Real living examples of revolution are the test of any theory. May 1968 was such a historical example. These events reveal that defeat of the working class has not come about by such a thing as the “strong state” but by the ineptitude of the reformist and Stalinist leaders who were not prepared to mobilise the full force of the working class.
Real living examples of revolution are the test of any theory. May 1968 was such a historical example. These events reveal that defeat of the working class has not come about by such a thing as the “strong state” but by the ineptitude of the reformist and Stalinist leaders who were not prepared to mobilise the full force of the working class.
The French events of 1968 represented the greatest revolutionary general strike in history. Although there were only about 3 million workers organised in the unions, ten million struck and occupied the factories. The students, teachers, professional people, peasants, scientists, footballers, even the girls of the Follies Bergères were all drawn into the struggle. The red flag flew over factories, schools, universities, labour exchanges, even astronomical observatories. Power was really in the hands of the working class. The government was powerless, left suspended in mid-air by the uprising. The “strong state” of De Gaulle was paralysed. This mighty movement took place at the height of the post-war economic upswing in capitalism.
The French events of 1968 were not only not foreseen by anyone except our tendency, they took every other trend completely by surprise, because, with the exception of ourselves, they had all written off the European working class. Let us begin with the bourgeois. Did they anticipate the movement in France?
In May 1968, The Economist published a special supplement on France written by Norman Macrae to mark ten years of Gaullist rule. In this supplement, Macrae sings the praises of the successes of French capitalism, pointing out that the French had a higher living standard than the British; ate more meat; owned more cars and so on. And he cited the “great national advantage” of France over her neighbour across the Channel: its trade unions were “pathetically weak.” The ink was hardly dry on Macrae’s article when the French working class astonished the world with a social uprising unequalled in modern times.
The fact is that the May events were not foreseen by the strategists of capital, either in France or anywhere else. Still less were they foreseen by the Stalinist and reformist leaders who strained might and main to derail the movement once it began, but who played no role whatsoever in preparing or organising them.
Things were even worse when it came to the 57 varieties of pseudo-Marxist sects, in which France has been so fruitful-to her cost. These intellectual ladies and gentlemen (most of whom, by the way, have spent decades arguing about “armed struggle,” insurrection and the rest) not only did not foresee any movement of the French workers. They specifically denied any such possibility. Let us take one of their leading “theoreticians,” André Gorz. This individual wrote, in an article that saw the light of day in the middle of the uprising that “in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes or armed insurrections in support of their vital interests.” (A. Gorz, Reform and Revolution, in The Socialist Register 1968. Our emphasis.)
Nor was Gorz alone in his appraisal of the situation. Ernest Mandel spoke at a meeting in London only one month before these great events. In the course of his lecture, he spoke about everything under the sun, but never mentioned a single word about the situation of the French working class. When this contradiction was pointed out to him by one of our comrades from the floor, his reply was that there would be no movement of the French workers for the next twenty years.
During the May events, the university was, of course, occupied by the students. In the central courtyard there were a lot of stalls on which one could see the papers of all the left groups. They were all monthlies at that time, and had not had time to publish a new edition after the strike had begun. Without exception, they all dedicated the front page to Vietnam, Bolivia, Cuba, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong-in fact, everything and anything except the French working class!
These other trends did not expect it, because they had, in effect, written off the working class in the advanced capitalist countries as “corrupt” and “bourgeoisified.”
Incidentally, many of them found a comfortable refuge in endless discussions about the “armed struggle” in the cafes of Paris, which relieved them of any necessity of seeking contacts with the real world and problems of the French workers, which, had they done so, would have furnished them with more than enough information to forewarn them of the impending social explosion.
Unfortunately, we had no group in France to be able to intervene effectively in these events. The main lesson of 1968 is that, once the workers are on the streets it is too late for us. You cannot improvise a revolutionary organisation. It must be created in advance.
1968 was a Revolution
It is not only a question of the disappearance of the peasantry. The development of industry means that the proletariat itself is much stronger than it was in the 1930s, let alone the time of the Paris Commune, when practically all the workers were in small workshops. Even in 1931 nearly two thirds of all industrial enterprises in France employed no wage-workers at all, and another third of them employed less than ten. Only 0.5% of industrial enterprises employed more than a hundred. The fundamental change was shown in 1968 in the key role played by giant factories such as the Renault works in Flins, with a total workforce of 10,500, of which 1,000 participated in pickets and a minimum of 5,000 attended daily strike meetings at that plant alone.
In 1936, when the correlation of class forces was infinitely less favourable, in a situation that was not one tenth as advanced, Trotsky said that the CP could have taken power without meeting any effective resistance:
“If the party of Léon Blum was really Socialist it might, basing itself upon the general strike, have overthrown the bourgeoisie in June, almost without civil war, with a minimum of disturbance and of sacrifices. But the party of Blum is a bourgeois party, the younger brother of rotten Radicalism.” (Leon Trotsky, On France, p. 178, our emphasis.)
The relation of forces in 1968 was vastly more favourable. A peaceful transformation was possible, if the CP leaders had acted as Marxists should act. It is essential to stress this. But, equally, because of the betrayal of the Stalinists, who refused to take power when the most favourable circumstances existed, the French workers may have to pay with civil war in the future.
The events of May were more than a general strike. This was a revolution, betrayed by the Stalinists. Whoever does not understand this, understands nothing. Every section of the proletariat was involved in struggle. The colossal scope of the movement, its sweep and élan, were in the best revolutionary traditions of the French working class. And this was achieved without any lead whatsoever from the tops of the CP and SP.
