George Novack’s Understanding History

Uneven And Combined Development In History

3. Disproportions Of American Development

The previous section showed how the law of uneven and combined development enables the Marxist to unravel the twisted course of the Russian Revolution. Every socialist today recognises the supreme importance of arriving at a satisfactory explanation of the degeneration of the Soviet Union and so of reliably estimating the significance of the conflict between the progressive character of nationalised property in the USSR and the reactionary bureaucracy which rules that country. Equal in importance to the Russian question for the international socialist movement is an understanding of the dialectics of the development of the socialist movement in the United States of America, the most highly developed and most powerful capitalist country in the world. How, in essence, has the law of uneven and combined development shown itself in the principal stages in the history of the USA? How does an understanding of this law help us to forecast the possible future course of the class struggle in America?

The ‘War Of Independence’

Prior to breaking loose from British rule, the North American colonies of Britain were certainly underdeveloped in many respects—compared, that is to say, with the mother countries of Western Europe, particularly with Britain herself. The first American revolution, which is usually called the “American War of Independence”, was a mighty effort on the part of the colonies to come abreast of the Old World.

In preparing, organising and conducting the War of Independence, the American Patriot Party profited abundantly from the “privileges of backwardness”. Its merchant leaders had acquired wealth and power by developing the latest techniques of shipbuilding and the practices of world trade. The people acquired freedom and democracy by taking over those forms of party organisation (Whigs and Tories) and governmental forms of legislative representation and local government which had been worked out in England and brought over by the colonists. To justify their demands, the colonists found ready-made theories of natural law in the writings of ideologists of the English revolution of the 17th century like Milton, Harrington and John Locke. In addition the colonists created a new technique of warfare, uniting their experiences of hunting in the wilds of the North American plains and mountains with the potentialities of the musket. These new tactical methods were important in helping the colonists to defeat the British Redcoats of George III. As a result of its victory America not only caught up with the Old World but, politically, surpassed it. This was the first victorious colonial revolution of modern times and it established what was then the most progressive democracy in the world.

However the American revolution of the 18th century, like the Russian revolution of the 20th century, could not draw upon unlimited resources. The political progressiveness of the Yankee republic became combined with economic backwardness. For example, the War of Independence did not, and could not, uproot slavery or curb the power of the slaveowners. The backwardness of the USA in this decisive sphere took its revenge upon the Americans of the 19th century.

The American people had for some time to endure the rule of the Southern slaveowners, who later became so reactionary and insolent that they not only prevented further progress of the country but even endangered the democracy and unity achieved by the first revolution. Fortunately a new combination of social forces had been created in the meantime, and this new combined formation proved strong enough to meet and overthrow the slaveholders’ counterrevolution.

Historically considered, this second American revolution—i.e., the Civil War—represented, on the one hand, the price paid by the American nation for the economic backwardness which it had inherited from its colonial youth. On the other hand, the impetus provided by the Yankee victory in the Civil War jet-propelled the USA once again into becoming the leading nation of the world. After all the precapitalist forces and formations, from the barbarism of the Red Indian tribes to the slavery of the Southern states, had been disposed of, American capitalism was able to leap forward with mighty strides, so making the USA today the model and most advanced capitalist nation and the paramount world power.

However, this dominant position was not achieved all at once but in two revolutionary leaps separated by an interval of gradual progress and political reaction.

Major Sources Of Unevenness In American Life

What are the major penalties of progressiveness and the privileges of backwardness to be found in the USA today? American technical know-how is the most advanced and American industry and agriculture the most productive in the world. This not only enriches the capitalist monopolists but showers many benefits upon the American people—ranging from an abundance and wide variety of foodstuffs to a plethora of television sets, refrigerators, motorcars and other “luxuries”. This is one side of the picture. On the other side, the American monopolists are the most efficient of all the capitalists in the world in exploiting both their own working people and the rest of the toilers of the world. While the American worker enjoys the highest standard of living of any worker in the world, he is also the most heavily exploited. This tremendously productive working class gets back for its own consumption a smaller part of its output and hands over in the form of profit to the capitalist owners of the instruments of production a greater part of its output than does either the English or the French working class.

