J.R. Johnson

Historical Retrogression or Socialist Revolution

A Discussion Article on the Thesis of the IKD

(September 1945)

From New International, Vol. 12 No. 1, January 1946, pp. 25–29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The document of the German comrades, Capitalist Barbarism or Socialism, proposes a thesis of historical retrogression and a program of “democratic-political revolution” which in my view is in fundamental opposition to the general principles of Marxism and the specific perspectives of the Fourth International for the socialist revolution in Europe. I propose here to refute them as comprehensively as possible in the space at my disposal.

Part I: The Theory of the Question

The retrogressionists post their thesis in Hegelian terms. We have therefore first to grapple with the dialectic.

In the Dialectic of Nature, Engels lists the three basic laws: (1) The law of the transformation of quantity into quality. (2) The law of the interpenetration of the opposites. (3) The law of the negation of the negation. The third “figures as the fundamental law for the contruction of the whole system.” The interconnection can be demonstrated as follows:

Capitalist society is a negation of a previous organism, feudal society, it consists of two opposites, capital and labor, interpenetrated – one cannot be conceived without the other. The contradiction between capital and labor develops by degrees in a constant series of minor negations. Thus, commercial capitalism, through quantitative changes in the mode of production, develops a new quality and is transformed into industrial capitalism with, of course, corresponding changes in its opposite, labor. This industrial capitalism is further negated by monopoly capitalism which is further negated by state-monopoly capitalism. But this increasing negativity, i.e., this constant transformation into a higher stage in a certain direction, only sharpens the fundamental antagonism which constitutes the organism. The maturity of the organism is demonstrated by the fact that the contradictions become so developed that the organism can no longer contain them. There arises the necessity of a complete negation, not of successive stages of development but of the organism itself. The organism will be negated, abolished, transcended by the antagonisms developed within its own self, without the intervention of any third party. That is negation of the negation. That is abolition or self-abolition.

The key word for us here is the word abolition (German: Aufhebung). The retrogressionists use the word Selbst-Aufhebung. The implication is that this means self-abolition, while Aufhebung means plain abolition. But in the dialectic of Hegel and Marx, all abolition of an organism means self-abolition. Two years ago I had to deal with this very question and wrote as follows:

“For the word abolition, Aufhebung, Marx went again to Hegel, to show quite clearly what he had in mind. Aufhebung does not mean mere non-existence, or abolition, as you abolish a hot dog or wipe some chalk off a board. As Hegel explains at length (Logic, tr. Johnston and Struthers, vol. 1, p. 120), it means for him transcendence, raising of one moment or active factor from its subordinate position in the dialectical contradiction to its rightful and predestined place, superseding the opposite moment with which it is interpenetrated, i.e., inseparably united, in this case, raising labor, the basis of all value, to a dominant position over the other moment, the mass of accumulated labor. Thereby self-developing humanity takes the place formerly held by self-developing value. The real history of humanity will begin.” (Internal Bulletin, April, 1943.)

In The Holy Family, Marx has a long passage, of which this is a fair sample:

“... The proletariat is as proletariat forced to abolish itself and with this, the opposite which determines it, private property. It is the negative side of the opposition, its principle of unrest.”

“If the proletariat is victorious it does not mean that it has become the absolute side of society, for it is victorious only by abolishing itself and its opposite. Then both the proletariat and its conditioning opposite, private property, have vanished.”

In Capital itself, the word he almost invariably uses for the abolition of capitalist production is Aufhebung, i.e., its substitution by socialist production, its own interpenetrated opposite.

Dialectic as Scientific Method

In 1915, Lenin wrote that “dialectic is the theory of knowledge of (Hegel and) Marxism.” (Collected Works, vol. 13, pp. 321–327.) And Lenin not only calls this “the essence of the matter but condemns Plekhanov and other Marxists for paying “no attention” to it. This, for Marx and Lenin, is a scientific method, not faith.

It is this grave weakness in Plekhanov which has led to so much confusion in Marxism and the dialectic. As Lenin saw, Hegel, idealist though he might be, understood this perfectly. In the Larger Logic (tr. Johnston and Struther, p. 65, vol. 1) he says:

“The one and only thing for securing scientific progress (and for quite simple insight into which, it is essential to strive) ii knowledge of the logical precept that Negation is just as much Affirmation as Negation.”

