The article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 57 (Summer/Fall 1998) under the title “On Revolutionary Isolation.”
In the course of a long correspondence, a reader of Proletarian Revolution asked:
If your party’s line is the best summing up of the class struggles of the 20th century, and if there are many, many serious revolutionaries around the world (as there are), why has the LRP attracted relatively little attention as far as I can tell?
And he went on:
Why is its interpretation of the 20th century not constructed in other parts of the world (e.g., Brazil or Finland or India or Palestine or Zaire, etc.) independently of knowledge of the LRP in the U.S.? I know this may be tough question, but that is what I wonder.
We are often asked these questions in varying ways, and they also reflect problems that we have discussed many times ourselves. After all, we can hardly be satisfied with our current size and limited situation. The questions thus deserve a thorough response. Unfortunately, big questions can be asked well in a few words but are not answered so simply. We will address the first question – “Why hasn’t the LRP attracted more attention?” – at some length now, but we have to leave the second for a subsequent issue.
To begin, we note that the writer refers to many serious revolutionaries around the world. We cannot tell if he is thinking of established groups that claim to be revolutionary. Or does he mean individuals, in or out of groups, whom he feels are genuinely serious revolutionaries? There is a huge difference between the two categories.
This difference points to part of the problem. The overwhelming majority of groups that claim to be revolutionary Marxist are indeed “serious” – but they are centrist and not revolutionary. “Centrist” means that they propagate revolutionary rhetoric as a screen for profoundly reformist deeds. This revolutionary veneer does attract good cadres, and that’s the rub. The centrist groups, including the false claimants to the mantle of Trotskyism, are responsible for disorienting crucial sectors of the working class.
It was no accident that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky waged fierce polemical wars on such groups in their day. The LRP has polemicized against each of the major international tendencies, and smaller groups as well, in our attempt to expose their political deceit. We can prove, despite specific differences among them, that what characterizes all these groups is their rejection of Marxism’s insistence that only the proletariat can make the socialist revolution. Even those which still identify with the working class (others openly embraced peasant-based guerrillaism or other “socialist” instruments) do not conceive of the proletariat as the revolutionary agency.
The centrists today begin with far greater resources than we have, adding to the difficulty of exposing them. Yet it is not just a question of how far we can compete with those larger outfits. Even more fundamental is the overall political climate in which we have operated throughout our existence. Decisive material factors have spawned a dominating mood of cynicism about the revolutionary potential of our class. It will take a major shift in the political scene, not words alone, to expose the anti-working-class cynicism that lies at the heart of all the centrist theories. The massive acts of the proletariat itself will make our class’s capacity clear once again, to greater numbers of advanced workers.
We are not spontaneists. Class explosions in themselves do not automatically lead to workers’ revolution. The development and intervention of the revolutionary party is critical for revolutionary success. But a resurgence of class struggle internationally does create a political environment in which authentic Marxism is nourished. The ideas and program that we have been putting forward will then begin to make more sense. The struggles that have been breaking out – Indonesia, Australia and Puerto Rico are just the latest examples – already tend to re-assert the central role of the working class and give us much reason for optimism on that score.
The cynical political climate is not just a development of the 1970’s and ’80’s. In fact, the reason why centrism has dominated the left landscape for so long can’t be understood without grasping what has happened to the revolutionary class struggle in this century as a whole. It is no accident that our book The Life and Death of Stalinism was subtitled “The Resurrection of Marxist Theory”. Stalinism not only usurped the leadership of the international working class; it distorted the very meaning of what Marxism was about. Instead of representing the science of proletarian liberation, this pseudo-Marxism became an ideological cover for class collaboration and the tailing of various pro-capitalist currents.
To come to grips with the theoretical degeneration of “Marxism,” we have to understand the character of times past as well as those we ourselves have lived through.
As Bolshevik Leninists, we have always pointed out that this is the epoch not only of revolution and the transition to socialism; it is also the imperialist epoch of decay which is punctuated by great depressions, world wars and counterrevolution. Marxists have never thought that proletarian revolutions would proceed in a linear fashion without having to surpass tremendous defeats and obstacles. But the obstacles have been greater than what could have been foreseen.
