Home » Articles » The basis of working-class separatism. Part I — The origins of bourgeois ideology in the working class

The basis of working-class separatism. Part I — The origins of bourgeois ideology in the working class

The basis of working-class separatism
Part I — The origins of bourgeois ideology in the working class

Class Line
No. 2-3 — Winter-Spring 1999

The system of capitalism survives, in large part, by the perpetuation of illusions and false understandings on many different fronts. Commodity production covers up the real relationships between people more intensely than any other historic form.

A fundamental feature of Marxist analysis is that it is not satisfied with merely looking at things the way they appear to be at first glance. It does take these appearances (form) as a starting point, but only to get to the bottom of things — to understand and analyze the real content.

It is necessary to apply this method conscientiously when analyzing any aspect of capitalist society. Anything less is useless and superficial, and can only aid the ruling class in obscuring the real issues.

The purpose of this document is to make an analysis of class relations in the advanced industrial countries today, and from this to draw some practical conclusions about building revolutionary parties in those countries.

In order to do this it is first necessary to look at the roots of today’s class relations. These roots extend back to the development of class society in general, and become especially clear throughout the development of capitalism. Only on this basis can we lay the basis to understand the ideologies and class relations that exist today.

When we get to the point of looking at these current conditions, we use U.S. society as our example. That is because we are most intimately familiar with the concrete conditions in that country.

However, we maintain that, with some surface variations, the important points that apply to U.S. society are similar in essence in all advanced industrial countries. There is no material reason to see a qualitative difference, in spite of some variations in form.

Separate documents will need to be produced dealing with the class question in the semicolonial countries and the former workers’ states. There, different material conditions may well produce different conclusions. It is essential to explore this question further, over time, in consultation with working class people in those countries.

Section I — A few methodological points

The roots of class relations

An often (mis)quoted phrase from Marx is “being determines consciousness.” While the sentiment behind the repetition of this phrase is correct — that consciousness is determined by concrete material conditions — this is, in fact, a popular but incorrect quotation.

This is important because it is often used to justify an analysis based on an individual, rather than a social level. Thus it reflects an incorrect understanding and a method of analysis that is especially common among the petty-bourgeoisie. It is popular today, when the left is so dominated by the petty bourgeoisie and an intense sect mentality prevails, to think in terms of individuals instead of classes of people.

Today “revolutionary” organizations are so intent on building their groups by recruiting one by one, or at best in small clots, that they forget that the point is to build a mass party — one that seeks to lead an entire class.

But Marx did not analyze individuals, he analyzed social phenomena. The correct quote is “social being determines social consciousness.” In other words, the overall social conditions determine the consciousness of the various classes in society. While there may be individual exceptions that break from the popular consciousness of their class, this is not a relevant factor in a Marxist analysis.

In chapter two of Capital Marx gives a concrete illustration of how social being determines not only social consciousness, but the whole wealth of social relationships that exist within a given society. Marx talks about the economic relations between two people exchanging commodities:

They must, therefore, mutually recognise in each other the rights of private proprietors. This juridical relation, which thus expresses itself in a contract, whether such a contract be part of a developed legal system or not, is a relation between two wills, and is but the reflex of the real economic relation between the two. It is this economic relation that determines the subject-matter comprised in each such juridical act. The persons exist for one another merely as representatives of, and, therefore, as owners of, commodities. In the course of our investigation we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them. [emphasis added]

In other words, when society develops to a point that commodity production is dominant, certain well defined relationships between people are necessary. And it is necessary that these relationships are codified in laws. People do not exist as individuals, with the ability to enforce their individual wills or to “rise above society.” They exist only as personifications of specific economic relations.

This is a complete refutation of the most prized illusions bred by capitalist society — the illusions of individual freedom, choice, etc. These illusions themselves only serve the prevailing economic relations. It is necessary to understand this in order to understand anything about capitalist society.

The mode of production — not different wills on the part of different individuals — determines the relationships that exist between people. This is true not just on the economic stage, but in all aspects of social interaction. To understand the class question and how it relates to building a revolutionary party we must analyze these concrete relations between people as they exist today.

Form and content

The fundamental laws of Marx’s dialectical method understand that everything is made up of contradictions. These contradictions act upon each other, producing motion and change. New things develop out of the old, and contain elements of the old, but on a higher level.

This applies to social relationships as well. A contradiction exists in regard to the relationships that are a feature of capitalist society. On one hand, capitalism needs the illusion of individuality described above in order to survive. On the other hand, this illusion could not have been built in any other previously existing society.

Social relationships in all previous societies were based on clearly personal relationships, in which individuals were tied directly together to other individuals on the basis of blood relations, the relationship of master and slave, or lord and serf, etc. Until these societies had developed the means to produce a surplus of products that could be sold on the market, it could not be otherwise.

The ability to produce surplus value tore all of these previous relationships apart. No longer were people connected to each other by personal relationships. Instead, commodity production required the alienation of people from each other and from the products they produced. In the place of the old ties, it required connections based only on things.

Production for the market destroyed the old, extremely limited and localized, personal ties, and replaced them with relations of seemingly independent individuals on a much wider scale. According to Marx:

It has been said, and bears repeating, that the beauty and grandeur of the system is founded on this connection and on this material and spiritual interchange, which is spontaneous, independent of the knowledge and desires of the individual, and in fact requires their indifference to each other and mutual independence. Certainly this connection by means of things is to be preferred to a lack of connection, or a merely local association which is founded on a relationship consisting of blood ties, or one of supremacy or servitude; and it is just as certain that individuals cannot dominate their own social relationships until they have created them. … Universally developed individuals, whose social relationships are subject, as their own communal relationships, to their own collective control, are the product not of nature but of history. The extent and universality of the development of capacities which make possible this sort of individuality, presupposes precisely production on the basis of exchange values. The universal nature of this production creates an alienation of the individual from himself and others, but also for the first time the general and universal nature of his relationships and capacities. (Grundrisse, pp. 80-2)

But this seeming independence is still an illusion. Marx continues:

In money relationships, in the developed exchange system (and it is this semblance that is so seductive in the eyes of the democrats), the ties of personal dependence are in fact broken, torn asunder, as also differences of blood, educational differences, etc. (the personal ties all appear at least to be personal relationships). Thus the individuals appear to be independent (though this independence is merely a complete illusion and should rather be termed indifference); independent, that is, to collide with one another freely and to barter within the limits of this freedom. They appear so, however, only to someone who abstracts from the conditions of existence in which these individuals come into contact. (ibid.)

