Emile Burns

Are We Nearing Revolution?

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. VIII July 1926, No. 7.
Publisher: 162 Buckingham Palace Rd., London, SW1
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

IMMEDIATELY after the war, with the firmer establishment of the Soviet Government in Russia, the revolutionary tendencies—and incidents—in Central Europe, and the widespread activity of the workers in every country, including Britain, it seemed as if revolution would sweep from one country to another in a continuous tide. In 1921 the industrial collapse was followed by the collapse of the workers’ organisations, the weakening of the fighting spirit of the workers, and the gradual withdrawal by the capitalists of the concessions forced from them during the preceding years. Soon it began to be realised that capitalism had managed in some sense to “stabilise” itself, that in many countries reactionary movements were installed, and that the revolutionary tendencies had been overcome, or at least temporarily submerged. The prospect of revolution, here or in Europe, faded into the distance, and the working class seemed to be at the mercy of a capitalist class which had changed its policy from compromise to Fascism, its method from financial riot to “stabilisation.”

But this period was to last no longer than the preceding period of wide revolutionary movements. Financial stabilisation was unable to change the course of industrial decline; in fact—as we shall find in the case of other capitalist “remedies”—it created serious new difficulties, culminating in an economic crisis throughout Europe on a scale that had not been reached even in 1921. The closing months of 1925 and the early months of 1926 have seen industrial collapse in Germany, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Czecho-Slovakia—all countries with a “stabilised” currency; a financial crisis in the three European countries with “unstabilised” currencies—Belgium, France and Italy—and in England the general strike, with the continued paralysis of industry through the prolonged coal stoppage.

If it was wrong to take economic difficulties and revolutionary tendencies of 1917 to 1921 as evidence of an early collapse of capitalism, it is no less wrong to take the very doubtful economic recovery of 1922 to 1924 as evidence of any permanent recovery of capitalism. The further developments of 1925 and 1926 have shown clearly enough that no such conclusion is justified.

There were many Labour writers who thought of the economic position after the war as being due to the war, and who looked forward, to “normal” conditions when the immediate difficulties had been removed by time, peace, and goodwill, But those who had a more coherent idea of economics did not regard the war as an accidental intrusion on the development of capitalist prosperity. They save the war itself as a part in a process necessarily reacting on capitalism by creating new and more intense obstacles in its way. But just as the after-war situation cannot be considered by itself, so the situation in 1925-26 cannot be considered by itself. Still less can one element in the present situation be considered by itself. Yet that is what many “sane” Labour apologists are constantly doing in the Socialist Review, for example, Newbold seizes on

the displacement of the machine and the steam engine by the physical chemical analysis and synthesis of matter and the widest application of electric energy

and argues from this (as yet absolutely unrealised) development, that capitalism has yet another shot in its locker, a shot that will re-establish capitalism and hold up revolution for a considerable time to come.

This is about as justifiable as the conclusion of some Labour leaders that because Baldwin sees the need (for capitalism) of industrial peace, and because industrial peace methods are being partially applied, therefore there will be industrial peace.

And the reason why both conclusions are wrong is the same, namely, that they ignore the already existing facts which make such a development unrealisable.

The question whether we are nearing revolution cannot therefore be dismissed by summary statements that British workers love their Constitution, or even by a curt reference to new methods of production, even if these new methods are so diabolically clever that they must be described as “the physical-chemical analysis and synthesis of matter.” The answer to the question must depend on a far more careful survey of the whole position, in which the social-pacifist leanings of Labour leaders and the capitalist striving for new methods of production take their places, but only along with the Dawes plan and other “stabilising” measures, the acknowledged facts of declining production in capitalist countries and rising production in Soviet Russia, the rapidly increasing concentration of industrial capital under the control of finance capital, and above all, the effects on the workers and the reaction of the workers to all of these factors. Such a survey within the limits of a magazine article cannot be exhaustive, but it is nevertheless possible to put acknowledged facts into their place in the whole process, the main outlines of which are already familiar to readers of THE LABOUR MONTHLY.

In an article in Forward (March 27, 1926), Newbold quotes Liebknecht’s account of Marx, who, having seen a working model of an electric engine drawing a railroad train, in a moment of enthusiasm declared that the developments arising out of this invention would speedily bring about the social revolution. This was in 1850; Liebknecht, writing in 1896, notes that as yet no train was driven by an electric engine. Therefore, says Liebknecht, Marx was mistaken in the tempo of development; therefore, says Newbold, we who expect an early revolution will be equally mistaken, because the electric age must be established before capitalism dies.

But, with his quick grasp of the obvious, Newbold has failed to see the inner meaning of these facts from a Marxian standpoint. In 1850 a great new productive force was known to exist; in 1896 it had not yet been effectively applied; in 1926 the capitalist class in Britain was still unable to harness this force, rejected any attempt at a real “coal and power scheme,” preferring to face a first-class industrial crisis, and finally produced a tin-pot Electricity Bill as the most that capitalism could do.