The greatest unevenness of America’s social development is this: its economy is so advanced that it is fully ripe for collective ownership and planned production (that is, it is ripe for socialism) and yet this economy remains encased in a straitjacket of capitalist and nationalist restrictions. This contradiction is the main source of the social insecurity of our age and of the main social evil of our time, not only in the USA but also throughout the whole world.

The high productivity of the American economy, along with the privileges of the dominating position of American capitalism in world economy, is primarily responsible for another phenomenon of American life, and one which always impresses foreign observers—the extraordinary backwardness of American politics in general and the backwardness of the political ideology of organised labour in particular. In this field, it may be said, a colonial cottage is standing upon foundations suitable for skyscrapers. The workers and even the farmers of Britain, or even for that matter the peasants of China, are today influenced and, to some extent, guided by socialist ideas while the working people of America remain captive to the crudest bourgeois ideas and organisations.

This is the second outstanding feature of unevenness in the social structure of the USA. The political life of America lags far behind that of most of the rest of the world and even further behind the economic and social development of the country itself. This lag is, ironically enough, part of the price America is paying for the successes of its two previous revolutions and for its resulting outstanding achievements in industry and agriculture. The third American revolution, the socialist revolution, is being retarded precisely because its forerunners accomplished so much.

Unevenness also prevails in other sections of the American social consciousness. The ideology of the American ruling class is one of the most highly developed in capitalist history. This ruling class not only has a militant, positive philosophy to justify its privileges, a philosophy which it assiduously disseminates inside the USA and internationally, but also it is simultaneously engaged in an unceasing offensive against the ideas of communism and socialism, even though Marxist ideas have spread amongst the people of America to the most limited degree. This anti-communist, anti-socialist crusading zeal, together with its acute class sensitivity and consciousness of the class struggle, expresses the American ruling class’s forebodings about its own future. But in contrast to this class consciousness of the capitalists the American working class has not yet reached the level of generalising its own particular class interests even in the form of the most elementary social-reformist notions. This indifference to socialist ideology is one of the most pronounced peculiarities of the American worker. This is not to say that the American worker is devoid of class feeling and initiative. On the contrary, he has asserted himself time and time again as an independent fighting force, especially in the industrial field—often with brilliant results. But these experiences have not led to the establishment of a conscious and permanent challenge to the capitalist order, i.e., to a mass socialist movement.

The hyper-development in America of bourgeois ideology and the corresponding underdevelopment of working-class consciousness are the inseparable products of the same historical conditions. They are interdependent aspects of the present stage of social and political development in the USA.

Today the political complexion of the whole world reflects the major unevennesses of American society—one in the domain of production, another in political organisation and a third in social consciousness. The gap between the economy’s ripeness for socialisation and its capitalist-monopolist ownership and administration, and the gap between the high level of labour’s trade union organisation and its political and ideological immaturity, are the most striking peculiarities of American life. This situation sets the most difficult theoretical and practical problems to all socialists, especially to those who have to operate in such an environment. To the whole world of labour these gaps in American social life sometimes look like bottomless pits into which the peoples of the whole world must be dragged to their nuclear destruction. Sometimes it seems impossible to imagine that forces could ever come into existence to fill up or bridge the abyss.

Prospects Of American Development

But will things in the US remain like this forever or even for the remainder of this century? Will the contradictions in America’s social life persist indefinitely without essential changes? Will the gaps between the level of American economic development and the forms of ownership, between the present weakness and the potential power of the American working class, remain as they are today? The capitalists, the reformists, the liberals, the pragmatists and pseudo-Marxists of all kinds not only think they will but try also to induce everyone else to share their convictions.

But all these people reckon without the movement of world history, a movement which has been considerably speeded up in our time. They reckon without the contradictions of the capitalist system on a world scale. These contradictions will, in time, generate new and more devastating crises. They reckon without the development of the class conflicts in our own time and above all they underestimate the creative capacities of the American working class. Again, not being Marxists, they leave out of their calculations the operation and effects of the law of uneven and combined development.

