Glotzer Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Albert Gates

Europe and the Revolutionary Party

A Discussion of Fundamentals

(July 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 7, July 1944, pp. 218–221.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The proletariat and its revolutionary vanguard have lived through a long period of catastrophic developments and defeats since the Russian working class seized state power in 1917. Coming in the midst of the chaos of the First World War, the October Revolution served as the spark to ignite the world revolutionary movement. The revolt of the German masses brought about a paralysis of the war regime and directly hastened the end of the imperialist bloodbath. Europe was shaken by the convulsions of enormous class battles; power was achieved or almost won in Italy, Hungary, Germany, Austria. Enormous struggles broke out in almost every country on the Continent. Its reverberations were felt in England, in the United States and the whole of Asia.

The Russian workers had shown the way; the soviet system earned the admiration of the most oppressed peoples of the world. The prospect of a new life of freedom, security and peace appeared real – not in the distant future, but within the grasp of every worker, peasant and exploited colonial subject in the world. The First World War was a gigantic propeller of social struggle. It revealed the deep contradictions of capitalism, the inability of the ruling classes to solve their problems except by the most violent and destructive means based upon the subjugation of the peoples of the world and competing powers.

The war, which resulted in a provisional victory for the Allies, ended as the great Marxists had forecast: in class upheavals. Looking back at that period one cannot but express amazement at the depth of the capitalist crisis, the disintegration and bewilderment of the bourgeoisie, and the nearness of a new stage in world development, workers’ rule replacing bourgeois democracy and imperialism.

The Russian Experience

All the objective factors for social and political change were unquestionably present. They were present in the economic collapse of capitalism, in the disintegration of the political rule of the bourgeoisie and in the will to struggle of the proletariat. Yet the working class succeeded in only one country, one of the most backward in the world. In can thus be seen that, in addition to the objective factors of collapse, an additional factor is necessary to guarantee the victory of the forces of socialism. That factor is the vanguard party of the working class, the revolutionary organization armed with theory, program, experience, tradition, and finally, with the support, not only of the proletariat, but of all the exploited classes.

A revolution could have occurred in Russia in the absence of such a cohesive, experienced and organized party, but the new state power of the workers could not have survived the vicissitudes of the civil war, the famine and foreign intervention without Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. The proof of this is easy to find. Revolutionary attempts at power were made in many countries in the period between 1917 and 1920–21. In every other case but Russia, these attempts ended in bloody defeats. The basic reason for the defeats lay in the absence of a vanguard party, or in the profound errors in policy and judgment of the small vanguard parties which did exist.

If it is said that in some of these cases defeat was due, not to the absence of the revolutionary party, but to treachery committed by the Second International and the trade union movements which it controlled, that is merely displaying the other side of the coin. Such treachery within the ranks of the working class could have been neutralized, overcome and decisively defeated only by a strong, alert and conscious revolutionary party of the workers competing with social reformism and opportunism.

No matter what inferences may be drawn from the enormously rich history of the immediate post-war period, it is impossible to gainsay Lenin’s acute observation that there is no hopeless situation for capitalism. Capitalism can and has repeatedly emerged from crises which seemingly marked its demise only because the “gravedigger” was either absent, weak, confused or pursued totally wrong perspectives.

What Gave Capitalism New Power?

Once capitalism survived the immediate post-war revolutionary situation it obtained a new lease on life. This was particularly true after its stupefying victory in Germany in 1923. This survival brought with it a whole train of consequences for the working class and its revolutionary organizations which are yet before us. A study then, of the development of the early Communist International is of immediate importance to the movement of today for reasons which we shall try to make clear in this article.

First, let us briefly sketch the broad lines of development since the Russian Revolution. Anyone who wishes to understand the present decade cannot do so without thoroughly absorbing the lessons of the past twenty-five years. The outstanding feature of the last two and a half decades is not the crisis of capitalism. That concept was thoroughly established by Lenin and Trotsky and the theoreticians of the Comintern under their leadership. All that is required in addition is merely the elucidation of the present factors of decline which are fundamentally identical to those outlined in the Second Congress of the Communist International held in 1920.

