(Introductory Note, August 2000: The following essay is a kind of “thought experiment”, attempting to trace the career and impact of the “man of negation”, ultimately theorized by Hegel as the “Prussian monarch” who “universally labors” in the realm of the state (and hence art, philosophy and religion) but whose “labor” does not transform nature, does not engage in what the Theses on Feuerbach call “sensuous transformative activity”. Nature for this figure was and is what Hegel viewed as the realm of mere repetition, and “boring”. Hegel’s “universally laboring” Prussian state bureaucrat is the most elaborate definition of the social type who ultimately became dominant for an epoch (1875-1975) in the “left”, counterposed (as Marx put it in the Grundrisse) to “the individuality as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labor no longer appears as labor, because an historical need has replaced a natural one”. This figure, ultimately symbolized by Ferdinand Lassalle, could only thrive in the period dominated by the kind of materialism attacked by Marx in the “Theses on Feuerbach”, the materialism from antiquity to Feuerbach which has not incorporated “the active side developed by idealism” and which “does not understand activity as objective”, a conception which survived long after Marx. The international era of the state civil servant in the “left” demarcates the era of the centrality first, of German Social Democracy (Lassalle) and, above all, of the Russian revolution and the centrality of the “Russian question” for the international definition of the left. Today, it is possible to see the true meaning of the “line of continuity” of this figure from 1789 to 1848 to 1917 to 1975; the meaning is the evolution of mercantilism and not of socialist revolution. The line of continuity is from St-Just to Fichte to Nechaev and Tchachev to Stalin, Mao, Ho and Pol Pot.)
“But as long as the revolution is not achieved, as long as the proletariat does not appropriate the instruments of social labor, this remorseless process of development creates practically a new class of petty bourgeoisie. It is the exact opposite of the peasant and individual small capitalist as the modern liberal of state control is the exact opposite of the old individualistic liberal. It consists primarily of the administrators of the new socialized economic structure, which cannot capitalistically exist without them.”
C.L.R. James. Notes on Dialectics (1948)
“Whatever their social origin, whatever their subjective motives, the fact remains that stalinism finds this caste of labor leaders all over the world, in China, in Korea, in Spain, in Brazil, everywhere, intellectuals, labor leaders, workers who rise–the caste grows, changes composition, but it remains as an entity. It faces death, undergoes torture, finds energy, ingenuity, devotion, establishes a tradition, maintains it, develops it, commits the greatest crimes with a boldness and confidence that can only come from men who are certain of their historic mission.”
“As I think over Trotsky’s writings I can see this sequence of cause and effect in an endless chain. This happened, then the other, thenthe stalinist bureaucracy did this; then; and so he keeps up an endless series of explanations, fascinating, brilliant, full of insight and illumination, to crash into his catastrophic blunders at the end… We, on the other hand, who show that stalinist cause could create the mighty worldwide effectbecause it elicited classforces hostile to the proletariat and inherent in capitalist society at this stage in its development, we restore to the proletarian struggle the historical struggle of the classes with social roots. We finish away with the demoralizing, in fact self-destroying, theory that everything would have been all right, but for the intervention of stalinist corruption.”
The Anglo-French Phase: Prior to the Defeat of the Commune
The classical workers’ movement was the international movement of working people that appeared, first in England and in France, in the closing decades of the 18th century, often in forms of struggle difficult to distinguish from the struggles of artisans and the urban and rural poor. In the Western industrial world of the second half of the 19th century, it went from strength to strength in the formation of mass trade unions and working-class political parties. It culminated in the period of its seemingly unstoppable international hegemony, from approximately 1890 to 1920, during which many observers, sympathetic or hostile, considered its triumph inevitable. This movement–the classical workers’ movement–ended in the period of reconstruction from World War II, with its defeated historical legacy embodied in the “real existing socialism” of the Eastern bloc states and the Western capitalist welfare states inspired by its ultimate paradigm, Social Democracy.
It should be apparent from the above that the term “classical workers’ movement” is by no means co-extensive with the working class of wage laborers whose numbers continued to expand around the globe after World War II, and whose remarkable upsurge in the worldwide wave of strikes and struggles in the years 1968-1973 laid to rest a postwar ideology of the “integration of the working class”. The battered remnants of the classical workers’ movement persist to this day in the declining trade-union movement and working-class political parties which moved to center stage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, throughout the Western world. But if we speak of a “classical” phase of the workers’ movement, it is to connect a certain conception of it to a specific phase of history, roughly 1840 to 1945. And the reality which supports this definition is the fact that, in the renewal of working-class struggle in the period 1968-1973, the organizational expressions of the classical workers’ movement were, on the whole, arrayed against the radical actions of the working class. Such divergences had occurred before in history, many times, but were perceived as “systemic” only by tiny minorities on the fringes of the movement. It is, however, indispensable today to offer a theory of the classical workers’ movement to show its extent and its limits. (It is in the context of an international definition of the classical workers’ movement that it becomes possible to see its often divergent national specifics).
This movement spread throughout the Western world with capitalist industry and social relations, and became, in mid-l9th century Western Europe first of all, the bearer of a vision superceding capitalist social relations, socialism or communism. As such, it emerged from the explosion of the European “Third Estate”, the liberal movement against the ancien regime. This separation of the classical workers’ movement from European liberalism, the appearance (by the late 1830’s in Britain) of the Ricardian socialists and of the vision of a “workers’ state”, was cadenced by the radical phases of the French Revolution, by the July Revolution of 1830, and finally by the June days in Paris, 1848.
This last event, more than any other, created the “specter haunting Europe, the specter of communism”, invoked in the preceding year by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. The specter of revolution had been present in England, as well, in the crisis of 1832-1834, and in 1848, just before the rising of the workers in Paris, Chartism had peaked in a near-confrontation with English capitalism. This latter mobilization proved to be the apogee of Chartism, and by the 1860’s Marx and Engels were already analyzing the signs of embourgeoisement in a stratum of the English working class. The Paris events of 1848, culminating a development begun with the French Revolution, made France, and not England, the focal point of the emergence of the political workers’ movement in the 19th century. The central role of France ended with the crushing of the Paris commune in 1871, and thereafter, leadership of the movement passed to its ultimate paradigm, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and its trade union arm. Somewhat later, Kautsky wrote that the classical workers’ movement had taken its political economy from England, its politics from France, and its philosophy from Germany, although this was already an ideology at odds with Marx and Engels’ formulation (in the Communist Manifesto) that communism “is nothing but a real movement unfolding before our eyes”, not the creation of any world reformers.
The German-Polish-Russian Corridor
Seen in this way, the history of the classical workers’ movement seems to be a history of the eastward movement of its epicenter. For it is a secret to no one that, soon after Kautsky offered the above formulation, the epicenter of working-class revolution shifted from Germany to Russia, or better, to the German-Polish-Russian corridor (embodied in figures such as Rosa Luxemburg, at home in all three worlds) , in 1905 and even more dramatically, in 1917. The history of the classical workers’ movement is a history of continuities and radical discontinuities, and in the shift from French to German hegemony after 1871, as in the shift from German to Russian hegemony after 1917, the innovators are always theoreticians–one need only think (without being a “Leninist” or “Trotskyist” or “Bordigist”) of the examples of Lenin, Trotsky and Bordiga–who seem heretical from the vantage point of the previously dominant paradigm.
“The turning point of history where history failed to turn” was CLR James’ description of the world impact of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Prior to that year, the Russian revolutionaries were mainly obscure figures on the edge of the international movement, whose gargantuan internal faction fights in the hothouse of exile seemed often incomprehensible to the gray eminences of the Central European socialist movement who attempted to arbitrate them. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (taking over Marx’s similar formulation of 1848 with regard to Germany), prior to 1917, was virtually unique even in the Russian movement in ascribing the leading role in the coming overthrow of Tsarism to the working class. Virtually all other Russian revolutionaries, including Lenin, remained trapped in a linear, stagist theory of history, inherited from the canons of the Second International centered in the German SPD. Only the events in Russia in 1917 forced Lenin to break with his ow orthodox past and accept a version of Trotsky’s view, to which they rallied the Bolshevik Party in time to stage the November revolution. Even a sympathetic observer like Antonio Gramsci called the Russian Revolution a “revolution against Das Kapital”, a formulation with which the Bolsheviks’ Menshevik opponents in Russia and Social Democratic opponents abroad were quick to agree. A proletarian revolution in a country where perhaps 15% of the population worked in industry seemed, outside the “permanent revolution” strategy, a voluntarist absurdity.
It is essential to trace this “world line” of the international movement, especially its revolutionary cutting edge, because its history produced the categories with which most people, until recently, analyzed its trajectory, categories which have infiltrated our thinking to this day. If the Western revolutionary left is patently in crisis, the crisis is partly one of the obvious ruins of an old theoretical paradigm and the absence of a new one, to understand both the present and future, which necessarily requires an reinterpretation of the past.
The Russian Revolution, in the self-conception of the Bolsheviks, was never understood (contrary to the common coin in some libertarian and ultra-left circles) as a revolution for the construction of the later, grotesque invention of Stalin, “socialism in one country”. It was, rather, an unexpected first beachhead in an anticipated world revolution following the First World War. This revolution, in the annus mirabilis 1919, seemed very close to realization, in Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, and even, momentarily, in England (January 1919), followed by a serious strike wave in France, and with a worldwide strike surge on every continent, including the sprawling colonial sphere. The center of Bolshevik strategy, as everyone knew at the time, was Germany, where the advanced material conditions existed to ease Russia’s transition out of backwardness. But the German revolution was defeated, in an uneven process of ruthless repression and cooptation, from 1918 to 1921 (with a coda in 1923). The Russian Revolution was isolated, expelling the last military intervention (including U.S. troops) from abroad only in 1921. History had not turned, and the immediate consequences of the defeat reached at least into the mid-1970’s.
In the first years after 1917, the Russian Bolsheviks and their allies (including those who eventually opposed them from the left: the KAPD, for example, was blowing up munitions trains carrying arms to the Whites as late as 1921) in the international movement continued to treat the Russian Revolution very much as the first, almost accidental skirmish of a global process centered in Germany. But such halcyon days could not last, and the emergence of Stalin’s theory of “socialism in one country” by 1924 (as a minimal definition of the final defeat of the internationalist impulse of the revolution) had radically altered the internal dynamic of the considerable faction of the world workers’ movement oriented to the young Soviet state. In a history that is fairly well known, both in Russia and in the fraternal parties of the Communist International, the latter quickly became an instrument of Soviet foreign policy, and subordinated the radical workers’ fractions of the West and nationalist movements in the colonial world to the political balance of forces within the Russian party and in Russian society, and the corresponding international strategy of those forces. Most of the radical wing of the classical movement consequently learned to “speak Russian” for an entire epoch.
In the Russian Revolution and its international implications for the workers’ movement, there was more than one historical novum. It was already enough of a break with the world prior to 1914 that a political party, with roots in the Second International and calling itself Marxist, stood at the head of a state calling itself socialist. It was even more of a break when, within a decade, that state had assumed a radically authoritarian, not to say totalitarian character, as the Stalin faction triumphed over its last organized opposition within the Russian party, not to mention those outside it. As with the Russian revolutionaries in the Second International, so with the internal life of the Bolshevik Party: in 1928, the internal factional situation, and the significance of the defeat of Trotsky, was understood by only a small fraction of communists abroad.