What is a revolution? Trotsky explains that a revolution is a situation when the mass of normally apathetic men and women begin to participate actively in the life of society, when they acquire an awareness of their strength and move to take their destiny into their own hands. That is just what a revolution is. And that is what happened on a colossal scale in France in 1968.
The class balance of forces was here expressed, not as a mere abstract potential or statistic, but as an actual power on the streets and in the factories. The French workers flexed their muscles, and became aware of the enormous power in their hands. Some idea of this is conveyed by the following description of the mighty demonstration of a million which took over the streets of Paris on the 13th of May:
“Endlessly they filed past. There were whole sections of hospital personnel in white coats, some carrying posters saying ‘Où sont les disparus des hôpitaux?’ (‘Where are the missing injured?’). Every factory, every major workplace seemed to be represented. There were numerous groups of railwaymen, postmen, printers, Metro personnel, metal workers, airport workers, market men, electricians, lawyers, sewermen, bank employees, building workers, glass and chemical workers, waiters, municipal employees, painters and decorators, gas workers, shop girls, insurance clerks, road sweepers, film studio operators, busmen, teachers, workers from the new plastic industries, row upon row upon row of them, the flesh and blood of modern capitalist society, an unending mass, a power that could sweep everything before it, if it but decided to do so.” (Quoted in Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 12.)
Once in struggle the workers began to take initiatives which went far beyond the limits of a normal strike. The printers and journalists imposed a kind of workers’ control of the press. Bourgeois papers had to submit their editorials for scrutiny, and had to publish the declarations of the workers’ committees. De Gaulle’s plan to hold a referendum was frustrated by the action of the workers. The general was unable even to get ballot sheets for a referendum printed because of the strike of the French printing workers and the refusal of their Belgian colleagues to scab. The class balance of forces is not purely a matter of the relative numerical strength of the working class as opposed to the peasants and middle class in general. Once the proletariat enters into decisive struggle, showing itself to be a powerful force in society, it quickly attracts the exploited mass of peasants and small shopkeepers who are crushed by the banks and monopolies. This was evident in 1968, when the peasants set up roadblocks around Nantes and distributed free food to the strikers.
Workers took control of petrol supplies in Nantes, refusing entry to all petrol tankers which did not carry authorisation from the strike committee. A picket was placed on the only functioning petrol pump in the town, which made sure that petrol was only issued to doctors. Contact was made with the peasant organisations in the surrounding areas, and food supplies were arranged, with prices fixed by the workers and peasants. To prevent profiteering, shops had to display a sticker in the window with the words: “This shop is authorised to open. Its prices are under permanent supervision by the unions.” The sticker was signed by the CGT, CFDT and FO. A litre of milk was sold for 50 centimes compared to the normal 80. A kilo of potatoes was cut from 70 centimes to 12. A kilo of carrots from 80 to 50, and so on.
Since the schools were closed, teachers and students organised nurseries, play-groups, free meals and activities for the strikers’ children. Committees of strikers’ wives were set up and played a leading role organising food supplies. Not only the students, but the professional layers were infected with the bug of revolution. The astronomers occupied an observatory. There was a strike at the nuclear research centre at Saclay, where the majority of the 10,000 employees were researchers, technicians, engineers or graduate scientists. Even the Church was affected. In the Latin Quarter, young Catholics occupied a church and demanded a debate instead of mass.
The Myth of the “Strong State”
The contingency plans of the French government were similar to the plans of every ruling class in history, when faced with revolution. The government of Tsar Nicholas (“the bloody” they called him) was not short of its military contingency plans before February 1917. But whether such plans can be put into effect is entirely another matter, as Nicholas found out to his cost. Merely to repeat after the event that “the government had contingency plans” tells us nothing at all. It would be astonishing if such plans did not exist, and not only in France! What is decisive in a revolution is not the plans of the regime, but the real balance of forces in society. Incidentally, De Gaulle, who was quite an astute bourgeois, was fully aware of the real situation (although, as we will see, he initially underestimated it, and made a very serious error as a result. In common with all the others, he too was not expecting the French workers to move).
The fact of the matter is that the movement caught the ruling class and the government entirely off guard. They were terrified of the movement of the students, as the then Prime Minister, Pompidou admits in his memoirs:
“Some people … have thought that by reopening the Sorbonne and having the students released I had shown weakness and set the agitation going again. I would simply answer as follows: let’s suppose that, on Monday 13 May the Sorbonne had remained closed under police protection. Who can imagine that the crowd, swarming towards Denfert-Rochereau, would have fail to break in, carrying everything before it like a river in flood? I preferred to give the Sorbonne to the students than to see them take it by force.” (G. Pompidou, Pour Rétablir une Vérité, pp. 184-5.)
Elsewhere he adds:
“The crisis was infinitely more serious and more profound; the regime would stand or be overthrown, but it could not be saved by a mere cabinet reshuffle. It was not my position that was in question. It was General De Gaulle, the Fifth Republic, and, to a considerable extent, Republican rule itself.” (Ibid., p. 197.)
|Student march from the Sorbonne to the Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt.|
What did Pompidou mean when he said that “Republican rule itself” was in danger? He meant that the capitalist state itself was threatened with overthrow. And in this, he was quite right. After Pompidou tried to defused the crisis by reopening the Sorbonne the movement merely acquired fresh momentum with a demonstration of 250,000. Terrified that the students would join forces with the workers and storm the Elysée, the presidential palace was evacuated.
