Section one. The failure of the workers movement - Claude Bitot

Section one. The failure of the workers movement - Claude Bitot

First published in 1995 in France: Section One, “The Historical Balance Sheet” includes chapters on: communist movements throughout history; Marx and Engels and communism; “Real” vs. “Formal” domination of capital and the importance of this distinction for understanding the failure of the old workers movements (capitalism was not “obsolete” prior to 1945). Section Two, “Perspectives”, contains an extensive discussion of: the economic roots of capitalism’s current crisis (the “final stage of its cycle”); the communist revolution; and socialism.

The Failure of the Workers Movement (1890-1914)

The Failure of the Socialist Political and Trade Union Movement

“In 1912, the workers international (reconstituted in 1889) had 3,372,000 members throughout the world; in addition, it exercises influence over 7,315,000 cooperators, 10,830,000 trade union members, and from 11 to 12 million voters and the readers of 200 major daily newspapers.”1 These few statistics indicate the progress made by the workers movement on the eve of 1914. Its presence in national representative bodies, municipal councils, businesses and cooperatives made it a political and social force within bourgeois society. But what were those millions of party members, trade unionists and voters really worth? Did they represent a real revolutionary force? Did they form an army preparing for the imminent showdown with capitalism?

To measure the worth of such a movement, we shall review its two essential forms of action: the political form, in the arena of the State, and the trade union form, in the economic domain. The political goal of the socialist workers movement was the conquest of the public powers, without which socialism was impossible. Engels, in his 1895 preface to The Class Struggles in France, posed the question of how this can be accomplished. Taking into account the extremely effective and deadly weapons now at the disposal of all modern States, without ruling out armed insurrection and street battles he observed nonetheless that one had to acknowledge the fact that, since 1848, the streets had become “far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favourable for the military”. In fact, his vision relied on the relatively peaceful conquest of power, based on the idea that, once the proletariat “converted” to socialism and, as we saw above, once the army had been contaminated with socialist ideas, there would be a way to seize power. From that point on, the use of universal suffrage by the socialist parties would gain a very precise place in their practice. “But in the measure in which it matures towards its self-emancipation, in the same measure it constitutes itself as its own party and votes for its own representatives, not those of the capitalists. Universal suffrage is thus the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the modern state; but that is enough. On the day when the thermometer of universal suffrage shows boiling-point among the workers, they as well as the capitalists will know where they stand.”2

The use of universal suffrage must serve, “for this and no other purpose”, as Engels emphasized, to measure the proletariat’s degree of maturity. This could have been true if the workers had effectively become socialists emotionally and mentally. In such a case, their votes could have supplied sufficient information concerning their level of consciousness and their will for revolutionary change.

The socialist parties of the Second International presented themselves as defenders of the interests, both immediate and long term (conquest of power and abolition of wage labor) of the workers. How can the votes cast for them be assessed according to their real value? Did they indicate that the voters expressed their willingness for revolutionary change, or just the desire for simple reforms? The fact that, in their everyday propaganda, the socialist parties primarily emphasized a “minimum program” that could be quickly implemented, while their “maximum program” was reduced to a few Sunday speeches and postponed to a distant future, indicates the precise meaning of these electoral successes: they signified above all a desire for improvement within bourgeois society and not, as Engels thought, the degree of revolutionary maturity of the working class which, once having reached the boiling point, “would know quite well what it had to do”. According to Engels, the more votes cast for the socialist parties, the more endangered the State would be. For him, as we saw above, two million votes would be enough to make the German government yield. In fact, in 1912, the social democratic party received not two million but four million votes, but the State, far from being weakened and discouraged, was strengthened: it already understood that it was by no means threatened and that it no longer needed to outlaw the socialist party as it did in other times when it thought that party was revolutionary; on the contrary, these votes helped it, and became its “leftist” prop.

The true nature of the “socialist vote” was to serve as the extreme left wing of the ascendant bourgeois democracy everywhere in Europe during this era. It was a new deceit, not a means of opposition to bourgeois society, but an instrument of integration. In fact, parliamentarism increasingly denatured the socialist parties. The latter, in order to win the maximum number of votes possible in elections, cast their nets ever wider, appealing to every kind of discontent. A perfect example of this parliamentarism of flexible principles, “the socialism of Jaurès” in France was a mixture of labor reformism and petit bourgeois democracy. For its part, German social democracy could only perpetrate a fraud with its supposed orthodox Marxism. It, too, became more and more the representative of “popular leftism” and less and less that of the “class party”.