But the creation of the first “socialist” state led by an ostensibly “Marxist” party, that by 1924 was proclaiming the previously unknown and unthinkable doctrine of “socialism in one country” did not exhaust the innovations of the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Comintern. Just as important, and perhaps, in the long run, more important, was the full emergence of the pre-1914 colonial world as an active force in global history. The eastward movement of the epicenter of revolution from France to Germany to Russia did not stop in Russia. In the decade after 1917, it extended itself in the anti-colonial upsurges in Morocco, Egypt, India, and China, as well as in the 1918 ferment in the most advanced Asian capitalist country, Japan. Seen from the vantage point of Europe and North America, the Russian 1905 and 1917 were easily recognized in their continuity and discontinuity with the classical Western working-class movement.
For the Colonial World, the Russian Revolution Was a Nationalist Event
But to the non-Western world, 1905 in particular and 1917 as well had another, seemingly deeper meaning. The 1905 revolution in Russia had been set in motion by Russia’s defeat at the hands of Japan. The Japanese victory was, to the non-Western colonial sphere, a world historical event of the first order. It represented the first time that a non-Western country had succeeded in defeating a Western power with its own weapons of economic development and the technology of modern warfare. The Japanese victory in 1905 electrified colonized peoples of color everywhere, as it electrified black Americans in one advanced capitalist country, the United States. The importance of the emergence of Japan can hardly be underestimated for the development of the non-Western colonial world in the course of the 20th century, and cannot be underestimated for the ex-colonial world that achieved independence after World War I and especially after World War II. Even throughout Japan’s most aggressive imperialist phase of 1931 to 1945, that country was partially successful in presenting itself to the peoples it conquered as a liberator from Western colonial oppression.
The colonial world’s perception of the Japanese victory also influenced the perception of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. While Russia was indubitably a Western power and “the prison house of nations”, with imperial ambitions in its own right, it also had the status of an intermediary country, burdened with foreign debt and bullied by the same British and French empires which, after 1919, remained the two colonial powers par excellence. The Russian Revolution of 1917, therefore, was far more often seen in the colonial and semi-colonial world (and was seen by important elements in Russia itself) more as a successful movement of national resurgence than as a successful advanced skirmish in a world proletarian revolution centered in Germany, one which moreover never took place. Particularly after the early 1920’s, when the internationalist, “cosmopolitan” orientation to the working classes of the West disappeared under the nationalism of Stalin’s “socialism in one country”, the status of the Soviet Union and the Comintern was cemented in the colonial and semi-colonial world on the same level as the Japanese victory of 1905, with the same central core of national self-assertion (cf. “From National Bolshevism to Ecology”).
This new extension of international working-class politics, along with the very existence of the Soviet state, was the central turning point in the 20th century history of the classical workers’ movement. Whatever the ideological illusions which had previously surrounded its self-understanding and the understanding of those observing or combating it, the workers’ movement in Europe and the United States had always seemed to be a movement of class against class. At no point prior to 1917, obviously, had the movement ever been influenced by the foreign policy interests and needs of an ostensibly “workers’ state”, or later, by the model of socialism that state claimed to represent. But even less had the classical movement been directly influenced by struggles in the colonial or semi-colonial world, or, after the 1949 triumph of the Chinese revolution, “real existing socialist” states there. (There were, however, anticipations: the impact of the Spanish-American War (1898) in the U.S. and of the Boer War (1902) in Britain; the 1906 Agadir crisis in Germany and France; the Barcelona “Tragic Week” of 1909, set off by conscription to put down a revolt in Spanish Morocco; in 1912 the emergent “communist left” in Italy was involved in exemplary actions against the Italian intervention in Libya.) If the workers’ movement had always been “international” in ultimate self-conception, it had, in reality, prior to 1914, been pretty much exclusively a European and North American affair, with resonance and repercussions in Japan and Latin America. Between 1905 and 1917, the Western framework that gave birth to the classical workers’ movement had been exploded. If the advance was one of actual internationalization, the price was a vast detour in the theoretical understanding of what had happened, and what was unfolding. This was particularly true because the most radical phase of the movement, between 1890 and 1920, was fading as a frame of reference as the colonial and semi-colonial world moved into the drama in the 1920’s (indeed, the latter was occurring in part because the revolutionary impulse of the Western workers’ movement was fading). The full implications of this development and this detour- the conjugation of the old “class against class” traditions with the interests of a national state and with “anti-imperialist” struggles and, later, states in the colonial and semi-colonial world, a transformation of class struggle in the West from a “vertical” to an apparently “horizontal” framework–reached far into the period after World War II.
Certain objections to the portrait sketched here can be raised, and it is essential to deal with them immediately. The first objection is that capitalism has always been an integrally international phenomenon, and that already in the 17th century the Atlantic political economy, including North America, the Caribbean, Latin America and West Africa, shows international waves of struggles of wage-laborers, peasants, slaves and Indians. This tendency culminates in the international dimension of the French revolution, first in its full international repercussions from England to Russia to the Levant to the Western hemisphere, and ultimately in the Haitian Revolution, which shattered Napoleon’s plans in the Western hemisphere and forced the 1803 sale of Louisiana to the U.S. A second objection might be raised in our failure to address the impact of the rise of colonialism and imperialism on the classical workers’ movement, particularly after 1870, well before the events of 1905 and 1917. This second objection will be answered momentarily; to the first, we privilege the movement of wage-laborers in the North Atlantic world, particularly England and France, and the movements that ensued therefrom, because it was that movement that set the tone, and provided the models for the international movement in the movement of its epicenter from west to east.
To introduce the backdrop of late 19th century imperialism and its impact on the classical workers’ movement is to move to the heart of the question posed by the phase change of 1905-1917. The interpretation of that development by the radical wing of the movement after 1921 itself became a major, if not the major, “epistemological lens” on the phenomenon. It became central to an analysis of the nature of world capitalism, and to the fate of the movement, and finally to the defeat and failure of the world revolutionary surge of 1917-1921 that ultimately left the Soviet state–itself turned against world revolution–isolated for nearly 25 years.
From German and Italian Unification to De-Colonization
We begin by recalling certain salient realities that may not be immediately evident to the contemporary reader. In 1914, the great majority of nation states now in existence were contained within the British, French, Hohenzollern, Hapsburg, Russian and Ottoman empires, with further zones incorporated into the colonies of the U.S., Holland, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Most of these nation states achieved formal independence through the anti-colonial movements which gained momentum after World War I and above all in the wave of decolonization of 1945-1962, following World War II. In the Portuguese colonies and in Indochina, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist wars continued through the period 1962-1975,. Latin America, most of which had achieved independence from Spain by 1826, still was subordinated to virtual neo-colonial status by English and French (and, after the 1890’s, American) finance capital. Modern imperialism had come into existence in the decades after the 1873 depression, culminating in the 1885 Berlin conference for the division of Africa among the Western powers and by subsequent Western colonization of much of the remaining world in Asia and Oceania. The ultimate economic causes of this imperialist land grab are greatly debated and cannot concern us here. Nevertheless, this phenomenon, which already began to make developments in Latin America, Africa and Asia into domestic political issues in the major capitalist powers, was part of a fundamental transformation of political life in the advanced capitalist world; to that extent, the classical workers’ movement had already been “internationalized” by 1905.
Further, it must be remembered that as late as 1870, between the original North Atlantic core of capitalism, centered in England, France, Belgium and the United States, and the empires that dominated Eastern Europe, the Italian and German nation states had not yet fully constituted themselves. Such a major reorientation of the international balance of power as the emergence of a unified Italy and Germany, combined with the 1870-1914 formation of world imperialism, could only have a major impact on the European working-class movement, and create, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, an atmosphere generally as charged with the national question as with the social question. Indeed, Marx and Engels, and later the German, Austrian and Russian theoreticians of the Second International, had to devote great attention to the national question as it concerned oppressed national minorities in the four Central and Eastern European empires. (as they also devoted great attention to the Irish question in British working-class politics).
Indeed, the centrality of the international balance of power and the strategic options of workers’ movements within the framework of international politics is a little recognized and central part of the work of Marx and Engels, and therefore of the legacy of the old movement. For them, the formulation of the Communist Manifesto “the workers have no fatherland” was no mere rhetorical phrase; it was a working guide to the very complex inter-relationship of class, nation and international politics. From the beginning, they saw the working-class movement as an international movement first of all, and analyzed its development in each national sector in relation to a strategic view of the entire international situation. The question of national unification, and the attitudes of Britain, France, and the Eastern and Central European empires had been fundamental in the revolutions of 1848 in which they had come to maturity; the subsequent question of the national unification of Italy and especially Germany in the 1860’s had been equally central. The basic working principle of Marx and Engels in their analyses of these developments was always to favor what tended to unify the working class, and to oppose what tended to fragment it. There is no abstract attitude toward “national liberation” or nationalism generally to be found in the concrete writings of Marx and Engels on these subjects; their framework was always the international dynamic. (They on occasion opposed nationalist revolts against Ottoman rule because their impact weakened Ottoman containment of Russian Tsarist reaction).
Marx died in 1883 and had little time to devote to an analysis of the newly-emergent imperialism. Indeed, prior to the 1890’s at the earliest, the theoreticians of the 2nd International paid little attention to social developments in Africa, Latin America and Asia per se, and many of them looked upon colonization of these zones in terms little different than the imperialist ideologues of the white man’s burden. Indeed, prior to the Russo-Japanese War and the Russian Revolution of 1905, most anti-colonial struggles appeared as backward-looking struggles having no social content of interest to socialists in advanced capitalist countries. One need only measure the distance between the international impact of the Ethiopian defeat of Italy in 1896, or the Sudanese defeat of Gen. Gordon in Khartoum in the same year, with the worldwide impact of the Japanese victory in 1905 , to see how much the situation changed.
But the new world-wide colonialism and competition between colonial powers had, by the mid-1890’s at the latest, created a new political reality that had to affect the Western workers’ movement. The German seizure of Kiouchou in 1898 perhaps first illuminated the new importance of the Far East in world power politics (showing that the “first underdeveloped country” was now competing with the older British and French imperialisms globally), along with Japan’s occupation of Korea, signaling a new imperial power on the horizon a decade before 1905. The Anglo-French confrontation and near-war at Fashoda, on the Nile, in 1898 was another step in this process. The American defeat of Spain in 1898 made America a colonial power (Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico) beyond the North American continent on a whole new scale. The naval arms race, and the general arms race already analyzed by Engels in the 1880’s, took on new dimensions as the world entered two decades of war scares prior to the actual outbreak of 1914.
Inter-imperialist rivalry, war scares and an arms race were the international dimension to a fundamental transformation of the domestic social and political environments of the Western workers’ movement in the decades prior to 1914. The so-called “second industrial revolution” based on electronics, chemicals and the new Taylorist mass production, the rise of mass political parties (including the workers’ parties of the 2nd International founded in 1889), the reappearance of anti-Semitism as a major force in European politics, the rise of a new kind of nationalist chauvinism (whereas nationalism prior to 1890 had been considered largely a liberal sentiment tied to bourgeois nation- building), the rise of cartels and banking concentration all contributed to efface the more “gentlemens’ club” atmosphere and parliamentary quality of national politics in the world prior to 1870, in which English and French liberalism were models imitated everywhere.
From an international economic point of view, the most important phenomena of the 1870-1914 period is the steady reduction of English manufacture to the status of primus inter pares by the U.S. and Germany, and ultimately, around 1900, their definitive rise to a position of industrial superiority over England. It is not an exaggeration to say that much of world history from 1900 to 1945 was a struggle to bring international institutions, and particularly financial institutions, into harmony with the new situation of 1900.
