Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.3, Summer 1958, pp.83-88. 
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.
Survey of the movement since 1848 proves that the defeats have been episodic; the rate of victories is rising and growing in impact
“The working class climbs up steps that it hews for itself out of solid rock. Sometimes it slips down a few steps; sometimes the enemy dynamites the steps which have been cut; sometimes they cave in because they are cut of poor material. After every fall one must arise; after every slip down one must reascend; every step destroyed must be replaced by two new ones.” – Leon Trotsky. (Manifesto for the Fourth International, March 1934)
The greatest changes in history take place when one universal grade of social organization gives way to the next, as feudalism, for example, was supplanted by capitalism. Our generation is living through a far more fundamental transformation of society in which international capitalism is being displaced by the movement toward socialism. This revolutionary process has already been going on for more than a century and is far from completion – much farther, indeed, than most of us desire.
The vast expanse of events involved in the changeover from one social system to the next extends over many decades and even centuries, and embraces peoples in various stages of development. The fundamental features of this prolonged process cannot be seen in correct proportion and perspective except from an elevated and far-ranging viewpoint.
These two articles aim to survey the entire span of the world movement for socialism through its successive stages from the emergence of Marxism in the middle of the nineteenth century to the present time. Whatever one’s attitude toward its results and prospects, it would be difficult to deny the fact that the socialist movement has made considerable headway in the world over the past century. History does move forward; society is being reconstructed, whether or not the ways and means are to one’s liking.
There is a qualitative difference in the fundamental trends of social development between the middle of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century. When socialism first came on the scene in the 1840’s, the principal movement of society revolved around the continuing rise of world capitalism. For the rest of the century, and even after, it looked to almost all people as though this would persist indefinitely. But around the second decade of the present century this trend met with a sharp reversal. Capitalism received its first big setback – and since that time the main currents of social change have been flowing through socialist channels.
The course of human life today is shaped by the struggles arising from this transition from capitalist, and even pre-capitalist institutions, to the new and higher economic system of socialism. This anti-capitalist revolution has to be viewed and understood in its entirety, not in bits and pieces. It is the mightiest of present-day realities. It unfolds step by step, sometimes leap by leap, according to its own independent rhythm. This world revolution of the working people holds everything in its grip and, directly or indirectly, decisively affects the destinies of every one on this planet.
It is one of the two basic determinants of historical development in our time. The other is the counterrevolution headed by monopolist imperialism. The contest between these two giant forces is world-wide, all-embracing, uninterrupted. Which is the stronger of the contending camps? The definitive answer to this question has yet to be given. But a partial verdict has already been rendered by the net results of their struggles over the last hundred years.
Despite its occasional glacier-like motion, its defeats at this stage or retreats in this or that area, on a world-historical scale the advancing socialist forces have gained irretrievably at the expense of the receding sustainers of capitalism. It is especially important for American socialists to appraise this fact at its proper value; because it appears otherwise if one’s gaze is focussed upon the United States alone at the immediate stage of the relations between the opposing forces of capitalism and socialism within this country. Such a nationally limited outlook is inadequate and misleading in judging the progress and outcome to date of the contest between the old order and the new.
It may appear for a while that the anti-capitalist revolution sweeping the rest of the modern world will bypass the United States. This is one of the most firmly fixed illusions prevailing around us. To counteract and dispel this illusion, it is essential to comprehend the interrelations and interactions of this irresistible movement of social revolution within the world network of nations.
Although the degree of its participation varies from one stage to the next, it is impossible for any country to remain completely aloof from this mighty transition. Each nation is subjected to the historical force of the anti-capitalist struggle and functions as a component and contributory part of the whole process. Each national segment of world society plays a specific role in promoting or retarding the advance of this universal movement. These roles differ from one generation to another and from one phase of the anti-capitalist struggle to the next, as we shall see.
But there is an unbreakable connection, an uninterrupted interaction between the total world process and its many national units. These reciprocally influence and modify each other’s course of development. The international movement and its individual national sectors are not factors of equal weight in the whole. In the last analysis, however resistant or isolated any of its parts, the world revolution – or its converse, the imperialist counter-revolution – will intervene. The collision of these opposing forces and its results are decisive in determining the evolution of contemporary society on a world scale as well as the evolution of different continents and countries.
This influence may be exerted indirectly at a given stage. Today for example it appears that the world revolution has nothing to do with the United States. And yet its effects can be seen in the impressive impact the Russian Revolution – the Soviet Union and its achievements for better or for worse – is having upon American life. Here is a revolution which occurred forty years ago in a distant land – and yet through the policies of our imperialist government its pressure determines how much civil liberties the American people may enjoy, how big the military budget is, how much taxes we must pay, etc.
