power in September, whereas Trotsky was in favor of postponing the insurrection until the Congress of Soviets. Why did Trotsky take this position? Did he suffer from a lack of audacity? Not at all. Trotsky understood that, even in a revolution, the question of legality is extremely important for the masses.
The Bolsheviks were sure they would get the majority at the Congress, and could therefore appear before the masses as the legitimate power in society. This was not a secondary question, but was a vital factor in achieving a peaceful transfer of power. Once again, the essential element was not military, but political. Incidentally, the Bolsheviks presented the October insurrection as a defensive action to prevent Russia from sliding into chaos and civil war. And this is no accident. Even when you are in a position to go onto the offensive (which is by no means always the case, rather the contrary), it is always necessary to act and speak as if you were fighting a defensive struggle, placing all the responsibility on the enemy.
Let us take one more example. In 1918, the fate of the Revolution hung in the balance. The armies of German imperialism were poised to invade. The military forces at the disposal of the Bolsheviks were totally insufficient to permit a serious resistance. Fearing the complete destruction of the Revolution, Lenin advocated the immediate signing of peace with Germany, even at the cost of sacrificing territory. Bukharin, who, at that time, held an ultra left position, stood for a revolutionary war against Germany, a highly “audacious” position, which, under the concrete conditions, would have certainly led to the destruction of the Revolution.
Trotsky, who was in charge of negotiations at Brest Litovsk, attempted to spin out the talks as long as possible, in the hope that the German workers would rise. In fact, this occurred a few months later, but this would have been too late to avoid a shattering German offensive, had the Bolsheviks not given way. When the German imperialists presented a final ultimatum, Trotsky, who had skillfully used the negotiations to carry out revolutionary agitation which had a big effect in Germany and Austria, refused to sign the treaty and demonstratively broke off the negotiations, although he knew that this would mean a German attack.
Trotsky’s position had nothing in common with the ultraleft line of Bukharin. He explained that the reason for his action was to convince the workers of Britain and France, where the ruling class were slandering Lenin as a German agent, that the Bolsheviks were the victims of aggression, and that the predatory Treaty of Brest Litovsk was signed under duress. That they had no other alternative. There is no doubt that the new treaty was still less favorable than before the German offensive. But here, as always, what motivated Lenin and Trotsky was the interests of the World Revolution. The balance of forces ruled out a revolutionary offensive. The Bolsheviks were compelled to take a defensive position, and even make painful concessions to German imperialism in order to survive.
They placed all their confidence in their internationalist policies, appealing to the workers of the world to come to their assistance. Even later, when Trotsky built the Red Army, he was under no illusions that the Revolution could be saved by purely military means. The reason why the Revolution was able to survive the attacks by 21 armies of foreign intervention was not the heroism of the Red Army, important as that was, but the opposition of the workers of Britain, France and other countries to the plans of the imperialists, and the fact that the troops of every foreign army sent to Russia mutinied.
The British Prime Minister Lloyd George explained the withdrawal of the British troops because they were “infected with Bolshevik influenza.” Not in carrying out the Revolution, but in defending it, the main weapon was a revolutionary internationalist policy. That was the “secret weapon” which amply made up for the extreme weakness of the Revolution in the face of what were, on paper, overwhelmingly superior forces. Seen from a military point of view, the Bolsheviks ought never have been able to take power, and certainly not hold onto it.
In a revolution, the troops are always affected by the general moods in society. This is particularly true of the conscripts, which is why Marxists do not support the petty-bourgeois pacifist demand for the abolition of military service. We are in favor of young workers being trained in the use of arms, although with trade union rights, and under the control of the labor organizations. The reactionary nature of the petty-bourgeois policy is shown by attempts by the ruling class of many countries to replace conscription with a professional army, despite the fact that this will cost more money.
Why do they take this line? Because they can see what is coming. At a certain stage explosions are inevitable. It is implicit in the whole situation. The ruling class of these countries is attempting to prepare for this, and imagines that a professional army will serve their interests better. As a matter of fact, their confidence is misplaced. Under modern conditions, the overwhelming majority of professional soldiers are working class youths who join the army to escape unemployment. Despite all the efforts to brutalize them (which we must denounce and oppose, demanding trade union rights for soldiers to draw them closer to the labor movement), when there is a big movement of the class, they will be affected, as even the police were affected in 1968.