In fact, while individual independence is the form taken by societies based on production for exchange, the content is much different. It is the division of society into classes, which can no more be surmounted by the members of the different groups (collectively speaking) than could the groupings in the previously existing societies.

(Since the single individual cannot shed his personal limitations, but can surmount external circumstances and master them, his freedom appears to be greater in the second case. Closer investigation of these external circumstances and conditions shows, however, how impossible it is for the individuals forming part of a class, etc., to surmount them en masse without abolishing them. The individual may by chance be rid of them; but not the masses that are ruled by them, since their mere existence is an expression of the subordination to which individuals must necessarily submit.) So far from constituting the removal of a ‘state of dependence’, these external relationships represent its disintegration into a general form; or better: they are the elaboration of the general basis of personal states of dependence. Here too individuals come into relation with one another only in a determined role. These material states of dependence, as opposed to the personal states, are also characterised by the fact that individuals are now controlled only by abstractions, whereas earlier they depended on one another. (The material state of dependence is no more than autonomous social relationships opposed to apparently independent individuals, i.e. their mutual relations of production, which have become independent, in opposition to them.) (ibid.)

Contradiction and development

Under capitalism individuals appear to be autonomous, but are, in reality, completely governed by concrete material states of dependence. These states of dependence are concealed by the process of commodity exchange. At different levels of development, and with the ebbs and flows of the class struggle, they are sometimes more concealed than at other times, however they always continue to exist. This is a fundamental feature of capitalist society at all stages in its development.

At the same time, a dialectical analysis must point out that, within these overall parameters, there are many variations. The dependent relationship of individuals does not change, but the relationships between classes develops constantly.

Like every other social system, capitalism develops “out of the ashes” of the preceding system. It contains within itself elements of the old system and must develop from there. In order to create the possibility of a ruling class that survives on the labor of the working class, capitalism must first of all rapidly develop the productive forces. At the time of capitalism’s birth, this process gives social relations a much different appearance than in the period of its decay.

If this were not true — if the relationship between classes was simply a static thing — then there would be no ebbs and flows in the class struggle — and no possibility of revolutionary developments.

We must understand how the relationship between classes changes as capitalism develops its productive forces. We must look at this relationship, and the material factors that determined it in the time of Marx, the time of the Bolsheviks, the pre-WWII period, and the post-war period. We must understand the changes and motion that took place through all of these periods. We must then move on to analyze the period we live in today, based on the developments of the past that led up to it.

We must not be afraid to recognize and analyze changes, if indeed they have taken place. It is necessary to analyze how and why changes in economic relations has led to changes in social relations, and what this means for the building of a revolutionary party in this period. [After that, we can begin to compare this process in different countries, looking at what has taken place in each country, and how it affects the relations between developing countries and imperialist countries.]

Before proceeding, however, it is important to note that, while we base our analysis on the development of productive forces, we do not endorse any theories of “economic determinism.” A dialectical relationship exists between economics and commonly accepted social customs and forms. Each has an influence on the other, and any analysis that is limited purely to economics will not capture the whole picture. (Marx refers to the mode of production as the base, or substructure of society, and the ideological and state institutions as the superstructure. While both interact with each other, the superstructure is built upon the substructure, and thus the mode of production holds the most importance in any analysis.)

It is necessary to analyze society as a whole. However, we must understand that any contradiction between the social and economic forms within a society can only be an extremely fragile, temporary situation. In the end, the development of the forces of production is the dominant factor.

Section II — Some historical background

The birth pangs of industrial capitalism

The development of capitalism demonstrates how ideas are influenced by the development of productive forces.

While early forms of capitalism had been around for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, it was the Industrial Revolution that brought about qualitative changes in production and in social thought. This can be seen most clearly in the example of England.

The movement from a mode of production based on small producers to the factory system, and the dramatic increase in the use of machinery in the production process, led to an increase in productivity that had never been seen before.

The first step that was necessary to make this increase in productivity possible was massive investment in factories and new technology. This investment in capital goods could only be made at the expense of investment in consumer goods and the extreme exploitation of the working class. The working class paid for these development with a relative decrease in its already pitiful standard of living, while the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie grew increasingly wealthy.

In addition, the workers’ old way of life was completely destroyed. No longer did the things they produced hold meaning for them, instead the only thing they had to sell was their labor power, and they became much like the machines they operated. Their entire lives were regulated around the factories in which they worked. Cities became unbearably crowded, and filth and disease were rampant.

These conditions gave rise to a series of working class rebellions and the growth of unionization (which the bosses, quickly outlawed).

The dominant ideology in pre-capitalist Europe was the Judeo-Christian tradition. This ideology served the feudal lords by justifying the status quo. It held the feudal system together and protected the ruling class with a moral code known as the Christian corporate ethic.

The basic premise of the Christian corporate ethic was that all of society should be viewed as a single entity. An integral part of this was a rigidly defined hierarchy, in which one’s social status was viewed as “the will of God.”

Those with wealth and power were obligated to protect and care for the poor. In turn, those without wealth and power were expected to willingly subordinate themselves to the wealthy and to accept their place in society without complaint. In the economic sphere this meant that the state should intervene in economic matters in order to promote the common welfare of society as a whole.

With the development of capitalism, the Christian corporate ethic was more and more pushed into the background. It was replaced by the beginnings of the bourgeois ideology that we are familiar with today. The “invisible hand” analysis of Adam Smith, the laissez-faire doctrine, and the barbaric population theories of Malthus became dominant at this time.

