Harry Braverman

Which Way to a New American Radicalism

(April 1956)

From American Socialist, April 1956.
Copied from the American Socialist Archive in ETOL.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

The prolonged period of full employment has shaken the Left’s confidence in Marxist economics, and given rise to all sorts of ‘coalitionist’ notions in politics. This discussion of socialist perspectives sets forth a program for the coming period.

BY this time, the fact that the American Left has suffered a serious decomposition – in numbers, spirit, organization, and ideology – is no longer anybody’s private secret. The problem is being discussed from time to time in periodicals and organizations of the Left, and even those groups which try hardest to maintain an outward demeanor of calm and unruffled composure show signs of a shaken confidence.

As an important example of such recent discussions, the two series of articles in the National Guardian by Tabitha Petran represented a healthy reaction against shortcomings of the American radical movement which have weakened it in its present crisis. The Communist Party took a heavy and well-deserved slugging for its long-time penchant for dealing in slogans and maneuvers without regard for their basic soundness; for its failure to base its work, these many years, upon a serious and sustained advocacy of socialism in America; for its latest hapless adventure in the form of a so-called ‘coalition policy’ – this last being nothing but a fancy name for a pathetic attempt to become a tail on a capitalist donkey.

It is widely understood that some of the major causes for the Left’s decline were outside its own control: the stabilization and expansion of the capitalist economy after World War II, and the red-scare hysteria connected with the cold war. No tactical recipes can drastically change our situation, and infuse glowing health and rapid growth. But what such a discussion can produce, if it is honestly and fearlessly pursued, is a renewal of perspective, without which no movement can thrive, and a set of tactics which can meet the most pressing present problems, restore a secure footing and balance, and open the way for progress on a small scale today and on a larger scale when the situation in the country is more favorable.

MUCH of the discussion has rightly centered around prospects for the US economy. Many reasons been adduced, both on the Left and elsewhere, why we can no longer expect any serious economic debacle in America. Government intervention and stabilizers, production, new industries, have all figured in the argument. But undoubtedly the weightiest of all considerations has gone unmentioned: the conservatism of the human mind. Much economic reasoning that passes itself off as based on deep and technical cogitation rests on no than the difficulty on the part of the reasoner of conceiving a sharp turn in a situation which has continued without break for a relatively long period of time. Realism is a quality of thinking much to be admired and striven after, but where it lacks an essential leavening of flexibility and dynamism it tends to see the future as a simple indefinite continuation of the seemingly solid and impressive trends of the present. In an epoch which is subject to sharp changes – without notice – the better prophets have often been the ‘unrealistic visionaries.’

The truth of the matter is that the long prosperity has shaken the confidence of many American socialists in Marxist economic analysis. The end of World War Two was firmly expected to produce a return to the depression of the thirties. Later, the ’49 slump was regarded as the definitive turn in the economy, and again in 1954 expectations were renewed. Leaving aside whether analyses – which all on the Left shared in common were justified at the time they were made and just what altered the picture in each case, the effect in the Left in every instance a further weakening of confidence. The hypnotic effect of a long-sustained boom which began to involve many people on the Left personally in its workings didn’t help matters much ideologically either, although financially the effect was salubrious in individual cases.

IN the process, much of the Marxist conviction leaked out and left a hollow shell of ceremonial phrases filled by a kind of left-Keynesian content. Many ex-radicals working as research directors for labor unions may secretly believe that they are surreptitiously bringing Marxism to America when they throw out a few superficial remarks about ‘the worker not being able to buy back what produces’ but a serious American left wing has to be grounded on more solid ideas.

