Fifty years after the end of the Second World War, one might ask how severe has been the decline of the proletarian revolutionary movement. In the course of this half-century, not only has there been no proletarian revolution, but neither has a solution been found to the problem of building revolutionary workers' parties. Yet these fifty years have been rich in events, including some which had revolutionary potential.
Throughout this period the most politicised sections of the workers' movement were dominated by Stalinist currents. Today Stalinism is collapsing. But this process of collapse has not generated situations where significant groups of militants have taken it on themselves to revive the real communist traditions which, under stalinist leadership, they were obliged to forget.
Many of those Stalinist militants who still remain active do so on a reformist basis. With the disappearance of the Soviet Union, they have become virtually indistinguishable from militants of other reformist tendencies. But those who are dropping out of activity completely are far more numerous, and so a considerable amount of militant capital of the workers' movement is simply disappearing.
No militant can avoid asking the question whether revolutionary aims are still valid or how they might be achieved: in other words, what conditions would be required for a revival of the communist movement?
The retreat after the Russian Revolution
The manifesto concluding the first congress of the Communist International in March 1919, in an assessment of the previous 72 years since Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto, noted that: «The development of communism during this three-quarters of a century proceeded along complex paths: side by side with periods of stormy upsurge, it knew periods of decline; side by side with successes - cruel defeats... The epoch of final, decisive struggle has come later than the apostles of the socialist revolution expected and hoped. But it has come.» This was not just an optimistic anticipation. In Europe alone, tens of millions of proletarians were getting involved in political activity after the butchery of the First World War. In several countries they did so to the highest degree: seeking to win power by armed uprising.
For the first and up to now the only time, a proletarian revolutionary movement threatened to destroy the world imperialist order.
Two years later, however, in June 1921, the third congress of the Communist International observed that «it is absolutely undeniable that on a world scale the open revolutionary struggle of the proletariat for power is at present passing through a stoppage, a slowing down of tempo.» Seeking to explain this, the Communist International stated that «the world revolution is not a straight-line process. It involves the the slow dissolution of capitalism and the daily revolutionary sapping which, from time to time, intensify and concentrate in acute crises. The course of the world revolution has been made even more drawn-out by the fact that powerful workers' organisations and parties, namely the social democratic parties and trade unions, founded by the proletariat to guide its struggle against the bourgeoisie, were transformed during the war into instruments of counter-revolutionary influence and immobilisation of the proletariat, and have remained so after the war. This is what enabled the world bourgeoisie to easily overcome the demobilisation crisis and, during the period of apparent prosperity between 1919 and 1920, to awaken in the working class new hope of improving its situation within the framework of capitalism - the essential cause of the defeat of the 1919 uprisings and of the slowing down of revolutionary movements in 1919 and 1920».
What seemed like signs of flagging three quarters of a century ago, however, proved to be a serious decline. The defeat of the Berlin uprisings, the crushing of workers' power which had emerged in Bavaria and Hungary, and the difficulties of revolutionary Russia in the face of both foreign and internal counter-revolutionary troops, gave the initiative back to the bourgeoisie. The victorious old imperialist powers made Germany pay by the Treaty of Versailles for its bid to win a share in the colonial territories. Versailles and its many subsidiary treaties drew up a new map of the world; Europe bristled with new borders and new customs controls, in a climate of mounting nationalism. The "order" thus imposed was nevertheless only the first step towards the next world war. For another decade after the Russian revolution, the revolutionary convulsions of the proletariat continued to shake the imperialist edifice. But none of these convulsions was victorious.
The degeneration of the first workers' state, due to its isolation, turned out to be the most serious consequence of this decline - because it ended up eroding from within the fighting capacity and above all the class consciousness of the working class.
Once the bureaucracy's hold on the workers' state was consolidated around 1924, its leader, Stalin, signalled their abandonment of world revolution by speaking of "socialism in one country". Under the bureaucracy's leadership, the Soviet Union was transformed from a revolutionary factor into a factor in the stabilisation of the imperialist order, either directly or through the intermediary of Stalinist parties. Nobody can say whether the Chinese Revolution of 1925 to 1927, the last of the post-1917 revolutionary wave, would have become a proletarian revolution, but for the first time the revolutionary upsurge of the proletariat failed as a direct result of the class collaboration policy imposed on it by the Soviet bureaucracy.
