Glotzer Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Albert Gates

Tasks of the Present Period

The Decisive Role of the Party

(August 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 8, August 1944, pp. 261–265.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What invests the present stage of bourgeois society with revolutionary class perspectives? The extreme nature of the world capitalist crisis. In a direct way, rather than a solely historical one, the present imperialist war is a continuation of the last war. It marked the second attempt within twenty-five years on the part of German imperialism, with a fascist political regime, to overthrow the imperialist relationship on the world market, to bring about a new redivision of the earth (this relates not merely to the colonial world, but to large areas economically and politically contiguous to and integrated with western capitalist civilization). Naturally, this effort on the part of German imperialism led to a collision with those imperialist nations which had already brought about an early division of the world and had only increased their holdings following the defeat of Germany in 1918.

The resort to war by one power to achieve, in the realm of economics, a “more equitable” or predominating share of the world’s riches in the form of land, labor power, markets and raw materials, is not only a reflection of uneven and unequal capitalist development but, in the present case, even more than in the First World War, demonstrates the inability of world capitalism to survive on the basis of equality of nations. On the contrary, the most compelling fact in this war is that contraction of the market makes it impossible for any group of nations to share “equitably” the riches of the earth based on capitalist exploitation.

In the absence of a decisive social change from capitalism to socialism there remains only one major perspective for modern imperialist-capitalism: the triumph of one power over the rest of the world and the consequent exploitation of the rest of the world by that single power. The exploitation of the rest of the world by such a single power can, in turn, take place only on the basis of a tremendous lowering of the shares of opponent nations, accompanied by a declining standard of living in the whole world with the possible exception of the single victorious capitalist power.

With the war drawing to a close in Europe and all the dreams of a new German world empire shattered by the colossal arms of the Allies, there is also revealed that the struggle between the Allies and the Axis was merely one manifestation of the inter-imperialist conflicts which exist between all the powers, between England and the United States as the most important example. Even before the war has reached a conclusion on the European front there is expressed, in many ways, the extremely sharp economic and political contest taking place between the latter countries.

It will not be possible for the United States to share its new world power “equally”; it must dominate the world alone, distributing minor snares to its allies. For America itself faces a doubtful post-war future unless it achieves complete world hegemony. Expansion of industry in the midst of a declining world market merely emphasizes the need for American finance capital to gather within its embrace the important economic areas of the world and to share others with competing powers, the latter on ever-diminishing rations. A victory for the United States, it has become quite clear, means a reduction of the “riches” of the overwhelming majority of her allies; it means economic devastation of Germany and Japan.

Prospects of Intense Class Struggles

The consequences of such a situation, given the continued existence of capitalism, will be reflected in heightened class activity in Europe, the most important laboratory of the class struggle. Europe never recovered from the First World War. Stagnation was apparent in all countries. Deep crisis was followed by relative stabilization (the result of the absence of a victorious revolution in the West), but even this partial stabilization took place on a lower economic plane. The overwhelming majority of the European people lived on a lowered standard of living. Mass unemployment became a permanent feature of economic life; poverty was widespread.

As a result of the present war, the Continent will be an even more devastated area: millions of dead, more millions crippled, a starved population, a new generation growing up on a starvation diet. But above all, the war will find the Continent without a single important an all-embracing economic problem, of acute importance to the continued life of the masses, capable of radical solution on the basis of capitalist class relations, private property and production for profit. Mass unemployment on an even larger scale than in the last post-war is more than likely, with any prospect of its solution made a hundred times more difficult precisely because of the narrowing character of bourgeois economy, the impossibility for each of the industrial countries on the Continent to experience a period of industrial expansion, the destruction of the industrial might of Germany, a key to European industrial prosperity, and the chaotic condition, in general, of European economy.