Thus the first requirement of a discussion is that we stop nibbling at the edges of the problem of the American economy and go in for a thoughtful consideration of core of the problem: Has the fatal imbalance of the capitalist structure of production and distribution been corrected, or can it be basically corrected, by the governmental measures that have been taken or which are in prospect? If that question is answered in the affirmative then the traditional Marxist perspective must be set down as no longer valid, and a snail’s-pace program reform put in its place as the only practical course the indefinite future. In that case, the posture of distinct separation from liberalism which the Left now maintains ought to be altered, and the program of merging with liberals in the Democratic Party becomes a proper or at least a possible course of action.

It has by now become pretty widely accepted in several schools of economic thought that every capitalist boom period is accompanied by certain features which lead to its downfall: The boom carries the seed of its own destruction. The Keynes school saw the trouble in a ‘psychological law’ by which people don’t increase their spending as fast as their incomes go up during a prosperity; this leads to a growing gap which investment fails to bridge, and this in turn leads to a downward spiral. But statistical observation in many periods of rising income has stubbornly to confirm the existence of such a ‘psychological law.’

The over-simplified theory of the laborites is that in a boom, profits rise faster than wages, thus producing a shortage of purchasing power. While this cuts closer to the heart of the matter, it takes effect for cause, and fails to dig deeply enough for the underlying reasons. The theory falls down when one considers that the remedy it proposes – rising wages – is a feature of every boom period has never yet succeeded in preventing the collapse.

THE unique feature of the Marxist analysis is that it describes a basic disproportion in capitalist economy which cannot be lifted out of the system short of doing with capitalism. Every boom hits its stride because of a growing strength in purchasing power, but this in turn produces a frenzy of competition and expansion in industry which is bound to far outrace the population’s consuming power. The mechanics which force capitalism to this end are not primarily psychological, although that element plays a role in the later stages of an upswing, but are directly economic in character. In the anarchy, planlessness and jungle law of capitalist competition, each capitalist is forced to fight for his profit position and competitive standing; the race of technology and productivity grows exceedingly swift; every possible particle of capital and credit is drawn into the maelstrom in which money miraculously breeds money; and every encouragement in the way of a boost in purchasing power drives the boom to more dangerous speculative heights and over-expansion of industry. To eliminate depression by a rise in wages adds a trifle of consuming power and keeps the bubble going a while, but only inflates it bigger in the long run.

Are we in such a speculative boom today? There is no purpose here to dive once more into a juggling of figures about the national income, investment, consumption, etc., as this material has already been paraded extensively in the press to the point where people are getting to know those facts as well as they know their own wages, and, in any event, what can be drawn from them has a limited value. One feature of the attack which has been made upon the economic problem is worth considering, however.

IF we retrace our steps over the analysis which was made by the Left during the past decade, we find that our starting point was this: The boom, it was postulated, is due to the vastly expanded military program which was inaugurated with the cold war. This first axiom was undoubtedly correct. But from there we went on to others which may not have been so correct. Take away the expanding war sector, we said, and the boom will fall as a tree when its trunk is severed. We now have the experience of the past years in which the budget of Federal expenditures has leveled off; the boom, instead of collapsing, went on to a new height.

Why did the boom walk so easily past the grave we had ready-dug for it? The answer, apparently, is that, like every boom in capitalism, when once under way it had a great internal power to exhaust by its own natural development. We forgot what the Marxists since Marx have always readily admitted: that capitalism in its upswing disposes of an enormous expansive force which revolutionizes production and consumption for the duration of that part of its cycle. That there was no inherent reason why this was no longer possible in mid-Twentieth Century America has now been substantially proven, although it may well have been impossible without the priming effect of the huge war program to get it started.

Actually, the war program, by devouring the speculative surpluses thrown off by the boom, may have restrained the feverish excesses for a while. There is much evidence to show that this is so, and there is also evidence which may indicate that the pattern of the twenties is only now beginning (see: Is the Boom Losing Its Balance?, American Socialist, March 1956). Corporations, having attained the necessary glow of reassurance which is always most dangerous in a boom, are starting a competitive expansion and modernization of their plants which the consumer-government markets do not appear to warrant.