While living parasitically off the economic and social relations created by the October revolution, the bureaucracy physically liquidated the communist vanguard, the only one which was numerically strong and well trained, leading to a disastrous physical and political break in the continuity of the communist movement.
The run-up to World War II
After the decade of revolutionary upheavals had died down, the imperialist bourgeoisie was left with a free hand. The capitalist system did not consolidate itself for all that: from short-winded recoveries to shorter or longer depressions, the capitalist economy staggered towards the great crisis of 1929. Imperialism was weakened by the crisis of its own economy without the proletariat succeeding in bringing the crisis to a revolutionary conclusion.
The arrival in power of the Nazis in Germany represented a major defeat for the proletariat at that time, because nazism broke the most powerful proletariat in Europe and liquidated not only all forms of workers' organisation - even those most submissive to bourgeois democracy - but also bourgeois democracy itself.
The most serious aspect was the fact that the two main tendencies of the workers' movement, social democracy and Stalinism, bore an enormous responsibility in the fact that the German proletariat was defeated without a fight. Their simultaneous capitulations left the workers' movement bereft of perspectives and sapped the confidence of the proletariat.
The proletariat nevertheless had the energy to wage new fights in 1936 in Spain and France, but the reformist and Stalinist parties again sabotaged the revolutionary offensive of the masses. They did so by replacing revolutionary politics with the popular front policy which amounted to organising the subordination of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie.
In Germany in the fight against fascism, in Spain during the outburst of resistance to the military coup, and in France during the rise of the strike movement, the balance of forces was strongly tipped against the proletariat by the policy of its own leadership. «The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat», was Trotsky's summary in the "Transitional Programme" in 1938.
Analysing this disastrous evolution in the last text on which he was working at the time of his assassination, Trotsky noted that «the proletariat has been paralysed by the opportunist parties. The only thing one can say is that there have been more obstacles, more difficulties and more stages on the road to the revolutionary development of the proletariat than the founders of scientific socialism foresaw».
In this decisive thirty-year period, the policy of the Soviet bureaucracy, either directly or through the Stalinist movement, was one of the main obstacles if not the main obstacle «on the road to the revolutionary development of the proletariat.» Prevented from being in a position to bring the crisis to a revolutionary conclusion, the proletariat was unable to revive the revolution in the Soviet Union. From then on, there was no obstacle to the reactionary development of the bureaucracy, which was to play an increasingly counter-revolutionary role in international affairs, and which, within the Soviet Union itself, strengthened its privileges by increasingly distorting Soviet society and the state-run planned economy - a reactionary trend which has been continuing uninterruptedly since the thirties.
While the leadership of the workers' movement, whether social democratic or Stalinist, was now rotten to the core, the workers' movement itself, although defeated and demoralised, still existed, as did hundreds of thousands of militants within the working class who still stood for social transformation. And for Trotsky, «fascism and the series of imperialist wars are a veritable school in which the proletariat must free itself from petty bourgeois traditions and superstitions, must rid itself of opportunist, democratic and adventurist parties, must forge and educate the revolutionary vanguard and thus prepare the solution to this task, outside which there is no salvation for the development of humanity.»
The post-war crisis
War always means profound social upheaval during which the bourgeoisie asks the exploited masses to make the greatest sacrifices while supplying them with weapons which they are liable to use for a quite different purpose than the one for which they were intended. Fear of this was reinforced by memories of the wave of revolutions which followed the First World War.
Despite all the proof given by the bureaucracy at the end of the thirties, the bourgeoisie had no certainty as to Stalin's real intentions, nor as to the policy which the Stalinist parties would have to conduct (with or without Stalin's agreement) in order to keep control of the masses.
As it turned out, it was the Stalinist bureaucracy and the Stalinist movement, in fact, which were the key to the bourgeoisie's salvation.
Even before the collapse of nazi Germany created a dangerous vacuum of power in Europe, the Stalinist bureaucracy placed the working class in tow behind the bourgeoisie. The basis for this operation, designed to deprive the working class of specific perspectives, was its presentation of the Second World War not as a confrontation between rival imperialist camps but as a struggle between nazism and the so-called "democratic" camp.