The needs of the masses will be all the greater, just because the capitalist order will find it more than ever before difficult to solve even small problems. For example, the early months of a post-war period in Europe may find the masses acutely concerned with the problems of national independence and simple democratic rights. But even the achievement of quasi-independence and bourgeois democracy, which is necessary and important for the masses, for their class development, will not satisfy a hungry and unemployed Continent. The masses will know how to equate the two and the objective conditions of a declining capitalism. A European capitalism exploited by Washington will drive the masses to seek a radical solution of its impossible economic and political existence.

Whatever the nature of the military victory in Europe, it is easy to see that the post-war period in Europe will approximate the 1918–19–20 post-war period of the First World War. We can say with certainty then that the post-war period will see no end of revolutionary situations and revolutionary upheavals in which the masses will seek in their own way and by their own methods to resolve the capitalist crisis. We will undoubtedly witness many efforts on the part of the European proletariat to take power, on a national or provincial basis. There will undoubtedly be many examples of a dual power: the reestablishment of the bourgeois democratic regimes in some occupied countries and the concomitant rise of workers’ committees, factory committees, on a broad scale, embracing large areas of given countries and millions of workers and peasants. All of this merely attests to the revolutionary character of the epoch in which we live. For the revolutionary Marxist, however, the acceptance of this objective development in Europe is not enough, for the objective developments in bourgeois society is only half the question, and not, under the circumstances, the most important half.

More important than the specific conjecture is the state of the proletarian movement, its organization, its program, its strategy and tactics. In the last analysis, this is the decisive factor. The objective situation may be ever so revolutionary, but so long as the subjective factor, the organization of the proletariat as a class, and not merely economically organized, but the organization of the socialist vanguard and a mass revolutionary socialist movement which has the support of the majority of the proletariat and the whole population, is absent, it is not possible to talk about an impending struggle for socialism, let alone its victory. In my article, Europe and the Revolutionary Party (The New International, July 1944), I tried to indicate what the problem was in general. I propose now to specify what the Leninist position on this question is and why there is no other solution to the problem than the one previously indicated.

Previous Post-War Period

The post-war period of the Second World War, while it will objectively approximate that of the First World War, presents an entirely different picture from the point of view of the class organization of the European proletariat. During the last war and in the post-war period, the grave problem of the Marxist movement was primarily the crisis of leadership in the Second International and in the left-wing groups. The task of winning the majority of the people to socialism was always present, but this task existed coincident with an enormous world socialist movement and mass national parties in the important European countries.

The degeneration of the Second International resulted in the development and growth of revolutionary Marxist groups, splits and parties throughout Europe. This meant that there was a continuity in the theory and practice of genuine Marxism. These groups, under the leadership of Lenin, in maintaining the great traditions of the movement, and most important of all, maintaining in every conceivable way the struggle, made possible the instantaneous mobilization of the revolutionary cadres and the revolutionary proletariat into the ranks of the Third International. Moreover, the Russian Revolution was an immense factor for the reorganization of the revolutionary movement. Consequently, the post-war period of 1919–20, irrespective of the fact that the proletariat in many important countries experienced defeat in their efforts to take power, witnessed a genuinely organized and purposeful struggle. The aforementioned defeats resulted, not from the existence of revolutionary parties and organizations, but from their weaknesses, from inexperience, from a lack of sufficient forces and from a failure to win the support of the majority of the people, an essential factor for victory.

Once the immediate post-war offensive of the working class ended, the tasks of the vanguard forces changed. The revolutionary international recognized after the defeats the need for a new policy, succinctly described as “winning the masses.” Here again the change was conscious, adopted by an organized movement to serve a certain end. The whole revolutionary history of the Communist International is concentrated in those years and we shall refer to them elsewhere in this discussion.

How the Present Differs

The post-war period of the Second World War in Europe will unfold against the background of a destroyed workers’ movement. Almost twenty years of Stalinism and more than ten years of Hitler have decapitated European labor. The existence of social democracy and Stalinism as organized factors is not something to be cheered. On the contrary, they are militating factors in the struggle to reconstitute the revolutionary movement in Europe. Both are linked to the bourgeoisie; both are active forces in defense of capitalism against the proletariat. There is yet no counteracting force on the Continent of sufficient strength, power or with the necessary foresight to understand what is now the main task in Europe.

