National Sections of the L5I:

Chapter 2 - The crisis of proletarian leadership

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Capitalism, even in its imperialist death agony, will not depart the scene automatically. It needs to be consciously overthrown by the working class. For this to happen, a new revolutionary vanguard must be forged. This vanguard requires a conscious strategic plan, a programme and a working class vanguard party.

Today the central problem facing humanity remains: who leads the working class? On the eve of the last inter-imperialist war capitalism was gripped by a general economic depression which was plunging the whole world irreversibly into a revolutionary crisis. Trotsky's Transitional Programme, written in these years, pronounced that the crisis of humanity was reduced to the crisis of leadership. However, today it would be wrong simply to repeat that all contemporary crises are "reduced to a crisis of leadership".

The proletariat worldwide does not yet face the stark alternative of either taking power or seeing the destruction of all its past gains. Nevertheless, in many countries and, indeed, whole continents, the crisis of leadership does reach such a level of acuteness. Even in countries where this is not so a chronic crisis afflicts the workers' organisations, bringing about defeat, stagnation and even decline as a result of the repeated betrayals of the reformist leaders. Capitalism's inability to meet the basic needs of millions makes it both possible and necessary to transform the defensive struggles of the workers and poor peasants into the struggle for power. Yet none of the existing leaderships of the working class are willing or able to carry through such a fight. They are tied to the interests of the bourgeoisie or the parasitic bureaucracy of the Stalinist states. The imperialist bourgeoisie has long used its resources to sow divisions in the proletariat and even to accept the existence of a privileged layer, a "labour aristocracy", whose living standards were substantially better than those of the mass of the working class. This section of the working class formed the principal basis for a "labour bureaucracy" whose role was to negotiate with capital and whose spontaneous political outlook, therefore, was one of class collaboration.

In Europe, by 1914, the mass workers' parties had become dominated by the politics of the collaborators. This was true both of parties like the British Labour Party, which had been a reformist party from its founda­tion, and of the Social Democratic parties which maintained a formal adherence to Marxism. It culminated in the betrayal of the working class by the leaders of the Second (Socialist) International. In 1914 they became recruiting sergeants for the imperialist war. Then, as a wave of revolutions swept Europe (1917-23) they openly sided with bourgeois counter-revolution against the working masses.

Social Democracy thus took on its fundamental shape. It became strategically wedded both to the capitalist economy and the capitalist state, albeit in the idealised forms of state capitalism and bourgeois democracy. This was true even where capitalism had not yet developed fully-fledged labour aristocracies and bureaucracies. In Russia, for ex­ample, the Mensheviks, arguing for a long period of bourgeois democracy as a necessary stage of development, opposed the workers' revolution and took up arms against it. For the reformists, direct action and military force were measures that could only be utilised against the opponents of their bourgeois democratic goals, never as means of defeating the opponents of the working class.

The degeneration of the Comintern

The Comintern was formed out of the consistent fighters against Social Democracy's betrayals during the post-1917 revolutionary period. In its first four congresses the Comintern began to re-elaborate the revolution­ary programme for the imperialist epoch. But it degenerated into bureau­cratic centrism after 1923 under the impact of the political counter­revolution in the Soviet Union. The goal of world revolution was replaced by the reactionary utopia of "socialism in one country". The centrist communist parties led the working class to bloody and unnecessary defeats in China (1927) and Germany (1933).

After the defeat of the German masses in 1933, Trotsky considered that the Comintern had become irreformable. Later that year he declared that the Comintern, having failed to recognise and to correct its mistakes, was, whilst still bureaucratic centrist, irreformable and, "dead for the purposes of revolution". He, therefore, demanded, in the first instance, the building of a new party in Germany and then a new International world-wide, although the Stalinists had not yet definitively passed over to the camp of counter-revolution.

