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Jean Vannier

A Century’s Balance Sheet

(March 1948)

From Partisan Review, Vol. 15 No. 3, March 1948, pp. 288–296.
Translated by Felix Giovanelli
Jean Vannier is a pseudonym of Jean van Heijenoort.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Note by the transcriber:
This article, written on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, marks Jean van Heijenoort’s break with Marxism. It was written in the aftermath of the defeat of the Morrow-Heijenhoort-Goldman faction in the SWP by the majority faction led by James Cannon: Albert Goldman left the SWP in May 1946 and Felix Morrow was expelled in November 1946. See also Jean van Heijenoort’s memoirs of his years as Trotsky’s secretary and bodyguard: With Trotsky in Exile: From Prinkipo to Coyoacán, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Schuldig müssen wir werden, wenn wir wachsen wollen.
“We must grow in guilt if we are to grow at all.” (Sudermann)

A hundred years ago a London press struck off a slender green-covered pamphlet of twenty-three pages, which was not even to be put on sale. Its authors were two young German émigrés, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; its title, Manifesto of the Communist Party.

The pamphlet proclaimed a new era, that of the struggle of the proletariat for communism. The bourgeoisie, so it ran, brings together the population in large cities, centralizes production, and concentrates the wealth. It creates a new class, the industrial proletariat, whose ranks it incessantly swells. This modern proletariat, having no property it can call its own, sets in motion means of production that demand collective work. This social character of production makes it impossible for the proletariat – unlike other oppressed classes – to insist on a share of the wealth for each individual member. It cannot but want communism the abolition of private property; while in emancipating itself, it automatically emancipates all society, whose class divisions it is destined to abolish. From the Utopia it was, communism becomes the scientifically predictable goal toward which the proletarian movement is heading.

In 1925, Leon Trotsky compared this conception of the authors of the Communist Manifesto to Leverrier’s discovery of Neptune, for from his study of the disturbances on Uranus, the French astronomer had deduced the existence of a new planet and determined its orbit. From their study of the disturbances of bourgeois society, Marx and Engels had deduced the existence, of a new class, the proletariat, and traced its orbit: a line that pointed to communism.

Now this is a point that the commentators have never failed to emphasize; for most of them the Manifesto has in it all the certitude of natural science. Its fundamental hypothesis – that the proletariat can and must take the fate of society into its hands, snatch it from the catastrophe into which the bourgeoisie is leading it, and guide it toward communism – seems to them as solidly based, or nearly so, as the laws of motion governing the heavenly bodies. Without pausing to examine just what the modern physicist considers as truth in this domain, it is enough to observe that Neptune still follows the orbit marked out for it by Leverrier, whereas, unhappily, the course of the proletariat has, for more than a third of a century, been increasingly erratic. So much so that it is impossible today to shrug off the necessity of a systematic scrutiny of Marx’s fundamental hypothesis.

The proletariat is no longer what it was in 1848: a new star just emerging into sight over the horizon. For a hundred years now, its course has shown what it is capable of, but also, unfortunately, what it has been unable to accomplish.

It has shown itself capable of outbursts of heroism, during which it sacrifices itself without a thought, and develops a power so strong as to shake society to its very foundations. It can rid itself in an instant of the most inveterate prejudices, while there seems to be no limit to its audacity. But by and by, whatever the consequences of its action, whether victory or defeat, it is finally caught up in the sluggish, quotidian flow of things.

The fetid backwaters of the past seep back; the proletariat sinks into indolence and cynicism. And even in its triumphant moments, it exhibits a want of consciousness in the choice of its leaders. The “instinctive sense of reality” attributed to it by Auguste Comte, which it so readily reflects in many a circumstance, abandons it at such moments. Its courage and self-sacrifice are not enough to give it what, precisely, is needed in order to act out the role assigned to it by Marx: political capacity. What the proletariat is incapable of achieving is a leadership which will be faithful to its interests, will understand and defend them boldly, imaginatively, and tenaciously. Such is the task which, for these last one hundred years, it has proved itself incapable of carrying out.

The crisis of our age is in a sense, then, that of the leadership of the proletariat. But if a political analysis of our age ought necessarily to undertake a criticism of those who claim today to represent the interests of the proletariat, it cannot stop there. Unless we are prepared to say that the whole evil lies in the fact that nature has not produced the germs from which upright, farseeing leaders can emerge, we are constrained to examine the social situation and political history of the working class in order to seek out the causes of its century-old political incapacity. [“The fact that we repeatedly fail in some venture, merely through chance is perhaps the best proof that chance is not the cause of our failure.” (Gournot)]

On more than one occasion Marx and Engels compared the future triumph of the proletariat to the earlier triumph of the bourgeoisie. In their wake, socialists have all too often repeated that the modern proletariat is in some sense to play the role that the bourgeoisie took in the past. At this point, however, the differences rather than the similarities must be emphasized.

The bourgeoisie was a propertied class, growing richer and richer, sure of itself, educated, and cultivated. As a whole, it understood very well how to take hold of society and, in the eyes of almost all the nation, to act as the representative of general welfare, thereby inculcating its own social system and assuring its political supremacy. This, precisely, is the task that the proletariat has until now shown itself incapable of undertaking.