There is no revolutionary party in any country in Europe, no substantial Marxist vanguard. This means that there is no force present which can educate the new layers of revolutionists which will undoubtedly arise. This means, too, that the task of clarification and reorganization is made more difficult, especially when it is understood what a welter of lies and miseducation has to be overcome. Even in the ranks of the Fourth Internationalist movement there is great confusion. The Cannonite Socialist Workers Party, for example, gives no consideration whatever to this, the most important question for Europe. It regards the revolutionary process and the struggle for power as something automatic and that is why its analysis of the European situation is so meaningless. It can apply to any period, twenty years ago, today, or twenty years hence. There is no sign whatever in its resolution on the European situation that it understands in the slightest what has happened to the European labor and revolutionary movement. Where there is a glimmer of the problem, it is stated in an offhand manner, as if it were of no importance. And this is of little wonder, for any organization which can regard Stalin’s Red Army as an army of liberation, of socialist liberation at that, can hardly be expected to understand what the tasks in Europe are.

This attitude fortifies the new support given to concepts of spontaneity. The degeneration of the Second and Third Internationals, the weakness of the revolutionary groups, the crying need for a class solution to the capitalist crisis, all tend to strengthen the adherents of the theory of spontaneity in all its variety. Does this mean that the adherents of spontaneity are fully conscious that they espouse such a concept? Not necessarily. They may not even use the word. But the thought is there. They look upon Europe and say: capitalism is bankrupt; there is no solution to the capitalist crisis. Ergo, socialism will replace capitalism. The socialist revolution is the next stage of development in Europe. This is purely syllogistic reasoning. The basis for this attitude lies in an almost mystical certainty of the conscious socialist struggle for power on the part of an unorganized and leaderless working class.

Others understand that the post-war period in Europe will be accompanied by widespread class struggle, accompanied even by attempts to take power, and discuss the difficulties and prospects of that struggle. They speak of the “gestation of the European Revolution.” In a general sense acknowledgment is made of the fact that the party will be necessary for a successful conclusion of that struggle. But even here, where recognition of the problem is present, it is not with a full conviction of what implications are involved.

Back to Lenin

I quote again from Lenin’s attack on the Economists. If the quotation does not wholly apply to the present-day believers in spontaneity, it does in part. Moreover, it poses the whole question, in its proper light, of the relationship of the party to the struggle as a whole:

Others, far removed from “gradualness,” began to say: it is possible and necessary to “bring about a political revolution,” but this is no reason whatever for building a strong organization of revolutionaries to train the proletariat in the steadfast and stubborn struggle. All we need do is to snatch up our old friend, the “handy” wooden club. Speaking without metaphor it means – we must organize a general strike, or we must stimulate the “spiritless” progress of the labor movement by means of “excitative terror.” Both these tendencies, the opportunist and the “revolutionary,” bow to the prevailing primitiveness; neither believes that it can be eliminated; neither understands our primary and most imperative practical task, namely, to establish an organization of revolutionaries capable of maintaining the energy, the stability and continuity of the political struggle.

This is for the old days! Let us agree that the struggles of the European working class today will not be merely economic struggles, but also political. Here again the political struggles that are inevitable in Europe are not automatically socialist struggles.

The state of decay of bourgeois society is so deep today, that the slightest economic struggle immediately becomes a political struggle; sharp economic struggles become political struggles of the greatest magnitude. But that is not enough. Again, it is necessary to give these intense political struggles a socialist character. This is what Lenin tried to teach the movement when he wrote:

The demand “to give the economic struggle itself a political < character” most strikingly expresses subservience to spontaneity in the sphere of political activity. Very often the economic struggle spontaneously assumes a political character, that is to say, without the Injection of the “revolutionary bacilli of the intelligentsia,” without the intervention of the class-conscious Social-Democrats. For example, the economic struggle of the British workers assumed a political character without the intervention of the Socialists. The tasks of the Social-Democrats, however, are not exhausted by political agitation in the economic field; their task is to convert trade union politics into the Social-Democratic political struggle, to utilize the flashes of political consciousness which gleam in the minds of the workers during their economic struggles for the purpose of raising them to the level of Social-Democratic political consciousness.