The Coming of the Unproductive Middle Classes
But the eclipse of English industrial world supremacy by the U.S. and Germany trend which was already attracting comment in the 1870’s–was hardly a mere “economic” reality. It presented other countries with two “models” for their own development. If Germany had the greater initial impact, it was because its status, (through its long struggle for national unification) as the first “underdeveloped country” made it closer to many nations in a similar situation. In the 1890-1914 period, and indeed between 1914 and 1945, the U.S. itself borrowed many institutions (central banking, cartel organization, research universities) from Germany. But in the longer run, it was the U.S. that was the country of the future. The world, after (and even before) 1945 saw the goal (or the threat) as “Americanization”, even if it was far more Germanized than is often acknowledged.
As the world emerged from the “great depression” or “great deflation” of 1873-1896, it entered a phase of a new kind of prosperity that foreshadowed, very modestly, the half-decade of consumerism of the 1920’s and most importantly, the so-called “affluent society” of the 1945-1973 period (a prosperity of course largely limited to the OECD zone, and to certain classes and strata within it). This new prosperity was based on two new realities of the late nineteenth century: the reduced cost of food, and hence the decline of the cost of food as a total percentage of a working-class income, and the reduced cost of mass produced consumer goods made possible by the new methods of mass production. One need not exaggerate the extent of this prosperity, as it affected the working classes of the most advanced capitalist countries, but it was certainly the backdrop to the appearance within the workers’ movement of the so-called “revisionism” debate, which began officially in 1898.
The encounter of Marxism with the new realities of the 1890-1914 period had far-reaching implications. The work of Marx and Engels had, of course, been developed in the period from 1840 to 1895. But when it is recognized that the bulk of Capital had already been written by the time of the appearance of the first volume in 1867, that most of the historical material used in the three volumes is drawn from the decennial commercial crises of the first two-thirds of the 19th century, that Marx devoted much of the last decade of his life to other matters, and finally that Engels, who outlived Marx by slightly over a decade, made no further contributions to the core of the theory, it is easier to understand why the Marxists of the Second International (founded in 1889 and dominated by the SPD) felt themselves, in the 1890-1914 period, confronted by a new situation. The second volume of Capital was published in 1885 and the third in 1893; the grey eminences of the SPD determined for the subsequent decade what was to be legitimately considered “Marxist economics” (as opposed to the critique of political economy) and schooled the Russian revolutionaries whose orthodoxy on these matters would have world consequences for decades after 1917. Although Engels continued to produce trenchant journalism and popularizations to the end of his life, there was ultimately little in the work of the founders to guide the radical wing of the new International in dealing with the emergent world of imperialism, cartels and trusts, the expanded role of finance capital, mass political parties of the lower middle classes, anti-Semitism, protectionism, growing nationalist chauvinism and war scares, the arms race, the first signs of a new consumerism, the first outlines of the European “welfare state” and corporatism,, and finally, openly integrationist tendencies inside the socialist movement itself.
In this period, then, “Marxism”, codified by the orthodox officialdom of the 2nd International, and taken over to a great extent by the founders of the 3rd International, was conquered by the categories of the dominant Zeitgeist, and transformed for an epoch by a set of problematics ultimately foreign to Marx. Further, this transformation of Marxism by its encounter with neo-classical economics, Lebensphilosophie, the new German sociology (which also came into existence in response to the new period), the avant-garde, and psychoanalysis overwhelmed the “orthodox” who were themselves ill-equipped to deal with the new challenges. Through Kautsky, and ultimately through Lenin, Marxism acquired a preoccupation with the problems of organization and consciousness that were ultimately foreign to it. In this period, with this new emphasis on consciousness and organization, Marxism lost its relationship to production and reproduction in a fashion that paralleled a comparable development in more mainstream bourgeois thought (e.g. in the appearance of neo-classical economics). (cf. “The Remaking of the American Working Class”)
The arbiters of orthodoxy of the 2nd International were the later Engels, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Karl Kautsky, August Bebel, Otto Bauer, Eduard Bernstein, Friedrich Adler and, for the Russian sphere at least, Georgi Plekhanov. Of the younger generation, most had been trained by Marx and Engels, and until Engels’ death, covered orthodoxy with the mantle of direct contact with the founders (even if Engels was browbeaten, in the last year of his life, into writing a new preface to the Civil Wars in France more in harmony with the already-solidifying parliamentary and legalistic aspirations of the SPD). But the SPD, formally founded in 1863, was by no means a strictly “Marxist” political party. It had had a long history, with roots in the pre-party battles between Marx and Lassalle in the 1850’s, and had incorporated many strands along with the core of “orthodox Marxism” which ultimately seemed to win out in the 1890’s. The Lassallean tradition already contained, (epitomized in the latter’s secret meetings with Bismarck), a powerful impulse toward corporatism and collaboration with the state; after the emergence of the SPD from the 1878-1890 period of illegality a pronounced tendency toward business unionism, parliamentarism and legalism became entrenched in the party apparatus. Marx had already written, in 1875, the “Critique of the Gotha Program”, underscoring some of these realities, summarized in the SPD’s illusions about a “people’s state”. But this critique, and some of Marx and Engels’ scathing comments about their own followers in the SPD, remained unpublished and essentially unknown, quite like their “youthful writings” of the 1840’s. The leadership stratum of the SPD which set the tone for the 2nd International as a whole were, as a group, theoretically uninspired. This should not be surprising, from a Marxist point of view, since the kind of revolutionary struggles from which Marxism drew its deepest lessons were absent from the European scene between 1871 and 1905 (Cf Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy). Inevitably, the “Marxist materialism” that was popularized in the international movement bore the stamp of a “pragmatic” gradualism that issued in the revisionist debate of 1898-1902, a debate in which Kautskyian “orthodoxy” prevailed, but only as an ideological fig leaf of the much more prosaic, integrationist daily practice of the SPD.
Eastward Shift of the Epicenter of Revolution
On the edges of this world, in the Russian revolutionary milieu, the next discontinuity in the history of the international workers’ movement was being prepared. It was a discontinuity as radical as the rise and triumph of German Social Democracy over English trade unionism and French Proudhonist radicalism after 1870. The Russian revolutionary milieu had been in continuous existence since the 1820’s;. “no nation in history ever prepared its revolution longer or more self-consciously than Russia”, as one biographer of Herzen put it. Victor Serge equally noted that, from the first meetings of the Comintern, it was clear that no other national grouping of revolutionaries approached the Russians in experience, elan and ruthlessness. The Russian revolutionary intelligentsia was almost a social stratum in its own right, and its decades of resistance to Tsarist autocracy gave it an esprit de corps that no collective experience in the West could match. The international milieu of political exiles and professional revolutionaries went back to the early 19th century; it stamped the life of London, Paris, Brussels, Geneva and Zurich; the Russians and Poles had been a presence there since the 1840’s.
As such, its encounter with Marxism was to be epochal. Russia was by the 1830’s a cultural province of Germany, and followed the evolution of international culture from the phase of French to German hegemony one or two decades in arrears. The conversion of the young Bakunin, Herzen and Ogarev to Hegelianism in 1840, their “farewell to the French” (as represented by the utopian socialists), was perhaps the turning point in the “Germanization” of the Russian intelligentsia. But as oriented as it was to Western models, and as closely as it followed the evolution of the debate on the “social question” in the West, the Russian revolutionary intellectuals were no mere imitators. They fused Western thought with specifically Russian messianic and millenarian traditions. By the 1860’s, when Populism began to take shape in the wake of the serf emancipation, a specifically Russian radicalism was codified, expressed best in the “nihilist” movement of the same decade. When, in the 1870’s, Populism began its campaign of assassinations against Tsarist officialdom (ultimately killing two Tsars, in 1881 and 1888), its underground organization, obligatory in the conditions of Russia, brought a new kind of radical figure into European consciousness. This mentality was brought to its paroxysm by Nechaiev, and was well portrayed by Dostoevsky in The Possessed. When Marxism came to Russia, it fused, in Lenin, with Nechaiev’s revolutionary catechism, as he had inherited it through his adolescent fascination with Cherneshevsky’s brand of Populism. Following Kautsky, who already saw consciousness coming to the working class from outside, Lenin added the specific role of the cadre organization of professional revolutionaries. In Kautsky, hypostatized in Lenin, “consciousness” and organization, and their bearers in the intelligentsia, had moved to the center stage of Marxism. The man of negation is the man of consciousness, the state civil servant first accorded a role in the “emancipatory movement” in the continental enlightened despotisms of the 17th and 18th centuries, and first linked to mercantilist strategies of national renewal in early 19th century Prussia.
The rise of Russian Marxism in the 1890’s was initially the fruit of the long work of figures such as Plekhanov from the 1870’s onward, much more in the tradition of the Second International orthodoxy. (Marx had already attacked some of his early Russian followers as apologists for capitalism!) That orthodoxy prescribed, among other things, a strictly linear and stagist theory of historical progress, which set a bourgeois revolution on the agenda for Russia. So deep did this current run in Russian Marxism that Lenin seriously contemplated emigration to the U.S. (where socialist revolution seemed more likely than in Russia) and in January 1917 told a meeting of Swiss socialist youth that the proletarian revolution in Russia would occur ca. 1950.
But events began to undermine such theoretical misjudgements. The serious, undeniable industrialization of Russia by the 1890’s finally enabled the Marxists to defeat the remnants of Populism in the intelligentsia, with their emphasis on the working class first confirmed in the strike wave of 1895. But the storm of 1905 which broke over Russia and Russian Poland introduced stretched the doors of perception even further. The establishment of factory and regional councils called soviets placed a working-class creation at the center of the political struggle that had been foreseen, and created, by no Marxist theoretician. It was an historical creation of the same epochal importance as the foreshadowing of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the Paris Commune of 1871. Lenin later admitted that 1905 had forced him to correct some of his views of party and consciousness set down in What Is To Be Done? (1902), the document which had forced the Bolshevik-Menshevik split. The frail forces of Russian liberalism had been so outflanked in 1905 and 1906, and had been so frightened by the intervention of the working class, that they had quickly sought accommodation with the re-established Tsar, even more abjectly than the German liberals’ capitulation to Bismarck after 1870. The Russian and Polish 1905, which had forced the “mass strike” debate on the German SPD and thus on the Second International, linked to the Russo-Japanese war, consolidated the eastward shift of the revolutionary epicenter from Germany to Russia. In the wake of 1905, Trotsky, influenced by Parvus, revitalized Marx’s 1850 theory of “permanent revolution” by applying it to Russia. Trotsky did not join the Bolshevik Party until 1917, and after the ebb of the radical wave of 1905-1907 nothing seemed fundamentally different in the international workers’ movement. But the experience of the soviets, and Trotsky’s theorization of the primacy of the working class in the overthrow of Tsarism (unique, as indicated earlier), in the Russian revolutionary movement prior to 1917) would introduce yet another element of the legacy of the classical workers’ movement. But its international significance (indeed, its significance in Russia itself) would only become apparent with the triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. For the first time in history, a “socialist” state headed by self-styled Marxists had established itself.
But the world revolution upon which the Bolshevik strategy was premised did not occur, and the new Soviet state, totally severed from any working-class base by civil war and famine, had to defend itself and seek allies in totally unexpected conditions.