It is true that De Gaulle in the first stage placed his confidence on the Stalinist leaders to save the situation. He said to his naval ADC, François Flohic, “Don’t worry, Flohic, the Communists will keep them in order.” (Philippe Alexandre, L’Elysée en péril, p. 299.) What do these words prove? Neither more or less than the fact which we have always maintained that the capitalist system could not exist without the support of the reformist (and Stalinist) labour leaders. This support is worth much more to them than any amount of tanks and policemen. De Gaulle, as an intelligent bourgeois, understood this perfectly. However, the essence of a revolution is that the masses begin to participate actively in events, begin to take matters into their own hands. The General’s confidence did not last long. He was forced to cut short his presidential trip to Romania because of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Paris. His biographer, Charles Williams, graphically describes De Gaulle’s state of mind on the eve of his broadcast to the nation on May 24th:
“There is no doubt that, after the exhilaration of Romania, the General had been badly shaken by what he had found on his return to France. During the ensuing three days, he seemed to at least one visitor, who had not seen him for some time, to be old and indecisive, his stoop accentuated. It seemed as though it was all getting too much for him.
“The broadcast of 24 May, when it came, was a complete flop. The General looked, and sounded, shifty and scared. True, he announced a referendum on ‘participation,’ but it was not clear what the precise terms of the question would be, and it seemed to those who heard him to be suspiciously like a device. He said that it was the duty of the state to ensure public order, but his voice lacked its old resonance, and the phrases, although still in the same solemn language, somehow no longer carried conviction. He came across as an old man, tired and wounded. He knew it himself. ‘I missed the target,’ he said that evening. The best that Pompidou could say was: ‘It could have been worse.'” (C. Williams, The Last Great Frenchman. A life of General De Gaulle, pp. 463-4, our emphasis.)
“But De Gaulle’s mood, on the morning of the 25th, had turned for the worse. He was, in the words of one of his ministers, ‘prostrate-stooped and aged.’ He kept on repeating, ‘It’s a mess.’ Another minister found an old man who ‘had no «feel» for the future.‘ The General sent for his son Philippe, who found his father ‘tired’ and noted that he had hardly slept. Philippe suggested that his father might make for the Atlantic port of Brest-shadows of 1940-but was told that he would not give up.
“From 25 to 28 May De Gaulle remained in a state of profound gloom. Pompidou’s negotiations with the trade unions had been a farce. He had simply given them all they asked for: sweeping increases in pay and social benefits, and an increase in the minimum wage of 35 per cent. The only snag was that, even after the deal had been signed, the CGT had insisted that it would have to be ratified by their membership. George Séguy, the CGT leader, hurried off to the Paris suburb of Billancourt, where 12,000 Renault workers were on strike. When the agreement was put to them, they humiliated Séguy by turning it down flat. The accords of Grenelle, as they were called, were stillborn.
“The Council of Ministers met at 3 p.m. on 27 May, soon after the Renault workers’ rejection of the Grenelle accords. The General presided, but it was noted that his heart and mind were elsewhere. He stared at his ministers without seeing them, his arms flat on the table in front of him, his shoulders hunched, seemingly ‘totally indifferent’ to what was going on around him. There was a discussion about the referendum; the General apparently heard only bits of it.” (Ibid., pp. 464-5, our emphasis.)
These extracts from a sympathetic biography paint a vivid picture of total disorientation, panic and demoralisation. De Gaulle, the same man who had placed his faith in the Communists to “keep them in order,” according to the US ambassador, now told him that “the game’s up. In a few days the Communists will be in power.” Why? Quite simply because De Gaulle saw the sweep of the revolutionary movement and did not believe they could hold the line, even with the services of the Stalinist leaders.
There is a self-evident contradiction here. On the one hand, De Gaulle is supremely confident in the knowledge that the CP leaders will keep the masses under control. The next minute, he is seized by the “terrifying idea” that the CP leaders will be “propelled to power in spite of themselves.”
Evidently there is a problem, and a serious one! Not only do innumerable witnesses assert that De Gaulle was completely prostrate and demoralised, but on at least two occasions he contemplated fleeing the country. His own son urged him to escape via Brest, and other sources state that he considered remaining in West Germany, where he had gone to visit general Massu. De Gaulle was a clever and calculating politician who never acted on impulse, and rarely lost his nerve. If he told the US ambassador that “the game is up, and in a few days the Communists will be in power,” it is because he believed it. And not he alone, but the majority of the ruling class.
The French ruling class still disposed of a formidable machine of repression. How formidable? Let’s see. There were some 144,000 police (armed) of various categories, including 13,500 of the notorious CRS riot police, and some 261,000 soldiers stationed in France or West Germany. If one approaches the question from a purely quantitative point of view, then one would have to rule out not just a peaceful transformation, but the possibility of revolution in general, and not just in France in 1968. From this point of view, no revolution could ever have succeeded in the whole of history. But the question cannot be posed in this way.
