The Next World Crisis, the Second World War and the World Revolution (Theses)


Published: in International Council Correspondence Vol. 1, no.8, May 1935, pp 7-12.
Source: Antonie Pannekoek Archives
Transcribed: by Graham Dyer

(The following Theses are written by a comrade not belonging to our group. Without completely approving them in their present form, we find them interesting and important enough to bring them up for discussion. Our readers are invited to take part in this discussion, which is begun in the present issue with a contribution by Karl Korsch. We shall close the matter with a statement of our own position in one of the following numbers of Council Correspondence.) - Editorial Board

1. - The next world crisis is very likely to coincide with the second world war. We must at any rate be prepared for this possibility.

2. - The second world war will again place the working class face to face with a world-revolutionary situation. We are shocked to realize that the forces of revolution assembled in the revolutionary cycle of 1850-1917 are used up and that the new efforts in that direction are weak. It is our task to promote the organizational and ideational preparedness for the world revolution, to make clear what steps in this connection are ineffectual, which activities are merely action for the sake of action (Scheinaktionen), and what possibilities of action are really open under the new conditions, and for our part to really make the most of each of these possibilities.

3. - We have been able since the beginning of this century to gain ample experience with regard to capitalist crises, capitalist wars and revolutionary convulsions of the capitalist world-system in its entirety. It is high time to bring order into this experience. We have mostly contented ourselves with explaining the causes of capitalist wars; an attempt must be made, however, to understand the capitalist structure of the World War, its function in the whole social process, in order that the process itself, its course, its action, its result may become clear.

The world-war crisis of 1913-1919 represents a combination of world crisis, world war and world revolution. It was shown that between capitalist States the immemorial alternation of war and peace - which in itself goes on in other connections - is involved in the industrial cycle. The industrializing of warfare brought it about that the industrial war has become a special form of crisis: the world-war crisis. What is true of any capitalist crisis whatsoever, namely, that it lays bare the disorderly and inhuman character of bourgeois society and thus promotes the revolutionary tendency of the workers’ class struggle aiming at the world order of labor, holds in higher degree of such a world-war crisis. At the beginning of the first world war stands the crisis, at its end the attempt at world-revolutionary action on the part of the working class.

The first world-war crisis forms the close of the upgrade period 1895-1913 (‘long wave’) and ushers in the present period; the distinguishing marks of that crisis make clear the special character of the present (‘long’) period of depression. In the world-war crisis destruction was the aim of a production intensified beyond its own measure. Since industry was converted to war industry, the presupposition for crisis was set once more within the crisis, overproduction occurred once more as production of materials of destruction and performed the special work of any crisis: destruction of value which cannot be turned to account. In this way the crisis overleaped itself. The over-production, in that it produced war, had apparently become profitable production. It had accordingly all at once gained a meaning, like the dying in the wire entanglements and the hunger back home - an inhuman, capitalistic meaning. Fantastic war profits flowed into the pockets of individual capitalists. On the fronts, the competition assumed an heroic character. Literally cut-throat competition urged on to the extreme limits of performance and revolutionized technics and organization. Industry, in the form of war industry, experienced a feverish and deceptive upswing. ln the meantime, however, there exploded in the steel tempests of the material battles and there flew away with the gas clouds over the shell-torn fields, the lucrative idyll of the two pre-war decades - for victors and for vanquished and beyond recall. Thus there followed upon the mild “trade crises” of 1901 and 1907 - mostly signs which were not comprehended - the great world-crisis, and made an epoch. In this crisis it became plain what mighty productive forces had been concealed behind the capitalist business of peace-time. But once unfettered by war, the productive forces threatened to blow up the national-state system resting on wage labor and capital. This breakthrough of the productive forces taking place with the blind elementary power of a natural catastrophe has often been interpreted as the world revolution itself. There is no need for such arts of interpretation, which do away with the clear distinctions. For after the exhaustion of the military energies of capital, there came forward the true bearer of the productive forces, the working class itself, with the attempt at a world-revolutionary action. And it was only after the unvictorious exhaustion of the revolutionary energies of the working class that the gigantic efforts undertaken in this crisis, in this war, in this revolution, had again lost both their bourgeois and their proletarian meaning. To the capitalist class it became plain that the question had merely been one of over-production and destruction of value which could not be turned to account; to the working class, that the world-war crisis could be met only by world-revolutionary action, that when anything less is attempted in such a situation the class, as an army of millions, simply ceases to function in its history-making role.

It was only with difficulty that the new productive forces could again be forced into the capitalist world system for peaceful business purposes. As soon as the productive forces assembled up to 1913, destructively let loose in the first world war and since that time further increased, had been in motion after a fashion for a few years, it came to light in the great world crises of the present time that the framework of the national-state social system resting on wage labor and capital has already become a crushing fetter upon those forces. To be sure, the effort made in the post-war crises to bind those forces once more to the production relation of wage labor and capital, and to the capitalist process of accumulation and to fit them into the framework of the national State was attended with success, but the capacity of the industriaI apparatus cannot be completely utilized even in prosperity. National restriction of production becomes a method of overcoming crises.