Occasionally the authors of the Manifesto compared the modern proletarian to the slave of antiquity, but they hastened to underscore the differences. Capitalism concentrates more and more proletarians in the big cities and develops a technology which should make an abundance for all possible in the future. Whereas the slave of antiquity could do nothing to retrieve society from its fallen state, the modern proletarian, concentrated in the cities with the technical apparatus in his hands, cannot long fail to recognize his own strength, and then to seize political power and advance mankind toward communism.

These arguments had some weight in 1848, and the fundamental hypothesis of the authors of the Manifesto was then perfectly legitimate – in fact, the whole development of society since 1789 pointed to it. But, legitimate as it was, the hypothesis was only an hypothesis. Marx and Engels had no dynamometer available in 1848 for measuring the future force of the proletariat in order to conclusively settle the question of its coming victory. The answer to such a question could only come from experience itself – the political capacity of the proletariat could only be measured in the reality of class conflict.

A century now lies behind us, and experience has turned in its verdict. The political capacity of the working classes has revealed itself as a never-ending capacity for being “betrayed.” It may be claimed that we must wait a little while longer. In actuality, however, can we really look forward to a change for the better?

In 1850 Marx was addressing European workingmen in these terms: “You will have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and international conflicts, not only in order to transform your circumstances but to transform yourselves and make yourselves fit for political power.” Is this process of political education still going on today? Are European workingmen now more “fit for political power” than they were at the conclusion of the First World War? The answer is no. There, as elsewhere, the social and economic conditions of present-day Europe hardly permit us to hope for improvement. Marx’s fundamental hypothesis would only regain a measure of reality if some notable development in Europe’s productive forces made the proletariat once more a cohesive body with a capacity for struggle and with faith in the future. These qualities would, in fact, have to be raised to an even higher level than that which prevailed in the past, for, even in its best days, the proletariat was not yet “fit for political power.” But such a possibility is extremely chimerical: European economy will not emerge from its quagmire for a long time to come.

But, it may be urged, though it is foolish to expect a radical change in European economy, the political capacity of the proletariat may rise to the necessary level in response to other, more “subjective,” factors. And certainly, many existing evils can be traced to a well-defined center: Stalinism. And since it is permissible to expect an internal crisis of the Stalinist regime in the years to come, may we not look forward to a renaissance of the working-class movement at such a time?

To be sure, Stalinism may well find itself in a critical position sooner than many imagine. A new situation might take shape overnight in the working-class movement. Stalinism, however, is not the single and final cause of the stagnation. Before it, we had Social Democracy. And now, the degeneration of the Trotskyite Fourth International, although without practical importance, is still an extremely bad sign. Stalinism is, after all, only the most monstrous link in a chain of bankruptcies. Finally, it is as much an effect as a cause, or it is a disease which attacks an already feeble organism to make it still more feeble.

The crisis of Stalinism would mean the rebirth of many hopes. This does not mean, however, that it would be possible to forget all past ignominies like some vanishing nightmare. In the first place, the after-effects of Stalinism would still be felt for years to come. And then, one could never think of it as having been “unreal.” It is no good trying to explain the continuance and even extension of Stalinism in and across the international working-class movement on the grounds that the workers mistook Stalin’s Russia for the October Revolution. The causes lie much deeper and are precisely such as to call the political capacity of the proletariat into question. But even if one wanted to think of the whole business as little more than a fraud, a fraud that has been successfully engaged in for the last twenty years – and what a twenty years – that still presupposes a capacity on the part of somebody for being tricked for twenty years. And if the trickster were finally unmasked, would that mean that his victims were then and there “fit for political power”? To turn a deaf ear to such a question would be both foolish and dangerous.

But the further objection may be made that the strength of the proletariat can only be measured against that of the bourgeoisie; that it is purely relative. Since the bourgeoisie continues to reveal its increasingly hopeless bankruptcy, may we not expect one day to see the political triumph of the proletariat, even if we assume that it has already passed the zenith of its absolute strength? The bankruptcy of the European ruling classes is as complete as one could have imagined a hundred years ago. But if this fact is a necessary condition to the seizure of power by the proletariat, it is by no means a sufficient condition. The question is not merely one of relative strength. To seize and hold power the proletariat would have- to demonstrate a minimum, a rather high minimum at that, of political capacity; more exactly, it would have to show a capacity to “secrete” a devoted and perspicacious leadership, to control that leadership, to change it with speed if the need arose – not thirty or forty years after a “betrayal.” A capacity for handling such problems is precisely what being “fit for political power” means after all. Without that aptitude, the fundamental hypothesis cannot hold.

Yet, it may finally be conceded, if all that is true for the European proletariat, we must not forget the American proletariat, the most powerful in the world; it has not yet given an accounting of itself. This is true enough. We do have an unknown quantity here. But it would not be very sensible to fasten upon the American proletariat now a century-old hypothesis that has proved invalid on a continent with which America, after all, has many points in common.