By claiming that the two imperialist camps were not equivalent, and drawing the conclusion that the proletariat had to help in the victory of the supposedly democratic camp, forgetting its own specific class interests, the Stalinist movement led this generation of militants up a disastrous blind alley, along with the proletariat itself.
We can see today the consequences of this policy. Vile as nazism was - a monstrous phase in the preservation of imperialism - it was limited in duration, lasting only twelve years. Humanity paid through the death of millions for the specific evils of the nazi regime, a particular imperialist political form. But it is still paying, with even more deaths, for the consolidation of imperialism, even though this consolidation was achieved through the victory of the supposedly democratic camp. Nazism as a regime was of course defeated, but imperialism certainly was not - not even in Germany and Japan, which quickly resumed their places among the imperialist brigands.
Although most countries in Europe - former allies or countries occupied by Germany - no longer had any state apparatus to contain and, if need be, crush the masses, the Stalinist bureaucracy and organisations saw to it that imperialism did not have any great difficulty in making the transition from war to imperialist peace in Europe.
The Soviet bureaucracy even took direct charge of maintaining order in the countries which later became its satellites. Moreover, the Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam agreements ratified the Soviet bureaucracy as being amongst the main guardians of the postwar shape of the imperialist order.
This order was nevertheless called into question by the wave of colonial revolutions which developed, in different forms and to different extents, in Indochina and Indonesia in 1945, in India in 1946 and, above all, in China from 1946 to 1949, bringing in their wake many other national emancipation movements. This revolutionary wave shattered the old colonial empires, threatening the spheres of influence of the old imperialist powers, foremost among which were Britain and France.
This wave of revolutions nevertheless had class limits. These limits stemmed not from the mobilised masses themselves but from their politically Jacobin leaderships, which relied on the peasant and intellectual petty bourgeoisie for support, but which were fundamentally bourgeois. These leaders learned how to use the masses when needed, but also how to channel their struggles, in order to limit them to the perspective of national independence, with at most, as in China, the eradication of certain feudal social relations. Nowhere were these leaders threatened with competition from organisations with a communist perspective. On the contrary, the communist label helped Mao conceal the setting up of a framework aimed at preventing the proletariat from becoming a threat to the nationalist petty bourgeoisie by organising independently. This framework subsequently served as a model for many other nationalist leaderships, originating in the Stalinist movement or elsewhere.
The "colonial revolution" was the last great international revolutionary wave which, if it had converged with proletarian movements, could have shaken imperialism in its strongholds.
As in the thirties, the possibility of a fundamental social transformation, if there was one, was blocked by the «historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat».
A very limited stabilisation
The bourgeoisie thus, once again, consolidated its power over the world for a whole historical period from which we have not yet emerged.
The reconversion of capitalism from the war economy to the peacetime economy was, however, slow and painful. It would not have been possible without stepping up exploitation, reducing living conditions of millions of human beings to less than minimum, and maintaining insecurity for the proletariat. The bourgeoisie would have been unable to impose these sufferings without the active collaboration of the reformist or Stalinist workers' organisations.
The reconstruction of the capitalist economy in a ruined Europe could not have been achieved without a strong dose of state intervention. This was in a sense a continuation of the war economy by other means. In the economic sphere the new imperialist order meant that the imperialist bourgeoisies were supported by their respective states, with the most powerful state, that of American imperialism - the only real winner in the war - imposing the dollar as the universal currency.
After the economic reconstruction was complete, many long years after the end of the war, international trade finally resumed . This was the beginning of the "glorious thirty years" (which in reality only lasted about fifteen), during which the economy of the imperialist countries went through a period of relative expansion, with a few resulting benefits for the upper layers of the working class in these countries.
This limited expansion, however, which was in any case interspersed with periods of depression, was only made possible for the imperialist countries by the exploitation and plundering of poor countries. As Trotsky had put it not so long before, Britain's imperialist "democracy" was only able to function because there were a dozen slaves in the colonies working for each British citizen including the workers.
The end of the colonial era gave indigenous bourgeoisies a specific role and a slightly better social position in the imperialist system, but it did not liberate the slaves of the former colonies. They merely ceased to be attached to the same type of master, while now having even more intermediaries to keep in luxury.