All the great Marxists understood that for the scientific analysis of capitalist society, you must postulate the positive in the negative, the affirmation in the negation, i.e., the inevitability of socialism. Give it up, play with it and you lose, for example, the Marxist theory of the socialist revolution as the culmination of the daily class struggle. If the revolution is not understood as rooted inevitably in the objective necessity of socialism, then it is attributed to the subjective consciousness of the leaders. It is because the Mensheviks and the Eastmans deny the inevitability of socialism that they repudiate the Marxist conception of the party and accuse the Bolsheviks of imposing their dialectical religion upon the Russian workers in October, 1917. For the Mensheviks and the Eastmans, Russia could have had either a democratic revolution or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin and Trotsky always maintained the opposite, that they were acting in accordance with inner historic necessity as it expressed itself concretely in 1917.

Hegel could not maintain the dialectical method consistently because he based himself on the inevitability of bourgeois society. Marx could retain and extend it only by basing himself on the inevitability of socialism. As he wrote to Weydemeyer on March 6, 1852, he had discovered neither the class struggle nor the economic anatomy of the classes.

“What I did that was new was to prove ... that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Perhaps the most useful statement of dialectic as a scientific theory for Marxists is made by Rosa Luxembourg (Reform and Revolution):

“What precisely was the key which enabled Marx to open the door to the secrets of capitalist phenomena? The secret of Marx’s theory of value, of his analysis of the problem of money, of his theory of capital, of the theory of the rate of profit, and consequently of the entire economic system, is found in the transitory character of capitalist economy, the inevitability of its collapse, leading – and this is only another aspect of the same phenomena (emphasis mine – J.R.J.) – to socialism.... And it is precisely because he took the socialist viewpoint for his analysis of bourgeois society that he was in the position to give a scientific basis to the socialist movement.”

Bernstein believed that Capital was not scientific because Marx had had the conclusions in his head long before he wrote it. He did not understand that Marx could only write it because he took as a premise the transitory nature of capitalist society and the inevitability of socialism. This is the guide to Marxist theory. The test is in practice. If the inevitability of socialism is the key by which Marx opened the door to his world-shaking discoveries, the “if the world revolution fails to come” is the key by which the retrogressionists open the door to theirs.

“The Invading Socialist Society”

As far back as Anti-Dühring (1878), Marx and Engels saw socialism invading and dialectically altering capitalism.

“In the trusts, freedom of competition changes into its opposite (emphasis mine – J.R.J.). into monopoly. The planless production of capitalist sorietv capitulates before the planned production of the invading socialist society.”

This is the philosophical concept which permeates The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation, the most famous chapter in Capital and all Marxist writing. This for the retrogression-ists is their “center of gravity.” Let us see what Marx says:

The very laws of capitalist production bring forth the “material agencies” for its dissolution – concentration of production and socialization of labor. But on these material agencies as basis spring up “new forces and new passions.” This is the proletariat “Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder.” This is the proletarian revolution.

Only then does Marx sum up the process in terms of property which is a legal, historical manifestation of the productive process. He says:

“The capitalist ... mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property.”

Production, appropriation, property.

“This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labor of the proprietor.”

Labor, you note, is the foundation. A certain kind of property is the result of a certain mode of production, a certain type of labor.

“But capitalist production begets with the inexorability of a law of nature its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not reestablish private property for the producer but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era, i.e., on cooperation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.”

Hitherto among Marxists and anti-Marxists, this was understood to mean socialism. The retrogressionists challenge this. They say:

“The capitalist mode of production begets its own negation with the inexorability of a law of nature even if the socialist revolution fails to come.”

This they tell us is the “deepest essence of the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation.” So that when Marx wrote “negation of the negation” he did not mean socialism only. He meant that capitalist private property and capitalist production were going to be negated, destroyed, proletariat or no proletariat This, Marx’s most emphatic statement of the proletarian socialist revolution as the inevitable alternative to capitalism, is historically, i.e., in life, interpreted to mean that capitalist property can be abolished and a new kind of state (bureaucratic-collectivist, managerial) will take its place. This certainly is the most remarkable interpretation of Marxism ever made and is likely to remain so.