Even though the United States itself has yet to approach the portals of the socialist revolution, its development elsewhere is felt all around us. The Third Chinese Revolution is a part of that world revolution and only three years after its victory it collided head-on with US imperialism in Korea and involved this whole country in war.
This overriding power of the world revolution has increased from one decade to the next and will continue to do so.
Much grief, confusion and perplexity has been provoked among socialists by the fact that the progress of the anti-capitalist forces has been so erratic and uneven. This may run counter to our personal desires but it conforms to historical precedent. History does not provide any examples of a smooth and harmonious replacement of one universal social structure by another. Quite the contrary. The Western World had to pass through the Dark Ages of over five hundred years in order to advance from Greco-Roman slavery to the threshold of feudalism.
The next great social transition – from pre-capitalist to capitalist society – showed how complex, difficult, and prolonged such a process can be. The revolutionary developments which brought capitalism into being began during the sixteenth century in the maritime nations of Western Europe. It took four centuries more before they completed a circuit of the advanced countries and conquered the globe.
During these four hundred years the struggles against the pre-capitalist order spread from one country to another and from one continent to another in an extremely irregular manner. The major upheavals which mark the forward march of the capitalist revolution started with the revolts in Germany in the sixteenth century. These were crushed so thoroughly that the German people could not rise again for three centuries. However, the next attempts, the Dutch and the English bourgeois revolutions in the seventeenth century, proved successful. So did the American and French revolutions of the eighteenth century and the American Civil War of the nineteenth century.
Moreover, the new claimant to supreme power, the bourgeoisie, was not uniformly victorious throughout this era of its rise and, even where triumphant, did not always carry through all its class aims. In the United States, the capitalists did not win national supremacy in the first revolution; they had to share power with the slaveholders – and it took a second revolution to crush these rivals. In Germany the bourgeoisie did not rule in its own right until the Hohenzollerns and the Junker landlords were overthrown in 1918 – and then the industrial workers were already knocking on the doors of power. In Russia it was still worse for the capitalists; they did not achieve sovereignty there at any time. After having been held back by the Czarist-landlord regime up to 1917, they were thrust aside and eliminated by the victorious worker-peasant uprisings.
There can be no duplication of pattern between the course of the movement which established the capitalists in power and the movement which is dispossessing and replacing them. The historical conditions and the specific social forces at work are vastly different. Moreover, the pace of history has speeded up. It took less time for capitalism to supplant feudalism than it did for feudalism to take the place of slavery. And it will take still less time for the socialist forces to get rid of capitalism.
But the same general historical causes that made the transition from the old order to the new so irregular and contradictory in the past still prevail. The oncoming forces of socialism have to contend with all the inherited unevennesses of social development in the world. The proletarian revolution not only has to cope with fierce resistance from capitalist elements but also with the economic and cultural backwardnesses of the pre-capitalist areas where the majority of mankind live. These conditions have created enormous, unexpected, and still unresolved problems for the advance of socialism where capitalism has already been abolished as in Russia, Eastern Europe and China. These difficulties in turn have had their influence upon the progress of the socialist movements in the more advanced countries.
The zigzag path of the world revolution will emerge more clearly in our review of the stages it has passed through.
The first major historical period of the proletarian movement extended from 1848 to 1917. These sixty-nine years were essentially devoted to assembling and preparing the first forces for storming the citadels of capitalist power. During this time the methods and ideas of scientific socialism were developed and disseminated and contended for supremacy in the ranks of labor; the first programs of the workers parties were formulated; the initial cadres of the socialist ranks were recruited, educated, trained and sent into battle on elementary issues of the class struggle; the first trade-union and political organizations of the working class were built.
This preparatory period was itself broken up into two distinct stages, each with its own characteristics and subordinate phases of its own. The pioneering years stretched from 1847 to 1878.
Capitalism creates the conditions and forces for the socialist movement: the necessary technical basis, science and the working class itself. That is its major contribution to social progress. It also provokes the working class into action and is the involuntary promoter of the class struggle. A strong and stable proletarian movement against capitalism could not therefore arise until capitalism itself had attained a high degree of maturity.
In its conscious form, the anti-capitalist movement of the industrial working class is little more than a hundred years old. Socialism did not pass out of its prenatal state until 1848. It was born in Western Europe the most advanced sector of world society at that time. The existence of a distinctive, scientifically guided proletarian socialist movement can be said to date from the outbreak of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions of that crucial year.