Let us see how the law of uneven and combined development can help us to penetrate below the surface and to expose the kernel of present realities. As we have seen, this is certainly not the first time in the history of America, nor is America the only place in the world in the 20th century, where economic relations, political structures and social ideas have lagged far behind the development of the forces of production. The undeniable facts of history are that, in the past, the only way in which similar disparities have been resolved, and unevenness eliminated, has been through revolutionary upheavals whose function, on each occasion, has been to place new progressive forces at the head of the nation. In our time only the working class can perform once more this historically necessary function. There is no adequate reason for believing that, whatever else intervenes, the extreme contradictions in American life can be resolved in any other way.

At this point an astute critic may object: “According to the law of uneven and combined development, and this exposition of it, events do not necessarily reproduce themselves in the same way even within the same social system, but, under a different set of circumstances, the course of events may take a different line of development. Why then does the USA have to follow the same revolutionary path in the 20th century as it did in the 18th and 19th centuries? Why must the USA necessarily follow the course taken by the backward countries like Russia and China in our own time? Is it not possible for America to make a detour around the socialist revolution and by easy and gradual stages arrive at a higher form of social organisation and a better life?”

Now it is certainly true that no historical precedent, however superficially apposite, can properly replace the direct analysis of the real concrete situation; precedents can only guide and supplement the specific investigation. Of course, it would be more advantageous for the peoples of the whole world if the transition from capitalism to socialism in America (or, indeed, in Britain or anywhere else) could be effected by mutual agreement between the classes. Marxists have never denied this nor desired otherwise. But this pious wish, unfortunately, does not dispose of the problem. The question then arises: is this ideal and desirable prospect a realistic one? Should it be made the basis for practical socialist politics in Britain or in the USA? This same question has once more been raised in the British and American Communist Parties in the “great debate” which has followed the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party.

The “peaceful” road of development to socialism in America presupposes that American capitalism can proceed without further devastating economic convulsions, social crises and world wars, and that if these do occur the rulers, discredited by these catastrophes, would step aside and voluntarily relinquish their power, property and privileges, in answer to the demands (and perhaps votes) of an aroused people.

Can it be realistically expected that the most profound social conflict in all history, the conflict which involves the final abolition of exploitation of man by man, will, in the advanced capitalist countries of “Western democracy”, be resolved through diplomatic negotiations between the classes backed up by peaceful forms of mass pressure and by the counting of votes? Incidentally, there are no precedents for such “revolutions” in British, French, German or American history. It can, however, be easily shown that the most powerful reasons exist indicating why the capitalist monopolists of today, in the USA and elsewhere, are even less likely to relinquish voluntarily their ruling position, to act against their basic material interests and to commit “social suicide” than were the courts of Charles I, George III and Louis XVI, the slaveholders of the Southern states of the USA and, for that matter, the court of Tsar Nicholas II, in their day.

The powerful financial and industrial magnates who rule America today have long been accustomed not only to rule but to believe in the rightness and eternity of their rule. Moreover they realise that they would not merely be relinquishing their own supremacy but also that of capitalism on a world scale. For should the American workers assume state power, this would not be just a minor shift of power within a single social system. It would represent the decisive act in the most fundamental and far-reaching of all the transformations of society. Nothing less would be involved than the worldwide historical coup de grace of capitalism and the passing of decisive sections of mankind to a higher social system, to socialism. Fundamentally the fate of two world historical systems, capitalism and socialism, are at issue in the struggle between the American capitalists and the American working class. The recognition of this key position of the American working class is of fundamental importance for the socialist movement in every country of the world.

With so much at stake, the reflex action of the American capitalists to the threat of displacement by the working class would most likely be, as McCarthyism indicated, a sharp turn towards military dictatorship or fascism. In any event, it would be unrealistic and irresponsible for a serious Marxist to count only upon the most favourable line of development and to ignore the probability that, instead of facilitating the transition to socialism, the representatives of capitalism will try to throw up new barriers against socialist advance and to fight to retain their sovereignty, however illegal and “undemocratic” their resistance might be.

However, if this last stronghold of world capitalism, the USA, is the least likely of all countries to escape the necessity for revolutionary struggle on its road to socialism, this certainly does not mean that the pattern of this struggle will duplicate precisely the path taken in other countries, say, for example, Russia. It is an elementary proposition of Marxism, which to suit their own temporary aims the Stalinists are now busy “rediscovering”, that the revolutionary class in each country will proceed in its own peculiar way in achieving state power and in building socialism.

