C.L.R. James

The Gathering Forces

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II. Contemporary International Class Struggles

The United States and the Russian Revolution

What has happened in relations between Russia and the United States over the last dozen years is of primary significance for us. American power has accommodated itself to Russian power because the threat of working class revolution against Stalinist power is more frightening than the competition with modern Russia. While the conflict has not ceased, it has been carefully controlled. This new stage in the relationship was marked by the October of 1956, the Hungarian Revolution. This was a revolution of the entire Hungarian population, led by the working class, against Russian occupation and the Communist Party dictatorship. In the past in the cold war between America and Russia, the American government responded quickly and forcefully to what it considered the challenge of “international communism”. But it met the rising of the Hungarian working class in the face of tremendous military odds with the insistence that the repression of Hungary was an internal matter of the “Warsaw Pact” signatories. America acquiesced in the slaughter of the Hungarian proletarian revolution, a revolution that marked the furthest stage of the revolutionary development of the modern working class. In it the working class demonstrated that it could dispense with political parties and rely solely on the power of its direct organisation in workers’ councils at the point of production. This workers’ power was too great a threat to American capitalism; American capitalism did not mind that Russian tanks defeated it.

Today the American and Russian working classes stand as the heirs of the Hungarian workers of 1956. Therefore, only an analysis of the interpenetration of Russian and American working classes can allow us to see the way out of the tensions that portend the making of World War III.

In 1917 the largest and most modern factory in the world was the Putilov works in St. Petersburg. The social organisation to correspond to that, however, was not in Russia at all. It was at the plant of the Ford Motor Company in Highland Park, Michigan. The Russian workers overthrew czarism, and then the capitalist government of Kerensky, in order to take possession of the Putilov works and all the rest of Russian industry. But the social order which they were revolting against, and which they were to face again in another form, had reached its highest development at Ford.

Ford had introduced the assembly line to raise labour productivity to new heights. But the assembly line raised more then productivity. It raised the alienation and fragmentation of workers to new heights. And so Ford introduced a new social organisation to correspond to the technological organisation of the assembly line. This was the Ford Service Department which organised a totalitarian central over the lives of Ford workers, at work and at home, which was to become notorious for its viciousness, for its corruption and for its pervasiveness. Combined with the ultimate in alienation and control was – the Five Dollar Day. This was evidence right at the start of a new stage of capitalist production that the intensification of exploitation was no longer to be synonymous with low wages.

What the Ford system was, was the embryonic form, limited to one company and one community, of fascism or totalitarianism. When the Ford system of production became the universal one in all industrial nations, the attempt to impose the Ford social system also became universal. It was successful in Italy. It was successful in Germany. And it was the system which Stalin turned to in order to destroy the conquests of 1917 and to industrialise Russia at the expense of the Russian workers. Harry Bennett’s Service Department on the grand scale – the GPU, organiser of purges, organizer of assassinations, organizer of slave labour camps.

In one sense, the fact that the peak of capitalist social organisation had been reached in the United States and not in Russia was a sign of the weakness of the Russian working class. Although the Putilov works was the largest in the world and contained under its roof the largest concentration of workers ever assembled until that time, Russian industry as a whole was small and weak. And the Russian working class was small and weak. Not, of course, in relation to czarism, but in relation to the needs of a modern industrial civilisation.

The American working class, despite the greater intensity of its exploitation in 1917 and in the years that followed, proved powerful enough to prevent the imposition of the Ford social system, that is, fascism, on the nation as a whole. The attempts to impose totalitarian order and regimentation on the nation, especially after the explosions of the depression days, were continuous. Fascist organizations were formed and reached considerable strength in some instances. And the interest in promoting an imposed social peace on the nation through totalitarian instruments reached into the New Deal cabinet of Franklin Roosevelt. But the outbursts, the strikes, the sitdowns, the political organization proved stronger than the counter-revolution and what emerged was Welfare State Capitalism instead of Totalitarian State Capitalism.