This does not mean that the Christian corporate ethic was completely eliminated. Social analysis does not simply jump beyond the material conditions in which it is made. Neither do new theories develop out of nothing or without challenge.

The bourgeois ideology that was developing at that time, classical liberalism, was made necessary because the old dominant ideology was counterposed to the needs of developing industrial capitalism. However, at the same time, two major trends of analysis developed as oppositions to classical liberalism.

The Tory radicals argued that the old paternalist ethic was compatible with capitalism, and that it was the job of the “higher classes” to protect and think for the poor.

The pre-Marxian socialists saw private ownership of the means of production as the problem and argued for collective ownership and self-governing communities.

However, neither of these trends came out of the working class. The Tory radicals came, for the most part, from the wealthy landowners or aristocracy. The socialists were mainly intellectuals and the “moral” petty-bourgeois managers and even factory owners, who still held “traditional” Christian views.

In fact, both of these trends were heavily influenced by the ideology of the past, and resistant to the new bourgeois ideology. Both seemed to take the “moralistic” values of the old Christian corporate ideology and attempt to apply them to new material conditions.

In the case of the Tory radicals this had very reactionary consequences, as they seemed to draw the conclusion that industrialization could just be ignored and society could return to the structures of the past.

The socialists were not trying to return to the past, but to move forward to a future, egalitarian society. But their ideology was very much steeped in the old moralism of the past. The materialist conception of history, later advanced by Marx, was still lacking at this point. Thus these early socialists were still limited to an idealist perspective and could not break from the bourgeois methodology of their time.

This limitation was demonstrated in the division that existed among them over whether capitalism could be peacefully transformed into a socialist society through moral appeals to the intelligentsia and the “humane” capitalists, or whether change could only come about through a violent social upheaval. It is no accident that those who had the least contact with the working masses (the intelligentsia) or those who were “humane” capitalists or factory managers themselves, stood predominantly in the camp of the “peaceful” road to socialism. Here again, social being determined social consciousness.

Marx’s theories were built on the shoulders of the work done by these early socialists. But Marx understood that it was necessary to take a dialectical materialist approach to the analysis of capitalism in order to understand its movement and direction, and how it would change.

Marx’s dialectical and materialist approach led him to understood that the working class was the only class that had the social power to overthrow capitalism. And, in addition to this indispensable scientific method, he had the concrete example of the French Revolution from which to draw conclusions.

This revolution, although it was a bourgeois revolution, provided a dramatic demonstration of the power of the working class and the way forward for the transformation of society. It was an event that greatly influenced Marx. However, at the time that Marx wrote, the productive forces in society had not yet developed to the point that workers could be allowed enough leisure time for even basic educational activities, let alone sustained political activity. Nor had the development of technology progressed to the point that it was necessary, from the bosses’ perspective, to provide education to the workers.

In fact, it was in the bosses’ interests to keep the workers overworked, exhausted, uneducated, and impoverished. Under these conditions it was extremely difficult for anyone from the working class to develop a consciousness beyond that of the need to organize together with other workers for basic economic demands.

Thus, the role of political leadership remained in the hands of the upper classes.

The “age of finance capital”

In the mid-1800s a period of intensive capitalist competition began. This resulted in rapid industrialization and economic expansion throughout Europe and in the United States.

Part and parcel of this expansion, and made necessary by it, was an explosion in the development of communication and transportation — most notably railroad construction. This construction, in turn, led the markets to expand even more.

Huge corporations and monopolies became the rule, as large companies ate or destroyed smaller businesses, and merged or allied with each other to avoid mutual destruction.

Technological advances and competition to get more goods into the market faster made larger factories necessary. The concentration of large numbers of workers in big factories, and the productivity of labor, increased exponentially. As a result, the social power of the working class also increased. As Marx predicted, capitalism was sewing the seeds of its own destruction.

This period also saw an intensive concentration of wealth into the hands of an ever shrinking portion of the population. And, as the productivity of labor increased, the capitalists for the first time were able to remove themselves from the factories completely and live solely on the surplus value extracted from the labor of the working class. A layer of managers was created to oversee the factories and protect the interests of the ruling class.

In overall terms the working class also made gains in this period. The real purchasing power of wages increased, as did the availability of mass-produced consumer goods. Still, although the conditions of working class life improved compared to earlier years, the workers remained quite impoverished.

It is no accident that, as large scale production threw more and more workers together in the factories and the gulf between the working class and the ruling class widened, the workers began to think more and more politically. They increasingly developed trade union consciousness and even gave significant electoral support to various socialist organizations.

The capitalists, fearing the increasing social power of the working class, brought out their ideological weapons of illusion and confusion.

On one hand the ruling class aggressively promoted the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” ideology and glorified the individual “self-made man” (for example, the Horatio Alger tales in the U.S.). On the other hand they revived a modern-day version of the

The main premise of this new ethic was feigned concern for the conditions of the poor and the working class. The capitalist ideologues promoted the view that the corporations were more concerned with public welfare than with profits, and advocated government intervention into the market to insure corporate cooperation.

Of course none of this propaganda could have been successful if it had not been possible to back it up with some material concessions. The productivity of labor had risen to a point where the capitalists could provide some privileges to a layer of the working class. In addition, they needed to provide educational privileges as technological developments required a more educated layer of workers to increase productivity even more.

By creating a privileged layer within the working class, the capitalists put meat on the illusion of the “self-made man.” To the working class (or, more accurately, to white male workers) it did seem possible to move out of poverty and into management, or at least a more highly skilled trade. Managers of industry became admired role models and individualistic illusions were strongly reinforced.

Racist and nationalist divisions were also promoted among the working class. This served as a release valve for the frustrations of workers who were struggling, but failing, to achieve the ideal of the individual “self-made man,” and also to build up chauvinist sentiments that served the spread of capital.

Capitalist expansion was not confined within national boundaries. The capitalists graduated from the period of basic accumulation to a period of monopoly power and aggressive world domination. By the late 19th century all of the advanced industrial countries had embarked on the road of intense imperialist expansion.