Its infancy was attended by two very different types of events. One was theoretical and programmatic. This was the publication of The Communist Manifesto early in 1848 which first set forth the principles and aims of the scientific socialists. The other was practical and political. This was the betrayal and crushing of the popular uprisings by the forces of reaction in Western Europe.
The budding socialist and labor movements there suffered heavily from these setbacks throughout the 1850’s. Then in the sixties a steady rise in labor organization, accompanied by a patient and persistent work of ideological clarification and socialist propaganda by the first Marxists in the mass movement, bore its fruit. This culminated in the formation of the First International in 1864 under the inspiration of the Marxists.
The activities of the First International are little known even in socialist circles today. But they were considerable. The First International led the fight for the extension of the franchise in England and for progressive labor legislation. It stimulated trade union organization in many countries. It supported strikes and rallied the European workers to the progressive sides in the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War.
The center of the First International was England. When the British labor movement became stagnant, conservatized and corrupted and when the first working-class bid for power, the Paris Commune, was suppressed in 1871, the ensuing dampening of revolutionary energies led to the disintegration of the First International. It was formally dissolved in 1878.
Like all pioneer efforts, this first assemblage of the forces for socialism had great limitations and obvious defects. But these were not so significant as its enduring results. These achievements can be summed up under four headings.
First was the work of ideological clarification accomplished through it by its Marxist wing. Today Marxism has no serious competition in the field of socialist theory. But this was not so in the beginning. None awarded scientific socialism its present preeminence; it had to fight hard to win it. Marxism contended against a host of rivals, each of which claimed to be the gospel of emancipation. Among these were Lassalleanism, Proudhonism, Bakuninism, Utopianism. Some of these schools of thought are now completely forgotten, although they then loomed large in the consciousness of the advanced workers. For example, Marx’s two future sons-in-law, Lafargue and Longuet, were troublesome apostles of the petty-bourgeois socialism of the Frenchman Proudhon before they became Marxists. Marxism triumphed over all rival ideological tendencies during this period.
The second accomplishment was the elaboration and application of specific working-class programs on a socialist basis. Nowadays the essentials of such programs are handed over to the younger generation ready-made. But a host of questions such as the nature of the state, the relation between the political movement and trade-union struggles, the attitude of revolutionary socialists toward reform measures, toward civil and national wars, had to be thought out and fought out before they became an accepted part of the working-class arsenal.
Third was the establishment of the practice and tradition of international working-class organization and action. The First International gave living proof that the international solidarity of the working class could be effective and fruitful. The term “internationalism” is in the dictionary and the song The International was written thanks to the influences of the First International on world culture.
Fourth was the education of the first cadres of socialist leadership. Never since then has there been lacking a continuity of revolutionary socialist leadership on an international scale, however small and scattered it has been at certain times and in certain countries.
Trotsky once characterized the period of working-class activity covered by the First International as essentially an anticipation. The Communist Manifesto, he said, was the theoretical anticipation of the modern labor movement. The First International was the practical anticipation of the labor associations of the world. The Paris Commune was the revolutionary anticipation of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Lenin later characterized the Third International as the international of action which had begun to put into practice Marx’s greatest slogan: the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The historical bridge between the International of anticipation and the International of action was the Second International. This can be tersely characterized as the International of organization which raised broad masses of workers to their feet in a number of countries, organized them into trade unions and political labor parties, and prepared the soil for the independent mass labor movement.
This latter part of the preliminary period of the world revolution started at a much higher level than the first, since it was based upon the further advances of capitalism and the achievements of the earliest stage. It was launched with the reconstitution of the various national socialist groupings into the Second International in 1889.
The principal positive features of the movement from 1889 to 1914 were developed under the banner of the Second International. This new movement, unlike its precursor, was avowedly Marxist from the first in inspiration, doctrine and leadership. It was formed under the supervision of Engels himself and his closest co-workers on the continent.
Through the Second International, European socialism passed beyond the stage of propaganda through limited cadres and undertook the task of acquainting millions of workers with socialist ideas. Marxism not only became popularized on a national scale in Germany but became an indispensable part of every progressive person’s education.
During this period socialism first became a mass influence, a power of the first magnitude in the electoral and parliamentary fields as well as in the trade unions of Western Europe. For the first time proletarian socialism began to play a major role in determining the course of modern history, a small payment on what it was destined to do.
Germany displaced England as the foremost country in labor’s advance. Its working class was not only the best organized but the most class conscious, the best tutored in theoretical questions. The most capable theoreticians of Marxism flourished on German soil: Kautsky, Mehring, Rosa Luxemburg, and others. The axis of the Second International revolved around Germany and France where the socialist forces likewise made big strides.
