The History of the Class Struggle, 1914-2014 by Phil Sharpe

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The History of the Class Struggle, 1914-2014 by Phil Sharpe


The age of innocence of the Second International ended in 1914. Until the beginning of the First World War the parties claiming to be socialist had been able to reconcile the struggle for reforms with the longer term objective of socialism. However the collective response to the development of world war was that the interests of nation could supersede the standpoint of international class solidarity. This stance was not entirely surprising because it was connected to the failure to develop an imaginative strategy for opposing the development of world war. The Second International substituted denunciations of the forthcoming war in Europe instead of the importance of concentrating on how they would actually undermine the development of global conflict. In this situation the working class in Europe believed it had no option than to support the claims of national defence. Most of the parties of the Second International led the working class into the carnage of modern warfare. This situation meant the parties of the Second International were committed to defence of the existing nation state as an important aim and if necessary the competing claims of socialism would be sacrificed in order to uphold the national interest. These parties could no longer be reliable agencies of the interests of socialism.(1) This situation also meant that an antagonistic contradiction would develop between these national opportunist parties and the aspirations of an increasing radicalised working class. The growing opposition of the international working class to the world war meant that these traditional parties no longer adequately expressed the discontent of the working class in relation to the demands of war and the erosion of material standards of living.

But one party did emerge that was able to articulate and support the opposition to world war. This was the Bolshevik faction led by Lenin in Russia. It was for the most extreme opposition to war and developed an effective strategy for the working class to realise political power in the period of the revolutionary upheaval of 1917. The strategy was represented by the slogan: “All Power to the Soviets”, which upheld the view that with revolutionary leadership the Soviets, as democratic organs of the popular will, would be able to replace the fragile domination of the bourgeois Provisional government. The October revolution of 1917 was an authentic proletarian revolution because the aims of the revolutionary party and the working class were similar and based on the view that the overthrow of the Provisional government would satisfy the aspirations for peace, bread and the improvement of the situation of workers and peasants.(2) However the important role of the Soviets as the democratic administration of society was never effectively realised and the organisation of the state was based on the domination of the monolithic party. Furthermore, the process of nationalisation of the economy was not accompanied by the consolidation of workers control of production and the significance of the factory committees was also based on the importance of the party. In other words at the level of politics and economics the state and society that was established was never a genuine workers state and instead was effectively deformed by these bureaucratic distortions. The ideology of the leadership of the Party was based on these developments and the conception of socialism that was defended in the ‘ABC of Communism’ was statist and based on rigid centralisation of the economy. But these distortions did not mean the party was unable to represent the interests of the working class. The question of the development of international revolution was crucial if these contradictions could be resolved and an authentic socialist society created.

The unrest of the international working class in the period 1918-1920 indicated the possibilities for the overthrow of capitalism in Europe. In Germany the working class was often in open rebellion against the leadership of the Social Democrats, and the result was the formation of the Independent Social Democratic organisation. The Russian Communist Party acted to establish the Communist International in 1919 but its rigid organisational centralisation meant it alienated the prospect of support from radicalised Social Democracy in Germany and Italy. The inauguration of rigid principles for membership of the Comintern meant that the left-wing of Social Democracy tended to reject a form of unification that would mean the surrender of any semblance of independence, and as a result the Communist International because an organisation that upheld the supremacy of the Soviet party. The Rapallo Treaty between the Soviet state and Germany in the early 1920’s indicated the beginning of a contradiction between the diplomatic interests of the isolated Soviet state and the aim of world revolution. However the major problem in this period was that the Soviet state misjudged the possibilities for revolution in Germany and so ignored the unrest created by the French occupation of the Ruhr. Consequently the Communist International promoted revolution in periods of the ebb of the class struggle. These developments indicated that contradictions could develop between the perspectives of the party and the process of radicalisation of the working class. The result was the debacle of the attempt at a party led revolution in Germany in 1923. The Fifth Congress of the Comintern argued that the international working class had not been defeated despite the empirical fact of the stabilisation of capitalism based on American domination of Europe and the consolidation of the influence of Social Democracy. Hence the Comintern promoted revolutionary adventurism and ignored the importance of the united front with left-wing forces within Social Democracy.

