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Albert Gates

Politics in the Stratosphere —

Further Away from Reality, Not Nearer

(November 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 10, November 1943, pp. 311–:315.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Continued from last issue)

The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class-conscious. (Trotsky, What Next?)

In this brief statement Trotsky summarizes the key to the dispute on the national question. The revolutionary stature of the proletariat, its will to struggle, its consciousness, its education and experience, and, conversely, its “impotence,” are finally determined by the existence or non-existence of the revolutionary vanguard socialist party. Many of the other questions discussed, which are unrelated to this primary question, are totally beside the point. It is Johnson’s inability to comprehend the implications of the above quotation that leads him to write the really fabulous things which appear in his reply.

In the first part of my answer to him I tried to describe the state of the working class movement in Europe which is epitomized by the absence of any revolutionary socialist party on the whole continent. There should really be no difficulty in assessing the concrete position of the European proletariat from the viewpoint of its political organization, for organization is something tangible. You can point it out and describe it; you can determine the scope of a living movement, its strength and activity. But the most amazing thing about Johnson’s contribution is that, beyond his references to the many underground movements, he is unable to supply any concrete evidence whatever on the presence of absence of the revolutionary socialist party except to say, in general, that the working class movement in Europe today is stronger than it was before the war! Moreover, in the many writings he has published there is little that shows that he is even vitally interested in this master-key to the European, and therefore, the world situation.

Actually, the existence of mass revolutionary socialist parties in Europe would be a subjective factor of such magnitude as to change the whole relationship of forces between the bourgeoisie in all countries and the proletariat in all countries, and thus create a new objective situation.

If the working class on the Continent was politically organized, if it was as Johnson says, socialistically conscious, and “more determined than ever before in its history to struggle for socialism,” we would also have an entirely different situation in Europe. Certainly, the victory of Hitler in Germany and the trend toward reaction throughout the whole period prior to the outbreak of the war would have had a different result than the present relationship of class forces, and Europe would now be faced with a different kind of struggle than the national struggle. But we are led into a blind alley on the basis of Johnson’s views. It is impossible to adhere to them and really understand the European situation. Despite Johnson, the fact remains that the working class did suffer a crushing and paralyzing defeat. Its organizations, all of them, political parties, unions, cooperatives and, yes, fraternal organizations, were destroyed.

The unfortunate fact is that the revolutionary vanguard must begin again – not entirely anew, it is true, for we start with an accumulated experience of many decades – to reconstruct the workers’ movement and its vanguard organizations. It is necessary to add, at this point, that the revolutionary socialist party is the single indispensable requirement for a socialist victory and all talk of the socialist revolution without such parties is really self-agitation and breast-beating.

There is, in addition, another fundamental approach involved. Johnson has presented an “idealized” picture of an imminent European revolution for socialism which has no reference to the existence of the party of socialism – or to the realities in Europe. The most striking element in his “system” is the concept of “spontaneity.” The sweeping generalizations he makes about the character of the present epoch and the nature of capitalist perfidy are necessary to his “system.” There is no other way in which he can substantiate his views except bv painting the utter collapse of capitalism, its dismal future. The drawing of such a picture, without understanding the rôle and nature of the subjective factor in the class struggle, creates the illusion of the automatic collapse of capitalism and the spontaneous character of the rise of working class consciousness and the working class struggle, not merely against capitalism as such, but, above all, for such a conscious goal as socialism.

Spontaneity versus the Party

In the opinion of this writer, the present state of political development in Europe poses once more the Leninist concept (the party) of the socialist victory in contradistinction to the variety of notions which are properly described as the theory of “spontaneity,” or are expressed by the words “spontaneous revolution,” “spontaneous struggle,” or the “spontaneous development of the revolutionary party.”

Without a party, the working class cannot develop beyond trade-union consciousness. Without a party, the working class cannot become a socialist class, for “the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness” (Lenin). For the development of socialist consciousness, a party is necessary because “this consciousness could only be brought to them [the workers] from without” (Lenin). While emphasizing that we are not starting all over again in Europe, we must remember that in striving to revive the political movement of the continental working class, we are dealing with a class that has not yet learned the most important lessons of its uninterrupted defeats, and remember also that after more than four decades of existence the European proletariat finds itself politically and economically unorganized.