After decades of the most discouraging and demoralising delay, the American workers obtained their industrial organisation in one mighty leap during the thirties through the CIO. They compressed several stages of development in this leap. The American auto workers did not proceed through craft unionism to industrial unionism, but went at one bound from a state of non-organisation to the highest form of industrial organisation, skipping the intervening craft stage which industrial workers in Britain found it necessary to pass through.

The Contrast Of British And American Labour

Similar spectacular leaps will most probably be repeated in the forthcoming political development of the American working class. The value of the law of uneven and combined development consists in helping to anticipate such leaps. When Britain lost its paramount position on the world market around the beginning of the 20th century, the most progressive elements of British labour began to draw the necessary political deductions by turning away from the Liberal Party and establishing their own class party around a program of social reform—albeit social reform supplementing and expressing itself through a quasi-socialist ideology. American labour has yet to reach the point reached by the British workers over half a century ago. The American trade union movement still remains politically attached to the Democratic Party, the American equivalent of the old and now obsolete Liberal Party in Britain.

How are the American working masses likely to respond to radical changes in their economic and political conditions? Can they be expected to follow in the footsteps of the British workers? A Marxist, dialectical thinker can only answer this question thus—yes and no. The American worker will follow the British worker but only in the most general way. He will certainly find it imperative to cut loose from the capitalist parties and to create an independent class outlook and organisation, just as the workers of Britain have done. But the specific forms, the special features and the rate of political development of the American workers not only need not, but most certainly will not, simply duplicate the features of British development, because the world historical conditions under which they will set up their class political party will be vastly different from those under which the British Labour Party was created.

When the British working class launched itself into independent politics at the turn of the century world capitalism was still ascending and no country had yet overthrown capitalist rule. Today capitalism on a world scale is on the defensive, while the anticapitalist powers and the socialist and colonial movements have become a mighty reality.

Nor is the America of today, internally, anything like the Britain of the first half of the 20th century. Today America is the last stronghold of capitalism and, unlike the British capitalists of Edwardian days, the US capitalists have little room for strategic retreat. These differences will ensure that there will be great differences between the British Labour Party and the American Party of Labour which still remains to be created. Accordingly, the American working class will enter this new chapter of American political events in a mood very different from that of their British predecessors

In the USA it will take a very acute crisis to jerk labour loose from the old moorings, rather than the sort of chronic long-drawn-out crisis which was the case in Britain. The impact of these social shocks will run up against the stunted political development of the US working class at a time when capitalism is on the defensive and the anticapitalist forces on the offensive in the rest of the world. The offensive of the working class will not only collide with intensified resistance from the capitalists, but also with the inertia and short-sightedness of the trade union bureaucracies—as it has already done in Britain. But the American reactionary trade union bureaucracies will also have to operate under far different conditions from those which obtain in Britain. The critical situation will, on the one hand, dictate the most radical measures. On the other hand, the bureaucrats will be challenged for the leadership of the militant workers by a strong and solid revolutionary socialist grouping.

‘Explosive Expansion’

Such a combination of a strongly organised, highly cultured and newly radicalised working class with a leadership equipped with the most advanced theory and farseeing policies, as is in the process of gestation in the USA today, will have extraordinary explosive power.

At such a juncture in world history, the penalties of backwardness from which the American socialist movement now suffers will be certain to show their other, more hopeful side. The American workers will be receptive to the boldest revolutionary prospects and will be prepared to assimilate them readily and to act upon them.

New species, it was noted earlier, have experienced “explosive expansion” when they have broken into virgin territories under favourable conditions. An analogous acceleration in development can be expected when the American workers enter the field of independent class political action and take possession of the ideas of scientific socialism and the methods of Marxism. In such days of grave social crisis this amalgamation of a previously politically backward but potentially powerful working class with the science of society and of political action, i.e., with Marxism, can effect the greatest leap forward any society has yet achieved—greater than any leap forward in American history—and, by this single act, raise the whole of humanity by a head.