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China and the Socialist Future

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Yeu Yuen Shoe Strike (Nike Adidas) over unpaid pensions 2014

Class Struggle in China

China’s current role as the world’s leading industrial nation is the result of its unique history as an former empire, a British colony, a ‘socialist’ republic and today, a new imperialist power. It is the most dynamic capitalist society today having emerged out of a centralised bureaucratic state ‘socialism’. This makes China’s role in the world unique but not exceptional. While China is recognised as being a ‘leader’ in growth, in consumption, and in new technology, to keep this leadership it cannot jump over the capitalist laws of history.

China’s slowdown proves that it not immune to these laws. It is not a panacea for global capitalism’s decline. China is now facing its own capitalist crisis of overproduction which it cannot resolve without attacking the 1 billion Chinese workers. And despite its past defeats those workers cannot survive without fighting for a genuine socialist revolution. That is why China, more than any other the country, is where capitalism’s past and future manifests itself as a fundamental clash between the proletariat and the capitalist ruling class.

We can dispense with those pseudo theories that explain China’s rise as something to do with ‘market socialism’. This is a futile attempt to both recognise the truth that the capitalist market exists in China, yet somehow claim it serves the goals of ‘socialism. The reality is that the restoration of the capitalist market could not coexist with ‘socialism’ in its bastardised bureaucratic form of state ownership of property in China. It had to destroy those aspects of Chinese society that owe anything to ‘socialism’. First, it had to defeat the working class as the class that grew up under bureaucratic ‘socialism’. Far from advancing under ‘market socialism’ the workers met with an historic defeat.

The restoration of capitalism was a huge defeat for the millions of workers. Hao Qi says:

“During the country’s transition to capitalism, as the bonus-centered incentive system could not sustain itself, enterprises needed the existence of a reserve army to discipline workers and a segregated labor market to divide and conquer the working class. A continuous influx of migrant workers and the 30 million laid-off workers from the state-owned sector jointly expanded the reserve army of labor within a few years in the 1990s. The reserve army significantly depressed the power of the working class as a whole, and the segregation of the labor market also weakened the solidarity of the working class. This is why we have witnessed the major decline of labor’s share since the early 1990s.”

However according to the same writer the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 reversed that decline:

“There is a new turning point for the Chinese working class. After the outbreak of the global capitalist crisis, labor’s share in China began to recover. Along with this fact, one can also observe that the nominal wage level has grown faster than nominal GDP since 2008, and in 2012 China’s working-age population decreased for the first time in the reform era, which implies that the reserve army of labor will shrink in the near future. More importantly, there is a developing workers’ struggle for a decent living wage that is sufficient to afford the cost of living in the urban areas. The new generation of migrant workers who were mostly born in the 1980s and ‘90s insists on living in the urban areas. This has led to struggles for higher wages. Workers’ struggle for a larger share of the national income will eventually end the high-profit era for capitalists and thus open up a new era for the Chinese economy.” ibid

In sum, this ‘optimistic’ view of the labor movement in China is that it has recovered from its early defeats of the 1990s and has emerged ‘empowered’ and capable of increasing the share of labor. It argues that rising numbers of strikes and successes in improving wages and conditions will lead to higher consumption and overcome China’s economic problems. How realistic is this view?

Critics have argued that the ‘empowerment’ thesis is ‘false optimism’ and not backed by the reality. Strikes have in fact declined since the massive labor militancy in the early days of capitalist restoration in the 1990s. They question the claim that the reserve army of migrant workers flooding to the cities is slowing significantly and reducing downward pressure on wages. The rural reserve army is still 300 million strong. More important is the crisis which forces capital to increase the rate of exploitation of wage labor. There is a trend towards precarization of work, with shorter hours, atomization of the workforce, worsening conditions, employer corruption of unions etc. Even the purported ‘victory’ of rising wages reflects central government policy of boosting consumption rather than union power.

Whatever the evidence that the record number of strikes is linked to growing class conscious labor movement can we draw the conclusion that Chinese workers are any better or worse prepared than in other capitalist countries to fight back against the effects of a major economic crash on their lives? That would be to ignore the historical differences between the West and the East.

Just as the recent rapid rise of China as a major imperialist power is unprecedented (the last major power to emerge as imperialist was the USA before the First World War!) relative to the rest of the capitalist world, so we have to look at the developing class struggle in China in the same light.

Class struggle in China is conditioned by its history as an pre-capitalist empire for millennia, a capitalist colony for over a century (from the Opium war of 1840), then by a national revolution that broke from global capitalism from 1949 to the 1990s, followed by the restoration of capitalism and the rise of a new Chinese imperialism. This unique history has important implications for our understanding of China and global capitalism today.