In every revolution, voices are raised which attempt to frighten the oppressed class with the spectre of violence, bloodshed and the “inevitability of civil war.” Kamenev and Zinoviev spoke in exactly the same way on the eve of the October insurrection:
“The enemies of the insurrection in the ranks of the Bolshevik party itself found, however, sufficient ground for pessimistic conclusions. Zinoviev and Kamenev gave warning against an under-estimation of the enemy’s forces. ‘Petrograd will decide, and in Petrograd the enemy has … considerable forces: 5,000 junkers, magnificently armed and knowing how to fight, and then the army headquarters, and then the shock troops, and then the Cossacks, and then a considerable part of the garrison, and then a very considerable quantity of artillery spread out fanwise around Petrograd. Moreover the enemy with the help of the Central Executive Committee will almost certainly attempt to bring troops from the front…'”
And Trotsky answers the objections of Kamenev and Zinoviev as follows:
“The list sounds imposing, but it is only a list. If an army as a whole is a copy of society, then when society openly splits, both armies are copies of the two warring camps. The army of the possessors contained the wormholes of isolation and decay.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 1042.)
According to the celebrated aphorism of Mao, “power grows from the barrel of a gun.” But guns have to be wielded by soldiers, and soldiers do not live in a vacuum, but are influenced by the moods of the masses. In any society, the police are more backward than the army. Yet in France the police, to quote the headline of The Times (31 May) were “seething with discontent.”
“They are seething with discontent over their treatment by the Government,” says the article, “and the branch dealing with intelligence about student activity has been deliberately depriving the Government of information about student leaders in support of an expenses claim.
“…Nor have the police been impressed by the Government’s behaviour since the troubles broke out. ‘They are terrified of losing our support,’ said one man.
“Such dissatisfaction is one of the reasons for the apparent inactivity of the Paris police in the past few days. Last week, men at several local stations refused to go on duty at the cross-roads and squares of the capital.” (The Times, 31/5/1968, our emphasis.)
On 13 May a police union body representing 80 per cent of uniformed personnel issued a declaration that it
“…considers the prime minister’s statement to be a recognition that the students were in the right, and as a total disavowal of the actions by the police force which the government itself had ordered. In these circumstances, it is surprised that an effective dialogue with the students was not sought before these regrettable confrontations took place.” (Le Monde, 15 May 1968.)
If this was the position with the police, the effect of the revolution on the rank and file of the army would have been even greater. As it was, despite the lack of information, there were reports of a ferment in the armed forces, and even a mutiny in the navy. The aircraft carrier Clemenceau, due to go to the Pacific for a nuclear test, suddenly turned back and returned to Toulon without explanation. There were reports of a mutiny on board and several sailors were said to have been “lost at sea.” (Le Canard Enchainé, 19th June, a fuller report was published in Action 14th June, but this was confiscated by the authorities).
A leaflet published by members of the RIMECA (mechanised infantry regiment) stationed at Mutzig near Strasbourg indicates that sections of the army were already being affected by the mood of the masses. It included the following section:
“Like all conscripts, we are confined to barracks. We are being prepared to intervene as repressive forces. The workers and youth must know that the soldiers of the contingent WILL NEVER SHOOT ON WORKERS. We Action Committees are opposed at all costs to the surrounding of factories by soldiers.
“Tomorrow or the day after we are expected to surround an armaments factory which three hundred workers who work there want to occupy. WE SHALL FRATERNISE.
“Soldiers of the contingent, form your committees!” (Quoted in Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 26.)
The production of such a leaflet was clearly an exceptional example of the most revolutionary elements among the conscripts. But, in the midst of a revolution of such massive proportions, is it possible to doubt that the rank and file of the army would have rapidly been “infected” by the bacillus of revolt? The strategists of international capital did not doubt it. Neither did their French counterparts. In a state of panic, which we have already documented sufficiently, De Gaulle suddenly vanished.
It turns out that De Gaulle went to Germany to consult with general Massu. It does not require much imagination to work out what he asked him. “Can we rely on the army?” The answer is not contained in any of the written sources, for obvious reasons. The Times sent its correspondent to Germany to interview French soldiers, the big majority of whom were working class kids-conscripts. One of those interviewed by The Times answered the question whether he would fire on the workers thus: “Never! I think their methods may be a bit rough, but I am a worker’s son myself.”
In its editorial, The Times asked the key question: “Can De Gaulle use the army?” and answered its own question, saying that he could perhaps use it once. In other words, a single bloody clash would be sufficient to break the army in pieces. That was the appraisal of the most hard-headed strategists of international capital at the time. There is no reason to doubt their word on this occasion.
Who saved De Gaulle?
It was not at all the army or the police (who were so demoralised that even the reactionary intelligence branch, as we have seen, was refusing to collaborate with the government against the students) that saved the situation for French capitalism. It was the monstrous betrayal of the Stalinist and trade union leaders. This conclusion is not just ours, but finds support in the most unlikely source. In the entry on May 1968 in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we read the following:
“De Gaulle seemed incapable of grappling with the crisis or even understanding its nature. The Communist and Trade Union leaders, however, provided him with a breathing space; they opposed further upheaval, evidently fearing the loss of their followers to their most extremist and anarchist rivals.”
What was the main weapon used by the Stalinists to persuade the workers not to attempt to take power? That the state was strong, that there would be violence and civil war. Let them speak for themselves. According to Waldeck-Rochet, the party’s general secretary:
“In reality the choice to be made in May was the following:
– Either to act in such a way that the strike would permit the essential demands of the workers to be satisfied, and to pursue at the same time, on the political level, a policy aimed at making necessary democratic changes by constitutional means. This was our party’s position.
– Or else quite simply to provoke a trial of strength, in other words move towards an insurrection: this would include a recourse to armed struggle aimed at overthrowing the regime by force. This was the adventurist position of certain ultra-left groups.” (L’Humanité, 10 July 1968, our emphasis.)
