For there to be a revolution does there have to be violence? To the sectarian mind the answer is always in the affirmative. Marxists look at the question in a more rounded out manner, looking at the many factors that come into play: the balance of class forces, the nature of the leadership of the working class, the tactics and programme adopted, and so on.
For there to be a revolution does there have to be violence? To the sectarian mind the answer is always in the affirmative. Marxists look at the question in a more rounded out manner, looking at the many factors that come into play: the balance of class forces, the nature of the leadership of the working class, the tactics and programme adopted, and so on.
Was the October revolution peaceful?
Firstly, it is not possible to talk about “the 1917 revolution.” There were not one but two revolutions in 1917, moreover separated by a period of reaction from July to September, including a military offensive, and followed by a reactionary uprising and four years of civil war in which Russia was invaded by 21 armies of foreign intervention, in which millions of people were killed. It was thus a period of revolution and counter-revolution, not a simple “triumphal procession.” Anyone who presents it as such would be justly ridiculed as a fool or an ignoramus. However, the assertion that the October revolution was a peaceful affair (insofar as any revolution can be considered such) comes not from the IMT but from Lenin and Trotsky. Let us quote a couple of examples. First, in relation to the February revolution.
“It would be no exaggeration to say that Petrograd achieved the February Revolution. The rest of the country adhered to it. There was no struggle anywhere except in Petrograd. There were not to be found anywhere in the country any groups of the population, any parties, institutions, or military units which were ready to fight for the old regime. This shows how ill-founded was the belated talk of the reactionaries to the effect that if there had been cavalry of the Guard in the Petersburg garrison, or if Ivanov had brought a reliable brigade from the front, the fate of the monarchy would have been different. Neither at the front nor at the rear was there a brigade or regiment to be found which was prepared to do battle for Nicholas II.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 158.)
And the October Revolution? In The History Trotsky describes in detail the ease in which Petrograd was taken. The peaceful nature of the revolution was ensured by the fact that the Bolsheviks, under Trotsky’s leadership, had already won over the Petrograd garrison. In the chapter The Conquest of the Capital, he explains the manner in which the workers took control of the key Peter and Paul fortress:
“All the troops of the fortress garrison accepted the arrest of the commandant with complete satisfaction, but the bicycle men bore themselves evasively. What lay concealed behind their sulky silence: a hidden hostility or the last waverings? ‘We decided to hold a special meeting for the bicycle men,’ writes Blagonravov, ‘and invite our best agitational forces, and above all Trotsky, who had enormous authority and influence over the soldier masses.’ At four o’clock in the afternoon the whole battalion met in the neighbouring building of the Cirque Moderne. As governmental opponent, Quartermaster-General Poradelov, considered to be a Social-Revolutionary, took the floor. His objections were so cautious as to seem equivocal; and so much the more destructive was the attack of the Committee’s representatives. This supplementary oratorical battle for the Peter and Paul fortress ended as might have been foreseen: by all voices except thirty the battalion supported the resolution of Trotsky. One more of the potential bloody conflicts was settled before the fighting and without bloodshed. That was the October insurrection. Such was its style.” (Ibid., pp.211-12, our emphasis.)
It took a little longer to establish soviet power in Moscow, mainly because of the mistakes of the local Bolsheviks. But Trotsky insisted repeatedly that the Bolshevik Revolution was largely peaceful until the foreign powers intervened to crush it in blood.
Ultra left policies
In the Minneapolis Trial of 1941, Cannon referred to the insurrection in Petrograd as “just a little scuffling, that’s all” (Socialism on Trial, p. 64). This was later taken up by the ultra-left Grandizo Munis who demanded that the SWP should openly advocate violence and civil war and denounced the defence policy at the Trial as “opportunism.” In reality, the position taken by the leaders of the SWP at least in this instance was strictly in accordance with the advice of Trotsky in the previous period.
“Our formula in this case,” replied Cannon, “also is the formula of the Marxist teachers. They not only insisted on the desirability of a peaceful change of society, but in certain exceptional circumstances, considered such a peaceful revolution possible. We, on our part, rejected any such prospect in the United States, but at the same time declared our preference for it and accused the ruling bourgeois as the instigators of violence. In this we were completely loyal to Marxist doctrine and tradition.” (Munis and Cannon, What policy for revolutionists—Marxism or Ultra-leftism, p. 36.)