OUR purpose here is not to deny that the laws of capitalism may be modified in their action. The laws which Marx discovered are the skeletal bones of the structure; they have been repeatedly modified. Britain’s long Nineteenth Century stranglehold of the world market postponed the operation of the basic trend in that land, and the Marxists were forced to take account of that. The broad growth of imperialism in the three decades preceding the first World War, by coercing into existence a vastly profitable field of trade, investment, and super-exploitation of colonial labor and markets, brought about still another and bolder modification of Marxist economics, brilliantly accomplished by Lenin, Rudolph Hilferding, and others. The special circumstances making possible the flowering of American capitalism in the twenties when world capitalism was already in decay, again forced a re-adjustment of Marxism, although this last has never been accomplished in the US as well as it should. In every case, there were many who wanted to throw out the entire Marxist system, and made their revisionist pronouncements to that effect – generally just before the new economic collapse.

In any case, Marxism is not a ready-made slot-machine dogma, but a broad theory of social development which requires application and re-interpretation in every period. In the present period, we are up against the problem of the effect of a permanent war economy upon the evolution of capitalism. Such a big war sector as we now have can bring a great boom into existence where none was before; that we have already seen in action. But there is no evidence to show that the continuation of a big war sector at a maximum level can suspend the basic laws of the system entirely. On the raised plateau to which the war sector has lifted it, the economy develops the same contradictions and disproportions as previously, as we are now beginning to witness in the US. If it is argued that a new slump can be fought by another increase in the government sector, that can only mean the ever-increasing governmentalization of the economy. Should this occur in the form of ever-greater war spending, then sooner or later a devouring of the people’s living standards by the demands of Moloch begins. And should the attempt be made in the form of welfare spending of major proportions, that would involve a great political struggle which would inevitably become a struggle for socialism, as the capitalist class will never submit to that road without an all-out battle.

What’s in the cards? Probably the extremes of a continuously rising war budget which will pauperize the people while the factories are going full blast, or a huge welfare program to save capitalism, are both out as realistic present perspectives. More likely we will see the present level of government expenditures maintained or expanded somewhat, and, on the basis of this high plateau, the laws of capitalism begin to reassert themselves and, sooner or later, cause an economic decline even while the government sector remains large.

There is no attempt here to exhaust the question under discussion, as there is much more to it. An economic theory which has been so brilliantly confirmed over a period of a century in so many countries should not be discarded as a result of the experience of a half-dozen years in one country – that is the main proposition for Marxists to keep a firm grip on. Taking this as the basis for our discussion, we at once confront some further questions, the first of which is: What will be the effect of a serious and prolonged weakening of the economy upon politics?

It has been argued (by the Communist Party and others) that radicalism would not benefit from a depression, that fascist and McCarthyite demagogues would be the chief beneficiaries. Even were this so it would not prevent a depression if one were in the cards. But this is a claim that flies in the face of all historical experience. One need only recall Europe in the twenties and thirties, when the breakdown and stagnation of capitalism produced a mass radicalization which has persisted and deepened to the present day, or America in the Great Depression. The German experience showed that it was only after a prolonged period of hardship, during which the working-class parties proved incapable of resolving the crisis, that fascist demagogues, born also of economic troubles, and preaching their brand of ‘idiot’s socialism,’ were given their chance by middle classes crazed by long desperation.

In the last decade of his life Frederick Engels brought to bear a truly admirable realism and objectivity upon the perspectives held in earlier years, and concluded that many vistas had been foreshortened in the minds of the founders of scientific socialism. For England, he attributed the slowness of development to the ‘share’ in the benefits of ‘England’s industrial monopoly’ which fell to the working class. But, he concluded in a sentence which he was able to quote triumphantly seven years later, ‘With the breakdown of that monopoly, the English working class will lose that privileged position; it will find itself generally – the privileged and leading minority not excepted – on a level with its fellow workers abroad. That is the reason why there will be socialism again in England.’ The same proposition holds here. Socialism will come again to America only when economic conditions prepare the way.