Note how skilfully this Stalinist bureaucrat plays on the fears of the masses. Like labour bureaucrats everywhere, he knows that many workers fear the prospect of violence and bloodshed. This fact is a book sealed with seven seals for the ultra left sects, who immediately fall into the trap set for them by the bourgeois and the bureaucrats. This is one reason they will never win the masses in a thousand years. The kind of terminological radicalism which is a normal hallmark of sectarians is merely the other side of the coin of their complete lack of confidence in the working class, their superstitious faith in the “strong state” and, above all, their organic inability to penetrate the working class, or even find a common language with the workers.
How would a genuine Marxist tendency have acted under such circumstances? By advancing the slogan of insurrection and civil war? That is just what the sects did. Indeed, they attempted to put it into practice (without the masses!). This is the distilled essence of petit-bourgeois ultraleftism and adventurism, which always plays into the hands of the right wing. No. The Marxists would have acted in the same way as Lenin. They would have conducted systematic work in the CP, YCL and unions building up points of support over the whole of the previous period. During the May Events, the main slogan of the Marxists would have been the setting up of elected committees to co-ordinate and direct the struggle, and to link these up on a local, regional and, ultimately, on a national basis. At the same time, they would have demanded that the CP take power, expropriate the capitalists and transform society.
Could this have been done peacefully? As we have seen, Trotsky in 1936, said that the Socialist leaders could have simply brushed aside the resistance of the ruling class. What would he have said in a situation like this, which was a thousand times more favourable? In answer to the speeches of Waldeck Rochet and company, who were attempting to frighten the workers with the spectre of bloodshed and civil war, we would have pointed out, as Lenin pointed out a hundred times in 1917, and as Trotsky did in 1936, that the reformist (Stalinist) labour leaders, with the overwhelming support of the masses, could take power peacefully, with a minimum of effort, without civil war, and that this was the only way of avoiding violence. And this was undoubtedly a million times more true in France than in Russia in 1917. This, and not the shrill ultraleftism of the sects, was the only way to get the ear of the Communist workers, defeat the Stalinist leadership and win over the masses to the idea of revolution.
Defence and offence
From the point of view of formal logic, defence and offence are immutable opposites. However, in practice, they frequently pass into each other. A defensive struggle, under certain conditions, can be transformed into an offensive struggle, and vice versa. There are many points of comparison between the wars between nations and wars between the classes. But there are also differences. A bourgeois standing army is prepared, financed and armed for decades in preparation for war. The general staff can choose when and where hostilities begin. Of course, even here, it is not a purely military question. Clausewitz explained that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” The military acts of bourgeois governments are determined by the class interests of the bourgeoisie. For this reason, Marxists have always pointed out that the question of “who fires the first shot” is an entirely secondary consideration which does not have any bearing on the concrete character of a war.
This general proposition is correct. But does it mean that the question of the responsibility for the outbreak of hostilities is beside the point? To imagine such a thing is to completely misunderstand the conduct of war. Why is it that every government in every war always tries to put the blame for starting it on the shoulders of the enemy? Is this an accident? Or a whim? On the contrary. War is not just a military question, but involves politics. The mobilisation of public opinion, at home and abroad, in support of the war is a fundamental question, which can only be resolved on the political plane. Engels explained that in warfare the importance of morale to the physical is three to one. Hence, the fundamental task of diplomacy is to convince “public opinion” that its particular army acted only in self-defence, in response to intolerable provocation, “enemy aggression” and so on. A government which did not act in this way would commit an intolerable blunder, and do enormous damage to its war effort.
All this is a thousand times more true in the socialist revolution. The proletariat, unlike the ruling class, does not possess an army, and will never possess an armed force capable of taking on the forces of the bourgeois state, provided that the latter remains intact. Whereas conventional war is mainly a military question, in which diplomacy plays a significant but subordinate role, the task of the socialist revolution is therefore mainly the political task of winning over the masses and the armed forces. The roles are reversed.
In point of fact, the overwhelming majority of the struggles of the working class begin as defensive struggles: struggles to defend living standards, jobs, democratic rights, etc. Under certain circumstances, particularly with correct leadership, these defensive struggles can prepare the way for an offensive, including a general strike, which poses the question of power. However, even in the course of a revolution, it is necessary to place all the responsibility for violence on the shoulders of the ruling class, in order to win over the masses, not only of the working class, but also of the petit bourgeoisie. It is therefore not only correct, but absolutely essential that we should present the movement in a defensive light.
However, it may be objected that the insurrection has an offensive character. Again, as an abstract general proposition it is correct. Danton pointed out that the slogan of insurrection is “De l’audace, de l’audace, et encore de l’audace!” (Audacity, audacity and yet more audacity!). But that does not at all exhaust the question of revolutionary tactics. The truth is always concrete. In the class struggle, as in normal warfare, it is necessary to assess under what conditions it is possible to go onto the offensive, and when it is necessary to adopt a defensive position. Warfare would be a very simple matter if it only consisted of a simple rule, applicable to all circumstances. But the general who only knew one command-“Attack!”-would swiftly lead his army to annihilation. It is necessary to learn how to attack, but also to retreat in good order, to tack, veer, manoeuvre, avoid giving battle under unfavourable circumstances, and so on. The whole history of Bolshevism is full of examples of the kind of skilful and flexible tactics reflected in the writings of Lenin, and summed up in Left Wing Communism.
