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Irving Howe

A Reaffirmation of the Revolutionary Ideal

Why the World Socialist Perspective
Remains Valid for Our Time

(29 April 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 17, 29 April 1946, p. 4-M.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

We are living – let us frankly admit – in the aftermath of great defeats suffered by the labor and socialist movements internationally. All the decadent tendencies of a rotten society accumulate speed as they hurl humanity backward. The Second World War is hardly over when there appears the threat of a third. Fascism, though militarily destroyed in parts of Europe, flourishes elsewhere; the root-conditions which nourish it, persist. Europe is a shambles, a wrecked and tortured continent; its economy shattered and without possibility of healthy reconstruction on any basis short of socialist revolution; its people unnerved and devitalized by years of hunger and agony. The totalitarian colossus of Stalinism flourishes amidst this social putrefaction; its very sustenance is in the decay of a capitalist society over-ripe for a socialist revolution which has not yet succeeded.

The European working class, despite the magnificent urges and movements towards revitalization which have taken place in France, Italy and England, remains in many countries atomized, disrupted, disoriented. How are the workers in countries like Austria and Hungary to gain a sense of social solidarity when the very factories upon which their sustenance and status depend are taken away by the Russians? How are the workers of Germany to gain a sense of unified resurgence when their country is split into ribbons by occupying armies which create chaos and confusion? The totalitarian poisons of Fascism and Stalinism have left their mark: even many of the workers who believe themselves committed to militant struggle for the socialist program have had their conceptions of it debased and poisoned by their experiences with these two totalitarian movements. And in this situation the revolutionary movement – that is the parties of the Fourth International and adjacent groups – remain small, isolated, persecuted by all the powers.

That is the setting for our time. It is not pretty. It gives no occasion for shrill optimism or shallow bombast. We must face the problem of how to react to these events: Is the perspective of Socialism still valid? Has, it been proven by history to be a mere utopian chimera? Is the possibility of social action itself a realistic one?

On the New “Failure of Nerve”

One set of answers has already been given, both in America and elsewhere, by people who, although they are intellectuals and therefore often believe themselves to be functioning in pure and detached areas of the mind, still reflect the social pressures about them and serve as symptoms of the crisis of our times. In themselves, these people might be of slight significance; but they cannot be viewed independently, for they are the weathervanes of the social storm.

Lamentations fill the air; cries of agony and repentance; pessimism is elevated from a mood to a philosophy – the intellectuals, stunned by the events of this world, would turn to another. Where formerly many of them believed in the possibility of social action to achieve a new society, of cooperation with the working class to build socialism, today they turn away from society. Increasingly large numbers abandon the idea of social action for the myth of individual salvation. Rather than change society, they exhort people to purify their souls. Some turn to outright mysticism, to the trinity; others – more sophisticated – develop philosophical versions of the same retreat. Suffering, we are told by them, is the inevitable and unavoidable lot of man: the fundamental human condition. No attempts to change society can alleviate that condition so long as the individual has not previously cleansed himself. The most extreme and socially irresponsible forms of individualism – in which some mythical and non-existent Individual is throned as Deity – are rampant. We are witnessing the “failure of nerve,” the rout of the “men of thought’ and the “spokesmen of our time” before the facts of life. And when these people mention the atom bomb, with its horrible potentialities, their rout becomes sheer hysteria.

(The absurd is brought to its final limit in France where a group of people – after issuing the inevitable Revue – have announced themselves as “Dolorists,’ people who believe in sadness as normal and desirable, who revel in the rejection of any possible social change.)

Society Must Be Changed First

Though we revolutionary Socialists do not in any way minimize the seriousness of the present situation, we categorically and contemptuously reject all such tendencies of thought as have been here described. We believe that the basic problem of our time resides in society, not in the soul. We believe that humanity can develop a healthy society of plenty and peace, and not that “sadness is our birthright.” The pitiful creatures who wallow in their tears have merely magnified their own helplessness into a permanent generalization. But as socialists we continue to affirm the possibility and necessity for men to work together to build a new and decent society, and that means primarily the class which has most to gain from and can alone construct socialism: the working class.

Is it merely wishful thinking that allows us to persist in our belief? Is it merely because we want it so?

Of course, part of the answer is: yes, one of the reasons why we believe in the continued validity and relevance of the socialist

program is the fact that we desire it, the fact that it alone can solve the problems of our day. History is not some automatic process in which men are merely puppets; history is the activity of men functioning within the limits of their situation. And today that situation cries for a socialist solution. That the ranks of the socialist vanguard throughout the world have remained firm despite the most incredible persecution (see the report from Greece in this issue of Labor Action) is one of the reasons why we remain so firmly attached to the socialist ideal.

Capitalism Can Solve No Problem

But more: society is at an impasse. The breath of capitalism becomes shorter, more strained and choked. Capitalism is at a loss to reconstruct the world, it cannot achieve the most simple reorganization of production and distribution in Europe. In America, the crying paradox of its existence becomes more evident each day: the gigantic productive facilities which it unleashed for war are not and, by the very nature of the system, cannot be utilized for peacetime production. Starvation; poverty in the midst of plenty; uprooting of millions of people; renewed totalitarianism; diplomatic hypocrisy; destruction of and failure to use productive facilities; preparations for new war; imperialist exploitation; filthy jockeying for division of the spoils of war – this catalogue of the aspects of capitalist society can be continued indefinitely. The society is sick, moribund, overripe for change. It is beyond redemption, beyond reform. No realistic desirable alternative exists except a thorough socialist reconstruction. And that is the program to which the working class, for all its present confusion in Europe and political immaturity in America, will have to turn if It is not to sink completely into a new era of barbarism.

But it is not merely the impossibility of the old system which leads us to believe in the desirability and possibility of a new one. The revolutionary lever of modern history, the working class, continues to struggle. With what truly awesome and magnificent courage have some sections of the European workers risen anew to fulfill their historic tasks: the French workers immediately after the retreat of the Germans; the Polish workers in the short-lived Warsaw Commune which was stifled by Stalin; the workers of northern Italy who turned to revolutionary action and seizure of factories as soon as the war was over.

True, they have again been deflected from their tasks; the same problem remains in Europe: to give revolutionary leadership to these strivings, to break the hold of the Stalinists and Social-Democrats. But the thrivings themselves remain. Struggle is an inescapable condition of existence for the working class under capitalism; it will continue until there is a triumphant ending.

The Revolt of the Colonial Peoples

Just as the working class has begun to stir inside the imperialist countries, so have the major powers of capitalism been attacked even more resolutely by a wave of colonial revolutions and near-revolutions by peoples determined to achieve national freedom. In Indonesia, in Indo-China, in India, national revolutions which strike at the very heart of imperialist power have taken place, are continuing and will take place.

And in America itself – that colossus of imperialism – the working class has been militant, has struggled with a ferocity and resoluteness that has given encouragement to the workers everywhere. The wave of strikes which culminated in the GM strike and its advanced program, indicates the freshness, the readiness to struggle of the American workers.

The most elementary needs and demands of the people are unrealizable under capitalism.

There is no other road. Either chaos and destruction – or socialist reconstruction. The socialist perspective is more valid, more essential than ever because it alone meets the problems of our times; it alone proposes a program that is realizable in the situation of declining capitalism and which is a comprehensive solution to all of our social problems, as well as a concretization of the greatest ideals of which humanity is capable.

In part at least, the realization of this program depends upon the people who believe in it and fight for it. What we do will help determine the future. And that is why on this May Day in 1946 we unfurl again the banner of socialist revolution; we stand with arms interlocked with our comrades throughout the world; we march towards the future.

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