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George Breitman

The Prospects for Socialist Revolution

(10 May 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 19, 10 May 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Any discussion of the workers’ political capacity to establish socialism must necessarily include an examination of the period from 1914 to the present day. But Jean Vannier’s survey of modern conditions and prospects for revolution (March Partisan Review) is just as biased and misleading as his treatment of historical trends, which we have discussed in previous articles.

According to Vannier, Marx’s fundamental hypothesis – that the workers can and must take power – seemed legitimate in the 19th century. But now, he insists, it must be discarded because “the course of the proletariat has, for more than a third of a century, been increasingly erratic.” No one can deny that since 1914 the workers have suffered a number of cruel defeats and repressions at the hands of their capitalist enemies. But is that the whole story?

A Revolutionary Epoch

On the contrary, the last third of a century has also been the period when for the first time the workers as an independent fbrce engaged in large-scale attempts at revolution; it has been the most revolutionary epoch of all history, unequalled either in scope or intensity or length. This Was the period that saw the workers toppling capitalism in Russia and storming the revolutionary heights in a dozen other key countries, despite the inadequacy or; outright treachery of their leaders. Never before have the capitalists had so little confidence in the permanence of their system – and with good reason.

Vannier may be able to kid some of the Partisan Review readers into thinking that the workers are incapable of taking power because they do not march in a straight line from one victory to another. But serious people studying the events of this epoch know better. They recognize the last third of a century as essentially a period of test and experiment for a young revolutionary class; and they perceive in these events the irresistible striving of the workers for socialism, despite all the mistakes they make and the defeats they undergo.

Wrong Answer

Vannier recalls that in 1850 Marx told the European workers: “You will have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and international conflicts, not only in order to transform your circumstances but to transform yourselves and make yourselves fit for political power.” And then Vannier asks: “Is this process of political education still going on today? ... The answer is no.” That’s a flat answer, but not a true one.

It has taken the workers longer to gain power than Marx foresaw, but the civil wars and international conflicts in which the workers have the opportunity to learn great political lessons have neither ceased nor diminished. In fact they have become bigger and bigger, involving ever more of the world’s population. This provides the workers with greater, large-scale opportunities to learn. The workers have still not attained an ideal state of “political capacity,” but they have learned from two world wars, for instance, that capitalism has nothing to offer them but mass misery. That is why in virtually every country of Europe today it is impossible for the openly capitalist parties to win the support of more than a small fraction of the working class.

What is the significance of the fact that since World War II the overwhelming majority of the European workers have rallied around parties – Stalinist and Social Democratic – which promise to institute socialism? It is a sign that the workers Want socialism and are trying to bring such parties to power. What is this if not part of the process of political education? It may be objected that the Stalinists and Social Democrats! betray their vows; they surely do.

But just as the Russian workers learned the truth about their treacherous leaders and substituted revolutionary leaders in the midst of the great explosions of 1917, so the workers will have further opportunities in the coming civil wars and international conflicts to draw correct conclusions about the treachery of their present leaders – if the revolutionary vanguard fulfills its mission of providing an alternative leadership to the class in periods of revolutionary crisis.

Phony Profundity

After thus arbitrarily ruling out the possibility of further political education for the European workers, Vannier spices up his article with a “profound” economic argument: “Marx’s fundamental hypothesis would only regain a measure of reality if some notable development in Europe’s productive forces made the proletariat once more a cohesive body with a capacity for struggle and with faith in the future ... But such a possibility is extremely chimerical: European economy will not emerge from its quagmire for a long time to come.”

Of course it won’t, despite all the money Wall Street pumps into it. But since when does the possibility of revolution depend directly and automatically on a “notable” rise in capitalist productive forces? The Russian revolution took place in the midst of a ruinous war that had broken down production in a country that never had a very high productive level. The German revolution occurred in 1918 in a defeated nation, with production going down and not up. The Spanish civil war of 1936 found the workers’ fighting valiantly to establish socialism while they were in combat with the fascists, without any “notable” rise in the country’s productive capacity. Why then must the European workers now give up the hope of socialism until the miraculous advent of a capitalist regeneration?

In fact, the bankruptcy of capitalism, which is increasingly evident to the workers, is a vital factor in any consideration of revolutionary prospects. Vannier admits: “The bankruptcy of the European ruling classes is as complete as one could have imagined a hundred years ago. But if this fact is a necessary condition to. the seizure of power by the proletariat, it is by no means a sufficient condition. The question is not merely one of relative strength.” Naturally it’s not the only factor, but that is no reason to minimize it.