Class Struggle or National Struggle

I have to confine myself here to its immediate political consequences. The material self-abolition of capital is for the retrogressionists a process by which the capitalists expropriate one another and the many capitalist nations are expropriated by one. In their preoccupation with the expropriation of the property, they lose sight of the antagonistic roles of bourgeoisie and proletariat in the process of production.

It appears immediately in their analysis of Europe. This is based not upon the class struggle in production between the German centralization of European capital and the European working class. For them, the basic analysis is of one imperialist nation oppressing and expropriating other nations. The native bourgeoisie of the occupied countries is not defined basically in its economic association with the centralized capital of Europe but as part of the expropriated and exploited nations. The class struggle of the European proletariat against the existing capitalist society is thus replaced by the national struggle of individual nations, including bourgeoisie and workers. Hence the national struggle for them is not primarily a class struggle to overthrow a certain mode of production but a struggle to “reconstruct the whole screwed-back development, to regain all the achievements of the bourgeoisie (including the labor movement), to reach the highest accomplishments and to excel them.” But if the proletariat is to “reconstruct the whole screwed-back development,” etc., etc., then the task of the proletariat can only be to rebuild the whole bourgeois-democratic, i.e., the national, structure. Turn and twist as they may, the retrogressionists are in a vise from which they cannot escape.

The Economic Laws of Motion: The “General Law”

Without a firm grasp of the laws of production, you are blown all ways by every wind. Let us see what the retrogressionists do with the general law of capitalist accumulation which is Marx’s theoretical basis for the historical, i.e., the actual, living tendency. The retrogressionists say:

“The theory of the retrogressive movement is therefore no more than the theoretical grasp of the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production at the point of transformation into their opposite in the reversal determined by its contents, in which they become concretely demonstrable laws of its collapse independent of the proletarian revolution.” (p. 334.)

Marx has summed up the general law as the law of the organic composition of capital, the relation of the constant capital (the mass of machinery, concrete labor, use-values) to the variable capital (labor-power, the only source of value). The relation is 1 : 1, then 2 : 1, then 3 : 1, then 4 : 1, etc. This developing ratio is the organic law of capitalist society, i.e., it is of the very nature of the organism.

You would expect that anyone who had discovered economic laws of retrogression would show how this law was in retrogression. But you search the retrogressionist document in vain. Not a word. Why? Because no such economic movement exists. Where in the world is there any retrogression in this organic law? In fascist Germany the relation oi constant to variable capital increased enormously. In Britain, in the USA, in Japan, in China, in India, in Latin America, the war has seen a vast increase; the post-war will see a still greater. What post-war Germany loses will go to increase the ratio of its neighbors. Whatever production does take place in Germany will take place according to the organic composition of 1946 and not according to that of 1845.

If the victorious powers dare to deindustrialize Germany, all that they will do is to transform millions of proletarians into an industrial reserve army on a vast scale which is precisely the “absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.” Colonization of France or Germany can only be an agitational phrase. In the sense of a historical retrogression it means creating a countryside like that in India or China with feudal and semi-feudal peasants comprising the large majority of the population. The relations of production, the social relations and the whole political structure of those countries would be altered. A bourgeois-democratic revolution would be on the order of the day. The victorious imperialisms, as Lenin foresaw, cannot do it. Capitalist competition, which is in its present form imperialist war, compels them to obey the general law of capitalist accumulation and tomorrow will force them to rearm, i.e., reindustrialize Germany. Into these Marxist fundamentals they have introduced an unexampled confusion.

Retrogression and the Industrial Reserve Army

The retrogressionists say:

“Under imperialism production is carried on in a capitalist manner from A to Z, but all relations from A to Z are qualitatively altered. The ‘camp system,’ labor and forced labor service, prisons, etc., become by the massive extent and the manner of their utilization, first, special forms of slave labor, and beyond that, imperialist forms of utilizing the capitalist overpopulation.” (p. 342.)

