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Problems of the European Revolution

By a Group of European Comrades

London, July 1944

Written: July, 1944.
First Published:November, 1944
Source: Fourth International, New York, November 1944, Vol. 5, No. 11
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Daniel Gaido and David Walters, December, 2005
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line, 2006. You can freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the address of this work, and note the transcribers & proofreaders above.

The article which appears below is the abridged first part of a document written in July 1944 by a group of European comrades in London in. answer to the questions raised in the “Three Theses” and in the bulletin, “Europe under the Iron Heel” recently published in England. The second and concluding section of this work will appear in a subsequent issue of Fourth International, which has already carried a number of articles on the same question.

The “Three Theses” referred to in the text appeared in the December 1942 issue of our magazine. The official position of the Socialist Workers Party on the issues involved is embodied in the political resolution adopted at the 1942 Convention; the pertinent section of this resolution appeared in the October 1942 number of Fourth International.

* * *

The collapse of Italian fascism, the strikes in Britain, the mass movements in the Balkans and in the rest of occupied Europe are heralding the coming European Revolution. All Europe has become a powder barrel, filled with the explosives of class contradictions. No one can predict, with watch in hand, when the grand denouement will take place. New imperialist slaughters in the West may for a time retard the revolutionary development and may give rise to a period of chauvinist reaction. But the revolution will re-emerge with fresh vigor. The sufferings of the masses will only be intensified—the illusions, the expectations they have in one or another imperialist power will soon be gone—there will remain the one and only way out from the agony: revolution. The struggles of the past months and years which have so vividly demonstrated the trend of development will break out again with increased intensity. There cannot be any doubt. Europe now stands on the eve of revolution.

Our world party is faced with the obligation of reviewing its forces—their theoretical clarity and their ability to give to the revolutionary class—the proletariat—what only the Fourth International can give: program and leadership. This is why the dispute with the group of European comrades who published the ‘Three Theses” (See December 1942 Fourth International) has become one of the most important problems of the International. It requires the attention and active intervention of all sections of the International. . . .

This group of European comrades attempts to waive aside as ridiculous the criticism of various responsible comrades in the Fourth International while continuing their false policy. For reasons not wholly comprehensible, these comrades consider their theories and conceptions as superior to those of the rest of the International. They themselves are therein their own judges—nobody else in the International has up to now confirmed this judgment. It is necessary to consider their theoretical venture critically. Before dealing with our main subject, we wish to make in connection with the Russian questions, some remarks about the bulletin “Europe under the Iron Heel,” issued by these comrades. . .

This bulletin contains an article by Comrade Held written in September 1940. These comrades considered Held’s 1940 article so important that they reprint it now, presumably as an authoritative presentation of their position. That Comrade Held, at the time of the Russo-Finnish war, and at the time of the controversy in the Socialist Workers Party, openly advocated “revolutionary defeatism” for Russia in Unser Wort — would be of relatively small significance, viz., would be of interest only for the “record,” inasmuch as the present tendency assures us it agrees with Trotsky on this question. Until now we thought this statement to be sincere. But what can we think of it when these comrades now publish an article which contains the following:

“After a year of war, the regime of the Iron heel has subjected almost the entire European continent. Finland, Sweden and Switzerland have still a remnant of independence and democratic form of government— however, all these countries lie under the shadow of the iron heel. All signs foreshadow that Finland will also share the fate of the Baltic countries.” (Our emphasis.)

It was the fate of the Baltic countries to be occupied by Russia. The regime of the iron heel, is thus not only German imperialism—fascism—but also the Soviet Union.

Shachtman thought it superfluous to distinguish between an annexation in the interest of imperialism and an annexation for the defense of the Soviet Union against imperialism. The renegade Burnham later developed on this basis his theory of the “Managerial Society”—he could just as well have called it the “Iron Heel.”

The claim of these comrades that they base themselves on the program of the Fourth International loses in our eyes much of its value when they print and solidarize themselves with statements which are exactly the contrary of the position of Trotsky and the Fourth International.

