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George Breitman

Can the Workers Take Power?

(19 April 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 16, 19 April 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In contrast to the working class and its struggle for socialism, the capitalist class possessed many relative advantages in its struggle to overthrow feudalism and establish its own system. Even so, it took the capitalists several centuries before they won power. Understanding that enables us to see how the renegades from Marxism (like Jean Vannier in the March Partisan Review) are deliberately stacking the cards against the working class when they conclude that it lacks the “political capacity” to take power because it did not do so in the first 100 years after the Communist Manifesto.

One of the easiest ways to distort history and muddle up its lessons is by isolating events and trends, that is, approaching them without reference to comparable phenomena that provide us with the basis for making valid comparisons. That is what Vannier does. He “neglects” to discuss the political capacity of the workers during the first century of their existence in relation to the political capacity of the capitalists during an analogous stage of development. Instead, he discusses the workers’ political capacity in an idealistically abstract form, showing that it does not measure up to some perfect “norm” of political capacity. (And this is what he calls “a rational and methodical scrutiny of the lessons of the past”!)

But by using an all-sided approach to the history of the last 100 years, we are justified in drawing diametrically opposite conclusions from Vannier’s. Here are a few that are pertinent:

The workers’ struggle for power does not proceed in a straight line, ever onward and upward, without defeats and retreats and detours and lulls – any more than the capitalist struggle for power did. The working class is not invested with some “ideal” political wisdom, enabling it to skip over all preparatory and intermediate stages – any more than the capitalists were. Like all previous classes contending for power, the workers are bound to grope for solutions from their own experience, to make mistakes and to learn from them, to test their leaders in action before discarding them and selecting new ones.

A Bolshevik Party

To illustrate this point, we should bear in mind that while Marx and Engels outlined the broad socialist goal in the middle of the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1900’s – in Lenin’s time – that light was first shed on the kind of party needed for the conquest of power and on the way to build it. A conscious understanding of the nature of the revolutionary party was not grasped, therefore, even by the vanguard forces, until less than 50 years ago.

In short, the lessons of the last century are the lessons of a new class making its first entrance into the political arena. They prove the difficulties in the way of making a working class revolution, not the impossibility of it. Vannier’s contrary conclusion has no basis in historical analysis; it is pure prejudice, arbitrarily imposed on the facts in order to “justify” his own flight from the camp of working class revolution.

Political capacity, like “maturity,” is a relative factor; it is least of all a fixed and final category. When Vannier sneers that the “political capacity of the working classes has revealed itself as a never-ending capacity for being ‘betrayed’,” then we are forced to recall that the capitalist class too displayed “political incapacity” for a long time and that it too was often betrayed by its leaders. But that didn’t stop it from learning lessons, choosing new leaders and making a revolution later on. Why should the capitalist class be judged by one historical standard and the working class by another?

Vannier’s attempt to forever disqualify the working class from taking power is so weak that he trips to strengthen it by repeating one of the standard slanders of the renegades. Stalinism, he declares, “is as much an effect as a cause” of the workers’ incapacity. If this means anything at all, it means that the working class is to blame for Stalinism and Social Democracy because it continues to “tolerate” their leadership.

Like every other big lie, there is a tiny grain of truth hidden in this one. The working class can be held “responsible” for the Stalinists and Social Democrats in the sense that it hasn’t yet awakened to the enormity of their crimes, repudiated them and destroyed their influence. But if that is the criterion to be used, then it could be just as easily claimed that the working class is also “responsible” for capitalism and fascism and imperialist war in the sense that it hasn’t yet used its invincible potential power to finish off these evils too. Vannier does not carry his ridiculous argument to this extreme, but that’s his inconsistency, not ours.

What is the real relationship between the workers and their bankrupt leaders? We must know the answer to that question before we can decide if the workers’ continued adherence to these leaders is proof of their incapacity to take power.

Leaders and Classes

Vannier plainly holds the concept that the leadership “reflects” or “represents” the class, directly and simply. If this is not so, he asks by implication, then why do the workers “tolerate” such leaders ? Green and Murray would no doubt agree with Vannier that they represent or reflect the American workers, and Vannier may accept Togliatti’s claim to represent the Italian workers. But the Marxists dissent violently.

The truth is, as Trotsky more than once pointed out, the workers don’t select their leaders the way they pick out a pair of shoes in a well-stocked shoe store. The actual process is far more complex, the leadership being a product both of the struggle between the classes and of the clash; between conflicting and often antagonistic layers within the working class itself.

It is a great mistake in this connection to think; of the working class as a single political entity. Actually it is composed of different strata – official labor leaders, privileged skilled workers, unskilled laborers, the most intensively exploited workers who are often not even unionized, etc. A struggle goes on among these different strata – some of whom are reactionary, some passive, some revolutionary, with the relationship of forces within the working class changing under different conditions.

The leadership of the class is the product of the ascendancy of one or more strata over the others at the time of its selection. The emergence of a conservative or reactionary leadership is the result of the defeat of the revolutionary elements. It is not and cannot be a permanent and lasting defeat because the struggle continues after the leadership is selected, paving the way for a reversal of the situation at a later stage.

Once established, the leadership may succeed in holding its position for a much longer time than the relationship of forces which produced it, not only because of the inertia of the class but also because of the power of compulsion wielded by the leadership. It is highly misleading, therefore, to conclude that a leadership elected but a few months ago necessarily reflects accurately the mood of the class today.

Moreover, the leadership, once it is established, tends to rise above the class and thus becomes subject to the pressure and influence of enemy classes. Trotsky pointed out correctly that the American trade union leadership, for example, “reflects” not so much the workers as the capitalists.

The working class is slow to change its leaders – a source of its strength in some ways, a source of its weakness in others. It tends to “tolerate” a degenerate leadership until the contradiction between this leadership and the interests of the class is revealed by the shock of great events. And even then it tends to caution in elevating a new leadership until convinced that it is genuinely superior to the old.

The Contradiction

But this slowness, this caution, does not at all eliminate or remove what Trotsky called “the profound contradiction between the organic, deep-going, insurmountable urge of the toiling masses to tear themselves free from the bloody capitalist chaos, and the conservative, . patriotic, utterly bourgeois character of the outlived labor leadership.” Superficial observers, looking only at the surface, do not see this contradiction and that is why they identify the leadership with the class. But this contradiction remains, and continues, along with the internal contradictions of capitalism, to affect the struggle for leadership within the class, generating opportunities for the revolutionary forces to challenge the reactionary leaders who reflect capitalist pressure.

The fact that conservatives head the workers’ movement far more often than the revolutionists testifies not to the historical law that even a progressive class is able to challenge the enormous pressures and violence of the ruling class only on special occasions, and that such extraordinary exertions of strength can be maintained only for short periods. The importance of the revolutionary party is that it alone can lead the class in taking advantage of these exceptional situations to make the revolution and take power.

Up to now, we have examined the arguments about the workers’ capacity to take power without reference to the most instructive experience of all, the Russian revolution of 1917, which will be taken up in our next article.

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