The problem was that, after 1917, the young and inexperienced leaders of the Communist Parties in the first five years of the Communist International had not had time to absorb and digest the lessons of the history of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution. They had read State and Revolution and Lenin’s writings of the War period, and were able to repeat mechanically the slogans about the need to smash the bourgeois state, civil war, the criticism of reformism and parliamentarism, the impermissibility of uniting with the Social Democracy. But they had not understood a single word of what they had read. They did not understand the method of Lenin. For the entire period from 1917 till his death, Lenin struggled to straighten them out, even demonstratively declaring that, if these were “Lefts,” he was a “Right.”
The “Left” Communists considered Lenin and Trotsky to have succumbed to opportunism. In practice, they held that the tactics and methods advocated by them represented a “very serious departure from the point of view of Lenin and Trotsky,” which “will mean that the International will never be able to fulfil its historical mission.” The clearest expression of this was the “theory of the offensive” put forward by the leaders of the German CP.
Starting from the fact that the Communist Parties were not yet the decisive majority of the class, Lenin advanced the slogan of the united front, of patient work in the mass organisations, of participation in bourgeois parliaments, as a means of winning the masses. This was the prior condition for socialist revolution. But the “Lefts” were not satisfied. They scornfully dismissed Lenin’s advice to “turn to the masses,” considering that the only possible policy for a revolutionary party was “revolutionary offence.” Lenin and Trotsky fought tooth and nail against this “theory,” which led to a bloody defeat in March 1921. This was an extreme example of an ultra left trend that was very widespread at the time, and which has re-surfaced many times in the history of the movement. It was always combated by Lenin and Trotsky, and even before them by Marx and Engels.
Despite its very “revolutionary” appearance, this kind of approach has nothing in common with the real methods of Bolshevism of which it is merely an abstract caricature. We have already mentioned the defence testimony in the Minneapolis Trial. One of the criticisms of the ultra left Munis was precisely that Cannon presented the question of violence as a question of self-defence. “Why not,” asked Munis, “raise the voice at this point and call upon the workers to organise their own violence against the reactionary violence?” And Cannon replied:
“Why not? Because it was not necessary or advisable either to raise the voice or issue any call for action at this time. We were talking, in the first place, for the benefit of the uninitiated worker who would reading the testimony in the paper or in pamphlet form. We needed a calm and careful exposition in order to get his attention. This worker is by no means waiting impatiently for our call to violent action. Quite the contrary, he ardently believes in the so-called democracy, and the first question he will ask, if he becomes interested in socialism, is: ‘Why can’t we get it peacefully, by the ballot?’ It is necessary to patiently explain to him that, while we would prefer it that way, the bosses will not permit it, will resort to violence against the majority, and that the workers must defend themselves and their right to change things.” (Munis and Cannon, What policy for revolutionists-Marxism or Ultra-leftism, p. 25.)
“That ‘force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with the new’-this is an axiom known to every student of Marxism. It is wrong to entertain or disseminate illusions on this score, and we did so at the trial. But it is a great mistake to conclude from this that the violence and the talk about violence serve the revolutionary vanguard advantageously at all times and under all conditions. On the contrary, peaceful conditions and democratic legal forms are most useful in the period when the party is still gathering its forces and when the main strength and resources, including the resources of violence, are on the other side. Lenin remarked that Engels was ‘most correct’ in ‘ advocating the use of bourgeois legality’ and saying to the German ruling class in 1891: ‘Be the first to shoot, Messrs. Bourgeois!’
“Our party which must still strive to get a hearing from the as yet indifferent working class of America has the least reason of all to emphasise or to ‘advocate’ violence. This attitude is determined by the present stage of class development and the relation of forces in the United States.” (Ibid., pp. 30-31.)
The slightest acquaintance with the history of the Russian Revolution, before during and after October, will suffice to demonstrate this. On the eve of the October Revolution, there was a difference of opinion between Lenin and Trotsky concerning the date of the insurrection. Lenin wanted to move straight to the seizure of power in September, whereas Trotsky was in favour of postponing the insurrection until the Congress of Soviets. Why did Trotsky take this position? Did he suffer from a lack of audacity? Not at all. Trotsky understood that, even in a revolution, the question of legality is extremely important for the masses.
The Bolsheviks were sure they would get the majority at the Congress, and could therefore appear before the masses as the legitimate power in society. This was not a secondary question, but was a vital factor in achieving a peaceful transfer of power. Once again, the essential element was not military, but political. Incidentally, the Bolsheviks presented the October insurrection as a defensive action to prevent Russia from sliding into chaos and civil war. And this is no accident. Even when you are in a position to go onto the offensive (which is by no means always the case, rather the contrary), it is always necessary to act and speak as if you were fighting a defensive struggle, placing all the responsibility on the enemy.
Let us take one more example. In 1918, the fate of the Revolution hung in the balance. The armies of German imperialism were poised to invade. The military forces at the disposal of the Bolsheviks were totally insufficient to permit a serious resistance. Fearing the complete destruction of the Revolution, Lenin advocated the immediate signing of peace with Germany, even at the cost of sacrificing territory. Bukharin, who, at that time, held an ultra left position, stood for a revolutionary war against Germany, a highly “audacious” position, which, under the concrete conditions, would have certainly led to the destruction of the Revolution.
