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. 2, February 1946, pp. 59–64.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Part II: The Test of Events

I propose now to test the retrogressionist theory by analysis of the events in Europe. The history of Europe in 1914–39 ensured rapid catastrophe for the bourgeoisie and therefore the immediate emergence of the socialist proletariat. There is where to begin. The first shock was the defeat of France, which, coupled with the subsequent collaboration of the bourgeoisie, drove out the last illusions about the rotten fabric of bourgeois democracy and gave an indication of the tempo of development. The defeat of the air blitz against Britain meant that in the course of the next three or four years modern production would unloose on one side or the other or on both such a weight of steel and lead and explosive as would make any long war impossible. The same would also loosen every bolt of the bourgeois structure. The performance of the Russian armies in front of Moscow, Leningrad and the great battle at Stalingrad not only proclaimed the defeat of Germany but posed to the workers the imminent reckoning between themselves and the bourgeoisie who had tortured them so long. But it did more. It underlined the bankruptcy of the European bourgeois-democracies and posed for the European workers the question of a “planned economy,” of state-ownership, of an end to private property. In all the voluminous writings of the retrogressionists, there has appeared no connected conception of all this, the fundamental Marxist analysis of the war. German defeat being on the order of the day, throughout 1943, the resistance movements all over Europe and Asia and in France and in Poland in particular, were elaborating a social program. Thus they were fundamentally posing the question of class rule and state-power. Thus the masses showed as clearly as possible that they did not want any “democratic-political revolution.” They wanted Fascism destroyed. But they wanted, in France for example, (1) a complete purge of the Administration so that the almost hereditary caste of officials who had betrayed France should be forever removed, (2) they wanted the property of the trusts, the banks and insurance companies “returned to the nation,” (3) they wanted the old official army abolished and a new army based on the popular militia, (later the FFI, and the Maquis), (4) they wanted democracy.

It was, for any Marxist, a most moving experience to see the socialist future thus concretely and courageously emerging, as a result of the ruin and catastrophe of the bourgeois barbarist war. It was also in its way one of the most dramatic demonstrations of Marx’s dialectical method that history has yet given us. For he is incapable of understanding revolution who does not see that what the proletariat in its empirical way was demanding was nothing less than the smashing of the bourgeois state-machine, the abolition of the bourgeois army, the substitution of collective property for bourgeois property and democracy, not bourgeois democracy but a democracy based on this overturn of the fundamentals of bourgeois society. That the democracy was not the democracy of the Third Republic they made clear by naming their new republic the Fourth Republic.

In the rest of Europe, the general situation was more or less the same; for example, more advanced in Poland, less in other countries. There is no space here to give evidence, but who wishes to deny this has my very warmest invitation to do so. The overwhelming majority of observers of Europe today report that the masses want the abolition of trusts, state ownership, plus democracy. That, in any language, even Stalinese, is socialism. Everybody knows this except those who wear retrogressivist spectacles.

The Counter-Revolution Takes Charge

The resistance leaders, and chiefly the Stalinists in every country, countered by promising socialism or at least, abolition of the trusts, in equivocal programs that meant one thing to the workers and something else to the writers. In France, for example, the dishonest program for socialism was combined with a relentless propaganda for a de Gaulle government. To the masses this government was represented as being determined to institute the new social order without delay. In March, 1944, the united French resistance movement endorsed a program which, twist and turn as it would, could not avoid the demand for the return of the great sources of wealth to the nation. And when workers with arms in hand say that, the question is posed in actuality and concretely related to the actions of the masses. After the “liberation” of France in August, 1944, the de Gaulle government, as in duty bound, sought to disarm the workers. Civil war, i.e., the socialist revolution, was averted only by a hair’s breadth. The Stalinists accomplished it in 1944 in circumstances far more dangerous for bourgeois society than in 1936 when the workers were ready enough. Enjoying enormous prestige from the victories of Russia and their devoted work (on behalf of the USSR) in the resistance movements, they intervened, and one authority ought to be quoted here. Earl Browder in the Daily Worker of the United States defended his reactionary class-collaborationist policy in the U.S. by pointing to this notorious counter-revolutionary act in France. As he said complacently, “The facts are known.” I hope they are. When Max Lerner returned from France, he reported the bitterness among some resistance leaders that they had missed the opportunity to create the new socialist order immediately on the expulsion of the German troops. Their self-criticism is not important. The thing is that social revolution was posed.

