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The basis of working- class separatism. Part II — The victory of bourgeois ideology in the workers’ movement

The basis of working-
class separatism
Part II — The victory of bourgeois
ideology in the workers’ movement

Class Line
No. 4 — Winter-Spring 2000

Revolutionary organizations are not separate from, or immune to, the societies within which they exist. One does not join an organization and magically lose all of society’s backwardness (i.e. we must always struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. within the revolutionary organization as well as in society as a whole). Nor do those who enter into revolutionary organizations instantly lose all vestiges of society’s dominant ideology and become overnight masters of dialectical thought.

Bourgeois ideology is an essential component in the toolkit of the ruling class. It is the means by which they justify everything that capitalism does and by which they maintain control. It grows side by side with capitalism itself, twisting and turning along with the periodic economic crises, and always serving to provide ideological cover for them. Of necessity it permeates every aspect of existence in capitalist society.

Because nothing, including the capitalist system, evolves in a smooth and linear fashion, periodic crises and jumps as capitalism develops and decays give windows of opportunity to revolutionary organizations. The class struggle, and the consciousness of the working class, goes through different stages of development corresponding to the situation in society as a whole. There are moments in history in which a great jump in consciousness on the part of the working class is possible. But for this to develop, revolutionary leadership, capable of recognizing and acting upon this possibility, is necessary.

Lenin and Trotsky pointed out many times that a revolutionary organization that does not experience a revolutionary situation for an extended period of time is bound to degenerate. This is even truer for an organization that encounters the possibility of such a situation and proves unable to act upon it. The organization itself, knowing that it has missed an opportunity that is unlikely to present itself again soon, becomes easy prey for opportunism. An organization strong enough to be seen as a threat by the bourgeois state, that fails not because of its size but because of its own errors, faces severe state repression as well as its own internal demoralization.

The working class as a whole is intensely affected by such a situation. The working class begins to search for answers and for leadership when several factors come together to push it to do so. These include economic, political, and social factors. These factors do not come together every day, but when they do, strong revolutionary leadership is essential.

If this leadership is absent, the bourgeoisie is ultimately able to deepen its ideological hold over the working class. The belief that the ruling class is the only viable political force is deepened. The most backward aspects of bourgeois ideology — mysticism, religion, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. — are reinforced. Revolutionary politics is discredited in the eyes of the working class, usually for an extended period of time.

The reinforcement of bourgeois ideology within society as a whole finds its way into the revolutionary organization as well. This ideological pressure has proven deadly to revolutionary organizations. To this day, there has not been one organization — not even the Third and Fourth Internationals — that has survived it.

Unmistakable signs of disease

The petty bourgeois opposition within the SWP, led by Shachtman, Abern, and Burnham, was an unmistakable sign that the ideology promoted by the bourgeoisie at that time had penetrated the young Trotskyist movement. The fight within the SWP represented a life or death struggle between bourgeois ideology and the method of Marxism. It indicated a contradiction within the SWP that could not continue to exist, and had to be resolved in favor of one side or the other. This contradiction was ultimately resolved in favor of bourgeois ideology in the workers’ movement.

The method of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky — dialectical materialism — was lost in the “Trotskyist” movement by the end of World War II. This loss of method marked the resolution of the ideological contradictions. It opened the door to a resolution of the organizational contradictions in favor of the petty bourgeoisie.

Trotsky was the last of the old Bolshevik leaders who had emphasized the importance of the dialectical materialist method. In the American movement this method was never fully understood and certainly not internalized. On the part of the petty bourgeois opposition, it was held in absolute contempt, and Trotsky waged a life or death struggle against this attitude.

Unfortunately, while those who were fighting for a proletarian party attempted to continue Trotsky’s struggle for the Marxist method, they themselves had an insufficient grasp of this method. In large part this was because Cannon had always had the attitude that theoretical work was a job for petty bourgeois intellectuals. Thus he had neglected to develop working class cadres capable of expanding, defending and developing the theory that was desperately needed at the time.

Even as Cannon led the fight against the petty bourgeois opposition, he still failed to understand that working class cadres were capable of continuing Trotsky’s work after his death. So, rather than taking the steps that would be necessary to develop working class theoretical leaders, he continued on a desperate search for other petty bourgeois intellectuals to carry on this work. This attitude in itself showed that the Cannon side of the faction fight had been deeply penetrated by bourgeois ideology as well.