What makes China different? 

 To explain the impact of the past on China today and on the prospects for a socialist future, we have to explore what makes China’s road to capitalism different from the West. Since China today is clearly capitalist the class struggle between the working class, poor peasants and the capitalist ruling class is like that of all capitalist states. However, there are important differences in the development of capitalism in China.

The First Chinese Revolution in 1911 led by the new bourgeois class overthrew the Qing dynasty. But because Chinese development was retarded by imperialism, no powerful national bourgeoisie had emerged capable of leading the democratic revolution in China. It was an already historically redundant class caught between the massive peasantry and the rising industrial proletariat on the one side, and the occupying imperialist powers on the other side.

The weak national bourgeoisie feared the peasants and workers more than the imperialist exploiters and sided with the latter. This fear was well founded as it was the workers and poor peasants who defeated Japan and the Kuomintang army in 1949, proving once again after Russia in 1917 that ‘backward’ countries in the epoch of imperialism can only become independent of imperialism through socialist revolution.

This unique history is the big difference between China and the West. In the West capitalist development in the 19th and 20th centuries occurred over centuries on the basis of the plunder of the colonial world including the plunder of the ancient Chinese empire. Modern imperialism allowed these nations to accumulate huge wealth and bribe large sections of the working class with colonial super-profits to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie as politicians in the reformist parties and bureaucrats in the labor unions.

Trotsky pointed out that this accounted for the success of the revolution in Russia and its failure in Europe. The strength of reformism in Europe tied workers to the parliamentary system whereas in Russia, a backward capitalist country under a Tsarist dictatorship, bourgeois democracy was yet to be born. The socialist revolution overtook the bourgeois democratic revolution and incorporated its tasks as part of the ‘permanent revolution’.

However, for the Bolsheviks, a successful workers revolution in a backward country could not lead to socialism in one country. Russia’s isolation and economic backwardness created the conditions for the emergence of a bureaucracy under Stalin after 1924. The Stalinist bureaucracy reverted to a Menshevik “two-stage” theory that ‘backward’ (colonial or semi-colonial) countries had to follow the example of the Western countries and go through a bourgeois democratic stage to prepare the conditions for socialism. In the absence of a Russian bourgeoisie Stalin reverted to the old Bolshevik formula of the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and the peasants” in which the workers and all the peasantry would complete the bourgeois revolution in the absence of a revolutionary bourgeoisie.

According to his unreconstructed Menshevik cynicism that the proletarian revolution was premature in Russia, Stalin turned this theory into the “bloc of four classes” i.e. a national front of the proletariat, peasantry, petty bourgeois intelligentsia, and national bourgeoisie, to bring about the ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution. This would allow the Soviet Union to form alliances with ‘democratic’ capitalist countries to buy the time necessary to build ‘socialism in one country’.

Against this Menshevik theory, the Bolshevik concept of Permanent Revolution was defended by the Left Opposition between 1923 and 1928 in an effort to win the leadership of the CCP to lead the poor peasants against the national bourgeoisies, including the rich peasants (kulaks), and the imperialist bourgeoisies. So the ‘permanent revolution’ must start off as a bourgeois democratic revolution against imperialism but immediately pass over to the socialist revolution against the bourgeoisie.

Theory/program of ‘permanent revolution’

Karl Marx originated this theory after the failure of the bourgeois revolutions in Europe in 1848. Henceforth the bourgeoisie was incapable of completing its own revolution to extend bourgeois rights to the masses (as we saw when Napoleon revoked the freedom of the slaves in Haiti) and that historic task was now that of the proletariat as part of the world socialist revolution.

Marx foresaw that the colonial world would not need to follow mechanically copy the stages of growth of capitalism in the West. Once the West extended is rule over the whole world (coming to its full force as imperialism in the late 19th century) the colonies could complete their national democratic struggle for independence only by means of socialist revolution.