In October 1917, Marxism received its greatest confirmation: the proletarian seizure of power in Russia. The workers’ revolution was led by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, which was dedicated to the belief that the Russian October would spark revolutions around the world.
The subsequent quarantining of the Russian workers’ state was at first the consequence of the betrayal of proletarian upheavals by the reformists and centrists in the European Social Democratic parties. Then, as the isolated Soviet Union turned inward and degenerated, the nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy itself became more and more responsible for the defeat of workers’ revolutions. Stalin and his minions in the degenerating Communist Parties abroad betrayed the Chinese revolution of 1925-7, the German workers in the early 1930’s and the Spanish Revolution in the late 1930’s. Fascism was the consequence. Then, in what Trotsky termed a “preventive civil war,” the Great Purges in Russia killed millions of workers and communists, destroyed and re-made the state apparatus and severed the last ties to the October revolution and the Bolsheviks who had spearheaded it. Thus the counterrevolution triumphed.
Trotsky saw Stalinism as a counterrevolutionary force, but did not see that the counterrevolution had been completed and thus that capitalism had been restored in the USSR. Rather, he held to the optimistic belief that the end of the Second World War, like the First, would provoke a string of proletarian upheavals that would banish Stalinism from the pages of history. Because Trotsky was assassinated, he did not get to review his thesis in the light of future occurrences. And, indeed, he was right that proletarian revolts did erupt in Europe, Asia and Africa. But they were decapitated and then crushed or contained within capitalist limits. This disaster was largely the work of occupying Soviet armies or betrayals by the Communist Parties.
Trotsky had gravely underestimated the strength of the CP’s and the USSR. No longer a degenerating workers’ state, Russia had congealed its power as a statified capitalist class society. Resting on new foundations, the Stalinists were often able to aid bourgeois forces in other countries in restoring their power at the expense of the proletariat. And wherever the traditional bourgeoisie was too weak to maintain its grip, the Stalinists created new statified capitalist regimes. The succession of defeats of the world working class allowed beleaguered imperialism to restore itself and usher in the huge post-war prosperity bubble.
Where post-war prosperity grew, struggles produced reforms and concessions; the ranks of the new middle classes and the labor aristocracy expanded as never before. And given their social position, these layers extended their illusions in capitalism. The Fourth International (FI), especially in the U.S., already had a membership weighted toward the more privileged layers of the working class. A labor-aristocratic reformist world view infected the FI’s leaders and their programs in country after country.
This process of class transformation was reflected in theory as well as practice. Trotsky had insisted that Stalinism and social democracy were counterrevolutionary in their essence. The FI, however, came to regard Stalinism and its new-found ability to create “deformed workers’ states” as a “blunt instrument” for revolution. Social democracy and its ability to achieve “structural reforms” was also seen as progressive, even if too moderate and slow. Thus, as a whole, reformism was no longer counterrevolutionary; it was seen as a step in the direction of revolution. In the early 1950’s, the FI supported its powerful Bolivian section in subordinating itself to bourgeois nationalism during that country’s revolution – and no section of the FI denounced the betrayal. That signified that quantity had turned into quality. What passed for “the world proletarian revolutionary movement” had decisively succumbed to centrism. (See our pamphlet, Bolivia: the Revolution the “Fourth International” Betrayed.)
In general, the various left groups (including Trotsky’s epigones) contending for working-class loyalty more and more reflected the views of the vast new middle-class bureaucratic intelligentsia and the greatly expanded labor aristocracy. The destruction of the post-war proletarian revolts deepened the already existing cynicism.
With the outbreak of the Cold War, some renounced Moscow and attributed “Marxism’s” failures to the proletariat’s incapacity to hold power, instead embracing Western imperialism and social democracy. Others continued to defend the East, apologizing for Stalinism’s crimes and rationalizing its destruction of working-class consciousness. In the minds of many “revolutionary” groups around the world, the proletariat became at best a mass battering ram to be manipulated for its own good. The concept of vanguard working-class leadership, which for Lenin and Trotsky was essentially composed of workers who were most advanced in class consciousness, was replaced – in the minds of the elitists – by themselves.
