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The New International, May 1943

Pierre Bellasi

A New Stage for World Labor

Where Must the Socialist Movement Begin?


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 5, May 1943, pp. 146–148.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In 1888, Frederick Engels wrote in a letter to a leader of the German Social-Democratic Party:

From eight to ten millions of soldiers will choke one another and at the same time so thoroughly devour the whole of Europe as swarms of locusts never could devour it. The ravage wrought by the Thirty Years War compressed into the space of three or four years and spread over the whole continent – famine, epidemics, a general lapse into savagery, not only of the soldiery but also of the people, caused by bitter need, the hopeless confusion of our artificial mechanism in commerce, industry and credit, all this will end in general bankruptcy. The collapse of the old states and their routine political wisdom, such a collapse as will bring crowns by the dozens into the roadway and no one will be found to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of seeing how it will all end and who will emerge victor from the struggle, with only one result absolutely beyond doubt, general exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the final victory of the working class ...

Such a war would be the greatest misfortune for us, it might put the movement back for twenty years. But the new party which in the end would have to be created as the result of all this in every European country would be free of all the hesitations and trivialities which are now everywhere holding back the movement ...

Among many possible consequences which war holds out for us and which it is hard to foretell, once can be foreseen with certainty. After the war we should have to begin again from the beginning, though on an infinitely more favorable ground than even today.

A new stage is beginning for the international labor movement. Its new forms cannot yet be clearly defined. We can, however, already recognize a fundamental change of the historical position of the post-war labor movement as compared with the traditional labor movement of pre-war times. One of its main characteristics was its national limitedness. This also applied to the labor movement destroyed in countries where fascism and totalitarian dictatorships came to power. The mass organizations which had been destroyed in these countries were firmly rooted in national traditions. They were more or less international in theory but nationally limited in action. This contradiction, from which even the communist parties of pre-fascist Europe could hot escape, was the fundamental root of the failure of the pre-war labor movement.

For the first time in history, conditions have now arisen which make it possible and necessary for the labor movement to overcome its national limitations. An understanding of the national limitations of the labor movements of the past will facilitate an understanding of the new historical conditions for the labor movement of the future.

The National Character of the Labor Movement

The national character of the old labor movement had two causes: a) the national character of the bourgeois revolution, and b) the rise of imperialist capitalist states.

The beginning of the labor movement was closely related to the successes and failures of bourgeois revolutions. The proletarian class which rose together with the rise of modern capitalism was able to fight effectively for the improvement of its social conditions under capitalism and for political or class aims by fighting for and making use of democratic rights and liberties. They even seemed to guarantee a relatively peaceful “Western” road to the goal of socialism.

Therefore, radical or politically-conscious workers were the most ardent fighters for the democratic bourgeois revolution, even when the capitalist upper class was already betraying it by accepting the political leadership or supremacy of former feudal and state-bureaucratic castes. The bourgeois revolution succeeded under the leadership of the bourgeois class, with the latter as an active democratic revolutionary factor only in few countries – America, England, France and Holland.

But in America, nineteenth century capitalism could expand in the wide spaces of the West largely as an agrarian economy where the individual could easily become an independent producers or owner of means of production. Therefore “free workers” were relatively scarce on the newly-discovered continent. Political labor organizations could exist only as a sectarian movement of immigrants, as remnants of the class struggles in Europe.

The early labor movements in England and France were able to take advantage of successful bourgeois revolutions. Feudal forms of ownership and of personal relations had more or less disappeared. It was now the turn of the bourgeois class to become anti-democratic by suppressing the working class, which tried to utilize democratic rights and liberties for its own class purposes, thus threatening the new capitalist property rights. Therefore, Karl Marx came to the conclusion that the successful bourgeois revolution in advanced capitalist countries would be the prelude to a second, a socialist or proletarian, revolution.

History took, however, a different course. The advanced capitalist countries where the bourgeois revolution had succeeded, became centers of the expanding world economy on an imperialist basis, with privileged world positions (based on international monopolies). This transformation also changed the social structure of the new imperialist mother country, and especially the social conditions of labor. Labor was able to take advantage of democratic rights and liberties, especially the right to form trade unions, in order to improve its economic situation. This had become possible on a national scale without provoking a conflict with capitalist society as such because their privileged world position enabled the capitalists to make concessions to labor. The labor movement became more “peaceful” and unpolitical. This transformation of the labor movement was considered one of the “natural laws” of the “progress of capitalism.” Labor leaders became provincial-minded. Unpolitical trade unionists became patriots and, as defenders of the world position of their national capitalism, common chauvinists.