In 1850 Marx talking about ‘backward’ China wrote:

“Chinese socialism may, of course, bear the same relation to European socialism as Chinese to Hegelian philosophy. But it is still amusing to note that the oldest and most unshakeable empire on earth has, within eight years, been brought to the brink of a social revolution by the cotton bales of the English bourgeoisie; in any event, such a revolution cannot help but have the most important consequences for the civilized world. When our European reactionaries, in the course of their imminent flight through Asia, finally arrive at the Great Wall of China, at the gates which lead to the home of primal reaction and primal conservatism, who knows if they will not find written thereon the legend: “République chinoise Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” Review: January-February, 1850

Just as in Europe where the reactionary bourgeoisie was suppressing ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ for fear of the working class, in China the Taiping uprising in 1850 against the British invaders proved to Marx that that the working class had the potential lead the peasants to overthrow not only imperialism but also its own weak pro-imperialist bourgeoisie and complete the bourgeois revolution as the socialist revolution. Thus Marx anticipated the prospect of ‘socialist revolution’ (even if ‘bourgeois’ at the start) led by workers and peasants completing the bourgeois revolution as ‘permanent revolution’ in backward capitalist countries.

Such an eventuality was first proven correct in Soviet Russia. The Bolsheviks moved quickly to complete the bourgeois revolution avoiding the death trap of the bourgeois Provisional Government between February and October 1917. They took over the program of the party of poor peasants, the Social Revolutionaries, for ‘land to the tiller’, to win them to the revolution. They expropriated foreign capitalists, repudiated the foreign debt, and formed the Red Army to defeat the military invasions of the imperialists. Even when widespread starvation caused by the Civil War forced the Bolsheviks to allow the rich peasant Kulaks and capitalists to profit from agriculture and trade, these enterprises were under the control of the workers state.

However, just as in Russia where permanent revolution was aborted by global capitalism and the Stalinist bureaucracy after 1924, in ‘backward’ China the CCP, as part of the Comintern dominated by Stalin, also adopted the Menshevik program of the Bloc of Four Classes and the two-stage revolution. The first ‘democratic’ stage of the revolution required a bloc of workers, peasants, intellectuals and ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie. This bloc would require the CCP to subordinate itself to Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist army and expose it to repression.

Trotsky and the Left Opposition from 1923 onwards opposed Stalin’s Menshevik theory as part of his betrayal of Bolshevism and his program for “socialism in one country” and fought against this policy in the CCP. They condemned Stalin’s treacherous role in the smashing of the Second Chinese revolution in 1927 when the bourgeois general Chiang Kai Chek unleashed his army to massacre the CCP leaders and the militant rank and file in Shanghai and Canton.

After the betrayal of the Second Chinese Revolution the CCP was led by Mensheviks like Mao who retreated from the cities to a peasant war of national liberation against Japan and the nationalist Kuomintang. Following its military victory in 1949 the CCP tried to negotiate with the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie only to find it had fled into the imperialists’ camp. The CCP had to amend Stalin’s bloc of Four Classes to a bloc of Three Classes led not by the workers but by the petty bourgeois CCP leadership. The result was the formation of a bureaucratic centralised state apparatus run by the CCP to complete the ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution but taking state power in the name of workers and peasants.

Capitalist property was expropriated and the market replaced by the plan administered by a bureaucratically deformed workers’ state. The CCP intelligentsia promoted itself as the state manager of ‘socialist’ property but in reality the workers and peasants had no say in how the state was run or the planning process itself. There was no workers democracy that could replace the bureaucracy and move China towards a genuine socialism. China as a bureaucratically deformed ‘workers’ state was stuck in limbo between its capitalist past and its socialist future. Its fate would be decided either by a political revolution in which workers overthrew the bureaucracy and took power directly to implement genuine socialism, or the defeat of the workers by the parasitic bureaucracy to restore capitalism under the ideology of “market socialism”.

Was the Chinese revolution ‘socialist’?

Was this the socialist revolution Marx spoke of? No, because the workers did not lead the poor peasants to the seizure of power. The struggle for national independence was led by a bureaucratic Stalinist party forced by the desertion of the bourgeoisie to base itself on the workers and poor peasants as a parasitic caste feeding off their labor.

After the revolution the bureaucracy had to industrialise to develop the forces of production to meets the needs of both the rural and industrial workforce as well as provide a surplus for the parasitic caste. The poor peasants who had formed the ranks of the national army were rapidly subordinated by the growth of industry and the rise of the urban working class.

The peasantry had no future as an independent class. The peasantry’s aspirations are limited to the horizon of petty capitalism or to private capitalist land ownership. The state blocked these aspirations by collectivising the land. So the fate of the peasantry was to become a rural labor force and a reserve army of labor to serve the needs of industry.

This change in rural society follows from the need to develop agricultural productivity to cheapen the wage goods of industrial workers and to create a surplus army of landless peasants who could migrate to the cities as a reserve of cheap labor. Thus wages in industry were driven down by migrant labor whose low wages were supplemented by subsistence goods in the countryside.