But by the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the world saw the collapse of what had seemed like eternal capitalist prosperity. The working class replied with general strikes. Even the U.S. was rocked by the ghetto revolts and a crescendo of wildcat strikes. The proletarian upsurge transcended and in large part discarded the traditional Social Democratic and Communist misleaderships. Yet the far left was already far too compromised to offer a real alternative, a leadership which would lead a challenge to capitalist state power. On a grand scale, opportunities were missed and struggles betrayed.
With the return of capitalism’s chronic economic crisis to the surface, the puffed-up middle strata around the world began to erode by the late 60’s. Although afterglow illusions in capitalist democracy and a return to prosperity have doggedly persisted, the proletarian upheavals of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s did create new ruptures and some re-examination in the ranks of centrism – and did spur the restoration of authentic Marxism. Our political tendency was born in the wake of the massive French general strike and the Black uprisings in the U.S. This modest re-beginning was embodied in the political current that became the LRP-U.S., later joined with a small number of co-thinkers abroad. (See our pamphlet, Twenty Years of the LRP.)
With a growing understanding of the crucial events that had shaped our history and the development of the overall class struggle, we began to resurrect genuinely proletarian Marxist theory. We energetically communicated our views internationally and in the U.S. But we were up against a strong tide.
During the Cold War, most left groups based their world outlook on the notion that the Stalinist bloc nations were economically powerful and, for better or worse, more viable than traditional capitalism. We argued that although it was stronger than Trotsky thought, the economy of Stalinist Russia (and the rest of the bloc) was weak and devolving toward more traditional capitalist forms. We predicted two decades ago that Russia, China et al would move toward privatization and a market-dominated economy, even though the basic centralizing drives of capitalism in this epoch would prevent total privatization.
Likewise, when practically everyone else in the world saw a deepening conflict between Stalinist Russia and the U.S., we predicted the opposite. We said that if social revolution didn’t prevent it, the weakening of the East would mean that the Cold War would collapse; the danger of a third world war would arise out of conflicts among the major imperialist rivals: the U.S., Japan and Germany. At the time, centrist groups laughed at us for saying such wild things.
As our book on Stalinism went to press, the anarchic patchwork economy of the Stalinist bloc collapsed – an initial and unmistakable consequence of the deepening crisis of world capitalism. Wasteful, inefficient, utterly unplanned and heavily indebted to Western banks, the Stalinist states opened themselves further to Western imperialism. Gorbachev and other Stalinist rulers saw the handwriting on the wall with the rising tide of proletarian revolt, signaled by the enormous struggles in Poland in 1980-81.
But despite events that proved the correctness of our views, the general political climate has remained hostile. To sum up our answer to why this is so, we can do no better than cite Trotsky’s response to a similar question in 1939:
The question is why we are not progressing in correspondence with the value of our conceptions ... Yes, it is a fact, which is an expression of the general decay of the workers’ movements in the last fifteen years. It is the more general cause. When the revolutionary movement in general is declining, when one defeat follows another, when fascism is spreading over the world, when the official “Marxism” [Stalinism] is the most powerful organization of deception of the workers, and so on, it is an inevitable situation that the revolutionary elements must work against the general historic current, even if our ideas, our explanations, are as exact and wise as one can demand. (“Fighting Against the Stream,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39.)
In our case, the proletarian struggles that brought down the Stalinist statified capitalist system confirmed our views and predictions. But because the anti-Stalinist revolutions were derailed, the resulting regimes represented no victory for the working class but an opening for Western imperialism and its allies. As well, the end of prosperity inevitably led to the collapse of the mirage of genuine national independence in much of the formerly colonial world. And to the masses in the imperialist countries, it meant the beginning of a rollback of all past gains. Throughout the world, the imperialist bourgeoisie went on the offensive, determined to deepen its exploitation of the masses and make them pay for the profound crisis of the system. As it became clearer that the still enormously powerful proletariat – in the absence of a strong, tried and tested communist vanguard – could not yet embark on a course of successful revolutionary action, the bourgeois offensive has picked up greater steam.