Bourgeois ideology within the working class often manifests itself as a lack of confidence in the working class, an “overexaggerated respect” for the petty bourgeoisie, and a search for petty bourgeois leaders. Working class people internalize what they have been taught all of their lives — that their role in life is to take orders from the bosses and that they are incapable of doing otherwise. Often the idea of taking leadership for themselves is initially met with great fear and hostility. This is one reason why, for example, the trade union bureaucracy, as corrupt and inept as it is, has maintained power for so long.

The fight against the petty bourgeois opposition should have been a rallying cry for the development of working class leadership, but instead it wound up reinforcing old attitudes against such a development. As a result, after Trotsky’s death, it was not long before the method of Marxism itself within the “Trotskyist” movement died.

The “Trotskyists” in the post-war period were able to play a valuable role in the leadership of the working class. They were able to grow and to build their organizational reputation out of the strike waves of the 1940s. But they were never able to sufficiently understand what was happening to capitalism at that time.

The final victory of petty-bourgeois leftism

The early 1950s were a time of post-war economic boom that led to a dramatic reduction in working class struggles. Not coincidentally, this was also the time of the McCarthyite witchhunts.

Had the American SWP retained the dialectical method of looking at the world, for which Trotsky had struggled, it would have been able to correctly analyze the new situation and to act appropriately. Had the international leadership internalized this method, it would have had a chance to correct the American organization.

The SWP should have been able to understand the ebbs and flows of social and economic developments. It should have been able to see that U.S. society at that point was in a period of reaction, and that such periods are normal, temporary events in the development of the class struggle. With such an analysis the SWP could have prepared its membership for the inevitable losses and persecutions to come. It could have foreseen the internal struggles that such a situation would produce, and strengthened its membership’s educational level in order to minimize demoralization and defections, and to prepare for the future. But the SWP could do none of this because it could not analyze events dialectically.

The same methodological failure existed in the Fourth International as a whole. Rather than correcting the developing errors in the American section, the FI fell victim to Pabloite liquidationism, which compounded the problems in every section.

Under Pablo’s leadership the International attempted to force its liquidationist perspective onto the SWP. They found their tool for this project in Clarke, who was able to forge a bloc with Cochran due to the SWP leadership’s own weaknesses.

Cochran was a leading unionist with deep roots in the UAW. He and his union supporters had attempted to struggle against Cannon’s policies, which had included support for Reuther over the Stalinists. But, trained in the Cannon school, Cochran and his supporters were unable to conceive of themselves as real political leaders. Cannon had taught them that working class people must look to the petty bourgeoisie for political leadership. They found a willing leader in Clarke, and, by 1951, the SWP was again embroiled in a bitter factional struggle.

The Cochran-Clarke faction, like Pablo, wanted to circumvent material reality through a capitulation to Stalinism. Their program was rooted in a rejection of dialectical analysis. Their base was the demoralized petty bourgeoisie and a layer of the most privileged, older unionists who served as a transmission belt for bourgeois ideology within the organization.

In these ways, Cochran-Clarke was similar to the Burnham-Shachtman faction before them. However, the struggle waged against Cochran-Clarke, and ultimately against Pabloism itself, had nothing in common with the earlier struggle that had been strongly guided by Trotsky.

Trotsky had struggled against Burnham and Shachtman by exposing their petty-bourgeois methodology and counterposing a Marxist, dialectical method. Cannon, now without the benefit of Trotsky’s corrective influence, attempted organizational maneuvers with Pablo against the opposition instead of fighting for political clarity. The debate became one of party loyalty and who was the best at carrying out Pablo’s liquidationist policies!

Failing to achieve political clarity in the struggle against Cochran-Clarke, the SWP leadership also failed to prepare the organization politically for the struggle against Pablo. Only after the split in the International did Cannon attempt a real analysis of Pabloism, and even then he was forced to rely on appeals to “orthodoxy” — mechanical repetition of the “old program” without defending or understanding the method behind it.

This methodological failure resulted, after the split in the International, in a power struggle between the petty bourgeois and working class wings of the SWP. In the end, Cannon engineered a compromise that allowed the petty bourgeois wing to rise and ultimately to dominate.

The history of the SWP since that time was a history of political confusion and opportunist zigzags, culminating in reunification with the Pabloites. Along the way the SWP lost much of its work in the unions and in the struggles of the working class as a whole.

The mid-1950s saw the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. This movement laid the basis for ending the silence and acquiescence of the American working class that had been enforced by McCarthyism. Unfortunately, by this time, the post-war “Trotskyists” had lost the ability and the will to make an effective intervention into this struggle.

