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Ernest Erber

This Is the Real Question

What Are the Prospects for American Capitalism?

(28 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 43, 28 October 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Two weeks ago we dealt with the question posed by the skeptic who asks, “But how can such a small party get anywhere?” We answered that the Socialist future did not depend upon the present size of our party, but rather upon historical development. We said that a movement flourished only when the preceding economic and political development had prepared the soil for it. We said that regardless of the wisdom of its leaders or their tactical skill or their excellence as writers and speakers, it still confronted the law of historical development which Marx summed up when he said that man does not make his own history “out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.”

We concluded, therefore, that the real question concerning the future of our party was whether historical development in the United States has and is preparing the ground for a mass movement based on our program.

Socialism ceased being utopian and became scientific with the theories of Marx, above all, because he established the concept that a socialist society was only possible when the means of production (more specifically, machine production) reached a level that assured an abundance for everyone. Marx, therefore, established that Socialism could not have been achieved in Ancient Rome, in the Middle Ages or at the time of the French Revolution. Socialism was not a possibility in the United States of a hundred years ago. History gave to capitalism the progressive role of expanding the means of production to lay the economic foundations for a Socialist society. We assume that the skeptic who asks about the future of our party does not dispute that the economic forces available today could produce the abundance necessary for Socialism. (See my pamphlet, Plenty for All and Shachtman’s The Fight for Socialism.)

Prospects for Capitalism

However, the fact that socialism is now possible does not yet establish that the mass of workers will fight for it. History is not made that way. People do not discard that which they are satisfied with to adopt something that is still untried, no matter how alluring the latter appears. Masses are never moved into action by general plans about a future society. They only fight for that which is an immediate need. They only discard the old way of life when it no longer assures them stability and security to the degree to which they were accustomed.

If capitalism were to continue as a flourishing, prosperous system which guaranteed full employment, peace and a continuation of present living standards, the American workers would show no more interest in Socialism in the future than they have in the past.

Before we can answer the question of what the prospects for Socialism are, we must answer the question: what are the prospects for capitalism?

On a world scale, capitalism continued to expand until 1914. The standard of living of the masses rose. Democracy was being strengthened everywhere, even to a limited degree in Czarist Russia. Liberalism and social reform were everywhere on the order of the day. Economic crises were only minor interruptions. in the general upswing and were relatively short and mild in their effects. The “success” of capitalism was so imposing and seemed in such contradiction to the predictions of Marx that a whole school of Socialist thought emerged which stated that “the movement (fight for reform) is everything; the goal (Socialism) nothing.” (This was known as “revisionism” or “Bernsteinism,” after its founder, Eduard Bernstein.)

However, the expansion of capitalism over the face of the earth brought the leading capitalist powers into ever sharper rivalry. The increased imperialist antagonisms ushered in the era of militarism, of huge and growing armies and navies. The process exploded in 1914 in the form of the First World War. Though the United States had a period of post-war expansion (1919 –29), capitalism on a world scale now entered a period of crises, upheavals and threats of war that have been the main feature of history since. Lenin called it the “epoch of wars and revolution.” With the worldwide economic paralysis that set in in 1929, the capitalist system everywhere, with the United States in the front ranks, tobogganed downward with increased speed. The economic paralysis of Germany gave birth to Hitler. Hitler rearmed Germany to fight for survival of German imperialism at the expense of its rials. The economic crisis dissolved into the war crisis.

European capitalism has been shattered to its very foundations. It survives only due to the crutches supplied by American capitalism. Though England, historic home of capitalism, is in, better shape than the countries of the Continent, she also leans heavily upon American capitalism to survive. The United States is today the last bulwark of capitalism on a world scale.

Europe and America

The workers of Europe no longer have faith in capitalism. The tremendous votes for the Socialist and Communist parties indicate this. It is only the American dollar and the American bayonet and the power of counter-revolutionary Stalinism, on the one side, and the absence of a revolutionary party, on the other, that prevents the workers’ desire for Socialism from being translated into its achievements.

And how does it stand with American capitalism? Who has confidence that it will achieve stability and offer the workers security and a continuation of even the present declining standard of living? Most certainly many workers have no such confidence. Everywhere, among workers, farmers or businessmen, one hears talk about making money “while it lasts.” Everyone knows what the latter phrase refers to. It means let us make the best of the present, TEMPORARY boom, before we hit another 1929. But the depression that began in 1929 did not end-until war production began in 1939. (Let us not forget that WPA was dissolved AFTER Pearl Harbor!)

The next depression will, therefore, not be another mere “recession” to be followed by another boom. If capitalism could not get out of the crisis during the ten long years between 1929 and 1939, what guarantee is there that it will get out of the next one, short of World War III?

We conclude, therefore, that not only is Socialism possible but that capitalism is proving itself increasingly impossible. Even the skeptic who considers Socialism to be a daydream will increasingly be driven to consider capitalism a nightmare.

American workers are not biologically different from the workers of Europe. If American workers have not accepted Socialism yet, it is not because their blood cells (or their brain cells) are different. It is to be explained entirely on grounds of the historical development of the United States as compared with that of Europe.

“How so?” asks the skeptic. “Did not America follow the same pattern of industrial development? If economic development is the key to historical change, why should the United States not have also produced a mass Socialist movement? Haven’t Socialist parties been preaching their programs in this country as long as in Europe? Isn’t it even true that the Socialist movement in this country once represented a force far stronger than that of today? If you expect the rise of a mass Socialist movement to result from the further decline of American capitalism, why did not the depression of 1929–39 produce such a movement?”

These are most pertinent questions. They will provide us the material for our next article.

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