With the ebb of the postwar revolutionary ferment in Europe, the defeat of the White counter-revolution, and the threat of internal dissolution signaled by the Kronstadt uprising, the Bolshevik Revolution settled in for a period of retrenchment. This retrenchment was codified in the 1921 adoption of the NEP, the crushing of Kronstadt, the Anglo-Russian trade agreement ending the embargo of the Soviet state, the conciliation with left-wing Social Democracy in the Third Congress of the Comintern, and the banning of internal factions at the 10th Party Congress.
As indicated earlier, the revolutionary wave did not die out in 1921 when the ebb began in Europe; it continued in the colonial world up to 1927. Here, as also indicated above, the orientation of the Russian state and the Comintern toward developments in Morocco, India, and most importantly, China was ultimately dictated by the factional situation inside the Russian party, which had immediate domestic and foreign policy consequences. The ascendancy of Stalin, and the defeat of the Left Opposition in the years 1924-1927, centered most importantly, in the international sphere, on the revolutionary crisis in China. The battle between Trotsky and Stalin over the Chinese situation had at its core the interpretations of the Russian Revolution itself. Trotsky applied his theory of combined and uneven development and permanent revolution to China, arguing that even the small Chinese working class was the only force capable of leading a consequential anti-colonialism; Stalin and the Comintern, on the other hand, pressured the Chinese Communists to subordinate themselves to the Kuomintang and Chi’ang Kai-shek, (the latter an honorary member of the Comintern Executive when he crushed the Communists in 1927!).
The Chinese disaster, as is well known, forced the Comintern to shift course. The defeat of Trotsky, the spectre of the incipient depression in the West, the beginning of the first Five Year Plan and the collectivizations, and finally Stalin’s move against Bukharin, all conditioned a new international policy known as the “Third Period”, which bore its fruits in Germany. But the Comintern’s orientation to the colonial world, before and after the China debacle in 1927, intersected the newly emergent anti-colonial movement which was gathering steam as a result of World War I. The decade prior to 1914, under the shadow of Japan’s victory in 1905, had seen the Iranian Revolution (1906), the Young Turk revolt (1908), an important outbreak of Indian nationalism (1908), the Mexican Revolution (1910) and the Chinese Revolution (1911). After the war, these had been extended in the world wide upsurge of 1919, with important developments in Egypt, India, Morocco, East Africa, and the May 4th movement in China. With the implementation of the “Third Period”, the Communist Parties in the colonial world embarked on “ultra-left” tactics comparable to those implemented in the metropolis, such as the 1930 disasters in China and Vietnam (on the latter, cf. the remarkable 1995 book of Ngo Van Vietnam 1920-1945)
After Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany had frightened Stalin and the Comintern into a recognition of the dead end of the Third Period strategy, the threat of fascism subsumed all else. The official adoption of the Popular Front in 1935 (foreshadowed by informal implementation in 1934) pushed the world Communist movement into a period of mass growth in France, Spain, the U.S., and Britain. Except for the interlude of the Stalin-Hitler pact in 1939-1941, the world Communist movement shifted into a period of support for bourgeois democracy against the fascist menace. The period of the Popular Fronts and the Resistance movements in World War II created the mass Communist Parties of the postwar period in France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Chile, and Japan, and turned the American and British CPs into mini-mass movements. In the colonial world, it forced the Communist Parties in the British and French empires to abandon the anti-colonial struggle for a defense of democracy (as in Indochina, Algeria, Egypt, and India). This policy continued into the postwar period, until the beginning of the Cold War, to the detriment of the Communist Parties in those zones.
Throughout these developments from 1905-1917 until the beginning of the postwar de-colonization, the world Communist movement established itself as the dominant left-wing force in virtually every part of the world, and the shifts of Comintern policy became internal political events of serious dimension in those countries. For the great mass of participants in these struggles, the Soviet Union was a socialist country and the Comintern was the International of the revolutionary workers’ movement. There were dissidents (the Trotskyists and the ultra-left) to the left of the mass Communist Parties, but only in a few parts of the world such as Indochina and South America did Trotskyist critics of Stalin and the Comintern gain any mass following or large influence over events.
Nevertheless, from 1920 onward, the losers on the radical left had begun to analyze the Soviet phenomenon, attempting to apply Marxist criteria to understanding the evolution of this ostensibly “Marxist state”. The international left opposition, after Trotsky’s exile in 1928, consisted of Bordiga’s faction of the PCI, and Trotsky’s followers in the other Western CPs. Another current was the German and Dutch ultra-left, which had basically given up on the Russian Revolution in 1920-1921. Because the weight of the Soviet Union and the Comintern was so great in the international workers’ movement, these oppositional currents were compelled to analyze the dimensions of the defeat.
This was done against the backdrop of the world depression, the rise of fascism, and the impending Second World War. These latter created a general climate of social pressure in which it was easy to portray the little oppositional minorities as fascist agents, “wreckers and splitters” of the workers’ movement. The question of Soviet influence in the world workers’ movement, of course, has to answer the question of why mass Communist Parties, themselves based on rich working-class traditions in countries like France or Germany, accepted such influence. A full answer to this question requires a fuller analysis of the conjuncture, and the mutation of the capitalist state then underway, than can be provided here (cf. however, The Remaking of the American Working Class) . It is nevertheless indispensable to divide the interwar years into two periods, prior to and following 1930. The early Communist parties came into existence in the revolutionary ferment of 1917-1919, and everywhere represented mass breakaways from the Social Democracies that had capitulated to nationalism and participation in the war effort.
Like the previous Internationals, the Third International was born of a worldwide working class upsurge that forced innovative structures and strategies onto the scene. The First International was born of the post-1864 general upsurge that peaked in the Paris Commune; the Second International in the strike wave of the early 1890’s; the Third International out of the annus mirabilis 1919. But the ebb after 1921, the “united front” fusion with the left-wing of Social Democracy after 1921, the “Zinovievization” of Western parties after 1924 and finally the “ultra-leftist” zig-zags of the Third Period left the Communist Parties in most countries as large sects. There was a virtual discontinuity between the revolutionary wave that had created them in 1917-1921 and the organizational shells that grew into mass parties after 1935, with completely different, accomodationist politics.
The Unproductive Middle Classes Join the Workers’ Movement En Masse
We choose the year 1930 as a turning point in the evolution of the Western workers’ movement for the following reason. However widespead mercantile and statist practices were in the most advanced capitalist countries in 1914, dominant ideology prior to World War I was still fundamentally liberal ideology. The world economy was still dominated by England, and British finance capital centered in London. The world economy was still subjected to the rigors of a working gold standard, at least in relations between the major powers. The state was fundamental everywhere in “creating the conditions for accumulation”, and was beginning, in the 1890-1914 arms race, to acquire its post-1945 face as the most important single consumer, but even in such statist economies as Germany, its role was nothing like what it became during World War I, again under Nazism, and finally in the post-1945 reconstruction. World War I was everywhere an “experiment of nature” in a vastly increased role of the state in the total management of economic and social life. From 1919 to 1929, there was a certain illusion of a “return to normalcy” in the dismantling of the “state capitalism” that had been established in World War I, but the social crisis set in motion by the world depression after 1929 ended that illusion forever.
The workers’ movement could not be unaffected by these developments. The participation of the majority socialist factions in virtually every country in the post-1914 “Buergfrieden” or social peace, and the participation of the trade unions in labor-management boards gave the workers’ movement a social “respectability” and presence that it had largely lacked before 1914. There had been important anticipations of these trends before the war, in countries such as Britain and Sweden, part of the first steps toward social welfare policy advocated by the British Fabians and analogous groups on the continent. But labor participation in the state, on any scale, let alone the massive one of 1914-1918, was anathema to much of the dominant ideological spectrum (if less so than generally believed at the time).
By 1933, with the coming to power of Hitler and Roosevelt, and on a lesser scale in Britain and the France of the Popular Front, the statist management that had worked in the emergency of 1914-1918 was revived in a “peacetime” context, although significantly associated almost everywhere with an expansion of war production (indeed, it was armaments production that brought Germany out of the slump, and which revived the U.S., British and French economies after the second downturn of 1937). Hjalmar Schacht in Germany, Franklin Roosevelt in the U.S., and J.M. Keynes in Britain, all key figures in this new crisis management, had all been active in wartime economic management boards in World War I (as was Jean Monnet, architect of the postwar European Common Market). The statification of society which took place through this mutation was, inevitably, the statification of the official labor movement. It is in this context that one can grasp the discontinuities between the pre- and post-1930 socialist and above all communist parties, a discontinuity which left no place for anti-statist currents such as the American IWW or the revolutionary syndicalists in France (e.g. Monatte).
It is fundamental to note that the creation of such mass Communist Parties as the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or Japanese, and such mini-mass parties as the British and American, between 1935 and 1947, was characterized by the large-scale entry into “Communist” movements by the “intelligentsia” recruited from the service classes of the emergent new phase of capitalism. The Russian revolutionary intelligentsia had constituted a social stratum apart with no real counterpart in the West. The intellectuals who had become involved with socialism and communism prior to 1935 were already distinct from the “organic intellectuals” who rose out of the workers’ movement itself, and in no sense constituted an important trend in the wider intelligentsia. This fundamental discontinuity between the original Communist Parties of the 1917-1921 period and the mass parties after 1935 is important because it underscores the fundamentally social dynamic that made the latter mass parties possible.
The Western Communist parties were receptive to the appeal of Stalinism–the Soviet Union and the Comintern–between 1935 and 1947 because the Popular Front policies of the latter meshed with the transformation of the state, and of the emerging service classes in the state, from which the CPs of the Popular Front era drew important support.
As such, they were direct heirs to the Lassallean “people’s state” of the early SPD.
The 1924-1927 phase of Comintern policy was sealed with the China debacle; the “Third Period” (the Third Period of Stalin’s errors, as Trotsky called it) was sealed with the German debacle; the Popular Front era ended with the fiasco of the Blum government in France (a large majority of Popular Front parliamentarians voted full powers to Petain in 1940), the defeat of the Spanish revolution first by the Popular Front Republic, then by Franco, and was sealed by the Stalin-Hitler pact. Each phase of Comintern policy ended with a new defeat for the international working class and was replaced by a new policy preparing the way for the next defeat. The only semi-coherent opposition to these turns were presented by the small Trotskyist groups and the even smaller remnants of the German and Italian ultra-left, but the latter, in particular, were virtually without influence on the course of events. Nevertheless, these groups attempted to analyze the international impact of the “Russian phenomenon”, using the tools of Marxism, in a way that no one else did between 1920 and 1945.
The question of the nature of the Soviet phenomenon and of the world Communist Parties became an eminently practical one immediately after World War II, when the most important international upsurge since 1917-1921 took place. Indeed, the Trotskyist wing of the international left opposition expected this wave to be the successful completion of the upsurge defeated in the early 1920’s. But nothing of the kind occured. The Labour Party assumed power in Britain; the French, Belgian, Italian and Japanese Communist Parties participated in or supported bourgeois governments in their countries and fought any attempts in the working class to question these arrangements; the Social Democrats, backed by the Allies and the CIA, reasserted dominance over the working class in Germany, and also influenced the situation in France and Italy. The contrast between the revolutionary working-class after World War I and the containment of the surge, which never became revolutionary (at least in the West), after World War II, already points to a profound epochal shift in the interim period. (It is for this reason that we identify approximately 1930 as the turning point.) The question of why the Western working class twice failed to emerge from world war as a successful revolutionary force, and the social content of the regimes that contained it, is the fundamental question of the fate of the classical workers’ movement and of the working class in the 20th century. The Trotskyists had explained the defeat of the German working class in particular by the “absence of revolutionary leadership” in the crucial moments between 1917 and 1923; they explained the defeat of the French and Italian workers after 1945 by the Communist Parties’ enforcement of Yalta. These are undoubtedly important dimensions, but they make questions of organization, leaders and consciousness too important for what are obviously profound structural phenomena. They are explanations that do not deal with why the Western working class in 1917-1921 and after 1945 allowed itself to be immobilized by reformism. The final explanation offered for this reformism is the Leninist theory of imperialism, which explains the living standards of Western workers, and hence their reformism, by “super-profits” from colonial exploitation which subsidizes an aristocracy of labor. (for a critique of Lenin, cf. “The Remaking of the American Working Class”)
To take the measure of the difference between the world revolutionary surge of 1917-1921 and its absence in 1943-48 is to see that it was the triumph of a new phase of accumulation, the “real domination of capital”, symbolized by the world conjuncture (for all their differences) of Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin in 1933, which contained the classical workers’ movement and which was the real basis of post-World War II “reformism”. The whole period from 1914 to 1945 was a transition to this result.