In 1934-35 the Comintern completed its evolution into a counter­-revolutionary International. It concluded a strategic alliance with the bourgeoisie of the so called "democratic" imperialisms in the name of a new "strategy", that of the popular front. This class collaborationist policy was imposed on the sections of the Comintern by the Kremlin bureaucracy, in order to satisfy its diplomatic needs. The Stalinist bu­reaucracy, trying to establish a utopian "peaceful coexistence" with "democratic" imperialism and its allies, transformed the Communist Parties of those states into reformist parties preaching collaboration and "peaceful co-existence" between classes. It commended to the masses the defence of their own imperialisms, thus following Social Democracy into the ranks of counter-revolution. The turn to social patriotism coincided with the liquidation of the old Bolshevik vanguard in the Moscow Show Trials. In the second phase of the Second World War, after the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the Stalinists in non-Axis countries became super-patriots and, in countries occupied by the Nazis or at war with Germany, gained a new mass following.

Today, these parties are hostile to the proletarian revolution, the self emancipation of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat based on soviets. Despite the stolen banner of communism they remain hostile to the goal of a communist, i.e. a classless and stateless, society. As such they are not the opposite of Social Democracy but its twin, sharing with it the ideology of social patriotism and reformism. The loyalty of the Stalinist parties to their own bourgeoisies cannot be as total as that of the Social Democrats because of the support they give to, and receive from, the bureaucracy of the degenerated workers' state. Despite the advanced tendencies to "social democratisation" exhibited by certain Parties they cannot simply evolve into Social Democracy without a rupture. Even where the Stalinist parties have virtually eclipsed their Social Democratic rivals to become the major working class parties with a political practice essentially the same as the Social Democrats of other countries, their differing origins, structures and traditions set them apart, both in the eyes of the working class and of the bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, the division between Social Democracy and Stalinism is a division within reformism. Neither can be thought to have evolved into purely bourgeois parties, without internal splits, simply because of their ideological abandonment of programmatic pledges to "social owner­ship" or the "proletarian dictatorship". For this, a rupture with their organic links to the proletariat would have to occur. Even fascism could not completely extinguish Social Democratic and Stalinist reformism. Their existence will only be ended when revolutionaries have won political dominance in the class.

Both the Stalinist and Social Democratic parties are servants of the bourgeois world order, yet both are rooted in organisations that the proletariat has created to fight for its class interests. Both are dominated by a privileged bureaucracy that selves the imperialist bourgeoisie. The fundamental roots of Social Democracy are within capitalist society. Stalinism's historic roots lie in the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union and, therefore, in post-capitalist property relations. But Stalinism is no less a servant of the bourgeoisie than Social Democracy. Through its political dictatorship of the Soviet Union, and the other degenerate workers' states, it blocks the advance to socialism and discredits the very goal of a classless, stateless society communism. It blocks the interna­tionalisation of the revolution, spreading chauvinism and class collabo­ration. It objectively promotes the potential for capitalist restoration within the workers' states and, in a decisive crisis, will provide in its upper layers the cadres for social counter-revolution.

The contradictory character that Stalinism and Social Democracy share is best summed up in the characterisation that they are bourgeois workers' parties. Neither is qualitatively preferable to the other. Of course, the fact that a party possesses a Social Democratic or Stalinist ideology does not, of itself, prove that it is a bourgeois workers' party. Significant numbers of parties of the Socialist International are bourgeois nationalist parties without any decisive organic links to their own proletariat. On the other hand there are Stalinist parties whose social base is the peasantry or the urban or rural petit-bourgeoisie. Yet, as world tendencies, both retain the character of bourgeois workers' parties

In certain countries towards the end of the Second World War revolutionary struggles developed (e.g. in Italy, the Balkans and France). But the combined forces of Social Democracy and Stalinism resolutely dissipated the spontaneous will of the masses to settle accounts with their discredited bourgeoisies. The Social Democratic parties and the Communist Parties, having performed their role as agents of democratic counter-revolution, were thrust to one side by the capitalists who then installed, wherever possible, openly bourgeois parties at the helm of the booming economies of the 1950s and 1960s.

