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Albert Gates

Politics in the Stratosphere

Further Away from Reality, Not Nearer

(October 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 9, October 1943, pp. 286–288.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Johnson’s rejoinder to my criticism of his article, The Way Out for Europe, is a polemical fantasy. There is no attempt at a debate of the issues, a reply to criticisms by marshalling data in support of avowed generalizations, or even to defend assertions made in an original presentation of views. Johnson’s current contribution to the discussion of the national question can best be characterized as evasive. Now the old errors are proclaimed in an entirely new way. The methodology, however, remains the same.

In place of answers to concrete questions, we have the same kind of sweeping generalizations, the reassertion (with intense fervor) of a non-existent situation, and the same journalistic, impressionistic and dogmatic evaluation of the objective condition of capitalism in Europe and the state of class relations. It is of the “I believe” and “I assert” school.

He has again demonstrated what I proved by my June article, namely, that he does not understand the problem of the revolutionary vanguard party, the immediate need for its organization on a continental scale, and the necessity for such parties to develop on the basis of struggle. Without this factor, a discussion of the prospect of the socialist revolution is utterly meaningless.

What Johnson does is to substitute pre-conceived and pre-determined idealistic observations for scientific examination and dialectical analysis.

In his generalizations, there are, of course, many things which are true. These general truths (capitalism is in a state of decay, capitalism organizes the working class, the bourgeoisie is no longer capable of progressive existence, the masses are dissatisfied, etc.) are not enough for arriving at a position on the concrete questions, or the immediate tasks of the revolutionary socialists in Europe. His generalizations are an evasion of the real problems. In his writings one can find almost everything, in general, and yet little specifically. It is like gelatine that has not hardened; it cannot be held. It slips through the fingers. You can defend and oppose almost anything with such ideas. The half-truths of his position enable him to reject any criticisms because he has always “mentioned” the point criticized. The fact that it has no relation to previous argumentation and position does not at all disturb him.

Thus, my criticism of his article, The Way Out for Europe, which appeared in the June issue of The New International, serves as a reply to his present article. Were it not for the additional new errors contained in Johnson’s contribution it would not even to necessary to answer it, since it is manifestly impossible to reply to an article or a document which is replete with error in every paragraph.

Before treating these questions, it is necessary to correct Johnson’s utterly erroneous interpretation of the Lenin quotation which has figured in the discussion. This is important, because in revealing Johnson’s errors at this point we find a key to the false thinking which guides him throughout on the national question.

The Lenin Quotation – and Its Distortion

In June, I quoted from the 1915 article by Lenin, in which he poses several conditions which might reintroduce the national question in Europe. The reference to the authority of Lenin was not made as a substitute for argument, as my article so obviously makes dear. Lenin, however, is the greatest Marxist authority on the national question, and his views, based upon experience, observation and polemics with other leaders of the revolutionary movement, are exceedingly important for the present generation of Marxists.

Lenin described a situation which could recur in Europe. His historical reference to Napoleon was made to describe the kind of situation he had in mind. What Lenin meant and what he said can hardly be misinterpreted by anyone acquainted with the disputes between Lenin-Bukharin-Pyatakov and between Lenin and Luxemburg. But that is precisely what Johnson does – he misinterprets Lenin, distorts history and reveals that he does not understand the meaning of this reference.

In the first place, questions of fact are involved. On these there can hardly be any debate.

What was the first post-war period like? The proletariat took power in one country (Russia). The new revolutionary state looked to Western Europe for the continuation of the revolution it had begun and – for its completion. But the proletariat was defeated in every single other attempt it made for power: Germany, 1919, 1923 and 1933; Hungary, Austria, Spain, China, the Balkans and France. The Russian Revolution was isolated and this isolation produced the conditions which resulted in its defeat.

Imperialism has remained in power. A new Napoleonic power (not Napoleon) arose on the European scene with “victories similar to those achieved by Napoleon.” (Emphasis mine – A.G.) This power has conquered most of Europe. That it is now threatened by other powers cannot alter the facts as they have existed for several years and as they exist right now. The proletariat has been impotent and remains in that state now. This latter fact, too, has nothing whatever to do with the question of whether it has revolutionary potentialities and a will to engage in revolutionary struggles or that such struggles must and will come in Europe. Its “impotence” is a relative matter which is determined essentially by the degree of its organization, experience, knowledge, skill and strength in relation to other classes.

It is true that both Lenin and Trotsky believed the afore-mentioned development improbable. But they were mistaken. Their belief in its improbability, however, cannot affect the objective fact that the improbability has become the actuality. It is dear from Johnson’s treatise that he simply does not see this.

How does our protagonist fare with the “historical” aspects of this dispute? Even worse. Listen again to what Johnson says:

Lenin is here taking as a precedent the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. From 1793 to about 1807 revolutionary France fought a progressive war against monarchical and feudal Europe. About 1808, the progressive German aristocracy and the bourgeoisie reorganized Germany, introducing the reforms of the French Revolution (as far as was possible from above), in order to free the country from the imperialist domination of Napoleon. The war thereupon changed its character, becoming, in its next stage on the part of Germany, a progressive war of national emancipation.” (Emphasis mine – A.G.)

