3. Permanent Revolution
Lenin worked out his theory of imperialism under the impact of the First World War, an unprecedented holocaust that shattered dreams of continuing capitalist progress. Even bourgeois historians regard the war as the great divide of modern history; it led straight to the horrors and tragedies of the twentieth century. The immediate impetus for Lenin’s work was the treachery of European social democracy, whose national parties led the workers into the trap of following “their” bourgeoisies into the imperialist war. The result was working-class fratricide.
The social democrats’ behavior was no accident. Not that the reformists wanted war: their goal was peaceful competition, or “democracy.” But they became national chauvinists because their material stake in capitalism was nationalist (and trade unionist, as Luxemburg observed); their real loyalties were to their “own” sectors of capital. One result of imperialist expansion was the bourgeoisie’s increased ability to grant sops and reforms to workers – mainly to a narrow but socially decisive layer – as a deformed result of the class struggle.
That is, imperialism super-exploited the peoples of the undeveloped regions and used part of the profits to bribe a section of the working class, the “labor aristocracy.” Bought off by a share of surplus value and thereby separated from the mass of workers, the aristocrats, although themselves exploited by capital, became a political agency of the bourgeoisie within the working class. They formed the social base of the union and party bureaucracies.
During the war, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in contrast to the treacherous social democrats, raised the slogan, “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war.” The specific meaning and applications of this slogan varied during the war years, but at all times it meant that the workers must not hesitate to press forward the class struggle out of fear that strikes or other actions would endanger the war effort of their own bourgeoisie. A comparable slogan among left-wing German social democrats was Karl Liebknecht’s “The main enemy is at home.”
In both Russia and Germany the revolutionaries’ efforts paid off when workers rose up against the bourgeois regimes – in both cases, ironically enough, regimes led by social democrats. The essential reason for the disparate results of these civil wars – the Russian workers’ victory in 1917 and the Germans’ defeat in 1919 – was that the Russian revolution had been preceded by the formation of a revolutionary party with years of experience independent of and fighting with the right-wing social democrats.
The war brought about the actual split of the socialist movement into two contending parties already created by the conditions described above. After the reformists stopped killing each other, they recognized their common antagonism to the Bolshevik revolution and the rising revolutionary tide. At the war’s end they reconstituted their discredited Second International in which each party adhered to its own national program and all found agreement in defense of capitalism and against the Russian revolution.
The Russian revolution had been created by the war. Czarist Russia embodied all the contradictions of the epoch. It was a bastion of reaction not only for the peoples within its borders; every conservative force in Europe had leaned on it during the revolutionary struggles of the 19th century. But at the same time it was forced to modernize to survive in a revolutionizing world. It allowed Western imperialists to invest heavily in modern industry so that it could fortify itself militarily against the stirrings of modernism and revolution at home and the danger of invasion from abroad. Gaping contradictions abounded: the Rothschilds financed a regime that whipped up pogroms against Jews, and a modern working class arose alongside a peasantry that kissed the bones of saints. Backward Russia acquired a proletariat that became the most politically advanced in Europe and the least burdened by an entrenched labor aristocracy.
A long-simmering dispute within the Russian socialist movement had already resulted in a split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The division was not formally between reform and revolution as in the rest of Europe, since both sides stood for the overthrow of the autocracy (even reformists could hardly advocate the democratic reform of Czarism). But otherwise the Mensheviks differed little from their social-democratic allies abroad: they held that a bourgeois-democratic revolution was necessary in Russia to allow a period of capitalist development. That is, their revolutionary goal was not workers’ power but rather the same “democratic” capitalism as in the West. Their apparent centrism simply reflected the inconsistency between their reformist ideals and the inescapable need for a revolution in Russia.
The Bolsheviks also believed that the immediate tasks of the revolution were bourgeois-democratic: division of the land among the peasantry, universal suffrage, freedom of workers to organize, national rights for the subjected peoples, and the stripping away of all the pre-capitalist barriers to industrial expansion. But the two parties differed over the role of the proletariat. The “orthodox” Mensheviks assumed that the working class would support the bourgeoisie’s coming to power and thereby reap the benefits of capitalist industrialization and democracy; then it would develop sufficiently to make the socialist revolution when the time became ripe. Whereas the Bolsheviks argued that the working class would have to seize the reins of power from the reactionary and pro-imperialist bourgeoisie and develop capitalism itself – through its own government in alliance with the peasantry. Lenin’s slogan, the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” summarized the Bolshevik program in the fifteen years leading up to 1917.