The West-Soviet-Third World Triangle
The new world situation after 1945 profoundly altered the international context of the working-class movement. The Russian Revolution and the successful defense of the Soviet state after 1917 had been an international event of the first order, but its weakness, problems of maneuver in a world preoccupied with reconstruction and then with depression after 1929 had not yet transformed the international balance of power. After 1945, this was hardly the case. Not only had the Soviet state demonstrated its power and the success of its crash program of industrialization by its victory in the Second World War (Stalingrad, in 1943, had turned many pro-Nazi Third World “anti-imperialists” such as Nasser and Sadat in Egypt into pro-Stalinists) ; its sphere of influence was being enlarged by the creation of a zone of buffer states in the former cordon sanitaire of Eastern Europe, and mass Communist parties vied for political power in Greece, France, Italy and Belgium. And this was just in Europe. In Asia, with greatly enhanced authority from participation in guerrilla resistance movements in the war, Communist parties moved into the vacuum of power in China, Korea, and Indochina, and the large Japanese Communist Party was hegemonic in that country’s combative working class. By 1947, the Allied solidarity of the war years was in shambles, and the international situation was polarized for the first time between the United States and the Soviet Union, the sole major powers capable of real initiative in the new environment. The “vertical” class struggles in the West of the 1890-1920 period, during the high tide of the classical workers’ movement, had become inseparably linked to a “horizontal” confrontation of power blocs. Although the United States seized the initiative with the creation of the Marshall Plan in the spring of 1947, and the Soviet Union honored the division of the world negotiated in 1943 at Yalta, the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and the intensification of the Viet Minh insurgency in Indochina brought the world irreversibly into the Cold War.
As we have emphasized, the class struggle, in every great international conjuncture, from 1789 to 1848 to 1917, had always been inseparable from the international balance of power and relations between nation states. But never, (to reiterate) at the height of the international influence of the German SPD in the heyday of the Second International, had the strategy and tactics of a fraternal socialist party in another country been determined by the SPD’s needs of the moment in a provincial by-election in Germany. The creation of the Soviet state, of the mass Communist parties associated with the Comintern, and finally, after World War II, of a dozen new people’s republics in Eastern Europe and Asia had introduced into domestic politics, and above all class politics, in every country an immediately international dimension that had never been so palpable in earlier periods. In a different way, the evolution of the world situation after 1945 re-created on a world scale the situation of Europe after 1815, when any domestic political development from England to Russia had immediate implications for the entire international balance of power. The “Russian question” in European politics from 1815 to 1917 had been the attitude of the Tsarist government toward developments from the Caucasus to France; the “Russian question” after 1917, but particularly after 1945, reached into every country in the world in the form of the indigenous labor movement, peasantry and intelligentsia.
But the polarization of world politics around the East-West confrontation of the Cold War, which seemed complete by 1950, is not comprehensible until it is “conjugated” with the emergent new force created by decolonization after 1945. An incipient triangle of internationalization was already apparent in the world repercussions of the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905 and in the Russian revolution of the same year. This triangle was consolidated by the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the intervention of the Comintern in the anti-colonial struggles of the 1920’s. After 1945, de-colonization became a front line of Cold War confrontation in every part of the world. No force of significance seemed capable of constituting itself independently of the orbit of influence of one of the two competing blocs. The Chinese Revolution, the division of Korea in 1953, and the division of Vietnam in 1954 gave further weight to the Soviet bloc’s claim to be the sole serious force for de-colonization. The United States, taking up the burden of the disintegrating British and French empires, consolidated its position as the defender of the global status quo, everywhere.
The third corner of this triangle was the appearance, in the course of de-colonization, of Third World Bonapartism. With the independence of India (1947), Indonesia (1948), and the colonels’ revolution in Egypt (1952), these regimes, under the leadership of anti-colonial figures such as Nehru, Sukarno and Nasser, introduced an apparently new configuration to world politics. In reality, these regimes had strong affinities to the Eastern and Central European dictatorships of the interwar period, just as the de-colonization of Africa and Asia had parallels with the emergence of the new nations and nationalist sentiments from the breakup of the Hohenzollern, Habsburg, Romanov and Ottoman empires after World War I. Indeed, the configuration of a “Germanized” nationalism and anti-colonialism reached back into the period of earliest emergence of modern anti-colonial struggle in the 1890-1914 period, in figures such as Kemal Pasha (cf. on German ideological influence in post-1908 developments in the Ottoman and later Arab world, cf. Bassam Tibi, Arab Nationalism (English translation 1980) (Note August 2000: For Latin America, cf. Joseph Love, The Crafting of the Third World, 1996). In the interwar period, Peron in Argentina and Vargas in Brazil, favorably influenced by the Italian fascist model, had echoed the rhetoric of the Italian DiMichaelis in denouncing the world hegemony of “Anglo-French plutocracy”. Identification with Germany’s struggle against the Versailles treaty produced pro-Nazi sympathies among many nationalists in the British and French colonial spheres. It was only after 1945 and the consolidation of the West-Soviet-Third World triangle that this consciousness could be purged of its East and Central European birthmarks, and its proto-fascist origins concealed in the new rhetoric of the world “progressive” movement.
This configuration reached its apogee with the Bandung conference in Indonesia in 1955. The Soviet Union, China, and nearly a dozen further “socialist” states extended solidarity to the newly independent states of the emergent Third World, led by India, Egypt and Indonesia. With the wave of 1945-1962 de-colonization at high tide, each new independent state posed immediate problems of East-West rivalry and influence. In 1958, the triumph of the Cuban Revolution would extend this polarization in full force to the Caribbean and Latin America.
But the apparently monolithic character which the Soviet-China-Third World front presented to the West in 1955 would not survive the decade. Centrifugal forces were already at work undermining it. The death of Stalin in 1953 initiated a period of decompression in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (concretized above all in the workers’ revolt in East Berlin in June of that year) ; by 1956, one year after Bandung, the beginning of the decomposition of the Soviet bloc was irreversibly set in motion. If the 1956 confrontation over the Suez canal was an extension of the logic of Bandung, the 20th Party Congress in Moscow, the Polish October, the Hungarian Revolution and the first muted signs of independence in the Western European Communist parties all represented cracks in the single face which the Eastern bloc had presented to the world. With the finalization of the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, these fissures became irreparable. After 1956, the easing of the polarization of world politics of the immediate postwar period began to create a social space for independent movement for the first time.
(The role of China was, of course, of the utmost importance. We have already seen how the very emergence of the Far East as a factor in the world balance of power in the 1890’s undermined classical European diplomacy, centered on the “Eastern question”, (the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the inseparable question of Tsarist Russian influence in European affairs) of the 19th century. Its intrusion in “international relations” was simultaneously a redefinition of the international relation that the working class is: the crisis of the Far East issued in both the Japanese victory over Russia and the Russian Revolution of 1905. The Chinese Revolution of 1911 had culminated the cycle of revolutions in the non-Western world prior to World War I; the revolutionary cycle in China from the May 4 Movement of 1919 to the Shanghai massacre of 1927 had ended the revolutionary cycle after the war; the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 was seen, in retrospect, as the real beginning of World War II; the Chinese Revolution of 1949 had made the Cold War irreversible; the Chinese break with the Soviet Union in 1960 had dealt the decisive blow to the previously monolithic face of the Eastern bloc; the Chinese shift virtually into the Western camp after 1971, and particularly after 1976, weighed heavily in the demise of the myth of the revolutionary Third World. China epitomized the “revolutionary Third World”, the indispensable link between the “socialist” bloc and the Third World Bonapartist states.)
The initial significance of China’s break with Russia was an ostensible radicalization of ideological confrontation with the West in the de-colonization process and in Third World hostility to imperialism. This was visible in the 1960 Congo crisis. From 1960 to 1971, China denounced the Soviet doctine of “peaceful coexistence” as a capitulation to capitalism, and seemed to represent the militant alternative. Yet in reality China was acting just as much from the calculations of national power politics, and as little in accord with “proletarian internationalism”, as Russia had. For those who looked closely, it was clear that China’s relationship to “anti-imperialism” was no less ambiguous than Russia’s. Its role in the Indonesian crisis, which culminated in the annihilation of the Indonesian CP in 1965, was the classical Stalinist application of a Popular Front strategy, with the usual result. In retrospect, it seems clear that China was not unambiguous in its support of Vietnam against the United States. At the very least by the time of the near-war with the Soviet Union on the Amur River in 1969, China was seeking rapprochement with the U.S. Henceforth, its denunciation of Soviet “social imperialism” as the immediate enemy led it to support any force in the world hostile to the Soviet Union; by 1975, in the crisis in southern Africa, China was openly working with the United States against pro-Soviet national liberation movements.
The world situation had evolved considerably since Bandung.
China was never in the position, after 1960, to constitute a new international, and probably never intended to do so. The initial international appeal of “Maoism” everywhere was to Stalinist hard-liners who could not reconcile themselves to “peaceful coexistence”. In that sense, on an international level, Maoism was merely an extension of Soviet Stalinism; it never offered a new model of society and never constituted a mass “Maoist” party or movement. By 1966, however, when China entered the phase of Cultural Revolution, its anti-bureaucratic rhetoric intersected a comparable impulse in the Western “New Left”, and until the early 1970’s “Maoism”, in reality the expression of the most elphantine bureaucratic state of modern times, could appear (to some) to be the opposite of what it was. But China, from 1960 to 1971, never won the place in the international left that the Soviet Union had occupied in 1936, and the death of international Maoism could never be the “God that failed” as Russia had been for a certain Western left in the early years of the Cold War.
The decompression of the extreme phase of the Cold War after 1956 opened a new space in the Western left. Important minorities left the Western Communist parties over the Khruschev revelations and the Soviet intervention in Hungary. Although the impulse of most (but by no means all) of these factions was ultimately toward a reconciliation with liberalism or Social Democracy, their mere existence was part of a “de-Russification” of the international discussion that had not been possible for more than 20 years.