I said in my first article that bourgeois production relations organize the proletariat. This tendency, however, is contradicted first by the anarchy of production and the general anarchy of bourgeois society, and secondly by the severe dislocation of present-day declining capitalism. The only way the proletariat can offset such disintegrating tendencies is by organization. In his One Step Forward, Two Back, Lenin wrote:

The proletariat has no other weapon in the fight for power except organization. Disorganized by the domination of anarchic competition in the capitalist world, oppressed by forced labor for the capitalists, constantly forced “to the depths” of utter poverty, ignorance and degeneracy, the proletariat can become and inevitably will become an indomitable force only because its intellectual unity created by the principles of Marxism is fortified by the material unity of organization which welds millions of toilers into an army of the working class.

In all this discussion I have tried to show that spontaneity of the masses is a fact, to one degree or another. But it is the kind of fact which produces certain demands of the revolutionary party. Lenin did not deny the existence of spontaneity. What he tried to teach the movement was that spontaneity of itself could accomplish little; certainly it could not be the means of taking power. He pointed out, however, that “the spontaneity of the masses demands a mass consciousness from us Social-Democrats. The greater the spontaneous uprising of the masses, the more widespread the movement becomes, so much more rapidly grows the demand for greater consciousness in the theoretical, political and organizational work of the social democracy.”

There is the whole relationship of spontaneity to the existing revolutionary party. The big danger in Europe today is that there will be many spontaneous movements of the workers, rebellions and putschist attempts. But they will all be vanquished in the absence of strong revolutionary parties with correct theory, practice, strategy and tactics. Does this mean that the existence of a revolutionary party is a guarantee against defeat? No, but absence of the revolutionary party is a guarantee of certain defeat. With a party it is possible to win. What has to be overcome in Europe is the enormous gap between the inevitably rising revolutionary spirit of the masses and the absence of revolutionary Marxist organization.

The Meaning of “Democratic Interlude”

Let us approach the question from a somewhat different angle. The resolution of the Workers Party on the National Question in Europe described the probable situation after a defeat of Germany in the following way:

This first period after the overthrow of German rule will undoubtedly be the period of “democratic illusions” to one extent or another, in one form or another. This is the clear lesson of the first 1917 revolution in Russia, the revolution in Germany of 1918, the Spanish Revolution of 1931. The power will, so to speak, lie in the streets. The masses will instinctively incline to take hold of it in its own name. Its difficulties will lie in the fact that it is just emerging from a period of non-organization, or only the most fragmentary organization. Organization is precisely what it needs for seizure and holding of power. The reformist and Stalinist organizations will of course not lead the proletariat to class power. In other words, some interval will undoubtedly elapse before a revolutionary party is properly organized and reaches the leadership of the organized proletariat.

What, exactly, does this mean? If it is true that the coming post-war period will witness enormous class battles, if the working class cannot hope to achieve a victory over the bourgeoisie without its organized party, and if it is impossible to build a party under the conditions of bourgeois dictatorship, as has been so abundantly demonstrated in the past twenty-five years, then the prospect of a “democratic interlude” in Europe should not only be recognized on the basis of the specific bourgeois relationship of forces, but ought to be planned for by the revolutionary Marxists, as favorable ground for the re-establishment of the revolutionary party and the revolutionary international.

There is another aspect of this question of democracy which is equally as important as the fact that a “democratic interlude” will offer the opportunity for rebuilding the revolutionary movement. The chaos of bourgeois society has reached such a. depth that democracy has become a luxury for it. The deep economic crisis, the political instability of the ruling classes, the permanence of the world social crisis secures the dictatorial and totalitarian tendencies of capitalism and makes the struggle for democracy an integral struggle for socialism. It is a vehicle by which the present small vanguard forces can build a mass movement. While the struggle for democracy in no way violates socialist principles and the struggle for socialism, it does clash with the most important interests of the bourgeoisie. The lesson in Italy is already clear. The American, British and Italian ruling classes and, of course, the Stalinists are doing everything in their power to prevent the establishment of genuinely democratic conditions in the country for fear of the consequent re-establishment of the workers’ organizations for the free workers’ struggle. Conversely, the main force in the struggle for democracy in Italy is the working class, but this struggle cannot take place without the sharpest collisions with the bourgeoisie.