The “democratic dictatorship” would have been, in Lenin’s words, “bourgeois in its economic and social essence” although politically dominated by the proletariat. (“Democratic” in this context meant bourgeois-democratic.) The revolution could not possibly be socialist because it could not have undertaken the expropriation of the big bourgeoisie except “at best” for the “radical redistribution of landed property in favor of the peasantry”(44) – a step which would still leave property in the hands of the petty-bourgeois peasants, the vast majority of the Russian population.
The Bolshevik formula embodied a deep contradiction: the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat would inevitably intensify if the bourgeoisie held the economic reins and the proletariat controlled the state. Trotsky had already pointed out, in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution, that if a revolution were successful the contradiction would have to be resolved quickly: either the workers would discipline and ultimately expropriate the bourgeoisie, or the workers’ and peasants’ government would have to concede to the capitalists and abandon its defense of the masses.
Along with the Bolsheviks and against the Mensheviks, Trotsky recognized that the bourgeoisie was incapable of leading a revolution against Czarism. Its families and property were far too interpenetrated with the nobility and landlords for it to encourage land seizures or other encroachments on pre-capitalist privileges. As for the rights of the masses of the oppressed, the growing proletariat in the cities was too great a threat to warrant any loosening of autocratic repression. Trotsky retrospectively summed up his differences with the Menshevik leader Plekhanov:
Plekhanov obviously and stubbornly shut his eyes to the fundamental conclusion of the political history of the nineteenth century: whenever the proletariat comes forward as an independent force the bourgeoisie shifts over to the camp of the counterrevolution. The more audacious is the mass struggle all the swifter is the reactionary degeneration of liberalism. No one has yet invented a means for paralyzing the effects of the law of the class struggle.(45)
That is, when the proletariat not only grows in weight but also goes into social motion – when it becomes an “independent force” – then all property is threatened, not just pre-bourgeois property. No wonder the bourgeoisie runs from revolution.
The masses can rise to an insurrection only under the banner of their own interests and consequently in the spirit of irreconcilable hostility toward the exploiting classes beginning with the landlords. The ‘repulsion’ of the oppositional bourgeoisie away from the revolutionary workers and peasants was therefore the immanent law of the revolution itself ...
This was the basis of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Because capitalism had become reactionary, socialist revolution was needed to achieve even the democratic tasks still unfulfilled. The peasantry too would rebel against the exploiting classes but it was incapable of wielding power independently. Still, because of its immense numbers in Russia, it would be the decisive force in deciding the outcome of the revolution, depending on which urban class it supported. The proletariat had no alternative but to carry out the democratic tasks of the revolution under its own banner with the peasantry’s support.
Further, under conditions of Russian backwardness, the workers’ state would have to spread the revolution across the continent to the more advanced countries. Russia badly lacked the material productivity and abundance necessary for communism. Together with the capitalist threads tying Russia to the world economy, this fact meant that socialism could be achieved there only through an international proletarian revolution. The traditional Marxist understanding that the proletarian revolution had to be internationalist was for Russia reinforced by glaring necessity.
The workers and peasant-soldiers overthrew the Czar in February 1917. Under the leadership of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs), they handed power to the bourgeoisie. But they also maintained a volatile “dual power” by setting up soviets: mass-based democratic councils representing workers, soldiers and peasants which held an effective veto power over all government acts. In the countryside, where poverty and the war had devastated the peasantry, the bourgeoisie’s betrayal of democratic aspirations won the vast sea of landless peasants to the program of extending the revolution under proletarian leadership.