Since then the Consultative Assembly has repeatedly called on de Gaulle to nationalize the great industries, as he promised. Knowing that they are more terrified of the masses than he, he refuses. In May, 1945, on the morning of the municipal elections, the Socialist and Communist Parties issued a joint manifesto calling the de Gaulle government to fulfill the promise of the resistance program and nationalize the property of the trusts. Striving to stifle the revolution in France, these organizations and their resistance counterparts called a conference (which they had the impudence to call the States-General) for the week of July 14, 1945. Over 2,000 delegates attended. Chief result was an oath full of the most asphyxiating democratic verbiage. But there in the heart of it are the words “the fundamental rights of economic and social democracy ... to wit ... national economic sovereignty incompatible with the existence of private groups such as trusts, whose means of production and property must be restored to the national heritage.” The Stalinists dared not leave it out. Many millions of French men and women have no doubt repeated and subscribed to that oath. The big bourgeoisie trembles for its property. That is the temper of France. The CGT has four and a half million members. The Stalinist Party and the Socialist Party are more powerful than ever they were in 1936. The phenomenon is European. Yet we are to believe that all this is the mark of a great historical retrogression of workers just emerging from slavery.

The proletarian masses all over Europe know and declare that political democracy is not enough. “Economic democracy” is their own phrase. So also is: the confiscation of wealth from the trusts which ruined and betrayed the nation. Since 1942 this has been their steady cry. In France the Popular Republican Movement, a Catholic organization and the great hope of the bourgeoisie, has come out for nationalization. All the moderate parties can only hold their own by raising the demand for nationalization. And it is since 1942 that the retrogressionists have declared for their “democratic-political revolution.” For the past year they present the amazing spectacle of revolutionary socialists bringing to the front democracy while bourgeois and Stalinist parties win elections on popular leaflets demanding the abolition of trusts. While even counter-revolutionary parties can exist only by shouting nationalization (which for the workers means socialism), the vanguard of the vanguard sees the main task as the propaganda of democratic slogans owing to the historical retrogression.

Constituent Assembly. Bourgeois or Proletarian

I look back to more than a nodding acquaintance with our movement during the past hundred years. I cannot find its equal. And yet they can only get out of it by a radical break with the whole past of their theory and practice. From the moment they put forward their theory the retrogressionists were in an inescapable dilemma. Others have found themselves in it. In 1905 Lenin, facing a bourgeois-democratic revolution, posed this problem before his vacillating opponents. “And if we are in earnest in putting forward the practical demand for the immediate overthrow of the autocratic government, then we must be clear in our minds as to what other government we want to take the place of the one that is to be overthrown.” (Selected Works, vol. III, p. 21.) The retrogressionists have never answered and to this day cannot answer this question. In France, in Holland, in Belgium, etc., they proposed to enter the resistance movements. They proposed seriously to take part in the overthrow of the Nazi or collaborationist governments. But “what other government” was to take its place? They had nothing to say, they could have nothing to say, owing to their great historical retrogression. Their “democratic-political revolution” was a revolution of a bourgeois type. The Stalinists and the rest knew what they wanted – a bourgeois government, and fought fiercely to get it. On this point the retrogressionists could not distinguish the French proletariat from the French bourgeoisie in the traditional manner of the Fourth International. Somehow the relation of bourgeoisie and proletariat in the process of production had altered. On this all-important question of a government – silence.

But maybe their slogan was “the democratic-political” slogan of a Constituent Assembly to decide the form of government. If anything could awaken the Marxist dead, this would. Half of Lenin’s struggle against the Mensheviks in 1905 was over this very question of a Constituent Assembly. And this, mind you, was a bourgeois-democratic revolution. Lenin did not object to the slogan as a slogan. He wanted a Constituent Assembly, but an “assembly which would have the power and force to ‘constitute’.” He wanted a provisional revolutionary government. “By its origin and fundamental nature such a government must be the organ of the people’s rebellion. Its formal purpose must be to serve as an instrument for the convocation of a national Constituent Assembly.” But, and here the great revolutionary speaks, “Its activities must be directed toward the achievement of the minimum program of proletarian democracy.” This program for Russia, 1905, was the destruction of Czarism, formation of a republic and abolition of feudal property. Lenin continued: “It might be argued that the provisional government, owing to the fact that it is provisional, could not carry out a positive program which had not yet received the approval of the whole of the people. Such an argument would be sheer sophistry, such as is advanced by reactionaries ... and autocrats.” (Selected Works, III, p. 51.) Compare this with the “democratic-political revolution.” Its maximum demand was – restore democracy.

