FA Ridley 1932
Source: The Adelphi, May 1932. Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
It seems to be true that periods of culture-time do not, as a rule, coincide with time as measured by the calendar. The sixteenth century died with Shakespeare, not with the year 1600. The eighteenth century ended in 1789, not in 1800. The ‘Victorian’ age did not commence its smug and prosperous course until the ‘hungry forties’ had come and gone.
Similarly the twentieth century did not begin in 1900. The ‘Edwardians’ were hybrids, and, subconsciously, knew themselves to be such. The nineteenth century ended in 1914, with the gunpowder plot which slew Victorian optimism; and, as the optimism was immense, it took an immense amount of gunpowder to slay it.
The twentieth century is only just beginning now, and its problems are only beginning to be apparent. Very few people live in their own century, and the twentieth century in this respect is no exception. It is beginning to dawn on a few of the most intelligent people what the problems of the twentieth century are. The rest, the ruck of mankind, the ‘enlightened democracy’ as they call themselves, the ‘sheep and beasts of the field’ (as a cynical Jesuit once described them) are still scattered down the ages from the Stone Age upward! The twentieth century is just beginning its course.
What is the essential problem of the twentieth century? That of the sixteenth century was the creation of the world market and the capitalist culture based upon it (an essentially new birth which fondly imagined itself to be a rebirth, a Renaissance). That of the seventeenth was to lay the foundations of modern science and the inductive method based upon it, by means of technical inventions such as the telescope and the microscope, and the writings of such men as Galileo, Bacon, Campanella, Descartes and Newton. The eighteenth century saw the victory of toleration, the ideological counterpart of free trade in economics, and democracy in politics. Its representative men were the type of Voltaire, Rousseau and Adam Smith.
The nineteenth century solved successfully the vast problem of power production, and with partial success that of popular education. It gave man the mastery of nature and attempted to make him the master of himself, that is, of society. Its ‘culture heroes’ were Darwin and Karl Marx, but as science is less individual and more collective in its achievements than art, literature and philosophy, it was an age whose real creator was the unknown inventor, the most revolutionary figure in human history.
The twentieth century is not an isolated period. It is not an emanation from the skies. It mounts on the shoulders of its predecessors and carries on its work from the point at which they left off, and with the materials that they provided. The problem of the nineteenth century was, we repeat, to create ‘mastery of nature’, of the production of inanimate power, of the raw materials (so to speak) of human emancipation from the age-long thraldom of the struggle for existence.
The problem of the twentieth century is to recreate the social world in accordance with the new material world which science and technical mastery have created.
The epoch-making voyages of Columbus and Diaz, Da Gama and Magellan, at the end of the fifteenth century, created (or rather discovered) a New World unknown to earlier ages. The succeeding centuries slowly and painfully liquidated their obsolete political and economic arrangements and eventually clambered into congruity with the New World civilisation which had become inevitable. In consequence, the Mediterranean empires of Antiquity, ‘world empires’ only in name, were succeeded by world empires that really deserved the name.
The problem of the twentieth century is to liquidate the social and political systems which were the inevitable consequence of the age of ‘scarcity’ and economic subservience to blind natural forces; and to create a regime of human freedom based on economic mastery and a super-abundance of material wealth, the change constituting what Engels described pithily as ‘the leap from the realm of necessity to that of freedom’.
This change constitutes the most gigantic revolution since the appearance of man upon the earth. It means nothing else than the freeing of human society from the bondage to nature expressed in the struggle for existence, which has made the life of the masses in every age fundamentally identical with that of the brute creation.
This is the gigantic task which the twentieth century must solve under pain of social chaos and possible extinction in war, and it must solve it quickly, in accordance with the Kantian law of progress, by which the epochs get progressively shorter as they mount in the cultural ladder. If slavery and the civilisation based upon it took millennia and capitalist civilisation centuries for their creation, the achievement of socialist civilisation must only take decades, and it will, probably, be a matter of years for the still higher anarchist – communist culture that is yet to come.
This stupendous act of emancipation is now beginning to press with irresistible urgency under the pressure of the monstrous and growing contradictions between the scientific forces that are mastering nature on an ever-growing scale, and the pre-scientific politics and economics of the Stone Age that human conservatism still preserves. That we are living in the past is becoming increasingly obvious.
The twentieth century, under the lash of necessity, is just beginning its revolt against the ‘dead hand’ of the nineteenth. It is not merely a case of ‘doddering old men’ and superannuated politicians, as the superficial criticism of Sir Oswald Mosley and his Noah’s Ark of (political) Bright Young Things would have us believe.