The contradiction in Bolshevik theory had come to a head. World War I and his understanding of imperialism compelled Lenin to change his strategy. He recognized that Russia, even under a “democratic” capitalist government led by the proletariat, would inevitably remain subordinated to the Western powers. But he had to fight against the entire social-democratic tradition and even the leaders of his own party to convince the Bolsheviks to renounce support for the class-collaborationist Provisional Government (which included bourgeois, Menshevik and SR ministers) and stand for a socialist, not just radical democratic, revolution:
The person who now speaks only of a ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ is behind the times, consequently he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques.(46)
Led by the Bolsheviks, the workers seized state power in October. The central soviet immediately supported seizure of the land by the peasantry; likewise, it granted self-determination to the national minorities in the Czarist “prisonhouse of nations.” Backward Russia, Lenin’s “weakest link in the imperialist chain,” had opened the road to socialism. Lenin later summarized the revolution’s accomplishments, acknowledging in effect that the Bolshevik strategy during 1917 had shifted to permanent revolution.
Beginning with April 1917, however, long before the October Revolution, that is, long before we assumed power, we publicly declared and explained to the people: the revolution cannot now stop at this stage, for the country has marched forward, capitalism has advanced, ruin has reached fantastic dimensions, which (whether one likes it or not) will demand steps forward, to socialism. For there is no other way of advancing, of saving the war-weary country and of alleviating the sufferings of the working and exploited people.
Things have turned out just as we said they would. The course taken by the revolution has confirmed the correctness of our reasoning. First, with the ‘whole’ of the peasants against the monarchy, against the landowners, against medievalism (and to that extent the revolution remains bourgeois, bourgeois-democratic). Then, with the poor peasants, with the semi-proletarians, with all the exploited, against capitalism, including the rural rich, the kulaks, the profiteers, and to that extent the revolution becomes a socialist one.(47)
Permanent revolution depended on the fact that capitalism had turned reactionary. This tied it intimately to Lenin’s theory of imperialism. It was no accident that, under the impact of revolutionary events, Lenin saw through the errors of his theory of a “democratic dictatorship” that would uphold capitalist relations.
Capitalism, once the chief force in breaking down feudal obstacles and advancing both the productive forces and democratic rights, was now the chief barrier to their extension. The property forms bequeathed by feudal and despotic societies could survive, but their content would become capitalist. The Russian revolution proved in practice that capitalism could no longer be progressive, even in a vast country which, despite its backwardness, was the world’s fifth industrial power.
For all its profound implications, permanent revolution was originally regarded by Trotsky as specific to Russian conditions. Generalizing it required further revolutionary proletarian upsurges, especially the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. It was extended not just to other economically backward countries but to all: permanent revolution became the proletarian strategy for the imperialist epoch. (We spell this out in detail in Chapters 6 and 8.)
The power of the combined theories of permanent revolution and the imperialist epoch was illustrated by Trotsky’s application of them from a negative angle in 1928: what would happen if the proletarian revolution was not forthcoming?
The explosive character of this new epoch, with its abrupt changes of the political flows and ebbs, with its constant spasmodic class struggle between fascism and communism, is lodged in the fact that the international capitalist system has already spent itself and is no longer capable of progress as a whole. This does not mean to imply that individual branches of industry and individual countries are incapable of growing and will not grow any more, and even at an unprecedented tempo. Nevertheless, this development proceeds and will have to proceed to the detriment of the growth of other branches of industry and of other countries. The expenditures incurred by the productive system of world capitalism devour its world income to an ever increasing degree. And inasmuch as Europe, accustomed to world domination, with the inertia acquired from its rapid, almost uninterrupted growth in the pre-war period, now collides more sharply than the other continents with the new relation of forces, the new division of the world market, and the contradictions deepened by the war, it is precisely in Europe that the transition from the ‘organic’ epoch to the revolutionary epoch was particularly precipitous.
Theoretically, to be sure, even a new chapter of a general capitalist progress in the most powerful, ruling, and leading countries is not excluded. But for this, capitalism would first have to overcome barriers of a class as well as of an interstate character. It would have to strangle the proletarian revolution for a long time; it would have to enslave China completely, overthrow the Soviet republic, and so forth. We are still a long way removed from all this.(48)
This was a far-sighted prognosis, made when such events were only theoretical possibilities. But the isolation of revolutionary proletarian Russia, the continued treachery of the social democrats and the bureaucratization of the Soviet state paved the way for all Trotsky warned of: the strangulation of workers’ revolutions, the subordination of China to imperialism, the triumphs of fascism and, crucially, the “overthrow [of] the Soviet republic,” namely the destruction of the workers’ state from within. Capitalism, incapable of flourishing in the face of a mobilized working class, did succeed in renewing itself on the basis of a series of working-class defeats. Events of recent decades have also negatively confirmed the permanent revolution strategy: non-proletarian revolutions (in China, East Europe, Africa, etc.) were not able to break from the imperial stranglehold or establish the basic bourgeois-democratic rights.