Perhaps the most important immediate domestic political development in a Western country coinciding with the initial decompression of the Cold War was the intensification of the movement for black civil rights in the United States. At the same time this movement was an essential point of confrontation in the Cold War. The 1948 clash with the Dixiecrats in the Democratic Party, leading to the Thurmond candidacy, and Truman’s order integrating the armed forces were themselves an expression of the internationalization of American domestic politics. Already in World War II, the Japanese had used propaganda about the Jim Crow conditions in the American South to good effect in the Pacific. The Brown decision on school desegregation in 1954 accelerated the opening of a new period, and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 took that impetus into the streets. It was impossible for the United States to seriously present itself as the “liberal democratic” alternative to the Soviet bloc in Africa, Asia and Latin America while Jim Crow conditions continued in the American South. From 1956 to 1964-1965, the growth and ultimate success of the black civil rights movement in the U.S. would become the single most important stimulus to the appearance of an American “New Left”. By 1962, the looming American embroilment in Southeast Asia began to concretize the international dimension of the domestic social crisis represented by resistance to desegregation. Through this connection, the question of postwar de-colonization moved to center stage in American politics itself.
The end of the period of postwar de-colonization is conventionally dated in 1962, marked by Algerian independence. 1962 also marked the Cuban missile crisis, and the beginning of serious American military commitment in Vietnam. In a curious way, the two major military extensions of the postwar decolonization struggles, American intervention in Indochina and the Portuguese embroilment in its African colonies, take off in the same 1961-1962 period and come to their denouement in the most important global conjuncture of the postwar period, 1974-1975. In 1975, the United States confronted the deepest world recession (to date) in postwar history, the New York City fiscal crisis, the rise of Euro-communism in Europe, the specter of revolution in Spain and Portugal, the sudden and radical internationalization of the situation in southern Africa, the Ethiopian revolution, the rise of the Group of 77 and the “New International Economic Order” at the United Nations, and perhaps most of all, its own utter collapse in Indochina. The electoral successes of the Italian Communist Party and the momentum for a left-wing government in France in 1978 seemed to pose the specter of the breakup of the world dominated by American global management since Yalta. Yet only a few years later, virtually every one of these crises had receded, in a most unexpected fashion. The neo-liberal wave that swept the world in the late 1970’s closed the era that had opened with the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. By the very completion of the process begun with German Social Democracy in the 1860’s, the international left was thrown into crisis. The confrontation of China, Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia in Southeast Asia, the expulsion of the “boat people” from Vietnam, the triumph of the mullahs in the Iranian revolution, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism generally, the eruption of clerical nationalism in Poland, the quagmire of the new “Marxist” states in Africa, the total containment of the Western “left” by neo-liberalism in every country, led by Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America all converged to undermine the mercantilist underpinnings of the “left” in the international balance of power. The left had been wedded to the state, and the state was in crisis. The crisis lit up a whole ontology” embedded in a discourse of the left, in which the problematic of Fichte and Nechaev had fused with the anti-statism of Marx. The left, for more than a century, had been dominated by the man of negation, the state civil servant. When the latter’s role ended, the left went into crisis. The international era of the state civil servant in the “left”, 1905-1975, demarcates the era of the centrality of the Russian revolution and the centrality of the “Russian question” for the international definition of the left. Today, it is possible to see the true meaning of the “line of continuity” from 1789 to 1848 to 1917 to 1975; the meaning is the evolution of mercantilism and not of socialist revolution. The line of continuity is from St-Just to Fichte to Nechaev and Tchachev to Stalin, Mao, Ho and Pol Pot.
The oppositional currents within the workers’ movement, the Trotskyists and the German and Italian ultra-left, had grappled with the “Russian question” since 1920. They had analyzed the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state, as bureaucratic collectivism, as state capitalism, as capitalism, period. They had seen the soviets and workers’ councils thrown up in Russia and Germany in 1917-1918 as the solution to the “form” of workers’ rule. Two realities since 1975 tend to undermine that conception: the industrialization of the Third World, and the “Grundrisse phase of capitalism”, the technology-intensive or “high tech” restructuring of Western industry since the 1970’s. The perspective of “soviets everywhere” was useful as long as the working class was growing and was co-extensive with mass production on a global scale. But when world capitalism responded to the working-class offensive of 1968-1973 with this dual assault on the total wage bill, it showed the limits of any “point of production” definition of the working class. It further showed the limits of any definition of socialism based on mere direct democratic control of the point of production by the working class. With the Grundrisse phase of capitalism, scientific labor has become a significant source of value in a way it was not in the era of mass production. The man of negation, the man of consciousness, the disinherited liberal arts student with no relationship to the transformation of nature, had a role only in the era of the state civil servant. That role was the abstract posing of universality, the revolutionary intellectual. The abstract posing of universality is possible and necessary only so long as as it does not exist in actual practice. Once a significant part of society is actually engaged in concrete universal labor, there is no independent (positive) space for the state civil servant.
The tacit acceptance of atomist ontology by 2nd and 3rd International Marxism, its status as the ideology of the substitute bourgeois revolution, is linked to its false appreciation of the conjuncture, and linked to its statist civil servant vocation. The fundamental problem of the Marxist movement of the 1890-1920 period was its overestimation of the capitalist nature of contemporary Europe. It had to think that Europe was essentially fully capitalist because it could not grasp its own role in the completion of the capitalist revolution. Europe in 1914 had acceded to the completion of the phase of formal
domination and extensive accumulation; henceforth, its trajectory would be the phase of real domination and intensive accumulation. The key to this shift was the agrarian question.
The Avant-Garde as the Search for Another Kind of Activity
The question of the avant-garde is not usually considered as part of the history of the classical workers’ movement. But its role was not insignificant for the problematic of the man of negation, and ultimately for the vision of what a supercession of capitalism was to be. This was not clear in the 19th century when the workers’ movement first acquired a mass form in the U.S., England, France and Germany. The general conception of culture then current was a democratization of existing high bourgeois culture. Indeed, a vital function of the classical workers’ movement was the providing of a social framework for general self-development of working people which the larger society denied them. But by the time that the official workers’ movement became seriously institutionalized, i.e. by the 1860’s, a crisis had already manifested itself within high bourgeois culture itself. This crisis took the form of the appearance of the avant-garde, first of all in France. The avant-garde emerged directly from the revolution of 1848, and some of its most important founders, like Baudelaire, were on the barricades in June 1848. The Parisian Bohemia of the 1848-1890 period had virtually no counterpart anywhere in the Western world at that time. Parisian Bohemia was a social milieu of the man of negation par excellence, but men whose mere social existence posed, in a different way from the working class movement, the need for a new form of social organization. What had occurred in 1848, everywhere, was a break in the universal pretensions of the post-1789 “Third Estate”, and nowhere more acutely than in France. In 1871, Bohemia had again manifested itself in participation in the Paris Commune. The problematic that was emerging here was more than that of “writers and artists” sympathetic to the workers’ movement. It was the problematic of the creation of another kind of social life, in which the confinement of “aesthetics” to a separate sphere would be overcome. This was theorized by no one at the time; certainly by no one within the workers’ movement. Yet, as peripheral to that movement as the question of “aesthetics” appeared in 1850 or 1871 or even in 1920, it was ultimately tied to the vision of socialism and to the question of “consciousness”. The classical workers’ movement, from 1840 to 1945, was dominated by popularized visions of Marxism, economic determinism, bowdlerized vulgar materialism and mechanism, and equally uninspired visions of “culture” that were generally out of touch with the “cutting edge” of the crisis in bourgeois culture itself (this is not in itself a critique, as that crisis naturally reflected in part the problems of a specific, unstable and often hermetic social milieu). But, with the triumph of Nazism in 1933 in particular, there was a general recognition that the world view of the classical workers’ movement, particular in its popularized “vulgar materialist” outlook, was inadequate to combat fascism and inadequate to explain it. Wilhelm Reich and Ernst Bloch, in particular, made the daring assertion that the Nazis had won because the left’s rigidity had surrended so many “subjective” domains to the “discourse” of the right, and that the left had to in effect “determinately negate” the appeal of fascism by taking those weapons away from it.
Very few artists (or for that matter, intellectuals) from the “Bohemian” milieu participated in the activities of the classical workers’ movement, and to the extent that they did, it was as individuals. To the extent there was an “aesthetic question” in the Second International, it was dominated by a very classical conception, one supported by some of Marx and Engels’ views on the subject. There was no theoretician of note, in any country, with the exception of Trotsky, who had much to say about the innovations of the international avant-garde, except to generally condemn them as decadent. Bohemia and the avant-garde themselves had only moved beyond the Parisian context ca. 1890, with the generalization of the kind of consumption that had made it possible in Paris in the 1848-1890 period.
This situation changed considerably in 1917-1921, when the general radicalization of European society brought important elements of the avant-garde to the working-class parties for the first time. As in the pre-1914, the question was not so much the impact or influence of such elements on the workers’ movement as the influence of the workers’ movement on these elements. But this, in the long run, was to be important because the experience of the war destroyed the hegemony of dominant bourgeois ideology in artistic and intellectual strata and had made the significant parts of the latter see that the “conditions for cultural creation” depended on the working-class movement and its triumph.
The relationship between French Dada and surrealism, German expressionism, or Russian futurism and constructivism and the workers’ movement, or of less cohesive elements in the U.S. and Britain who briefly gravitated around the new Communist Parties, was short and generally sterile. The world working class surge was defeated; beginning with the brief world stabilization in 1924, Stalinist theories of “socialist realism” began to impose themselves, and most artists fell away from their revolutionary social vision of 1917-1921 and returned to their separate aesthetic spheres, such as the neue Sachlichkeit in Germany. By the time large numbers of this stratum again began to gravitate around the workers’ movement in 1935, with the era of the Popular Front, the doctrines of “socialist realism” had become so entrenched that the real innovations of the modernist avant-garde were ignored or calomnied. The actual cultural productions of the social realist school are today of exclusively archival interest. Small minorities, mainly in the Trotskyist movement (e.g. the collaboration of Breton, Rivera and Peret with Trotsky), attempted to defend the innovations of the modernist avant-garde as an aesthetic revolution which paralleled the social revolution, but they remained small minorities.
After World War II, the polarization between the Eastern and Western blocs tended to reinforce the isolation of the modernist avant-garde from the problematic of the workers’ movement. The doctrines of “social realism” were so pervasive in the official expressions of the organizations of the movement that the reconstituted “Bohemia” and “avant-garde” after World War II tended to pride itself on an apolitical, or anti-political aestheticism. This separation began to break down, except in isolated cases without wider immediate influence, only with the appearance of the “New Left” after 1956, and in an important way only after the mid-1960’s.
As a fundamental social stratum of the “man of negation” in the new kind of Western societies that emerged from the 1929-1945 crisis, the avant-garde was important to the subsequent development of the workers’ movement when, in the 1965-1973 period, the preoccupations of the avant-garde spilled beyond the confines of the aesthetic ghetto into the mass movement of the New Left and counterculture. The effect of this development was to bring the career of the “man of negation” to an end in Western culture. The avant-garde of the periods 1848-1890, 1890-1930 and 1945-1965 (they were essentially marginalized in the 1930-1945 by social realism) had been attacks on a classical conception of culture tied up with one-way communication and the contemplative role of the audience. Underneath the successive developments of schools was the emerging fundamental project of a “new kind of life”, a demand for a total transformation of the world which would render the separate aesthetic sphere obsolete. When the concerns and “anti-bourgeois” “lifestyle” of the avant-garde became a mass movement among youth from the service sectors of Western society ca. 1965, the separate domain represented by the earlier avant-garde was exploded. When, by 1970, mass movements of racial minorities, women, gays, and ecologists had come into existence, the previous cultural war against the “repression” of these groups was superceded. The post-1848 avant-garde disappeared in the generalization of its sensibility and “program” to a large minority of society. With this generalization came a full-scale attack on the “universalism” of the previously constituted intelligentsia, the pseudo-radical posturing of “post-modernism”, in the name of an ultimate ontological “difference” that could be subsumed in no universal.