Relative Strength

Relative strength plays an important part in any struggle. In judging the possibility of revolutionary success, it is necessary to weigh the political capacity of the workers, limited as it is, not against an ideal norm of capacity but against the political capacity of the ruling class, which itself suffers from limitations, the tendency to make mistakes, and growing debilitation. This point cannot be stressed too strongly because after all, one of the means by which the capitalists retain their rule is the propaganda they spread about the omnipotence of their system.

Furthermore, and this too bears repetition, the bankruptcy of capitalism creates conditions of permanent crisis and ferment, which m-turn generate new opportunities for the Marxists to win the, support of the working class and for the working class to take power. This is one of the contradictions of capitalism that operate to the advantage of the working class and compensate for softie of the imperfections of that class. It is one of the sources of our optimism about Europe today, just as it is one of the sources of pessimism by many capitalist politicians about their ability to save their system in Europe.

The European workers are far from the “impotence’’ attributed to them by renegades like Vannier. The mass movements they built during and after the recent war and the magnificent strike struggles they have engaged in, despite their demoralizing leadership, are sufficient evidence of the vast reservoir of revolutionary energy stored up in this class. Vannier scratches the European workers off his list, denying they can ever take power. But on the one hand capitalism in Europe continues to reveal its bankruptcy, and on the other the Marxist vanguard in Europe, organized in the Fourth International, continues its job of educating and organizing the workers – together guaranteeing new attempts by the workers to take the fate of that battered continent into their own hands.

The American Workers

Having disposed of the European revolution, Vannier still has to deal with the rest of the world. How about America, for example? Ah yes, says Vannier, “the American proletariat, the most powerful , in the world ... has not yet given an accounting of itself. That is true enough. We do have an unknown quantity here.” (For the benefit of those who don’t know Vannier, we should state at this point that for this petty-bourgeois snob the American working class is indeed an “unknown quantity” – and not only the American working class.) One might’ think that if Vannier realizes he is dealing with an unknown quantity he. would have the sense or the decency not to talk about it, or to reserve judgment on its chances of taking power. But that would be a vain expectation, for Vannier immediately adds that it wouldn’t be “very sensible” to expect the American workers to do what their European brothers have not yet done.

We do not have the space here to treat at length with the contradictions of American capitalism, the remarkable transformation of the American working class in recent years, the tremendous power lodged in that class – all of which point convincingly to victory for the socialist revolution in this country. (Readers are referred to documents on these questions which Vannier and his fellow renegades have never tried seriously to refute – the Theses on the American Revolution adopted by the 1946 convention of the Socialist Workers Party and the speech delivered at that convention by James P. Cannon, both reprinted in the Pioneer Publishers pamphlet, The Coming American Revolution.) At this time we can call attention to only one vital aspect of the total problem which Vannier tries hard to gloss over: the relation of the American to the European revolution.

Capitalism is a world system and, as recent UN figures graphically revealed, the U.S. is its only strong prop. The fate of the European revolution depends not only on the class struggle waged on that continent, but also on the class struggle here. For that is what will determine whether or not American capitalism will be able to extend effective counter-revolutionary aid to its European satellites, who are doomed to rapid extinction without such aid.

The nature of the relationship can be stated even more positively: Establish socialism in the U.S., and the rest of the world, including Europe, will quickly and inevitably follow suit. The question of the revolution in Europe cannot be regarded as definitively settled, therefore, even if one began by assuming that the European revolution will be retarded or defeated in ttie coming period. For the American working class is destined, by the very preponderance of American productive capacity, to play the decisive role in the world revolution.

Colonial Upsurge

Vannier tries to isolate the political capacity of the European workers (“impotent”) from that of the American workers (“unknown quantity”). In just the same way his survey of world conditions during the last third of a century completely omits mention of one of the most revolutionary developments of all – the anti-imperialist eruption of the colonial world, embracing a majority of the globe’s population. Vannier prefers to cover up this point, because the colonial upsurge deals deadly blows not only to the power of European and world capitalism, but also to Vannier’s analysis of the prospects for revolution in this period. His thesis about the workers’ incapacity to take power can evidently be “sustained” only by evasions, distortions and omissions.

(To be concluded next week)

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