The British general strike indicated the uneven character of the relative stabilisation of capitalism. Immense popularity of the general strike in favour of the miners indicated the possibility to transform the general strike into a conscious struggle for the overthrow of the British state. But the trade union bureaucracy, including its left-wing elements, preferred capitulation to the government as the only alternative to the development of struggle which would transcend constitutional limitations. Social Democracy and the trade union leaders indicated that they would uphold the so-called national interest against the prospect of the intensification of class struggle and the development of revolutionary change. The result of this opportunism was a massive defeat for the miners and the British working class, but despite the criticism of the Communist International and the Soviet state the Soviet trade unions did not split from the Anglo-Russian trade union Committee. This development was one of the most important examples that the Soviet party leadership preferred the role of diplomacy in contrast to the promotion of the requirements of the international class struggle. The Soviet party argued that the necessity of links with the British trade unions was important in order to oppose the prospects of imperialist war against the Soviet Union and so the continuation of the Anglo Russian trade union committee took precedence over the prospect of a split with the traitors who ended the 1926 general strike. This standpoint also indicated that the perspective of socialism in one country of the newly dominant leadership of Stalin was effectively undermining principled support for the international class struggle. The tragic events in China caused by the opportunist support of the Soviet party for the Kuomintang was another important example of this reactionary perspective.

However Trotsky did not have a principled political alternative to the increasing opportunist limitations of the Soviet Communist party and Comintern despite his powerful criticisms.(3) For example when the Comintern Congress at the Sixth Congress of 1928 adopted a new programme he was unable to advocate a programmatic alternative. This meant he was unable to construct an alternative conception of what is meant by socialism within the USSR, and he failed to conceive a strategic alternative to the opportunist view that the USSR was the base of world revolution. Instead he seemed to imply that under his leadership the opportunist limitations of the Soviet state would be resolved. This idealist standpoint ignored the fact that the primary political problem was the isolation of the Soviet Union and its domination by the imperatives of the world economy. This meant that distortions occurred at the level of policy because of the effective elaboration of the Soviet national interest as the dominant basis of the views of the Communist International. In the short-term Bordiga was right to suggest that this problem could be tackled by the generation of the accountability of the Soviet party to the Communist International. However, this solution was complicated by the fact that Bolshevisation of the parties of the Comintern meant that these parties were increasingly led by puppets of the Soviet Union and not by independent thinkers. Hence what would really generate the prospect of the transformation of this tendency towards the justification of Soviet diplomacy would be reconciliation with the forces of the left-wing Social Democrats and the Council Communists. The creation of effective political unity with these forces would generate the possibility for the creation of a genuine Third International that was not subservient to the Soviet state. This would also mean that the voice in favour of popular democracy and workers control would become more influential. The distorted and elitist Soviet view of socialism would be challenged.

Instead of these constructive developments Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union and the Communist International adopted the crude economic catastrophist view that the advent of crisis in 1929 meant the period of relative stabilisation of capitalism was ending and would be replaced by revolutionary situations. Increasingly this meant that attempts to realise reconciliation with even left-wing forms of Social Democracy was rejected. But the Soviet Party and Comintern did not seem to accept that crisis would radicalise sections of Social Democracy who would reject accommodation with capital and instead this trend was criticised in crude terms as expressing Social Fascism. However this verbal radicalism did not result in the promotion of active forms of the class struggle, and instead radicalism at the level of propaganda was combined with passivity in terms of the strategy and tactics of the class struggle.(4) The working class in Germany and elsewhere was not encouraged to engage in militant actions that would facilitate the prospect of revolution. Instead the result was a strategic impasse that encouraged the working class to wait until a favourable situation emerged with revolutionary possibilities. The result of this strategic passivity was rejection of support for united front action with Social Democracy against Fascism. Hence the very conception of defensive struggle against fascism was castigated as being modest and not compatible with the radical implications of economic crisis, and this attitude encouraged the most complacent perspective about the prospect of the Nazi ascent to power. The result was the ascendency of Fascism to power without resistance. Also Social Democracy did not oppose the Fascist domination of the German Reichstag because it did not support extra-constitutional action and instead preferred to accommodate to the new situation. In contrast the German Communist party engaged in radical boasting about the revolutionary overthrow of the Nazi state. It is important to recognise that neither the forces of Social Democracy or the German Communists actually listened to their working class supporters who were willing to engage in militant actions against the Nazi’s. The failings of the so-called parties of the working class had led to the triumph of German fascism.