The result of this development was that the labor movements of the past were international only in theory, but nationally limited in action. The labor movement could not overcome this limitation. Even in countries where labor was relatively radical and where the revolutionary wing of the labor movement was predominant, labor action was handicapped by national limitations. In these countries, the bourgeois revolutions had never been “completed,” thus also limiting the immediate goal of labor action to issues which could be realized only on a national scale. This contradiction between international programs sustained by the existence of the working class on an international scale, and nationally-limited action, was the fundamental root of the failures of the old labor movements.

Although the international monopolies of imperialism-control of raw material resources, of trading centers, of industrial processes of production, etc., on which world economy was dependent – intensified the international ties of world economy, these ties did not create an effective international solidarity among the exploited classes. On the contrary, the working classes of imperialist countries raised their standard of living, and many of them reached the status of labor aristocracies, precisely because the imperialist owners of international monopolies exploited other countries than their own.

The national state became a protector of privileged world positions for the ruling class, mitigating the internal social conflicts at the expense of the rest of the world. As a result, vast strata of the workers in the imperialist countries became nationally-minded and adopted the spirit of the rentier-minded middle and upper classes. In short, international monopolies intensified the national rather than the international character of labor as a social class.

The economic internationalism created by modern imperialism thus weakened the political or social consciousness of the majority of the producers in the imperialist countries. They became subservient to a national economy which drew huge “super-profits” from the rest of the world through international monopolies. The middle classes were relatively prosperous and could extend their economic spheres because of the expanding basis of consumption of high-priced luxury products of an upper class whose investments were spread over the entire world. This change of the social structure in capitalist society also changed the character of the labor movement.

The workers were somehow fooled by the “facts” which they could perceive as their own personal experiences. During the era of bourgeois revolutions, the struggle of labor for democratic rights and liberties necessarily also was a struggle for the success or “completion” of the bourgeois revolution. This struggle of labor was a national affair, though of great international importance. The workers had to adopt a national consciousness as part of their rise as a new social class. This national consciousness was a factor which helped to make the bourgeois revolution a success.

A crisis in this national consciousness would have arisen had the capitalists acted as a single international class, or if internal social conditions had worsened until they became unbearable. Such a crisis was avoided “because of the rise of imperialism. It created a new kind of national consciousness, not only reflecting the existence of a social community but also as a chauvinistic spirit o£ superiority over other peoples.

Thus bourgeois national consciousness was modified when the national state became the successful protagonist of imperialism and national capitalists were able greatly to enlarge their sources of income through the acquisition of international monopolies – with huge investments abroad, control of international transportation lines, trade centers, shipping and other “services,” of important raw materials resources, etc. Even in countries which participated only to a small extent in the world privileges of capitalism, the spirit of the national bourgeoisies, of the middle classes and in part also of labor was molded by the factor of gaining a certain degree of economic security and prosperity on an international parasitic basis, profiting from colonial and other privileged world positions.

We can thus discover another apparently paradoxical historical development. During the struggle for the completion or the success of the bourgeois revolution, a national consciousness arose that was a weapon in the struggle against the old feudal elements and for democratic rights and liberties that the suppressed classes were fighting for all over the world. During this period the labor movement was pervaded by a spirit of international brotherhood which complemented the struggle for the completion of the bourgeois revolution. This international spirit was to a great extent lost during the rise of national capitalism on an imperialist basis when the national consciousness was corrupted by the spirit of chauvinism.

The European labor movement, more than any other social movement, seems to have been internationalist in spirit. International brotherhood and solidarity with the suppressed and exploited toilers all over the world were affirmed in speech after speech before the First World War scattered the hopes and illusions of the pre-igi4 labor movements. Their immediate tasks were nothing more than the completion of the bourgeois revolution in the political field, and the accomplishment of mere reforms in the economic field in countries where national capitalism had “progressed” on an imperialist basis. International socialism was an abstract idea and a distant goal. In those countries where capitalism was fully developed and labor had the right to express and organize itself, national capitalism possessed international or colonial monopolies which operated at the expense of the rest of the world. The conditions which enabled labor to improve its economic situation in such imperialist countries were not recognized as such by those who took advantage of them.

A short review of the aims and failures of former labor movements will sustain the point that they were unable to achieve positive results beyond the task of the “completion” of the bourgeois revolution. They declined and perished because they were subject to social conditions of their national capitalism, which created national limitations for the proletarian class struggle.