Trotsky in 1931 solved this problem for Spain by calling the Constituent Assembly a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly, thereby cutting it off at one stroke from the petty-bourgeois chatterers and fakers. He demanded that the Assembly itself confiscate the railways, mines, etc. No fooling the people with writing academic constitutions à la Weimar. The armed people should institute their government, and their assembly which would act. (This is not merely past history. Later I shall again expose the retrogressionist “Constituent Assembly” slogan.) But the fact remains that instead of boldly posing to the revolting workers, and peasants, in their factory committees, resistance committees, peasant committees, the formation of a government to carry out immediately – but to carry out what? There the retrogressionist thesis hung at their feet like a ball and chain. There was no feudal property. The only thing a revolutionary government could do was to drive out Pétain, institute a workers’ government and seize the bourgeois property. But to say that meant the collapse of the whole retrogressionist thesis. So retrogression kept quiet.

Let us return to events. In Greece, for three whole days, the power lay in the streets. It could have been seized, big capitalists tried and shot, their property confiscated, with incalculable consequences for Eastern and all Europe. Revolutionists should have prepared the armed masses to seize precisely such an opportunity and to set themselves up as the government. As far as it could, retrogression said-retrogression, and when the British and Greek reaction massacred the Greek masses, said, “You see, we said so. Everything and everybody is retrogressive.”

North Italy is perhaps the most striking refutation of retrogression. There, as we have seen, during the last months of the war, the workers had to be appeased by decrees (no doubt phoney but yet significant) which “socialized” industry. Great strikes shook the Northern provinces and the workers collaborated with armed partisans. I ask the retrogressionists. Wasn’t it here that the revolutionaries should have said, “Remember Greece. See what de Gaulle and Pierlot are doing. At the first sign of German retreat we shall confiscate these factories, our resistance committees will deal with the Germans and the bourgeoisie and establish a workers’ government?” But for the Stalinists, they would in all probability have done just that. As it was, not knowing that they were in a great retrogression they negotiated with Mussolini, executed numbers of fascists and capitalists, purged the government and, from the latest accounts, not only seized the factories but are still running them. Thereby they showed in practice what they thought of the “democratic-political revolution.”

Innumerable examples can be given to show without any contention or doubt that the objective movement of events in Europe imposed upon the working masses both the need and the opportunity to seize state power. Historical development has placed objectively before the nation the necessity of leadership by the proletariat. This is the historical movement of our times – not retrogression. The “screwed-back development” and the “democratic-political revolution” are in no way substantiated by events.

Retrogression Today

The whole retrogressionist thesis compelled it to confine itself to the concept of the “democratic-political revolution,” i.e., demanding the restoration of the bourgeois-national state. The terrible thing is that this is their program for Europe today. Look at what they’ think of the contemporary European proletariat. “Political consciousness,” they say, “lives only in ... groups and individuals (“isolated and decimated propaganda groups,” i.e., a few hundred Trotskyists). (p. 240) The European proletariat today has no political consciousness. Obviously, then, there is no use talking of socialism.

According to retrogressionist accumulation: “The proletariat has again, as formerly, become an amorphous mass, the characteristics of its rise and its formation have been lost.” Just pause and contemplate for a few awed minutes the historic sweep of that statement. Who says A says B. “Before Europe can unite itself into ‘socialist states,’ it must first separate itself again into independent and autonomous states.” The retrogressionists have no conception of revolutionary dynamics. They adhere to fixed and formal stages which have no application to contemporary Europe. Must Esthonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland set up free and independent bourgeois states again before they can become socialist? Are we, the socialist revolutionaries of the twentieth century, to become sponsors of bourgeois states created by a “democratic-political revolution”? And, concretely, what Europe are these comrade. looking at?