The imperialist struggle to carve up the world intensified the divisions that existed within the socialist movement. Once again those who were the most removed from the day to day struggles of the working class proved to be no more than mouthpieces for bourgeois ideology.

While the Bolsheviks stood on the shoulders of Marx, arguing for a concrete application of the understanding that “the working men have no country,” the petty-bourgeois “socialists” who led the largest parties in Europe made ideological justifications to defend imperialism. The modern-day variant of the Christian corporate ethic was clear in their writings, as they spoke about bringing “civilization” to the less developed, “savage” countries. In Germany, when WWI erupted, these so-called socialists began to wail about “Cossack hordes” from Russia.

The lack of a working class leadership again took its toll, as different methods of analysis, representing the interests of different classes, led to a split in the socialist movement in 1914. As James Cannon describes it:

The fact of the matter is that the socialist and radical movement in this country, as in all other countries outside Russia, came to a dead end in 1914. When the largest and strongest socialist parties of Europe, along with the movements of the anarchists and syndicalists, collapsed under the test of the First World War, a question mark was put over the perspectives of socialism everywhere. Socialists everywhere groped in darkness, questioning their previous assumptions. (James Cannon in his review of Theodore Draper’s book, The Roots of American Communism, published in The First Ten Years of American Communism)

In 1916 Lenin summed up the lessons of this period in his book, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. He called imperialism “the age of finance capital,” and condemned those who had capitulated to it.

The Russian Revolution

In Russia, WWI, and the economic and political crisis it caused, gave birth to the 1917 Revolution.

In the age of imperialism, Russia was still a backward country. It had developed a capitalist economy, but had not yet developed political forms to match. The particular nature of the Russian economy, with an extremely oppressed working class and the remnants of feudalism — including a huge peasant population, created difficult theoretical and practical challenges for the Bolsheviks.

One basic challenge was to fight for the understanding that Russia was, in fact, a capitalist country. This understanding was absolutely necessary in order to determine the social forces that were operating at that time. In 1914, as the struggle against the liquidators was in full swing, Lenin wrote powerful arguments on this question:

By what is Russia’s path, the nature and speed of her development, determined?

By the alignment of social forces, by the resultant of the class struggle.

That is obvious.

What social forces operate in Russia? What is the line of the class struggle?

Russia is a capitalist country; she cannot but develop capitalistically. Russia is not undergoing a bourgeois-democratic transformation, a release from the serf-owning system, emancipation. Under conditions of world capitalism Russia’s emancipation is inevitable. What we do not yet know is the resultant of the social forces that are working towards emancipation. These forces, in the main, are: 1) bourgeois monarchist liberalism (the capitalists and some of the landlords of the Progressist, Cadet and partly Octobrist parties); 2) the bourgeois democrats (the peasantry, urban petty bourgeois, intellectuals, and so on); 3) the proletariat.

Each of these classes acts — we take only the action of the masses, of course — in line with the economic position of the given class. There can be only one resultant.

In what sense, then, can we speak of Russia’s two paths? Only in the sense that, until the outcome of the struggle, we do not and shall not know the resultant, which will approach one of the two simplest and clearest lines visible at once to everybody. The first line is “reform”, the second a “storm”. (Lenin, “Two Paths,” Collected Works, Vol. 20)

The question of the nature of Russia’s development immediately raised questions about the peasantry. Was the peasantry itself a class — a remnant of feudalism, or had it already progressed beyond that? Again Lenin took a clear position. The peasantry had been divided into two camps — those who did not own land and were forced to sell their labor, and those who exploited the labor of others. The landless peasants were, in fact, working class, while those who remained in the “peasantry” were really petty-bourgeois. This explained the material conditions behind their inevitable political vacillations:

The peasantry in all countries of the world without exception, Russia included, vacillates, in the matter of bourgeois-democratic reform, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Such vacillation is inevitable, since the peasants are opposed to the landlords and serfdom while themselves being petty proprietors and petty bourgeois. (ibid.)

And in the struggle against the liquidators Lenin pointed out clearly how this trend represented the attempt of the bourgeoisie — with the support of the petty bourgeoisie — to destroy the working class movement. He analyzed the class roots of liquidationism and its historic development:

But here a very important question crops up: How did this trend arise historically?

It arose in the course of the twenty years’ history of Marxism’s ties with the working-class movement in Russia. Up to 1894-95 there were no such ties. The Emancipation of Labour group only laid the theoretical foundations for the Social-Democratic movement and took the first step towards the working-class movement.

It was only the propaganda of 1894-95 and the strikes of 1895-96 that established firm and inseverable ties between Social-Democracy and the mass working-class movement. And immediately an ideological struggle commenced between the two trends of Marxism: the struggle between the Economists and the consistent Marxists or (later) Iskrists (1895-1902), the struggle between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks (1903-08), and the struggle between the liquidators and the Marxists (1908-14).

A worker who takes an anythingarian attitude towards the history of his own movement cannot be considered class conscious. Of all the capitalist countries, Russia is one of the most backward and most petty bourgeois. That is why the mass working-class movement gave rise to a petty-bourgeois, opportunist wing in that movement, not by chance, but inevitably. (Lenin, “The Ideological Struggle in the Working-Class Movement,” Collected Works, Vol. 20)

Lenin also pointed to the material conditions that the proletariat did not adopt the wavering methods of the petty bourgeoisie:

Secondly — and this is most important of all — why is it that in one of the most turbulent and difficult periods of Russian history, in the five years 1908-13, the proletariat was the only class of all the classes in the Russian nation that did not “grope” its way about? Why was it only among the proletariat that “everything is clear and visible to all”? Why is the proletariat emerging from the state of utter ideological disintegration and collapse and vacillation in matters concerning programme, tactics and organization — such as now reign among the liberals, the Narodniks and intellectualist “would-be Marxists” — with “opinions fairly definitely established” and with “methods systematised and fairly well developed”? It is not only because these opinions were established and these methods developed by the “underground”, but because there are profound social causes, economic conditions and factors which are operating more and more effectively with every new mile of railway that is built, and with every a\plain\f2\fs18 dvance that is made in trade, industry and capitalism in town and countryside, factors which increase, strengthen, steel and unite the proletariat and keep it from following the lead of the man in the street, keep it from wavering like philistines, from faint-heartedly renouncing the “underground”. (Lenin, “A Radical Bourgeois on the Russian Workers,” Collected Works, Vol. 20)

However, since the peasantry was such a huge factor in Russia, a correct orientation to them was essential. Lenin argued for an orientation to the peasantry that did not give the slightest concession to the petty bourgeoisie, or seek to integrate them into the revolutionary party. Lenin’s entire purpose was to break those landless peasants, who had become a part of the working class, from the petty bourgeoisie.