How we pose the question
The question of how the transformation of society is posed depends on the situation. That is precisely the meaning of the transitional program. It is not a question of abstract formulae, which we are obliged to put forward, irrespective of time and place, but of a program which, taking into consideration the actual consciousness of the class, flows from the real needs of the situation. Take a concrete instance. In Northern Ireland, we were faced with a very difficult and complicated situation. The main problem was the national question in a particularly monstrous form. Society was polarized on religious sectarian lines. Our policy was dictated by the need to unite the workers on class lines. Our central demand was for the establishment of a Labour Party, based on the unions. However, in a position where the paramilitary madmen on both sides were conducting a campaign of murder and mayhem, this was completely insufficient.
For decades, our tendency, and we alone, put forward the demand for a trade union defense force, to defend the workers against sectarian attacks. This slogan, which corresponds to Trotsky’s demand to arm the picket line, was not sucked out of our thumb. In 1969, the (mainly Protestant) workers in Harland and Wolfs, the big shipyards in Belfast, set up patrols, under the control of the shop stewards committee, to defend Catholic workers against intimidation. Under the circumstances, a workers’ defense force would have to be armed. Without arms, these patrols were powerless against the paramilitaries. In fact, it was the IRA which smashed this incipient movement by murdering some of the Protestant workers who participated in it.
Was the slogan of a workers’ defense force the correct one to put forward in the concrete conditions of Northern Ireland? Undoubtedly. Had it succeeded, it would have had a fundamental effect, changing the whole class balance of forces. Beginning as a defensive slogan, it could have been the starting point for an offensive movement of the class later on. We repeat, most workers’ movements have an initially defensive character. With correct leadership, small successes in defensive struggles can lead to bigger things. Without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism, involving all kinds of issues, big and small, the socialist revolution would be utterly impossible.
Let us pose the question differently. Would it have been correct for us to have put forward the same slogan of a workers’ defense force (which we have agreed was absolutely necessary for Northern Ireland) in England, Scotland and Wales? No. It would have been a fundamental error. The workers would have regarded us, quite justifiably, as raving lunatics. Why? Because, at this stage, in the concrete conditions in Britain, such a slogan bears absolutely no relation to the reality of the working class and society.
And here we approach the essence of the problem. For a Marxist, revolutionary politics does not consist of a number of abstract propositions, like mathematical axioms, which can be applied indifferently to each and any situation. If that were so, our work would be a lot easier! We have to find a way of creatively applying the science of Marxism to a given situation, in such a way that we find an echo for our idea in the working class.
In Britain, for the whole of the last period, the focal point of our propaganda (and we are still mainly a propaganda tendency) has been the demand that a Labour government must take over the commanding heights of the economy. Of course, we endeavor to win over the most advanced workers and youth to the ideas of Marxism. But 99% of British workers are not Marxists. That is the problem. The overwhelming majority of those that are politically aware support the Labour Party. At this stage, a fairly small minority of these support the left reformists, although is changing.
In effect, we say to the British worker:
We have not yet convinced you of the need for revolution? Very well. Let us at least agree that we have to fight against the bosses and their government. Let us by all means fight together for the election of a Labour government. But that is not enough. A Labour government must carry out policies in the interests of the working class. How can they do that, when the banks and monopolies are in the hands of our enemies?
How do we deal with that? Once elected, Labour must take emergency action to solve unemployment, homelessness and all the other problems. They must immediately pass an Enabling Act to nationalize the banks and monopolies. We will pay fair compensation, by which we mean minimum compensation on the basis of proven need only.
Will the ruling class allow this to happen? All previous history speaks against their giving up without a fight. (Even George Brown, said this in 1966.) They will try to use the House of Lords and the Monarchy to delay and block progressive laws. So we must abolish these reactionary and undemocratic institutions. They will use the mass media to spread lies and panic. We should put an end to the domination of the press by a handful of Tory millionaires, nationalize the press, radio and television, and guarantee free access to the mass media to any tendency, party or organization (including the trade unions who are denied a voice, despite representing millions of people) in accordance to the number of votes they receive in elections, or the number of members they have.