By the way, the ultra-left policy advocated by Munis in the given circumstances would not only have cut off the Trotskyists from the American working class. It would have meant the total destruction of the party. (It was destroyed later by the false policies of the SWP leadership, but we have dealt with that question elsewhere). All the arguments which Lenin and Trotsky used in relation to the Russian Revolution are a hundred times more valid today. The balance of class forces is infinitely more favourable for the proletariat, especially in the advanced capitalist countries. Without the betrayals of the Social Democrats and Stalinists, the working class could have taken power many times in the course of the past seven decades in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Britain, Germany.
Trotsky’s position on violence
The assertion that a mass movement of sufficient strength can, under certain conditions, bring about the transfer of power without civil war is not an invention of the IMT. In his testimony to the Dewey Commission, at one point Trotsky was asked whether the political revolution in the USSR would inevitably signify a bloody overthrow of the Stalinist ruling caste. We reprint his comments in full:
“Finerty: In other words, even in the political revolution and the overthrow of the bureaucracy, you would not contemplate as a necessary, even a defensive means, the personal destruction of the bureaucracy, or their personal extermination?
“Trotsky: I am sure that when the hour of the revolution comes, the political revolution, in Russia, it will be such a powerful uprising of the masses that the bureaucracy will become immediately disoriented and disorganised, just as the Tsarist regime in the February revolution.
“Finerty: So, Mr. Trotsky, it does not lie within your political philosophy either to exercise individual acts of terror against the bureaucracy or mass terror against it?
“Trotsky: Mass terror depends upon the circumstances of the bureaucracy itself. I repeat, I hope, even in the critical moment, this powerful and terrible bureaucracy would be absolutely pitiful, and then even the revolution could be more bloodless than the February Revolution in our country and also the October Revolution. But I cannot carry any responsibility for that. If the bureaucracy will oppose the masses they will naturally take severe measures. But individual extermination, no. It is not a revolutionary perspective.
“Finerty: And not a political necessity?
“Trotsky: Not a political necessity.” (The Case of Leon Trotsky, pp. 376-7.)
Let us bear in mind that we are talking here about a monstrous totalitarian dictatorship, based on the suppression of all rights, a regime whose tools of the trade were murder, torture and concentration camps. In spite of this, Trotsky held out the prospect of a revolutionary movement so powerful that it would paralyse the bureaucracy, leaving it helpless.
Was this just a pipe-dream of Trotsky? On the contrary. Just look what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989. The mass movements against the Stalinist regimes in East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia so shook the demoralised bureaucracy that it just collapsed like a house of cards, despite the fact that it held in its hands the most monstrous means of destruction. True, in the absence of the subjective factor, the collapse of the bureaucracy has led back to capitalism. But this does not affect the substance of the argument. Trotsky has explained long ago that the laws of revolution and counter-revolution are similar. The fact remains that the transition from one social regime to another was accomplished peacefully, without civil war. The ruling bureaucracy, in the moment of truth, surrendered without firing a shot.
Let us consider concretely what this means. The totalitarian state in Russia and Eastern Europe was probably the most powerful apparatus of repression in history. It appeared to be indestructible. Even the bourgeoisie spoke of it as a “granite monolith” which they believed would last for centuries (until the final moment of truth, the Stalinist Bureaucracy shared this illusion). It is characteristic of a doomed ruling elite to place a superstitious faith in the power of the police, secret police and army. But Marxists proceed from real social relations, not the numbers of policemen, spies and soldiers who draw their pay from the state, or even the existence of modern fighter-bombers and other technical means of destruction (this is the oldest argument in the book, and one which, if correct, would rule out the possibility of every revolution in history).
All the technical means of destruction were in the hands of the Bureaucracy. Yes, and plenty of policemen and soldiers to use them—at least on paper. Yet in the moment of truth, none of this was of any use. In the Bible, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down after Josuah ordered a blast on the trumpets. The Stalinist regimes collapsed even without such a musical accompaniment. Why did the ruling elite not simply order in the fighter-bombers, which would be the obvious solution? Or the tanks, or any of the ample means of repression at their disposal? A simple order would be sufficient. Why was the order never given? Because the bureaucracy was utterly demoralised and paralysed by the mass movement. Like De Gaulle in 1968, they realised that “the game was up,” and resistance was useless.
How to explain the paralysis of the Bureaucracy? Their demoralisation was the result of the impasse of the regime, which was unable to develop the means of production. As early as 1973, we predicted the collapse of Stalinism precisely because the Bureaucracy had ceased to develop the productive forces, and consequently had been transformed from a relatively progressive force to an absolute block on society. The same is now increasingly true of the bourgeoisie in the West. What stands in the way of a revolutionary transformation is not the strength of the bourgeoisie and its state, but the temporary inertia of the working class, which is only gradually becoming aware of the depth of the social crisis.
