First Published: In Struggle! No. 220, September 30, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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In the three previous articles in this series, we covered more than a century of the history of the struggle for socialism. It was a period of turmoil during which there were an incredible number of radical changes at all levels, to such an extent that we can end up losing sight of the main aspects of these transformations. That is why, in this article and the next, we try to draw out these aspects rather than presenting new facts.
We have only to compare the year 1921 with the year 1800 to remark how this period was one of the most incredible development of productive forces ever known by humanity to that date, even though it was still limited to just a few countries. Discoveries made in this era included the steam engine, electricity, the internal combustion engine, the train, automobile, vaccinations, X-rays, and telecommunications. The application of these discoveries fundamentally transformed the conditions of production, and by ricochet, all the relations which the classes had had amongst themselves until then. The basic explanation for all other changes is to be found there.
Take the steam engine for example as a symbol of all these new productive forces. At first glance it appears to be nothing more than a trite technical innovation and the first capitalists who used it probably thought just that. And yet its social consequences were so great that the feudal mode of production was finally completely destroyed and replaced by the capitalist mode of production.
The capitalists’ use of the steam engine clashed with the feudal relations of production which existed both in the countryside and in the cities. Because of the great quantity of motive force which it furnished, the steam engine required the grouping together of a large number of workers in the same work place. But where were these workers to come from when 90% of the population lived in the countryside? Under feudalism, the peasents were not free men. They were serfs, which meant that they had to stay attached to their lord. It was thus necessary to abolish the serf-lord relationship so that the use of steam engines could be more developed.
This also led to the ruin of small artisan producers whose work was based on small production instruments, work in small workshops and a series of corporatist rules which limited competition and production. This social organization proved to be completely incompatible with the use of steam engine and could not handle the competition. It had to disappear. Because of the massive production which it required, the use of the steam engine was soon faced with market problems. It required a sufficiently large market. The princes, dukes and archdukes of the Middle Ages found much profit in setting up customs barriers around their mini-kingdoms which hindered commerce. These borders had to be broken down and modern States created where the bourgeoisie would control the market and at the same time protect themselves from their competitors.
This situation illustrates the contradiction which appeared during the Middle Ages between the productive forces and the feudal relations of production. It was also to lead to changes in the class structure of society.
The landed aristocracy was to continually lose power and its interests were to hold back all progress and put off its own downfall. On the other side, the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie continually reinforced itself and its interests lay in the abolition of any hindrances to its expansion caused by feudalism. It was thus a revolutionary class. The proletariat grew as industry grew and therefore shared the same interests as the bourgeoisie. Artisans were progressively eliminated, as were peasants whose numbers continued to drop everywhere where capitalism developed. At this stage, the peasants saw their interests in the struggle against the aristocracy and the landowners, for access to land. They thus struggled on the side of the progressive forces.
This progressive and continual change in the balance of power between the different classes gave rise to a long series of wars of regimes which were already, bourgeois against regimes which were still feudal, as well as very complex struggles for political power within the same countries.
What was at stake was the overthrow of the absolute power of the monarchy, represented by the aristocracy and which defended reactionary ideas, and its replacement by the power of the bourgeoisie, This was the process of the bourgeois democratic revolution. It unfolded over a very long period of time on a world scale staking into consideration the fact that it began in the 16th century in a single country, Holland. It continued in England in 1649 and in the 18th century in France and the United States. By the 19th century it encompassed the Spanish colonies in Latin America and several Western European countries like Germany, Italy, France again,’ Austria, etc. By 1921, this question was generally resolved in the countries with a long history of capitalist development but was just maturing in Eastern Europe. For the majority of countries in the world, under the yoke of imperialism, it was not much more than a future perspective. This process of bourgeois revolution can seem long because it was rarely accomplished in one fell swoop. Often it took two or three bourgeois revolutions for bourgeois power to finally take over. This shows all the difficulty there is in overthrowing an old mode of production which no longer corresponds to the state of economic development. The case of the United States proves the same thing, but by the negative. There, bourgeois power was established rather easily in 1776, and was never overthrown after that. But, in the United States, there was no feudal mode of production to overthrow.