Big business will do everything in its power to sabotage and wreck the economy in order to bring down a Labour government pledged to socialist policies. We have seen this in the past. When they do not like certain policies, they organize conspiracies, runs on the pound, and so on. Therefore, Labour must mobilize the working class outside parliament to set up elected committees in every workplace, to establish workers’ control and management of the nationalized industries, to prevent the sabotage of the bosses.
It is necessary to issue an appeal to the members of the police and the armed forces to support the democratically elected government (many of them are Labour supporters), immediately pass a law recognizing trade union rights and legalizing the right to strike for soldiers and police, and calling on them to arrest any officers who are plotting against the government.
There must be measures to win over the middle class, the small businessmen and shopkeepers, who are being ruined by big business and the banks. We should point out to them that the nationalization of the banks and the elimination of a whole series of middlemen will mean cheap credit and lower costs.
Above all, a nationalized planned economy under the democratic control and management of the working class will enable us to eliminate unemployment and introduce the six hour day and four day week, while increasing production and raising wages.
By mobilizing the working class on this basis, Labour would rapidly cut the ground from under the feet of reaction. Any attempt to organize a counterrevolutionary conspiracy would be brushed aside. Under these conditions, a peaceful transformation of society would be entirely possible. Moreover, the example of a democratic workers’ state in an advanced country like Britain (or any other advanced country) would have an even greater impact than Russia 1917. Given the enormous strength of the working class, and the impasse of capitalism everywhere, the bourgeois regimes in Europe would fall rapidly, creating the basis for the Socialist United States of Europe and, finally world socialism. That is the perspective we offer.
Does it seem difficult? But what alternative is there? The experience of all past Labour governments answers that question. If the Labour leaders do not take drastic action to break the power of the banks and monopolies, it will find itself a hostage to the City of London. It will be forced to carry out an attack on the living standards of the workers, the poor, the unemployed. Then, when it no longer suits the bosses, they will organize a conspiracy, using the press and TV, to bring the Labour government down, and impose an even more reactionary Tory government.
In reality, what we propose is not so difficult. If the Labour leaders dedicated one tenth of the energies they spend in defending capitalism on mobilizing the might of the working class to change society, the socialist transformation could be accomplished quickly and painlessly. But we warn that, if they fail to do this, the way will be prepared, on the basis of the frightful collapse of British capitalism, for a catastrophe for the working class.
In the coming period, it is quite possible that there can be a Left Labour government in Britain. We would have fundamentally the same position. The only difference is that, under the pressure of the working class, the left reformists may take measures against the bourgeois which, without carrying through a complete transformation of society, would make the normal functioning of capitalism impossible, creating the conditions for conspiracies of the bourgeois, not just to bring the government down, but even to plot with the tops of the armed forces some kind of Bonapartist-royalist coup.
In the 1970s in a debate with Tony Benn in front of two thousand young socialists, Ted Grant explained that unless a left Labour government mobilized the working class to transform society, then there could be a reaction and that would even open the way to civil war, and that the responsibility for this would be on the shoulders of the Labour and trade union leaders for not changing society in time. In his Diary, Benn refers to this crudely, saying that Grant came out in favor of civil war! In fact, by posing the question in this way, we got the nearly unanimous support of the LPYS for socialist revolution and our policy, which would not have been possible on any other basis.
The general approach of the IMT to the question is the only correct one from a Marxist point of view. We have not varied one inch on this issue from the position we took during World War Two. That position is the continuation and development of the approach worked out by the Old Man, which, in turn, is derived from the position of Marx, Engels and Lenin. It has been shown to be correct time and again, particularly in the period since 1945, and above all in the Portuguese Revolution and in France 1968. Thus, it is not only a question of theory, but of the actual historical experience of the proletariat internationally.
It is essential that all comrades study the Marxist theory of the state, not just in the classical texts of Marxism, which retain their full validity, but in the living experience of the class struggle over the last hundred years, which is summed up in the method, program, tactics and general approach of the IMT internationally.