No. The old men are merely the reflex of the old ideas, and these, in their turn, do but reflect the superannuated and pre-scientific institutions built by the men of old before the scientific flood which our inertia and timidity allows us to preserve. It is not a Westminster Comedy that we witness! It is something far deeper and more fundamental. It is the clash between two worlds.
It cannot be denied that this domination of the new by the old reflects itself also in the labour movement; this is so internationally; and very especially so in Great Britain. Just as the British ruling class has always prided itself on its uncanny faculty for ‘blundering through’, so the British labour movement has been insular and narrow in its outlook; it has derided the scientific method and has scoffed at social science as utopian and only fit for armchair philosophers.
While patronisingly adopting the name ‘socialism’, its ‘socialism’ has been in practice merely a demand for an increased share in the super-profit wrung by imperialism from Africa and the Eastern countries.
The politics of ‘socialism’ have, in practice, been merely the cast-off clothes of liberalism, and its jingoistic insularity forbade as blasphemous any suggestion that British capitalism would not always be able to grant reforms or might cease to dominate the world market and pay big wages in the West because it was paying small ones in the East!
The events of the last few years have shown that that time has now come. Whatever may be the length of time during which world capitalism is destined to survive, no realistic observer can deny that in addition to the fundamental disharmony between capitalism and civilisation, the position of the British economy in the competitive world market must get smaller and smaller. As Britain soared the highest so she must now fall the heaviest! The special advantages that gave her the world monopoly in the past have now gone for ever. But this fact is still veiled from the vast majority whom tradition has blinded to fact.
These two causes – the decline of world capitalist civilisation and the decline of Britain – are separate causes, and should not be confused. But they are both operative in this country. That is why the problem of social revolution is for Britain the most urgent of all problems; and especially (though not exclusively) for Britain. It is this fact that makes the situation tragic and the anti-revolutionary Labour Party an obsolete comedy ‘signifying nothing’.
At the moment we are, consequently, between two epochs. The epoch of reform is dead. That of revolution is yet to be born. Whilst the socialist objective is not a political but a social and cultural revolution, the era of politics is not yet closed, and social revolution can only pass through the floodgates of political revolution. Human poverty has given us a series of class civilisations in which civilisation and all its products were the exclusive fruits of a ruling minority. These minority civilisations were historically justifiable as the only alternative possible, not as sentimentalists imagine, to a human civilisation, but to barbarism.
Civilisation is the fruit of the human surplus wealth. Where such a surplus was only partial, only a partial civilisation was possible. That is, a civilisation for the minority and the slavery of the majority was the necessary alternative to the barbarism of majority and minority alike. ‘Justice’, said Lenin, ‘cannot be in advance of the economic conditions.’
But politics is the necessary expression of a class-ruled society. It is the means by which the ruling class dispossesses its rivals, and rivets its yoke on the subject masses. A political revolution is necessary because politics is the continuation of economics by other means, as ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. By a similar logic revolution is the continuation (or rather creation) of the politics of an oppressed class by ‘other means’, which are also generally, though not invariably, violent.
The revolutionary movement in Western Europe, including Great Britain, still awaits its scientific formulation. While Marxism and Leninism command their millions of adherents, these dialectical philosophies of revolution, born of the scientific method and particular historical experiences, are becoming increasingly sterile.
As a contemporary has wittily expressed it: ‘The proletariat is armed with two weapons – the social democracy, a gun that refuses to go off, and the Third International, a gun that fires blank cartridges.’
It is our submission that revolutionary socialism can only proceed on Marxian lines, but that in fact neither the Second nor the Third Internationals are really Marxian at all. They have degenerated into cast iron dogmas based upon a one-sided and largely obsolete experience.
It is our contention that dialectics must be rescued from the dialecticians! It must be recognised that much truth was contained in the aphorism of G Sorel that ‘the worst day in the life of Marx was the day on which he fell into the hands of the Marxists’. Dogma must wait on history: not history on dogma. Marxism was made for man: not man for Marxism (cf G Sorel, Reflections on Violence).
The ‘Marxism’ of the Second and Third Internationals is based not on history, but on particular historical moments, and it is a fundamental truth of dialectics, and therefore of Marxism, that history never repeats itself exactly.
We must prevent the creation of a new Catholic dogma. And, indeed, the hostility of the Roman Catholic Church towards the Third International is fully understandable, since these are the only two dogmatic religions left in the Western world, and competition for souls is always the most ferocious form of competition!