While this bureaucratically deformed workers state appears to bourgeois intellectuals as no more than a new ‘socialist’ elite administering the old centralised state of the ‘middle empire’, it was in reality now under the overall determining influence of the global capitalist economy. Rebuffed by the bourgeoisie, the bureaucracy had to forcibly collectivise the agricultural labor of the old peasant family farmers to meet the needs of the industrial working class and generate a surplus.

But the bureaucracy could not claim the surplus as private property without stoking a political revolution of peasants and workers challenging its rule. It was necessary to resort to corruption and abuse of the norms of ‘socialism’ to maintain its privileges.

The bureaucratic plan led to the Chinese economy stagnating and a declining surplus. Because this threatened the material basis of the bureaucracies privileges by 1978 the party embarked on the first market reforms to increase output. The CCP had increasing difficulty justifying its reforms in terms of ‘socialist’ norms of freedom and equality to the masses which had the power to resist them. It stretched the concept of ‘socialism’ inventing “market socialism” to sell the restoration of ‘capitalism’ to the masses.

However, increasing opposition to ‘market socialism’ as market reforms to restore capitalism threatened the rule of the bureaucracy. The defeat of the 1989 uprising of Tienanmen Square that arose as a protest against growing corruption and enrichment of the party leadership at the expense of freedom and equality, was an historic defeat for the working class and marked the tipping point in the restoration process. The CCP Congress in 1992 for the first time recognised that the economy was now based on the market (law of value) rather than state planning.

Thus the inherent class contradiction of Chinese ‘socialism’ (between the bureaucracy as agent of global capitalism, and the peasants and workers) was resolved with the historic defeat of workers by the bureaucracy determined to convert itself into a capitalist class. The concessions to workers under the bureaucratic state – labor protection in the nationalised SOEs, peasant property, labor rights etc – were removed or subordinated to demands of capitalist profit. All the old ‘socialist’ protections of workers and peasants rights became increasingly eliminated.

Unable to escape the global crisis of capitalism which is now enveloping China, the Chinese working class is facing millions of redundancies as inefficient firms are closed down. They have to fight for the most basic demands, for the ‘iron rice bowl’ for jobs and a living wage etc for their survival. These struggles are leading to more strikes and occupations which will pose the necessity of taking control of industry. At the same time the struggle of rural collectives in the villages exposed to corruption and exploitation for decades remains the basis for the survival of the 300 million rural reserve army of labor.

Industrial workers and rural workers can only resolve China’s capitalist crisis in their own class interests by seizing power, overthrowing the Chinese bourgeoisie and replacing the capitalist state with a Workers and Farmers’ State able to implement a socialist plan. The only ‘new era’ in the age of global capitalist decline and terminal crisis in which workers can win a living income will be the new socialist era. So how do we get there? And what would it look like?

A Transitional Program for China

Immediate demands
1. Return to the Rice Bowl! Jobs for all and a living wage! Free, universal health, education and social welfare!

2. Defend the collective land rights of villages! For a state rural bank to fund cooperatives!

3. Build fighting, democratic unions! Form strike committees! For workers occupation of industry, and workers and farmers’ councils!

4. For a mass independent workers and working farmers political party to put up candidates against the CCP!

5. For a world party of socialist revolution based on the revolutionary program of the communist internationals including the 1938 Transitional Program!

Democratic demands
1. Reject all historic oppression today! Full equality to all without discrimination by race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability etc!

2. China is not returning to its “middle kingdom”, it is a modern, capitalist empire! No to Chinese great power chauvinism!

3. Against Chinese imperialism! In any war with other imperialist powers we are for workers turning their guns on their own ruling class!

4. Reject colonial oppression! For the right of self-determination for oppressed peoples and nations!

5. No to false Stalinist and Maoist national/popular fronts with the national bourgeoisies against imperialism!

Socialist Demands
1. Reject capitalist restoration under the guise of ‘market socialism’. Down with the CCP and its new Red Capitalist class! Down with the billionaires!

2. For the political general strike and workers insurrection! For a popular army, workers’ and peasants’ militias!

3. For a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government based on soviets everywhere! For the immediate expropriation of the private property of Chinese and foreign capitalists!

4. For a workers plan based on soviets to plan production for need! From each according to the ability, to each according to their need!

5. For a Federation of Socialist Republics of the Asia-Pacific!

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James P. Cannonism

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Mural by Diego Rivera, To the left of Trotsky are Cannon, Engels and Marx.