Historical Clarification of What Communism Was Not
But the vision of a society beyond capitalism, what we might call the “programmatic imagination” of socialism/communism, was obviously by no means limited to the avant-garde and its relationship to the workers’ movement. It is, at bottom, this “vision” which is most eroded today. Marx and Engels’ point of departure was a break with the “a priori” schema and social blueprints drawn up by the utopian socialists of the early 19th century, and by utopians in general, before them. “Communism is not an idea or a theory sprung from the head of this or that world reformer”, said the Communist Manifesto; “it is nothing but the real movement, which tends to undermine existing conditions, unfolding before our eyes”. The Communist Manfesto presents a program for a workers’ government, but one which already by the time of the 2nd International was seen as superceded. Here, once again, the historical fate of the SPD is crucial. Marxism existed as only one current among many in the First International; for Marx, “one step forward by the real movement was worth a hundred programs”, and Marx and Engels accepted the collaboration of Ricardian socialists, Chartist trade unionists, Blanquists, Jacobins, Proudhonist mutualists, French utopian socialists, Lassalleans, German “True Communists” such as Weitling, and Bakuninist anarchists, along with the “pro-Marxist” faction of the early SPD.
As with the Paris Commune of 1871, whose repercussions ultimately destroyed the First International, Marx and Engels felt that the most important achievement of the emergent Western European and North American workers’ movement was “its own existence in practice”. The Commune had been, in fundamental ways, an elaboration of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and Marx was frank in acknowledging that it had influenced his theory of the state. The great force of Marxism over all rival currents was that it linked the long-standing theories of utopia and communism to a concrete theory of history as the “totality of social relations”. It was, and showed itself, to be the theory of “the real movement unfolding before our eyes”.
The “spectre of communism” terrified bourgeois society in 1848 and, far more deeply, in 1871, and had given rise to debate, calumny and slander long before the historical appearance of Marx and Engels. The refusal of Marx and Engels to indulge in empty speculation about the outcome of history was a healthy reaction, and the only possible one, to the pre-1848 proliferation of theories of the world redeemers; but it left the elaboration of the public face of “socialism” to individuals and movements far less capable than they of determining, at least, what communism was not. Marx and Engels had recognized that the unification of Germany and the disarray of their French rivals after the defeat of the Commune would favor the pre-eminence of the SPD and their theory. But if the leadership of the SPD was directly influenced by the founders through “Marxists” such as Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, etc. (the very people who prompted Marx to proclaim that he was “not a Marxist”) it also included Lassalleans, trade unionists, cooperativists, and later figures like Eugen Duehring who briefly introduced German nationalism and anti-Semitism, along with populist “anti-monopoly”views on economics, into the party. The most important expression of Marx’s distance from the early SPD is the 1875 “Critique of the Gotha Program”, never published in his lifetime and essentially suppressed by his followers in Germany. Today, it is fundamental to begin to unearth the discrepancy between Marx and those who, even before 1883, spoke in his name.
The rise of the SPD to hegemony in the international workers’ movement took place during the decades between the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian 1905. The struggles of the German working class and the advance of the party and its trade unions frightened Bismarck and the political class of the Second Reich sufficiently to provoke the outlawing of the party from 1878 to 1890; the German strikes of the late 1880’s were an important factor in Wilhelm II’s dismissal of Bismarck, and German workers again launched strike waves in the last decade before 1914. But in the era of the Second International, they made no collective practical innovation of a revolutionary character comparable to the Commune and the Russian soviets. On the contrary, the SPD thrived increasingly on its electoralism, parliamentarism, legalism and its respectable trade unionism. The significance of the decades of social peace in which it won international hegemony was their deleterious impact on the idea of what socialism was and how it could be brought into existence. The SPD was a vast “counter-society” within Germany, with vast associations of all varieties, a party press with dozens of local daily newspapers, and workers’ cultural and educational programs that were among its most attractive assets. In this climate, as the party moved from one electoral success to another, there gradually arose the mood captured by Brecht’s remark, after Hitler’s triumph in 1933, that “the German working class was never more disarmed than when it came to believe that its triumph was inevitable.”
The Marxist tradition within the Second International confronted, and theorized, questions of municipal socialism (the so-called “sewer socialism” introduced by German emigres to the U.S.) nationalization or socialization, and a”rationallv-planned economv”. It developed theories of the transition from socialism to advanced communism. But until the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the world revolutionary wave of 1917-1921, above all in its German and Russian phases, the specific notion of the “forms” of workers’ rule were vague, ill-addressed. The Russian working class’ invention of the soviet, the central council of revocable delegates from factory and regional councils, including peasants’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils as well, was the historical answer par excellence, in practice, to this previously theoretical question. But the defeat, everywhere, of the world revolutionary wave led to the destruction of the soviets, in Germany and in Russia, and their revolutionary democratic character, particularly where direct workers’ control of production was concerned, was largely forgotten for half a century. If this experience had briefly posed “nationalization under workers’ control” as the content of working-class power, by 1930, “socialism” outside of the small factions of the international left opposition to Stalinism, was associated everywhere with nationalization and economic planning, in different guises.
For, even before 1914, the theory of Marx and Engels, already bowdlerized by the public “Marxists” of the Second International, had important rivals: the Fabian Socialism of the Webbs, the municipal “sewer” socialism practiced by local Social Democrats in power, the different mutualist schemes of anarchism, Bismarckian social insurance. It may well be their great extension after 1945 that makes them appear, in retrospect, so significant, but the modest growth of welfare measures or legislative initiatives for their implementation in Britain, Sweden, New Zealand and Germany in the years just before 1914, with hindsight, clearly expressed the future. It was less clear, in 1914, or for several decades thereafter, just how this future was to come into existence.
It is important to look at this juncture, just before the historical appearance of the Soviet phenomenon, which complicated the question of the content of socialism/communism even more. It is important to see first of all how central the state had become for the classical workers’ movement, under the auspices of the German SPD. It is necessary, in order to criticize this statism (which was the model for most other subsequent currents of significance), to look for a moment at Marx and Engels’ actual conception of communism, one which in reality influenced the classical workers’ movement so little.
For Marx and Engels, the key to capitalism was the status of wage-labor as a commodity, with a status in the market place both identical to that of any other commodity and at the same time the unique “general commodity” whose value set the value of all the others. Insofar as they defined a commodity as being characterized by both use-value and exchange-value, they saw this dual, contradictory status of labor power- of real human beings in the material production and reproduction of themselves- as the source of a whole series of other antagonisms. Though little recognized, the fundamental Marxian critique of political economy rests on the problem of individual creativity in a society where nothing can exist unless it can prove itself viable in the market place where commodities confront one another. Marx used the example of Milton to illustrate this point. Milton, as a poet, “wrote poetry as a silkworm spins silk”. But in a bourgeois society based on commodity production, Milton’s work had to pass through the commodity relations with publishers, editors, etc. Activity in capitalism became socially “mediate”, i.e. mediated through commodity exchange. Communism was, then, the society in which Milton’s poetry, written “as a silkworm spins silk”, would become socially immediate, i.e. the goal of production. Communism, at its deepest level, was for Marx and Engels a society in which the production and reproduction of creative individuals was the goal of production, instead of the incidental spinoff it represents in capitalist conditions. All questions of the suppression of wage-labor, socialization of private property, and planning ultimately are subordinated to this goal.
Between 1914 and 1945, the necessary vagueness of the “definition” of socialism/communism of Marx and Engels, through the concrete historical experience of the international workers’ movement, made possible the complete occultation of this emancipatory core of Marxian theory, In the immediate aftermath of the Central and Eastern European revolutions, extended social debates took place, in every country, about planning, nationalization, the role of the state, welfare measures, social housing, and under Social Democratic governments in the Weimar Republic and in Austria some of them were translated into law and practice. In the Soviet Union, the defeat of the international revolutionary wave, and the isolation of the Bolsheviks internationally (and, just as important, within Soviet society itself) prepared the terrain for the industrialization debate of the mid-1920’s followed by the implementation, in 1928, of Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan. The coming to power of Mussolini in 1922, and Hitler in 1933, made fascism a third, unanticipated participant in the international economic debate, because fascism borrowed a great deal from the socialist movement, and Mussolini’s labor-industry syndicates for the regulation of every sector of the Italian economy (with many ex-anarcho-syndicalists in his party) drew international attention as another possible model of economic regulation. As indicated earlier, World War I had been, among other things, a vast experiment in state economic management, which through its practicioners like Franklin D. Roosevelt, J.M. Keynes, Hjalmar Schacht, Jean Monnet and Walter Rathenau had demonstrated in practice (as no theory could) that state regulation and management was not incompatible with capitalism and profits for capitalists. From 1929 to 1933, a great debate was conducted within the German labor movement and in the German fascist movement about concrete solutions to the economic depression, and Hitler’s Keynesian reflation, centered on state-financed war production and credit creation, was not so far in its theory from many similar solutions advocated by economists of the SPD (cf. Jean-Pierre Faye, Langages totalitaires). Between 1929 and 1945, the belief that liberal capitalism, and quite as likely liberal democracy, as they had existed prior to 1914 were dead, was widely held all across the political spectrum. By the time of the outbreak of World War II, only a handful of liberal democracies survived in the advanced capitalist world, and even they were undertaking massive statist action to reflate their economies. The American New Deal and Leon Blum’s French Popular Front seemed, to observers at the time, on a close continuum with the economics of German or Italian fascism, and Soviet “communism”; indeed, to many observers, they seemed to have more in common with each other than any of them had with the pre-1914 liberal capitalism (remembered, moreover, through increasingly rose-tinted lenses). Figures such as the Italian Bruno Rizzi wrote provocative books on the “bureaucratization of the world”, and Berle, Means and James Burnham in the U.S. theorized a “managerial revolution” in which private capitalists were replaced by technocrats, managers and state administrators; indeed, many such theorists considered this change to be more revolutionary, and more actually the practical abolition of capitalism, than Marxian socialism, in either its popular or more theoretical form. Technocracy itself, which had existed as a current from the early 20th century, offered its version of a society beyond capitalism, in which engineers would expand their problem-solving methods from technical questions to social ones, and would clearly, by their scientific training, be the only social group capable of doing so. By the late 1930’s, theorists of a state regulatory solution to the crisis of a moribund capitalism took on the appearance of a veritable “embarras de messies”. Such currents could only be strengthened by World War II, where state management was carried to even greater lengths. Even among non-belligerents, as in Latin America, the 1929-1945 period made possible or inevitable a autarchic withdrawal from the depressed world market and the wide use of statist import-substitution and other measures which actually, because of the demand created by World War II, made these years a period of industrial growth (again, cf. the book of Joseph Love).