The situation was dire. As a result of opportunism and dogma both the Second International and the Third International was unable to advocate a strategy for resistance to the ascendency of the Nazi’s in Germany. Many Marxists, like the supporters of the Frankfurt School, concluded that this meant the demise of the validity of the view that the working class had a revolutionary role in history. This standpoint is completely dogmatic because what had actually been empirically expressed were the limitations of the political representatives of the Second International and Third International. If the working class was to be able to articulate and express its interests in effective struggle against Fascism and in favour of socialism it would have to reject the organisational and political limitations of the parties that claimed to act in its interest. This is what started to happen. The working class of Vienna spontaneously generated an insurrection against the effective expression of Fascism in Austria. Despite the vacillations of the Social Democratic organisation, the military wing of this party acted on its own initiative in order to promote a military rising against Fascism. Despite defeat this uprising inspired the workers of Europe to support a more militant stance in response to the counterrevolutionary threat of Fascism. In France the threat of a Fascist coup, a result of a militant right-wing demonstration, led to the working class engaging in spontaneous action. Enormous mass pressure led to the formation of a united front of the Socialist and Communist Parties. However the Soviet Union acted to transform the momentum towards the development of anti-Fascist activity within the international working class into becoming an expression of its diplomatic objectives. Stalin wanted to construct a broad political alliance against the threats from the Fascist states, and in this context the Franco-Soviet pact was signed in 1935. The spontaneous working class strategy of uniting the struggle against Fascism with the struggle for socialism was undermined by this diplomatic attempt to realise a broad alliance between democratic imperialism and the USSR.

The Popular Front strategy adopted by the Comintern at its seventh Congress in 1935 meant the defence of the bourgeois nation state became an official part of the policy of the international Communist movement. The question of struggle for socialism was subordinated to the task of the immediate defeat of Fascism. This was a response to the militant united front approach of the radicalised working class that recognised the issue of defensive tasks was connected to the prospect of the overthrow of capitalism. The authority of the Comintern was utilised in order to reject this spontaneous perspective and instead the justification of political reconciliation with Social Democracy was upheld in 1935. The only difference between Social Democracy and Stalinism was about the legitimacy of the Russian revolution and the construction of the Soviet state without organs of genuine democracy. In other words both Social Democracy and Stalinism became officially against any working class activity that could pose the possibility of the overthrow of capitalism. This meant on the one hand Social Democracy supported the role of bourgeois democracy against the prospect of the extra-Parliamentary actions of workers, whilst Stalinism implied that the interests of the Soviet Union meant proletarian revolution was no longer an immediate perspective. Consequently in the mid 1930’s only the spontaneous actions of the working class upheld the historic interests of this class in terms of the motivation to relate the defence of democracy to the struggle for socialism.

The events in Spain in 1936 represented the effective articulation of the aspirations of the spontaneous working class. Despite the limitations of Socialists, Stalinists, and Anarchists the working class and peasants responded to the threat of Fascism by the organisation of action that led to the occupation of factories and agricultural land. The various democratic political parties acted to undermine the significance of this mass activity and promoted the view that the opposition to Fascism should not be on the basis of the development of social revolution. The Communist Party was the most energetic supporters of this view and they suppressed any mass expression of the aspiration for proletarian revolution. In other words the strategy of party revolution, in terms of the domination of the state by a single party, became consciously opposed to the spontaneous and diverse alternative of democratic proletarian revolution. The prospect of proletarian revolution in Spain would have required the effective unity of the POUM, Anarchists and Socialists, in conjunction with the importance of mass pressure, and this united alliance would have been able to defeat the counterrevolutionary actions of the Stalinists and the threat of the Fascists. The necessity of effective military organisation would not have been in contradiction with the aspirations for the revolutionary transformation of society.

The formation of the Popular Front government in France led to an upsurge in militant activity of the working class in the form of the occupation of the factories. However the Communist Party did not advocate the development of this activity in the form of the connection between the occupations and workers control of the factories. Instead it proposed wage increases and a shorter working week in order to end the mass struggle. The Communist party was acting in a reformist manner and so was hostile to the revolutionary implications of any mass struggle. In other words the events of the 1930’s indicated that the so-called parties of the working class were opposed to any mass action that expressed the possibility for advance towards the realisation of proletarian revolution. In a situation in which the working class was radicalised by the crisis and the importance of the struggle against Fascism it seemed that the prospect was favourable to the creation of a new political force that would be able to articulate the militancy of the working class. The political ferment of the 1930’s was expressed by the development of the Trotskyist International Left Opposition and the emergence of organisations influenced by Brandler, Bukharin and Lovestone, and the various Council Communist currents. Furthermore, the forces of radicalised left-wing Social Democracy like the Independent Labour Party were also receptive to the possibility of the formation of a new international. Unfortunately the various attempts to bring about unity failed and instead the forces of the potential revolutionary opposition to Stalinism and Social Democracy was fragmented and remained isolated from the international working class. This meant the radicalised actions of the working class occurred without any relation to the role of the revolutionary party, except for the importance of the POUM in Spain.

