From Socialist Appeal, Vol.1 No.2 March 1935 pp.11-14.
Transcribed and Marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
While the various groups in the labor movement calling themselves Marxists have widely different views on many vital problems, there still remain fundamentals upon which they all agree. It is well in considering the question of legality and the Road to Power that we first briefly restate those fundamentals that form the basis of Marxist thought.
First, Marxists maintain that our society is divided into classes based on groups of people standing in the same relationship to the means of production.
Secondly, Marxists hold that the interests of these classes are antagonistic and irreconcilable and that a constant struggle goes on between them over the division of the wealth that. society produces.
Thirdly, Marxists hold that the ability of the present ruling class, the capitalists, to maintain their power is due to their using their economic strength to control the government and use it as “an instrument of oppression” against the rest of society.
Fourth, Marxists say that the ability of the present ruling class, the capitalists, to maintain their power is due to their using their economic strength to control the government and use it as “an instrument of oppression” against the rest of society.
It is on the issue of the taking of governmental power by the workers that the widest division of opinion exists. Whether this taking power by the working class, or the Social Revolution as it is called, will be accomplished gradually or suddenly, legally or illegally, peacefully or violently is the most vital question facing those in the vanguard of the labor movement. It is upon our view of the Road to Power that we base our education of the wording-class. It is upon the basis of its concept of The Road to Power that the working-class acts.
Those basic premises of Marxism enumerated above, namely that we live in a class society, that the dynamic force of that Society is the class struggle, that the capitalist class maintains its position by control of the government, and that labor can only free itself “by wrestling political power from Capital for the purpose of building a classless society, are all statements with which no member of the Socialist Party can disagree. If we keep these fundamentals in mind, we will see more clearly on this issue of legality and The Road to Power.
We agreed that the owing class was the ruling class because it controlled the government. The government protects the Capitalist class by protecting the source of its economic strength private property. It is the will of the capitalist class that the rights of private property be protected. It uses its control of government to write down its will and call it law. It uses its control of government to enforce its will, the law. The law is the voice of the ruling class.
In primitive tribes the command of the master was law to his slave. In ancient Athens the democratic assembly of slaveholders wrote the law for their slaves. The voice of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the commandments of generations of Feudal lords grown into tradition and custom were the laws that the serfs and guildsmen of the middle Ages obeyed. The will of the representative of Copper, the representative of Sugar, the representative of Textiles, the representative of Finance, all sitting in Congress, is the law the American Worker obeys.
At present the processes of government by which the Capitalist Class of this country rules are called the democratic form of government. Democracy literally means “Rule of the people”. We agreed however, that we live in a class society in which one class maintains its favorable economic position because it controls the rule by the people, since the capitalist class is a small minority, of the emulation. True enough, some still say, but the majority of people support the present system and therefore the capitalist class controls the government only as long as the majority of the voters permit them to. This objection is an example of the illusion created by the fact that the working-class is allowed to vote.
First a bit of history of the right to vote. It was some decades after the adoption of the Constitution that the workers of America secured the right to vote. They secured this right as did the workers of Europe, after the great agitations for the right to vote had been threatened to educate such large masses to an understanding of the class nature of government that the ruling class thought it better to make concessions than to seek to maintain its power by force of arms and risk losing all. The concession of allowing the worker to vote was made with the knowledge that it would serve to further cover the dictatorship of Capital with a democratic cloak. This meant allowing the masses to vote but using Capital’s control of the channels of information to teach the masses to vote against their own. interests.
To America’s ruling class this was no new trick, for the merchants and bankers of the coast towns had long found the political formula that would let the farmer and backwoodsmen to vote “right.” This even long before the British colonies became the United States. While on the subject, it might be mentioned that one of the most significant movements by the farmers to free themselves from the rule of the merchants and bankers by electoral means was defeated by the ruling class with bribery,. corruption, election irregularities, and by a method invented at the time by Elbridge Gerry, (elected Vice President of the U.S.A. in 1812) which has since come down to us as “gerrymandering.” The farmers disillusionment on the possibility of a legal victory found its expression in an armed revolt recorded in our school histories as Shay’s Rebellion.
The right to vote for the propertyless was one of a number of concessions which a confident and secure class, made during a period of an expanding and strengthening Capitalism. The right to vote for the propertyless is one of a number of other concessions which a frightened and weakening ruling class, driven into a corner by the economic decline of Capitalism, will withdraw in self-defense. The argument is made that Labor can safeguard peaceful avenues of progress by fighting any attempt by Capital to abolish the right to vote, the freedom of speech and press, the right to stride. If Labor can prevent Capital from exercising its control of government to legally make these changes, it has dealt Capital a terrible blow and taken the offensive in a struggle which carried to its logical end can only result in the illegal overthrow of the capitally government power. Thus the defense of what are now legal methods of social change becomes a revolutionary attack on the political power of Capital.
It might be useful to remind those who doubt that the ruling class would take from Labor legal methods of change of the frenzied hate, born of fear, with which Capital meets Labor in every industrial struggle, of the fight that Capital wages against purely reformist movements like the Non-partisan League and the Epic Planners, of the terror and sadism practiced against members of the I.W.W and the Socialist Party during the World War, and the many similar examples. Historical incidents like the butchery of over 26,000 workers of Paris after the fall of the Commune, or the reversion to savagery by the ruling class of Hungary during the White Terror of 1919, or more recently the pent-up hatred of German Capital for the Labor movement unleashed in the convince us that when the struggle between Capital and Labor becomes a life and death issue, not even civilized methods of combat are recognized, let alone legality. Guns arc turned on women and children, prisoners of war are shot. no rule covering international warfare is observed.
For the working-class to hope for victory by legal means is like a football team hoping to win a game in which their opponents have the right to make and change the rules during the course of play, the only difference being that some degree of sportsmanship exists in a football game, but only a bitter hatred that stops at nothing in the class struggle.
To speak of a Social Revolution that is legal is to speak of an absurd contradiction. At the beginning of this article we agreed that Capital controls the government. From this we draw the conclusion that the voice of the government, or the law, was the will of the ruling class. Can we overthrow the ruling class by its own will? If the ruling class so desires, it can be done. However, if we must overthrow Capital against its will, it cannot be done legally, as its will determines legality.
Last updated: 14.2.2009