By Owen Gager

From Spartacist: A Marxist Journal Vol 3 No 1 1973


There has been a long argument in the American Trotskyist movement over what went wrong, and when, with the longest standing American party claiming to be Trotskyist, the Socialist Worker’s Party. This argument is now spreading far beyond the original small groups of American Trotskyists who began it, as it becomes clear that the Socialist Workers’ Party has moved and is moving to the right even of the discredited Stalinist, hopelessly pro-Soviet, American Communist Party, and its trying to push the Mandelist Fourth International to more and more reformist positions, as shown in the political practice of the N.Z. Socialist Action League.

The argument as it has so far developed centres around personalities far more than around ideas. James P. Cannon, the undisputed leader of the SWP at the time of Trotsky’s death in 1940, has retained his role as leader of the party until the present day, though as he has grown older more and more authority has been assumed by his supporter and co-thinker Joseph Hansen. Cannon enjoyed Trotsky’s blessing as leader of the party, yet Cannon went wrong – or so American “anti-revisionist” groups like the Spartacist and Workers’ Leagues see the situation.

They ask why Cannon went wrong and find the answer partly in the divisions of labour within the Party before Trotsky’s death; where Cannon was the Party’s main organiser and Shachtman, who left the SWP in 1940 because he believed the Soviet Union was “State Capitalist”, its main theoretician. They claim that this division of labour should never have been allowed to grow up, and allowed Cannon to make theoretical errors later. It is also argued that in the discussion in 1953 in the Fourth International around Pabloism, the view that the colonial revolution of that period was the `epicentre’ of world revolution. Cannon failed to take a stand against Pablo until Pablo won support in the SWP. Cannon’s attitude, it was claimed, was “provincial”.

Attention is thus focussed on Cannon’s leadership and its deficiencies, rather than on the ideology of the Party, and the effect on that ideology of the Party’s Social environment. The view that Cannon, as an individual, was responsible for the degeneration of the SWP is a version of the “great men make history” idealist methodology used to explain, of all things, revisionism in the Trotskyist movement.

A critique of revisionism, which fails to examine the historical development of theory as a guide to action cannot explain revisionism because it accepts rather than explains the gulf between theory and practice in an allegedly Marxist party. To argue this is not to deny that the criticisms so far made of Cannon do not point to ‘symptoms’ of revisionism within the SWP. But it does insist that the discussion so far has been about the symptoms of the revisionist disease, not the disease itself.

The reason why the so-called “anti-revisionist” groupings in the United States have not examined the growth of a Cannonist theory of the SWP is simple: they also share in the support of, and elaboration of, this theory. These “anti-revisionist” groupings defend Cannon’s refusal to heed Trotsky’s advice, after the split with Shachtman, that the Party headquarters should be moved from the petty-bourgeois intellectual milieu of New York to a working class centre like Detroit. In fact their headquarters remain, to this day, like the SWP’s, in New York.

They refuse to demand of their own petty-bourgeois members the systematic recruitment of working class cadres as a condition of membership, as also demanded in In Defence of Marxism. The SL/US claims exemption from Trotsky’s organisational principles on the ground that it is a “propaganda group” where the SWP after 1941 was a “party” – ignoring the fact that the SWP was too weak even to stand candidates in the 1941 elections and was in fact more or less reduced to the status of a propaganda group by the split with Shachtman (as Robertson and Ireland have virtually admitted in their document The Centralism of the SWP and the Tasks of the Minority  in “The SWP – Revolutionary or Centrist” p. 19.) This attitude even if it were based on fact could only represent the rottenist organisational fetishism.

The SL/WL and SWP, also “all” adhere to one document. The central and major Cannonist theoretical document, representing the SWP’s main orientation after the death of Trotsky, the Theses on the American  Revolution (published together with an explanatory speech by Cannon, under the title of The Coming American Revolution). This article will examine this document in detail. What must be pointed out here is  that this document represents not only the political takeoff point of departure the SWP as it now exists, but is also the avowed point of departure for the main “critique” of later SWP policy, In Defence of a Revolutionary Perspective, which the present leaderships of both the Spartacist and Workers Leagues accept as defining their basic position. To criticise the “Theses” is to attack all the major American Trotskyist groupings.

It is easy to see why the “Theses” have been regarded by `anti-revisionists’ as a document embodying their position. Thesis 9, on the relation between revolution in the colonial world and revolution in the industrialised centres of the world, could not have been endorsed by Pablo during the controversy leading up to the 1953  split in the Fourth International. It reads: “The revolutionary upheavals of the European proletariat which lie ahead, will complement, reinforce and accelerate the revolutionary developments in the US. The liberationist (sic) struggles of the colonial peoples (sic) against imperialism which are unfolding before our eyes will exert a similar influence. Conversely, each blow dealt by the American proletariat to the imperialists at home will stimulate, supplement and intensify, the revolutionary struggles in Europe and the colonies. Every reversal, suffered by imperialism anywhere will, in turn, produce ever greater repercussions in this country generating such speed and power as will tend to reduce all time intervals both at home and abroad.”