At Yalta and at Potsdam, an American, an Englishman and a Georgian living in Moscow settled the fate of all Europe. The rulers of the “independent,” “autonomous” states, like you or me, read what these three Titans had for lunch, what music they listened to after dinner, and then learned their own fate in the lying communiques. During World War I it was one of Lenin’s basic arguments on self-determination that economic domination did not mean political domination. Today, and that is the new stage, economic and political domination go hand in hand. With trifling exceptions (e.g., Norway and perhaps Denmark), every single European government in existence was established by imperialist power, could not have been established without it and is maintained by it. Stalin maintains the bourgeois states in Eastern Europe. With the possible exception of France, Truman is responsible for the maintenance of every government in Western Europe. That is the new Europe. And today, we, the Marxists, are to call on the workers to revolt to substitute new bourgeois governments “independent” and “autonomous” in order then to prepare for socialism. There is a case where in the phrases of Blake: the embattled angels must throw down their spears and water heaven with their tears. For even they could not establish an independent bourgeois Poland! It would take a volume to show the ruin which the retrogressionists make of Marxism. For example, a bourgeois-”democratic-political” revolution in Poland? Which class is to lead it? The Polish bourgeoisie? In Greece, is the Greek bourgeoisie to lead the revolution against Britain? Is it? If, in France, the bourgeoisie moved from German fascism to Anglo-American imperialism, as it did, is there the slightest reason for thinking that any revolution anywhere in Europe would not have to fight against its own bourgeoisie which needs the protection of one imperialism or another? Are the workers so stupid as to be unable to understand the simple truth of Europe today? The proletariat must lead the revolution for national independence, so that the revolution must be a socialist revolution. The retrogressionist analysis of nations expropriating other nations drives them, by implication, to give a revolutionary role to the bourgeoisie which it is incapable of playing. This is where you land by tampering with the fundamentals of Marxism. The retrogressionists say with pride that now everybody repeats their thesis that Europe is Balkanized. What self-delusion! Everybody says exactly the opposite, that Europe is not Balkanized. Everybody sees that one power dominates Eastern Europe and one power or rather a major power and satellite dominate the other half. These comrades cannot see the difference between Versailles and Potsdam. Finally let us compare these bold innovations with the Marxism we still believe in. This was written during World War I by Trotsky:

“If the German armies achieved the decisive victory reckoned upon in Germany at the outset of the war, then German imperialism would doubtless make the gigantic attempt of a compulsory war tariff union of European states which would be constructed completely of preferences, compromises and heaps of every kind of outworn stuff in conformity with the state structure of presentday Germany. Needless to say, under such circumstances, no talk would be possible of an autonomy of the nations, thus forcibly joined together as the caricature of the European United States. Let us for a moment admit that German militarism succeeds in actually carrying out the compulsory half-union of Europe, what then would be the cardinal formula of the European proletariat? Would it be the dissolution of the forced European coalition and the return of all peoples under the roof of isolated national state! Or the restoration of ‘automatic’ tariffs, ‘national’ coinage, ‘national’ social legislation, and so forth? Certainly not. The slogan of the European revolutionary movement would then be the cancellation of the compulsory, anti-democratic form of the coalition with the preservation and zealous furtherance of its foundations, in the form of the complete annihilation of tariff barriers, the unification of legislation and above all of labor laws. In other words, the slogan of the United Socialist Europe – without monarchy and standing armies – would under the foregoing circumstances become the unifying and guiding formula of the European revolution.” (Proletarian Revolution in Russia)

Trotsky never moved and never would have moved one inch from that. A few months before Stalin murdered him he wrote in the Manifesto:

“The shifts in the battle lines at the front, the destruction of national capitals, the occupation of territories, the downfall of individual states represent from this standpoint only tragic episodes on the road to the reconstruction of modern society.”

Not historical retrogression to the Middle Ages but an episode on the road to socialism. After Stalingrad the masses saw it more or less that way too.

“The Unifying and Guiding Formula”

This is no thesis on Europe today. I have no space for that. But a few things have to be said, and Germany offers a more than excellent example. Here the proletariat, if anywhere, is “an amorphous mass.” Here presumably we must have an “independent, autonomous state” before the struggle for socialism begins, and this, if you please, by a revolution. The retrogressionists presumably propose for Germany as the first slogan: withdrawal of the occupation armies. Good. Next. Freedom of press and right to organize. Agreed.

Now what next? Constituent Assembly? Constituent Assembly for what? That is the question. To have some more German professors write another Weimar Constitution? What do the retrogressionists mean by a “democratic-political revolution” for Germany? Do they mean the resurrection of a democratic German capitalism? Here is a new chance for you to clarify us, comrades. If Germany is to be free, then production must be free. Are Marxists to give the slightest countenance to the idea of capitalism once more being given free scope in Germany? We await your answer.

