Opening of a New Century

Against the Current, No. 41, November/December 1992

Joanna Misnik

THE POLITICAL CENTURY we are passing from opened in the Balkans in 1914, with World War I and with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It is closing, in the 1989-1992 period, with the collapse of the Soviet system (the aftermath of the Russian Revolution), and with a slaughter in the Balkans. It is almost as though the circle of history has come around and closed on us. I think this is interesting to note, because there are some similarities, and some differences, between the situations at the beginning and end of the cycle.

Similarities include the fact that the century opened with capitalism dominant, ascendant and going through a period of profound restructuring, transformation, creation of the industrial proletariat, the factory system and formation of the modern nation state. Today, we are in a situation where capitalism is dominant, is going through a period of profound restructuring and the development of the global workforce and reorganization of its nation-state formations.

We are also faced with a workers’ movement overtaken by events, and needing to be rebuilt and redeveloped in its ideology, organization and consciousness. We have only to look at the Western European Social Democratic and Communist Parties, which are the political and organizational expressions of the mass working-class consciousness of the twentieth century in these countries (however much we disagree with them), to see that they are crumbling–and that these working classes are in retreat, in terms of their ability to see an alternative vision of society and to organize for it.

So in many ways, we open the twenty-first century with some of the same tasks that faced people in the twentieth, with all the obvious differences that I don’t have time to go into. So here we go!

A Long Road to Revolution

We are witnessing a durability of capital that Marx really did not predict. It is a question of pace and I don’t have an answer. The predictions that Marx made about Germany and England, and the capability of the young working class to seize upon the contradictions and overturn the capitalist system with great rapidity as it was in formation, turned out not to be true.

The perspective of Lenin and the Bolsheviks was that they could only survive if the industrial proletariat, particularly in the bastion of Germany, also took power, and that the survival of their revolution was predicated on the spreading of the revolution. Their prediction of European revolution was a pace question that tragically was not realized. I think this accounts for the deformation in the Soviet Union above all else: above the subjective factor of the party, above the will of the Bolsheviks, above the weight of the peasantry; I think the isolation of the Soviet Union is accountable for its degeneration or ultimate destruction.

To a lesser extent the Trotskyist movement, which developed in oppostion to Stalinism, had a pace question as well. That is, the transitional program of Trotsky, and the predictions made and the basis of the formation of the Fourth International, rested on the perspective that after the then-impending Second World War the working masses, particularly in the industrial bastions of Western Europe, would be impelled to rise up, creating new revolutionary openings. That did not happen. Nobody can hindsight these things; the revolutionary moment should always be seized and revolutionary optimism is in fact a material force in our business.

All this is to point out that when people see “nature of the period” on a convention agenda it is not just for economists–it is an attempt to locate the possibilities, the pace and the form in which the class struggle may develop, in order for ourselves to reach strategic conclusions. I have no answer other than to say that questions of the durability and pace of capital and the nature of the period are important challenges.

The Revolutionary Experience

My other point of emphasis is the relative, rather than absolute importance of the model of the Russian Revolution. This also marked the twentieth century. The Russian Revolution became the revolution. That was what revolution was. And it was a revolution–the most magnificent confirmation that a working class and its allies can seize state power and transform society. There is no question that it is the inspiration for us all.

However, because the Russian Revolution suc<->ceeded and was isolated, it became, in the West and in the working-class movement to the left of social democracy, a paradigm in which the situational experience of the Bolsheviks in Russia became known as Revolution. It was a much too narrow model of what revolution would look like, and it became an imperative, a recipe, a prescription for what a revolution was going to look like for all time. Partly, that is because in every revolution we expect to see the working class seizing power in its own name<197>and in Russia that’s what they did. But beyond that, I think we went too far.

Let me just cite some things that need further development and further placing in perspective. These are all questions for us.

New Questions of Transition

One is the question of the transition from capitalism to socialism. You have in the Russian model another pace question, in that the Soviets (shortly after 1917) opted to transform the economy in a very short span of time. In my view they had no choice because they were being bombarded from the capitalist world and were in a defensive posture. There were no deals to be struck with imperialism in terms of some relative relationship to the world market.

So the destruction of the capitalist system, its laws of motion, and the replacement of that system with a planned economy was an extremely rapid process, one which we also somewhat began to see as revolution: You take state power, you seize the basic means of production and you suppress all expression of capitalist laws of motion, practically overnight in historic terms. This became the model and effectively that’s what happened in the countries of the “periphery,” where (post-World War II) revolutions took place.

It was only when Nicaragua occurred that you could break with that paradigm, and see in a new context a revolutionary leadership that attempted to deal with the question of transition in a different way, having to make what we might call “compromises” with the laws of motion of capital and with the capitalist market. That whole question of the transition, which the Nicaraguans opened for us in the latter part of the twentieth century, should remain open.

Problems of the Vanguard

The other legitimately open question in my view is the issue of the vanguard party. The vanguard party question, again, has been strictly limited by the equation of the Russian revolution with all revolution. The identification of the party with the state, and the idea even of the dictatorship of the proletariat as expressed through a single party that is hegemonic in the working class, I think is open to question.

If you identify revolution with democracy, and with the ability of different social layers that don’t have identical political interests to express themselves and to have political power, I think you’re inevitably looking at a multi-party situation that is not to be suppressed. In fact the revolution creates a system that attempts to develop these parties, in order to give social expression to social forces.