In the coming period of storm and stress, revolutionary opportunities will arise in one country after another. The events of 1968 will be repeated on an even higher plane. The state in the hands of the bourgeoisie in the West is powerful, but in many ways no where near as powerful as the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989. Lenin explained that every real revolution always begins at the top, with a crisis of confidence in the ruling class, which feels unable to rule in the old way. The second condition is that the middle class should be in ferment, vacillating between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The third condition is that the working class should be prepared to struggle to transform society. The final condition is the existence of a strong revolutionary party with an experienced and far-sighted leadership.
Hungary 1919 and Germany 1918
Under exceptionally favourable conditions, the crisis of the ruling class, faced with a mass movement of sufficient dimensions, can lead to the collapse of the regime without a fight. In Hungary, this process could be seen in 1919, when the Hungarian bourgeois regime likewise just handed over power to the Communist Party without firing a shot, although the mistakes of the inexperienced Communist Party led to defeat, as Trotsky pointed out:
“The prostration of Count Karolyi before the Entente ended in the peaceful transfer of power by consent to the workers’ parties without any revolution. The Communists of the party of Bela Kun hurried to unite with the Social Democrats. Bela Kun gave evidence of a complete bankruptcy, especially on the peasant question, which led rapidly to the collapse of the soviets.” (Trotsky On France, p. 118, our emphasis)
Similarly, the 1918 revolution in Germany took place painlessly. A general strike, a mutiny in the army and navy where the soldiers placed the reactionary officers under arrest (the lucky ones, that is), workers’ and soldiers’ committees were set up, and power was in the hands of the working class. In all, 19 people lost their lives. More people are killed in traffic accidents in a large city on a busy weekend. What was the problem? The masses of workers and soldiers, newly awakened to political life, inevitably turned to the existing mass organisations. In Germany, that meant the Social Democracy, under the leadership of the same reformist leaders who had betrayed the working class in 1914.
Noske and Scheidermann betrayed the revolution, and handed power back to the bourgeoisie. The German working class and the whole world paid a terrible price for that betrayal 15 years later, with the rise of Hitler, the gas chambers and the Second World War. Here is a striking example of how the refusal of the reformist leaders to take power, even when it is possible by peaceful means, prepares the way for rivers of blood in the future. That is the essential lesson we must hammer home at every opportunity.
The most striking example of the processes we are analysing was the Portuguese revolution of 1974. Here all the processes can be seen very clearly. After nearly 50 years of dictatorship, first under Salazar, then under Caetano, the dictatorship collapsed like a rotten apple. The inner contradictions which undermined the regime were reflected in the state apparatus, with the crystallisation of an opposition tendency in the officer corps.
The interminable and sanguinary colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau played an important role in this. The Portuguese officer caste was not typical of the armies of other imperialist states. Normally, the officer caste is made up of the sons of wealthy families, who live a secure and comfortable life behind a desk. This was different. The wars in Africa meant that military service was not a comfortable sinecure, but a dangerous business, which did not hold much attraction for the “gilded youth.” Instead, many officers came from the middle class. They were “students in uniform.” Sections of these officers began to study the ideas of “Marxism,” and became influenced by them. Motivated by hostility to the war and the corrupt dictatorial regime, they became secretly converted to Socialism, Communism, Maoism.
Thus, the coup of the 25th April 1974 took a peculiar turning. The young officers who overthrew Caetano and proclaimed the revolution, without clearly understanding where they were going, opened the floodgates to the masses. After decades of fascist and Bonapartist rule, with no lead from the top, we saw the magnificent movement of the Portuguese proletariat. On the first of May 1974, there were 3 million workers on the streets, out of a total population of only 8 millions. Alongside the workers, there were soldiers and sailors, demonstrating with arms in hand.
In such conditions, there could be absolutely no talk of “civil war.” A civil war presupposes the existence of forces prepared to fight in defence of the existing order. After the 25th April, these forces did not exist. The formula of “armed bodies of men” does not apply here. What forces were prepared to fight the working class? If we ask the question concretely, it answers itself. The armed bodies of men were on the side of the masses. Let us just quote one example. When the workers of the big Lisnave shipyards in Lisbon struck and marched on the ministry of labour, the troops were ordered out. Faced with a militant demonstration of more than 5,000 helmeted shipyard workers, the reaction of soldiers was vividly expressed by the following eye-witness account:
“Before lunch the rumour circulated that we were going out and we soon guessed it was to Lisnave … We formed up at midday and the commander told us that he’d received a telephone call about a demonstration at Lisnave led by a minority of leftist agitators and that our job was to prevent it taking place. We were armed as we had never been before with G3s and four magazines.