While the sudden or gradual loss of their colonial empires accentuated the decline of French and British imperialism, and also of Belgian and Dutch imperialism, decolonisation was in no way damaging to the most powerful imperialism of our time, the United States. The end of the colonial empires meant the end of all sorts of barriers designed to protect the exclusive interests of the old colonial powers.
Most of the countries which became independent rejoined the world market. American imperialism, which dominated the world market, now had access, both for its goods and for its capital, to countries which had previously been more or less closed to it. In addition to the United States, this situation also favoured powers like Germany and Japan, which had been deprived of colonial empires in the past.
The now free rivalry of the most dynamic imperialist powers in the former colonial empires meant more intense plundering and exploitation of these countries on a wider scale. The colonial revolutions, in as much as their leaders prevented them from being transformed into proletarian revolutions and threatening the imperialist system, merely helped to reinforce this system. The end of the colonies did not mean a weakening of imperialism. On the contrary, it offered it a wider economic base.
The only thing which, for a while, obstructed the penetration of the capital and goods of the strongest imperialist powers was the desire of some formerly colonised states to surround themselves with customs barriers and use nationalisation in the hope to achieve some degree of independent economic development, thus seeking to achieve a kind of "socialism in one small country". But even these obstacles were minimal. For while state intervention in the economy of these countries did not lead to their development, it allowed a certain concentration of social surplus products, some of which these countries had to abandon to imperialist capital on the international market, in particular on the raw materials market.
The retreat of the working class movement
The fundamental reason for the very limited stabilisation of imperialism over this thirty-year period was, on the economic level, its "free" and therefore wider exploitation of poor countries. Meanwhile, on the political level, its rule has ceased to be contested by the proletariat. The economic expansion in this period, limited though as it was, gave credit, in the eyes of the mass of workers in the developed countries, to the idea that a certain improvement of their lot within the capitalist system was possible or even probable. This was the social basis for the policy of reformists (of whom the Stalinists were simply another variety).
In any event, this stabilisation took place amid disorder, being marked by a host of colonial wars, civil wars, military interventions and so on. Some 150 different armed conflicts have occurred since 1945 - some of them lasting years or even decades. Until recently, these conflicts appeared to be part of the confrontation between the two main blocs, the USSR and the USA. For even when the spark to these conflicts had nothing to do with the two blocs, these conflicts soon became embroiled in their on-going confrontation. The collapse of the Soviet Union has proved, however, that the reality was different, since some of these conflicts are still carrying on while new ones are appearing.
We saw thirty years of "cold war" - which was never completely cold and sometimes very hot - at the outer limits of the two blocs (notably in Korea in 1951-1952 and Vietnam in 1964-1972). The antagonism between the two blocs gave certain wars of emancipation a "socialist" hue - in Cuba and in many other countries in Africa and Asia. The claims of certain regimes (of which Cuba was certainly not the worst) to be socialist or even communist, made a significant contribution to the dilution of socialist and communist ideals by detaching them from any link with the proletarian movement.
While "Third-Worldism" offered a parody of socialism in poor countries, in the developed countries the workers' movement declined along with the gradual political discrediting of its leaders: social democrats were discredited by their participation in all the dirty work of imperialism (in Algeria, Suez, etc..) while Stalinism was discredited both by its villainy in its sphere of influence and by the integration of the Stalinist parties into the bourgeoisie's political system. Not to mention the union leaderships, which, particularly in the United States, did nothing to hide their submission to their country's imperialist bourgeoisie.
Militants disgusted with their party's policy gave up political activity. The electorate of the so-called "left" parties frequently declined, and when this was not the case it was at the price of abandoning their long-misused references to the working class and to socialism or communism.
The crisis of power in the bureaucracy which has led to the collapse of the Soviet Union testifies, in its own way, to the fact that the bureaucracy itself ended up being less afraid of the proletariat than in the past - since this fear was the main reason why, for several decades, the bureaucracy sustained a regime which was dictatorial even for itself.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Stalinist movement (which are linked to each other, but only partly so) have opened a new phase in the decline of the workers' movement. In those places where singificant numbers of politicised workers were still organised by the Stalinist current, no other organisations have taken over. The «historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat» is no longer only a crisis of leadership. The varying degrees of disarray prevailing in the Stalinist parties - which have long been on the side of the bourgeoisie in terms of their leadership and policies - has led to disarray in the organised structures still present in the working class and, to a certain extent, responsive to its pressures. The working class as such has less and less influence on political life.