Comrade Held’s Views

For a long time we did not pay special attention to the article of Comrade Held—it is brimming with literary superficialities, it is bare of any scientific exactness. It has now been published, however, together with two similar articles, in the name of a section of the Fourth International.

The above quotation is not the only blow which these European comrades aim against our position on the Soviet Union. On page 3 of this bulletin, it is said that the English Tories have understood relatively late “that the SU has ceased to constitute a danger for the European bourgeoisie” on the grounds of internal transformations within the Soviet Union.

As opposed to this, the Manifesto of the Fourth International, “The Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution” quotes from the theses on “War and the Fourth International” as follows: “Taken on the historical scale the contradiction between world imperialism and the Soviet Union is infinitely more profound than the antagonisms which set the individual countries in opposition to each other.”

What the English Tories have understood relatively late, the Fourth International, according to Held, has not understood to this day. Then, why not say so openly? The Fourth International has always been of the opinion that the existence of the Soviet Union represents a danger to imperialism, that the socialist economy of Russia, i.e. the workers’ state, is an important part of the world contradiction—Proletariat-Bourgeoisie—a point that Shachtman did not understand, but which is very well understood by the English Tories as well as by all other imperialists.

And finally we read in the bulletin:

“Originally endowed with the dynamic idea of world revolution, the Soviet Union is transformed into a bureaucratic-conservative aim-in-itself and finally into a totalitarian police-State, a stifling parasite on the foundation of October, without any historical perspective.” (Our emphasis.)

Let us consider the “dynamics” of this sentence in order the better to see its senselessness. The Soviet Union is here transformed into a bureaucratic conservative “aim-in-itself,” “a totalitarian police-State,” “a stifling parasite on the foundations of October”. . .”without any historical perspective.”

Not a trace of dialectic! Any bourgeois writer could have said this. It is true that this is not the first time that the comrades maintain that the Soviet Union is without historical perspective. Neither is it the first time that we have criticized them for this. More than six years ago they maintained this position in an article, “ Program Einer Bilanz.”

Actually, it is the Stalinist bureaucracy which has no historical perspective—the parasite on the foundation of October, the abscess on the body of the Soviet Union which does not base itself on and does not serve that class to which the future belongs—the proletariat—but becomes the agent of the world bourgeoisie and will perish with it....

Let us now proceed to discuss the “Three Theses” and the articles of Held and Brink, i.e. their position on the European situation.

Character of Our Epoch

I. The present epoch—are epoch of national insurrections and wars of national liberation? Or the epoch of the death agony of capitalism? One of the main mistakes which the supporters of the “Three Theses” make is their estimate of the present epoch. Fascism has often been compared to a political regime similar to absolutism. Such a comparison, with the necessary qualifications and delimitations, is justified. If one, however, omits the necessary delimitation, one comes to the completely incorrect conclusions. . . .

The victory of Hitler over Europe threw a few comrades into a mood of pessimism. It was then that Trotsky wrote: “The victories of Fascism are important, but the death agony of capitalism is much more important.” It would have been well for these comrades to have heeded these words.

Unfortunately, they did not heed this advice. Enumerating the victories of German imperialism, Held says: “No illusion is possible any more. Europe will remain fascist for the next historical period.” Jack London, who never pretended to be a politician, is presented as a witness. The rule of the “Iron Heel” lasted, as is known, about 300 years in London’s novel—this appears too pessimistic to Held, just as he deems a short term too optimistic. However, these comrades are politicians. For them it is important to know in what age they live. The thesis of Comrade Held and therewith of the others thus reads: “An epoch which the progressive thinkers in Europe for long thought to be overcome, now is to be repeated, that of the national insurrections and wars of liberation.”

To corroborate this thesis they give a quotation from Lenin which is in reality an argument against the conception that, in the very course of the imperialist world war, although it already enslaved peoples, the epoch is one of national wars of liberation.

If the European proletariat were to remain impotent for another 20 years— if the present war were to end in victories similar to those achieved by Napoleon, in the subjugation of a number of virile national states; if imperialism outside of Europe (primarily American and Japanese) were to remain in power for another 20 years without a transition to socialism . . . then a great national war in Europe would ‘be possible.” (Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol. XIX, pp. 203-204. English edition.)

Such a development Lenin deems improbable but not impossible:

“For to picture world history as advancing smoothly and steadily ... is undialectical, unscientific and theoretically wrong.” ( Idem)

Whereupon, Comrade Held hurries to add: “If these coming insurrections and wars of national liberation are not to lead anew to a state of fascist barbarism, etc., etc.” Comrade Held and the others could not wait for these “ ifs “ specified by Lenin to come true—they prefer to ignore them. How otherwise could Held prove that we live in an epoch of national insurrections and wars of liberation? . . .

None of the “ ifs “ posited by Lenin has thus far been realized, and we dare to contradict the prophetic pessimism of Jack London and the prophecy of our opponents. We hold such a development to be quite improbable.

The proletariat is not impotent, it is stirring mightily. In Italy it has already overthrown fascism; powerful strikes preceded this overthrow. The rulers in Berlin clearly recognized the significance of this event, as their counter-measures showed. Soon the day will come when Himmler will no longer have hooligans enough to hold down the German proletariat. The proletariat of Russia is dealing blows to German imperialism from which the latter will scarcely recover. Mass strikes have occurred in England, etc., etc. Does this resemble an epoch of national insurrections and wars of national liberation?

The war is not finished ... On the contrary, the unspeakable sufferings this war brings to the oppressed masses can only hasten the revolution which has so mightily announced itself. The thesis of Held is neither proven, nor has it the authority of Lenin.

Fascism, imperialist wars, national oppression, foreign occupation, all these are victories of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat, especially over the oppressed masses of the small nations. It is the bloody victory of imperialism over the forces of socialism. The unconscious historical process, the instinctive elementary striving of the proletariat to reconstruct society on a Communist basis, remains a fact so long as the proletariat, the most decisive, potentially most powerful class of capitalist society, exists. There can be no other orientation, especially for Europe. These comrades are improvising. They lost their head when French imperialism lost its empire. It is time they correct themselves. The military misfortunes of an imperialist bandit cannot alter our orientation. Our policy never based itself on the changes of the military map, but on the basic, objective conditions of capitalist society.

From the standpoint of international Socialism, the national oppression caused by the occupation of Europe is a secondary factor which cannot alter the strategical aim of the Socialist United States of Europe. It is the role of scientific socialism, therewith of our International, to give conscious expression to the unconscious striving of the proletariat.

The present epoch is that of imperialism, i.e. wars and revolutions. On this the entire policy of the Fourth International is based. It is a thoroughly revolutionary epoch. The deep and frequent changes on an international scale, the shifting of frontiers and trenches on the national scale, the sudden changes from a revolutionary situation (i.e. a situation where the seizure of power by the proletariat is on the order of the day) into a counter-revolutionary situation, or the change to a provisional or coalition government are nothing else than the manifestation of the basic antagonism between the productive forces and the capitalist fetters: national and social. Each of these changes deeply shakes the decaying capitalist edifice. Every revolutionary crisis reproduced anew by this antagonism poses the question of power in all its sharpness. The national orientation of the proletariat can only be determined by this world orientation and not the other way round.

Our Prognosis

Trotsky wrote his last, important document, “The Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution,” after the occupation of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and part of France. In the section, “This is not our war,” he stated:

“The Fourth International builds its policy not on the military fortunes of the capitalist states but on the transformation of the imperialist war into a war of the workers against the capitalists... on the world socialist revolution. The shifts in the battle lines at the front, the destruction of national capitals, the occupation of territories, the downfall of individual states, represent from this standpoint only tragic episodes on the road to the reconstruction of modern society. “Independently of the course of the war, we fulfill our basic task: we explain to the workers the irreconcilability between their interests and the interests of bloodthirsty capitalism; we mobilize the toilers against imperialism;... we call for the fraternization of the workers and soldiers within each country; and of soldiers with the soldiers of the opposite Side of the battle front; we mobilize the women and the youth against the war; we carry on consistent, persistent, tireless preparation of the revolution—in the factories, in the mills, in the villages, in the barracks, at the front and in the fleet. This is our program. Proletarians of the world, there is no other way out except to unite under the banner of the Fourth International!”

This is our program. These comrades have another one. In the past, they recognized at least Trotsky’s authority. But it seems to us that they did so only in words, just as on the Russian question. Trotsky lived to see the fall of France, the Nazi occupation of Europe. These comrades should name a single example where he failed to take a position towards an important political event, whether in Russia or in China, in Germany or in France, in Austria, Spain, England, America, or anywhere else in the world. Would he have overlooked the fact that the wheel of history had turned back for approximately 100 years?

II.— The transition from fascist dictatorship to the proletarian dictatorship: Democratic Revolution or Proletarian Revolution?

It is necessary to give clear answers to the two following questions if we are to intervene in the political events in Europe:

(1) The character of the coming European revolution and the strategy flowing from it:

(2) The tactical utilization of revolutionary possibilities, the use of democratic slogans, etc., in order to gain the leadership of the proletariat.

How do the proponents of the “Three Theses” answer these questions? Comrade Held has postponed the proletarian revolution to an indefinite future; the “Three Theses” make a hopeless attempt at introducing the idea of a democratic revolution—hopeless because the Trotskyist movement has behind it many years of struggle against this very conception, and our cadres have been educated and trained through this struggle.

The defeat of the German proletariat, and finally the triumph of reaction throughout the continent, have sown demoralization and confusion among the proletariat, and have unfortunately not left these comrades unscathed. There is no other explanation for their political evolution, for their skepticism, despair, pessimism and confusion.

Through fascism the bourgeoisie had hoped to rid itself of the threat of social revolution. Parties—the highest political expression of classes—were annihilated, society was atomized and class collaboration was imposed, for a time at least. Thus the bourgeoisie actually succeeded in throwing back the political development of the proletariat; the achievements which had taken long decades of struggle to conquer, were lost. But history does not merely repeat itself. Fascism did not abolish classes, nor did it divide up society into Fascists and “anti-fascists.” The comrades stress the absence of political parties, and believe that this relieves them of the duty of upholding our class position. To the question of the character of the coming European revolution, they answer with the neutral word “democratic,” i.e., they introduce between the fall of fascism and the coming of socialism an intermediary stage “which is basically equivalent to a democratic revolution.”

Character of the Transition

We do not deny the necessity of a transitional period, but we demand clarity, even at the risk of frightening off some progressive bourgeois and radical intellectuals; what we mean here, is a transitional period from the fascist dictatorship to proletarian dictatorship, i.e., a phase of the proletarian revolution during which the revolutionary leadership cannot by any means restrict itself to democratic slogans. In fact, there may occur several phases between the fascist dictatorship and the dictatorship of the proletariat. It has always been the tactic of the revolutionary party to mobilize the proletariat and the masses around democratic slogans in retrograde phases of the revolution. No one can predict all the phases, nor draw up in advance all the appropriate slogans. These are only general guiding lines: the state of consciousness of the masses and our strategic goal—the proletarian dictatorship—these are the factors determining our slogans. It is the task of the revolutionary leadership to influence in this direction every struggle, and through every single event to show the proletariat the nature of capitalist society, its parties, its classes and institutions and to make the workers conscious of their historic tasks.

Only a hopeless schematist can say: first a democratic revolution, and then socialism. The proletariat awakes from its apathy, rises through strikes and demonstrations, draws new layers and sections of the working classes into the struggle, thereby learns to know its own strength and appears as a powerful force to all the oppressed classes which it draws into the struggle. The revolutionist does not only participate in this Struggle, but stands in the foremost rank. He will not restrict himself to democratic slogans, but in these struggles he will propagate the idea of Soviets, and at the first favorable opportunity he will organize them. In Italy factory committees appeared before there was freedom of the press or freedom of association, and the revolution in other countries will pass through a similar development.