Flatly contradictory judgments have been possible regarding the present period: “Decline period of capitalism” (Sombart, Varga, Corey), “Second industrial revolution” (O. Bauer, Boris). Judgments which hold to one side of the process just as abstractly as in the previous period the different theories of imperialism and their more or less belated progeny. The special character of the present (‘long’) depression period comes to light in the character of the world war crisis and of the post-war crises (1921, 1929). They are crises of the system. One is justified in expecting that the next world crisis will have the same character.

4. - Today, now that the passage from the acute crisis into the depression is accomplished (cf. mounting production figures in U.S.A., England, France, Germany, 1933; Japanese export offensive, American strike wave), the prognosis may be made that once the general trade war which is now on has led to half-way useful results the severe and long-drawn-out depression will be followed by a breathing spell which will end in the next world crisis. There are no grounds by which we could be moved not to count upon the next world crisis around 1940 as upon a reliable anticipation, and to take our measures accordingly.

The new monopolistic forms of State and Capital - children of the great contemporary crises - fulfill the special task of political economy in the present period: to attain at least the highest measure of expansion of the transcending productive forces within the given framework. Capital and State - these two sides of the basic social relation, wage-workers vs. capitalists - have been smelted together by the world crises into a single armor-plating, to the end of assuring their continued existence. From the automatic subject Capital with the sponsor State as a special organ there has grown the unified state-subject Capital. The State today is more than the merely ‘ideational’ total capitalist, as may be seen from its multiplied functions. Through an injection of fresh blood from the middle class, the ruling class has taken on a new aspect and, with the means of political revolution and social reform, subjects the working class and all other elements to far-going changes. The state-subject Capital seizes the monopoly on class struggle. The breaking up of all class organs of the workers is its first accomplishment. A ruthless social-pacification process is introduced with the aim of ‘organically’ incorporating that part of capital represented by wage labor into the new State. At the same time a far-flung reorganization of the capitalist class is undertaken for the purpose of adapting it to the special task of political economy in the present period. There is today a whole scale of degrees of the fusion of State and Capital. The differences have their root in differences in the history of the various nations, and are not of a fundamental nature. (1. Identity of State and Capital, centralized planned economy under individual responsibility of the various shop leaders: bolshevist state capitalism. 2. Creation of special authoritarian organs of political economy, to which the individual independent entrepreneur is required to conform: national-socialist “economy steering” (Wirtschaftssteuerung). 3. Corporative self-discipline of the capitalists under state control: fascist “systematic intervention”. 4. The American N.R.A. also, though on the whole of a different sort, reveals related features etc. etc.). In the place of private-economy profitability there enters national-economy profitability. The state-subject Capital organizes the domestic market, regulates (a national “general cartel”) the prices and thereby at the same time sharpens the international competition. The international trade policy has become the vital question of the States, (“Twilight of Autarchy”). The new monopolistic forms have accordingly not only not held up the cyclical course of world economy, they also fail to withdraw their own sphere of influence from the “natural law” of capitalism. As regards crises, those forms can only bring about within the state economy (insofar as they do away with the automatic nature of the process) a different distribution of the over-production periodically setting in and of the hunger with which it is bound up (cf. Italy and Russia in the latest crisis).

5. - The productive forces released in war at the beginning of the present period and since then further increased, can no longer come to unfoldment in the given framework of politics and economics otherwise than by way of crisis in a second world war. That is what is at the bottom of the present world unrest. It becomes ever clearer that the anti-crisis campaigns of the new monopolistic state economies have at the same time the character of preparedness measures. More and more is military preparedness the essence of that very industrial energy by which the world is driven forward (motorization, aviation, chemistry, etc.). In long-term production plans, explosive material is being heaped up and stored on a large scale. Likewise the social pacification policy is preparation for war. The disarmament ideology is being replaced by vita militante, soldierly spirit and security. (The Labor Party, in its “Memorial”, wheels into the war front: “punitive war against peace breakers” packed in the sepulchral ideology of the League of Nations. The Comintern is entered in the war preparations through the Franco-Russian alliance.) The incentives to conflict are numberless, the most important being the Japanese expansion in the Far East, the central focus of the second world war. Thus this war is being prepared partly in conscious planning, partly behind the backs of the participants.

And here we have the contradictory drama that those very forms of state and economy which are characteristic of the present epoch actually need and want peace - in part because their preparation for war is incomplete, in part because they are frightened by the vague suspicion that the state system resting on wage labor and capital will not, even in its most modern form, outlast the second world war – and that it is precisely these states which are preparing the war most effectually. They reveal themselves more and more as transitional forms to this second world war, which in all probability will coincide with the next world crisis.