This is one of the reasons for the strengthening of nationalism in general, the awakening of micro-nationalisms which seemed to have been buried by history, the influence of religious fundamentalist movements over broad masses of people, and a whole range of specific local tendencies: all sub-products of the decaying capitalist system.
In many cases it is a question of policies, feelings and attitudes propagated from above - in any event this is the case in former Yugoslavia, now divided into warring mini-states, and in the former Soviet Union, where the disintegration of the power of the bureaucracy has led to nationalist confrontations in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In some places, however, such tendencies eventually gain greater or lesser influence over the masses, who are presented with no other perspectives.
This "balkanisation" of larger territorial entities is in itself a regression, for it does not even have the saving grace of giving nationally oppressed peoples the chance to escape from their oppression. Even more seriously, however, this rise of nationalism and specific local claims is increasingly obliterating any idea of overall transformation of society on a worldwide scale.
Only the rebirth of a proletarian political movement, basing itself on the class struggle and internationalism, which is founded on the certainty of humanity's common future, could bring about a new unity between proletarians.
Nobody can say today when the retreat of the proletarian movement, which has been going on for three quarters of a century, will end. It is not just a question of renewing defensive struggles, or even offensive ones, in the economic field alone. It is above all a question of the proletariat rising, in the course of these struggles, to meet the political tasks which history has laid before it.
The history of more than a century of working class struggles has not often had the opportunity to demonstrate the decisive role an authentic communist party plays in the seizure of power by the proletariat. On countless occasions, however, it has shown how reformist or Stalinist organisations which are integrated into bourgeois society, or others which are simply incapable of combating it effectively, can contain the revolutionary offensive of the masses and in some cases paralyse struggles even before they turn into offensives.
The crisis of imperialism deepens
Although the bourgeoisie's domination over imperialist society has not been threatened for several decades by the proletariat, imperialism has not consolidated itself through a new period of expansion.
The imperialist economy has been unable to escape from the state of near-stagnation it has been in for over twenty years. The capitalist world has experienced three international recessions since 1972 - in 1974/1975, 1980/1982 and 1990/1992, with industrial production falling each time. Each of these recessions has represented immense waste for society.
Beyond these alternating periods of recession and recovery, however, the growth of production has been considerably weaker over the last twenty years as a whole than it was over the previous twenty years. The periods of "recovery" undeniably represented recovery in terms of profits, but far less in terms of the production of material goods, hardly at all in terms of productive investment, and, in Europe and in France in particular, not at all in terms of employment.
A whole series of state interventions have played a decisive role even in these periods of very limited recovery. This has involved state expenditure and, beyond that, the system of credit which increasingly makes up for the stagnation of markets to enable the capitalist class to make acceptable profits in spite of everything.
Everywhere the corollary of this is growing state budget deficits. This leads not only to an constant inflation of financial capital at the expense of productive capital, but also to a constant increase in public debt. The continual growth in interest paid by the state reflects the increasingly parasitic nature of capital. Big business has less and less need to take the trouble of investing in production or relying on the ups and downs of the market to make profits. The state makes up the difference. It is then up to each individual state, and at higher levels, the US state and financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, to make the whole population pay for the parasitic existence of capital!
The debt system is not only a life-buoy for capitalism and a source of profit for financial capital. It is also the mechanism which constantly encourages the diversion of capital away from production into finance and speculation.
Everywhere, the usurious interest paid to the capitalist class by states, from the poorest to the richest, in exchange for these loans, has as its corollary the drastic reduction of useful public expenditure. Each state, having to devote a growing proportion of its revenue to the payment of interest on the public debt, deals with this problem not only by reducing the social budget and public investments which do not yield sufficient profit for the corporations, but also by allowing infrastructure to deteriorate and by continuing to borrow.