The outstanding feature of the present period is a crisis of leadership inside the working class movement, and a crisis of organization of the working class in general.

If we examine the period between the two wars, the above is incontestable. This period was characterized by tremendous class conflicts. These were not merely every-day struggles of the masses for an improvement of their lot under capitalism; these were also great class battles for power! Enumerate them and the proof is obvious.

Since the German defeat in 1923 there have been the Vienna uprising, the British general strike, the Chinese Revolution, the rise of fascism to power in Germany, the civil war in Spain and the great struggle in France. A victory in any one of these situations would have altered the world situation and opened up a new epoch in which the workers’ struggle for power on an international scale would be assured early victory. But in each instance, at every turning point, the proletariat suffered severe defeats. In each instance ind at every turning point, the responsibility for the defeats rested almost entirely upon the two international organizations of the workers: the Communist International and the Labor and Socialist International, the former by its commission of theoretical, political and organizational errors, the latter by the same, and both by the direct assistance they have rendered to the bourgeoisie to maintain it in power.

Revolutionary Perspectives Remain

These defeats cannot be understood at all without understanding at the same time that the principal cause for the second series of post-war defeats was to be found in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International. The demise of the Second International had already appeared in the First World War and in so far as the revolutionary vanguard was concerned, it cannot be said that it had any faith or belief that the organization of MacDonald, Hillquit, Vandervelde, Bauer, Wels & Co. would become a force for progress in the period between 1918 and the Second World War. On the other hand, in the case of the Comintern, we had an organization which grew out of the struggle with reformism, the October Revolution and the counter-revolution. It was an organization born in struggle against opportunism, revisionism and ultra-leftism. Its degeneration following the death of Lenin and the defeat of the Russian and International Left Opposition was catastrophic, with consequences no one was able to foretell.

The Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia eliminated one of the greatest factors in the advance of the international working class. Henceforth, the influence of Russia and the Comintern was conservative, anti-Marxist, counter-revolutionary. The great clarification of the working class and the growth of its internationalism and revolutionary spirit was the signal accomplishment of Lenin. In achieving that for a time, Lenin carried on a merciless struggle for many years against social reformism and opportunism. Now, in the name of Marx and Lenin, Stalin has contributed more evil than the whole Second International in all its lifetime.

A quick observation of the state of the workers’ movement will reveal its plight. The year 1944, in the midst of the Second World War, finds the international working class disorganized or unorganized, leaderless and misled, without a vanguard organization, without a proletarian theory, program, goal. Look at the four corners of the earth and the picture becomes clearer; but so do the tasks of the small Marxist propaganda groups which have survived the ravages of bourgeois, reformist and Stalinist counter-revolution.

This brief picture of the state of the working class movement can be stated in another way. There is not a single Marxist mass party in any country in the world today. There is no all-embracing, unifying, authoritative, revolutionary international. Thus, from the point of view of the organization of the revolutionary vanguard, which is indispensable to the “winning of the majority,” the workers’ movement exists in one of the worst periods it has ever experienced since the dissolution of the First International.

But there is this enormous difference and it is this difference which gives no warrant to pessimism, cynicism or an outright departure from the ranks of the working class to make peace with capitalism: international capitalism is in an agonizing contradiction, in an objectively hopeless position. It reveals uncloseable fissures; the sickness of death. The war has further revealed that there is no firm or lasting solution for capitalism – not in fascism, bourgeois democracy, quasi-democracy, reformism, etc. No matter how many times capitalism survives shocks, disturbances and crises, they return with greater force and intensity to sap its worn-out foundations.

What are these disturbances, shocks and crises? They are manifestations of class struggle! This, capitalism can never eliminate whether it has a fascist political regime, bourgeois democracy, or even when it receives incalculable aid from Stalinism.