The late 1960s initiated a new period of intense class struggle in the imperialist heartlands, invariably started from below by a confident and well organised working class. Throughout Europe the Stalinist and Social Democratic leaders and their trade union allies successfully fought to contain these struggles, to keep them within the limits of legality and official organisation. In France, Portugal and Spain, Stalinism and Social Democracy were given the chance to demonstrate yet again their counter-­revolutionary loyalty to capitalism. With serious defeats in many countries of Western Europe by the mid 1970s, the European workers' movement was again thrown back and pacified for the next period.

By the onset of the second major recession, that of 1979-82, the existing leaderships had successfully demobilised working class resistance, opening the proletariat of the imperialist countries to a decade of austerity, anti-union laws and attacks on democratic rights. In govern­ment the traitors were only too happy to preside over and to initiate these attacks. Thus in the 1980s the crisis of leadership in the imperialist heartlands takes the form of the inability of the working class to resist the attacks of the Thatcherite-Reaganite economic liberals with its own existing parties, unions and politics, With the discrediting of Keynesian, social-liberal welfarism, with its "mixed economy" and state intervention in the economy, the Social Democratic and Stalinist Parties are thrown into ideological and policy crisis. The bourgeoisie does not want their old programme and, at the same time, that programme is pitifully inadequate to the needs of a working class hit by austerity and unemployment. The trade union bureaucracy cannot mount effective resistance to the attacks. The centrist forces of the 1970s are shrunken and demoralised. Yet the working class has fought back against its enemies. Massive and bitter workers' struggles have marked the 1980s, but not one of them has been able to gain a decisive victory. Only a new leadership and a new programme can solve the chronic crisis in the workers' movement of the imperialist heartlands. . In the degenerate(d) workers' states, the Stalinist bureaucracy has f I managed to discredit the very idea of socialism and communism in the r I eyes of the working class. The ruling castes have failed to legitimise their role in these societies, have failed to overcome the fundamental objection to their very existence: they are unnecessary to-indeed are a drain upon- the system of planned property relations.

In the post-war decades this caste has tried to shore up its rule by lurching from market experiments (to overcome stagnation) to a tight­ening of bureaucratic command in the economy. This experience has created factional strife within the bureaucracies and even political open­ings for an opposition from below.

The working class of the degenerate(d) workers' states has repeatedly proved itself to be the most determined force in this opposition. More than once it has hurled itself against bureaucratic privilege and political oppression. In the post-war era this struggle has taken the workers to the brink of proletarian political revolution. This has been demonstrated by the creation of soviets (Hungary 1956) and proto-soviet bodies (the inter-factory committees in Poland 1980 and China 1989).

But the absence of a political revolutionary strategy means that it has been defeated in every major political revolutionary crisis. Its spontaneous struggles have generated ideas that have served both to leave the power of the bureaucracy intact and, in certain instances, to positively strengthen the forces for capitalist restoration.

In Hungary and Poland in 1956 misplaced hopes in a section of the bureaucracy led the working class to ultimate defeat. Syndicalism and trade unionism, as with Solidarnosc in Poland, led the struggle away from the goal of political power and diverted it into a utopian struggle for independent trade unions co-existing with bureaucratic rule. Even the left wing of Solidarnosc peddled the illusion that self-managed enterprises rather than workers' management of the centralised planning mecha­nisms could overcome the crisis of the command economy.

In the USSR, nationalism strengthens the hand of bourgeois and clerical restorationists. In Eastern Europe and China, the workers aspire to parliamentary democracy, a sentiment that springs from the experi­ence of a stifling autocracy. The bloody slaughter of the courageous forces of China's "Democracy Movement" by the tyrants of the Chinese Communist Party, served only to strengthen the bourgeois democratic current within the opposition movement.