These imperishable achievements of the Social-Democratic era were interwoven with conspicuous shortcomings. First of all, the movement was for the most part localized in the industrialized countries of Western Europe. Outside that central area – with few exceptions – the socialist movement did not get beyond the infantile stage of sects or propaganda groups. The colonial areas which embraced the most of mankind were extremely backward and passive.
Moreover, as socialism acquired a mass scope in the advanced capitalist countries, in its upper layers it tended to take on a more and more conservative and reformist bias. Revolutionary zeal, purpose and perspectives receded as imperialism expanded and the union and party officialdoms consolidated their positions and privileges. These reformist practices and policies found their theoretical formulation at the turn of the twentieth century through the classic revisionism of Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein repudiated the revolutionary theory and outlook of Marxism and saw capitalism becoming peacefully transformed step by step into a social democracy. This exponent of the right-wing tendencies in the Social-Democracy was answered in an equally classical way by his clearest-sighted opponent among the left-wing leaders, Rosa Luxemburg. It is interesting to note that the crucial theoretical and practical problems of socialist development were most thoroughly threshed out among the Germans throughout this period.
Third, the type of party dominant in the Second International was not that of a disciplined combat party but rather a loose federation of diverse groups and heterogeneous tendencies united for parliamentary purposes. These organizations were not envisaged by the right-wing and centrist leaders as means for conquering power through mass action but as machines on the bourgeois model for garnering votes and posts in the established setup.
While moving forward, each epoch in history, and in the labor movement as well, commits inescapable errors and nourishes its characteristic illusions. We can single out two of these in the thinking of Marxists during that period. One was the conception that the Social-Democratic organizations as they existed were adequate to lead the workers to the conquest of power.
The other was the expectation that the proletarian revolution would first occur and triumph in the highly industrialized countries where socialism made its debut. Marx expected the French to begin the social revolution; the Germans to continue it; the English to complete it. But this forecast was upset by unforeseen events. The actual course of development of the world revolution took an unexpected twist. Reality, as it has the habit of doing, turned out to be much more complex and contradictory than the most far-sighted social theorists could anticipate.
Both of these illusions were shattered by mighty events. The fatal weaknesses of the Social-Democratic parties were exposed when the First World War broke out. These weaknesses in turn exposed the flaws in the expectation that the Western European workers would initiate the socialist revolution. The Russian Revolution, which exposed the fatal weaknesses of capitalism there, demonstrated that this honor belonged to the workers of Eastern Europe.
The Social-Democratic era did not culminate in the triumph of the working class over the capitalists; it dishonorably sneaked off the stage of history in the triumph of the imperialists over the working class. The surrender of the right-wing leaderships of the German and French Social Democracies to the war efforts of their respective imperialist governments were the most stunning blows ever to hit the socialist movement. The socialist and labor cause had experienced serious setbacks and severe defeats before, such as the crushing of the Paris Commune. But these had been primarily caused by an unfavorable balance of forces supplemented by the immaturity of the movement and the inexperience of its leadership.
The decision of the party bosses in August 1914 to go along with their armor-plated imperialisms was something different. It was much more than a physical defeat; it was an internal betrayal at the decisive hour of danger which produced a moral, ideological, and political rout.
The main factors responsible for the treacherous behavior of the Social-Democratic bigwigs have been thoroughly analyzed and documented and are well known to radical circles. The party and trade-union bureaucracies had become corrupted and conservatized by their capitalist environment in the preceding period. When the day of decision arrived, they aligned their lot with their ruling class, abandoning their responsibilities as socialist leaders, disarming and disorienting the ranks, and leaving the workers in the lurch.
Their action was not entirely unanticipated. A number of prominent left-wing figures like Rosa Luxemburg had long feared such an eventuality. Trotsky had written as early as 1906 in his book Results and Perspectives:
“The work of propaganda and organization among the proletariat ... has its own intrinsic inertia. The Socialist parties of Europe – in the first place, the most powerful of them, the German Socialist party – have developed a conservatism of their own, which grows in proportion as Socialism embraces ever larger masses and organization and discipline increase. Social Democracy, personifying the political experience of the proletariat, can, therefore, at a certain juncture, become an immediate obstacle on the way of an open proletarian conflict with the bourgeois reaction. In other words, the conservatism of a proletarian party in limiting itself to propaganda, can, at a certain moment, impede the direct struggle of the proletariat for power.”