In the conflict between Pablo and Healy the “Theses” supported  orthodoxy against revisionism, Healy against Pablo. The “Theses” formulated the position to which Cannon remained loyal when Pablo  challenged it in 1953. Cannon’s loyalty to this position, and the SWP’s adoption of it were, however, basically unreflecting carryings on of the traditions of Marxist Internationalism. The position of the “Theses”, a position on the strategy and tactics of the international movement, was only counterposed to the Pabloist line internationally after, and owing to, the emergence of a Pabloist opposition to the internal regime in the SWP. Internationalism was a luxury the SWP allowed itself only during internal organisational emergencies.

Moreover, even the 1946 expression of `orthdoxy’ had its limitations as Robertson and Wohlforth should have observed but did not. It is silent on the question of the leadership of the colonial revolution and the working class party in exactly the same way as Pablo was and is – a position whose meaning is expressed unambiguously in the SWP’s present “out now” perspective with its silence on the role of the Vietnamese working class and Vietnamese Stalinism. The resolution already, foreshadowed the `platonic  internationalism’ against which Cannon thundered rhetorically but to which he capitulated politically.

The central theme of the “Theses” – the thesis 10 declaration that “the role of America”, not the American working class or even its Marxist party, but American sans phrase, “in the world is decisive” – is the real measure of its retreat from internationalism. Trotsky, it is true, underscored the fact that without revolutions in the industrialised West, the workers revolution elsewhere had no option but to retreat. But in certain circumstances this “orthodoxy” could be a cover for national chauvinism, for a glorification of the “American” working class’s special role, and it was in terms of this reading of orthodoxy that Cannon’s alignment with Healy against Pablo in 1953 should be read.

For this is the meaning of the Theses on the American Revolution. The “Theses” begin with the, as it turned out quite wrong, perspective that “the blind alley in which world capitalism has arrived, and the US with it, excludes a new organic era of capitalist stabilisation”.  Stabilisation is the name for what happened to American capitalism in the post-1945 years. But whatever the limitations of the SWP’s view of the years immediately following 1946, the last decade has shown it was strategically justified in declaring that “American capitalism, hitherto only partially involved in the death agony of capitalism as a world system, is henceforth subject to the full and direct impact of all the forces and contradictions that have debilitated the old capitalist countries of Europe”. The “Theses” contrasted the American with the German bourgeoisie and claimed that more stood in the way of an American “organisation of the world” than the German – in  immediate terms, a false prediction, based on an even more false analogy, since America, unlike Germany, did not need Fascism to provide here bourgeoisie with a world empire.

But given that all these predictions led to a claim that America was headed for a return to a slump worse than conditions in the `thirties, it was clear that America would lose her role as `organiser of the world’ so quickly, and her period as Chief imperialist power would be of such  short duration, that any claim that `the role of America in the world is decisive’, whether this applied to the bourgeoisie or the working class, had to be wrong. This totally `pessimistic’ evaluation of American imperialism was quite incompatible with the SWP’s total `optimistic’ evaluation of the American working class. The proud words of the “Theses”, that “Wall Street’s war drive, aggravating the social crisis, may under certain conditions actually precipitate it”, though they ring hollowly after the epoch of Korea and McCarthyism (and stand in total conflict with Lenin’s condemnation of the 1912 Socialist International resolution) invalidate the later claim that if “the European or colonial revolutions…precede in point of time the “culmination” of the struggle in the US, they would immediately be confronted with the necessity of defending their conquests against the economic and  military attacks of the American imperialist monster”.

On the arguments of the “Theses”, the objective conditions were such that an American imperialist war might be prevented without revolution, and if this was so, it was just not true that “the decisive battles of the communist future will be fought in the US”. It certainly could not be true if a second coming of a new world slump would reduce America to the level of the European capitalist states, and deprive her of her defences against the speedy disintegration of the world capitalist economy. There was only one reason why these
battles should be prophesied for America and America alone – social patriotism.