The end of the Second World War, out of which no movement emerged to indicate that the proletariat was yet fit for power, has, I believe, conclusively invalidated the fundamental hypothesis of Marx, at least as far as Europe is concerned. What we have witnessed is the end of an era. Between 1848 to 1914 it was still possible to say that the political potential of the proletariat would continue to grow with time. From 1914 to the end of the Second World War, the answer to this question lay in the balance. But now the matter is clear. It is no longer permissible to expect a future complex of economic, social, and political conditions to be more favorable to the political ripening of the proletariat than any such complex was in the past. The whole inter-war period has now become a part of our history, and the present political impotence of the working class has finally given it meaning. Beyond all circumstantial explanations, this impotence, confronting us daily, enables us to grasp the political history of Europe since 1914.

But why blame the workingmen? some will exclaim, throwing in a few strong words. There is no question here of blame or moral responsibility. The political incapacity of the proletariat springs from its status as an exploited and oppressed class, from nationalism, wars, and misery. If responsibility must be dragged into the matter, it is bourgeois society as a whole which is responsible for, not having given birth to a new class ready to take political power directly into its hands.

Does the collapse of Marx’s central hypothesis imply the collapse of his whole doctrine? On the plane of political action – and it is the one which interests us here- Man’s hypothesis on the exercise of political power by the proletariat acting as a class is fundamental and, compared to it, all other aspects of his doctrine are secondary. In the final analysis it is the main factor in any judgment that can be made of the Marxist system. But if we admit that the hypothesis is no longer valid, what becomes of the rest of the doctrine?

There is no necessary logical connection between Marx’s fundamental hypothesis and his economic doctrine. All that Marx could claim to demonstrate in his economic studies was that capitalism is not an eternal but an historical mode of production, the functioning of which becomes, by the very laws of its development, more and more unstable. This conclusion served to confirm Marx in his fundamental hypothesis, but the former was by no means logically implied in the latter. What remains of Marx’s economic doctrine must be determined by utterly different criteria. The same may be concluded of the historical, sociological, or philosophic aspects of his doctrine.

What is actually destroyed by the collapse of the fundamental hypothesis is the validity of an esoteric Marxist system standing in opposition to the totality of profane (read: bourgeois) knowledge. But that system was a construction of the Marxist epigoni rather than of Marx himself. Marx’s contribution should be considered in relation to our present body of scientific knowledge, and the value of any of its parts should then be determined by scientific criteria.

The problem of the fundamental hypothesis has provoked two opposed yet complementary attitudes. One attitude is to shun politics and to have no further aim than to forget as speedily and as completely as possible the years spent in the Marxist movement. The other is to take the fundamental hypothesis as an axiom and to refuse categorically to examine it. The two attitudes, one as false as the other, finally reinforce each other. It is the task of our reason, if this dilemma is ever to be resolved, to discover such possibilities of action as may exist, along with the most suitable means of realizing them. If, as seems only too clear, the proletariat has shown itself to be incapable of filling the political role originally assigned to it by the authors of the Manifesto, that does not mean it is condemned to remain a purely passive factor in the historical process. Quite the contrary; the belief in a steady decline is as ill-founded as that of continuous progress.

Describing the intellectual climate of Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, Trotsky wrote: “Protestantism and democracy, under the aegis of which the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century revolutions of the West were accomplished, had long since become conservative doctrines ... Intellectuals needed a new doctrine for the struggles that lay ahead, one which nothing had compromised.” That would also seem to be what is needed today. Bolshevism, which thirty years ago had kindled unbounded hopes, has been compromised by Stalin no less than Jacobinism was by Napoleon. If the fine phrases of the French Revolution led to the rule of the bourgeoisie, the Bolshevik experiment has bogged down in the mire of the Stalinist universe, with its slave labor running into the millions, its omnipresent police, its pitiless exploitation of workingmen, its inflexible caste distinctions, its stifling of art, thought, and human feeling. Doubtless this is not what the old Bolsheviks bargained for. But in the eyes of millions of men, of the younger generations, Bolshevism – and this is the decisive point – is no longer anew doctrine which nothing has yet compromised. Marx and Bolshevism belong henceforth to history no less than Rousseau and Jacobinism.

The most to be hoped for by groups who claim to belong to the Marxist succession (I am not speaking of Stalinists, naturally) is for them to serve as a hyphen between past and future; to take in a way such a role as Buonarotti played between Babeuf and Marx.

Nothing is gained by saying: let us hold fast to the fundamental hypothesis as long as nothing better is proposed. To receive answers to questions, one must first raise them. It is only by openly facing the difficulties of the fundamental hypothesis that a step to their solution can be taken. It would be as idle to shut one’s eyes on them as to turn one’s back on politics. In either case, the problem is still there. Only by a rational and methodical scrutiny of the lessons of the past and of present possibilities will we be enabled to work effectively toward preparing for a future. Whoever is content at this late date to go on repeating the basic hypothesis without advancing some new and decisive argument in its favor scarcely merits a hearing. Proposed solutions may well be widely divergent; only mutual criticism will make possible an intelligent choice. But in such an endeavor nothing can be held sacred – even-thing is called into question. Only after having been put through such a crucible could socialism conceivably re-emerge as a viable doctrine and plan of action.

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