The Communists insist in their polemic with the National Guardian that with this view the Left would seem to favor a worsening of the conditions of the workers an aid to the Left. But Marxists are irrevocably committed – so long as they remain Marxists – to the proposition that the capitalist system is running up against its limits of progressive development, and will increasingly produce an intolerable situation for the mass of the people. That is the raison d’être of modern socialism as a mass movement and not just an ideal in the minds of men good will. To discard all that and try to masquerade as simple citizens, kindly puzzled souls, and community-conscious PTA members who expect nothing but good from capitalism and will be rudely shocked by anything else, a bit too disingenuous. It means to abandon our role as critics of the present order and prophets of a new on and dissolve our thinking to the level of light-weight liberalism; doing this would court more of the same kind of disaster for the Left as it already has met with.

Our argument that capitalism in America still faces economic crises of its classic sort, while it forms the basis for a perspective, does not automatically solve the tactical problems of the present. For the fact remains that between the present and a future breakdown of American capitalism there lies an interval of time – no one can pretend to know how long. For a period, the present isolation of the Left will persist, and socialists need an approach to the problem of what to do now.

ONE service performed by the articles in the National Guardian is that they made clear what had not previously been pointed out about the Communist Party’s coalition policy; the line is grounded in that party’s entire outlook about economics and politics. The domestic program which the Communist Party wishes to carry to the people differs in hardly any important respect, except occasionally in degree, and in the more aggressive methods of work proposed, from that of the labor leadership and few liberals remaining in the Democratic Party leadership. True, the Communists maintain Marxism and socialism (of their specific sort) as a ‘basic’ program, but in their practice the word ‘basic’ may be translated as ‘not to be sullied by daily use but saved only for ceremonial occasions.’

A century ago, the Communist Manifesto defined the permanent role of socialists in the labor movement excellently:

‘Communists fight on behalf of the immediate aims and interests of the working class, but in the present movement they are also defending the future of that movement ... In all these movements, communists bring the property question to the fore, regarding it as fundamental, no matter in what phase of development it may happen to be.’

Immediate demands, labor battles, Negro struggles, all have their role in the development of the consciousness of the working class, but it is wrong to counterpose them to socialism. The Communist Party’s number one dictum for years has been that ‘socialism is not the issue,’ but that confuses two things. If it is taken to mean that at present no direct struggle for socialism is possible in the form of mass activities or a broad national election campaign, that is quite true. But if it is taken to mean that on this account it ought to be discarded or shelved to a future millenium, that is dead wrong. Exactly because now is not a time when the Left can move masses into struggle either for immediate demands or for socialism, its role as an educator, posing fundamentals and recruiting a serious following on a fundamental basis, comes to the fore.

The extreme weakening and isolation of the forces of socialism demands such a rebuilding as a pre-condition for the future of the movement. It is for this reason that the CP ‘anti-depression program’ is so misplaced. The National Guardian argumentation against it may not have been flawless, insofar as it gave the impression of opposing such a program on rigid leftist grounds. But its instinct in counterposing basic socialist education to feverish shouting which today succeeds only in deafening the shouters themselves appears to us to have been sound.

IF we take seriously our job as socialist educators, not much room remains for self-defeating maneuvers such as going into the Democratic Party. This is not only opportunist but utopian as well. The thankless and hopeless cleansing of those Augean stables has been pursued with zeal and tenacity these twenty years and more by the organized labor movement. The result has been that while labor has grown stronger in numbers and union gains, it has gone downhill on the political front with such consistency that its political power in the country and in the Democratic Party has never been weaker since the formation of the CIO than it is right now. And the Democratic Party is further than ever from reform. For the Left to try now to add its might inside the party of the Eastlands, Lyndon Johnsons, and other assorted racists, oil-industry servitors, and cold-warriors would not alter the balance within that party, and would certainly hasten the total moral and ideological corrosion of the Left, and its final decomposition.