The other kind of practice was trade unionism, that is, the activity of the workers fighting step by step to resist capitalist exploitation. Marx, at the time of the founding of the First International in 1864, had congratulated the English workers for “carrying the Ten Hours’ Bill”, with the “immense physical, moral and intellectual benefits hence accruing”.3 In fact, since its first appearance, especially in England, the working class had engaged in reformist activities: the struggle for the reduction of the working day (which at times approached sixteen hours or more . . .), for the abolition of child labor in the mines and textile factories (the disgraceful practice perpetrated by the capitalist factory owners), against starvation wages, in a word, the struggle for bread. For Marx, this struggle corresponded to an emergency operation. It tended to limit the merciless exploitation of man by man that characterized capitalism. Based on the extortion of absolute surplus value, that is, on the maximum prolongation of the working day, such a form of capitalism (which had still only achieved a “formal domination”, as Marx would say) caused labor power to endure such suffering that it directly threatened its physical existence, up to the point of endangering “the race” of workers. With the establishment of the ten-hour day, it was not a matter of “reformism” but of the salvation of the working class. This law, however, demonstrated that if the proletariat is united and organized, it can successfully resist the depredations of capital, and that it is possible to achieve other improvements. The danger thus arose that the workers movement would stop there, without any other ambition than to improve the living conditions of the workers within bourgeois society, and therefore would not concern itself with putting an end to the latter. From that moment on, a question was posed: which way would the workers movement go? Towards reform, or towards revolution?

Marx’s position would then become more precise. In his 1865 text, Wages, Price and Profit (Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1973, pp. 77-78), after having recalled that the working class must not renounce its resistance to the depredations of capital (“f they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation”), he arrived at the essential point: the workers must not, however, “exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles” which are only “palliatives, not curing the malady”, the cause of their misery; consequently, rather than allowing themselves “to be exclusively absorbed” by these struggles, “[i]nstead of the [i]conservative motto: ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”; otherwise, Marx concludes, the trade unions “fail partially” to achieve their goal. Marx, so to speak, “raises the bar”. It is no easy task which he invites the workers trade unions to accomplish: not to abide by the defense of the wage, but to abolish wage labor, that is, to realize the essence of the socialist program. The trade unions can perfectly well assume this role, but only if they “understand”, if they prove their revolutionary audacity.

However, just as socialist political practice failed by degenerating into pure bourgeois parliamentarism, it would be demonstrated that trade union practice would also fail, exhausting itself in a sterile “reformism”. If during the first days of their existence the trade unions had done useful work putting pressure on capitalism, given the shocking misery that overwhelmed the working class, by later devoting themselves exclusively to this kind of practice, they could only lose their way: with no other perspective than selling labor power at the highest price, they ended up becoming simple brokers of the working class, which would see its commercial value quoted on the “labor exchange”. Henceforth refusing to pose the social question in all its ramifications, they condemned themselves to a labor of Sisyphus: losing themselves in partial conflicts with capital, fighting a thousand battles, but never bearers of any kind of project for radical change. Just as the socialist parties ended up becoming cogs in the machinery of bourgeois democracy, the workers trade unions, at least in the most highly developed capitalist countries (England, Germany and the United States) tended to become nothing more than regulators of the labor market of the capitalist economy. In other words, Marx’s vision of a bold trade unionism that would escape from the routine of its everyday demands, and that would represent a threat to the existing social order, is nipped in the bud.

There was, of course, and especially in France, at the beginning of the century, the episode of revolutionary syndicalism whose inspirations were more or less anarchist. Some anarchists, tired of ineffective terrorist attacks that led to desperate and nihilistic actions, converted to syndicalism, hoping to thereby gain success for their ideas. Their goal was to make the trade unions into the organs of workers management of production through a general—“non-political”—strike. We shall not discuss the merits of such a project that tended, in its own way, to inject trade unionism with a new content that broke with its conformism. But after 1910 this tendency was exhausted, and almost all the anarchosyndicalists ended up by practically enrolling in a purely reformist syndicalism, similar to that advocated by Jouhaux, who became the great leader of a C.G.T. that had returned to the fold. In short, the anarchists, who had escaped from the trap of electoral politics by taking refuge in an easy political abstentionism, fell into the trade union trap and did no better than the Marxists with their political parties, slipping into another kind of reformism. It was therefore the case that, at the end of the 19th century, the workers movement was for the most part non-revolutionary. After a period of gestation that began around 1830, when it seemed to have taken a turn towards radicalism with its various insurrections, which allowed Marx and Engels to entertain the hope that, once it was more organized and class conscious, it would be in a position to successfully attack capitalism, it can be seen that it moved in an increasingly reformist direction. Which means that, suffering from an inability to really contest capitalist and bourgeois rule, it is condemned to support the latter even though, through its reformist demands, it hopes to make it more bearable. By acting in this way, it reveals the profound servitude, not only material but also intellectual and moral, of which it is the victim, up to the point of considering the existing society as the only possible society. There can by no questioning the fact that the workers movement in its infancy, despite its disorganization and the confusion characteristic of its attempts to become class conscious, was more open, dynamic and imaginative. Once it reached maturity, it no longer had this impulse; the latter was a result of the growing pains of adolescence. It was organized, undoubtedly, and it lost that amorphous condition that characterized it in its early days, but instead of becoming more effective and more dangerous in the class struggle, in order to tame it and make it more acceptable to the bourgeoisie, at the end of the 19th century, the workers parties, strikes and trade union organizations were finally legalized.