“… the demonstration began and a human torrent advanced with shouts of ‘the soldiers are the sons of the workers,’ ‘tomorrow the soldiers will be workers,’ and ‘the arms of the soldiers must not be turned against the workers.’ The commander soon saw that we were not going to follow his orders, so he shut up. Our arms hung down by our side and some comrades were crying. Back at the barracks, the commander wasn’t too annoyed but told us that in future we would have to obey orders … the following day in the barracks, things were more lively. Before morning assembly many comrades were up and shouting the slogans of the demo: ‘the soldiers are the sons of the workers,’ ‘down with capitalist exploitation’.” (Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 95.)
The force that saved capitalism in Portugal after the 25th of April was not the army, but, in the first place, the leaders of the “Communist” Party, who immediately announced that it was necessary to support the so-called “progressive” general Spinola. Behind the protective facade of the Provisional Government, Spinola prepared a counter-stroke. One year later, he attempted to launch a coup. What forces did he command? A small group of soldiers drawn from the most backward section of the army, the paratroops. On the 11th March, the paratroopers surrounded the barracks of one of the most radical regiments in Lisbon, the RAL-1, but could not be persuaded to fire. The spontaneous movement of the workers and other sections of the soldiers, who fraternised and appealed to the paratroops, rapidly ended the mutiny. Within a few hours, the paratroopers were explaining: “We are not fascists. We are your comrades.” The “slave-owners’ rebellion” collapsed almost immediately.
Marx once said that the revolution needs the whip of the counter-revolution. Spinola’s attempted coup provoked the workers into action. The bankworkers occupied the banks, and demanded that the government of the MFA nationalise the banks. Following their example, the insurance workers did the same. The left wing officers proceeded to nationalise the banks and insurance companies, the real power basis of reaction in Portugal, which between them owned more than 60% of the economy.
This struck a heavy blow not only against the reaction, but against capitalism in Portugal. This fact was recognised by The Times, which carried an editorial with the title, Capitalism is Dead in Portugal. And this should have been the case. With the crushing of Spinola’s attempted coup, power was in the hands of the workers and soldiers. Yet again, only the cowardice and betrayals of the leaders of the CP and SP saved the day. The Socialist Party, which had been very weak, with a mere 200 members one year before the Revolution, began to grow rapidly. Under the pressure of the masses, the SP leaders adopted a very radical policy–in words. Mario Soares gave speeches calling for the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Socialist paper Republica published articles by Trotsky. In the first democratic elections in 50 years, no less than 91.1% of the electorate voted. The SP got 37.8% of the vote. The CP got 12.5%, and its ally the MDP another 4.1%–a total of 54.4% for the workers’ parties.
Under these circumstances, there is not the slightest question, not only that the revolution in Portugal could have been carried out peacefully, but that it could have been done through parliament. The bourgeoisie was completely demoralised by the swift collapse of the March coup. Spinola had fled to Brazil. The working class was roused. Without any lead from the top, workers’ councils were being elected in the factories. Popular clinics and cultural centres flourished. Unemployed workers helped in the countryside. Children taught adults how to read. Hundreds of factories and farms were abandoned by their owners and taken over by the workers, who were drawing revolutionary conclusions. A militant from the Setenave shipyard expressed the situation thus:
“Even at Setenave we don’t have workers’ control. How can we if we don’t control the banks? Our attitude is that we want to know everything … We want to control decisions but we do not take responsibility. We don’t believe we can have workers’ control alone.” (Revolutionary Rehearsals, p. 104.)
What was required? The formation of a Communist-Socialist government, pledged to carry the Revolution through to the end. A couple of decrees would have sufficed to eliminate the power of the landlords, banker and capitalists and formally establish a nationalised planned economy. Immediate measures to raise pensions and wages, lower the working day and improve the living standards of the small peasants and shopkeepers. An appeal to the workers, peasants and soldiers to take over the land and factories, set up democratically elected committees, and arrest any counter-revolutionary elements. Such measures, resting on the revolutionary movement of the masses outside parliament would have been more than enough to ensure a peaceful transition.
Would such a policy have led inevitably to civil war? As always, the revolutionary movement of the masses had a profound effect in the army. The idea of elected committees spread from the factories to the barracks. The attempt to set up a national network of “revolutionary councils of soldiers, sailors and workers” even got the support of a section of the officers associated with Otelo de Carvalho. The spread of revolutionary ideas in the armed forces was acknowledged by the conservative officers of the “Group of Nine,” who stated in their Manifesto:
“We see a progressive deterioration of state structures. Everywhere wildcat and anarchistic forms of the exercise of power have taken over little by little even reaching as far as the armed forces.”