Trotsky, who was in charge of negotiations at Brest Litovsk, attempted to spin out the talks as long as possible, in the hope that the German workers would rise. In fact, this occurred a few months later, but this would have been too late to avoid a shattering German offensive, had the Bolsheviks not given way. When the German imperialists presented a final ultimatum, Trotsky, who had skilfully used the negotiations to carry out revolutionary agitation which had a big effect in Germany and Austria, refused to sign the treaty and demonstratively broke off the negotiations, although he knew that this would mean a German attack.
Trotsky’s position had nothing in common with the ultraleft line of Bukharin. He explained that the reason for his action was to convince the workers of Britain and France, where the ruling class were slandering Lenin as a German agent, that the Bolsheviks were the victims of aggression, and that the predatory Treaty of Brest Litovsk was signed under duress. That they had no other alternative. There is no doubt that the new treaty was still less favourable than before the German offensive. But here, as always, what motivated Lenin and Trotsky was the interests of the World Revolution. The balance of forces ruled out a revolutionary offensive. The Bolsheviks were compelled to take a defensive position, and even make painful concessions to German imperialism in order to survive.
They placed all their confidence in their internationalist policies, appealing to the workers of the world to come to their assistance. Even later, when Trotsky built the Red Army, he was under no illusions that the Revolution could be saved by purely military means. The reason why the Revolution was able to survive the attacks by 21 armies of foreign intervention was not the heroism of the Red Army, important as that was, but the opposition of the workers of Britain, France and other countries to the plans of the imperialists, and the fact that the troops of every foreign army sent to Russia mutinied.
The British Prime Minister Lloyd George explained the withdrawal of the British troops because they were “infected with Bolshevik influenza.” Not in carrying out the Revolution, but in defending it, the main weapon was a revolutionary internationalist policy. That was the “secret weapon” which amply made up for the extreme weakness of the Revolution in the face of what were, on paper, overwhelmingly superior forces. Seen from a military point of view, the Bolsheviks ought never have been able to take power, and certainly not hold onto it.
In a revolution, the troops are always affected by the general moods in society. This is particularly true of the conscripts, which is why Marxists do not support the petit-bourgeois pacifist demand for the abolition of military service. We are in favour of young workers being trained in the use of arms, although with trade union rights, and under the control of the labour organisations. The reactionary nature of the petit-bourgeois policy is shown by attempts by the ruling class of many countries to replace conscription with a professional army, despite the fact that this will cost more money.
Why do they take this line? Because they can see what is coming. At a certain stage explosions are inevitable. It is implicit in the whole situation. The ruling class of these countries is attempting to prepare for this, and imagines that a professional army will serve their interests better. As a matter of fact, their confidence is misplaced. Under modern conditions, the overwhelming majority of professional soldiers are working class youths who join the army to escape unemployment. Despite all the efforts to brutalise them (which we must denounce and oppose, demanding trade union rights for soldiers to draw them closer to the labour movement), when there is a big movement of the class, they will be affected, as even the police were affected in 1968.
How we pose the Question
The question of how the transformation of society is posed depends on the situation. That is precisely the meaning of the transitional programme. It is not a question of abstract formulae, which we are obliged to put forward, irrespective of time and place, but of a programme which, taking into consideration the actual consciousness of the class, flows from the real needs of the situation. Take a concrete instance. In Northern Ireland, we were faced with a very difficult and complicated situation. The main problem was the national question in a particularly monstrous form. Society was polarised on religious sectarian lines. Our policy was dictated by the need to unite the workers on class lines. Our central demand was for the establishment of a Labour Party, based on the unions. However, in a position where the paramilitary madmen on both sides were conducting a campaign of murder and mayhem, this was completely insufficient.
For decades, our tendency, and we alone, put forward the demand for a trade union defence force, to defend the workers against sectarian attacks. This slogan, which corresponds to Trotsky’s demand to arm the picket line, was not sucked out of our thumb. In 1969, the (mainly Protestant) workers in Harland and Wolfs, the big shipyards in Belfast, set up patrols, under the control of the shop stewards committee, to defend Catholic workers against intimidation. Under the circumstances, a workers’ defence force would have to be armed. Without arms, these patrols were powerless against the paramilitaries. In fact, it was the IRA which smashed this incipient movement by murdering some of the Protestant workers who participated in it.
Was the slogan of a workers’ defence force the correct one to put forward in the concrete conditions of Northern Ireland? Undoubtedly. Had it succeeded, it would have had a fundamental effect, changing the whole class balance of forces. Beginning as a defensive slogan, it could have been the starting point for an offensive movement of the class later on. We repeat, most workers’ movements have an initially defensive character. With correct leadership, small successes in defensive struggles can lead to bigger things. Without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism, involving all kinds of issues, big and small, the socialist revolution would be utterly impossible.
Let us pose the question differently. Would it have been correct for us to have put forward the same slogan of a workers’ defence force (which we have agreed was absolutely necessary for Northern Ireland) in England, Scotland and Wales? No. It would have been a fundamental error. The workers would have regarded us, quite justifiably, as raving lunatics. Why? Because, at this stage, in the concrete conditions in Britain, such a slogan bears absolutely no relation to the reality of the working class and society.
And here we approach the essence of the problem. For a Marxist, revolutionary politics does not consist of a number of abstract propositions, like mathematical axioms, which can be applied indifferently to each and any situation. If that were so, our work would be a lot easier! We have to find a way of creatively applying the science of Marxism to a given situation, in such a way that we find an echo for our idea in the working class.