The Ruling Classes Were Not Idle

The working masses, in their early days, rushed to the barricades. But we must not allow ourselves to be deceived by this phenomenon: quite frequently, such mass movements were acts of desperation, as Engels emphasized with regard to June 1848; they led nowhere, except to massacres of the proletarians. In fact, all insurrectionary movements, whether that of the workers of Lyon in 1831, or that of Welsh workers in 1839, or that of the workers of Paris in 1848 and 1871, were failures. When the International was formed in 1864, and the workers movement began to organize, it tried to learn the lessons of that period and took a different road that ended just as much in a dead end, reformism. How can this new failure be explained? Did it take place because the working class now saw its living conditions being improved in the existing society? The turn of the century was not, for the working class, “the consumer society”. If some improvements took place, they affected for the most part certain privileged categories, or “labor aristocracies”. Even though capitalism had turned a little of its water into wine by accepting laws that abolished the most devastating effects of its system of exploitation, it was nonetheless no less greedy for surplus value; the working day, although it had been reduced in length, was still long and painful for the working class; wages were essentially subsistence wages. In short, if pauperization was no longer absolute but relative, this did not make it less terrible: with few exceptions, no social security, no retirement benefits, no paid vacations.... Thus, although reasons to rebel against capitalism were not lacking, what took place instead were a domestication of the struggle, a rise of reformist ideology, and an increasingly open opportunism on the part of the socialist organizations. Why? This failure of the socialist workers movement resulted essentially from the ideological and cultural integration of the working masses in bourgeois society.

With this in mind, let us go back a few decades in time, to the year when the Communist Manifesto was published. This work describes a proletariat without a fatherland (“the workers have no fatherland. You cannot deprive someone of something he does not have to begin with”); without family (“the family in its fullest development only exists for the bourgeoisie, but this has as its corollary the suppression of all family relations for the proletariat”); without culture (“the culture whose loss the bourgeoisie deplores, is nothing but a training to become like machines for the vast majority of people”); without their own ideas (“the ruling ideas of an era have always been the ideas of the ruling class”); without freedom (“freedom under the current conditions of bourgeois production means freedom of trade, the freedom to buy and sell”). This would lead us to believe that the proletariat is like a “barbarian” tribe which, camped on the fringes of the bourgeois society from which it is excluded, prepares to destroy that society by a vast act of arson. At least that is how the threatening figure of the proletariat appears in the imagination of the bourgeoisie, which calls it the “dangerous class”. But even if only in order to dispel this fear, bourgeois society would soon take on the task of taming the “barbarians” in question. It would instruct it by means of its schools, which it made secular and mandatory; it would train it with the help of its military service, no less mandatory, inculcating the idea that it “has a fatherland” to defend should the opportunity arise; it would regulate it with marriage blessed by the Church, or else legally recognized by the State; and it would give it the ballot, in order to make it understand that it “has its own State” of which it is a full citizen; in a word, it would civilize it in its own way.

All of these devices were implemented after 1870 in all modern European societies, in forms that varied according to country but which all tended towards the integration of the working classes in the bourgeois values of nation, democracy, family, labor and property. It was a process of the bourgeoisification of the masses, obviously of an essentially ideological kind and not with the intention of raising the workers to the material level of the bourgeoisie. For the workers movement, this integration meant the dominance of the reformist viewpoint within its ranks: even though its discourse is still mixed, here and there, with more or less revolutionary propositions, with references to the classless society of the future, presented as a distant ideal, in everyday practice the only thing that mattered was to become established as comfortably as possible in the existing society, and this goal constituted its real aspiration; in fact, ideologically devoured by bourgeois society, it is no longer capable, except for some minority leftists, of descrying any other society than the one it knew, the one that was susceptible to improvement so the workers would find their place within it in a well established hierarchy, but which must in no case be replaced with another society. “Socialism is in danger!”, Domela Nieuwenhuis would exclaim, understanding that with the rise of reformism, the bourgeois ideology is vanquishing the workers movement and that the latter was going to find itself in a situation of defeat. But nothing would allow for a radical change. Faced with what Engels in the 1880s called “the rise of socialism”, the ruling classes had not remained idle: by means of the device of the ideological and cultural integration of the masses, they succeeded in subverting socialism, biding their time in such a way that socialism became a movement that was perfectly assimilable for the prevailing society.