Thus, in one sense at least, our job is more difficult. We have now to demonstrate to the working class not merely the superiority of our program and organization, but also to overcome the great damage done by the Second and Third Internationals. My own views on the national question and the prospects of the socialist victory in Europe and their relation to the revolutionary party are as clear as they are simple: without the formation of the revolutionary socialist parties throughout the Continent, all talk of the victory of socialism, the Socialist United States of Europe, “nearer, not further away,” becomes mere sectarian prattle required to bolster a faltering optimism.

Revolutionary socialists need to know the truth about an objective situation. The Marxian movement is not well served by false analyses, misrepresentation, or subjectivity in the field of politics, nor by ideas which manifestly reflect the influence of newspaper headlines and the pap of ignorant, but alarmist columnists. Nor is the movement served by taking too seriously the “radical” writings of the bourgeois demagogues who produce the underground papers which flood the metropolitan centers of America and England. To me, the national movements offer a way for the reconstruction of the revolutionary parties, and the national struggle itself becomes an avenue in which to carry on the fight for socialism, i.e., creates the possibility of raising the national struggle to a higher plane.

Substituting Fantasy for Reality

What Johnson has been trying to say, though not too directly, is that he advocates a revolutionary point of view while the resolution of the NC does not; that he sees revolutionary developments in Europe while the resolution does not. It goes without saying that what he attributes to the resolution is wholly false. It is not an honest interpretation of the resolution, as one can readily see by reading the section on the dual power which makes up, not a piece of the resolution, as Johnson says, but one of its most important sections.

Subjectivity completely dominates Johnson’s views, since what he presents as a picture of the European situation just does not exist except in his own mind. The following quotation, which is the key to his whole position, reveals that it is completely baseless in fact and purely the product of belief. He writes:

The NC resolution believes that Inasmuch as the proletariat is compelled to take upon itself the national defense against a foreign power it thereby becomes less class-conscious, less concerned with socialism, less concerned with socialism, less militantly determined to achieve the socialist revolution, I state unequivocally that exactly the opposite is the case, that inasmuch as the proletariat, particularly in France and Poland, now has to take upon itself the national defense in place of the bankrupt bourgeoisie, it is more class-conscious, it is more socialistic, and more determined than ever before in its history to achieve the socialist revolution. (Emphasis in the original)

This argumentation, like everything else Johnson treats “concretely,” is in the realm of religious faith, and not Marxism.

In the first place, Johnson is guilty of a ... misunderstanding. Anyone interested in the truth will easily see that the Workers Party resolution does not “believe” what Johnson attributes to it, namely, that the working class, when it takes upon itself “the national defense against a foreign power, it thereby becomes less class-conscious, less concerned with socialism, less militantly determined to achieve the socialist revolution ...”

The resolution of the party does not “think” in the terms attributed to it by its opponent. The resolution proceeds from the view that the national struggles in Europe propel masses in motion against the existing order of things; that this struggle by the masses lays the groundwork to agitate for socialist demands and the socialist society as the way out; but more important than this general condition that it would create, the struggle makes possible the reestablishment of the revolutionary socialist parties without which the struggle for socialism is mere parlor debate.

But with Johnson it is obviously different. He regards the working class now as a socialist working class, “more determined than ever before in its history (its whole history, mind you!) to achieve the socialist revolution.”

Revisionism – New Style

This single quotation, I believe, reveals the essential nature of the differences with Johnson. His early articles, which presumably established his agreement on the main agitation slogan, were filled with argument against it. Of what other significance was his insistence that the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe is “nearer, not further away,” that to “moderate the slogan ... is completely false. The only meaning of this is that it must be the main slogan! Exactly the opposite must be done.”

Or, what does Johnson mean when he says: “... the living truth is that the slogan [the Socialist United States of Europe] is now more concrete than at any other time since loss”? If it is more concrete, if “exactly the opposite must be done,” it should be the main political slogan now. Furthermore, if what he says is true – mind, you he is not speaking of the vanguard of the working class, i.e., the revolutionary socialist party, but of the whole working class, all over Europe! – then, placing the struggle for national independence to the forefront is a negation of the struggle for socialism, and if it is such a negation, it must be opposed by the conscious socialist elements. Yet Johnson insists he is for the slogan of national liberation as the main agitational slogan to be used in Europe today!