Wasn’t it Marx who told us that the antagonism of capitalist production “vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, the industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital.” If today they are kept in labor camps, it is because the proletarian movement toward the socialist future is such that capital must assume complete control over the workers not only inside but outside of the process of production. But do these workers “qualitatively” produce more surplus ‘value or less? Do they alter the organic law? Do they modify or accentuate the contradiction between use-value and value? Do they become isolated groups of slaves, serfs on widely separated latifundia, on manorial farms, or on medieval peasant allotments? Do they acquire the social and political characteristics of slaves and serfs in the Middle Ages? To this last question the retrogressionists answer “Yes.” They say that society

“... harks back in reverse order to the end of the Middle Ages, the epoch of primitive accumulation, the Thirty Years War, the bourgeois revolutions, etc. In those days it was a question of smashing an outlived economic form and of winning the independence of nations – now it is a question of abolishing independence and shoving society back to the barbarism of the Middle Ages.” (pp. 333–334.)

It is not a question of smashing economic forms, not a question of winning a new society. That is merely the program of the Fourth International. That, they tell us, is not the question. Independence has been abolished, society has been shoved back to the barbarism of the Middle Ages and the proletariat, to save the situation, must restore democracy. They must write this. Socialized labor, the socialist proletariat, has vanished into the labor camp. The historical initiative is placed entirely in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

According to their mode of scientific analysis, the world revolution cannot but fail to come. The throwback of labor to the Middle Ages is their general law of capitalist accumulation. To think that this can be arrested by democratic slogans is, to put it moderately, a retrogression to the Utopias not even of the nineteenth century but of the Middle Ages.

The Productive Forces

The retrogressionist thesis claims to be based upon the collapse of capitalism “independently of the question of the extension of the market.” (p. 333.) Very good. To this, as is characteristic of them, they give not a word of analysis. I have to try to illustrate the difference between this theory and that of the underconsumptionists.

If you observe the growth of capital empirically, i.e., with bourgeois eyes, then it must appear that as the market declines, the productive power also declines and therefore brings the whole process to a standstill. In reality the struggle for the declining market makes each competitor increase its productive power in order to drive its competitor off the field. Naturally this leads to a fine crash. But in the crash the technologically backward units go under and the system as a whole emerges on a higher technological level – of course to start the whole process again. But the growth of the productive power of capital can come only by the higher organic composition. This leads to the falling rate of profit and it is the falling rate which compels a crisis. In Vol. III of Capital (p. 301) Marx says that it is “the fall in the rate of profit [which] calls forth the competitive struggle among the capitalists, not vice versa.” Most Marxist commentators recognize that the Marxian crisis is not a crisis of incapacity to sell goods or, in bourgeois terms, of “effective demand.” It is when the crisis is imminent that capitalists rush to sell goods and naturally the bottom falls out of the market. Blake expresses it very well, in An American Looks at Karl Marx:

“Thus the limiting factor of consumption is a precipitant, the discharge of workers in the means of production is a manifestation, the transferred crack in consumers’ purchases the ‘cause’ of a panic, while all along the crisis is implicit, overcome by accumulation by the stronger ...”

Now every serious dispute by serious people about the future of capitalist society will in the long run find the protagonists lined up, in the camp either of the Leninists or the underconsumptionists. The retrogressionists say that they follow the Leninist interpretation. Yet their thesis is that the productive forces have ceased to grow and they quote Lenin and Trotsky. I do not propose to take up Trotsky here. He undoubtedly wrote this many times. He also wrote other passages in apparent contradiction. At any rate he left no developed economic thesis. But Lenin did. He wrote Imperialism to prove the decline of capitalism. Nevertheless he states (and more than once):

“It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the possibility of the rapid growth of capitalism. It does not. In the epoch of imperialism, certain branches of industry, certain strata of the bourgeoisie and certain countries betray, to a more or less degree, one or another of these tendencies. On the whole, capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before.”

But argument about this does not need quotations from Lenin. In 1929 the productive power was higher than it had ever been; in 1939 it was still higher than it was in 1929; by 1942 it had reached fantastic heights compared with 1939. Do the retrogressionists dare to deny this? War is only capitalist competition carried out by national units, and the laws hold firm. In times of peace the fundamental movement is development of the productive power precisely because “the market” is declining. In war, where the world market is exhausted and can only be redivided, each national state fanatically develops the productive power. If capitalism lasts until 1968, then the preparation for World War III would result in a productive power far beyond that of 1942.