Those who ponder on this will realise the enormous harm that is caused by attempts to “fuse” into a single party the advanced members of the wage-worker class and the inevitably wavering and unstable petty-bourgeois peasantry. (ibid.)

And further:

It is in the interests of the bourgeoisie … to confuse the peasant proletariat with the peasant bourgeoisie.

It is in the interests of the proletariat to combat this confusion and to draw a clear line between classes everywhere, including the peasantry. It is useless deceiving oneself and others by talking about the “peasantry”. We should ourselves learn and teach the peasants that even among the peasantry the gulf between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is widening day by day. (Lenin, “The Peasantry and Hired Labour,” Collected Works, Vol. 20)

Lenin used a Marxist, dialectical materialist method to make a correct assessment of the class forces operating in Russia. This assessment, and the Bolsheviks’ refusal to compromise with the bourgeoisie or its petty-bourgeois ideological representatives, allowed them to lead the proletariat to victory in October, 1917.

The rebirth of the Marxist movement

The Russian Revolution inspired working class people around the world. It showed, in practice, that the workers could indeed defeat their capitalist masters and take the reigns of state power into their own hands.

Communist parties in virtually all countries grew rapidly in the period following 1917. This led to the formation of the Comintern in 1919. Significantly, Communist political activity was no longer viewed as something separate from the working class. For the first time working class people began to join the Communist movement in large numbers.

… The Bolshevik party of Russia was the one party that demonstrated in action its capacity to cope with the problems of war and revolution. For that reason it became the inspiring center for a revival and regroupment of the revolutionary workers in all countries of the globe, including the United States whose previous movement had been the most primitive, isolationist, and politically backward of them all.

The young Communist Party of the United States arose as the expression of a new socialist hope, generated by the Russian example. It was this party, and no other, that took root, grew and expanded, and commanded the allegiance of virtually the entire generation of newly awakening rebel youth in the shops and in the schools. … (ibid.)

However, the influx of working class people into the Communist parties did not translate into the development of a strong working class leadership. Social formations do not simply jump out of the material conditions in which they function. Nor do they automatically overcome all of the backwards social “norms” and attitudes of the society in which they exist.

The working class has always been trained to view itself as “order takers” and followers of the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois “leaders.” The petty-bourgeois “intellectuals” have been taught by capitalist society to see themselves as natural-born “leaders” of the working class.

The early Communist Parties attracted a great number of careerists, opportunists, and bureaucrats. It took two full congresses of the Comintern to begin weeding out these elements. Moreover, by the time the Comintern was in a position to begin developing workers into communist leaders, the International had begun to degenerate under control of the Stalinists.

In order to overcome these long established class relations within the young Communist parties, a conscious struggle would have been necessary. This struggle would have had to take on the accepted notions of class relations, not only on the part of the petty-bourgeois “intellectuals,” but also on the part of the workers. And, to make such a struggle real, the material conditions would have had to be created to allow working class communists to develop as political and theoretical leaders.

Unfortunately the vast majority of the Communist parties were not in any position to create these conditions. The experience of the American communists illustrates this well.

The birth of the American Communist Party was marked by the struggle to apply revolutionary program and tactics to the concrete conditions of the time. This was a struggle to break definitively from the influence of past leaders, such as De Leon, the isolationists, the sectarians, and the syndicalists.

The new formation contained within itself many elements of the old, and it could only learn to stand on its own feet through a protracted struggle. This struggle took place through a series of faction fights, and was not resolved until the end of 1922. It certainly did not leave time or resources for a struggle around the question of class relations.

Further, the consciousness on the part of the leadership that would have been required to initiate such a struggle was simply not there. So, in general, the working class communists relegated themselves to the role of organizers, and left the theoretical work to the “intellectuals.”

The rise of Stalinism

The one place in which the material conditions did exist for overcoming the “traditional” class relationships was in the Soviet Union. Having taken state power, the Bolsheviks were in a position to run the economy and the educational, social, and political institutions in a way that could bring working class political leaders to the forefront.

And, under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks did carry out a conscious campaign to draw the working class into positions of leadership in all aspects of political, state, and economic work.

However, the new material conditions created by the 1917 revolution were weak and plagued by extreme contradictions. The economic and social backwardness of the country at the time of the revolution, the massive imperialist intervention, the failure of revolutions in the West, the effects of war and famine, and the growing exhaustion of the working class, etc., led to the rise of Stalinism instead of the development of real political power in the hands of the working class.

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky describes the conditions and process that led to the consolidation of power in the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy:

It is sufficiently well known that every revolution up to this time has been followed by a reaction, or even a counterrevolution. This, to be sure, has never thrown the nation all the way back to its starting point, but it has always taken from the people the lion’s share of their conquests. The victims of the first reactionary wave have been, as a general rule, those pioneers, initiators, and instigators who stood at the head of the masses in the period of the revolutionary offensive. In their stead people of the second line, in league with the former enemies of the revolution, have been advanced to the front. Beneath this dramatic duel of “coryphe\’e9es” on the open political scene, shifts have taken place in the relations between classes, and, no less important, profound changes in the psychology of the recently revolutionary masses.

