The protracted historical crisis of the capitalist system is now undergoing a qualitative development that will ignite an explosion in the class struggle internationally and create revolutionary conditions in all the major imperialist countries, including the United States. The implications of this crisis for the working class and its revolutionary vanguard can only be understood within the framework of a historical perspective.
In the founding document of the Fourth International, Trotsky advanced two interrelated propositions. He defined the epoch as that of imperialism’s death agony. At the same time, he insisted that the crisis of mankind was, in essence, the crisis of revolutionary leadership in the working class. The content of the first proposition was an objective historical assessment of the desperate and insoluble character of the contradictions of world capitalism. Contained in the second proposition was the warning that the resolution of this historical crisis on a socially-progressive basis depended, in the final analysis, upon the building of the Fourth International.
Only the International Committee insists upon the enduring validity of these two propositions. All the petty-bourgeois radical opponents of revolutionary Marxism reject as unwarranted the concentration of Trotskyism on the policies and program of those in the leadership of the workers’ movement. They insist, instead, that the survival of capitalism proves that Trotsky both underestimated the historical potential of the bourgeois order and grossly overestimated the revolutionary capacity of the proletariat. This “refutation” of Trotskyism invariably resolves itself into a rejection of all the fundamental conceptions of Marxism. The supposed “failure” of the Fourth International is, according to these ideological lackeys of imperialism, the expression of the failure of the proletariat as a class and, with it, of the entire historical perspective of socialism.
It is hardly surprising that during the past decade of political reaction such retrograde theories have found an audience in the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, and especially among those who once dabbled in revolutionary politics. One book’s title sums up the outlook of this social stratum, Farewell to the Working Class, whose author flatly declares that “capitalist development has produced a working class which, on the whole, is unable to take command of the means of production and whose immediate interests are not consonant with a socialist rationality.”
Such attempts to discover the causes of the defeats and setbacks suffered by the working class in the social characteristics of the proletariat itself serve as political apologias for those false leaderships which have betrayed the working class. In Trotsky’s last article, which lay on his desk at the time of his assassination, he answered those who similarly sought to blame the defeat of the Spanish Revolution on the proletariat.
“The historical falsification consists in this,” Trotsky wrote, “that the responsibility for the defeat of the Spanish masses is unloaded on the working masses and not on those parties that paralyzed or simply crushed the revolutionary movement of the masses. The attorneys of the POUM [the Spanish centrists] simply deny the responsibility of the leaders, in order thus to escape shouldering their own responsibility. This impotent philosophy, which seeks to reconcile defeats as a necessary link in the chain of cosmic developments, is completely incapable of posing and refuses to pose the question of such concrete factors as programs, parties, and personalities that were the organizers of defeat. This philosophy of fatalism and prostration is diametrically opposed to Marxism as the theory of revolutionary action.”
The historical experience of the past half-century has vindicated Trotsky’s analysis. The solution to the historical problems confronting mankind is not to be found in bemused and cynical speculations about the inadequacies of the working class, but in merciless struggle against those political tendencies, within and on the fringes of the labor movement, which block or inhibit its revolutionary mobilization. The waging of that struggle requires a thorough understanding of the strategical experiences of the working class.
Indeed, a Marxist analysis of the entire postwar period leads to the inescapable conclusion that only the systematic betrayals of the proletariat by the Stalinists and social democrats enabled the international bourgeoisie to survive the Great Depression of the 1930s and the worldwide offensive of the proletariat and the colonial masses which followed in the wake of World War II. The defeats of the working class in Europe in the 1930s—especially in Germany, France and Spain—were produced by the treacherous policies of the Stalinist and social democratic leaders and led directly to World War II. It should never be forgotten that the recovery from the global depression of the 1930s required a bloody world war which resulted in the destruction of vast portions of the productive forces, including the lives of approximately 100 million people. Thus, the postwar boom was built upon a mountain of human corpses. The devastation was a source of new riches for American imperialism, which now had at its disposal a vast market hungry for capital. But access by American capital into Europe depended upon the collaboration of the social democrats and, especially, the Stalinists, who imposed the agreements of Yalta and Potsdam upon the European working class and prevented a revolutionary settlement with imperialism.