What Johnson is saying is this: after the victory of Hitler, after the victory of Franco, after the working class defeat in France, after the beginning of the present war which was not prevented by an organized, educated and powerful working class, after the decapitation of the proletarian movement and all its organizations, the workers, on the basis of these defeats and in the absence of a vanguard socialist party, have become “more class conscious, more socialistic, and more determined than ever before in its history to achieve the socialist revolution.” If the working class of Europe has been able to achieve this tremendous stage of development in the last year or two, after terrific defeats, without the aid of the vanguard socialist party, then Johnson has proved the position of the theorists of “spontaneity” and has destroyed Lenin’s position that the working class needs a revolutionary party to educate it beyond its “economic struggles” to give it socialist consciousness and to struggle for power!

Fortunately, Johnson hasn’t proved a thing. I say fortunately, because if his views became widespread, and the theory of the “spontaneous revolution” of the masses received wide support, the working class would be doomed to another series of defeats.

On the Role of the Party

Despite the thesis of Johnson, the position of the European working class is really easy to determine: there is not one serious revolutionary Marxist party in Europe. If this is today the single indispensable requirement for the socialist victory, and it does not yet exist, what then is required? Listen again to what Trotsky wrote about this question:

The proletariat assumes an independent rifle only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious.”

All of this is so simple for Johnson that he does not even concern himself with the problem as the main problem in Europe. His sole answer is that capitalism organizes the working class in the factories. Ipso facto, the party is guaranteed! So simple! But listen to another ABC from Trotsky:

The progress of a class toward class consciousness, that is, the building of a revolutionary party which leads the proletariat, is a complex and contradictory process.

And further:

The task of the party consists in learning, from experience derived from the struggle, how to demonstrate to the proletariat Its right to leadership.

Isn’t this the problem in Europe today – the building ot party, the need for it to prove in practice its right to leadership of the working class, to accumulate experiences in the struggle, to win confidence? But to Johnson – as Trotsky wrote:

The historical problem that must be solved b decreed as solved already. The confidence yet to be won is announced at won already.

Is there anything in Johnson’s article that shows that he understands this question?

Because he does not understand this question, Johnson twists my assertion of the need to reestablish the working class organizations and above all, the revolutionary party, to mean that “you must even build a fraternal organization.” Sometimes called ... demagogy. The trouble with our r-r-r-revolutionary friend is that he makes his revolutions in his head and then concretizes them – with a pen and paper.

A New Twist on Democratic Demands

Consider again the national slogan. It is not put forth in that bare form alone. Revolutionists give ... flesh and blood by the addition of other democratic demands, demands which can set the masses into motion because they reflect their keenest desires. Such democratic slogans are: the right to free press, free speech, free organization, the right to free elections. Revolutionary socialists advocate and support such demands because they are the most consistent democrats and because the achievement of these demands, especially in the context of given European situations, enhances the struggle for socialism.

How does Johnson treat this question? Listen:

Johnson presumably does not know that in a fascist country, in general, you must use democratic slogans. Right to organize and a program of economic demands to educate the workers, that is what preoccupies the NC resolution which Gates so stoutly defends. The truth is, that, in occupied Europe today, given the fierce hatred of the invader which characterizes the masses of the people, their feeling that the foreign government is not theirs and cannot last; such slogans push the masses back. When used by a revolutionary organization as the main slogans after the slogan of national liberation they are thoroughly reactionary and place those who use them, for whatever, purpose, at the tail of the national movement. The slogan to emphasize after national liberation is the power of the workers in a workers’ government. (Emphasis mine – A.G.)

What a fantastic muddle, indeed. In a fascist country, where the workers live in a state of complete subjugation, under a police regime, its organizations destroyed, its vanguard decapitated or incarcerated, and the masses more or less passive, there Johnson would raise the democratic slogans! In the occupied countries, however, where there is a vast movement of the masses, as he so eloquently proves, there the democratic slogans are reactionary! If Johnson has not turned this matter on its head, it is only because he is himself standing on his head.

