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R. Fahan

The Socialist Ideal in the World Crisis

Projecting Some Personal Views

(December 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 11, December 1942, pp. 340–342.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The continuous defeats of the international Marxist movement during the past twenty-five years could not have passed without leaving their mark, not merely on the interpretations of the major strategical tenets of Marxian ideology, but also on what might at first glance appear to be the one constant factor within the Marxian system: the socialist ideal itself. This was inevitably so. The social decay of capitalist civilization has been so sharp and catastrophic since the First World War that even the most intransigent revolutionary movements could not fail to be affected by it – and that, not merely in their derivatory methodology but in the very heart of their existence as well: the character of their announced purpose.

True enough, the effects of this social disintegration on the basic perspectives of socialism have not been as glaringly evident as the effects on its political strategy; it is easier to observe that adherence to the theory of socialism in one country or to popular frontism is a betrayal than to see how the socialist perspective of a movement becomes warped and withered. The contemporary Marxist movement is chock full of annihilating polemics against revisionist or Stalinist deformations of Marxian policy; but it has failed to attack with equal vigor and wrath the at least as dangerous violence committed against the basic ideal of socialism in the minds of the working class – and in the minds of the most militant and revolutionary workers as well. But this failure of perspective can be understood only against the background of our movement’s failure adequately to view the present.

* * *

In his volumes on the Roman Empire, the historian, Rostovtzeff, remarks that hardly a person then living realized the extent of the decline of the Roman Empire, that it was almost impossible for a person suffering from the immediate and surface effects of that decline to realize its full extent. It is only from the vantage point of historical perspective that it is possible to see that the Roman Empire during its last days was, despite the faith which so many of its citizens still placed in its invincibility, a gaudy facade beneath which a thousand fissures were swelling, soon to erupt and destroy its whole structure.

A Propagandists and Agitational Crisis

Much the same situation exists today. Not even the boldest and most sincere revolutionists have fully absorbed into their consciousness the extent to which our society has decayed. We are the adherents of the world thesis which states that capitalism is in its “death agony” but we cannot, to some degree because of the very nature of the circumstances themselves, appreciate the literalness of that slogan. We cannot fully appreciate the social and cultural correlatives implicit in the concept that society has entered the period of counter-revolution in permanence, the decline of the West. Our imaginations cannot grasp that which our intelligence dictates. The alternative, socialism or barbarism, is not an exhortative admonition; it is a grisly fact. And yet, in this greatest human crisis since the capitalist merchant towns began to grow along the Italian coast, revolutionary Marxists, who alone have the only proper method for analyzing modern society and who alone have the only programmatic answer to its crisis, have failed to express in condemnation of what exists and especially in vision of what should exist, the gravity and urgency of the situation.

This is not, of course, merely a problem of propaganda efficiency – although it is that, too. Marxists, who rightly pride themselves that in a period of universal desertions to the latrine-society of capitalism, they have maintained their revolutionary devotions, have had their visions dimmed and hopes cheapened because they, too, have been victims of the effects of capitalist decay. And how could it be otherwise? How could a movement, tortured, betrayed, crushed and beaten as the Marxist movement has been in the past twenty-five years, come out of this ordeal (which it has not even yet donel) with its faith as pure, its morality as noble and its program as untarnished as when Marx and then Lenin first rang out the call to revolt?

Marxism is paying the price for the betrayals of Social-Democracy and Stalinism in more ways than one. Not only does capitalism owe its continued existence to them, but many of the present crises and deficiencies of the movement today are the results of subtle hangovers from those twin betrayers.

The most striking manifestation of this situation is the failure of revolutionary socialist propaganda to emphasize the TOTALITY of the world crisis. What began as a valid and necessary tactical approach – the need for emphasis on the immediate and concrete daily problems of the American working class as a means of reaching some common grounds of articulation – has grown to the point where the critique of capitalist society is hopelessly atomized and partial. Who is not familiar with the articles in the revolutionary press lengthily attacking some minor deformation of capitalist society and then lamely ending with the suggestion that this problem can be solved only by establishing socialism – some vague but, it is hoped, magically evocative chimera.