The axionlike assertions of the Soviet literature, to the effect that the laws of bourgeois revolutions are “inapplicable” to a proletarian revolution, have no scientific content whatever. The proletarian character of the October revolution was determined by the world situation and by a special correlation of internal forces. But the classes themselves were formed in the barbarous circumstances of tzarism and backward capitalism, and were anything but made to order for the demands of a socialist revolution. The exact opposite is true. It is for the very reason that a proletariat still backward in many respects achieved in the space of a few months the unprecedented leap from a semifeudal monarchy to a socialist dictatorship, that the reaction in its ranks was inevitable. This reaction has developed in a series of consecutive waves. External conditions and events have vied with each other in nourishing it. Intervention followed intervention. The revolution got no direct help from the west. Instead of the expected prosperity of the country an ominous destitution reigned for long. Moreover, the outstanding representatives of the working class either died in the civil war, or rose a few steps higher and broke away from the masses. And thus after an unexampled tension of forces, hopes and illusions, there came a long period of weariness, decline and sheer disappointment in the results of the revolution. The ebb of the “plebeian pride” made room for a flood of pusillanimity and careerism. The new commanding caste rose to its place upon this wave.

With the rise of Stalinism the early efforts of the Bolsheviks to place genuine political power into the hands of the working class were destroyed. In terms of the development of the working class as a political leadership, this process can only be described as an abortion. This can be seen in Trotsky’s description of the ruling bureaucratic caste:

In its conditions of life, the ruling stratum comprises all gradations, from the petty bourgeoisie of the backwoods to the big bourgeoisie of the capitals. To these material conditions correspond habits, interests and circles of ideas. The present leaders of the Soviet trade unions are not much different in their psychological type from the Citrines, Jouhauxes and Greens. Other phraseology, but the same scornfully patronizing relation to the masses, the same conscienceless astuteness in second-rate maneuvers, the same hard concern for their own peace, and finally the same worship for the most trivial forms of bourgeois culture. The Soviet colonels and generals are in the majority little different from the colonels and generals of the rest of the earth, and in any case are trying their best to be like them. The Soviet diplomats have appropriated from the Western diplomats not only their tailcoats, but their modes of thought. The Soviet journalists fool the readers no less than their foreign colleagues,\plain\f2\fs18 although they do it in a special manner. (ibid.)

It must be noted that, while Trotsky speaks here about the “psychological type” of the bureaucrats, this phrase is not used to make a “psychological” analysis, but to point out how concrete material conditions effect one’s view of the world and of class relations. The consciousness of the Soviet bureaucracy paralleled the dominant bourgeois consciousness and ideology of the capitalist world at that time.

The political policies that resulted from this method had a devastating effect, not only on the working class in the Soviet Union, but on the development of working class leadership world wide.

The American example

In The First Ten Years of American Communism, Cannon divides the history of the American Communist movement into three distinct periods: 1917 to 1919, when the “first troops of American communism” came out of the left wing of the Socialist Party and sharp factional struggles took place over issues of political principle; 1920 to 1923, when factional struggles over national questions dominated Party life; and the years 1924 to 1928, which “stand out as the great dividing line between progress and regression in the evolution of the Communist Party of the United States.

During the first two periods the Comintern, led by Lenin and Trotsky, played an invaluable role in guiding the young American party through its necessary struggles and convulsions. Cannon describes its role in the second period as follows:

… The international factor — the Comintern — appears in this period as a helpful advisor in the settlement of national questions. The American party was throwing up its own indigenous leadership and fighting out its own battles with the help of the Comintern, rather than, as in the preceding period, simply reflecting and re-enacting the international fight on American grounds. (James Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism)

And further, on the role of the Comintern in the debate over legalization of the American party:

That was one time when a great problem of American communism, which it had not been able to solve by itself, was settled conclusively and definitely by the Comintern for the good of the movement.

All subsequent experience demonstrated the absolute correctness of this decision. It is appalling to think what would have been the fate of the American communist movement without the help of the Comintern in this instance….

This decision showed the Comintern at its best, in its best days, as the wise leader and coordinator of the world movement. Its role in this crucial struggle of the infant movement of American communism was completely realistic, in accord with the national political conditions and necessities of that time. Moreover, the Russian leaders, to whom American communism owed this great debt, showed themselves to be completely objective, fair and friendly to all, but very definite and positive on important political questions. (ibid.)

After Stalinism consolidated power, however, the Comintern played a different role. In 1923 a new factional struggle broke out in the American party. According to Cannon:

The new faction fight that began in 1923, primarily over the question of adventurism in the farmer-labor political movement, and then extended to all the problems of our practical work, our approach to the American workers, methods of trade union work — this protracted struggle was clearly a reflection of the contradictions in the social composition of the party and the different origins and background of the groups. (James Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism)

The factional line-up in this struggle was clearly that of the working class members (almost all of the unionists and working class members supported the Cannon faction) against the petty-bourgeois intellectuals. They even fought over the location of the national headquarters of the party. The Cannon faction wanted to locate it in Chicago, to bring it closer to the center of the American labor movement and to proletarianize it. The intellectuals wanted to locate the headquarters in New York, where the party had a strong petty-bourgeois element and the intellectuals were more comfortable politically.

The Comintern, at this point, no longer sought to aid the American party in resolving its problems. Instead they consistently supported the petty-bourgeois faction in order to set the stage for transforming it into an organization that was completely subservient to the bureaucracy.

We could have solved our problem had we been able to get the help we needed. That is, the help of more experienced and authoritative people. The problem was too big for us…. We went to the Comintern, seeking help, but the real source of the trouble was there, although we didn’t know it then…. The Comintern leadership looked at our party, as at every other party, not with the aim of clearing up trouble, but of keeping the pot boiling. They were already scheming to get rid of all the independent people, the kickers, the stiff-necks, so that they could create out of the mess a docile Stalinist party….

Each time we went to Moscow full of confidence that this time we were going to get some help, some support, because we were on the right line, because our proposals were correct. And each time we were disappointed, cruelly disappointed. The Comintern invariably supported the petty-bourgeois faction against us. At every opportunity they dealt a blow to the proletarian faction which in the early days was in the majority. (ibid.)