In the course of the last twenty years of capitalist stagnation, the bourgeoisie has succeeded, with the collaboration of the so-called "left" parties and the complicity of reformist workers' organisations, in reducing the standard of living of the working class and lowering social welfare benefits. However, even the reconstitution of a strong reserve army in every country through unemployment and the lowering of wages (in some cases in absolute value), have not opened up a new era of growth for capitalism.
While journalists and politicians play to the gallery every time a recovery seems to be taking over from recession, the general trend behind the fluctuations is disastrous for humanity.
Hasn't the economy become more "worldwide" than ever before? Yes, but the considerable increase in the circulation of goods and capital is mainly limited to the triangle formed by the United States, the imperialist countries of Europe, Japan and a few Asian trading posts of world imperialism. Commercial exchanges between these three imperialist centres, which accounted for 58% of world trade in 1980, accounted for 75% in 1990. This means that the rest of the planet is being left out and the divide between developed countries and poor countries is widening.
Isn't it the case that economic links between nations have become closer than ever, measured by the unprecedented growth of financial transactions? Yes, but 97% of these transactions are, precisely, only financial, and do not correspond to any circulation of material goods. In addition, in the circulation of material goods themselves, an ever greater proportion is accounted for by movements between different national subsidiaries of the same corporation. Because of this, even the strengthening of the division of labour and the inevitable cooperation between nations is carried out artificially, solely according to the criteria of profitability of the big corporations and not at all with the aim of a more rational distribution of productive tasks between different regions of the world.
And what about the attempts to constitute broader economic entities, with a United Europe covering part of this continent, NAFTA in North America and the EAEC in the Far East? Yet these entities are not intended to eliminate borders, currencies and above all nation states, which are obstacles to any rational economic development. On the contrary, they are attempts to save them. All these free trade areas serve above all either to sanction the ascendancy of the imperialism which dominates its sphere of influence - the United States in NAFTA and Japan in the EAEC - or to organise the rivalry between British, French and chiefly German imperialism for the domination of Europe.
Isn't there an unprecedented cooperation between capitalist states to prevent or attenuate monetary crises, stock exchange crashes and a collapse of the financial system? Yes, but this interventionism by imperialism's supranational organisations (the World Bank, the IMF, etc..) simply organises the plundering of the planet to the benefit of the banking system and, above all, to the benefit of American imperialism.
Can't the emergence of new markets for new products - computers, electronic communications, etc. - give a new lease of life to capital? But today's ageing imperialism is less and less willing to open up new markets. There is a strong tendency for capital to move out of productive sectors and into finance. Companies themselves are increasingly being seen as mere supports for financial products. Whole continents, like Africa, are increasingly being abandoned by the little productive capital they previously attracted. While the trend in Africa is towards disinvestment in the area of production, big business is turning to money-lending to take an ever bigger cut in that continent.
An even clearer sign of imperialist capitalism's senility is its inability to take advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the disappearance of the state monopoly of foreign exchange, to open up new markets for its products and a new field of investment for its capital. One of the basic reasons why Soviet society has remained largely unchanged over the past few years, despite its political leaders' claims to be presiding over a social counter-revolution, is the fact that capitalism no longer has the dynamism to move in. As Trotsky wrote as early as 1940, «the Russian Thermidor would certainly have opened up a new era in the reign of the bourgeoisie, if this reign had not declined all over the world».
Overthrowing the capitalist order remains as urgent as ever
Never has there been a more blatant contradiction between humanity's extraordinary technical possibilities on the one hand and generalised poverty on the other; between retreats into micro-nationalism and the internationalisation of the economy, to a degree unimaginable not only in Marx's time but even in Trotsky's time.
The objective need to put an end to the capitalist organisation of society remains unchanged.
What is regrettable is the length of time between the identification of this objective need to put an end to capitalism and the proletariat's development of the ability to produce parties capable of leading it to victory.
Every generation of militants has been forced to recognise that this process had taken longer than the previous generations had predicted. Yet the transformation of the fundamental economic and social relations of society has always been a long and painful transformation. The bourgeoisie took centuries to impose new social relations, and above all to impose its political domination. And in many countries it has still not completely succeeded in doing so.
So nobody can predict how long it will take the proletariat.