The prediction of a new slump, the “Theses” ultra-pessimism about capitalism, served to justify their ultra-optimism about American workers. Because conditions would grow worse even than the level of  the `thirties, it would case to be true as the 1938 Transitional Programme had declared that the more prosperous upper strata of workers would in a revolutionary situation act as a brake on the movement. “The widely held view that high wages are a conservatising factor is one-sided and false”, proclaimed the “Theses” using Cannon’s deep economic analysis to revise the political programme of Trotsky. “This holds true”, according to the “Theses”,  “only under conditions of capitalist stability”. The high wages of the American workers would disappear, and this would force high-paid workers into revolutionary consciousness because despite what Lenin claimed, trade union consciousness spontaneously generates working class political consciousness.

To claim that consciousness develops out of objective circumstances, without the intervention of the revolutionary party, as subject, was to take the position later described as Pabloism. In this form, however, it had an older name “economism”. Not only was American capitalism, unlike British imperialism or Monopoly capital of any kind as Lenin described it, not capable of bribing a section of the working class with super profits so creating a labour aristocracy, but also it had ceased to try to divide workers by race and nationality!

“Masses of negroes”, it was said, “have since the `twenties  penetrated into the basic industries and into the unions.”  It was beyond the American revolutionary Marxist vanguard party to realise that once all the white GIs came back from the war the black workers would be out of the factories and back on the streets again, even though the SWP was predicting for America the greatest slump in its entire history. This entry of the negroes onto the “front lines of progressiveness and militancy” showed the “cohesiveness and homogeneity” of a working class still haunted by racial prejudice.

More, the “Americanisation” of foreign-born workers – the same phenomenon which was in the `fifties to be the fertile soil for McCarthyism – was viewed as an asset to the revolutionary movement. Optimism by itself is a dubious blessing for a serious Marxist  Movement, especially when reinforced by economism. The  “Theses” main argument against the `superficial’ view that the `backwardness’ of American workers might `postpone’ the revolution, was that in a brief decade the American workers attained trade union  consciousness on a higher plane and with mightier organisations than in any other advanced country. What the SWP had to learn was that trade union consciousness does not automatically generate political consciousness – and it is a lesson which the SWP is still learning. It was precisely in the slump conditions of 1937 that Trotsky had warned of the conservatising influences of the stronger unions. In a bigger slump on Trotsky’s view, this conservative influence would be stronger.

But Cannon knew better than Trotsky or thought he did. History has certainly shown who was right.

As early as 1923, Trotsky was arguing that to “predict” a stabilisation of capitalism did not mean to “welcome” it, and the Marxist case against programmes whose `revolutionary’ character derives from a total pessimism about capitalism, and a total optimism about the revolutionary potential of workers is not a new one. One of the things about such programmes is that, when tested in political practice and found wanting, they are almost certainly “inverted”. This is certainly what happened to the 1946 “Theses”.

The higher paid workers moved from their “high level of trade union consciousness” to the political level. However, as expected on the basis of the 1938 Transitional Programme, they moved from the world’s  most highly bribed labour aristocracy, to a plebeian radical rightism, not in conflict with, but the logical deduction from, their purely economic conception of their class’s social role. The SWP, faced with the total bankruptcy of their programme on this point, abandoned any belief that the workers were in motion, adjusting purely empirically to the failure of their programme instead of questioning the correctness of their basic theory. Forced to revise their patriotic assumptions about he unparalleled `homogeneity’ of the American working class, they turned towards the very minorities whose incorporation into the working class they had so triumphantly proclaimed, to substitute those “sections” of society – blacks, women, Chicanos, students – for the economist conception of the working class they had originally adhered to. These minorities now emerged as the force that would set off the spark to awaken workers generally into motion. Once the imminent downfall of American capitalism had been announced, some force had to be found to justify the SWP’s jeremiads about capitalism’s quick demise, and it had to be whatever group that appeared at the moment the most militant, because the SWP had not allowed enough time for the forces of destruction of American capitalism to mature. More than this, to question the reality behind the appearance of non-worker radicalism would be to put in doubt the proposition that the battles of the Communist future were to be fought in America. How…unpatriotic!

But this position was marginally preferable to that of the  `anti-revisionist’ Wohlforth and Robertson groups which, in order to maintain that the SWP’s 1946 positions represented orthodoxy, and its later positions revisionism, had to deny that the 1946 Programme had failed to meet the test of social reality. The failure to comprehend American reality destined them to the role of sects. Both failed to see the SWP’s basic weakness was its surrender to national chauvinism, though they were both capable of seeing in the “Out Now” perspective of the SWP’s anti-war work a concession to bourgeois pacifism and liberalism. In an implicit alliance with that pacifism, they did not follow this to its logical conclusion and see that its basis lay in the theory of a `special role’ for the “American” working class, and, therefore, of a special role for America.