The bourgeois revolution “freed up” the productive forces in that their expansion could take place under better conditions both within each country and on a world scale. The 19th century was one of colonization. India, Algeria, and Vietnam came under the domination of capitalist countries and this movement was speeded up at a crazy rate between 1880-1914 as capitalism developed in Europe.
With steamships it became possible to go to look for cheap raw materials in the four corners of the globe. This was indispensable for the great enterprises which competed among themselves in Europe and had to operate at the lowest costs.
At the same time, it was extremely important to massively export production. The world market really came into existence during the 19th century. Progressively all corners of the world were integrated into a single market, most often under the threats of the cannons of the capitalist countries. This extension of market relations under the domination of a minority of advanced countries provided them with great quantities of capital which served to speed up their development even more. In the dominated countries, many revolts broke out against this brutal exploitation.
The productive forces of the capitalist countries became so developed that imperialism appeared at the turn of the century. Monopolies replaced free competition. Here again, the new stage of economic development led to other changes in the classes and their relations.
The aristocracy became nothing more than a decoration whose importance was based on the length of its name. It became almost entirely incorporated into the big bourgeoisie. The peasants in capitalist Europe at the time, freed from servage, became a class of small producers whose material interests were to be found in the possibility or organizing their work and disposing of their production as they wished. They were thus generally conservative and opposed to the ideas of associated “collectivism” which were put forward by the social democrats of the time and the working class. As we saw in the first article of the series, they kept themselves apart from the progressive trends in the cities, and notably did not support the proletarian movement behind the Paris Commune in 1871. Even at the time of the First World War, peasants still formed more than one third of the population in the imperialist countries, so they were still an important force.
If capitalism caused certain middle strata to disappear, imperialism caused new ones to be created. In the big monopolized entreprises, an intermediary stratum between the bosses and the workers was formed. It included a whole series of different level management staff, engineers, technicians, and so on which are in daily contact with the working class.
Imperialism also generalized free public compulsory education in order to ensure the needed skilled manpower. The wide distribution of a daily press also appeared and there was the creation of a stratum of a growing number of intellectuals whose task was to inform workers of things which the bourgeoisie wanted them to hear. Even if that was not the case with all intellectuals, it was definitely a phenomenon which contributed to spreading a petty-bourgeois mentality within the working class. Other intellectuals chose to work in the big union and political apparatuses.
Finally, we should talk about the important transformation of the State with the development of imperialism. The bourgeois State which corresponded to free competition and small business had applied a “laisser faire” policy, that is, a policy of non-intervention in economic life. With the development of monopolies and the centralization of the means of production, the State had to give itself more muscle and began to progressively intervene. During the First World War as we mentioned in the third article, the State took over very important powers in the economy.
It forced enterprises to merge, planned production for the war, etc. To describe the situation in Germany, Lenin used the expression “State monopoly capitalism”. This growth of the State necessarily led to an increase in its personnel. At that time, contrary to today the majority were part of the petty bourgeoisie. Because of their intermediary place and their influence within the working class, all of these strata contributed to spreading the petty-bourgeois mentality of conciliation within the working class. They criticized imperialism to a certain extent, but believed that they could continue improving it through a series of reforms.
Imperialism also brought changes to the proletariat itself. The main one was definitely the corruption of a group of better paid, better treated skilled workers who were integrated into all sorts of aspects of the bourgeois State and corrupted with the superprofits made from colonial exploitation. We are referring, of course, to the labour aristocracy which played a major role as a leading group within the labour movement. It was able to imprint its own interests, similar to those of the petty bourgeoisie, on the labour movement.
When it comes to trying to understand the path which the struggle for socialism took in the early 20th century, it is necessary to see that it was not simply a struggle between two groups, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but rather a struggle where each class defended its own interests and where the results were not always what had been hoped for.