Reviving a Dangerous Theory

With this cursory analysis, let us consider then what are the real problems of the Marxists in the immediate future period. There may be some objection to the emphasis given to the defeats which the workers have suffered and to the deplorable state of the workers’ movement. But it is far better to tell the truth than to deceive oneself, for nothing is worse in the revolutionary movement than self-deception. From the truth it is possible to learn; it is possible to understand, to correct errors, to adopt correct policies and in general to become clearly oriented in a correct direction. Any other attitude can only result in a continuation of the present state of affairs. Any other analysis would be what Trotsky so accurately and vividly described as “tub-thumping.” The revolutionary vanguard movement does not need self-agitation; it needs Marxist analysis.

There is another still more dangerous aspect to the concepts of those who shun the truth with cries of “pessimism.” Behind their “optimism” is false theory, false politics, false practice and mystical consolation.

The most dangerous of these concepts is the “theory” that the experiences of the past twenty-five years of defeat show that they are due to the existence of parties and an international. Parties degenerate. It is the degeneration of parties which caused the counter-revolution in Russia and the international defeats of the working class. The workers in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, France, China, and everywhere else would have been much better off and more secure in their struggles if they had no parties. The spontaneous struggle of the masses offers a much more hopeful guarantee for the victory of socialism than a working class organized and led through its vanguard Marxist party. With a few “original” twists, the theory of spontaneity of the masses is reintroduced into the workers’ movement as the force which can guarantee socialism.

There is a variation of this view which is fundamentally just as dangerous. It is the view that the struggle for power is spontaneous (thus establishing a partial truth), that the workers can take power without a party; it cannot keep that power without an organized party with a program, a tradition, a capital of experiences. But that party can be constructed and become the leader of the masses in the revolution (also a partial truth).

Neither of these concepts grants the necessity for the prior existence of a party, for the development of its theoretical level, for the working out of its experiences, for the hammering out of its tradition and for the winning of the majority of the workers, and the masses as a whole. They are thus Blanquist and putschist in essence. Since, in the view of the writer, the organization of a vanguard party and a vanguard international is crucial to the future of the working class and indispensable in any prospect of a victory for the masses, I should like to concern myself with this question for a moment.

Once Again – Role of the Party

The role of a party was in dispute from the beginning of the first organized movements of the proletariat. The dispute over the role of the party was most acute and had its greatest international significance in the early years of the Russian movement, before the 1905 revolution. Revisionist views now expressed on the same question are hardly original. But that is not their worst fault. The present-day views are not even fully thought out; their generalities do not even allow for a good argument, let alone an illuminating and forthright discussion. Let us then put the question positively.

Bourgeois society “organizes” the classes. The productive system certainly gathers the proletariat together in “socialized” production. It exploits great masses simultaneously and the masses learn what their economic position is from the mass production system itself. But just how much does it learn? Does it learn socialism from its economic position? Does it learn the need for working class political parties because it works collectively? Does it understand the need for theory, for a program, for strategy and tactics in the class struggle against capitalist imperialism? Posing these questions readily indicates the obvious answers.

In examining these questions forty years ago, Lenin effectively demonstrated that the working class can, by its position in production, acquire economic, i.e., trade union consciousness. Lenin wrote:

... But there is a difference between spontaneity and spontaneity ... the “spontaneous element,” in essence, represents nothing more nor less than consciousness in an embryonic form ... Taken by themselves, these strikes were simply trade union struggles, but not yet social-democratic struggles. They testified to the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers, but the workers were not and could not be conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system, i.e., it was not yet social-democratic consciousness.

We said that there could not yet be social-democratic consciousness among the workers. This consciousness could only be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., it may itself realize the necessity for combining in unions, for fighting against employers and for striving to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals. According to their social status, the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. (Lenin, What Is to Be Done, pp. 52f., Selected Works. Emphasis in original. – A.G.)

Objection may be raised: Why, that is old stuff. Lenin was writing many, many years ago. Look at what has happened since then; there have been panics, two internationals, decades of propaganda for socialism, agitation for struggle, many attempts at a seizure of state power, etc. The workers have since been educated many times; they have not forgotten their lessons; they know what socialism is, etc.