What then is responsible for the retrogressionists’ thesis of lack of growth of the productive forces? Having abandoned the inevitability of the socialist revolution, and having adopted a theory of the tendency of capitalist accumulation, which increasingly disorganizes and colonizes the proletariat and hence makes it unfit for the socialist revolution, they cannot see the growth of the productive forces which organizes and disciplines the proletariat in the process of production and prepares it for the socialist revolution. Having given up the process of production as the means of developing the productive forces and organizing the proletariat, they must look outside the process of production, i.e., to democracy.

Productive Forces and Social Relations

Underconsumptionists are distinguished by the fact that value plays no part in their analysis. Thus they lose sight of the fundamental contradiction of capitalist production, that between the means of production in its value form (the main concern of the bourgeoisie) and means of production in its material form (the main concern of the proletariat). They thus ruin the possibility of future analysis. A recent article in the Saturday Evening Post shows how clearly the bourgeoisie sees its own side of this question. Admiral Ramsey says that all the existing planes must be systematically destroyed because in five years’ time they would be obsolete. And not only planes, but means of production. General Arnold demands “research laboratories for ever-increasing aeronautical development, a progressive aviation industry capable of great expansion quickly.” Thus essentially as in competition for the market, the material form of the products may be still valuable and able to give great service to the proletariat and the people. But their value, in terms of socially necessary labor time on the world market, is equal only to that of the latest discovery, actual or potential. Hence reorganization of production for more and better production, socialist of labor, increase of the industrial army. The general and the admiral were forward-looking but still did not see far enough. The discovery of atomic energy poses the question of the reorganization of the whole technological system. The second bomb, two days later, made the first obsolete. The retrogressionist thesis makes it impossible to interpret the general capitalist development as socialist society invading capitalism. For then atomic energy is a sign of greater labor camps and therefore of a quicker return to the Middle Ages. Instead of calling upon workers in view of the economic development to prepare for power they are compelled to demand more frantically than ever, a defense of democracy.

What then is the fundamental error of the retrogressionists? They have as always lost sight of the invading socialist society, the socialist future in the capitalist present. Capitalism fetters, i.e., hampers, impedes the development of the productive forces. But it does not bring them to a halt. They move forward by advance, retardation, standstill, but they move forward, bringing the proletariat with them. The theoretical analysis is that the more capitalism increases the productive forces, the more it brings them into conflict with the existing social relations. The more it increases and develops the productive forces the more it socializes labor and the more it degrades it and the more it drives it to revolt. Where Marxism deals in contradictions, growths and deepening of antagonisms, and therefore of class struggle, the retrogressionists deal in absolutes. The productive forces have ceased to grow. Having decided to operate on the basis of “if the world revolution fails to come,” the retrogressionists, rudderless, deny historical fact – the growth of the productive forces since 1917 – make a complete jumble of Marxian economics, all in order to show society on its way back to the Middle Ages. You do not make these blunders without dragging others, and more serious ones, in their train.

Idealism and Positivism

The vital question is to get hold of the intimate connection between retrogressionist theory and their practical conclusions. In his Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic, Marx pays noble tribute to Hegel for his discovery of the dialectic but foretells that his incapacity to take it further, i.e., to socialism, opens the way to uncritical idealism and equally uncritical positivism. The retrogressionists fall inescapably into both.

In Vol.II Marx divided capital into Department I, means of production and Department II, means of consumption, and bases his further analysis upon this division. The retrogressionists divide the productive forces into means of destruction and means of construction. What is this but idealism – classification according to moral criteria? One stands almost in despair before this muddle. Oil, coal, steel, Willow Run, Curtiss-Wright, were they means of destruction in January 1945? And what are they now in August 1945? Are they once more means of construction? If so, they move from being means of destruction to being means of construction under the same class rule. This is the economics of Philip Murray. The retrogressionists do not know with what sharp weapons they are playing. All Marx’s economic categories are social categories. In the analysis of capital as value, constant capital symbolizes the bourgeoisie, variable capital the proletariat. But men use not value but steel, oil, textiles. Thus, in his analysis of capital as material form, Department I (means of production) is in essence representative of the bourgeoisie and Department II (means of consumption) is representative of the proletariat. The struggle between constant and variable capital, between Department I and Department II is expressive of the struggle of classes. What struggle goes on between means of destruction and means of consumption? The retrogressionists are defining things as things and not according to a social method – the most elementary positivism. But idealism and positivism are not terms of abuse. Politically they mean one thing – analysis of productive forces as things in general, analysis of the proletariat as people in general.