The Bourgeois Revolution

Let us consider the first political movement of the working class, the struggle of the Chartists in England during the Twenties and Thirties of the nineteenth century. This movement could strike for nothing more than the completion of the bourgeois revolution and for social reforms eliminating the worst features of early capitalism. The immediate goal of this struggle at its peak was the right of vote, political representation of labor in Parliament, and social legislation which would limit the working day. At the end of the Thirties, the Chartist movement, after its violent suppression, was dead. Attempts to revive it failed. The new English trade union movement which arose during the Fifties and Sixties, twenty years after the Chartists’ defeat, was already possessed by a spirit of unpolitical trade unionism. It became a respectable movement which was able to win a number of economic struggles for a limited number of workers, especially in skilled trades. They took advantage of the privileged position of British capitalism, which had become the financial center of the world during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The historical conditions for the Chartist movement had passed at the middle of the nineteenth century. There was no chance for a revival of the first revolutionary movement of the working class. Its defeat during the Thirties was final, not primarily because the police terror had destroyed the political organizations, but because historical conditions had changed. Britain’s national capitalism expanded on an imperialist basis. The newly-arising trade unions took little interest in political struggles or social reforms which would conflict with the capitalist system. They were only concerned about wages and working conditions for their particular trade group, and they were able to improve the economic situation for the organized workers largely due to the rise of England’s international monopolies. The growing “incomes from abroad” raised the parasitic luxury consumption of the “island state.”

During the Forties, Karl Marx placed great hopes on a revival of the Chartist movement in England. He finally recognized the “corruption” of some sections of the British working class, and of the British labor movement, as the result of imperialist expansion of British capitalism. Then Karl Marx placed his hopes on the labor movement in Germany, where, unlike Britain, the bourgeois revolution had not yet been achieved. The democratic rights which the German workers were still deprived of could not be won without a revolutionary struggle. But the young capitalist class in Germany – after 1848 – was already afraid of a bourgeois revolution. Under the Kaiser, it renounced its struggle for political supremacy out of fear that the continuance of such a struggle would unleash forces neither feudalism nor capitalism would be able to control.

The German bourgeoisie needed a strong national state to suppress the new menace of organized labor and to enable it to compete successfully against foreign countries which were industrially more advanced. Therefore they were inclined to appease the militarist-feudal elements, which were in firm control of the state. They finally gave up all thought of bourgeois democratic revolution.

Marx was well aware of these difficulties for the success of bourgeois democracy in Germany. They led him to believe that the bourgeois revolution in Germany would succeed only as a result of working class action, and that the bourgeois revolution would be the prelude to a second, a proletarian, revolution against capitalism and for socialism. The working class would be able to utilize democratic rights and liberties to strengthen its class position and improve its social conditions. The result of such a bourgeois revolution, achieved against the “will of the bourgeoisie,” would have been an intensified class struggle between the capitalists and the workers. Then the working class would be compelled to fight against the capitalist system in order to safeguard immediate economic interests as well as democratic rights and liberties.

But German capitalism too had become part of a world system, and social conditions at home were molded by the relationship between national and international capitalism. Therefore, even a successful proletarian struggle against the ruling classes had to fail if it remained a mere national affair, with (nationally-limited) forms typical of the bourgeois revolution.

The notion of a bourgeois revolution succeeding against the will of the capitalist class and becoming the prelude to a proletarian revolution proved fallacious in the case of Germany; for German capitalism after 1848, and especially after 1870, succeeded in becoming an imperialist world power. Yet the German labor movement continued to strive for the completion of the bourgeois revolution, still believing that it would be the preliminary to a socialist or proletarian revolution. The goal of the general strike which Rosa Luxemburg, the heroic leader of the German left-wing opposition and the martyr of the November revolution (1918), propagated on the eve of the First World War, was the equal right to vote for Parliament. At the same time, like the British, German labor, in its effort to liberalize society, succumbed to the influence of comparatively unpolitical trade unionism, and trade union bureaucracies became the decisive element in the German Social-Democratic Party.

Finally we can refer to the Russian experience. It is a still more striking example of the fact that the political struggle of the proletarian class was subject to national limitations so long as it was only a struggle for the completion of the bourgeois revolution. Lenin was fully aware of the task of the Russian proletarian revolution to “complete the bourgeois revolutions.” However, in 1917, under quickly changing world conditions, Lenin recognized the danger that the leaders of the Russian revolution would not go beyond the goal of the completion of the bourgeois revolution, thus making the struggle in Russia a mere national affair. His hope was that the acceleration of the proletarian class struggle in Western capitalist countries – largely due to the World War – would make the Russian revolution coincide with proletarian revolutions in Western countries.

During this period, revolutionary crises arose in Germany and in a number of other countries of Central and Western Europe. But the traditional organizations and ideas of labor had been molded either by the struggle for the completion of bourgeois revolutions, or by unpolitical trade unionism, related to the rise of national capitalist states as imperialist world powers.

The Russian revolution started as a “completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution” in that country; but by that time, completion of the bourgeois revolution was opposed by all other capitalist states. The historical task seemed to be to look forward toward the opportunity to transform the Russian revolution into the beginning of a socialist world revolution. Thus the Russian revolution may be considered as the end of the epoch of working-class struggle for the completion of the bourgeois revolution and as the beginning of a new epoch for international labor.

(Continued in next issue)

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