Breitman Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

George Breitman

Rationalizations of the Renegades

(12 April 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 15, 12 April 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The 100th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto was utilized as the occasion for a concerted attack on Marxism by virtually the whole capitalist press. Not to be outdone by its bigger and less cultured brothers was Partisan Review, whose March issue featured an article, A Century’s Balance Sheet. Its author, Jean Vannier, is introduced by the editors as “a French political writer for many years close to the Trotskyite movement.”

Vannier has actually had nothing to do with the Trotskyists for a couple of years. However, he held up the announcement of his own public recantation until he found the appropriate time and place. What better time than the anniversary when all the hacks of capitalism were sniping at Marxism, and what better place than Partisan Review?

This, in case you’re not acquainted with it, is a magazine Whose editors for a short period in the Thirties suffered from the delusion, that they were fellow-travelers of Marxism, but who managed to shake off that embarrassing notion in time to support the recent imperialist war. As for its politics today, it is sufficient to note that its advisory board is graced by such lapdogs of capitalism as James Burnham and Sidney Hook.

Vannier gives his article a certain revival-meeting touch by opening it with a quotation from Suderman: “We must grow in guilt if we are to grow at all.” But if this arouses the expectation that the author is going to confess his own misdemeanors, it is misleading. The only sin Vannier acknowledges is having once, accepted Marxism. His exhortation is addressed not to himself but to those hardened sinners who still have confidence that the workers will reconstruct society and who continue to work toward that goal.

Stripped of its shoddy “theoretical” trappings, Vannier’s rationalization for deserting the camp of socialist revolution emerges as follows:

The Marxists expected the working class to take over society and build socialism. Although the workers have had 100 years since the publication of the Communist Manifesto to do this job, they haven’t done it. The reason they haven’t done it is that they don’t have the political capacity to do it. The proof that they don’t have the political capacity is that they haven’t done it yet. The fact that they haven’t done it yet is reason enough to conclude, that they can’t and won’t do it in the future. Since the capacity of the workers to take power is the keystone of the whole Marxist system, this means Marxism has failed. Therefore now is the time for all good men to get together, sit down and discuss what is to be done about socialism in this lamentable (if not hopeless) situation.

“Doomed” by the Vannierian Law

To support this argument, Vannier promises to “examine the social situation and political history of the working class.” But instead of an all-sided historical survey of the workers’ past struggles, including defeats, he constructs a picture that seeks to explain everything, at all stages of capitalist history and under all conditions of the class struggle, by certain inherent and apparently unalterable qualities of the working class.

In the interest of establishing his “objectivity,” Vannier concedes that the working class has proved itself capable of heroism, self-sacrifice, demonstrations of great power, the ability to overcome long-held prejudices, audacity. BUT:

“But by and by, whatever the consequences of its action, whether victory or defeat, it is finally caught up in the sluggish, quotidian flow of things. The fetid backwaters of the past seep back; the proletariat sinks into indolence and cynicism. And even in its triumphant moments, it exhibits a want of consciousness in the choice of its leaders. The ‘instinctive sense of reality’ attributed to it by Auguste Comte, which it so readily reflects in many a circumstance, abandons it at such moments. Its courage and self-sacrifice are not enough to give it what, precisely, is needed in order to act out the role assigned to it by Marx: political capacity. What the proletariat is incapable of achieving is a leadership which will be faithful to its interests, will understand and defend them boldly, imaginatively, and tenaciously.”

Some workers – even those entirely free from idealized conceptions about the working class – may resent such sweeping charges of laziness, cynicism and stupidity. But Vannier wouldn’t want them to think he is indulging in mere name-calling.

For while he rejects Marx’s view that the conditions of capitalist production and decay inevitably prepare and drive the workers toward socialism, he does not at all reject all concepts of historical “inevitability.” A careful reading of the above quotation, and in fact of the whole article, will show that he is here presenting us with a veritable law, operating everywhere that capitalism exists. No matter, what happens in the class struggle, whether the workers, win, lose or draw, under the Vannierian Law they are inexorably doomed to sink back, deprived qf the fruits of their struggle. So don’t take it personally, workers. What must be, must be.

It’s not clear if this is another manifestation of the notorious shortcoming in “human nature” which the propagandists of Big Business point to as the basis of the permanence of capitalism, or if it is a characteristic only of people who work for a living. But what seems clear, once you accept this idea, is that there’s not much the workers can do about it, one way or another.

The Landlord and His Mortgage

Anyhow, like the hard-hearted landlord in the Victorian melodrama, Vannier now wants to foreclose the mortgage. But the Marxists never signed any mortgage putting a 100-year limit on their struggle and prediction that the workers would achieve their historic role. What the Marxists promised was that as long as capitalism endures, the working class struggle for socialism will endure too, and that the outcome of this struggle will be either socialism – or the destruction of society.

Reminding us that Marx and Engels compared the future triumph of the workers over capitalism to the earlier triumph of the capitalists over feudalism, Vannier insists that “the differences rather than the similarities must be emphasized.” (Of course the Marxists have always recognized the differences as well as the similarities, even if they reached conclusions directly opposite to Vannier’s.) And he proceeds to emphasize the differences to show what relative advantages the capitalists had when they fought for power, laying particular stress on the argument that the capitalists, unlike the workers, “as a whole ... understood very well how to take hold of society.”

That brings us right to the question of Vannier’s time limit. If the capitalists were in a better position to take power than the workers are today, then why did it take them so long? As is well known, they did not complete their revolutionary tasks within a 100-year period such as Vannier now seeks to saddle onto the workers. On the contrary, the capitalists’ rise to power took a much longer time than the life span of the modern industrial working class. Their struggle had its ups and downs too, its partial victories and sometimes staggering defeats, and in most countries it took two or three centuries before they won their full victory. Should they have given the whole thing up as a bad job at the end of the first 100 years?

The bourgeois revolutionists of the 18th and 19th centuries would not have shown much patience with the Vanniers of their day who came around – on the eve of decisive battles – to inform them that since they hadn’t succeeded in winning power during the first 100 years of their struggle, they had thereby demonstrated their “political incapacity” and had better retire to the sidelines to “grow in guilt” while thinking the whole thing over. Nor will the 20th-century revolutionary workers be diverted front the prosecution of their life-and-death struggle to save humanity by the sermons of the modern skeptics, cravens and renegades.

(Next Week: The Workers and their Leaders)

Breitman Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 30 January 2022