The democratic slogans are a most important auxiliary to the slogan for national independence. They should and must be used simultaneously. It is the democratic slogans which give life and substance to the national slogan, which takes it from under ground and “throws it in the streets.”

Why are they reactionary? Johnson admits that the fight for national independence in the conquered countries is progressive. Are the democratic slogans reactionary because they retard this fight? Was it democratic slogans which prevented Italy from achieving national independence and from experiencing a rebirth of the mass movement of labor?

Johnson simply does not learn from the Italian situation or the Italian workers, whose instincts and demands are a thousand times superior to his schematic pedantry. The Italian masses demanded the right to organize, to free press and free speech! They demanded free elections now! Their very demands made the rotten regime tremble and resist granting these demands. Only the turn in the war saved Savoy and his Marshal. But the whole lesson of these events passed by our critic.

Some Evidence of Muddle-headedness

Let us cite more examples of his utter muddle-headedness. He writes:

In June 1941 he [Hitler] attacks Russia. The moment he does so the European proletariat stirs itself ... His dramatic failure in front of Moscow lifts the European proletariat still higher. So does the entry of America. The unexpected and superb defense by Russia during 1941 has a tremendous cumulative influence on the revolutionary development of the European proletariat. In this war every month is equal to a year. (Emphasis in the original – A.G.)

Johnson needs something, if not facts, then at least flamboyance, to bolster his views. What, in a concrete sense, does the above mean? First of all, in what way did the proletariat stir on Hitler’s invasion of Russia? By demonstrations, meetings, slogans, actions in the streets for power, the establishment of its class organizations?

Secondly, in what way did Hitler’s failure in front of Moscow life the proletariat “still higher”? I am willing to grant that the workers felt much better at Hitler’s defeats. But as a Marxist, I want to know what its concrete manifestations were so that 1 can determine the significance of the stir and what it meant to the revolutionary movement.

Thirdly, I want to know how the entry of America lifted “still higher” the European proletariat. Unless ... unless what Johnson is trying to say is that the defeats of Hitler, and the subsequent entry of the United States into the war, gave joy and hope to millions in Europe that their national emancipation was closer. Yes, that makes some sense. But Johnson is far off the track if he believes that in the above views he is presenting proof of the socialist elevation of the European working class.

Says Johnson: “Today, not a year after the NC resolution, all occupied Europe is poised for revolution.” Here again Johnson spins rhetoric. He agitates himself too much. Europe is poised for revolution! This is phrase-mongering. The whole question, the only question, is this: What kind of revolution? If Johnson knew what he meant he could tell us whether he means a national, a proletarian, a “democratic” or a socialist revolution. If he means a socialist revolution, then he must tell us how it will take place, who will lead it and under what slogans this poised revolution operates.

Johnson will find it difficult, indeed, to answer questions in the concrete. But as he does so often, he presents his view in such a contrast to the position of the Workers Party as to distort the position of the latter. Let me repeat: “Today, not a year after the NC resolution ...” What does Johnson imply by this construction? That the NC resolution does not foresee revolutionary developments? That this resolution sees no revolutionary perspective, or visualizes a peaceful achievement of national liberation and a peaceful period thereafter? Either Johnson has not read the resolution or he is guilty of willful ... misunderstanding.

Extending his thoughts, he says that “the danger for a revolutionary grouping is not that it will ignore national liberation. The danger is exactly the opposite.” Johnson sees everything backwards. The danger happens not to be the one Johnson cites. “The danger is exactly the opposite,” namely, that revolutionary groupings in the name of the revolution, with a capital R, turn their backs to the national movement, even as Johnson actually does in all his argumentation. How many revolutionary groupings does Johnson know which have rallied to the struggle for national independence? One? Perhaps two? Certainly not more. Yet in his completely distorted view he sees the danger exactly in the wrong place.