Now what is the meaning of this? Is the Socialist movement not right in pointing out that the hindrance to this development is capitalism itself? Is it not right to contrast this delay in applying electricity on an effective scale here with the tremendous advance towards electrification made in backward Russia during a few years of revolutionary rule? Is it not right to point to the present position in the coal industry as a perfect example of the constant hampering by capitalism of any reorganisation and new methods Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy contain the following:—

“At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or, what is but a legal expression for the same thing, with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution.”

Whether any particular forces of production can develop within a form of society depends on the extent to which the existing relations of production, property relations, hamper that development; if they hamper it seriously, the new forces burst down the barriers by means of social revolution—a change in property relations so that the latter become favourable to the development which is essential to the future existence of society.

The bursting of the barriers does not however take place accidentally, without warning; there are signs in the sky and other dreadful portents, such as General Strikes, widespread unemployment, Fascism. In other words, the social revolution requires the existence of an intensified class struggle, which itself arises out of the failure of production under the existing conditions. For this reason, the facts of declining production and the enormous growth of unemployment are of first-rate significance. The general strike or the coal lock-out did not happen by accident, any more that the Great War did. They arose out of the declining production of capitalist Britain.[1] The general strike and the coal lock-out in turn accelerate the process of decline. The accelerated process of decline, in turn, begets new industrial struggles.

Nor is it merely the situation in Britain which must be taken into account. The Empire is full of menacing dangers; Europe, especially Germany, with industrial problems similar to those of Britain, is little better than a plague-spot for capitalism. The British colonial areas, it is true, may be of some use to capitalism, and may assist British industry in so far as they are able to place increasing orders for industrial products. But these, too, are insignificant, as anyone who knows the statistics must realise. The increase of orders for cottons from the African colonies is less than one per cent. of the loss of orders from the East. (Britain’s total exports of cotton piece goods in 1925 were only 70 per cent. of the 1913 figure.) Even a 10 million loan to East Africa, to enable British products to be sent there, is insignificant, compared with the loss of machinery exports to other countries (Britain’s total machinery exports were 689,000 tons in 1913; 516,000 tons in 1925). Phillips Price, in Forward (April 10, 1926), suggests that salvation for British capitalism may be found in Africa:—

What if orders began to pour into our great engineering works for railways, harbours, mining equipment for Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Tanganyika, and Kenya?

Well, no doubt they will come in: they have already been dribbling in under the guiding hands of a capitalist government: but not fast enough to counterbalance the decline in orders from other markets, as is proved by the continuous decline in our trade statistics.

Nor can the nature of present-day monopoly capitalism be left out of account. The development of Africa under the guidance of finance capital is not a purely healthy process for capitalism. The stage of developing new real wealth, new sources of production, is passing away. It is becoming more a question of creating new means of production, at points where labour is cheap, to take the place of the old—cotton mills in India to do Lancashire’s work; or of creating new claims on the workers in interest, through the State machinery—subsidies, and loans for works that are never used productively. Colonial development under such conditions is continually aggravating the position in the mother country, continually creating new causes of industrial struggles; while at the same time the colonies themselves become the arena of new struggles.

Finally, there is the menace of war, threatening further economic catastrophe. Capitalism which is conscious of increasing industrial difficulties at home becomes more aggressively interested in expansion ; and the United States is now just reaching the acute Imperialist stage in her development under capitalism. France and Italy are also seeking new worlds to conquer, to provide the needs of their expanding industry.

The position, when all factors are considered, is not one that can offer capitalism any form of stability, or ordered progress. On the contrary, all the evidence goes to show the increasing difficulties for capitalist growth, throwing up crises at shorter and shorter intervals, while each crisis is more fundamental, more disturbing to the capitalist fabric as a whole. Moreover, the workers are becoming more conscious of the nature of the struggle, more determined in every phase of the continuous fight against the degradation which a decaying capitalism is trying to impose.

To sum up, therefore, the material conditions for a revolutionary change appear to exist; and the psychological conditions, with the necessary preparation of the workers under the guidance of a revolutionary Party, are undoubtedly developing. Similar, in some cases more developed, conditions exist in other European countries; war, or an unusually acute economic crisis (such as exists in Poland to-day) may cause far-reaching developments at any moment.

In such circumstances, the question whether we in Britain are nearing revolution loses its air of unreality. No serious student would attempt to say how near any country is to revolution in terms of months or years; but the study of economic facts would be useless if it did not give sufficient grounds for a practical conclusion. And the facts of to-day show clearly enough that capitalist production has reached a stage in which decline, and the social effects of its decline, are becoming dominant, and the aspects of stability and recovery subordinate; that the process towards collapse is consequently accelerating; and that therefore the preparation of the workers to take over power is an urgent task, which, if resolutely undertaken, may appreciably shorten the period of conflict and suffering that must otherwise be bitter and prolonged.



1. For a summary of the facts, see the pamphlet, The Industrial Crisis, issued by the Labour Research Department, 1d.