More and more, however, the problems of modern society become interdependent and intertwined. The simple economic demand of yesterday involves the gravest class struggles and threats to the structure of the state today. But, I wish to emphasize, my major purpose here is not to discuss the inadequacies of socialist propagandists, but rather to point out that these inadequacies are partially the result of the corroding effects which the decay of capitalist society has had on the movement – in this case, on the picture of what capitalist society is.

“Counter-Revolutionary Workers’ State” Theory

If the inability to graphically transmit abstract understanding of the present situation of capitalist society has had harmful effects on the movement, then how much more harmful have been the effects ot the well nigh universal deterioration of the socialist ideal. A whole generation of workers has been poisoned by the Stalinists and fascists. Millions associate socialism with personal despotism; millions think of communism and fascism as being twins; millions think of socialism as being the antithesis of democracy. The Trotskyist movement has long labored under the tragic delusion that it had but to convince the Social-Democratic and, especially, the Stalinist workers of the validity of its method of achieving socialism and the job would be done. But the fact is that Stalinism deformed and distorted the ideal of socialism in the mind of its followers beyond recognition, just as social-democracy diluted it beyond recognition. Millions of people could think Stalinism and fascism twins because in so many important political respects they are twins. And millions of people could think socialism synonymous with personal or bureaucratic despotism because the Stalinist regime, which the propaganda agencies of the GPU, Gestapo and democratic capitalism united in labeling socialism (and which we, until recently, called the “counter-revolutionary workers’ state!”) was actually synonymous with that kind of despotism.

That poisonous distortion of the socialist ideal crept into our system – and its main vehicle was the theory of Stalinist Russia as a workers’ state. Perhaps no more decisive proof of this can be cited than by quoting from a recent article of George Collins, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party (Cannonites) which is the most graphic available example of the situation we have discussed in the previous paragraphs.

Writes Collins with regard to the resistance of the Russian armies at Stalingrad:

“But the workers and Red soldiers of the Soviet Union fight with a bitterness unmatched in this war because they are defending the socialist achievements of a workers’ revolution. Factories, mines, mills, railroads, workshops belong to those who work them. The soil belongs to those who till it. A man who will not defend such treasures is either a coward or a traitor; a man who fights to the death for them is more than a hero – he is a socialist worker.”

We may well ask ourselves after reading this: Just what is the vision of socialism of a man who believes that in Stalinist Russia today (which is characterized by his own colleague, John G. Wright, as a “jail” in which the workers serve a “life-term imprisonment”), that in this despotic, bureaucratic oligarchy, in Stalinist Russia “the factories ... belong to those who work them,” that “the soil belongs to those who till it”? And that this is, to top it off, nothing more nor less than ... a “treasure”!

Is it impolite – or undialectical – to then ask how this “treasure” can also be a “jail”?

How Stalinism Corrodes Socialist Thinking

It is clear, I think, that a man who can write such sentences, regardless of his subjective integrity, has more than a little of the Stalinist virus in his political make-up. He is incapable of presenting the distressed workers of the world with a program for liberation and a vision of a new and better world because his own vision of that new and better world has been befouled with Stalinist excrescence. Those who camouflage jails as “treasures” can hardly be expected to usher in a new era of world history!

But more important than this extreme manifestation of the Cannonite susceptibility to the Stalinized version of socialism is the basic theory from which it partially flows: the theory that Stalinist Russia is a “degenerate, counter-revolutionary workers’ state.” It is only now, in retrospect, that it is possible to see the politically and morally corroding effects which this theory has had on the revolutionary movement.