The link between the epoch of imperialism and the strategy of permanent revolution has been challenged on two sides. One starts from the social-democratic theory of the continued progressiveness of capitalism:
It is paradoxical and ironic that Trotsky has accepted Lenin’s analysis of imperialism based on monopoly capitalism and then gone on to proclaim the revolutionary epoch based on the irreversible downward slide of capitalist development. For the ascension of monopoly capitalism had removed the inevitability of any underlying downward slide, and it had enlarged the possibility of effective government intervention to stimulate capitalist expansion.(49)
This assessment could have been written only under the impact of the post-World War II boom and, moreover, from within one of the prosperous imperialist powers. It is Bernsteinism brought up to date and thereby made all the more absurd: Bernstein at least didn’t have to account for fascism, world wars and the misery of hundreds of millions in the underdeveloped world in insisting on the bourgeois state’s capacity to overcome capitalism’s inequities. The social democrats’ inability to perceive the economy’s downward slide even in 1975 reflects their abandonment of Marxism and their role as apologists for bourgeois interests.
The other challenge to permanent revolution comes from “third-worldist” analysis, which recognizes more of the reality of the modern world but is little better from the point of view of political strategy than the social-democrats. For example:
Trotsky’s theory of the ‘permanent revolution’ ... involves an analysis in terms of unequal development; but this theory is not linked directly to the problem of imperialism and the role of the periphery in the socialist revolution, because Trotsky remains ‘economistic’ and retains a ‘West-centered’ outlook, underestimating the importance of the peasant and colonial question.(50)
Trotsky is labeled economistic and West-centered because he holds, along with Marx and Lenin, that proletarian revolution in the advanced countries is necessary to provide the material base for the achievement of authentic socialism. Therefore he is blamed for making the role of the “third world” less central; likewise for his insistence that imperialism means the epoch of capitalist decay and not just the domination by the advanced powers over the rest of the world. Of course, Trotsky’s own leading role in the Russian revolution, as well as the theory he developed, belie the contention that he underestimated the importance of socialist revolution in backward countries. Those who argue in this way are burying the class question; they reject proletarian revolution in the oppressed countries in favor of bourgeois national revolutions.
The Mensheviks of 1917 and the third-world Stalinists of today represent the same political current: both stress a bourgeois-democratic “stage” instead of proletarian socialism. These anti-working class revolutionists also have much in common with the seemingly opposite program of imperialist social democracy. All agree that the proletariat has no justification for its own revolution and should instead support the nationalist revolution or reforms of the petty bourgeoisie.
In spite of his “democratic dictatorship” theory, Lenin fought for the independent organization of the workers from even the anti-Czarist bourgeoisie. He steadily attacked the Mensheviks for tailing bourgeois representatives. He denounced the SRs for trying to build a multi-class party of workers and petty-bourgeois peasants. But his own understanding of the party of the proletariat had to develop and change before it became the instrument of socialist revolution.
The proletarian revolution was possible in backward Russia because uneven and combined capitalist development had created a centralized proletariat with a high level of organization and political consciousness. But it was not a united class. Just as equality among capitalists is violated in the epoch of decay, so too capitalism creates inequality among the workers. Revolutionary consciousness could not develop in unitary fashion through the traditional social-democratic party of the whole class that tried to represent both the aristocratic layer as well as the mass of super-exploited workers.
The long struggle between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks for leadership of the Russian working class was a conflict between distinct layers of the proletariat. The reformists accepted the class struggle within the confines of the law of value, in order to bargain over the sale of labor power in the interest of the highest-paid layers of workers. The Bolshevik party, in contrast, was formed in conscious opposition to capitalism and was dedicated to fulfilling the needs of the class as a whole, especially the most oppressed workers with no stake in the system.