In Britain, for the whole of the last period, the focal point of our propaganda (and we are still mainly a propaganda tendency) has been the demand that a Labour government must take over the commanding heights of the economy. Of course, we endeavour to win over the most advanced workers and youth to the ideas of Marxism. But 99% of British workers are not Marxists. That is the problem. The overwhelming majority of those that are politically aware support the Labour Party. At this stage, a fairly small minority of these support the left reformists, although is changing.
In effect, we say to the British worker:
“We have not yet convinced you of the need for revolution? Very well. Let us at least agree that we have to fight against the bosses and their government. Let us by all means fight together for the election of a Labour government. But that is not enough. A Labour government must carry out policies in the interests of the working class. How can they do that, when the banks and monopolies are in the hands of our enemies?
“How do we deal with that? Once elected, Labour must take emergency action to solve unemployment, homelessness and all the other problems. They must immediately pass an Enabling Act to nationalise the banks and monopolies. We will pay fair compensation, by which we mean minimum compensation on the basis of proven need only.
“Will the ruling class allow this to happen? All previous history speaks against their giving up without a fight. (Even George Brown, said this in 1966.) They will try to use the House of Lords and the Monarchy to delay and block progressive laws. So we must abolish these reactionary and undemocratic institutions. They will use the mass media to spread lies and panic. We should put an end to the domination of the press by a handful of Tory millionaires, nationalise the press, radio and television, and guarantee free access to the mass media to any tendency, party or organisation (including the trade unions who are denied a voice, despite representing millions of people) in accordance to the number of votes they receive in elections, or the number of members they have.
“Big business will do everything in its power to sabotage and wreck the economy in order to bring down a Labour government pledged to socialist policies. We have seen this in the past. When they do not like certain policies, they organise conspiracies, runs on the pound, and so on. Therefore, Labour must mobilise the working class outside parliament to set up elected committees in every workplace, to establish workers’ control and management of the nationalised industries, to prevent the sabotage of the bosses.
“It is necessary to issue an appeal to the members of the police and the armed forces to support the democratically elected government (many of them are Labour supporters), immediately pass a law recognising trade union rights and legalising the right to strike for soldiers and police, and calling on them to arrest any officers who are plotting against the government.
“There must be measures to win over the middle class, the small businessmen and shopkeepers, who are being ruined by big business and the banks. We should point out to them that the nationalisation of the banks and the elimination of a whole series of middlemen will mean cheap credit and lower costs.
“Above all, a nationalised planned economy under the democratic control and management of the working class will enable us to eliminate unemployment and introduce the six hour day and four day week, while increasing production and raising wages.
“By mobilising the working class on this basis, Labour would rapidly cut the ground from under the feet of reaction. Any attempt to organise a counter-revolutionary conspiracy would be brushed aside. Under these conditions, a peaceful transformation of society would be entirely possible. Moreover, the example of a democratic workers’ state in an advanced country like Britain (or any other advanced country) would have an even greater impact than Russia 1917. Given the enormous strength of the working class, and the impasse of capitalism everywhere, the bourgeois regimes in Europe would fall rapidly, creating the basis for the Socialist United States of Europe and, finally world socialism. That is the perspective we offer.
“Does it seem difficult? But what alternative is there? The experience of all past Labour governments answers that question. If the Labour leaders do not take drastic action to break the power of the banks and monopolies, it will find itself a hostage to the City of London. It will be forced to carry out an attack on the living standards of the workers, the poor, the unemployed. Then, when it no longer suits the bosses, they will organise a conspiracy, using the press and TV, to bring the Labour government down, and impose an even more reactionary Tory government.
“In reality, what we propose is not so difficult. If the Labour leaders dedicated one tenth of the energies they spend in defending capitalism on mobilising the might of the working class to change society, the socialist transformation could be accomplished quickly and painlessly. But we warn that, if they fail to do this, the way will be prepared, on the basis of the frightful collapse of British capitalism, for a catastrophe for the working class.”
In the coming period, it is quite possible that there can be a Left Labour government in Britain. We would have fundamentally the same position. The only difference is that, under the pressure of the working class, the left reformists may take measures against the bourgeois which, without carrying through a complete transformation of society, would make the normal functioning of capitalism impossible, creating the conditions for conspiracies of the bourgeois, not just to bring the government down, but even to plot with the tops of the armed forces some kind of Bonapartist-royalist coup.
In the 1970s in a debate with Tony Benn in front of two thousand young socialists, Ted Grant explained that unless a left Labour government mobilised the working class to transform society, then there could be a reaction and that would even open the way to civil war, and that the responsibility for this would be on the shoulders of the Labour and trade union leaders for not changing society in time. In his Diary, Benn refers to this crudely, saying that Grant came out in favour of civil war! In fact, by posing the question in this way, we got the nearly unanimous support of the LPYS for socialist revolution and our policy, which would not have been possible on any other basis.
The general approach of the IMT to the question is the only correct one from a Marxist point of view. We have not varied one inch on this issue from the position we took during World War Two. That position is the continuation and development of the approach worked out by the Old Man, which, in turn, is derived from the position of Marx, Engels and Lenin. It has been shown to be correct time and again, particularly in the period since 1945, and above all in the Portuguese Revolution and in France 1968. Thus, it is not only a question of theory, but of the actual historical experience of the proletariat internationally.
It is essential that all comrades study the Marxist theory of the state, not just in the classical texts of Marxism, which retain their full validity, but in the living experience of the class struggle over the last hundred years, which is summed up in the method, programme, tactics and general approach of the IMT internationally.