The Phenomenology of Mind

Marxism is distinguished from idealism and positivism of all types by the fact that (a) it distinguishes the proletariat from all other classes by its types of labor and (b) by the revolutionary effect upon the proletariat and society of this type of labor.

The concept of labor is the very basis of the dialectic, and not merely of the Marxian dialectic but of the dialectic of Hegel himself. In the Phenomenology of Mind [1], in the section on Lordship and Bondage, Hegel shows that the lord has a desire for the object and enjoys it. But because he does not actually work on it, his desire lacks objectivity. The labor of the bondsman, in working, in changing, i.e., in negating the raw material, has the contrary effect. This, his labor, gives him his rudimentary sense of personality. Marx hailed this and continued the basic idea in his analysis of handicraft and the early stages of capitalist production (simple cooperation). The laborer’s physical and mental faculties are developed by the fact that he makes a whole chair, a whole table, a piece of armor or a whole shoe.

With the development of the stage of manufacture, however, there begins the division of labor, and here instead of making one object, man begins to produce fragments of an object. In the process of production, there begins a stultification, distortion and ossification of his physical and intellectual faculties.

With the productive process of heavy industry, this stultification is pushed to its ultimate limit. Man becomes merely an appendage to a machine. He now no longer uses the instruments of production. As Marx repeats on page after page, the instruments of production use him. Hegel, who had caught hold of this, was completely baffled by it and seeing no way out, took refuge in idealism. Marx, using the Hegelian method and remaining in the productive process itself, discovered and elaborated one of the most profound truths of social and political psychology. In the very degradation of the workers he saw the basis of their emancipation. Attacking Proudhon for misunderstanding dialectic, he wrote of the laborer in the automatic factory:

“But from the moment that all special development ceases, the need of universality, the tendency towards an integral development of the individual begins to make itself felt.” (Poverty of Philosophy, 1847)

This need of the individual for universality, for a sense of integration so powerful among all modern oppressed classes, is the key to vast areas of social and political jungles of today. The fascists, for example, understood it thoroughly.

Twenty years later in Capital Marx developed the political results of the argument to the full.

“It is as a result of the division of labor in manufactures, that the laborer is brought face to face with the intellectual potencies of the material process of production as the property of another and as a ruling power.” (Kerr ed., p. 397)

He does not need revolutionary parties to teach him this. This process is his revolutionary education. It begins in manufacture. “It is completed in modern industry ...” This is the misery that is accumulated as capital is accumulated. It may not be formulated. But the moment bourgeois society breaks down and the worker breaks out in insurrection, for whatever incidental purpose, resentment against the whole system explodes with terrible power. [2]

The educational process is not individual but social. As Marx insisted and Lenin never wearied in pointing out, in addition to this personal, individual education, capital educates the worker socially and politically. In Capital (pp. 632–3) Marx quoted a passage he had written twenty years before in the Manifesto. Former industrial systems, all of them, aimed at conservation of the existing mode of production. Far different is capital:

“Constant revolutions in production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and superstitions are swept away. All new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

This is the history of Europe during the last thirty years and particularly the last five.

The very climax of Marx’s chapter on The General Law is to warn that “This antagonistic character of capitalist accumulation is enunciated in various forms by political economists, although by them it is confounded with phenomena, certainly to some extent analogous but nevertheless essentially distinct and belonging to pre-capitalistic modes of production,” i.e., the Middle Ages. And why essentially distinct? Because in capital alone the degradation and its historical conditions also create in the workers the determination to overthrow the system and acquire for themselves the intellectual potencies of the material process of production. Who doesn’t understand this in his bones can be a sincere revolutionary but cannot lead the proletariat. The retrogressionists ruin this conception. They say that “the minute the proletarian loses his right to strike, his freedom of movement, and all political rights,” he ceases to be the “classic ‘free’ proletarian ...” (p. 331) For the analysis of production and the stages of production, they have substituted the legislative or repressive action of the bourgeois state. They say that “The modern slave differs much less politically from the slave of antiquity than appears at first glance.” (p. 331) The retrogressionists carry their democratic conceptions into the process of production itself. They say: “Politically, and to a large extent economically, it (the proletariat) lives under the conditions and forms of slavery.” (p. 339) They seem incapable of understanding that increase of misery, subordination, slavery is part of capitalist production and not retrogression.