Such objections are only partially correct. Lenin is cited, however, to show the origin of his own position and the type of the struggle which he waged against the advocates of spontaneity. But since the objections are only true in part, they are consequently wrong. For example, is it true in the United States? Has the American working class been educated politically – at any time in its organized existence? Has it a socialist experience, an acquaintance with its general ideas, let alone its theory? The answer is clearly, No! Is it true of the hundreds of millions of semi-colonial and colonial peoples? Obviously not. While socialist organization and ideas have exerted tremendous influence in Europe, the revolutionary Leninist movement did not at any time win a working class majority. Does this mean that the working class has to be socialist before it can abolish capitalism and lay the foundations for socialism? No, it does not mean this, but it does mean that it must move beyond trade unionism, beyond economic struggle to political struggle, and for this the vanguard Marxist party is indispensable.

The Main Task Is Clear

The proletariat is at the mercy of an organized, educated, experienced and conscious ruling class. It seems silly to even consider this point. Study Germany, the rise and fall of the workers’ movement there, and you will note with what perspicacity and cunning the German ruling class more than once saved its black soul and conquered over the best organized, most educated and experienced working class in the capitalist world. It is necessary to understand Lenin’s thought on this question to see the profound concepts which lie behind an apparently simple theory.

Naturally since Lenin’s time much has happened. Struggle is piled upon struggle, experience upon experience, mistake upon mistake, a few small victories, a great many defeats. The modern class struggle expressed itself for some years as a conflict between two organized classes; more recently between an organized bourgeoisie and a disorganized working class. How do we look upon the question of organization, of a party in the present conjuncture of events? Just read what Trotsky wrote only a few years ago:

The role of the subjective factor [the party – A.G.] in a period of slow, organic development can remain quite a subordinate one. Then diverse proverbs of gradualism arise, as: “slow but sure,” and “one must not kick against the pricks,” and so forth, which epitomize all the tactical wisdom of an organic epoch that abhorred “leaping over stages.” But as soon as the objective prerequisites have matured, the key to the whole historical process passes Into the hands of the subjective factor, that is, the party. Opportunism which consciously or unconsciously thrives upon the inspiration of the past epoch, always tends to underestimate the role of the subjective factor, that is, the importance of the party and of revolutionary leadership ... In all these cases, as well as in others of lesser importance, the opportunistic tendency evinced itself in the adoption of a course that relied solely upon the “masses,” and therefore completely scorned the question of the “tops” of the revolutionary leadership. Such an attitude, which is false in general, operates with positively fatal effect in the imperialist epoch. (Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, page 84. Emphasis mine – A.G.)

The Second Congress of the Comintern, in arguing against the syndicalists, et al., stated the problem briefly but most graphically when it wrote in its resolution on the role of the party:

They do not see that the working class without an independent proletarian party is like a body without a head.

If I were to state briefly what the main task of the vanguard groups the world over are in the present period I would say: building the revolutionary Marxist party.

In my next article I shall deal more fully with the present period of capitalist decline to illustrate how profoundly revolutionary it is and what enormous perspectives lie on the horizon for the international working class. The above references to the party and its role are deemed necessary even though we seem to have traveled far beyond a stage where elementary, fundamental questions require discussion. But the confusion of the working class is immense. This confusion finds a tremendous echo inside the small Marxist movement. Clarity, therefore, becomes essential before any important forward steps are made.

The tasks ahead are made easier by objective factors of capitalist decline. It is not as though we are at the first beginnings of class economic and political organization. We build upon a theoretical foundation laid down for us by Marx and Engels, a theoretical tradition continued by Lenin and Trotsky. Among the great but now scattered foundation stones is a long history of proletarian organization, struggle, propaganda, agitation summarized in a vast experience. It is with this that we shall concern ourselves in the next article.

Top of page

New International Index | Writers’ Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 14 December 2015