The Workers’ League’s incapacity to grasp the problems of chauvinism led to its surrender, in international relations, to the British chauvinism of Healy’s Socialist Labour League, the abandonment of political independence being the only way in which Wohlforth could avoid his own surrender to American chauvinism. The Spartacist League on the other hand, did not struggle at all against American chauvinism, not seeing the existence of the problem even to the extent that Wohlforth did, so that the history of its international relations after its break with Healy is simply a struggle to impose its programme 100% on those groups unfortunate enough to enter into fraternal relations with it.

The Logan group, ex of Wellington, who have now emigrated to Australia, was reduced to a servile group of correspondents with New York, the `anti-revisionist’ mirror image of its `revisionist’ enemies in the Fyson group who follow equally slavishly the American SWP line. The working class economism of Robertson, Wohlforth and Logan is counterposed to the `youth vanguardist’ spontaneism of Hanson and Fyson, a difference which reduces itself in terms of Russian Bolshevik Party history to the difference between the narrow trade union radicalism of Martynov, and the youth vanguardism of the Social Revolutionaries who preceded Martynov as the chief antagonists of Boshevism.

Bolshevism remains the line of the 1938 Transitional Programme and Trotsky’s Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay. As the 1938 Programme declares, and Cannon’s Coming American Revolution denies, “As organisations expressive of the top layers of the proletariat, trade unions…develop powerful tendencies towards compromise with the bourgeois democratic regime. In periods of acute class struggle, the leading bodies of the trade unions aim to become masters of the mass movement in order to render it harmless. This is already happening during the period of simple strikes which smash the principle of bourgeois property. In time of war or revolution, the trade union leaders usually become bourgeois ministers. Therefore, the sections of the Fourth International should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of trade unions… but also to create in all possible instances independent militant organisations corresponding more closely to the tasks of mass struggle against bourgeois society and, if necessary, not flinching in the face of a direct break with the conservative apparatus of the leadership”.

Some `anti-revisionsists’, with their usual glibness, try to confuse the issue: is the problem the unions or…the leadership? The answer is clearly stated in Trotsky’s The Unions in Britain: “the trade unions [not just the leadership] now play not a progressive but a reactionary role”.

The section of the Transitional Programme quoted above clearly sees that “the top layers of the proletariat” find their natural expression in an apolitical unionism and have themselves a tendency to compromise with the capitalist state. All Cannonites deny this basic fact, from Hansen to Logan. Now, to fight for democracy and independence of the capitalist state, the trade unions can only turn to the Fourth International and its 1938 Programme, which alone can, by its political fight, ensure that the economic fight can also be won. Only the party and programme of revolutionary Trotskyism can prevent the unions from subordination to the capitalist state.

The Cannonite subordination of the political struggle to the  `autonomous’ economic struggle leads directly to the refusal to use the Party apparatus to fight against both old and new state encroachments on the independence of the unions. The fight for the independence of unions is, after all, the way in which unions are ‘politicised’, when Cannonites want to do something quite different, to ‘economise’ the Party. Some Cannonites, Logan for example, refuse to fight against the enforcement of union membership by the capitalist state, so supporting unions which can be smashed by the same hand which created them, and giving up the struggle to win workers to unionism by rank and file organisation, militant industrial action and the political programme of Trotskyism. This is where Cannonism and economism lead.

Against this, the words of Trotsky speak clearly: “…[We must] mobilise the masses, not only against the bourgeoisie but also against the totalitarian regime within the trade unions themselves and against the leaders enforcing this regime. The primary slogan for this struggle is complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state. This means a struggle to turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of the labour aristocracy.”

And how is this to be done: “In the epoch of imperialist decay the trade unions can be really independent only to the extent that they are conscious of being, in action, the organs of proletarian revolution. In this sense, the program of transitional demands adopted by the last congress of the Fourth International is not only the program for the activity of the Party but…for activity of the unions.” In other words, only by subordinating the economic to the political struggle and recognising the historically decisive force of the Marxist Party, can unions become revolutionary.

As we said in Red No 1 “Where we Stand” statement, without the Party, the unions cannot be revolutionary, and only a party based on “Power to the People”, that is, on the Leninist concept of peoples’ revolution as stated in the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, can make the unions revolutionary. But `revolutionary’ leadership of a union, without subordination to the leadership to the party and its programme is a parody of Trotskyism; it is this parody Cannon and his friends try to impose on the International.

Written by raved

July 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm