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International Socialism, Winter 1968/69


Editorial 1

1968: The Ice Cracks


From International Socialism (1st series), No.35, Winter 1968/69, pp.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Nineteen sixty eight was the year in which the cracks within the seemingly impregnable structure of international capitalism began to reveal themselves. The financial, political and military structures that had, since the war, dominated with seemingly immutable stability began to bend and break under the pressure of the forces underlying them. The fundamental contradictions of capitalist society, the life-or-death competition between rival national capitalist classes (state monopoly or bureaucratic state capitalist), the unbridgeable antagonism of interest between the exploiting and the working classes, revealed themselves. Masking, mitigating factors that have overlain the basic features of a revolutionary epoch began to lose their power to enthral, began to display themselves as transitory and nerveless. The hollowness and irrelevance of much that had passed for science during the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, based as it was on uncritical acquiescence in superficial surface phenomena, whether on the apologetic Right (Crosland, Bell or Galbraith) or the pessimistic Left (Marcuse, Mills or Cardan) was also exposed.

For the revolutionary Left a sense of euphoria is natural. We have witnessed an expression of revolutionary potential unparalleled for 40 years. In France in May the working class participated in the largest general strike in history. Earlier in the year the peasant army of the NLF, equipped with only rifles, mortars and morals, inflicted defeat after defeat on the massively armed and organised occupying forces of the US. Elsewhere, though there was not the same involvement, there was minority insurgency on an undreamt-of scale: in Berkeley and Columbia students fought police on the campus an d in the streets; in Berlin and Warsaw thousands of young workers joined them; in Mexico a million marched. Even Britain saw the largest demonstration behind revolutionary slogans since the days of Chartism.

At the same time all the old pretensions of the status quo have been undermined. At the economic level a succession of international financial crises has destroyed the best-laid plans of national capitalist classes. At the political level, any Eastern ‘socialist’ and any Western ‘democratic’ pretensions were reduced by the crude act of war by one state capitalist regime against another and by the Chicago convention, to ridicule and incoherence.

The ideological myths that defined the postwar division into blocs as that between ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ or ‘totalitarianism’ and ‘freedom’ (myths that distorted socialist theory itself as Eastern states were characterised as either ‘deformed workers’ states or ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ monstrosities) can no longer make sense as ad hoc coalitions created by temporary conjunctures of interest emerge: Britain and Russia join forces to crush secessionist Biafra; the Indian bourgeoisie is sustained by the West and Russia, its Pakistani rival by the Chinese; in Eastern Europe, ‘Maoist’ Albania and ‘revisionist’ Yugoslavia share a common fear of Russia. New mythologies are eroded before they can fully develop: de Gaulle forms an unlikely alliance with the US to protect the established monetary system the moment the mark threatens the France.

In sum: there is a vindication of what revolutionary Marxists have been saying, virtually unheard, for a generation. The Right at least begins to recognise this, as Gomulka adds his invective to de Gaulle’s earlier fantasies:

‘these rags ... propounded anarcho-Trotskyist ideas on the alienation of the proletariat by the bureaucracy; called for a general strike and "revolution"; demanded the liquidation of the army and the organs of public order.’

As movements developed that are no longer contained completely in Stalinist and social-democratic forms, the ‘groupuscules’ become the targets for much of the venom of the ‘party of order’.

But there is also need for caution. Cracks are not yet abysses. Revolutionary potential is not socialist actuality. A general strike, however massive, is not an inevitable prelude to taking power. The erosion of the old order does not by any process of mechanical transmission give us its replacement. Such a transformation must be made by men, actively and consciously.

Without this conscious element, and without its organisation for coherent, co-ordinated action, the most revolutionary of situations can rapidly transform itself into its opposite. Among Russian revolutionaries pessimism and despondency were much more widespread three years after 1905 than three years before; in Italy the march on Rome followed within two years of the occupation of the factories; the breakdown of capitalism in the thirties brought fascism, not socialism, to half of Europe. The response in this country to Powell and in the US to Wallace, are omens (though only omens) of what could be a long-term development out of renewed crisis.

It is precisely even the beginnings of revolutionary organisation that are lacking everywhere. The groupuscules are still groupuscules. Even in France they have not expanded to more than four times their old size. The erosion of social democracy and Stalinism may have left a growing organisational vacuum on the Left, but nothing guarantees that revolutionary alternatives will replace them. And in the absence of these alternatives, old concepts and loyalties, unable to initiate even reformist activity now, will still be able to stifle movements that begin spontaneously and apart from them. If the first lesson of France is that in May the working class could still act in a revolutionary manner despite and against its existing leaders, the second lesson is that in June these same leaders did manage to get the workers back into the factories and that the ruling ideas did reassert their hold over the mass of the population, with a Gaullist electoral victory.

What must be emphasised and re-emphasised is the immense gulf that separates the working class’s revolutionary potential and our revolutionary ideas. There are no short cuts for overcoming this. No amount of verbal euphoria or frenetic activism will do this – especially if confined to the university ghetto. What is required is not the heroic gesture or the symbolic confrontation (any more than the perfect resolution); nor is it vicarious participation in the self-activity of others (whether they be in Hanoi or Paris); rather we have to be where the various sections of the working class are as they begin to work out new ways of dealing with the new problems, in the factories, in the unions, in the estates and the localities, criticising existing ideas and the conceptions of action that flow from them, suggesting alternatives and linking these to a coherent revolutionary socialist world view. The task is not easy or glamorous; but without it the fire next time can still sputter out.

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