An autonomous soldiers’ movement, the SUV (Soldados Unidos Vencerão –”Soldiers United Will Win”) was set up in September. SUV called a demonstration in the northern city of Porto on 10 September:
“As soldiers aren’t allowed to sing in public we started whistling. However by the end everybody ends up singing … singing the Internationale. The number of people on the demonstration grew in front of our very own eyes.”
It was estimated that around 30,000 workers marched behind a contingent of 1,500 soldiers that day. SUV began to expose the reactionary officers to the soldiers, which had been obscured by the prestige of the MFA.
“The day after the SUV demonstration was the anniversary of [the military coup in] Chile and we wanted to have a minute’s silence. The officers said no. We put bullets in our guns—and held our minute’s silence.”
The soldiers began to advance demands which faced up to inequalities between them and the officers. They began to agitate for pay increases and free transport. A single trip to see their family was enough to wipe out almost a month’s pay for many soldiers.
“In the general headquarters of Porto there were three separate mess halls, one for soldiers, one for NCOs, and one for officers. Three days after the Porto demonstration, some soldiers calmly walked in and sat down to eat in the officers’ mess. The next day all the soldiers occupied the officers’ mess. Since that day there has been a struggle to eliminate the separate mess halls and unify them.”
This is not the place to deal in detail with the way in which the Portuguese Revolution was derailed. But the conduct of Cunhal and Soares was undoubtedly the decisive factor. They had every possibility of carrying out a peaceful revolution, under the most favourable conditions, but instead shipwrecked the revolution and turned the hopes of the masses to ashes. This means that new and terrible obstacles will be placed in the path of the working class, which might signify that the next time will not be so peaceful. That will depend on many factors, but above all on our ability to create a viable mass Marxist tendency in Portugal.
Revolution in the West
Both Lenin and Trotsky emphasised that the socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries would differ in important respects to the Russian Revolution. In one sense, it would be more difficult. In Lenin’s phrase, in tsarist Russia, capitalism broke at its weakest link. Capitalism in North America, Western Europe and Japan has accumulated enormous reserves of fat, especially over the last half century. Lenin pointed out that in countries like Britain, the ruling class has developed to a fine art the tactic of corrupting the leaders of the labour movement. This is now true of all the advanced capitalist countries to an unparalleled degree.
Since the Second World War, the reformist and Stalinist leaderships have degenerated to an extent which puts the past in the shade. By an irony of history, they have all embraced “the market” just when it is beginning to break down. Trotsky explained that the crisis of humanity is reduced, in the last analysis, to the crisis of leadership of the workers’ organisations, and this is more true today than when it was written. The crisis of capitalism signifies also the crisis of reformism. The next period will see a whole series of inner convulsions and splits in the reformist parties and trade unions. At a certain stage, mass left wings will crystallise which will present big opportunities for the Marxists.
However, it is not a foregone conclusion that we will succeed in winning over the decisive sections of the advanced workers and youth. Revolutionary politics is both a science and an art. We need a scientific perspective which enables us to understand the general processes, and not be thrown off balance by episodic twists and turns, and the ephemeral moods of the masses. But this is not enough. It is necessary to educate the cadres in flexible tactics and the art of connecting the finished scientific programme of Marxism with the necessarily unfinished, confused and incoherent aspirations of the masses. Failure to do this would reduce us to a sterile and impotent sect. We have to see, in the words of the German poet Goethe, which Marx frequently quoted: “Theory is grey, my friend, but the tree of life is evergreen.”
Marxists do not work in a vacuum. The long period of capitalist upswing after 1945 has had an effect on the consciousness of the working class, including the advanced layer. There is no automatic mechanism whereby the experience of one generation of workers can be transmitted to the next. Every generation has to relearn the lessons of the past through experience. The present generation is passing through some particularly painful experiences, but they will learn. If we are present in sufficient numbers, the learning process will be shorter and easier.
It is necessary to find a common language with the workers, without making concessions in principle. Before the War, a whole generation had been brought up on the basis of the Russian Revolution. Revolution, war and counter-revolution were familiar ideas, at least to the advanced layers. But this is no longer true. In the advanced capitalist countries (though not in the colonial world) there has been, to a certain extent, a blunting of class consciousness, reflecting a certain “softening” of the contradictions in society. That is beginning to change. The new period which we are entering into will be a convulsive one. The old illusions in reformism will be burned out of the consciousness of the workers.