Marxism in Germany today demands withdrawal of occupying troops, right of free press and the right to organize. That has not one whiff of retrogression. But it demands today a revolutionary provisional government elected by the people to destroy capitalism in Germany. (And we might say boldly also that if the occupying armies were to withdraw tomorrow, we would summon the people to arm themselves and carry out this program in a revolutionary manner.) A superb slogan, of deep historical significance, has already come out of Germany. “Not National Socialism, but the Socialist Nation.” This in the light of their dreadful past has meaning for all Germans. This is the appeal the German workers must make to Europe. This must be coupled with slogans embodying ideas such as: Do not take away the factories. Do not limit our production. Let us join the European working class in a new European socialist order.

Nothing else but this will counter the bourgeois propaganda that a free Germany means war once more. This is the way to pose now before the German people and the rest of Europe a unified Europe, the Socialist United States of Europe.

The retrogression thesis on Germany today, ridiculous as it is, merely continues its policy of yesterday. It is obvious that this thesis could see no sort of proletarian socialist revolution in Germany or Italy. There, in excelsis, the proletariat was “amorphous mass,” etc. The European Trotskyist movement saw Germany as the key to the European situation and to its eternal credit” and honor never for one moment drew back or equivocated on its belief in the capacity of the German workers to make a revolution in the manner envisaged by Trotsky in 1938. The retrogressionists, however, in full accordance with their theory, obviously had abandoned the German revolution, even after the altogether magnificent revolution of the Italian workers, which should have wiped away all doubts about the recuperative power of the proletariat under fascism. For them the Socialist United States of Europe was no unifying slogan but a phrase. Their revolution in the occupied countries was “democratic-political.” But the formation of factory committees and soviets for Germany or Italy, the beginning of the socialist revolution, as Trotsky envisaged it in 1938, that their conception of the proletariat did not allow them to see at all.

The Failure of the German Workers

The German workers failed to achieve a coordinated revolt. The exact reasons for this we do not know and doubtless before very long they will tell us for themselves. But this much the present writer has always believed and does not waver from it. After Stalingrad the German bourgeoisie was doomed. As the climax approached it was obvious that no class would be able to hold the German nation together except the proletariat. It has turned out that such was the destruction and ruin of Germany that the nation, including the proletariat, collapsed completely. Germany is held together today by occupying armies. But if tomorrow the occupying armies were to leave, the proletariat would, as in Italy, reassert itself with the utmost rapidity. Had there been a revolution in Germany, despite the fact that invading armies would have entered, the whole European situation would have been altered. Not only would the German proletariat have started with a clean slate in its own eyes. It would have won sympathy and support from the European workers at one stroke. And this revolution would have immensely altered the relation of forces in the hitherto occupied countries. As it is, the German failure hangs heavily not only over Germany, but over Europe also.

Churchill can write and Attlee sign at Potsdam with no reaction from British workers. The European workers are apathetic in regard to Germany. The conception of the Socialist United States of Europe did not get that final reinforcement from the German revolution. The German workers, in the popular mind, share the responsibility for Nazi crimes as the Italian workers do not.

The defeat hangs over us all, but on no revolutionary current does it hang so heavily as on the retrogressionists. What kind of defense can they make of the German workers today which would square with their theory of the “amorphous mass”? – None that can hold water. They do not say that the German workers were fascist-minded, but all they can do is to apologize. Where the petty bourgeois democrats claim that the German workers must be educated for democracy, the retrogressionists claim that the German workers must be organized with democracy and educated for socialism. It is better, but not much better. For to this very day they consider the German workers incapable of a socialist proletarian revolution until they have passed through the school of democracy. They can only hold up before them their labor-camp revolution for democracy, the restoration of bourgeois society, of an “independent, autonomous” German bourgeoisie.