But even though the revolutionary party represents the real interests of the entire working class, it cannot contain all workers. Workers’ consciousness develops at different rates, especially in this epoch when capitalism is compelled to deepen old and create new divisions among them. Spontaneity, the reliance on militancy without conscious leadership, is no answer. If those with socialist consciousness do not intervene to lead the backward layers who are under the ideological domination of the bourgeoisie (through the intermediary of the petty-bourgeois bureaucracy), the class as a whole will never reach revolutionary consciousness.
Lenin taught for years that bourgeois rule, no matter how decadent it became, would not rot to death of its own accord: a disciplined fight was necessary to destroy it. The vanguard of the proletariat not only had to increase their fellow workers’ social understanding; they also had to be independently and tightly organized in order to have a significant material impact. The revolutionary party embodying advanced consciousness and democratic centralist discipline was therefore a necessity. This is another critical issue on which Lenin opposed Luxemburg; despite her early insight into the reformism of the SPD, Luxemburg only began the construction of a revolutionary cadre party after the German revolution had begun.
Democratic centralism, of course, has nothing in common with the travesty understood by both Stalinist proponents and bourgeois critics. It does not mean top-down dictatorship but rather systematic and scientific functioning. Opposing points of view within the party are debated – that is democracy; the majority view becomes the party line, and all members work to carry it out – that is centralism. The positions decided on are thereby tested in practice by the party as a whole. Whether or not they prove successful, they continue to be discussed within the party, and if necessary can be changed by the same process. Indeed, the Bolshevik party until its bureaucratic degeneration had room for wide-ranging and vociferous debates, even in the midst of revolutions and civil war. In contrast, the indecisive debates within the social-democratic parties make them little but talk-shops, where actual decisions are made by a handful of officials behind the backs of the members and the working class.
The creation of soviets by the Russian workers during the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 was the great test of the revolutionary party. The soviets were theaters of interaction between the different layers of workers. The great majority of the workers participated in them and in other class institutions: militias, factory committees, trade unions, etc. Even though all workers were not fully conscious of it, the soviets represented a direct challenge to the bourgeoisie’s right to hold state power. In themselves they were instruments of dual power but not necessarily of revolution; what made them revolutionary in 1917 was the victory of the most advanced and far-seeing workers, the Bolsheviks, in their struggle for leadership. Without that the soviets would eventually have succumbed to the retreats and betrayals of the Provisional Government and the reformist parties.
It is important to dispel one of the standard myths about Leninism: that the proletarian party depends fundamentally on the efforts of non-proletarian revolutionaries. This myth is based on a kernel of truth: in 1902 Lenin criticized those who “imagine that the labor movement pure and simple can elaborate, and will elaborate, an independent ideology for itself, if only the workers ‘wrest their fate from the hands of the leaders’.” He went on to make the point explicit by citing the “profoundly true and important” words of Karl Kautsky:
Socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each arises under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither one nor the other ...; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously.(51)
Further, Lenin commented, if the intelligentsia does not introduce socialist ideas into the proletariat, the workers will be left with only trade union consciousness: “The spontaneous working-class movement is trade unionism, is Nur-Gewerkschaftlerei, and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.”(52)
That is, the choice is between the workers’ trade unionism and the intellectuals’ socialism – or between reformism and revolution. Lenin was never one for moderating his words to conceal his views, and that is what he wrote. It is not so well known that he changed his mind. Even among Trotskyists, Lenin’s judgment of the inherently reformist nature of spontaneous proletarian consciousness is often taken for orthodoxy. So it is worth citing Trotsky to demonstrate that Lenin reversed his opinion.