The next great stage in American politics will be the formation, by the organized labor movement, of its own party. Mr. Reuther’s and Mr. Meany’s disavowals to the contrary notwithstanding, the entire dynamic of labor points to that. Even leaving aside the comparable experience of Britain in past years, labor is due to run up against an increasing number of crises in which political strength is of prime importance to it, at the same time that its political strength continues to decline. Sooner or later – no one can predict when or in what specific forms – pressure for a new party will begin to build up again, as it did twice before when labor was on the march: in the days of the rise of the CIO, and in the closing years of World War II. Growing independent labor activity will once more open up the national political scene to radicalism, at the same time lifting the entire consciousness of the American people to a new level. If this be taken as a true perspective of the future, then the most fruitful course for the American Left would be in identifying ourselves with the tactic of a break from Democratic-Republican politics and the launching of a labor party. While such a movement would not be socialist at its outset, it would prepare the new and broader groundwork indispensable for socialism.

But organized labor in this country is a massive and slow-moving body where politics is concerned, and tends to move as a unit, out of timidity and conservatism, and fear on the part of each leader of getting out too far in front. This means that groups inside and outside the labor movement will tend to outrun it in pioneering attempts, as happened in Britain as a prelude to the organization of the Labor Party there. We will probably see many third-party attempts of various sorts before the twin-headed monopoly is finally broken. Radicals can and should take an active part in these advance-guard movements.

MUCH discussion on the Left has centered around the third-party proposal embodied in the National Guardian call of January 1955. The American Socialist supported that proposal, although we were under no illusion, as we made clear at the time, that such a party could be either the party of American socialism, or a labor party, or even a pioneer forerunner of a labor party in the country. Our reasoning was as follows: The Left, driven backward in rapid retreat and demoralization, threatened with disintegration by the push of an influential group within itself towards the Democratic Party, is badly in need of a rallying ground to halt that drift. If an active and independent progressive grouping could serve that purpose alone, it would fulfill an important need.

However, we are now in a position to evaluate the matter further. The Progressive Party of 1948, widely supported by workers and progressives, was the most ambitious third-party movement of recent years. It rallied very large meetings and much enthusiasm in many major labor centers, and for a while was a considerable headache to the union bureaucrats. It was favored by the backing of a number of prominent individuals with personal political followings on the national scene. Even its vote, in face of Truman’s last-minute demagogy, was not bad.

Since that time, a near-decade of cold war, witch-hunt and economic boom has taken its toll on the forces of dissent. The experience since the Guardian call made clear that the forces for the creation of a new party as a rallying force for the Left, even on a much reduced scale, were longer available. Sufficient support could not be built especially in the face of Communist Party opposition which withdrew its own forces, demoralized much of what remained, and crippled every possible apparatus that might serve the purpose. And so, while it may be possible local third-party candidacies to be launched here and there, as a national prospect it is not in the cards right now. The Left will have to plow the ground more thoroughly before it can go over to organization.

THERE has been no attempt here at an exhaustive survey of the job of the Left. Much good work is open to us on the civil liberties front, in the fight full equality for the Negro people and in the fight for peace; but these are areas of general agreement and at any rate not the core of the problem of the present discussion. If we review our basic conclusions, we find the following: The socialist movement needs to revivify Marxist economic perspectives, instead of permitting them to become weakened by disuse and diffused by too much concentration on the small-scale and immediate as against the long-term trend. We need a re-dedication to the task of socialist education, and a bold approach to converting youth in particular to socialism. We need to identify selves with a labor party perspective for the unions, try to make a mark for that perspective wherever possible inside the unions, instead of a pro-Democrat adventure. We are convinced that this is the correct approach re-creating a virile, principled, and confident socialist cadre in America.


Last updated on 19.7.2006