“Germany” and the Napoleonic Period

A strange history indeed! Johnson confuses the Germany of Bismarck in the war of 1870 with the Prussia of Frederick IV in 1808. Yet the two situations are not comparable. The “Germany” Johnson speaks of was not a nation at the time Napoleon ruled most of Europe. What is now Germany was then divided into separate states: Prussia, Westphalia, Saxony, the Confederation of the Rhine, and Bavaria. National unification and the national war did not occur until some sixty years later!

Johnson’s “progressive German aristocracy” was one of the most corrupt, reactionary, bourbon-feudal classes on the Continent. Under the rule of Frederick IV, it was a weak, servile and trembling aristocracy, and Napoleon’s war upon it was a progressive war. He represented, historically speaking, the rising bourgeois order. More immediately, he carried the sword of the French bourgeoisie. Of this Prussia, Napoleon aptly said: “A vile king, a vile nation, a vile army, a country which deceived everybody and does not deserve to exist.” It was certainly a far cry from the Prussia of Frederick the Great.

The “progressive German aristocracy,” Johnson notwithstanding, did not introduce the “reforms of the French Revolution.” But the bourgeoisie of Johnson’s “Germany,” on the other hand, hailed Napoleon because he liberated them from the rule of the “progressive German aristocracy.” The reforms introduced into this “Germany” came from Napoleon, and not from this newly discovered “progressive” class.

During the year 1808, which Johnson falsely refers to as date of the Prussian revolt, Napoleon ruled Prussia as well as all the other German states. Many of these states were allied with the French military genius. Prussia did not go to war against Napoleon until 1813–14, when it was assured that the continental coalition under Metternich, the reactionary, feudal-bound “Holy Alliance,” meant business. It was not a major power in this alliance. Neither was the coalition war against Napoleon fought to advance capitalism. On the contrary, it sought to strengthen the decaying remnants of feudalism, which were themselves eventually devoured in this conflict. This coalition hoped, in addition to driving Napoleon out of Central Europe, to restore the Bourbon monarchy in France, and one of the driving forces of the feudal “united front” was the fact that “the vile rabble is for Napoleon.”

The war, therefore, was not a war of national emancipation as we understand it today. Some of the states making up this coalition were themselves oppressors of other nationalities and were certainly the representatives of the old order. The real national wars began much later. Furthermore, Lenin did not have in mind the wars at the turn of the nineteenth century, but the national wars in middle and latter half of that century. To impute to Lenin the idea that the modern bourgeois society might be faced with a struggle against the reintroduction of the feudal order, which is all the sense there is in Johnson’s remarks, is due to his utter miscomprehension of the whole subject.

It is out of this kind of history and thinking that Johnson builds the whole edifice of his views on the national question. He believes that his distortion of Lenin’s views actually strengthens his own on the national question. It doesn’t. It shows that in Johnson’s mind, either the proletariat takes power now, in this situation, or else we face a throwback to feudalism, the ancient “barbarism,” or worse. This kind of confusion is a species of “defeatism” which compels Johnson to estimate falsely the current European situation.

The Meaning of the Fascist Victory

An analysis of the state of the European working class is crucial to the whole discussion. It is precisely in this connection that Johnson preaches a mish-mash compounded of wishful thinking and not a little yokel-chucking, all of it embroidered by rhetoric.

His analysis of the European situation is agitational. It is the result of an erroneous estimate of the historical and the concrete significance of Hitler’s victory in Germany. Where objective research is required, Johnson gives us speeches about the glorious European working class.

There are several statements in his article which reveal his disqualification to speak with any authority on the question in dispute. I shall consider them one by one.

“To say that Hitler has hurled society back,” writes Johnson, “in any sense except the purely agitational, is wrong. He has so contributed to the ruin of bourgeois society in Europe as to bring the socialist revolution immeasurably nearer.”

Before examining this unbelievable statement, I should like to pose a few questions. What does Johnson mean by “purely agitational”? If it is correct to say the above in that form, is it not also correct that it exists as a fact? Or does Johnson believe that because something is agitational, it is therefore not true? And, if it is a fact, is there not a whole train of consequences which must be deduced from this fact?

Otherwise, Johnson must conclude that Hitler’s victory was of no great consequence. Otherwise Hitler’s victory must have been the most progressive event of the past twenty-five years because – because it has advanced “the socialist revolution immeasurably nearer.” Does Johnson really want to defend this concept, which is implicit in his views? Of course he does. As a matter of fact, he emphasizes the point in his article.

It is only from the loftiest and most abstract historical plane that one can state that the victory of fascism advances “immeasurably” the socialist revolution. If what Johnson means is that the very existence of fascism is evidence of the utter decay of capitalism, that it is in a state of dissolution and disintegration, that is one thing. But if that were all there would be no need of discussing the question at all, for it has nothing whatever to do with the dispute on the national question.