However, it is necessary to take the class as we find it. The Russian revolutionary Herzen used to say of his friend Bakunin that he always mistook the second month of pregnancy for the ninth. This is the organic sickness of ultra lefts in every period. Such mistakes will only produce abortions! At the present stage, we are still in the process of winning over the ones and twos, of attempting to sink roots in the labour organisations and win the ear of the activists. The way in which we proceed in this will be decisive for the future.
Trotsky on “If America Should Go Communist”
The revolution in advanced countries will be both more difficult and easier than in Russia. The Russian Revolution did not encounter serious resistance until Russia was invaded by 21 imperialist armies, when it was obliged to resort to terror in order to survive. However, Trotsky explains that in, say, a socialist America, this would not be necessary. How did Trotsky recommend the Trotskyists to approach the American workers before the War? We have a good example of Trotsky’s method in the records of the Dewey Commission:
“LaFollette: There is one more question I would like to put: I want to ask what your opinion is of the idea that the revolutionary terror must almost necessarily lead to the Thermidorian terror.
“Trotsky: Also, in such a general form I cannot accept it and cannot deny it. Terror in a revolution is an indication, a symptom of weakness, not of strength.
“LaFollette: Of weakness?
“Trotsky: Of weakness—such terrible means. The revolution on a low basis must have more terror that a revolution on a higher basis. In a revolution on a low basis you incur more danger of counter-revolution.” (The Case of Leon Trotsky, p. 372.)
The matter by no means ends there. On many occasions Trotsky returned to this question. The barest acquaintance with his writings proves that Trotsky’s approach to the question of revolutionary violence was exactly the same as our own. This is what Trotsky has to say on the subject in a little pamphlet entitled If America Should Go Communist where we read the following:
“Actually American soviets will be as different from the Russian soviets as the United States of President Roosevelt differs from the Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II. Yet communism can come in America only through revolution, just as independence and democracy came in America. The American temperament is energetic and violent, and it will insist on breaking a good many dishes and upsetting a good many apple carts before communism is firmly established. Americans are enthusiasts and sportsmen before they are specialists and statesmen, and it would be contrary to the American tradition to make a major change without choosing sides and cracking heads.
“However the American communist revolution will be insignificant compared to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, in terms of your national wealth and population, no matter how great its comparative cost. That is because civil war of a revolutionary nature isn’t fought by the handful of men at the top—the 5 or 10 percent who own nine-tenths of American wealth; this handful could recruit its counter-revolutionary armies along from among the middle classes. Even so, the revolution could attract them to its banner by showing that support of the soviets alone offers them the prospect of salvation.
“Everybody below this group is already economically prepared for communism. The depression has ravaged your working class and has already dealt a crushing blow to the farmers, who had already been injured by the long agricultural decline of the post-war decade. There is no reason why these groups should counterpose determined resistance to the revolution; they have nothing to lose providing, of course, that the revolutionary leaders adopt a farsighted and moderate policy toward them.
“Who else will fight against communism? Your corporal’s guard of billionaires and multimillionaires? Your Mellons, Morgans, Fords and Rockefellers? They will cease struggling as soon as they fail to find other people to fight for them.
“The American soviet government will take firm possession of the commanding heights of your business system: the banks, the key industries and the transportation and communication systems. It will then give the farmers, the small tradespeople and businessmen a good long time to think things over and see how well the nationalised section of industry is working.” (Trotsky, If America Should Go Communist, Writings 1934-35, p. 74.)
What is the meaning of these lines? While not denying for a moment the need for a revolutionary struggle for power (how could any Marxist do such a thing?). Trotsky tells the American worker the obvious truth that, given the overwhelmingly favourable class balance of forces, given a serious Marxist leadership with a correct attitude to the small farmers and petit-bourgeoisie, the big capitalists would find themselves isolated, paralysed, suspended in mid-air. This was precisely what happened in France in 1968, even without a Marxist leadership, although the revolution was betrayed by the Stalinists, as we shall see.
Trotskyism versus Sectarianism
War and revolution are the fundamental tests for any revolutionary tendency and above all its leadership. We base ourselves firmly on the policy and method of Lenin and Trotsky. The approach of our tendency on all fundamental questions has not varied for the last 50 years, and has been tested in practice, and shown to be correct.