The Bourgeoisie and the Constituent Assembly

History repeats itself as farce, says Marx. It needs the pen of the Eighteenth Brumaire to describe the shameful farce that is being played around this slogan of Constituent Assembly in France today. France had a constitution, free elections and all the bag of bourgeois tricks-the hated Third Republic. Now de Gaulle proposes elections to decide whether France should have the constitution of 1875 over again or whether the newly elected body should be a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. The debate is rich. Two chambers or one! Will the executive have more power, as in the U.S., or will the cabinet be irremovable until a general election, as in Britain? Will we have proportional representation? Yes, say the socialists, firmly, very firmly. No, says some other party, eoually firmly. Will Catholic schools be state-aided? And so on and so forth. This the professors will babble about for seven months after October and then produce another Weimar Constitution in French. Then we shall prepare for some real constitutional elections. Meanwhile de Gaulle asks that during this time his government have the power. “No,” says the Consultative Assembly, “you can have it, but the Constituent Assembly in the intervals of its constitution-writing will keep an eye on you and if it doesn’t like what you are doing it will have the power to turn you out.”

Was ever a device more patently calculated to do what de Gaulle has done for one year-do nothing, secretly consolidate his power inside the administration and outside it, and wait for the fatigue and disgust of the masses? [1]

Can we summon up a little revolutionary imagination or rather memory and think how Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky would have torn into this! Are Marxists to lend themselves to it? This is what. we should say. [We do not want any talking shop” (as Engels called the constitution-drafting assembly at Frankfort in 1848.)] We do not want any Constituent Assembly to write any bourgeois constitution. We want a Revolutionary Provisional Constituent Assembly or a Revolutionary Provisional Government which will first and foremost arm the whole people in a national militia to ensure its own defense. We want it to carry out the program of the resistance and socialize the property of the trusts. We want it to appoint people’s courts to complete the purge. We want the FFI and the Maquis to become the nucleus of a popular army. We want the representatives of the CGT, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the peasants’ associations, the Radical-Socialist Party, etc., to formulate a plan of economic action to save France from the present ruin. We want the workers in the factories to control production according to this plan. The planners and the workers will establish universal labor discipline to rebuild France. What we want is a second revolution.

“We propose freedom for the colonies and a joint economy with them. We propose the same to the British government. Europe can never recover as isolated states. Leave the German factories to the German workers. Atomic energy means that we in Europe shall live forever in terror and end by being blown to pieces unless we unite. A workers’ France in a Socialist United States of Europe.”

Concrete slogans are not my business here. But the above is what we should say. One cannot call today for workers’ power. That opportunity was presented at the moment of the “liberation” and should have been prepared for. Today that would be madness. If an election for a nasty, stinking bourgeois Constituent Assembly should intervene, then most certainly we take part. But in the present period we link the concrete demands and concrete organizations to an incessant socialist propaganda. How long will it take before the masses mobilize for direct action? What a question! After World War I the general strike in France came in 1920. After November, 1918, in Germany the Kapp Putsch came in 1920, the March Action in 1921. Trotsky has more than once told us that but for the war the 1917, crisis in Russia would have been delayed for one or two years. Truman prepares to suppress “desperate men” this winter. We prepare by mobilizing the masses. Europe is ruined. It has to be rebuilt. Only the united efforts of the workers can rebuild it. History will take its course. That course will never be charted by those who believe ‘that the European proletariat nowhere has any chances of seizing power in the course of the next five years. The revolutionary explosions may be delayed. They may come with striking suddenness and spread like a prairie fire. Trotsky wrote many times about this. Take up your copy of the History and read the first paragraph of Volume III, Chapter XI, page 250.

What is the retrogressionist view? We must, they say, study Lenin’s writings in 1908 in order to know how to act in 1945. Here is the ouintessence of retrogression. Lenin in 1908 was seeking to rebuild a movement and lift a proletariat which had just been defeated, after a tremendous revolution. For the retrogressionists, the would revolution has failed to come. No “if” here, and the proletariat is in ruins. In the Materials for Revision of the Party Program, May 1917, Lenin says that precisely because of “the enormous obstacles in the path of the economic and political struggles of the proletariat, the horrors of the imperialist war and the disaster and ruin caused by it, all these factors transform the present stage of capitalist development into an era of proletarian socialist revolution. That era has begun.” May 1917. Isn’t it ten times worse today?