Sad to say, however this is not what Johnson means. He actually means that Hitler’s victories have strengthened the proletariat, increased its consciousness, and made it more determined than ever before in history to “achieve the socialist revolution.” To say that this is not true does not make one less revolutionary; on the contrary, the recognition of the true state of objective conditions is indispensable to revolutionary Marxism.

And how does Johnson’s view square with the traditional views of revolutionary Marxism, to say nothing of the simple facts? It does not square at all; it violates every tenet of Marxism.

Our movement has had considerable experience in the question of fascism. It was Trotsky who first analyzed German fascism, its struggle for power, and the consequence of a Hitler victory in Germany. That was ten years ago. But even Trotsky did not begin anew in 1931, 1932 and 1933. The early

Communist International had already had a number of experiences with this phenomenon.

Fascism as Counter-Revolutionary

During the days of the fascist struggle for power in Germany, the Marxists of the Fourth International carried on a tireless agitation to convince the existing parties of the working class to unite in the common struggle against fascism. One of the most significant contributions to this struggle was the idea advanced by our movement that a victory of Hitler would result in an international defeat of the working class; that the working class movement would be thrown back for years to come.

This was the most important question in the whole dispute with Stalinism, which advanced the thesis that a victory of fascism in Germany would accelerate the proletarian revolution in that country and throughout Europe. Fascism, said the Stalinists, would destroy the democratic illusions of the masses and prepare them for the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is to say, fascism was the new locomotive of the socialist revolution.

This view of the historical place of fascism had terrible consequences for the working class. It strengthened the tendencies of inertia which already existed after a long series of defeats. It enhanced idealistic conceptions of the socialist revolution. It strengthened the view of the automatic character of the socialist revolution, the concept of spontaneity and the Stalinist version of the “inevitability of the socialist victory” without regard to the questions of organization, education, experience, struggle and plan, which are the collective attributes of the revolutionary party – the essential instrument of the socialist victory. Johnson has now acquired these dangerous ideas, and proceeds to advocate them ten years after Hitler took power in Germany.

I have not doubt that, as he reads these lines, Johnson will exclaim: This is ABC. Gates doesn’t have to teach me these things. I have known them all along.

That is exactly the point. Johnson knows about this, but it just has no meaning to him. It is merely some knowledge picked up along the wayside. It plays no part in his thinking, as witness the above quotation.

Compare Johnson’s point of view with the views of Trotsky. In warning the German Stalinists of the consequences of a Hitler victory, Trotsky wrote:

The coming into power of the German National Socialists would mean above all the extermination of the flower of the German proletariat, the disruption of its organizations, the extirpation of its belief in itself and in its future. Considering the far greater maturity and acuteness of the social contradictions in Germany, the hellish work of Italian fascism would probably appear as a pale and almost humane experiment in comparison with the work of the German National Socialists.

Was this victory by Hitler an advance of the socialist revolution or a “throwback”? Again, on fascist rule, Trotsky wrote:

When a state turns fascist, it doesn’t only mean that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini – the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role – but it means, first of all and for the most part, that the workers’ organizations are annihilated; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallisation of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism. (Emphasis mine – A.G.)

A Partial Balance-Sheet

Trotsky wrote that if the working class movement succeeded in defeating Hitler it would mark a new leftward turn in the international situation. But, if Hitler succeeded in prevailing over the German proletariat, the international consequences of such a victory for Hitler would result in the triumph of reaction throughout Europe.

Does Johnson know what this means? Hardly, and therefore I propose to tell him. The victory of fascism in Germany resulted in:

  1. The destruction of the German working class movement in every form.
  2. It strengthened the fascist regime in Italy and gave Mussolini the courage to engage in his Ethiopian adventure.
  3. It created the conditions for the annihilation of the heroic Austrian working class and the destruction of its organizations.
  4. It led to the triumph of fascism in Spain and directly assisted in putting Franco into power.
  5. It stimulated the wave of reaction throughout Europe and aided in the establishment of a whole series of fascist and semi-fascist regimes in a number of other countries.
  6. It incorporated Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania into Greater Germany and destroyed their national independence.
  7. It aggravated the international situation and became a primary cause for the outbreak of the Second World War. The outbreak of the war has a twofold significance, however. It is not only an expression of the severest crisis of capitalism. But the fact that it could occur is evidence that the working class was too weak, too disorganized, too undeveloped and unprepared to prevent an imperialist war!
  8. In the course of the war, this colossal power went on to occupy almost the whole continent of Europe with victories “similar to Napoleon’s.”

And this has done what? According to Johnson, it has brought the socialist revolution immeasurably nearer; it has strengthened the working class What has really happened in the working class will be dealt with next month, when I propose to bring the discussion back from the world of “religion” to the world of reality.

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