Now, after 50 years, we have come full circle and Russian and American workers once again share a fundamentally similar situation. In the Soviet Union it took the organization of labor itself, the Communist Party, to impose the brutal discipline required by the needs of capital. The organization of labor transformed into its opposite, the instrument of capitalist discipline in production. In the United States too, although in more moderate form, the old social order proved inadequate to control and regiment the working class and one of the consequences of Welfare State Capitalism is that that task is more and more assumed by the organizations of labor, the unions. (In England the process is even more visible in the Labour Party.) Here, too, the organization of labor is transformed into its opposite, the instrument of capitalist discipline in production. And old Henry Ford knew what he was doing, his pattern is imitated to this day. He knew that he had to combine the carrot with the stick, the Five Dollar Day with the Service Department. So the union contracts of today combine the high wages and fringe benefits with the increase of discipline and intensification of the speed-up.

In 1917 it was still possible for different parts of the world to travel different roads. Today that is no longer true. What Russian workers will find it necessary to do, or what American workers will find it necessary to do, will also be done by their fellow workers on the other side of the world.

The Russian working class travelled a rocky and tortuous road from 1917 to 1967. In 1917 the Russian workers were unable to end the contradiction between economics and politics. They mastered politics and formed Soviets. But they did not succeed in mastering economics. They proved too small, too backward, too isolated to manage production. As a result they were driven back. The battles of the Civil War took a tremendous toll. Thousands of the workers who had made the Revolution fell in battle. The physical plant of Russian industry deteriorated with the result that the working class itself was scattered with an additional loss of productive skills. Skilled workers unable to work at their trade because of lack of equipment or of materials drifted into black market trade or back to the farm or accepted unskilled work. The final blow was the Stalinist counter-revolution which annihilated the rank and file militants, the factory leaders, the worker-Bolsheviks.

In 1917 the Russian workers put an end to Russian feudalism. A decade later (1928) Stalin introduced the first Five Year Plan to impose a capitalist discipline on the workers. But it was an almost new working class, driven from the farms through the forced collectivization of agriculture which was intended both to supply the workers and to feed them. In 1928 the aim was the largest possible mass of labor through the subordination of the workers to the specialists in general. By 1931 industrialization had reached the point where exploitation could be intensified through increasing the pay of individuals through the institution of the piecework system. By 1935 this is developed into fully blown Stakhanovism, the piece worker as individual hero, the competition between workers. In this brutal way was industrialization introduced to state capitalist Russia and illiterate peasants transformed into disciplined workers. In 1936 the new Stalinist Constitution codified the new system and established the “intelligentsia”; that is, the experts, the party leaders, the managers as the new capitalist class.

The power of the small Russian working class of 1917, its overthrow of Czarism and its control of the state, called forth the absolute extreme of totalitarian terror to overthrow it and then to dominate and discipline the new Russian working class. By the time of World War II Russian industrialization had reached the point where the machinery itself could begin to discipline and organize the workers. Piecework becomes more systematized in the form of competition between factories.

The major turning point is 1943. This is the year of the conversion to the conveyor belt system. It corresponds to the theoretical admission, in Leontiev’s Political Economy in the Soviet Union, that the law of value operates in the Soviet Union. But the conveyor belt system indicates more than a technical level of sophistication. It indicates that a modern industrial proletariat has been formed, far in advance of the Russian workers of 1917. And the class struggle begins to develop as the workers attempt to organize their resistance to the intense exploitation. It begins in Vorkuta and the slave labor camps before the death of Stalin, and then spreads to all of Russia. Stalin’s death and the relaxation of the oppression conceals the fact that the change in rulers did not cause the thaw but merely corresponded to the pressures of the workers.

At the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1956, in a speech to which no one paid any attention because it was public (unlike the secret speech denouncing Stalin), Khrushchev points out that “there is a great deal of disorder and confusion in the system of wages and rate-fixing ... Cases of wage leveling are not uncommon. On the other hand, payment for the same type of work sometimes differs between various bodies, and even within a single body. Alongside the low paid workers there exists a category of workers, a small one it is true, in whose wages unjustified excesses are tolerated.” What this means, of course, is that the Russian workers have succeeded in establishing the informal shop floor organizations of struggle, known in all industrial countries, They have been able to make a mockery of the national plan and to force adjustments in wages (and, of necessity, working conditions) on a shop or department basis.