Johnson obviously is in a hopeless dilemma. He has engaged in self-agitation and in his fervor has lost himself. We cannot leave him at this point without recalling Lenin’s polemic with Piatakov on the national question. Piatakov, in answering Lenin’s position on this problem, always talked (like Johnson) about the “revolutionary epoch.” And Lenin remarked that Piatakov’s phrase-mongering always reminded him of Alexinsky (an Old Bolshevik). Lenin wrote:

Even at the London Congress in 1907, the Bolsheviks turned away from Alexinsky when, in reply to theoretical arguments, he assumed the pose of an agitator declaiming high-sounding phrases against some form or other of exploitation and oppression, totally irrelevant to the subject. “The squealing has started,” our delegates used to say, when he held forth. And this squealing did Alexinsky no good.

What failed to do Alexinsky any good will not help Johnson, either.

Summary Remarks – Advice from Lenin

The resolution of the Workers Party is based upon the recognition of the existence of a mass desire, and an active popular revolutionary movement in the oppressed countries for national independence. There is not only this desire, but there are in existence numerous underground, revolutionary movements fighting now against the oppressor. It is in these “all-class” movements that the proletariat is once more entering the field of struggle. These movements are as yet, by and large, dominated by a petty bourgeois ideology.

The revolutionists must be in these movements because they are progressive movements. The struggle for and realization of national independence for these countries will hasten the process of the revolutionary organization of the working class in the fight for socialism. This fight is as inevitable as the inability of the rotten ruling classes of Europe to solve in any fundamental way the social problems which confront them.

These national movements are the first important evidence in the war of a recrudescence of the proletariat. They offer the basis for the reconstruction of the independent labor movement and the revolutionary socialist parties. The achievement of national independence will not solve the social problems of the day, but will pose them only more sharply, pitting the fighting proletarian ranks against the returning bankrupt old ruling class.

The determining factor in this situation is the reconstruction of the labor movement and the revolutionary socialist parties, without which the proletariat is doomed to another defeat. The task of the Marxists is to participate in these national movements with their own class program, to be with their class, to educate it, to organize it, to lead it. Without that, it will be impossible to rebuild again. The revolutionary parties which will arise in the soil of the coming struggles must by their activity not only win the confidence and support of the overwhelming majority of the population, but the party itself must train and educate itself in the process of the struggle.

The whole situation is favorable for such a reorganization of the revolutionary socialist movement, provided it shuns sectarian ideas, rejects the theory of spontaneity of masses, of the “automatic” character of the socialist revolution. Lenin warned us so many times: there is no final collapse of capitalism, no final bankruptcy – no hopeless situation for the bourgeoisie. Without the lever of the revolutionary party, without the conscious intervention of the socialist masses, capitalism has found a way out before and can find a way out again – at the expense of the masses.

Our teacher, Lenin, never tired of warning against the things Johnson is so guilty of. Sobriety and objectivity are indispensable qualities for a revolutionist. They are a bulwark against self-intoxication and exaggeration, which always lead to disastrous results. Lenin wrote:

... The greatest danger, perhaps the only danger, that confronts a genuine revolutionary is exaggeration of revolutionariness, forgetting the limits and conditions in which revolutionary methods are appropriate and can he successfully employed. Genuine revolutionaries have most often broken their necks when they began to write “revolution” with a capital R, to elevate “revolution” to something almost divine, to lose their heads, to lose the ability in the coolest and most sober manner to reflect, weigh up and ascertain at what moment, under what circumstances and in which sphere of action it is necessary to act in a revolutionary manner and when it is necessary to adopt reformist action. Genuine revolutionaries will perish (not that they will be defeated from outside, but that their internal affairs will collapse) only if – and they certainly will, if they do – they lost their sobriety of outlook and take into their heads that “the great victorious world” revolution can and must solve all problems in a revolutionary manner under all circumstances and in all spheres of action. (Lenin, The Importance of Gold, November 1921)

What Johnson does is muddle together three different things and considers them as one: a revolutionary situation, a revolutionary uprising; and a socialist revolution. The difference between these three related situations is decisively important. The development of one situation into another and the realization of socialist power depends, in the final analysis, upon only one factor in our time: the revolutionary socialist party. In Johnson’s scheme of things, it plays no rôle.

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