This was Lenin’s perpetual cry in 1917. Russia is ruined. Europe is ruined. The ruin continues. The misery of the people grows. The only way out is by moving to’ socialism. What other way out is there/today? We may have to go underground. We go. Messrs. Retrogressionists, hat in hand and on my knees, I beg of you. Tell us. Are you prepared to pose socialism to the European people today? If not, why not? And so that there can be no fooling, is your proposal this: That as the French proletariat is an “amorphous mass,” lacking “political consciousness,” all that we can do is to propose the “democratic-political” slogan of a Constituent Assembly to decide the form of bourgeois government, so that the masses might have time to be educated by the few politically-conscious people, the isolated and decimated Trotskyists? Again! Where do you stand on Italy? There the government does not overcome a crisis in order to function but functions solely by overcoming crises. Are the Italian workers such an “amorphous mass” so lacking in political consciousness that Marxists have in 1945 to shout for a democratic republic? Or do we tell them that nothing, nothing but the destruction of bourgeois property and their own class actions can save the nation from ruin? That will take care of the King? A famous observation of Trotsky during the Spanish revolution was that we fought willingly in Negrin’s armies, but not even then would we sponsor the bourgeois republic or any of its works, even its budget for war against Franco. In India and colonial countries, says the Founding Conference, we tie together “indissolubly” the Soviets, the Constituent Assembly and agrarian reform, which means in reality agrarian revolution. In Europe today what do we tie indissolubly to the Constituent Assembly? Right of free press and right to organize or abolition of bourgeois property and workers’ militia? But if you say abolition of bourgeois property and workers’ militia, then where is the retrogression? The more one considers the retrogressionist theories, the more incredible they become. It seems that they are firmly convinced that absolutely the greatest mistake a revolutionary party in Europe can make is to say: “Form soviets, organize to overthrow bourgeois society. Only socialism can save us.” You can sum up their whole thesis thus. Above all, no socialist agitation.

The Role of the Party

The retrogressionists made a pronouncement which has caused a vast amount of confusion. The task they said and still say was to rebuild the labor movement. Whereupon proponents and opponents alike took this to mean labor parties, trade unions, cooperatives, etc. These were destroyed; obvious retrogression; therefore they had to be rebuilt. Socialism? Afterward. But, as it was so easy to foresee, the workers in many countries were rebuilding them even before the Germans got out. They did not consider themselves defeated as in Russia of 1908. They seized bourgeois printing houses and printed their papers. The CGT has four and a half million members. In Italy the CP and SP have a million and a half members between them.

Now the retrogressionists say that they did not mean the labor movement, social-democratic parties, etc. They meant scientific socialism – the revolutionary party. What a mess! But let that pass (for the time being). They say that since the treachery of the Stalinists in Spain (1938) there has been no revolutionary party. Isn’t this pathetic? Since 1934 the Fourth International has as one of its basic doctrines that there was no revolutionary socialist party except ourselves. In 1935 Trotsky wrote in Whither France? “But it is a fact that there is no revolutionary party in France.” Yet in the same article he says:

“Victory is possible! Comrades ... the Bolshevik-Leninists summon you to struggle and to victory.” (Page 117)

The Bolshevik-Leninists! Those were our few comrades in France. I doubt if they were more numerous than today. Today the cadres are certainly stronger. The whole thesis ends in a grandiose zero and multitudinous explanations. Push the retrogressionists on their “amorphous mass,” they say “no labor movement.” Push them on “the non-existence of the labor movement,” they say “no party.” Show them Trotsky and the small French party in 1934 onwards summoning the workers to socialist revolution, they say – Christ only knows what they say. We ask the retrogressionists: What is new about scientific socialism and the labor movement in France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Britain, since we declared for the Fourth International in 1934? What has happened to justify a new political orientation “because there is no party”? They announce with a luxuriant verbiage that the task is to build the party. We are to link scientific socialism to the labor movement? Wonderful! How do you propose to do this? By giving classes? Or by teaching the workers to preserve democracy I As if the desperate, class struggle will wait. What, comrades. do you think Trotsky was trying to do between 1934 and his death? What do you think he was doing in France when in the name of our little party he was putting forward the revolutionary socialist program and calling the workers to victory. Strange as this may seem to you, he was building the party, building it with a correct policy in the concrete circumstances. He didn’t ask history to wait while parties were being built.