The destructive actions of the Stalinized Comintern were not the only factor in the degeneration of the American Communist Party.

The party was influenced from two sides — nationally and internationally — and this time adversely in each case. Its decline and degeneration in this period, no less than its earlier rise, must be accounted for primarily, not by national or international factors alone, but by the two together. These combined influences, at this time working for conservatism, bore down with crushing weight on the still infant Communist Party of the United States.

It was difficult to be a working revolutionist in America in those days, to sustain the agitation that brought no response, to repeat the slogans which found no echo. The party leaders were not crudely corrupted by personal benefits of the general prosperity; but they were affected indirectly by the sea of indifference around them.

“Moscow domination” did indeed play an evil role in this unhappy time, but it did not operate in a vacuum. All the conditions of American life in the late Twenties, pressing in on the unprepared infant party, sapped the fighting faith of the party cadres, including the central leaders, and set them up for the Russian blows. The party became receptive to the ideas of Stalinism, which were saturated with conservatism, because the party cadres themselves were unconsciously yielding to their own conservative environment. (James Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism)

Side by side with the events in the Soviet Union, and deeply influenced by them, the creation of a working class leadership in the Communist Party of the United States also became a casualty of Stalinism.

The basis of American Trotskyism

In 1928 Cannon traveled to the Soviet Union to attend the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern. There a copy of Trotsky’s The Draft Program of the Communist International: A Criticism of Fundamentals came into his hands. Cannon immediately became convinced of Trotsky’s positions, and, when he returned to the U.S., began to lay the foundations of the American Trotskyist movement.

It was not long until Cannon and his two co-thinkers, Shachtman and Abern, were expelled from the Communist Party. The “three generals without an army” then began to build the first Trotskyist organization in the United States.

Cannon, Shachtman and Abern had friends and supporters in the working class. Many of these people had been a part of the old Cannon faction in the Communist Party and did not immediately buy into the Stalinist slanders against them. In addition, they received defense against Stalinist gangsterism from some of Cannon’s old associates in the IWW. So they were not entirely isolated from the working class.

However, the vast majority of the working class members of the Communist Party eventually succumbed to the pressures of Stalinism, and broke contact with the Trotskyists. Recruitment to the new Trotskyist organization did not take place in large numbers, but slowly, individual by individual.

Further, Cannon, Shachtman and Abern were not only the founders of this movement, but for some time, its only leaders. And, of the three, only Cannon had roots in the working class.

The Stalinists were able to use the political capital of the Russian Revolution, won by the Communist Party under Lenin’s leadership, to pose as the genuine representatives of the working class. They combined demagoguery on this level with sheer brutality and intimidation to preserve their hegemony in the workers’ movement.

This, combined with a shortage of theoretically developed working class communists, meant that the Trotskyist movement was founded mainly by those from the petty-bourgeoisie. The Stalinists were able to use this, in turn, to further slander the Trotskyists among the working class. This was true not only in the U.S., but around the world.

The evolution and development of American Trotskyism did not proceed according to a preconceived plan. It was conditioned by a number of exceptional historical circumstances beyond our control. After the initial cadres had accustomed themselves to withstand the attacks and pressure of the Stalinists, the movement began to take shape as an isolated propaganda society. Of necessity it devoted an inordinate amount of its energy to the literary struggle against Stalinism. World events, one after another, confirmed our criticisms and prognoses. After the collapse of the Comintern in Germany, the failure of the successive 5-year plans to bring “socialism” in Russia, the monstrous excesses of the forced collectivization and the man-made famine, the murderous purges and the trials — after all this, which Trotsky alone had explained and analyzed in advance, Trotskyism became more popular in petty-bourgeois intellectual and half-intellectual circles. For a time it even became the fashion. Party membership conferred a certain distinction and imposed no serious hardships. Internal democracy was exaggerated to the point of looseness. Centralism and discipline existed only in the program, not in practice. The party in New York was more like a sophisticated discussion club than a combat party of the proletariat. (James Cannon, Struggle for a Proletarian Party)

The social composition of the early Trotskyist movement was unavoidable given the circumstances under which it was formed. And, to their credit, Trotsky and his followers recognized this problem and did everything they could to proletarianize their movement. However, although they did recruit from the working class, they did not manage to overcome the “traditional” social divisions within their organizations. Theoretical work was still, for the most part, left to the petty-bourgeoisie, while the working class leaders (including Cannon) remained predominately “organizers.”

Struggle for the proletarian party

The Socialist Workers’ Party in the U.S. paid a heavy price for the social divisions within it. In August, 1939, after the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact, the bourgeoisie began an aggressive anti-Soviet propaganda campaign. That same month the second world war began. These events led to a crisis within the SWP.

Two of the three original Trotskyist cadres, Shachtman and Abern, joined with James Burnham (a philosophy professor recruited out of the Musteite American Workers Party) to challenge the basic programmatic principles of the organization.

Their fight was clearly the result of the pressure of bourgeois ideology within the workers’ movement. The Burnham, Shachtman, Abern faction was an unprincipled petty-bourgeois formation to the core.

Political struggles in general, including serious factional struggles in a party, do not take place in a vacuum. They are carried on under the pressure of social forces and reflect the class struggle to one degree or another. This law is demonstrated in the most striking manner in the development of the present discussion within our party.

At the present time the pressure of alien class forces upon the proletarian vanguard is exceptionally heavy. We must understand this first of all. Only then can we approach an understanding of the present crisis in the party. It is the most severe and profound crisis our movement has ever known on an international scale. The unprecedented tension in the ranks signalizes a conflict of principled positions which is obviously irreconcilable. Two camps in the party fight for different programs, different methods and different traditions….

For those who understand politics as an expression of the class struggle — and that is the way we Marxists understand it — the basic cause of the crisis in the party is not hard to find. The crisis signifies the reaction in our ranks to external social pressure. That is the way we have defined it from the outset of the crisis last September, immediately following the signing of the Soviet-Nazi pact and the beginning of the German invasion of Poland. More precisely, we say the crisis is the result of the pressure of bourgeois-democratic public opinion upon a section of the party leadership. That is our class analysis of the unrestrained struggle between the proletarian and the petty-bourgeois tendencies in our party. (ibid.)