As the war approached, and in a period of deep decline of the proletariat, Trotsky asked himself once again what the situation was as regards the three elements which generations of revolutionaries since Marx had seen as the necessary conditions for a new society to be able to replace the old one. He observed that both from the point of view of the development of productive forces and from the point of view of the weight of the proletariat in society, the conditions had long been ripe. But he added that: «The third condition is the subjective factor. This class must understand the position it occupies in society and possess its own organisations aiming at the overthrow of the capitalist order. This is the condition which is missing at present from the historical point of view. From the social point of view, it is not only a possibility but an absolute necessity in the sense that the future is socialism or barbarity. That is the historical alternative».
More than fifty years after these lines were written, this is still the fundamental conclusion to be drawn from the present situation.
When we observe that, in the 54 years since Trotsky's death, the proletariat has not made a revolution either in a developed country or in an underdeveloped country, and that in no country has a revolutionary workers' party emerged within it, one might ask whether the proletariat is capable of fulfilling the historical role which Marx and the whole revolutionary communist movement foresaw for it.
For Marx and Engels, the proletariat could only come to power through being organised in a party embodying a high level of consciousness of the interests and role of the proletariat as a whole. But this party could only unite its most conscious and determined elements on the basis of a raising of the consciousness of broader layers of the proletariat, or even of the majority. That is why both Marx and especially Engels, who lived longer and closely followed the activities of the Second International, attributed so much importance to the education of the proletariat and the gaining of democratic freedoms within capitalist society itself, to make this broad political education possible.
As it turned out, history followed another course, and the only proletarian revolution which has taken place was in an autocratic country. This country was also a very backward one in which the proletariat constituted only a minority amid a peasant population living in the conditions of the Middle Ages, with a corresponding level of culture. But, right from the beginning, this Russian proletariat was concentrated in large modern companies, with the accompanying effects in terms of feelings of solidarity, collectivist education and the proletariat's decisive role in the economy. In addition, the war not only provided this proletariat with weapons but also allowed it to form political links with the peasantry by turning its youngest and most dynamic sections into soldiers, who mingled with workers both in common suffering on the front and then in revolutionary agitation in the towns... and the barracks.
History did not give this proletariat the opportunity to educate itself other than by way of and during its struggles. It did not have the benefit of democratic conditions to prepare for its takeover of power. On the contrary, it was the proletariat itself which imposed democratic freedoms both for itself and for society as a whole: temporarily in 1905, then from February 1917 onwards, when it was already on the threshold of power.
The only revolutionary force is the proletariat
Over the last fifty years, what internal changes have there been in the proletariat which are liable to affect its revolutionary capability?
In underdeveloped countries, the proletariat has often been subjected to more brutal dictatorships than the tsarist autocracy. And above all, the decay of imperialism means that economic changes are transforming large masses of peasants into sub-proletarians, in the sense that they are driving them off the land without being able to offer them the conditions of proletarians in industrial companies. The sub-proletariat of the shanty towns is developing much faster than the industrial proletariat. The majority of this sub-proletariat has no chance of being integrated into production, with the links, solidarity, education and consciousness that this entails. And this sub-proletariat is in most cases channelled into all sorts of reactionary organisations, of a religious, ethnic or, even more frequently, mafia-like nature.
The industrial proletariat organised in or around a revolutionary party could well draw this sub-proletariat behind it and make an ally of it in its fight against the bourgeoisie. But it is precisely the emergence of such a party which poses a problem, so small and unconcentrated a minority the industrial proletariat represents in the midst of the sub-proletariat.
In the developed countries, the composition of the proletariat has undergone changes resulting from the increasingly usurious role of its imperialism, reinforcing the so-called "tertiary" structures.
During its short period of expansion, imperialism had the material and political means to corrupt the upper layer of the working class - but it above all corrupted the trade union and political organisations within it. The biggest contingents of the world proletariat are nevertheless still concentrated in the major imperialist countries - and also in Russia and Eastern Europe. Even in rich countries, the proletarian condition has not really changed for the mass of the working class. With the stagnation of the recent period, with unemployment and the demolition of social welfare, even the future of the upper layer of the proletariat is in doubt.