But it would be a distortion to present the evolution of the debate, or seeming debate, about the content of socialism in the interwar period without underscoring the fact that it was the Soviet Union and its planned economy which overshadowed all others as a model for a break with capitalism. In the midst of the world crisis, especially in the Popular Front era 1935-1939, or later during the 1941-1947 years of the Allied alliance against fascism, up to the definitive turn to Cold War in 1947, it is scarcely possible to underestimate the benevolence with which the Soviet model was viewed by “progressive” elements in all parts of the world. Even the 1939-1941 parenthesis of the Stalin-Hitler pact, (however much it alienated fellow travellers of the Soviet Union in the remaining liberal democracies), served to underscore the apparently unstoppable rise of collectivism on a world scale. This sense, and reluctance to criticize the Soviet experiment, extended far into the ranks of socialists and liberals who were not themselves direct advocates of the Stalinist model. The death of millions of kulaks in the collectivizations, the role of millions more people pressed into slave-labor projects, the quasi-military regimentation of the working class in the years of “bacchanalian planning”, or the implications of the Moscow trials (which wiped out most of the Bolshevik Old Guard) were either flatly denied as bourgeois slander or presented, apologetically or pragmatically, as the sine qua non of any bold revolutionary experiment. The American, British and French liberal and left milieus of the 1930’s were all deeply immersed in Stalinophile bathos. The French Ligue des Droits de l’Homme supported the Moscow trials. In such an atmosphere, it was all too easy to dismiss the small minorities who fought Stalinism from the left as irrelevant sects, when not simply police provocateurs or fascist agents.
The radical mass strikes and upsurges in France (1936) and the social revolution in Spain (1936-37) were fought by the Communist Parties of those countries without raising any serious questions in these strata. The radical labor upsurge in the U.S. that began in 1934 had, by 1937, been largely transformed into a prop for New Deal reform when the CPUSA threw its support behind Roosevelt with the Popular Front turn.
The new social strata recruited from the service sector which had begun to flourish from the 1890’s onward saw their aspirations mirrored in the Soviet state (the Webbs, briefly also admirers of Mussolini, being the paradigmatic case), and the Soviet state in turn indirectly inspired the ardor with which such elements ensconced themselves in the rapidly expanding state bureaucracies of Britain, France or the U.S. During World War II, the Allied war effort and plans for a postwar world order, combined with the emergence of the continental anti-fascist resistance movements under Nazi occupation, fueled these hopes even more.
We have earlier sketched the impact, on the international political and social environment, of the rapid transition to conditions of Cold War among the Allied partners in World War II. By 1950, the installation of People’s Democracies in Eastern Europe, the Chinese Revolution and the outbreak of the Korean War had shown the Soviet model to have even greater apparent strength and dynamism than had seemed possible in the Popular Front era ten years earlier. Up to the consolidation of the “restoration” atmosphere in Western Europe by the early 1950’s, the British Labour Government (1945-51), and left-wing political participation in, or domination of governments of national reconstruction in France, West Germany, Italy, and Belgium seemed to have laid the foundations of “socialist” economies of some kind through widespread nationalizations and the broad extension of social legislation. Unlike World War II, World War I was not followed in Western Europe by a revolutionary upsurge. Undoubtedly (as discussed earlier), the conciliatory roles of the French, Italian and Belgian CPs in the period 1945-1947 were critical in demobilizing working-class hopes for fundamental change after the war, hopes which extended far beyond the working class. The U.S. also poured sizeable resources into the economic political and social stabilization of Western Europe, forcing the polarization of domestic politics on the continent into the battle lines dictated by the emerging Cold War blocs. It should further be kept in mind that there was widespread anticipation, on all sides, of a relapse into depression, like the depression of 1919-1920, once the conversion to peacetime production was completed. Because the world economy had emerged from depression only with the 1937-1938 Western rearmament in anticipation of World War II, it seemed logical to assume that demobilization would bring depression.
To ascribe the success of conservative restoration in Western Europe, by 1952, to the submissiveness of the Western European Communist Parties to pressure from Stalin and Yalta, in such an environment, begs many questions. Like similar explanations of the defeat of the European revolutions after 1918 by Social Democratic betrayal, such a thesis does not explain why masses of workers tolerated such compromise, and, perhaps even more seriously, does not pay serious attention to what kind of “socialism” these parties so submissive to Stalin would have built had they taken power.
In particular, the small revolutionary groups active in the immediate postwar period, like so many others, were blinded (with the important exception of the Bordigists, who correctly foresaw decades of reformist hegemony) to the realities of the period by apocalyptic expectations and predictions of a repetition of the post-1917 upsurge. Such expectations, and reasonable analogies based on the historical experience of the interwar period, blinded such currents (and just about everyone else) to the deeper forces working for stabilization and a long postwar economic expansion.
We have referred, at several junctures, to the importance of the full entry into world history of the anti-colonial movements in the decade before World War I, an entry underscored by the Japanese military victory of 1905. In the period of accelerated de-colonization after World War II, particularly after Bandung, the newly independent development states such as India, Egypt, Indonesia, or later Ghana and finally Algeria, for the first time joined the growing variety of states characterized as “progressive” and which served as models for similar countries and anti-colonial movements elsewhere. Although these states, and their anti-imperialist ideologies, actually drew more directly on the interwar proto-fascist and fascist movements of Central and Eastern Europe (mediated through the earlier examples of Attaturk, Iqbal or Vargas), than on Marxism, the new post-1945 conjuncture made possible their recycling into the “progressive” camp. Thus the liberal ideology of the pre-1914 era, while having survived in battered form the late 1930’s “era of collectivism” and its seeming worldwide extinction, found itself contending, by 1950, with the Stalinist economies of the Eastern bloc and with the new “Third World Bonapartist” states. Liberalism of the 19th century variety, of course, was virtually dead; it survived in the “mixed economies , “social market economies” , “welfare states”, “Third Way” ideologies, in power, at least in practice, in Western Europe and the United States. The theoretical underpinning of many of these institutional arrangements was of course the theory of J.M. Keynes, developed in the inter-war period. What was at stake in all these arrangements was a relationship between state and market, or plan and market. It is important to follow out the trajectory of these variants because, in the general crisis of the international left in the 1970’s, such questions would return with a vengeance in the new aggressive form posed by neo-liberalism. Through the Russian Revolution, the Western interwar experience and the de-colonization process, the international left had swallowed wholesale variations of the “People’s State” posed by the Lassallean SPD at Gotha in 1875. The categories of Marxism had been appropriated by the mercantilist categories of the state civil service. (An excellent discussion of these themes is R. Szporluk, Communism and Nationalism. Karl Marx versus Friedrich List. 1988)
Postwar Boom: Heyday of the Unproductive Middle Classes
The post-1945 capitalist world economy did not relapse into depression. It began, through three phases, one of the longest phases of expansion in capitalist history. In a purely economic sense, the boom phase that changed gears in 1965 and ended in 1973 could be dated, at least for the U.S., from 1938. Clearly no one attempted to designate as “socialist” the international institutions created at the outset of the postwar recovery– the Bretton Woods agreement on exchange rates, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the GATT, the OECD. Yet, as we shall see, one of the fundamental flaws of all the statist solutions in the Western and de-colonized world was to ignore their significance. In some circumstances, the state was held responsible for rapid, dynamic growth; in others, it was held responsible for stagnation and decay. But no one doubted that it was the state that was the agency in the situation. The crisis of the 1970’s would show otherwise, with disastrous results for the international left. The left had, in a word, been conquered by institutionalism.
The postwar boom passed through three phases. The first lasted from 1945 to 1958. It was characterized by the Marshall Plan, the move toward European integration, the provision of international liquidity through the American balance of payments, rapid (low-wage) growth in Europe, slow growth in the U.S. (punctuated by recessions in 1948-49, 1953-54, 1957-58, 1960-61), and an accelerating marginalization of the Third World by intensive accumulation in North America, Western Europe and Japan.
The second phase of the postwar boom lasted from 1958 to 1969. It was characterized by a profound alteration of the U.S. economy after the recession of 1957-58, and the acceleration of productive investment abroad, particularly in Western Europe. The creation of the EEC (1957) opened up Europe for labor mobility as well as for American investment. In approximately 1965, investment in production began to move to selected parts of the Third World, where the productivity of labor had reached suitable levels and where the infrastructure existed for mass manufacture. In the second phase of the postwar boom, the dollar crisis mooted by experts in 1958 began a serious point of international contention, with strains on fixed exchange rates, the beginnings of a move into gold, and the creation of the Euro-dollar market to absorb foreign-held U.S. dollars from a now excessive U.S. balance of payments deficit. The U.S. itself enjoyed a boom from 1961 to 1969, stimulated in part by the Vietnam War. Real wages hit a plateau for wage workers in manufacture in 1965. In Europe, wages began to rise in the late 1960’s, pushed by working-class militancy taking advantage of boom conditions and making up for the general wage austerity of 1945-1965. With the dollar crisis of 1968, the building tension in the Bretton Woods arrangements issued in the American recession of 1969-1971. The dynamic of the international boom had peaked in the European and Japanese recessions of 1965-1967 and the U.S. mini-recession of 1966. The final phase of the postwar boom, lasting until 1973, was in reality a hyper-inflated super-boom which no longer drew on dynamism in the productive sphere but depended on massive state credit creation and a basic ransacking of productive assets.
It is also important to note developments in the Soviet bloc, for our discussion of state, market and plan. As early as 1944, a discussion of the operation of the law of value had taken place in Soviet economic circles. Since the suppression of the NEP in 1928, market-oriented strategies for industrialization had been discredited in Soviet discussion and practice. The impressive growth rates achieved in the phase of primitive accumulation from 1928 to 1941, and similar rates achieved in the period of reconstruction from World War II, had continued to marginalize these concerns. In 1962, however, Czeckoslavakia, which prior to World War II had been the most industrialized zone of Eastern Europe with a per capita living standard roughly comparable to France, registered a year of negative growth. As the most industrial country of the Soviet bloc, this remarkable fact sounded an alarm. The Czech problem, which ultimately led to the Dubcek reforms of 1967-68, underscored a problem of the entire bloc: the exhaustion of accumulation based on extensive growth, the situation Western economies as a whole had faced in the period from 1914 to 1945. Insofar as these structures lie closer to the surface in the Eastern bloc, they illuminate phenomena of global significance. The Eastern European economies find themselves blocked by the central planners, whose methods, barely adequate for extensive accumulation, are useless for intensive accumulation. The central planners, the “steel eaters” are roughly in the position of the labor-intensive, nationally oriented manufacturers in the U.S. who resisted the transition to Keynesianism in the 1930’s. The failure of Khruschev, the insignificance of the Liberman reforms in the Soviet Union in 1965, and the Soviet invasion of Czeckoslavakia, merely delayed the day of reckoning which came, again, with Gorbachev in 1985. The Soviet bloc economies are trapped between dismantling the state planning apparatus to rationalize and dynamize their economies, and suffering the unemployment and social disruption that would follow a full opening to the market.
The end of the postwar boom in the West issued in the crisis of 1974-1975, to which we alluded earlier. The illusion of state agency in economic growth, the perspective of the state civil servant, the man of negation, the “moi absolu”, evaporated. The de-industrialization of the West accelerated. The phase of “high tech” accumulation- the direct appropriation of scientific knowledge to the production process itself- intensified. The rise of neo-liberalism extended from Thatcher’s Britain to Reagan’s America to Mitterand’s France to Gorbachev’s Russia to Teng’s China. The Polish working class in 1980-1981 demanded, in effect, “market socialism”. Throughout the world, the choice between market and plan imposed itself. The socialist vision seemed to be in ruins. There was a general awareness that neo-liberalism was an ideology of austerity, of regressive redistribution of wealth, of Third World debt austerity, further dollar chaos, the subsidization of the U.S. economy by foreign capital, the rapid accumulation of debt, the looting of corporate assets, gouging of social programs. But the neo-liberals had painted the world in their new colors (what the French call “la pensee unique”), and essentially any objection to the work of the “market” seemed linked to an apology for state bureaucracy, and stagnation. The “left” has responded with calls for “industrial policy”. But the problem is the need to break the international zero or negative sum game in which the working class is trapped.