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Ernest Erber

Another Article in a Series on the Workers Party

Historical Development and Modern Socialism

(4 November 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 44, 4 November 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In last week’s article we came to the conclusion that it was not our party but, rather, the capitalist system that had no future. Whether socialism proves victorious or not, the continued decline and disintegration of capitalism are inescapable. That which was predicted by Marx on the basis of THEORY has been confirmed in our time on the basis of FACT.

We stated that United States capitalism was not immune to this decline, that nearly everyone accepted the present boom as a temporary one which would be followed by a crisis on the order of 1929–39 or worse. We said that the American workers would turn to socialism, not because we would succeed in painting such an attractive picture of the socialist future, but rather because life would become intolerable for the masses in the capitalist present. We said that the American worker was not biologically different from the European worker who embraces a socialist program. Historical development would create a mass socialist movement in this country also.

At this point the skeptic asks:

“How so? Did not America follow the same pattern of industrial development as Europe? 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 for 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?”

Method of Reasoning

This line of reasoning appears to be crushing, both in the accuracy of the facts presented and in the logic of the argument based upon them. However, it only APPEARS to be. Marx long ago pointed out (and before him, Hegel) that APPEARANCE and REALITY rarely coincide. Since everything is in motion and in process of change, it could not be otherwise. The economic and political development of the United States and the kind of labor movement it has produced must also be examined from the point of view of MOTION. The first general criticism of the skeptic’s approach we quoted above is that it is based on a wrong METHOD of analysis. It sees American economy, politics and the working class as being static, that is, the same today as yesterday and, therefore, the same tomorrow. Nothing could be further from the truth, as we shall demonstrate.

The second error in the above argument is that which confuses economic development as the KEY to historical change with economic development as the DIRECT, IMMEDIATE AND MECHANICAL IMPULSE to change. When Marxists say that economic development is basic, they are not saying that one need only examine the economic changes and find the answer to all questions. Man is no mere automaton who reflects economic changes in the manner of the wheels of an automobile which reflect the’ power supplied by the motor. The social order which man has developed is exceedingly complex and never more so than now, in this last stage of capitalism, when all social contradictions are driven to their utmost limits.

As a result, the impulse supplied by economic change passes through various phases before it registers decisive political changes and continues on to register changes in the other manifold fields of human activity. Sometimes the impulse of economic change (even when it is sudden and sweeping enough to constitute a virtual shock) is absorbed by the political institutions for years and even decades with only slight visible effects upon these institutions,. However, the longer the delay in bringing the political institutions into line with basic economic change, the more contradictions pile up that cry out for a solution. These contradictions pile up like flood waters behind a dam. While the only result visible to the eye is that the sluice gates are opened wide and running full in an attempt to adapt the dam to the flood, the dam will suddenly crumble under the weight of the waters and the whole situation, which developed slowly over a period of time, is suddenly changed in the twinkling of an eye. Such changes are called social revolutions in the terminology of history.

Historical Development

History develops most unevenly. It is always the process of slow accumulation of basic contradictions and then a sudden forward lurch to overcome them. To our friend, the skeptic, it appears that if industrial development in Europe produced a mass socialist movement fifty years ago and a similar industrial development in the United States failed to produce a mass socialist movement within fifty years, then there must be something about the kind of capitalism we have in this country or the kind of political institutions or the kind of working class that makes a mass socialist movement impossible. In essence this argument boils down to the completely illogical reasoning which says: “It’s never been and, therefore, it will never be.”

Or does the skeptic protest that this is an unfair presentation of his point of view? That what he really means is: “It has not been for FIFTY YEARS and, therefore, it will never be.”

But what is so magic about fifty years? Why not ten years or twenty or seventy-five? Arbitrarily placing a time limit on a historical development changes nothing. The skeptic’s argument remains, therefore, that “since it’s never been, it will never be.”

How many progressive and intelligent trade unionists did not say during the period between 1900 and 1935 that it was impossible to organize the mass industries in the United States? How many did not argue that since the membership of the AFL remained between one and two million for thirty years, this represented the maximum of workers who COULD be organized? How many did not give up the fight for industrial unionism because it had been advocated for forty years without success? Yet today the mass industries ARE organized, the two million organized workers have become FIFTEEN MILLION and the CIO (and in large measure the AFL) are based on the INDUSTRIAL FORM of organization.

Summing It Up

Yes, in one sense it is true to say that American capitalism IS different, that the American political institutions ARE different and that even the American working class IS different. Nor only in minor factors as, let us say, the difference between Belgium and France in these matters. (Even in the case of two countries as similar as Belgium and France the NATIONAL forms and historic backgrounds are different enough to produce working class movements that are different from one another in many pronounced respects, so pronounced that even a superficial study immediately reveals them.) The difference between the United States and Europe as a whole is far greater than the differences between the most widely different of the European countries; as between Sweden and Spain, or The Netherlands and Yugoslavia, or Poland and Italy, or Germany and Greece.

We have established (a) that history must be seen in its process of motion; (b) that the economic changes are basic hut most often delayed in their effects upon political change; (c) that history moves unevenly, by slow accumulation and sudden change; and (d) that while capitalism is basically the same in Europe and the United States, there are vast differences between the two continents in a whole series of important factors.

In order to discover why the American working class has never developed a mass socialist movement (or even an independent class party) we must analyze the differences between Europe and the United States. This will be. the subject of our next article.

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