But these hopes in "democracy", emptied of a working class content, are a cruel deception, one fostered by imperialism to ease the passage of the masses of these countries into the camp of capitalist exploitation. Without revolutionary leadership, and a revolutionary programme, the break up of Stalinism in its heartlands will benefit only a ruling minority inside these states. By contrast a majority of the multi-national firms within the imperialist countries will prosper.

Without revolutionary leadership the potential for political revolution, embodied in the events of Hungary 1956 and China 1989, cannot be realised. Without such leadership the ruling Stalinist parties will continue to be either the handmaidens of capitalist restoration or the harbingers of military bureaucratic retribution.

Stalinism against permanent revolution

The counter-revolutionary character of Stalinism is also expressed in its violent opposition to the perspective and programme of permanent revolution in the semi-colonies and wherever bourgeois democratic questions assume a revolutionary importance. Social Democracy has been less enduring in the semi-colonies. In these countries the labour aristoc­racy and labour trade union bureaucracy has been less firmly established because of the under-developed nature of capitalism. Also the more craven legalism and parliamentarism of Social Democracy has ensured that it more completely disappears when democracy and parliaments themselves fall victim to Bonapartism or dictatorship. From Indonesia through Chile to South Africa today, Stalinism has clung to the perspective of a democratic stage, which excludes the fight for working class power, but embraces all kinds of bourgeois, petit bourgeois, clerical and military Bonapartist allies. This popular frontist strategy which ushered in democratic counter-revolution after 1945 has resulted since then in bloody and decisive defeats in key revolutionary situations.

In Indonesia the PKI, the largest Stalinist party in the capitalist world, entered the left nationalist government of Sukarno in 1965, claiming it to be at the head of a "people's state". Unarmed and unwarned by their leaders, the masses of the PKI were then slaughtered by the military. This disaster bears direct comparison with events in China in 1927 and Germany in 1933.

In Chile, Stalinism and the Social Democratic Socialist Party led the workers and poor peasants to disaster. Allende's government, installed in 1970, was a popular front whose programme was limited to reforms. Allende renounced from the outset the arming of the workers and guaranteed the reactionary high command a monopoly of armed force.

Nevertheless, spontaneous working class militancy led to the creation of cordones industrial, proto-soviets, and even badly armed militias. It led to demands for expropriations which Allende stood firmly against. Economic crisis and sabotage created the climate for a coup d'etat by Pinochet in September 1973, which left tens of thousands dead, tortured or imprisoned and hundreds of thousands forced to flee the country. In Iran, the Stalinist Tudeh Party participated in the mass overthrow of the Shah, only to support the imposition of Khomeini's Islamic Republic. In the name of revolutionary loyalty the Tudeh assisted Islamic reaction in the slaughter of masses of workers, leftists and Kurdish rebels. In return Khomeini unleashed his repressive apparatus against the Tudeh itself.

As the leading force within the ANC, the South African Communist Party squandered a revolutionary opportunity with its policy of using the township revolts to seek negotiations with the "enlightened" wing of South African imperialism. Now, it is beating a retreat from all forms of revolutionary activity in the interests of the "global stability" sought by the Kremlin. The bankruptcy of Stalinism and Social Democracy has prolonged the life of bourgeois and petit bourgeois nationalism among wide sections of the semi-colonial working class. Despite their occasional ability to speak and act more radically than the workers' parties, the mass nationalist movements and parties remain incapable of solving the plight of the workers and peasants. Garcia's APRA, the Mexican PRI, the FSLN, the PLO, and Sinn Fein all remain strategically tied to capitalism. Their acts of defiance against imperialism are carried out only so long as the working class is absent, as an independent force, from the struggle. Once chal­lenged by the distinct demands of the exploited, these "anti-imperialists" become the abject defenders of imperialism.

Unless a revolutionary party can dislodge all these forces from the leadership of the working class they threaten to repeat their mistakes in the mighty class battles ahead. To prevent this it is essential, in what remains of the twentieth century that the class conscious vanguard of workers and poor peasants throughout the world is regrouped around an international transitional programme.