The Need for a “Class Superstructure”

The problem there is how to link this struggle for democracy with the struggle for socialism. The link is the revolutionary organization and, consequently, the great weakness in Italy is the absence of proletarian organization. The weakness stands out because:

... the class struggle of the proletariat demands a concentrated propaganda, throwing light on the various stages of the fight, giving a single point of view, and directing the attention of the proletariat at each given moment to the definite tasks to be accomplished by the whole class. (Second Congress resolution of the CI on The Role of the Party)

Often in referring to the principles and experiences of the old Comintern we lose sight of the fact that its decisions and practices were based upon a given evaluation of bourgeois society and the prior or coincident existence of an organization in Europe, Asia and America, with a definite body of experiences. The old generation of Marxists knew that without a party there was no prospect of a victory of the working class; without a party there was no possibility of winning the masses. To win the masses meant the opportunity for a party to function in the day-to-day activities of the class, to provide leadership, to maintain closest relations with the masses, in order to prove by experience that it deserves the support of the working class. There is no other way to achieve the emancipation of humanity from capitalism.

It is, therefore, the height of sectarianism to discuss the prospects of a victorious struggle for power anywhere and everywhere in the absence of a single Marxist party in the world. It is just as if one would say: the smaller the revolutionary organization, the better the prospects for socialism; or, the total absence of revolutionary parties and class organizations guarantees the victory of socialism. To cite the fact that Soviets, or workers’ councils, arise spontaneously, is beside the point, because history has shown that Soviets may be reactionary, i.e., under the influence and control of the bourgeoisie or their representatives. This was the lesson of the Russian Revolution and explains why the Bolshevik Party did not raise the slogan “All power to the Soviets” until it was certain of a revolutionary majority. Thus Soviets may and have existed without a party, but without a party their potential revolutionary and democratic force is limited or completely blocked. When the German Communist Labor Party (ultra leftists) proposed that, since the Soviets were the historical form of proletarian rule, the party should dissolve itself into them, the Comintern rejected the proposal as “reactionary.” It was reactionary because it sought the liquidation of the only force in bourgeois society that can bring about the preconditions for the development of the social order of socialism.

Bridging a Gap

In The Third International After Lenin, Trotsky concerned himself with this very question, because before the complete degeneration of Stalinism had taken place, he had already observed impending the chaos in the developing crisis of leadership. Thus, he wrote:

If contradiction, in general, is the most important mainspring of progress, then the clear understanding of the contradiction between a general revolutionary maturity of the objective situation (despite ebbs and flows) and the immaturity of the international party of the proletariat ought now to constitute the mainspring for the forward movement of the Comintern, at least of its European section. (Page 86.)

There are several points of interest here. First, the main essential question is posed. Secondly, it reveals that even with the existence of a world organization, the problem still existed of winning the conditions necessary for victory, i.e., the mere existence of the international parties did not automatically solve anything. What, in the main, was that problem? Trotsky continues:

When we looked forward at that time [the first post-war period – A.G.] to an immediate seizure of power by the proletariat, we reckoned that a revolutionary party would mature rapidly to the fire of civil war. But the two terms did not coincide. The revolutionary wave of the post-war period ebbed before the communist parties grew up and reached maturity in the struggle with the social democracy [then having the majority support of the masses – A.G.] so as to assume the leadership of the insurrection ...

But it turned out that the determination of the leadership and the dissatisfaction of the masses do not suffice for victory. There mast obtain a number of other conditions, above all, a close bond between the leadership and the masses and the confidence of the latter in the leadership. This conditions was lacking at that time. (Pages 87f. Emphasis mine. – A.G.)