According to Lenin’s representations, the labor movement, when left to its own devices, was inclined irrevocably toward opportunism; revolutionary class-consciousness was brought to the proletariat from outside, by Marxist intellectuals. ... [He] himself subsequently acknowledged the biased nature, and therewith the erroneousness, of his theory, which he had parenthetically injected as a battery in the battle against ‘Economism’ and its deference to the elemental nature of the labor movement.(53)
Another remark along the same lines was made almost in passing, as if all understood it: “Lenin, at times, erred not only in minor but in major issues. But he corrected himself in good time... . Plekhanov was right in his criticism of Lenin’s theory of the development of socialism ‘from the outside’.”(54)
Trotsky’s opinion on the question is clear. There are also several statements by Lenin that show the accuracy of Trotsky’s conclusion. One is in a summary article about the 1905 revolution:
At every step the workers come face to face with their main enemy – the capitalist class. In combat with this enemy the worker becomes a socialist, comes to realize the necessity of a complete reconstruction of the whole of society, the complete abolition of all poverty and all oppression.(55)
An earlier reference came during the 1905 upsurge itself:
The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness.(56)
These passages reflect the new understanding that Lenin gained as a result of the workers’ actions in 1905. The fact that the workers’ revolution taught this lesson itself is a dialectical proof that socialist consciousness develops not outside the proletariat but through its own motion. Lenin operated on the new understanding for the rest of his life and expanded on it when he came to analyze the transformation of capitalism into imperialism. Reformism may indeed be an outlook within the working class at any time, even the predominant one. But this is a conjunctural matter; it does not represent the historic, lawful outlook of the proletariat as it comes face to face with the drive for surplus value of its capitalist enemy.
On the other hand, the petty bourgeoisie does have material interests deeply rooted in bourgeois society. Its inevitable perspective is to reform the system’s inequities and work for class peace through class collaboration. These are utopian hopes, given the system’s compulsions, and the petty bourgeoisie is fated to be increasingly subject to the big bourgeoisie as capital centralizes. Nevertheless, given the decay of capitalism, battered petty-bourgeois masses can be won to proletarian leadership. But in the imperialist epoch petty bourgeois leaders come to play an increasingly influential role in the mass organizations of workers. As Luxemburg noted against Bernstein:
Luxemburg’s insight is profound. For decades since, the class character of the parties that the mass of workers adhere to has been the decisive question in every revolution. On this question she was years ahead of Lenin, who only fully understood the role of the petty-bourgeois bureaucracies within the working-class parties and unions much later, when they betrayed proletarian internationalism at the start of World War I. It was this shock that inspired his renewed study of capitalist change and thereby his theory of imperialism.
Latter-day Leninists’ misrepresentations of Lenin are of two kinds. For one, Cliff in his biography quotes both of the passages by Lenin cited above. But he cuts the second one off so that it says, “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic.”(58) Thus he dishonestly turns the leader and patient teacher of the proletariat into a spontaneist.
Cliff has a vested interest in claiming that the working class is inherently socialist and not reformist – not because of any faith in the class’s capacity to reach revolutionary consciousness, but for the opposite reason. His own strategy is to tailor his program for workers to the reform demands they spontaneously raise. The idea is that trade union militancy, even though intertwined with anti-revolutionary political views, will lead to socialism if carried out consistently. Such a method is a cover for tailing working-class backwardness.
The Cliff tendency advocates a revolutionary party with centrist inconsistency. The programmatic conclusion of a key work on Stalinism does not mention the revolutionary party at all.(59) Cliff’s book on Russia brings it up as an afterthought without elaboration, literally the very last words of the last chapter. For years the tendency’s founders based themselves on a quasi-spontaneist theory of organization; their taste shifted to “Leninism” with the political winds in the 1960’s.(60) The consistent thread is their notion of the party as an organizational network which could link up with militant class struggles and gain their support. When student and youth activities predominated, the notion was spontaneist; when workers’ struggles heated up, a “Bolshevik” network came to the fore. Throughout, an organization that embodies a political program and fights for that program against all tendencies in the workers’ movement – Lenin’s theory and practice – has been absolutely foreign to them.
On the other hand, more “orthodox” Trotskyists rely on Lenin’s 1902 position to justify their belief that the workers cannot be trusted without intervention from outside the class. Thus the British group Workers Power asserts that “new leaders, often of a militant left reformist variety,” as well as “the entrenched, conservative bureaucracy,” both “reflect the consciousness of the workers who elect them. As such they represent, and become the means of maintaining, the reformist limitations of the consciousness of these workers.”(61) In plain words, the benighted workers get the leaders they deserve.