First Balance Sheet

Marx and Engels had based their revolutionary perspective on a certain degree of consciousness and organization on the part of the proletariat that would then be able to push against the course of history with all its weight and make it tilt towards socialism. When would it have to make this leap? It was not a matter of setting a date in advance (even though Engels did venture to predict socialism in Germany by 1900) but of being ready and able to take advantage of any favorable opportunities that might arise. This would provide a means to abbreviate capitalism’s historic career, because socialism was possible in the most developed countries, and would obviate the need to wait for capitalism to reach the end of its possibilities of expansion. Regarding this point it is necessary to point out that Marx and Engels, and all their successors after them, were wrong. This is easily recognized a century later, after the successive failures of the First, Second and Third Internationals, which clearly demonstrated that all the attempts to organize the proletariat as a class “for itself”, and thus in a party, have come head to head with an impossibility: bourgeois society has had such a capacity to integrate the proletarian masses that the only form of long-term existence possible for the workers movement has been its reformist version, or, if you prefer, its degenerate form it has assumed through its social democratic, and later Stalinist, parties, simple bourgeois and bourgeoisified workers parties, collaborators of the capitalist system.

In fact, Marx and the Marxists undeniably underestimated this capacity of bourgeois society to integrate the proletarians. Marx thought, as we have seen, that if the worker improves his material situation, even just a little, then, among other things, the terrible burden of the endless and extremely painful days of toil that dominate all his time would be alleviated and he would be able to “devote more time to spiritual cultivation” and would then become a “socialist without knowing it”, as he said in his statement to Hamann. This was an overly optimistic view. As it turned out, if the worker had certainly begun, in the first years of the twentieth century, to enjoy a certain amount of free time, he did not have the chance of taking advantage of this free time for his own benefit, since bourgeois society monopolized this time by establishing a whole network of “amusements” and “entertainments” that would divert him from any higher concerns. Marx likewise thought that “‘Elementary education through the state’ is altogether objectionable.... Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school.”4 But how could it have been otherwise? The class that holds economic and political power—is it not the same class that also possesses ideological power, which it wields over the people’s minds, especially in the schools? The proletariat did not have the chance of emerging from bourgeois society as an autonomous class in order to constitute itself as a counter-power, as Marx and Engels had expected. To the contrary, the proletariat became less and less free in its movements and its thoughts, for which reason the perspective of abbreviating the career of capitalism was actually impracticable, and therefore, in the last analysis, mistaken. Even before 1914 this perspective had revealed its limitations: the subjective factor could not be sufficiently developed to change the course of history. And all those who would subsequently be mired in wanting to assert this factor (not neglecting to evoke “the class consciousness of the proletariat”, appealing to the “spiritual and moral forces of the proletarians”) would be wasting their time. Capitalism is economically programmed to reach the end of its historical stage, as Marx had predicted—Marx the theoretician and not Marx the political agitator: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed”.