At this stage we can afford to be empirical. In 1944 the Italian proletariat in North Italy lived under fascism. Mussolini, to placate this proletariat, called his state the Socialist Republic. Every worker who punched the clock and found no work got three-quarters of his day’s pay. Mussolini passed decrees which aimed at making the workers believe that industry was socialized. When the Germans were about to leave, these workers negotiated with them and with Mussolini and drove them out. They seized the factories. They hold them to this day. Such is modern industry that a mere general strike poses the socialist revolution and the question of the state-power with workers organized in factory committees and Soviets. Yet the retrogressionists say in 1944 that because of the absence of bourgeois-democracy the more you looked at these workers the more you saw how much they resembled the slaves who lived in the Italian latifundia 3,000 years ago.

Revolutionary Perspectives and Proposals

Except seen in the light of their analysis of the proletariat in production, the revolutionary perspectives of the great Marxists have always seemed like stratospheric ravings.

In 1848 Marx said that “the bourgeois revolution in Germany would be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.” In 1858 he wrote to Engels: “On the continent the revolution is imminent and will immediately assume a socialist character.” Twenty years later, introducing Marx’s Civil War in France, Engels wrote:

“Thanks to the economic and political development of France since 1789, Paris has for fifty years been placed in such a position that ... no revolution could there break out without the proletariat ... (after victory) immediately putting forward its own demands ... demands ... more or less indefinite ... but the upshot of them all ... the abolition of the class contrast between capitalist and laborer.”

The word “immediately” appears every time.

Their enormous confidence is based not upon speculation on the psychology of workers but upon the antagonism of objective relations between labor and capital. From this came their proposals. In 1848 in the Manifesto Marx says that Communists support every movement against the existing order, but “In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.” For whatever its degree of development at the time, at the moment of insurrection, it flies to the fore.

The Revolutionary Epoch

individual production of 1871, which had nevertheless produced the Commune, had developed into genuine large-scale industry. Trotsky, watching the revolution in feudal Russia, declared that the victorious bourgeois-democratic revolution would “immediately” assume a socialist character. Lenin, as we know, opposed him. We now know who (despite many important qualifications) was essentially right. 1905 is a very important year. The development of industry brought the political general strike and the soviets. They represent the industrially and socially motivated rejection by the workers of bourgeois democracy. Marx’s 1850 subjective demand for revolutionary workers’ organizations are now objective realities, henceforth inseparable from revolution, as 1917 and post-war Europe and Asia were to show.

In 1938 in the Founding Conference Theses, Trotsky wrote that “The Spanish proletariat has made a series of heroic attempts since April 1931 to take power in its own hands and guide the fate of society.” Are these workers in the “true-bourgeois” tradition of forty years?

He says of the French proletariat that “the great wave of sit-down strikes, particularly during June 1936, revealed the wholehearted readiness of the proletariat to overthrow the capitalist system.” He left it to the Philistines of all shades to point out that the Spanish workers in 1931 were thinking only of overthrowing the monarch (as presumably the Belgians today), and the French workers only of the 40-hour week.