It becomes clear then why the Third Congress of the Comintern concerned itself, not with theory and principles, which had already been determined at the Second Congress, but with the questions of strategy and tactics. Had there been no Comintern, no revolutionary parties, it would have been impossible for such discussions to take place and yet have any concrete significance. The Third Congress therefore was really a gathering which dealt with the problems of building the International, working out the strategical and tactical line of the parties and preparing for the march “to power through a previous conquest of the masses.” Lenin said at the congress that “the struggle for the masses is the struggle for power.” There you have succinctly stated the correct relationship of the whole question which is so neglected, or completely forgotten, today.

Winning the Majority of the Class

To grasp even more thoroughly the meaning of the Third Congress, there is the dispute between Lenin and the ultra-leftists over the whole character of the struggle. In order to strengthen bolshevik concepts, the resolution of the Third Congress emphasized the need to win “the majority.” It stated:

The Third Congress of the Communist International is proceeding to re-examine the questions of tactics under the circumstances that in a number of countries the situation has become acute in a revolutionary sense and that a number of Communist mass parties have been organized, none of which, however, have actually acquired the leadership of the majority of the working class in its genuinely revolutionary struggle.

Lenin led a most vigorous struggle against ultra-leftist and putschist concepts of the struggle for power, especially against the Italian representatives of this tendency! He said then, in 1921, not 1944:

And they want to delete the words “of the majority.” If we cannot agree about such simple things I fail to understand how we can work together and lead the proletariat to victory. That being so, it is not surprising that we cannot come to an agreement on the question of principles. Show me a party which is already leading the masses of the working class. It did not even occur to Terracini to quote an example ... He who fails to understand that in Europe ... where nearly all the proletarians are organized – we must win over the majority of the working class – is lost to the Communist movement. If such a person has not yet learned this in the course of three years of a great revolution, he will never learn anything.

In the above is revealed the true Lenin, the revolutionist who could not think without having the masses in mind, who could not begin to conceive of a revolution without a party, and such a party without winning the majority of the masses. The whole early Comintern was of the same mind.

The Comintern, under the slogan, “To the Masses,” and toward the “conquest of the majority,” devised the tactic of the united front and adopted a series of transitional demands which could bridge the gap between the revolutionary party and the broad masses of the proletariat, peasantry and the middle class poor. It rejected Bucharin’s mechanical concepts of the permanent revolution, his “mechanical understanding of the permanence of the revolutionary process.”

Without the Party There Is Nothing

In recapitulation we see the following situation in the capitalist world, i.e., the subjective situation. No revolutionary International, no revolutionary parties. At best there are revolutionary groupings. There are a body of principles and theories which guide these groupings. But there is as yet no adopted strategy or tactics applicable to concrete circumstances of the class struggle in the many countries of Europe, where the situation is most acute and where the prospects of a revolutionary resurgence may first occur. The absence of organization precludes the conditions which prevailed in the early years of the Comintern, the kind of decisions adopted by them. The main principles remain: build the revolutionary parties, win the majority of the working class and its allies. Without these there can be no serious discussion of a revolutionary victory.

Under the specific conditions of bourgeois society in the present period, the struggle for democracy is indispensable to the struggle for socialism, especially since the struggle for democracy is a struggle against present-day capitalist society and the decay which engenders indigenous tendencies of totalitarianism, becoming stronger the longer the social order exists. The working class needs a “democratic interlude” in order to recreate the socialist vanguard, to develop the struggle, and to guarantee a measure of success.

A whole new layer of revolutionaries is growing up. This new layer needs to be educated in the fundamentals of Marxism and in the principles of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Comintern. And this requires a persistent and consistent struggle against any attempt to reintroduce into the movement those concepts which can only doom the working class to continued defeats and sterility. If such concepts gain credence and strength, the immediate future of the working class will indeed be black and dismal.

Top of page

New International Index | Writers’ Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 14 December 2015