However, the workers as a whole, and even some of their most resolute leaders, were unprepared for the suddenness of this surrender. When Lenin first heard the news that the German Socialist leaders in the Reichstag had voted for the war credits, he refused to believe it, suspecting a trick of capitalist propaganda.
Those who have been so dismayed and disheartened by the revelation in 1956 of the betrayals of the Stalinist bureaucracy had their predecessors in the millions who were stunned and demoralized in 1914. It took almost three years for the workers movement there to recover from its prostration and despair.
Then as now, there were no lack of faint hearts to lament, or bourgeois commentators to gloat, that all was lost. Marxism, they said, had been proved bankrupt; socialism had failed to make good its promises; nationalism had turned out to be stronger than internationalism, which was only a Utopian dream; the working class was incapable of dominating and directing the affairs of the nation; these, fortunately or unfortunately, should be left to other and more capable hands and heads. These arguments and conclusions have been the same for the past hundred years; only the circumstances and their advocates change.
To be sure, appearances were temporarily on the side of the disillusioned and dejected. But the further development of events was on the side of the revolution. Here and there, scattered through the world, were stalwart scientific socialists and working-class militants who had knowledge and conviction enough not to place confidence in the invincibility of capitalism or to undervalue the potential of its working-class adversary.
In that same prophetic pamphlet in which he had foreseen the surrender of the reformist leaders, Trotsky had observed:
“The possibilities of a war on European territory have grown enormously ... A European war, however, means a European revolution.”
Lenin and his closest associates hammered away on the same theme after August 1914. The Lenins and Trotskys, Luxemburgs and Liebknechts were looked upon as fanatics completely out of touch with reality or as relics of the past who clung to outworn dogmas. But the dialectical method of Marxism enabled them to foresee that the very war, which had laid the working class low, would later compel it to rise to its feet again. Out of the imperialist war would emerge the conditions for the proletarian revolution. They not only predicted but prepared for its coming.
So it happened, although not precisely as they expected.
Many important lessons can be learned from a review of the Social-Democratic era. There are two of particular relevance to the present crisis of world socialism.
One is the capacity the working class has shown from 1848 to the present day to absorb the hardest blows and snap back after a while from the most terrible defeats. “This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.”
The irrepressible vitality of the hosts of labor is no mystical quality; its resilience and stamina spring from the material conditions of life in modern society. Capitalism creates the working class and depends upon it, as a parasite depends upon its host. Yet it cannot satisfy the demands or solve the problems of the working force it exploits and oppresses. Even in good times workers display their discontent and protest against insecurity by strikes and similar demonstrations; at more critical turning points their will to combat capitalism and cut through to a better life flares into uprisings and revolutions.
Labor draws its inexhaustible strength from the indispensable part it plays as the principal force of production, the creator of all wealth and profit. It enhances that strength by its growing industrial organization, by its political formations, by its cohesiveness and solidarity in struggle, by its developing awareness of itself as a decisive social power of growing importance compared to other classes. Finally, labor asserts itself as the only creative force in society that carries the future along with it as it rises.
The most significant fact about the ups and downs of the socialist movement over the past century has not been its defeats. The bourgeoisie of England and America also experienced many repulses during their rise. These are inescapable for any ascending power. More important has been the ability of labor to learn from these attacks, to recuperate from their effects, surge forward and gain new ground from which it is seldom pushed back. This is no less true of the American workers than any others.
Carl Sandburg once wrote a short poem entitled Upstream that is appropriate to this point:
The strong men keep coming on,
So it is with the men and women of labor. They are the strong people of the modern world; they keep coming on; and nothing can stop them in the end.
But strong people need not only strong hands and stout hearts but also good heads, if they are not to be duped and misdirected. The second great lesson the Social-Democratic era transmitted to our generation is the paramount importance of leadership and program. Without the right kind of party and policy the strongest sections of the working class can go astray and become terribly wounded. Capitalist reaction cannot be outwitted, overcome and ousted from power by the workers, and the ordeal of transition from capitalism to socialism be shortened, except through the agency of a Marxist leadership which is cool in calculation and bold in action.
Some today have forgotten this lesson; others have still to learn it. But the significance of leadership as a prime condition for success in struggle is one of the most precious acquisitions of socialist experience. It was paid for by the bitter disillusion of 1914. And then, its necessity was affirmed in the most positive way by the victorious intervention of the Bolshevik party in 1917 which opened a new and brighter chapter in the progress of world socialism.
1. This is the first of two articles based on lectures given by William F. Warde at the 1957 session of the West Coast Vacation School.
Last updated on: 11.2.2006