Wars and social upheavals certainly pose the greatest tests for revolutionary organizations. They mercilessly expose programmatic and methodological flaws that are able to exist undetected in periods of relative social peace. By the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement reached its height, and when the Women’s Liberation Movement and the movement against the Vietnam War were getting into full swing, the “Trotskyists” in the U.S. were incapable of intervening on a Marxist basis. The SWP quickly began to tail the antiwar movement, which was qualitatively different from earlier social movements.

The “New Left”

As was said above, if, when the working class begins to look for political answers, no viable leadership can be found, bourgeois ideology is strengthened. The forces of reaction take hold in the class, the organization, and society as a whole. This can happen openly, as in the case of McCarthyism, or it can take a more insidious form. The development of the New Left in the 1960s, and the state of the “communist” movement since then, is an example of this more subtle type of bourgeois ideological domination.

The political and organizational weaknesses of the post-war “Trotskyists” left the working class with insufficient leadership. In the unions this had allowed the labor bureaucracy to consolidate its power and to act as a brake on the struggles of the organized working class. In the Civil Rights Movement it meant that, after a period of heroic searching (led by such organizations as the Black Panther Party, DRUM, the Young Lords, etc.) the bourgeoisie was able to buy off a layer of the leadership and use them to mislead the movement into reformism.

By the time the women’s and antiwar movements entered the scene, there was no viable working class leadership to be found. Instead those entering into these movements saw a trade union movement which was itself highly backwards on the questions of racism and sexism, and was quite nationalistic.

This situation presented a vacuum of leadership, which petty bourgeois students were quick to fill. The New Left, formed out of these conditions by petty bourgeois youth, constituted the reaction to the working class struggles that had originally formed the unions in the U.S.

The New Left systematically rejected everything that might associate them with the “old left.” They laughed at any attempt to gain a scientific understanding of the world, and substituted instead a liberal moralistic view. They were openly contemptuous of theory and an anarchistic, “anti-authoritarian” conception of organization. Adventurism and opportunism were quick and easy substitutes for the hard work of genuine organizing. The New Left was highly anti-working class, which led them to adopt such slogans as “don’t trust anyone over 30.”

All of this may have been fine for some privileged students looking for a way to rid themselves of a bit of petty bourgeois guilt or to pass their spare time until they could graduate and get into professional positions. But for working class people, whose lives are actually affected by the political decisions they make, such posturing is not a viable option.

The personal and economic demands of effective organizing work are difficult sacrifices for those who do not have an excess of time or money to begin with. Working class people cannot afford to play at politics. Those who commit themselves to revolutionary politics do so because they understand that their futures and the future of their class depends on the construction of a revolutionary leadership capable of making the correct decisions at the right time.

If their organization makes mistakes, it is the working class people who will pay for this, while the more privileged people go on with their lives. Therefore working class people have little patience for liberal moralism, theoretical and organizational sloppiness, or any of the other games that the New Left played.

Throughout the 1960s the left became more and more dominated by the petty bourgeoisie, while the working class increasingly saw revolutionary activity as something done by radical college students, not workers.

The post war Trotskyist organizations had their own petty bourgeois pressures. These pressures led them to tail the New Left. They also led to a period of splits and the fragmentation of the “Trotskyist” movement. Notably, not one of the splits managed to regain the method and theories of Trotsky himself. The various “Trotskyist” groups became increasingly petty bourgeois and adopted many of the attitudes of the New Left. Many rejected the Marxist method outright, while others gave lip service to dialectical materialism but failed to really grasp the method.

Since that time, the history of the various “Trotskyist” organizations has been variations on a common theme — split after split, based not on political program but on personal prestige politics or the ego trips of a “great leader.” Sometimes a political veneer serves to cover up the underlying reality, but it quickly disappears when the surface is scratched. Capitulation to the pressures of bourgeois society, either in an opportunist or sectarian way, has led these organizations to be utterly incapable of meaningful intervention into the struggles of the working class. Complete rejection and contempt for the working class has ensured that few of these organizations even try to intervene into its struggles.

Development through contradiction

As Marxists we understand everything that exists is in constant motion and that this motion takes place in a dialectical process. The world is composed of contradictions — of things standing in opposition to each other. To understand one thing you also have to understand its opposite, because things gain meaning only relation to their opposites.

In terms of social systems we understand that new, revolutionary ideas arise when established social systems outlive their usefulness and can no longer serve the interests of social progress. But new ideas and new systems contain within themselves their own contradictions. These immediately cause a new process of struggle that leads to new motion and change. Historical ideas, concepts, and theories develop through this process, which is the direct result of existing material conditions.