6. - It must be understood to what extent the new monopolistic forms render the workers’ world revolution easier and what are the real difficulties of the new situation.

The series of national, political revolutions resulting from the post-war crises, once the revolutionary force of action of the working class was exhausted, has created on a national scale a new order which internationally is much of a kind, an order which in the second world-war crisis will reveal itself as dangerous disorder of the world. In the second world war it will become plain that there is only one convincing program: the world order of labor, and that the liberation of the workers is the precondition for its actualization. If, however, the workers then fail to win their freedom, the new means of mastery which the ruling class has today constructed on a national scale will be extended by it internationally on ruins and blood and the productive forces subjected to a still sharper discipline. That will be the essence of the new world-revolutionary struggles. The free unfoldment of the productive forces is assured only through the action of the producers.

That sluggishness which settled over the labor movement and which was the precondition for the victory of national revolutions was not so much the consequence of individual revolutionary defeats, but above all the consequence of the paralyzation and disintegration which was brought about by the actual tying up of the labor movement with social-reformist and politico-revolutionary tasks, hence the actual tying up of bourgeois and proletarian revolution. Since the labor movement down to 1914, engaged in wage struggles, pay-rate negotiations, ballot battles and social politics, had actually not taken steps to break through at any point the framework of the form of state and society resting on wage labor and capital; since by the side of this actual “day-to-day struggle” the “final goal” (as it was called) embraced, as its accompanying ideology, at most the idea of “political revolution”, and since the proletarian-revolutionary minorities, transcendant utopian under-currents, could themselves under these circumstances furnish no more than a further ideological supplement to the actual intra-capitalist wage-worker movements - in a word, since the revolutionary energies assembled in the cycle of 1850-1917 were concerned with national tasks - the workers entered wholly unprepared into a situation in which they could win only on a world-revolutionary scale. It remains to the undying credit of the Russian October revolution that in its first, heroic phase the Russian revolutionists still made the attempt to push forward their Russian revolution as the incipient world revolution. The working class failed, as it showed, to keep pace with the tempo of the material battles. The destructive work of the World War had created conditions with which the available energies of the labor movement failed to cope. The workers “drew back before the enormousness of their own aims”. For the moment, there followed inexorably that sluggishness which prevailed for years. Of the Comintern there remained only a mutilated and crumbling fossil.

It appeared that at many places there was still need of a national recuperation in order to create the presuppositions for the workers’ revolution. For this reason even the national revolution of 1917 contains the element of counter-revolution. The victory was won not simply by the bourgeois revolution against the workers’ revolution but the national limitation of the revolutionary struggles, their pervasively national genesis and task branded in advance even the “Russian” revolution with the element of counter-revolution. Each national victory of the revolution was, as such, already counter-revolutionary. And this is not in the least altered when one interprets the series of national revolutions of the present period as the “permanent revolution” and pours over them the ideological camouflage of the proletarian world revolution.

This state of things serves to explain the peculiar bolshevist-fascist twilight lying over the world today. Revolutions win counter-revolutionarily, counter-revolutions revolutionarily. Something completely unexpected occurred: the workers having been worn out in the struggle, the bourgeoisie shaken in its self-confidence through unexampled world crises, the Third Estate, roused up by war and crisis, “awoke”. To it, the twilight between the great decisions is the most becoming illumination. It develops the “new activism”, has visions, speaks in tongues. It discovers that one really belongs to no class at all, but to an estate. With good reason it evokes the military spirit for the cranking up and serving of the industrial apparatus, which still bears on itself the easily legible trade-mark “World War”. It becomes the preacher and banner-bearer of the only thing possible in the given framework: the new monopolistic reorganization of capital, which corresponds to the special task of political economy in the present period. With the aid of the insurrection of the middle elements it rises in great numbers into state positions, and thus in part incorporates itself personally with the state-subject Capital.

To monopolistic capital this personnel supplement comes in very handy. For the worker revolutionists the new condition is gratifying: the fascist third estate as chancellor or minister of monopoly capital is better than the Socialist la Severing or Norman Thomas. Now that the political revolution and the only possible social reform has won against the workers, and turns out to be their complete lack of freedom, the workers have at least won the negative freedom for their own gigantic ends. No Kautsky and none of his Russian disciples can still entertain the notion of whispering to them “from the outside” what their “historical mission” truly is. No Bernstein and none of his English teachers can still make it appear to the workers that taking up places in the state apparatus is a “growing into socialism”. One has only to bring out the dusty portraits of the marxist twins and the change becomes clear at once. The umbilical cord between bourgeois and proletarian revolution is severed. The world-revolutionary overthrow of Capital and State has become a palpably concrete task.

The genuine difficulties of the new situation, however, all spring from the circumstance that the revolutionary movements of the working class, in spite of embittered struggles in all countries throughout the world, must on the whole begin all over again at the beginning while at the same time, with the approach of the second world war, a world-revolutionary situation already enters the range of vision.


Last updated on: 7.17.2016