We are proud of the fact that we are the continuers of the ideas, methods and traditions of Marx, Engels, Lenin and, above all, Leon Trotsky in whose writings (especially his last writings) we have the distilled essence of the Marxist method as applied to the concrete conditions of the modern epoch. Just compare the rich, creative, dialectical approach of Trotsky, say, to the military policy of the proletariat in the Second World War to the arid schemas of the sects, who imagine that they are great revolutionaries because they are able to quote a few lines from Lenin which they have not understood.
Our tendency has had plenty of experience with this kind of thing in the past. During the Second World War, the Workers International League (WIL) in Britain defended Trotsky’s proletarian military policy against the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), who allegedly stood for Lenin’s policy of “revolutionary defeatism.” The RSL accused us of a “very serious departure” from the point of view of Lenin and Trotsky, for not repeating word for word the arguments of Lenin in 1914-15, not realising that the situation was entirely different.
In practice, the WIL stood for revolutionary defeatism, but translated into a language which the workers could understand and identify with in the given context. To have repeated like parrots the slogans “the main enemy is at home” and “turn the imperialist war into a civil war” at a time when Hitler was running amok, physically annihilating the workers’ organisations in Europe, would have been utter madness. As a matter of fact, the RSL never advocated these “rrrrrrevolutionary” ideas in the workers’ organisations or anywhere else, except the bedroom! They would have got a rather rough reception had they attempted to do so.
Only on one occasion did one particularly obtuse representative of this group actually defend their position in the Labour Party. He actually moved a resolution in his local branch, stating that “the victory of Germany was the lesser evil,” and then wondered why he was expelled! As always, this kind of terminological radicalism is strictly for internal consumption. Small ultraleft groups, isolated from the class, have nobody to talk to but themselves. Since nobody is listening, they can say anything they like, no matter how bizarre. As typical sectarians, the RSL spent the whole of the War arguing to each other in internal bulletins. That was their only activity. On the other hand, the policies and methods of our tendency got a significant echo among the workers, not only in the factories and unions but in the armed forces.
The WIL conducted highly successful work in the army, navy and air force during the War. Contrary to the expectations of Trotsky, the British ruling class was compelled to permit democratic rights in order to get the support of the workers for the alleged “War against fascism.” Even in the armed forces, there was a surprising amount of latitude for revolutionary work (within the limits of military discipline, which our comrades, following Trotsky’s advice, always scrupulously observed). One of our comrades was elected President of the “Forces parliament” in Egypt, standing on the programme of the Fourth International. Another comrade was asked by the officer in charge of political education to give lectures to the troops on politics, as he seemed to know more about it, and used his position to put forward Trotskyist ideas. Another, who had been promoted to officer in the air force was so successful in winning over the airmen that he was given an honourable discharge from the RAF, and spent the rest of the War trying to get back.
This work in the armed forces was only possible on the basis of our correct policies and methods. It could never have succeeded on any other basis. The shrill ultraleftism of the RSL, based on a few quotes from Lenin taken out of context and misunderstood, completely paralysed them and doomed them to impotence. This “rrrrrrevolutionary” nonsense could not get the ear of the workers. They would have been regarded as lunatics or traitors. For example, when Pierre Frank had the bright idea of distributing a leaflet in Britain after the fall of France in 1940, calling on the workers to “seize the factories,” the British workers were actually working 18 hours a day voluntarily to help what they saw as a “War against Hitler.” Here we see the same nonsense, the same barren formalism which tries to inflict a ready-made schema on reality without regard for time or place. It is a fundamentally wrong method, the method of abstract politics, which has nothing in common with the method and approach worked out by Trotsky and continued by our tendency.
What was the position advocated by the WIL? We said to the British workers: “We agree Hitler is our enemy. We are not pacifists. We are in favour of defeating the nazis. But we cannot entrust this task to Churchill and the ruling class, who backed Hitler and applauded the destruction of the German labour movement. The only force that can defeat the nazis is the working class. Therefore, we demand that the Labour Party break from the coalition, take power into its own hands and transform society. Then we can wage a revolutionary war against Hitler.”
Alongside this programme, we put forward transitional demands in line with Trotsky’s proletarian military programme, such as the creation of military schools for the training of workers’ officers, and control of military training by the trade unions. This was to give a concrete content to the slogan “arm the workers.” While the RSL sectarians were delivering revolutionary speeches to each other (in the bedroom), the WIL was conducting genuinely revolutionary work in the factories, shop stewards’ committees and trade union branches. By combining an implacable firmness on principles with the necessary flexibility in tactics, we were able to get a favourable echo in the labour movement—including the Communist Party. On this basis, we built one of the most successful organisations in the history of international Trotskyism, the RCP, while the RSL withered and disappeared.