Bourgeois revolutions took place in societies whose productive forces had developed to a point that feudal structures acted as a brake on a newly emerging capitalist class. Early capitalism gave rise to tremendous developments in the field of production and technology. These led to new methods of production that, for the first time in history, made it possible for societies to meet the needs of all of their people and to gain a growing amount of leisure time. But the very nature of capitalism itself required inequalities and divisions between those who owned the means of production and those who owned only their labor power. The divisions grew wider and capitalism quickly became an outlived, barbaric system for the majority of society.

These material conditions led to the development of early socialist ideas. These ideas in turn contained their own contradictions. Along with new ways of thinking, early socialism contained elements of the old, bourgeois, ideology. The earliest socialists were utopian and idealist. The development of a revolutionary socialist program required a struggle between the idealist and the revolutionary wings of the new movement. Marxism won this ideological battle because material conditions were ripe for such a victory.

Marxism itself, from its beginnings, contained elements of the old as well. Material conditions did not yet exist for the mass of the working class to embrace Marxism — to become involved in its organizations — so it remained predominantly in the hands of the petty bourgeoisie until the Russian Revolution.

And even after the Russian Revolution, when the working class did join the Communist Party in large numbers, theoretical leadership remained in the hands of the petty bourgeoisie. This in itself was a contradiction — a revolutionary working class program and method that was not, in its defining features, in the hands of the working class. The concrete form of this contradiction could be seen in the revolutionary organizations, which, in spite of their working class politics, duplicated the class relations of bourgeois society. A struggle between these contradictory elements within Marxism had to resolve itself in favor of one side of the contradiction or the other. Lenin and Trotsky recognized this and attempted to struggle to correct the situation, but their efforts were defeated by the rise of Stalinism.

The development of Stalinism in the USSR played a large role in making sure that the working class side of this contradiction was unable to predominate. And it was this inability to favorably resolve the contradiction that led to the ultimate decay and fragmentation of the “Trotskyist” movement.

Today several rounds of dialectical development have taken place in the material conditions under which we live, and in Marxism itself. Capitalism has gone through its emergent, acquisitive period, and into a long lasting period of imperialism and decay. During this process the working class won the greatest victory it had ever known, the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Side by side with these material developments, Marxism grew as a revolutionary ideology, and then was turned into its opposite as a result of the pressures of bourgeois ideology and the petty bourgeois composition of the organizations that claim its heritage. Today we are left with fragmented, virtually nonexistent organizations that are incapable of any positive revolutionary change. Rather than the victory of the international proletariat, inspired by the Russian Revolution, we’ve seen the opposite. The restoration of capitalism in almost all of the workers’ states was the greatest defeat the working class has ever known.

History has gone full course. In dialectical terms, this is the negation of the negation, and a new thesis has emerged in Marxism and in society as a whole.


The period that we face today is, in many ways, similar to the one that Marx and Engels dealt with, but on a much higher historical level. Capitalism is thoroughly rotten, decayed, and long past its death agony. And yet today, as in the time of Marx, we have to build revolutionary leadership again, from the ground up. But unlike in Marx’s time, we do not have to reinvent the wheel. We have a wealth of historic lessons to draw from, and the experience of over 100 years. We must now proceed to learn these lessons.

The conditions of the working class are much different than they were in the time of Marx and Engels, and even the time of Lenin and Trotsky. While capitalism is, with the fall of the workers’ states, once again in a period of acquisition, it is on a higher level of development today.

Today we do not have a newly emergent working class, we have one that has suffered many defeats. But the working class today has the benefit of experience, and it can also take advantage of the needs of capitalism itself. These have changed in a way that forces the capitalists to grant some concessions to the working class. In order to run their factories today, the ruling class needs a working class with a certain amount of education. And, although the capitalists are trying to take away every gain the workers have won, we still have (technically at least) the eight hour day and much more time to spend on political activity than workers did 100 years ago.

So the working class is in a much better position to take control of its own politics and its own program. And if there is one thing that the entire experience of the development of revolutionary movements has to show us, it is that this is precisely what is necessary today. If we don’t recognize this we are bound to repeat the same mistakes of the past, but on a higher and more devastating level.

The nature of capitalism itself has not changed qualitatively since the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. This is why their ideas are still as valid today as when they were first written. However the quantitative changes in capitalism have led to qualitative changes in the specific relationship of classes in the imperialist countries. We must understand the nature of these changes if we intend to build a revolutionary party under the concrete conditions that exist today.

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