Typically, the most extreme presentation of this position comes from the Spartacist tendency, self-identified as an alien class element: “Socialist consciousness is based on knowledge of the history of the class struggle and, therefore, requires the infusion into the class-struggle process of socialist conceptions carried by declassed intellectuals organized as part of the vanguard party. Socialist revolution does not occur through the intensification of traditional class struggle, but requires a leap from a vantage point outside bourgeois society altogether.”(62)
Nothing in Lenin can justify the incredible claim that socialist consciousness arrives on the historical stage as a deus ex machina from outside bourgeois society. This is only the petty-bourgeois conceit that its own altruistic concerns float far above the earthly appetites and selfish interests of all classes under capitalism, the workers included. The material aspirations of the working class for a decent life are equated with the very real greed of the bourgeoisie for surplus value. It was no leap at all for such an outfit to delight in the suppression of millions of Polish workers by the Jaruzelski regime in 1981, on the grounds that they were “demanding the biggest free lunch the world has ever seen.”(63)
It is significant that none of the orthodox Trotskyists ever try to come to grips with their rejection of the considered opinions of both Lenin and Trotsky. We don’t say they must automatically agree, of course, but they are obliged to explain why they disagree and where the Marxist tradition went wrong. The essential reason for their failure is that the question at issue is one of class, a matter on which they are understandably very sensitive about making their disagreement public.
The anti-working class conceptions of the middle-class Marxists are sometimes explicit, often hidden. But all implicitly accept the common-sense belief that the proletariat is inherently reformist. And all consequently envisage a gulf between their revolutionary selves and the working class. Lenin, on the contrary, learned that the leadership that the revolutionary party fights for is a relation within the working class, not between intellectuals and proletarians. Himself a man of middle-class origins who joined his life to the proletariat, he changed his view on spontaneity through the lessons taught by the revolutionary proletariat itself.
Lenin and Trotsky did recognize that the proletariat could make use of the knowledge and abilities of middle-class intellectuals. But as Trotsky pointed out, without Marx and Lenin “the working class would have worked out the ideas it needed, the methods that were necessary to it, but more slowly.”(64) The question for us today is not simply whether the working class movement needs intellectuals in its ranks who are ready to fight the capitalism that trained them as its servants; that remains true. We also have to deal with the problem of a greatly expanded middle-class layer that chooses to betray not capital but the proletarian revolution – in its own interests but in the name of Marxism.
As we have seen, the “new middle class” intelligentsia arose out of the needs of state monopoly capitalism. It plays important roles in society, extending from the white-collar working class to the labor bureaucrats, academics, literati, low-level managers and technicians – the trouble-shooters, mediators and ideological mythmakers. The expanding state is a major source of employment, but this is not the sole reason for intellectuals’ infatuation with state power. The intelligentsia is weak and unorganized within capitalism, with no independent role in the process of production. Threatened by giant monopolies on the one hand and by the vast, dissatisfied working class on the other, middle-class elements look to the state as an institution above society that under their guidance can act rationally for the general good.
The desire for rationality in a world spinning out of control is central. Rational allocation of resources is superior to cutthroat competition, so middle-class ideology mirrors the state and the monopolies’ attempts to eliminate anarchy (despite their “free market” propaganda). Because the intellectual often opposes the competitiveness and narrow self-interest of the old petty bourgeoisie, he sees himself as altruistic, the good citizen independent of narrow special interests. He does not understand that he is acting in his own social interest derived from his role in capitalism, or that his image of a competition-free rational society is false consciousness, precisely the ideology needed to defend state monopoly capitalism and especially its statified sectors.
Having no alternative, the intelligentsia’s only road to power is to attach itself either to the bourgeoisie, as do liberal intellectuals – or to the proletariat, in the case of radicalized elements. Hence the popularity of reformism, mixed-economy socialism, Stalinism (until recently) and a dozen other petty-bourgeois “socialisms” which strive to harness the class struggle against capitalism. These ideologies have nothing to do with the interest of the working class, which is to overcome all the workings of capitalism, including the laws deemed rational by the intelligentsia. Anything else serves to prolong the agonies of a system in senile decay.