The correctness of our approach to War and military policy was testified to by the ruling class. On the very first day of the War, every branch of the WIL was raided by the police. They saw the danger posed by our policy and tactics, whereas they treated the RSL as an irrelevance, which it undoubtedly was. Wherein lay the mistake of the RSL? In adopting an abstract position in relation to the Leninist policy on war and revolution. In attempting to apply certain slogans and ideas without regard to the real situation of society, the labour movement, or the consciousness of the working class. It is a poor substitute for a real policy.
The Stalinists committed all kinds of mistakes, both of an ultra left and opportunist nature. But even they were never guilty of such madness. Such elementary mistakes would be impossible for any tendency that was really rooted in the class. That is the essence of the problem.
How Not to Pose the Question
How do we pose the question? Not by repeating revolutionary phrases about civil war, but by explaining the fundamentals of Marxism, and above fighting to win the masses.
The increased power of the proletariat, which is now the decisive majority of the main industrialised countries, undoubtedly creates favourable objective conditions for the socialist transformation of society. As we have explained many times, the development of the productive forces and the disappearance of the peasantry in the period since the Second World War has enormously strengthen the working class. The problem is that the class is not conscious of the fact, and the reformist leaders go to great lengths to convince the workers that they are weak and the bourgeois and its state is strong. Part of the trick is to frighten the workers with the idea that revolution inevitably means violence, civil war, the streets running with blood and so on.
Curiously, the ultra left sects are always harping on the same theme, not realising that they are falling into a trap prepared by the bourgeois and their reformist allies. Some time ago, comrade Ted Grant was interviewed on British television, about the time of his expulsion from the Labour Party. Not surprisingly, one of the questions asked was “are you in favour of violence?” to which Ted replied: “Are you in favour of the plague? Of course I am not in favour of violence. We stand for the election of a Labour government which must pass an enabling act to nationalise the banks and the big monopolies.” Naturally, the interviewer would have been delighted if, instead of this answer, he had received a diatribe on the need to smash the state, the inevitability of civil war, etc.
The whole issue at stake is how we pose the question of power in such a way that we can win over and mobilise the masses for an offensive against capital. That will only be achieved by linking the day-to-day struggles of the workers (“economic demands”) to the idea of expropriating the banks and big monopolies. That can only be done in a transitional manner, not by abstract discussions on the need for a violent overthrow of the state by military means. Let us see how Trotsky posed the question.
In The Transitional Programme, which represents the summing-up of the Marxist position on how to carry out the socialist transformation of society, Trotsky explains the precise relationship between “economic” demands and the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. His attitude towards this is clearly shown in the discussions on the transitional programme, which, by the way, were internal discussions, intended precisely to educate and develop the leading cadres of the Trotskyist movement:
“Trotsky: The slogan ‘expropriation’ in the program does not exclude compensation. In this sense, we often oppose expropriation to confiscation. Confiscation excludes compensation, but expropriation can include compensation. How much compensation is another question. For example while agitating we can be asked, what will you do now, transform the owners and bearers of power into tramps? No, we will give them decent compensation necessary for their life, insofar as they are unable to work—that is, the older generation. It is not necessary to imitate the Russians. They suffered intervention from many capitalist nations; it deprived them of the possibility of giving compensation. We are a rich people in the United States, and when we come into power we will give compensation to the older generation. In this sense it would not be favourable to proclaim confiscation without any compensation. It is better to use expropriation than confiscation, because expropriation can be equal to confiscation, but can include also some compensation.
“We should show that we are not a revengeful people. In the United States it is very important to show that it is a question of material possibilities, but we will not personally destroy the capitalist class.” (Trotsky, The Transitional Programme, p. 197.)
To the sectarian mind, it seems to be impermissible “in principle” that a revolutionary tendency could suggest that we could pay any compensation to the bourgeoisie, just as it is supposedly ruled out that the workers might take power without “inevitable civil war.” That is the difference between genuine Marxism and mere formalism. In essence, Trotsky is repeating the same method that Marx and Engels applied when they said that, under certain conditions, the proletariat might consider offering to “buy out” the capitalists, on condition that they handed over the factories peacefully, without resistance.
It goes without saying that neither Trotsky nor they entertained any illusions that the bourgeoisie would not fight with every means at their disposal to hold onto their power and wealth. But this depends precisely on what means are really at their disposal in the decisive moment. And that, in turn, depends to a large extent on the ability of the revolutionary party to combine absolute firmness on principles with absolute flexibility and intelligence in the field of tactics.