In 1940 Trotsky’s Manifesto had not the faintest breath of retrogression or belief that the workers for forty years have been dominated by “the true bourgeois tradition of revisionism” (p.340) He says the exact opposite. For him in 1939 the workers wanted to “tear themselves free from the bloody chaos” of capitalist society. In 1940 they had “lost practically all democratic and pacifist illusions.” Note that we are here a stage beyond 1848. The crimes and failures of the modern bourgeoisie have created the subjective consciousness of the modern proletariat which re-enforces the objective antagonism of developed modern industry. Trotsky calmly posed three possibilities. The victory of Anglo-American imperialism, an indecisive struggle, and the victory of Hitler in Europe. The last concerns us most. Fascism would over-run Europe. But that would only be a prelude to a ferocious war with the US. The perspective of Soviets, armed insurrection and the social revolution would remain. As industry had developed since 1848, so the crisis of 1940 presented us with antagonisms a thousand times more developed including a socialist proletariat. Yet there is never a word from the retrogressionists as to the relation of their theory to the perspectives of the leader of the Fourth International.

Historical Retrogression

What would be a retrogression? In the Junius pamphlet (1914) Rosa Luxemburg, although opposed to the imperialist war, put forward a program which did not call for social revolution. Lenin attacked this as a national program. The “objective historical” situation demanded the socialist revolution. He said that a throwback in Europe, i.e., retrogression, was not impossible, if the war ENDED in the domination of Europe by one state ... This was exactly Trotsky’s point when he emphasized that even if Hitler won in 1940, he would have to fight the United States. The war, i.e., the bourgeois crisis would not be ended. If, continued Lenin, the proletariat remained impotent for twenty years. Who, who (now) dares to say that the European proletariat is impotent? But the impotence of the whole European proletariat for twenty years would not be retrogression. In addition, for the same twenty years, the American and the Japanese proletariat must fail to achieve a socialist revolution. Then, and only then, after several decades, or in the time of our sons’ sons (Trotsky in 1938) would the revolutionary socialist movement recognize retrogression and once more raise the national program of the restoration of the bourgeois national state. [3]

But the retrogressionists, the vanguard of the vanguard, no sooner saw Hitler dominating Europe, then in the very midst of the war, when the whole situation was in flux, they proclaimed their labor camp theory and a “democratic-political revolution” for national independence and democracy. Not only that Their economic analysis (such as it is) leads them to foresee that the victorious imperialist nations, Anglo-American and Russian imperialism, will continue the same process. Hence their “democratic political revolution” still holds the stage.

Two Types of Democratic Demands

It should be obvious that what Lenin said about “democratic demands” has nothing at all to do with this dispute. It would be a crying and intolerable imposition to attempt to confuse the two. For Lenin all democratic demands in advanced countries were a means of mobilizing workers to overthrow the bourgeoisie. He said that we could have socialist revolution without one democratic demand being realized. The retrogressionists say we must have a “democratic-political revolution” so as to give the workers a chance to “reconstruct” the whole “screwed-back development,” and to learn to link scientific socialism to the labor movement. The two perspectives are at opposite poles. Never before has any revolutionary made such a proposal. Trotsky proposed that the democratic slogans of right to organize and free press be raised in fascist countries, but warned that they should not be a “noose fastened to the neck of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie’s agents.” (Founding Conference) Writing of “transitional demands in fascist countries,” he warned:

“Fascism plunged these countries into political barbarism. But it did not change their social structure. Fascism is a tool in the hands of finance-capital and not of feudal landowners. A revolutionary program should base itself on the dialectics of the class struggle, obligatory also to fascist countries, and not on the psychology of terrified bankrupts.”

For him the Soviets “will cover Germany before a new Constitutional Assembly will gather in Weimar.” [4] But the retrogressionists do not propose democratic demands which are to be thrown aside as soon as the masses move. They do the exact opposite. They propose a revolution for democratic demands. What is this but a rejection of the social revolution until later when the whole “screwed-back development” will have been “reconstructed.” This is the theory. Let us see how it measures up to events.

(The concluding part will appear in the next issue)


1. One of the three basic books used by Lenin in his studies for Imperialism.

2. The babblers who think that all the American workers want is “full employment” are in for a rude awakening. That capitalism increases the use-values (radio, education, books, etc.) that he uses outside of production only increases his antagonism.

3. That, said Lenin, was not impossible. But a few months later he said emphatically that the victorious bourgeoisie might think they could do this, but they could not. The economic retrogression of Europe by political means would be a colossal, in fact, an impossible task. (Collected Works, XIX. p.22.)

4. Those who want to use the fact that this did not happen are free to try. They should, however, think many times before they begin this type of argument.

Last updated on 11 March 2017