This perspective, which is Marx’s truly scientific perspective, is based on an economic determinism according to which capitalism will encounter contradictions that it will not be able to surmount and that will impel the workers to establish a new society. Is this determinism the same as the determinism the revisionist Bernstein subjected to judgment at the end of the 19th century? “I do not subordinate the victory of socialism”, he wrote, “to its immanent economic necessity and I do not believe it is either possible or necessary to provide it with a purely materialist justification”.5 Bernstein evidently had the upper hand when he wrote this. Marx and Engels had believed that the communist revolution had been possible since 1848, given the merciless exploitation of man by man that prevailed in that era. But this assessment was false because the contradictions then engulfing capitalism were only indicative of its first stage of industrialization, based on the maximum prolongation of the working day. This “formal subsumption of labor to capital” (Marx) effectively began to encounter its limits with the economic crisis of 1847-1848, which provoked a workers rebellion (especially in Paris), but which, like the other crises that followed, did not lead to the communist revolution predicted by the Manifesto, despite Marx’s prognostications about “the imminent revolution on the continent” just before the economic crisis of 1858. The contradictions of this first stage would be overcome thanks to the extraction of relative surplus value based on a greater intensity of labor and a corresponding reduction of the working day. This new mode of capital accumulation, which implies a more accentuated division of labor and requires the employment of machinery, and the natural, mechanical and chemical sciences, on a massive scale, Marx calls “the real subsumption of labor by capital”. This leads to a vigorous expansion of capitalist production (even if it is affected by intermittent cyclical crises which are rapidly overcome) and has a tendency to progressively make pauperization relative: with the growing productivity of labor, that is, the production of the maximum of goods with the minimum of labor, the standard of living of the workers is palpably raised; the latter can, with their real wages, achieve greater consumption, even if this only affects for the most part certain privileged categories. With regard to all these changes, the 1890s are crucial. The stage of the real domination of capital really begins during this decade with the second industrial revolution (that of oil and electricity). This is what caused Engels in 1895 to openly acknowledge that he and Marx were mistaken about the revolutionary possibilities of 1848, capitalism not having ceased to carry on with its forward progress since that date. This is also what Bernstein did when he called upon the leaders of German social democracy to admit that their party was in fact nothing but a party of democratic and social reform. This assessment was not false, since that era of capitalist expansion resulted in making the existence of a revolutionary party an objective impossibility. But then Bernstein was wrong, too. On the basis of this fact he concluded that capitalism was inherently stable. All that was required now was to gradually make it supposedly more socialist thanks to “a more just mode of distribution” of the wealth that it creates. From that time forward, what forces would be capable of causing capitalism to transform itself little by little into a socialist mode of distribution? “Moral forces,” Bernstein responds: “I cannot subscribe to the phrase: ‘The working class has no ideals to realize’6 . . . Social democracy needs a Kant who would once and for all put an end to moldy theories.” To attain socialism, the categorical moral imperative of Kant must therefore replace the economic determinism of Marx. In fact, this is pure charlatanry, because if there is no “immanent economic necessity” (we translate: objective contradictions of capitalism) forcing the bourgeoisie to dig its own grave, the latter and its system can rest assured because they are programmed to last forever! As for an “ideal to realize” that would be capable of gradually dragging society towards socialism, the bourgeoisie, as we have seen, takes care of that! In fact, Bernstein has absolutely no understanding, like all the revisionists who came after him, of the fact that if capitalism is economically prone to catastrophe, this is not because it becomes more and more impoverished, but because, at a certain moment in its cycle, it will be incapable of continuing as a mode of production that bases the production of use values on exchange value. Bernstein’s conclusion is thus unacceptable since the expansion of capitalism that he proclaims by no means justifies the renunciation of revolution in favor of an alleged “socialist gradualism” based on a Kantian moral imperative, but only a postponement of the date of the revolution. This was, moreover, noted by Rosa Luxemburg: “If Bernstein’s revisionism merely consisted in affirming that the march of capitalist development is slower than was thought before, he would merely be presenting an argument for adjourning the conquest of power by the proletariat, on which everybody agreed up to now. Its only consequence would be a slowing up of the pace of the struggle.”7

This “adjourning” that Luxemburg refers to would subsequently go largely unrecognized by revolutionaries, who would attempt to prove that capitalism had entered into its final stage and could only undergo its death throes (hence the theory of the “decadence” of capitalism). In fact, the development of capitalism would be effectively “slower” than predicted. In a subsequent chapter we shall say why this was so. As for the “slowing up of the pace of the struggle” that Luxemburg also discussed, it would likewise be misunderstood by revolutionaries, who would see the Russian revolution of 1917 and the surge of postwar struggles as not only a resumption of the struggle, but as a “great revolutionary wave” that would submerge capitalism. It is this big illusion that we shall address now.

  • 1. Kostas Papaioannou, The Marxists, Ed. J’ai lu, Paris, 1965, p. 253.
  • 2. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1978, p. 210.
  • 3. Karl Marx, Inaugural Address of the International Workingmen’s Association, (1864), in Karl Marx: Selected Works, Vol. II, International Publishers, New York, n.d., p. 439.
  • 4. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, in Karl Marx: Selected Works, Vol. II, International Publishers, New York, n.d., p. 581.
  • 5. Eduard Bernstein, Theoretical Socialism and Practical Social Democracy, quoted by Kostas Papaioannou, op. cit., p. 282.
  • 6. A reference to Marx’s statement about the Paris Commune: “It [the working class] has no ideal to realize.”
  • 7. Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1970, p. 39.