The stage that the modern industrial proletariat of a totalitarian state capitalist nation has reached was indicated negatively by Khrushchev. It was indicated positively by the Hungarian Revolution, where the opposition between economics and politics was finally overcome. Hungary shows where the Russian working class has in fact reached, able to manage society both politically and economically.

In the United States the fantastic growth of the chemical industry and the development of the electric motor made possible the introduction of the continuous assembly line. Huge complexes such as the Ford plant were made possible by the new source of power which was portable within the plant and freed production from the need to be close to water power. They were aided , in the early stages of the chemical industry, by the finer grades of steel and other products made possible by the application of electricity and chemistry to machine production.

The result in the United States was a tremendous expansion of the working class, aided by World War I, and almost immediately the explosion of the class struggle. The period of the Twenties, the so-called prosperity years, begins with the great Steel Strike of 1919 and the Seattle General Strike and ends in the Great Depression. It is a period, not of class peace, but of ass war. But with the crushing of the steel strike the state and all the instruments of political power are clearly seen as the direct servant of capital. The workers, adept at using their economic power, find themselves unmercifully beaten back by the political (and military) power arrayed against them. In the United States, as in Russia, the workers are taking the needed time to learn about themselves, about the new forms of production, about the forms of organization adequate for their situation.

With the Great Depression this bursts forth in the formation of the CIO and the introduction of the sit-down strike. In the sit-down, the workers take their first long step towards control of production and, thereby, the elimination of the contradiction between economics and politics as it confronted the American working class. In its origin as spontaneous outbursts started without the approval and against the wishes of the leaders of the new unions, the sit-downs already foretell the fundamental split between workers and union leaders that is the hallmark of the labor movement today. And just as the workers’ revolution of 1917 brought forth totalitarian state capitalism to suppress it, so the workers revolt of the 1930s also brought forth the massive intervention of the state in the form of Welfare State Capitalism to suppress it. All of the labor and social reforms of the New Deal were designed to provide orderly bargaining through representatives supervised by the state and to put an end to workers representing themselves in sit-downs and wildcats. The massive uprising of the 1930s had finally broken through the separation of economics and politics, but because it was not complete, because it ended in unions instead of control the workers were able to transform American politics but not to control it.

The period of World War II is the period of the codification of the social legislation of the New Deal. The fusion between unions and government is made complete. The workers make one last attempt to break it in the immediate postwar years and when the first round of postwar strikes has only limited success (winning the sliding scale of wages in the auto industry) both sides in the conflict move in new directions. American industry in the early Fifties embarks on a massive program of automation to free itself from the restrictions imposed on it by the workers (and made possible by the technological advances during the war in military products). The workers begin the necessary reorganization to correspond to the new form of production. In 1955 they indicate what that new form is. In the massive wildcats against a union settlement in auto, the workers put forward their own “specific local grievances” which, in their totality, show the desire of workers to control production and demonstrate their total separation from the union. No longer will the union be the instrument to make significant social gains. Quite the contrary, through the union-company contract, the union becomes the instrument of capital, maintaining discipline in production, maintaining labor peace.

In the United States, by a different road and in modified form, the labor organization (the Union) becomes the organizer of production corresponding to Russian State Capitalism under which the labor organization (the Communist Party) becomes the organizer of production. The American working class too, although coming by a different road, has also reached the point where it is demonstrating its capacity to govern production and society in its own name. The Hungarian Revolution becomes the hallmark not only of the Russian working class, but of the workers of any industrialized country, above all, of the United States.

In 1917 the Russian workers demonstrated mastery over politics but failed in economics. The American workers were the most advanced economically but were beaten down politically. Fifty years later, both have achieved the maturity, the organization, the freedom from bureaucratic domination to make the final leap, the socialist revolution.

Last updated on 18 October 2020