The Transitional Programme of what became the Fourth International led by Trotsky was based on the assimilation of some of the most important lessons of the class struggle occurring in the period 1917-1938.(5) It recognised that the economic and political situation was favourable for the militant actions of the working class to acquire revolutionary dimensions if the mass struggle became influenced by the role of the revolutionary party. In this context the programme outlined a collection of transitional demands that would connect the aims of immediate struggle with the objective of the revolutionary transformation of society. The importance of occupations, workers control of production and factory committees, was outlined in this manner. However the programme was deficient in the sense that it neglected detailed discussion of the most important defensive tasks of the present which was the significance of the struggle against Fascism. This neglect was connected to the lack of analysis of the role of the united front and the glossing over of the importance of winning the workers who supported Stalinism and Social Democracy to the banner of the Fourth International. Instead what was being outlined was a schema about the character of the revolutionary process which was conceived in terms of developing increasing support for transitional demands. Issues such as the defence of democracy against Fascism and detailed discussion of the attitude that revolutionaries should take in relation to the forthcoming world war was effectively glossed over. Instead the situation was presented as a possible repetition of developments that had occurred between 1914-17, and the actual crucial task of defeating fascism in war was reduced to an aspect of revolutionary defeatism. Instead of this theoretical complacency it was necessary to outline how the forthcoming war would be different to the last world war in terms of the necessity to mobilise the international working class against the reactionary threat of Fascism. In this context tactics would have to be modified in order to uphold the political independence of the working class in relation to the reactionary demands of the nation state whilst also defending the interests of democracy against the counterrevolutionary threat of Fascism.

The realisation of the Nazi-Soviet Pact indicated the urgency of the necessity to develop an international strategy of working class opposition to fascism. The capitulation of the Soviet bureaucracy to the economic and military power of the Nazi regime meant the so-called bulwark against fascism had actually accommodated to the interests of Fascism. Furthermore in the period 1939-40 many of the bourgeois regimes in Europe were unable to carry out effective military defence against the expansion of Fascism. The formation of the Vichy regime in France indicated that the only opposition to fascism was with the international working class which would have to utilise its social power in order to undermine the expansion of the counterrevolutionary threat. The task was to develop a strategy of working class resistance to fascism. This meant promoting guerrilla struggles combined with the role of the industrial power of the working class. It also meant the development of a revolutionary struggle in Britain to overthrow the Chamberlin government and replace it with a workers government. In contrast to this possibility the Soviet bureaucracy was adjusting its diplomatic actions to the acceptance of the military power of Fascism. The strict revolutionary defeatism of the Trotskyists meant they could not respond flexibly to rapidly changing events.

The formation of the Churchill government meant the working class should have articulated an independent strategy of how to struggle against fascism that was different to the military objectives of British imperialism. Instead some of the Trotskyists outlined the Proletarian military policy that failed to elaborate in detailed a systematic conception of the tasks of principled anti-fascist struggle. The central task was to combine critical support for the war against fascism with rejection of the ideological influence of bourgeois nationalism. It could have been possible to combine opposition to the ideology of national defence with support for the internationalist ideology of anti-fascism. Furthermore the ultimate objective of the success of anti-fascist strategy would still have been the goal of proletarian revolution. Instead of this credible strategy the Trotskyists defended in an unconvincing manner the approach of revolutionary defeatism. Ultimately they became supporters of the Soviet military campaign whilst having little of significance to suggest in relation to the development of the activity of the international working class.

The failure of the many revolutionary groups to elaborate and articulate a strategy of opposition to fascism meant the major bourgeois democratic power of the USA and UK, and the Soviet Union after 1941, expressed in a reactionary form the standpoint of anti-fascism. In other words the aim of anti-fascism was carried out in terms of the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy and British and American Imperialism. The success of these allied powers ideologically undermined the credibility of proletarian revolution because it seemed that Fascism could be defeated by the actions of existing nation states rather than by the militant role of the working class. The role of the working class seemed to have been reduced to that of supporter of the Allied war effort. However, the actual importance of the international working class was indicated by the fact that the narrow interests of the Three Allied powers could not realise a democratic Europe based on equality and prosperity. Instead the outcome of the role of the Allied powers was the division of Europe and the onset of Cold war. In contrast a credible anti-fascist strategy of the working class could have resulted in a socialist Europe. Consequently, the strategy of anti-fascism did not imply uncritical support of the Allied Powers and instead implied an independent programme that would include demands for the democratisation of the societies waging war with Fascism and liberation of the colonies. This would mean that the very success of a principled programme of anti-Fascism would raise the issue of the generation of socialism as its overall objective. In contrast the programmatic purity of the Trotskyists meant they were unable to effectively intervene in the class struggle, and revolutionary defeatism proved to be an inadequate strategy for promoting the political independence of the working class and it failed to generate the development of class struggle. In contrast the renewed anti-Fascism of the Stalinist forces enabled them to become influential and popular in Yugoslavia, France, Italy and Greece. However they used this popularity, except for Yugoslavia, in order to accommodate to the restoration of bourgeois democracy.

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