A net result of these defeats has been our stunted growth and isolation. The illusion that the working class is impotent to reverse the tide of defeats has remained strong. Consequently, the political currents that represent such cynicism have been able to continue parading as Marxist, even though the defeats and their inability to put forward a credible world view has weakened them.
In the U.S., where our League has tirelessly intervened in important fights in unions and in the overall class struggle for two decades, our growth in numbers has also been modest. In this regard Trotsky added:
The masses are not educated by prognostic theoretical conception, but by general experiences of their lives. It is the most general explanation – the whole situation is against us. There must be a turn in the class realization, in the sentiments, in the feelings of the masses; a turn which will give us the opportunity for a large political success.
Indeed, although workers know us and respect our comrades as honest and dedicated fighters for our class as well as representatives of a definite revolutionary program and perspective, we cannot win many, even among the relatively advanced, until the tide of pessimism and cynicism turns.
Our answer to the dilemma we face today, stressing the tide of history, the defeats and defeatism, is fundamentally the same answer that Trotsky gave in the late 1930’s. But it is also true that the defeats Trotsky based his analysis on had not yet reached their counterrevolutionary depths. Our times have been a product of even further disasters.
We have made mistakes, of course, but the explanation for our relative isolation lies with the general historic tide. To view the problem in any other way, fundamentally, is not only wrong, it leads to substituting petty organizational maneuvers and gimmicks for getting rich quick in place of tenaciously fighting for the revolutionary program.
Trotsky referred frequently to the lessons of the defeat of the 1905 revolution in Russia. For example, from the same document cited before:
Everybody invented slogans and methods to win the masses and nobody won them – they were desperate. In this time the only thing we could do was to educate the cadres, and they were melting away. There was a series of splits to the right or to the left or to syndicalism and so on. Lenin remained with a small group, a sect, in Paris, but with confidence that there would be new possibilities of a rise. It came in 1913. We had a new tide.
What has kept us going in spite of limited gains has been confidence in our long-range perspective. Today, once again, the tide is definitely beginning to turn. Fresh forces are arising in important areas of the world.
In 1995 the first COFI conference adopted an International Perspectives document that characterized the fall of Stalinism as laying the basis for a new period in the class struggle. We understood that for the moment we were in a highly temporary conjuncture, an interregnum between periods, in which the bourgeoisie had launched a hesitant offensive against the working class internationally. But this conjuncture could only be the prelude to an inevitable opening of a new era of revolutionary struggles. In this document we identified areas of extreme “combined and uneven development” that we felt were most likely to witness the first outbreaks of revolutionary struggle. In this we followed Trotsky, who in his theory of permanent revolution had crystallized the importance of uneven and combined development – not just in the specific situation of pre-revolutionary Russia but (as the theory developed over time) as a worldwide phenomenon.
When backward and advanced conditions of significant force collide in this epoch, class eruptions and social explosions are inevitable. The reactionary conditions which buttress oppression and inhibit the development of bourgeois democracy – let alone proletarian revolution – are no longer simply the product of vestigial pre-capitalist social relations. The chief barriers are those imposed by imperialism. Thus even the winning or maintenance of democratic gains today is contingent upon socialist revolution.
In 1917, the Russian empire was the most dramatic example of uneven and combined development. Today, we have identified the “weakest links” of the imperialist system as areas where the proletariat not only has objective power but where the fabric of world capitalism is the most strained, where the most explosive questions of exploitation and oppression intersect. In our document we pointed to the former Stalinist bloc nations, the “Asian Tigers” (which then were being touted as powerhouses of development), similar countries in Latin America, and South Africa. We saw South Africa as the country most likely to be the initial launching pad for the coming round of socialist revolutions.
There is no doubt that South Africa will be ripe for socialist revolution in the coming years. There, the imperialist bourgeoisie has been trying to mount a successful offensive against the notoriously militant working class. Capitalism, no longer able to maintain apartheid, saved itself by allowing its state to erect an African facade. It appropriated the former leadership of the mass opposition, Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), to first divert and then to try to stifle the workers.