This transitional period consists of convulsions, mass actions, demonstrations, strikes, clashes with the police, etc., during which the revolutionary party will be strengthened and built up, and during which the proletariat will organize itself and prepare to take power. At the same time, these struggles may lead to democratic changes in the bourgeois government. The Russian Revolution offers numerous examples of this. We repeat: we have to do, here, with phases of the proletarian revolution during which democratic possibilities are exhausted, the revolutionary leadership wins over the working class, and the proletariat establishes its own organs of power, appears and acts as a class, as a unity, grouping around itself all oppressed layers of society. Democratic demands, such as freedom of the press, the right to strike, freedom of assembly and association, municipal elections, constituent assembly (democratic representation in parliament), will be of enormous importance, and, together with our transitional demands, such as workers’ militia, factory committees, control of production, Soviets, will open the way for the proletarian dictatorship.

A False Approach

Instead of approaching the question from the class point of view, instead of giving a revolutionary strategy based upon a correct appreciation of the historic epoch, instead of developing a revolutionary tactic that takes into account the state of consciousness of the proletariat and of the masses whilst remaining subordinate to the revolutionary strategy; the revisionist tendency begins by describing movements in a manner which is nothing but a meaningless enumeration of classes and layers of society: workers, agricultural laborers, peasants, urban petty-bourgeoisie, civil servants, priests, intellectuals, shopkeepers, manufacturers and generals, all combine to form an anti-fascist aggregate or a national movement. Opposing them, we have the fascists or foreign oppressors. What is the conclusion?

“So strong is the common enemy and so great the common need that separate interests can be pushed into the background for a time,” says Brink in a variation upon the arithmetical logic of the People’s Front. (Not once in his article does Brink mention class interests.) Following the same order of ideas, the “Three Theses” state: “Everything will be levelled to a desire for the overthrow of this enemy [German fascism] and, in fact, it must be recognized that without it there can be no question of change in existing conditions.”

If one cannot conceive of a modification of the existing, i.e. capitalist conditions, as long as there is fascism, who then will overthrow fascism? Certainly not the generals, manufacturers, shopkeepers and priests! These were precisely the gentry who put fascism in power in Italy, in Germany, in Austria and in Spain, and who in Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France concluded a compromise with German imperialism and who are now going over to the camp of Anglo-American imperialism—acting every time to guard and guarantee against the proletarian revolution.

There is only one possibility left, if we consider the revisionist tendency as capable of properly formulating its ideas: they demand that the proletariat and the oppressed classes fight against fascism and renounce their own class interests. They must do so—”for some time,” says Brink; until “Socialism”, say the “Three Theses” . . .

In China, a similar policy cost the lives of tens of thousands of Communists, and it did not bring socialism, but Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorship. Half a. million of Spain’s best sons-had to bleed to death because their leaders said: first throw over the enemy No. 1, the main obstacle, and then change “the existing conditions”: this paved the way for Franco. While the “Popular Front” “postponed” the fight against the “existing conditions,” the masses of Spanish Morocco remained colonial slaves and fell prey to Franco’s demagogy. Under the “existing conditions,” peasants remained landless and saw no reason for fighting for the Republican camp. The capitalists, who were themselves fighting openly in the camp of the counterrevolution, left behind their advocates who saw to it that “existing conditions” remained inviolate and if possible profits should continue to roll in.

It is true that, at the time, the comrades of the revisionist tendency were with us, denouncing these “People’s Front” traitors. But that does not excuse their present position. On the contrary. Actually, there can be no real mass movement in the European countries unless the masses know what they are fighting for and fight for their own class interests . . .

The “Three Theses” are rendering a bad service to the inexperienced younger generation by talking of a democratic intermediary stage and maintaining that democratic demands alone can constitute a “complete transitional program,” by considering it unnecessary to explain the role of the various classes, by concealing the fact that the bourgeoisie of all European countries is either collaborating with German imperialism or with Anglo-American imperialism; by speaking of socialism when they should refer to the dictatorship of the proletariat; by failing to take into account the role of the Soviet Union, by failing to denounce the Stalinist diplomacy and the character of the political concentration in Algiers, London and Washington and in the “liberated” countries; and finally by inspiring this generation with pessimism instead of revolutionary optimism, and confidence in the proletariat, its revolutionary cause and the Fourth International.