Scientific Socialism and the Labor Movement

In 1934 there was an armed clash in the streets of Paris. How did Trotsky meet it? All the retrogressionists should either read Whither France? or give away their copies. In March, 1935, seeing in the clash of 1934 bourgeois reaction and the instinctive socialist demands of the French proletariat, he writes: “The working masses understand what ‘the leaders’ do not understand, that under the conditions of a very great social crisis, a political-economic struggle alone, which requires enormous efforts and enormous sacrifices, cannot achieve any serious results.” When was France ever in such a social crisis as today? When the great strikes broke out after the elections, Trotsky saw: socialist revolution. “When one and a half million voters cast their ballots for the Communists, the majority of them wish to say: ‘We want you to do the same thing in France that the Russian Communists did in their country in October, 1917.’” Three months ago the CP had 900,000 members which today with the YCL and periphery organizations must make them almost equal to the votes of 1986. What have these people joined for? Because they have retrogressed into an “amorphous mass”! Or for Revolution? How are the Stalinists to be defeated?The people flock to them for revolution and we counter by saying: “They are counter-revolutionary. Come to us. We shall save you from the Middle Ages by democracy.”

Trotsky calls for committees of action of striking workers anda congress of all the committees of action in France. “This will be the new order which must take the place of the reigning anarchy.” (Page 148)

And seven pages later he calls for an organization to reflect the will, the “growing will” of the “struggling masses” – the Soviets of Workers Deputies. According to retrogressionist logic (today) all this was madness. Trotsky should have said:

“The labor movement does not exist. It is divided between bourgeois parties, Stalinist and Menshevik. There is no party. We must struggle to maintain democracy until we once more have the labor movement linked to scientific socialism.”

Is this unfair? Then show me.

Thus the great revolutionary. What would we not give for ten lines, just ten lines, from his pen today?

This spinning out of empty theories about linking scientific Socialism to the labor movement is the sum total of retrogressionist wisdom and its last refuge against the interminable contradictions in which it increasingly finds itself. It heaps an its mistakes upon the heads of the workers. In January 1938, Trotsky wrote on Spain: The Last Warning. Of the Spanish revolution he says:

“Throughout the six years its social setting was the growing onslaught of the masses against the regime of semi-feudal and bourgeois property.”

Compare this and a thousand other statements like it with the retrogressionist analysis of the proletariat during the last forty years.

No man ever insisted upon the importance of the party with greater urgency than Trotsky. Yet he continues:

“The hounding of the Trotskyists, POUMists, revolutionary anarchists; the filthy slander, the false documents, the tortures in the Stalinist offices, the murders from ambush – without all this the bourgeois regime, under the republican flag, Could not have lasted even two months.”

Is this clear?

“The GPU proved to be the master of the situation only because it defended more consistently than the others, i.e., with the greatest baseness and bloodthirstiness, the interests of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.”

Compare this with the long list of lamentations of the retrogressionists, their view of the modern proletariat, their concentrated hostility to any idea of socialism as a living concrete alternative to capitalism. Europe seethes with ruin and unrest. Workers have hidden their arms. The main prop of bourgeois society is Stalinism, which opposes and demoralizes the revolutionary desires of the masses. How to meet it? Listen to Trotsky again:

“The renunciation of conquest of power inevitably throws every workers’ organization into the swamp of reformism and turns it into a plaything of the bourgeoisie; it cannot be otherwise in view of the class structure of society.”

Today, in the terrible crisis of Europe,with the workers looking for a way out, the retrogressionists renounce the bold posing of the socialist solution to the workers. For them the workers are defeated as in Russia of 1908. No, now is the time to remember the Lenin of 1905.

“Revolutions are the locomotives of history, said Marx. Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles, if judged by a narrow Philistine scale of gradual progress. But the leaders of the revolutionary party must also, at such a time, present their tasks in a wider and bolder fashion, so that their slogan may always be in advance of the revolutionary initiative of the masses, serve them as a beacon and reveal to them our democratic and socialist ideal in all its magnitude and splendor, indicate the shortest, the most direct route to complete, absolute and final victory.” (Vol. III, p. 128)

Translated to today that means the socialist program. Of the retrogressionist thesis as applied to the United States, there is regrettably no space to speak. It is a credit to our movement that the retrogressionists are almost completely isolated among all currents which embrace the program of the Fourth International. It is only a matter of time before their theory and the ruinous politics which flow from it will only be an unpleasant memory. If, as appears from statements in their document, they should make any attempt to apply it to America, then its exposure in the American movement would only be swifter and surer.

September 10, 1945

J.R. Johnson


1. The actual word Constituent Assembly is not in question here. I would raise Trotsky’s slogan the Revolutionary Constituent Assembly. In France the slogan of a Convention might have a tremendous historical appeal.

Last updated on 11 March 2017