It seems almost like a nightmare now to recall that the revolutionary movement could have labeled this bureaucratic despotism as a workers’ state. (It is interesting to note that while the defenders of this theory called Russia a workers’ slate, they never called it a dictatorship of the proletariat!) Now it is possible to see what an ideological buttress this theory was to the basic premises of Stalinism. The term “workers’ state” which had always been associated with a great, conscious seizure of power by the masses, a constantly increasing hold on the political and economic centers of power by the masses, a gradual destruction of bureaucratic forms, a continued rise in mass initiative, a gradual destruction of all inequalities until society would glide into socialism – this term was now associated with what the advanced workers could see as a monstrous despotism. The term “degenerate workers’ state” which Lenin had applied to the Russia of 1923, when he was insisting that “every charwoman should learn to conduct affairs of state,” was now applied to what John G. Wright has so aptly called the “prison state.” Once this basic concession was given to Stalinism, once we allowed that the concept and the contradictory reality could be coupled together, then we had fallen into the Stalinist trap. And then, the crowning absurdity of all was the discovery that while Russia was a workers’ state it was also a “counter-revolutionary workers’ state.” Now, while it is possible to admit that there will never be a workers’ state as pristine in its purity as we should wish, that there will even be workers’ states which for periods of time will become “degenerate workers’ states” (such a one was, as Lenin correctly pointed out, Russia of 1923), the term “counter-revolutionary workers’ state” is self-contradictory, the product of a movement whose concept of socialism and the transition thereto has been compromised and sullied.

And that is why, for the followers of the Trotskyist movement, the ideal of socialism tended to become not a goal of a classless society in which for the first time the human personality would find a fertile arena for expression, in which genuine human relationships would first begin to blossom and in which, as Marx wrote, the period of human history would first begin; but rather a kind of more or less benevolent police state (with the Stalinist version cast as the least benevolent) built on the treacherous fetish of nationalized economy. Nationalization of the means of production gradually became to be viewed as an end in itself, rather than as the Marxist movement had always seen it previously, as a means toward the socialist end. This political and moral degeneration was greatly retarded when Trotsky was alive by virtue of his incomparable revolutionary personality and his scrupulous morality, which often prevented the workers’ state theory from being developed to its logical conclusions. But now that Trotsky it gone, his Cannonite epigones have developed the workers’ state theory to its reactionary and absurd conclusions, of which the previously quoted Collins article is but one instance.

An Evolution in Cannonite Thinking

During the factional fight some two years ago in the Trotskyist movement, the Workers Party developed the opinion that Russia should not be supported in the present imperialist war. Trotsky was of the opinion that the question of the class character of the Stalinist state was the main issue facing the movement and that the question of defense or non-defense was purely derivatory. It was insisted then, and rightly too, that the immediate issue at stake was the question of political attitude toward the rôle of Russia in the war, which could be decided without a discussion of the class character of Russia.

For it was possible to consider Russia either a workers or non-workers’ state and still be either for or against its defense in the war. The question of its class character was used by the Cannonites as a red herring to obscure the immediate political issue at stake. But Trotsky was right in at least this: With characteristic perspicacity he saw that beneath this struggle on an immediate issue (though, in our opinion, not congruent with it) there was brewing a difference of opinion of the most basic and serious nature. That difference has now come to full light. It is my opinion that the Cannonite movement is in the process of developing the full and disastrous politics of this theory, as well as its moral effects on the organizational life of that party. It can now be seen, I believe, that the separation from the Cannonites raised an increasingly broad and serious issue, more important than any of the secondary tactical issues about which our debates take place. Separating us now is, I believe, a wide difference as to what the socialist perspective itself is. Theirs has been corrupted and distorted by their unquestioning adherence to the workers’ state theory which has served as the vehicle for the corruption of their socialist perspectives; and it has, together with certain other factors deriving from the native background of the Cannonite organization, gone a long way toward the corruption and Stalinization of their organizational life. [1]