The ‘socialism’ of the Second International was a trade-union, a parliamentary socialism; it was based on an ascending capitalism, and it was able to multiply its reforms out of the spoils of ascending imperialism, with which it accordingly identified itself in 1914, and in other crises. It had got so many crumbs from the rich man’s table that it believed that with sufficient pertinacity it might get the whole loaf! It never understood that a social system only concedes non-essentials.
It believed, moreover, that it had plenty of time in which to effect its changes. It did not foresee that imperialism might be compelled to make a catastrophic turn to the rear. Its prophet really was not Marx, but Tennyson, since it believed in ‘broadening down from precedent to precedent’. This coloured its whole outlook. It is noteworthy that its British section (the Labour Party) moved the derision even of conservatives by its timid refusal to innovate on sacrosanct parliamentary tradition. The Second International is now a cemetery. The social democratic leaders are the most useless of all God’s creatures, besides being the dullest. For them to call capitalists parasites is a joke, and a bad one at that. Professional reformers who cannot reform! Professional bargainers whose basis for bargaining has gone! The ideas that suited a rising capitalism able to grant reforms are useless in the period of its decline. In any case, social democracy was never Marxian or revolutionary in anything but name. It is the pathetic ghost of a dead era.
The case of the Third International is more complicated. Lenin was a great creative artist who intended to save the world, but was compelled to confine his attentions to saving Russia. Here lies the contradiction in Leninism. Lenin was essentially an internationalist who made a masterly adaptation of Marxism to the medieval soil of Russia. This adaptation was only intended as a temporary makeshift until the proximate victory of the world revolution, then believed to be imminent. But history confined the experiment to Russia: that is, to a country totally different from any country that Marx (or, originally, Lenin himself) had in mind as a suitable basis for a socialist revolution. An agricultural country, a feudal or (in parts) nomadic country, one in which the twin pillars of Marxian socialism, namely, big-scale production and a numerous and developed proletariat, were almost entirely lacking. A country where on Marxian principles, socialism could not develop for the simple and excellent reason that capitalism had not developed first; and to the Marxist, socialism develops not as an idea, but as the necessary result of the concrete experience of the working class as a consequence of the contradictions in capitalism.
The last few years have seen the triumph of Russian national reconstruction (represented by Stalin) over the adherents of the old Marxian doctrine of international revolution (led by Trotsky). We now have the grotesque spectacle of an ‘International’ pursuing an increasingly nationalist policy, and subordinating its own socialist revolution not (as the Communist mythology has it) to enable Russia to build up socialism, but to effect that primary industrial revolution (with elementary education, etc), which the Western European and American countries accomplished in the first half of the nineteenth century. This is leading from the rear with a vengeance! The real master of the Communist International is neither Marx nor Lenin, but that Gilbertian hero, the Duke of Plaza-Toro, who led his army from behind!
To conclude. It is clear that neither in the Second nor the Third Internationals is salvation to be found. What is wanted today is one who will do for the ideas of Lenin what that great man did for the ideas of his great master, Marx, that is, adapt them to changed conditions. The past is past, the revolution remains to be achieved and the historical process does not stand still.
If the Second and Third Internationals have failed, it remains to discard fetish worship, the idolatry of the instrument, and create a Fourth International, more attuned to the needs of our place and time.
To outline its content here would be impossible, but it may be finally remarked that history does not know the ‘pure’ doctrine of revolution by a single class. The peasantry under Wat Tyler failed. The working class in the Paris Commune failed. But in 1789 the Jacobin bourgeoisie in unison with the landless peasantry triumphed. In 1917 the Bolsheviks led the workers to victory only in alliance with the land-hungry peasants.
Today a new class is being created before our eyes, the disinherited middle class, educated, disciplined and beginning to be conscious of the fact that it is faced with the immediate choice between organising for revolution or of facing extinction as a socially unnecessary class with no future under monopoly capitalism; a class, moreover, which, unlike the children of the gutter, knows that life can be worth living, and that it can be worth fighting for.
All the signs point, in the opinion of the writer, to the emergence of a Fourth International, as a result of the union of this class with the working class properly so-called. Utopian socialism developed from a split in the Jacobin ranks. Marxism arose, philosophically, from a split in the school of Hegel, and politically from the radical wing of the German middle class. So it seems that the European revolution will be achieved by a Fourth International arising from a split in the middle class and its fusion with the proletariat.