However, the South African proletariat has a very real understanding of its enormous power and feels itself to be undefeated, unlike workers in many other nations. In South Africa the overwhelming majority of workers believe in socialism and know that it won’t be accomplished without getting rid of the capitalist class. After its victory over apartheid the proletariat still has great expectations. The Mandela regime has promised much but is obviously not able to deliver.
While large sections of the working class still cling to hopes in Mandela and the regime, it would be wrong to ignore the sharp contradictions of the society, which have already produced significant disaffection. This is a country with an enormous blue-collar working class and a comparatively small labor aristocracy among African workers. Added to the mix is the fact that the trade union bureaucracy is of recent origin and paper-thin, compared to European, American or Japanese standards. Nor is there an entrenched social democracy. However, the SACP is an important reformist force, a party deeply tied to its participation in the ANC government. At the same time, it leads the COSATU trade union bureaucracy. But, given the class polarization, it is heavily factionalized with a restive working-class base.
The chances for a proletarian revolutionary challenge to state power in a few years time are excellent. The decisive question, of course, is whether the proletariat can build its revolutionary party in time. A working-class seizure of power in South Africa will have an electric impact on the international proletariat and oppressed peoples everywhere. Authentic communism would be restored to its rightful place as the champion of the superexploited.
As regular readers of Proletarian Revolution know, we have been engaging in discussions with the Workers International Vanguard League (WIVL) of South Africa. The WIVL has a substantial following in the working class, is rooted in a history of struggle against apartheid and is the one organization on the South African left that has consistently opposed the ANC and the SACP. It is encouraging that in the country of the clearest class struggle, we have found a revolutionary group with an outlook that parallels our own world view.
The crisis is already deepening precipitously and the tide is turning, especially in the other uneven and combined countries. We continue to receive communications from comrades in countries of the former Soviet Union, saying that they have agreed with, translated and published articles from Proletarian Revolution and selections from our Stalinism book.
Today, the U.S. media provides only a tiny and distorted glimpse of the enormous struggles that are already beginning to shake the world. Reports from Russia testify to the fact that massive strikes are threatening to tear the country apart. The Indonesian masses have already toppled a seemingly impregnable dictator. South Korea and Thailand have been rocked by working-class struggles, and news of important strikes in China is trickling out. Several Latin American, African and West Indian countries are beset by workers’ upsurges. And significant struggles have already broken out in imperialist countries: Denmark, France, Australia.
We would infinitely prefer to have found immediate agreement among the far left everywhere. But given the defeats suffered by the proletariat historically, that was hardly likely. In the deepening world capitalist crisis, mass organizations like the Communist Parties have crumbled and sizable centrist organizations have disintegrated. As capitalism forces more and more workers to rebel and the crisis picks up in breadth and intensity, we can expect that our views will be validated in practice and the number of authentic communists will grow apace.
All this is not intended to oversimplify the amount of struggle we face in the years ahead. Nothing comes automatically. We have to fight the class struggle on the plane of ideas and in practice. We know that our current recruitment of ones and twos in the U.S. is absolutely vital as we expand our activities here and abroad. The vanguard party will never be built unless we develop its nucleus now. However, we recognize that there are layers of sincere revolutionary-minded fighters who are or will be caught in the network of centrist organizations both here and abroad. When, as is inevitable, the class struggle explodes and workers gain consciousness by leaps and bounds, these militants will put their organizations to the test. We confidently look forward to revolutionary splits that will separate real revolutionaries from the incurable centrists.
No Marxist can conceive of an errorless path; what we need is a proven methodology and a program that reflects the actual interests of the working class. A vanguard group which has developed in miserable isolation inevitably must make its share of errors, and then some. The worst kind of isolation is the absence of mass proletarian struggle. That has been our real problem, which the world capitalist crisis is now beginning to put to an end.
We do not believe that one day we will deliver ready-made answers to all questions to some avidly waiting working class. No, isolation has taught us the difference between the elitist arrogance of cynical centrists and the genuine confidence of authentic Marxists. We believe that our method and program have helped lay the basis for the coming internationalist and interracialist proletarian revolutionary party.