Burnham, Shachtman and Abern waged a fierce factional struggle in the SWP. They started by challenging the SWP’s conception of the nature of the Soviet Union and the need for revolutionaries to defend it against imperialist aggression. As the fight continued they came out in opposition to the Marxist method of dialectical materialism, and Leninist organizational conceptions. The seven month struggle ended in a deep split along class lines.

This fight revealed sharply the way in which the class relationships and attitudes of capitalist society had been duplicated within the Trotskyist organization.

It is not true that the advanced militant workers are hostile to education and prejudiced against educated people. Just the contrary. They have an exaggerated respect for every intellectual who approaches the movement and an exaggerated appreciation of every little service he renders. This was never demonstrated more convincingly than in the reception accorded to Burnham when he formally entered our movement, and in the extraordinary consideration that has been given to him all this time. He became a member of the National Committee without having served any apprenticeship in the class struggle. He was appointed one of the editors of our theoretical journal. All the recognition and the “honors” of a prominent leader of the party were freely accorded to him.

His scandalous attitude toward the responsibilities of leadership; his consistent refusal to devote himself to party work as a profession, not as an avocation; his haughty and contemptuous attitude toward his party co-workers; his disrespect for our tradition, and even for our international organization and its leadership — all this and more was passed over in silence by the worker elements in the party, if by no means with approval. (ibid.)

And further, Burnham was always:

… handled with silk gloves and given all kinds of liberties that were denied to others. (ibid.)

Two years before the faction fight, Burnham was already expressing views that foreshadowed the later conflict. Cannon pointed out that Burnham’s petty-bourgeois material conditions were influencing his political positions. Cannon proposed at the time that Burnham become a full-time party functionary in order to distance himself from the petty-bourgeoisie, in the hope of resolving the contradictions.

When this was discussed among party leaders in Minneapolis, Cannon reports that those comrades:

… emphasized very strongly to me in this discussion their desire that the dispute with Burnham be conducted in such a way as not to antagonize him unnecessarily, or to weaken unduly his position in the party. They made it clear that they valued his abilities very highly and wished assurances of comradely treatment for him that would facilitate his continued functioning as a party leader after the convention. (ibid.)

Later, when Cannon discussed the question with Burnham:

Burnham stated frankly that he wasn’t sure but that I might be right in my assumption that in his political disputes with us he was simply rationalizing his personal contradictions. He said it was a real contradiction, that he recognized it, and that he was not yet ready to solve it definitively. Instead of plunging deeper into party work, he wanted more time to consider the matter, and wanted to be released for the next period from all party duties except his regular literary work. We discussed the matter in a friendly way; we didn’t give him any bureaucratic orders; we acceded to his demands.

The minutes of the Political Committee meeting for January 20, 1938 record the official disposition of the matter as follows:

Cannon: Reports that Comrade Burnham, in the next period, wants to concentrate his work for the party on writing for the magazine and paper.

Motion by Cannon: For the next period we consider Comrade Burnham’s work to be specifically literary and editorial and that he be exempted from routine sub-committee work. Carried.

If some worker in the party, who is denied exemption from distasteful duties, reads this extract from the minutes of the Political Committee he may indeed draw certain conclusions about the existence of “second class citizens” in the party. But he will not find any evidence that our foremost party intellectual was placed in this category. (ibid.)

Yes, some worker could indeed have drawn conclusions about the existence of “second class citizens” in the party. But, in spite of Burnham’s petty bourgeois arrogance and “contemptuous” attitude towards his working class comrades, Cannon still maintained that:

It is only natural that a man of the outstanding talents and equipment of Burnham should play a leading role in the party. (ibid.)

However, the struggle with the petty-bourgeois opposition did lead Cannon to draw some conclusions:

  1. It is not sufficient for the party to have a proletarian program; it also requires a proletarian composition. Otherwise the program can be turned into a scrap of paper over night.
  2. This crisis cannot be resolved simply by taking a vote at the convention and reaffirming the program by a majority vote. The party must proceed from there to a real proletarianization of its ranks. It must become obligatory for the petty-bourgeois members of the party to connect themselves in one way or another with the workers’ movement, and to reshape their activities and even their lives accordingly. Those who are incapable of doing this in a definite and limited period of time must be transferred to the rank of sympathizers.

One step forward, two steps back

The fight in the SWP brought the class question to the forefront with an intensity not previously experienced by the American Trotskyist movement. It provided the opportunity to learn many lessons about class relations within a revolutionary organization. However, for many reasons, these lessons were never sufficiently drawn out.

The most important of these lessons should have been on the need to develop working class communists not only as organizational leaders, but as theoretical leaders as well. However, this conclusion was never drawn by the Trotskyist movement in the U.S. Not once, throughout the entire history of American Trotskyism, is the need to build working class theoretical leaders ever even mentioned.

Instead, even in the wake of the struggle with the petty-bourgeois opposition, the “exaggerated respect” for the role of petty-bourgeois intellectuals was maintained. While the SWP did conclude that it was necessary to stop treating the intellectuals with “silk gloves” and to place real demands upon them, the attitude that the petty-bourgeoisie must be the theoretical leaders of the working class continued.


In this section we have emphasized the way in which material conditions affect the dominant ideology in society, and how this in turn affects revolutionary organizations. Such an emphasis is necessary if we are to understand the real nature of bourgeois ideology.

This is important because it is common in the left today to indiscriminately level the charge of adapting to bourgeois ideology whenever political disagreements arise. As a result the real meaning of this term has been all but lost.

Bourgeois ideology is not just an epithet to be used against political opponents. It has real material roots and concrete manifestations within the workers’ movement.

Without a constant struggle against the effects of bourgeois ideology within the workers’ movement the creation of a genuinely revolutionary workers’ organization is impossible. But in order to struggle against something it is necessary to understand it.

©marxistworker.org

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