Repeating Old Mistakes

But it is obvious that the revisionist tendency has nothing to teach the inexperienced generations. It even proves incapable of learning itself. The revisionist tendency following the Menshevik example, is hunting for radical intellectuals in order to prove the blossoming of bourgeois democracy or of the democratic revolution.

A bourgeois “democratic”, “people’s” revolution is inconceivable without a progressive bourgeoisie. But the progressive days of the bourgeoisie are a thing of the past, and hysterical crying about the setbacks suffered by the working class movement will not alter anything.

What Trotsky wrote about the role of the Chinese bourgeoisie is truer still for the bourgeoisie in the occupied countries, i.e. for the generals, manufacturers, professors, shopkeepers, and priests.

“To present matters as if there must inevitably flow from the fact of colonial oppression the revolutionary character of a national bourgeoisie, is to produce inside out the fundamental error of Menshevism, which holds that the nature of the Russian bourgeoisie must flow from the oppression of feudalism and the autocracy” (Trotsky, “Problems of the Chinese Revolution,” The Third International after Lenin.)

The revisionist tendency believes that under fascism the generals, merchants, manufacturers, professors and bishops have undergone a change, and that their role as a class has been modified because they “stumble on the main obstacle . . .” But let us once again turn to Trotsky:

“The question of the nature and the policy of the bourgeoisie is settled by the entire internal class structure of a nation waging the revolutionary struggle, by the historical epoch in which that struggle develops, by the degree of economic, political and military dependency of the national bourgeoisie upon world-imperialism as a whole or a particular section of it, finally, and this is most important, by the degree of class activity of the native proletariat, and by the state of its connections with the international revolutionary movement.” ( Idem.)

Has the revisionist tendency learned anything from Trotsky? Have they, for instance, considered the class structure of France? Undoubtedly, no. In their short-sightedness they can only see the heap of ruins which the war has erected on the continent. But this is far too little a basis for revolutionary politics.

The historical setback which fascism and the war have inflicted upon the labor movement, has thrown the revisionist tendency still further back. They did not land, however, in an epoch of “national insurrections and wars of liberation,” but in the swamp of petty-bourgeois ideology.

A Revisionist Tendency

With a wave of the hand they brush aside the economic, military and political dependence on world imperialism. “The real mass movement of the European continent has nothing to do with the miserable agency of Anglo-American imperialism,” says Brink hopefully, and thereby believes to have exhausted the question. Meanwhile, imperialism proceeds to strangle the progressive part of the Greek movement; is threatening Yugoslavia with the same fate, and is preparing in France all the premises for similar action.

“The degree of class activity of the native proletariat” is a thing of the past in which the revisionist tendency has ceased to believe; they seek salvation in a dialogue with priests, merchants, manufacturers and such . . .

Finally, to quote Trotsky once more:

“A democratic or national liberation movement may offer the bourgeoisie an opportunity to deepen and broaden its possibilities of exploitation. Independent intervention of the proletariat on the revolutionary arena threatens to deprive the bourgeoisie of the possibility to exploit altogether.”

Independent intervention of the proletariat on the revolutionary arena, or a program striving towards this goal, is precisely what the revisionist tendency brands as “ultra-leftist.” They insinuate that up to the present the political line of the Fourth International has been restricted to a fight for improved wages and workers’ conditions . . . The revisionist tendency’s revolution is “basically equivalent to a democratic revolution,” and it lasts . . . until Socialism. Meanwhile, one must think of a change in the existing conditions and “separate” interests must be subordinated—that is the “permanent revolution” a la Brink & Co . . .

In conclusion we have to say: he who wants first to liquidate the “main enemy,” or the “main obstacle,” i.e., fascism or national oppression, and only then to think of modifying capitalist conditions, is unlikely to witness any changes in the bourgeois system, and still less to see the advent of Socialism. That would be the road towards the victory of reaction.

London, July 1944


Last updated on 01.22.2006