The progress achieved by the proletariat in the capitalist countries in the period covered so far has undoubtedly struck many people. This progress cannot only be measured in terms of numbers. There are also other indications which were part of the development of capitalism. The proletariat became more educated, more conscious and definitely better organized on the economic and political levels; its living and working conditions were improved as it won social legislation; its democratic rights were increasingly recognized; it had its own theory. Marxism, which was quite widely known; it even took State power twice – in 1871 and 1917. When we compare this situation to that of 1800 when workers were illiterate and crushed by their labour, we can better appreciate the gains made in a short period of time.
This maturation of the working class was certainly partially due to the very conditions which capitalism imposed on it. But one of the important factors was its involvement in the democratic revolution, despite those who constantly tried to deviate it from its path.
The utopian socialists appeared almost at the same time as the proletariat did (see IS # 214). They preached that the working class had to stay out of the political struggle, that its emancipation would come from a reorganization of production according to an ideal model. After them the anarchists arrived on the scene. They were also opposed to political struggle and wanted the reorganization of production under the direct control of the producers. At the time of the Second International, the revolutionary trade-unionists (see IS # 216) came forward with the same language: against political struggle, for the idea that unions become the basic unit for the organization of production. In Russia, at the turn of the century, this trend was taken up by a group called “economist”. According to this group as well, the proletariat should limit itself to the economic struggle and above all, not get involved in the democratic revolution. Still later, between 1918 and 1920, a trend within the Bolshevik Party called the “workers’ opposition” put “the control of production by the producers themselves” at the heart of its programme, and explicitly subordinated the role of the Party in the programmes of these groups and tendencies, but they come together on one fundamental point, their opposition to political struggle. Marxism had to wage a bitter struggle against this idea, which it basically won. This was an important lesson of this period.
Given the weak development of capitalism in the feudal countries, and the existing class relationships, Marxism recognized that a stage of bourgeois democratic revolution was completely legitimate. It insisted that the working class participate in such a way as to create better conditions for its own struggle, for the establishment of its own power. And we saw what interest the bourgeois democratic revolution had for the proletariat. In the second article we saw how the conquest of bourgeois democracy was used to broaden the audience for socialism and to bring together many workers. In Russia, after February 1917, the newly acquired liberties were definitely useful in broadening the Bolsheviks’ propaganda, agitation and organization and for waging actions which led to the seizure of power.
This revolution was thus useful for the organization of the proletariat. But it also drew out the path to socialist revolution. In 1949, for example, we saw that as long as the question of the democratic revolution was not resolved, the proletariat struggled alongside the bourgeoisie.
Sometimes, if its own development was insufficient, it was simply used as a tool against the aristocracy. In the third article, we saw the same phenomenon in the Russian revolution. Until the bourgeoisie took power in February 1917, the proletariat had a “favourable bias” towards it. On the other hand, with the democratic revolution over, the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie became the priority. Things became clearer.
The bourgeoisie drew this same lesson from its own revolutionary experience. It was all right to have a weak proletariat which had no leadership as an ally. But as the proletariat turned its sights away from the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie soon began to fear it. Notably in Germany, the bourgeoisie in power maintained many important features of feudalism, such as the monarchy, because they could help it in its struggle against the proletariat. So bourgeois power which was just as real in Germany as in the United States offered very different degrees of democracy. Indeed, it was up to the proletariat to achieve democratic tasks which had been shelved by the bourgeoisie. In Germany, it was the working class and not the bourgeoisie which put an end to the monarchy in November 1918 and proclaimed the republic.
It was in this context, and particularly in the context of a weak Russian bourgeoisie and a relatively developed Russian proletariat, grouped together by foreign imperialism, that Lenin put forward a completely new thesis for the era. The proletariat had to put an end to being but an auxiliary of the bourgeoisie in the democratic revolution and try instead to lead it. This led him to put forward very new objectives for the period such as the constitution of a provisional government. This government, under the leadership of the working class and the peasants would have the task of realizing the main democratic reforms without directly attacking capitalism. Its final objective would, however, still be to assure the most rapid transition to socialism. This idea was not tried out during this period, but it was to become very important in the years which followed.
In the next part of this article, we will see how two very different ways to see the seizure of power by the proletariat were progressively developed from the proletariat’s experiences between 1800-1921.