In my opinion the state form, the party system, the questions of soviets and their relationship to the state, all these things should be discussed. These are visionary things, we don’t have to walk out of here and deal with them tomorrow.

On the issue of democratic centralism within the party. I’ve written somewhat extensively on this. I will not go into it here except to say there is no model of one mass political party that is supposed to represent the entirety of the vanguard of society, and capable of exercising democratic centralism on a mass scale. I think it is a contradiction in terms socially, and the left has paid a huge price for not recognizing that in our tiny little attempt to build revolutionary organizations. If we are ever successful in becoming a mass organization the idea of democratic centralism will have to be seriously thought through.

Post-Soviet Realities

The other question is the meaning of post-war events, in which revolutions occurred in the so-called “periphery,” where the peasantry and not the growing industrial proletariat was predominant, and not in the center in the “advanced” capitalist countries. In the Fourth International we have a buzz phrase for this. We call it the “long detour”–and long it has been.

I think we have to put this in a relative perspective. The ability of the post-war transformations to follow the Russian paradigm, even when the industrial proletariat was a tiny minority in the society, was much more strictly dependent on the existence of the Soviet Union–as an alternative market, as an alternative economic support for these revolutions that enabled them to counterbalance the capitalist market.

With the demise of the Soviet system, millions of questions arise over revolution in the Third World because immediacy of transformation cannot rely on the USSR. Thus, questions of negotiations, of integration into the bourgeois state and potential social-democratization of revolutionary movements are nearly ineluctable in this period, and we have to recognize that.

So there we are, I think, roughly in a situation like the pre-1917 world, in which social democracy built a workers’ movement and institutions, and divided on questions of reform and revolution. We confront a period
where we too must rebuild the revolutionary movement, rebuild a class-for-itself movement, rebuild something called a working-class movement with a socialist vision. We will develop an understanding as we go of what
that movement looks like, of what its tasks are. And we also must be prepared for a central political struggle within that movement on the question of social democracy versus revolution.

That old lesson of the twentieth century remains central for us. If we are going to define an anti-capitalist, revolutionary current within this new development of a working-class movement, there is a political divide between us and what we would call a social democratic current. We have to be conscious that this division will not take the form it took in 1917. But at the base of the process will be the question of reform versus revolution.

Is capitalism capable of an extension of democracy infinitely into the future, which we know is unreal to the Third World already, such that you can talk about a revolution within capitalism or a progressive revolution where you make alliances with segments of the bourgeoisie? The essence of revolution for us will be to reject that notion and to organize movements which consciously reject that notion even when they are struggling for simple reforms.

That will be the challenge. The movements will be struggling for reforms, they will be struggling to shift the relationship of forces between us and capital. Nonetheless, the consciousness that guides that movement has to be that this is not the entirety of the task at hand, that there has to be a destruction of the capitalist system because ultimately it cannot expand to include our needs and is inherently anti-democratic.

We reject the coupling of capitalism and democracy and the idea of endless progressive reform which will lead to a new society. We say there <MI>is<D> a revolutionary moment, the shape of which is relatively unknown. That is up to the masses.

Who Makes the Revolution?

In rebuilding this working-class movement there is the question of the revolutionary subject, a legitimate debate inside the left that we cannot be paralytic about. The writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and we ourselves, have a tendency to frame this all in economic and power terms, that is, workers at the point of production can seize the factories therefore….” There is that tendency and I think this must be relativized quickly.

There are social and economic tasks of transformation, the consciousness for which will take many forms which do not necessarily have to be stuffed into the workplace. This consciousness will not simply arise in the workplace. And the raw power question, the narrowness of that approach, must be questioned. I noticed here that some comrades use the terms working-class movement and trade union movement identically. That must be changed.

What we validate in Marx are the basic laws of motion in the capitalist system and the basic antagonisms that exist between those who work and those who own. We agree that this contradiction will indeed remain inside the capitalist system, giving rise to massive struggles for power, for the ability to identify and seize your own interests on a social scale. But we know that we are only at the very beginning of rebuilding a movement in this period of capitalism.

I wanted to say also, and in particular for those of us in the Fourth International, the post-war events and reliance on the Soviet system, which partly enabled these revolutions, also made it more facile to fully accept as biblical the theory of the permanent revolution. I think that the theory of uneven and combined development and theory of permanent revolution are valid theories. Valid theories. But the proof that we saw of them in the twentieth century was not a pure proof. It was a proof that rested on the existence of the Soviet system.

We identify the needs for class independence, a class movement–and we identify in the Russian Revolution, despite all the questioning I’m doing, proof in the twentieth century that it is possible.

Obviously the collapse of the Soviet system removes the objective basis for three currents inside the socialist movement. This is global regroupment, if you will: The objective basis for a Stalinist movement as slavishly attached to the Soviet model, slavishly protecting its diplomatic interests in the bouregois centers, is over. This current is at sea attempting to redefine itself, mostly moving to the right.

The objective basis for Trotskyism is similarly eroded, for this specific current developed out of Stalinism, self-defined in revolutionary opposition to it. That does not mean that we do’t want to carry on the continuity of revolutionary socialism, as expressed by Trotskyism.

But we have to begin to see the socialist left as encompassing reformism, i.e. social democracy (the objective basis for which is immense in the coming period), and some sort of revolutionary current, of which we will be a part, if we have the objective conditions with a renewal of mass struggle anywhere in the world with which to do it.

The challenge is ahead and we shall see.

November-December 1992, ATC 41