Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Letter: A one-sided method in the study of revisionism

First Published: Proletarian Unity No. 23 (vol. 5, no. 1), January-March 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The following text consist of excerpts from a letter sent to the journal by one of our readers. It directly criticizes the point of view defended by Charles Gagnon in an article published in issue 212 of the paper IN STRUGGLE! entitled “For a materialist understanding of history”. It is therefore a criticism addressed to the method put forward by Charles Gagnon which, in its analysis of the past failures of the struggle for socialism, emphasizes the importance of the weak development of the productive forces. Our reader thus deals directly with the link between the development of productive forces and the transformation of the social relations of production in building socialism.

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... In issue no. 212 of the paper IN STRUGGLE!, a quotation from Marx’s “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is used to draw the following hypothesis:

This statement by Marx might be the key to a scientific explanation of the reverses in the struggle for socialism thus far. He says that “no social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed.” We say Marx’s perception might be the key advisedly, because we do not wish to jump to any conclusions before the historical analysis has been properly made. Nevertheless, Marx’s observation certainly shows clearly how to avoid falling into the idealist trap which we criticized above.

In PROLETARIAN UNITY (no. 15, p. 37), a longer quotation from the same passage is repeated:

No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the task itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.

From this, the editors of PROLETARIAN UNITY draw what I think are two very correct conclusions:

1. The conscious factor (the “ideological forms”) intervenes in the revolutionary process. It “fights out” the conflict between the productive forces and the relations of production. Marx does not reduce this to a passive and mechanical reflection of the economic base....

2. Marx observes that the material conditions of existence of the new society must already be present before the passage to a higher form of society is possible. However, Marx is very careful to add “or (be) at least in the process of formation”. That qualification closes off another avenue for the vulgar materialists and revisionists. They would like nothing better than to be able to infer from Marxist theory that the socialist revolution can only take place in societies that are highly industrialized....

It is quite obvious that this statement from PROLETARIAN UNITY is somewhat in contradiction with the method presented in issue 212 of the paper IN STRUGGLE!. By trying to demarcate at all costs from idealism and famous men, one only succeeds in demarcating from a dialectical point of view. That the Organization intends to take into account material conditions cannot be denied; and it is something that the communist movement has not done to a great extent. However some are going to the other extreme and are victims of one-sideness and of the theory of productive forces...

In Russia, the Mensheviks opposed the Bolsheviks on this very question. According to them, it was not realistic to advocate passing directly to socialism without going through a prolonged period of capitalist development. This is why they supported Kerensky against the Soviets. The same debate occurred between Mao and Liu Shaoqi. Lenin’s theories, far from being proven wrong by history, have in fact been confirmed by more than twenty years of socialism in Russia. The revolutionarization of the relations of production in backward Russia had a striking effect, at both the political and economic levels. The argument which says that “no social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed...” (no. 212) cannot apply to the era of imperialism. Since the beginning of the century, imperialism, far from stimulating productive forces, has in fact constituted an obstacle to their development. When we consider, for example, El Salvador or South Africa, can we say that the present social system (the dictatorship of imperialism) still has sufficient room in it for the productive forces to develop? The Salvadoran peasants have certainly not seen any signs of progress in it for them....

By attempting to explain everything solely in terms of economic development, one succeeds in explaining nothing. By attempting to demonstrate the objective limits to the achievement of socialism, one ends up ignoring the existence of revisionism and its influence on men’s actions. In terms of class struggle, revisionism is the betrayal of the interests of the working class for the benefit of the ruling class. Revisionism has a material basis. It corresponds to the interests of the bourgeoisie and its agent within the working class. Revisionism stems from the influence of the labour aristocracy which in turn is rooted in the material foundation of society. To raise the question of revisionism is not to fall into the trap of idealism; to raise this question is to take into account that in the present era, the determining factor is the active role played by man in his efforts to revolutionarize capitalist relations of production. It is this active role which, since the beginning of the century, has been sabotaged ideologically and politically by revisionism.

I think that there is a link between the way the debate on the question of revisionism is being treated, through a method which is one-sided and leans towards the theory of productive forces, and the underestimation of the importance of the debate on the evaluation of Mao being developed in the communist movement. It is possible that my positions are not well articulated and rest on unproven statements, but I am convinced of the validity of my questions....