On the worldwide scale, the proletariat has not undergone any fall in numbers - it is proportionally at least as numerically strong with respect to society as a whole as it was in the past. It is also present in a number of countries where it existed only in embryonic form at the time of the Russian revolution. It is still - and certainly more so than in Marx's time- the most numerically strong exploited class, a class which is concentrated at the heart of the modern economy and which is alone in having no objective class interest in the maintainance of private ownership of the means of production and of capitalist society. None of the reasons why Marx saw it as the only revolutionary class of our time has disappeared (and it has played such a role many times in the past, in social reality and not only in the writings of communist theoreticians).
The failure of the intellectuals
In reality the social category which has failed in its task over the past decades is much more the intellectuals than the proletariat.
Both the First International and then the Second and Third were created out of the alliance of the most advanced section of the intelligentsia with the workers' movement. This contribution by intellectuals has always been a constituent part of the revolutionary communist movement, right from the beginning with Marx and Engels. Bolshevism itself resulted from the merger of a generation of intellectuals entirely devoted to the cause of the communist transformation of society, whose courage and methods were forged in the struggle against the autocracy, and who had acquired a vast theoretical and political culture, along with the best elements of a young, combative proletariat which was concentrated in the big modern factories that the imperialists had built in Russia.
The working class itself, subject to the weight of exploitation, does not easily and spontaneously reach political consciousness and an understanding of the development of societies and the means to transform them.
For their part, even those intellectuals most sincerely opposed to capitalist society and most determined to work for its revolutionary transformation, can do nothing without the backing of the proletariat, the only numerically strong class concentrated in places of production which is capable of accomplishing the complete social upheaval required to replace capitalist society with a new society.
This was how the First International was formed. The Second International (or at least its most powerful parties) grew in strength in the same way. The same was true of all the parties of the Third International, including the Bolshevik Party.
The forming of genuine revolutionary communist parties capable of playing their part in all social crises in order to try to bring them to a revolutionary conclusion, requires both the breaking off of a section of intellectuals from the bourgeoisie to join the proletariat and a parallel development on the part of the proletariat.
It is essentially the intelligentsia which, over the past few decades, has not played its appointed role. Worse still, this intelligentsia has often been the main vector of the degeneration of workers' organisations.
We have retraced the different moments between the two wars, and in the aftermath of the last war, when the proletariat was there when it mattered but not the organisations which claimed to guide it, except as obstacles to the revolutionary upsurge of the proletariat.
Although the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union had profound social causes, linked to the demoralisation and exhaustion of a Russian working class which had made great sacrifices and found itself isolated, the transformation of all communist parties, without exception, into Stalinist parties, was, on the other hand, largely attributable to the fact that very few people among the intellectuals of these communist parties were capable of seeing how the bureaucracy was moving away from communist ideals, and even fewer had the courage to oppose this. This is not to mention all those who were conscious accomplices to the betrayals.
While the integration of the main parties of the Second International into bourgeois society was partly attributable to a working class aristocracy, the Stalinist degeneration of the different communist parties in the thirties owed little to the integration of a layer of workers - working class militants of the Communist Party could expect nothing but knocks at the time, not social promotion - and was due mainly to the betrayal and social integration of intellectuals.
And after the war, in poor countries shaken by revolutionary convulsions, even when the intelligentsia provided revolutionary leaders, it provided people like Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, and not people like Marx, Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxembourg and Trotsky. Far more frequently, however, it provided only careerist cadres, for whom the exploited masses were merely foot soldiers whose only role was to wrest from the imperialist oppressor an independent state in which they could occupy important positions.
The militant section of the intelligentsia has chosen nationalist struggle, Third-Worldism and so on in poor countries, while in developed countries it has chosen the social democratic or even Stalinist movements, which are able to hand out positions and posts, electoral or otherwise, but which offer no hope of advancing the cause of communism!
And for many years even the most dedicated section of the revolutionary intelligentsia in the imperialist countries put itself in tow behind fashionable nationalist movements, deserting the Trotskyist movement to join the Maoists.
Thus humanity has lost several decades during which imperialism has persisted, just as the evils it conveys have persisted and grown worse.
But all we have lost is time, nothing more. For we are convinced that at one point or another a generation of revolutionary intellectuals will join the proletariat, which, beyond any question, has the capacity to change the world. This will take as long as it must, but capitalism cannot be the last form of society which humanity will know.