On the Class Character of the Soviet Union

Now, too, we can see how false was the opinion held by many that the whole question of the class character of Russia was unimportant, that what was essential was the question of defense or non-defense. After all, they said, we all agree as to what exists in Russia; what is important is not what name one gives, that is merely a question of political semantics; what is important is what attitude one takes toward its r&le in the war. This approach, too, is radically false. For the purposes of the specific discussion two years ago it mattered little whether one considered Russia a workers’ state. In general, however, it is a question not merely of semantic interest; the motives behind the label are of basic importance. Though we and the Cannonites may agree on every detail of the organizational structure of the Russian economy, the different values which are placed on them reflect the most vital differences of attitude.

If then, as I believe, the movement is working around toward a restatement of the socialist ideal, untarnished by the social-democratic and Stalinist filth, but rather fresh and vigorous in its emphasis that the revolutionary and democratic aspects of socialism are inseparable, that socialism and the workers’ state which is the transition to it, is something more, something finer than that hell which exists in Russia today, then it is necessary to attempt publicly to state it, to reorientate our propaganda so that our friends and sympathizers will begin to see where we are driving. And though it is simple enough to see the basic situation I have tried to describe above, there is really little to say when it comes to practical conclusions. Once the understanding of the general problem seeps in, then writing and speaking will gradually be transformed. It will take on some of that inspiration and idealism which characterized the great Marxists, the writings of Lenin and Trotsky, because we will not have to indulge in tortuous rationalizations about “counter-revolutionary workers’ states,” but will rather be able to present the socialist ideal in the attractive form which it really is.

I know that talk about idealism and ethics and the like are looked upon with some suspicion in the revolutionary movement these days. And not without reason. Every scoundrel, every chicken-hearted turncoat who, at the very depth of capitalist degeneration, deserted the movement to return to the folds of Mammon and Babbitt, used those very words against us. But that is really no reason why we should surrender these words, and the concepts behind them, especially when we are most entitled to use them.

Our propaganda needs a new infusion of socialist idealism. That is now possible for us because we have thrown off the stifling bonds of the workers’ state theory. And it is eminently practical today as well. More and more, people think not merely in terms of the immediate partial problems which they face, but in terms of the world problem as a whole. One of the beneficial results of the world tragedy through which we are living has been to demonstrate to even the most insulated provincials that the problems of our world are indivisible. The returning soldiers of tomorrow will be attracted to our banner only if we can show them that we are out to build a completely new and finer world, that we make no compromise with any of the existing forms of reaction, that we alone bear the banner of uncompromising struggle.

This emphasis on the totality of socialism, on its promise for a better world, on the fact that it bears no resemblance whatever to the despotism which exists today in Russia, can help us rebuild that Marxist movement which alone points the direction out of the desert.


1. An interesting and extremely significant instance of this corruption of the Cannonite organizational life is the fact that for the first time in the history of the Trotskyist movement, the Cannonites boasted that their recent convention was marked by “unanimity.” Aside from the question of whether or not this is accurate, there remains the fact that such boasting is a disgrace to the revolutionary movement. Since when has “unanimity,” – especially by the methods with which the Cannonites obtain it! – been an aim of any revolutionary movement? And listen to the bureaucratic voice of Cannon:

“Our unity is somewhat disturbing to certain people ... the medicine men of petty bourgeois radicalism ... They are greatly worried about the fact that we have so much unity in our ranks, that we are free from crises and factional fights and feverish struggle over conflicting programs. These quack doctors don’t understand that we are well ... because we cured ourselves of the petty bourgeois sickness in good time. We had the good fortune to have an anticipatory crises ... We secured our internal peace by a timely preventive war.”

Where have we heard this before? Is it not the voice of Stalin explaining the newly-found unanimity of the Russian party because of its purges of the “counter-revolutionary Trotskyists” and “liquidated Bukharinists”? The voice of the bureaucrat pompously, and falsely, boasting of “unanimity” is recognizable no matter in which organization it is heard.

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