The restoration of capitalist equilibrium in the aftermath World War II failed to resolve the contradictions which were preparing a new eruption of crisis even as world capitalism was celebrating its massive economic expansion. Underlying the postwar boom was the financial and industrial might of American capitalism, which had replaced Britain as the world’s principal imperialist power. The postwar reconstruction of world capitalism, above all in Western Europe and Japan, proceeded under the wing of American capitalism.
In accordance with the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944, the US dollar became the world currency, convertible into gold at $35 to the ounce. US-sponsored institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs were set up to regulate economic relations between capitalist states and prevent a return to the protectionist policies which shattered the world market in the 1930s. The bourgeoisie in Western Europe and America adopted policies of the welfare state and social reformism in order to mitigate class conflict in the imperialist centers.
The basic contradiction of the postwar restabilization was the following: the relative equilibrium was based on the dominant position of the United States, but American capitalism was compelled to rebuild its foreign rivals in order to revive the world market and forestall a wave of revolutions in Europe and Japan. Contained within this policy were the seeds of its own destruction. The export of American capital overseas had by the 1960s produced a dollar crisis which signaled the breakdown of the postwar equilibrium erected on the basis of US hegemony. The chronic American balance of payments deficit was the monetary expression of the deterioration in the world position of US capitalism. Repeated efforts to contain the crisis proved futile, and on August 15, 1971, the United States destroyed the foundation of the Bretton Woods system by ending dollar-gold convertibility.
The growing disequilibrium of the capitalist system both provoked and was intensified by the resurgence of the international proletariat. The period between 1968 and 1975 was marked by the greatest revolutionary movement of the international working class since the 1920s. While US imperialism was being hammered by the military resistance of the workers and peasants of Vietnam, the European and American working class launched a mighty offensive to raise its living standards. The French general strike of May-June 1968, the largest in history, sounded the tocsin for the greatest international offensive of the working class. Over the next seven years, country after country was hurled into political turmoil.
From the mid-1960s on, the United States was rocked by a combination of student protests, urban riots by the most oppressed layers of the working class and industrial strikes embracing millions of workers. Against the background of the military defeat in Vietnam, the political crisis culminated in the disintegration of the Nixon administration in 1974. In Germany, the offensive of the working class brought the social democrats to power in 1969 for the first time since the founding of the Federal Republic. Capitalist Italy was shaken by the 1969 strike wave which became known as the “hot autumn.” In Britain, the attempt of the Tory government to place a legal straitjacket over union activities was met by the biggest strike movement since 1926, culminating in the miners’ strike, which in early 1974 forced the resignation of the Heath government. During that same year, military and fascist dictatorships collapsed in Portugal and Greece. Throughout Latin America—but especially in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina—the seizure of power by the working class was on the order of the day. In Australia, the rising militancy of the working class was reflected in the 1972 election of the social democratic Whitlam government, ending 23 years of Liberal rule. Three years of class polarization and political crisis were brought to a head with Whitlam’s ouster by the governor-general in November 1975.
The international revolutionary movement of the proletariat did not pass by the Eastern European countries dominated by the Stalinist bureaucracies. The Prague Spring of 1968 was ended by the USSR’s military invasion of Czechoslovakia, but just two years later, the far more massive revolutionary movement of the Polish working class toppled the Gomulka regime.
The potential for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system was increased by the destabilizing consequences of the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of dollar-gold convertibility and fixed exchange rates in August 1971. Though immediately followed by a sharp upturn in production, the boom proved short-lived. The inflationary impact of the August 15 decisions led to the “oil shock” of late 1973 when, in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War, the OPEC countries announced the quadrupling of oil prices. This triggered the worst recession since the 1930s.
The survival of capitalism during these tumultuous years depended, no less than in the 1930s and during the critical first years following the end of World War II, upon the treachery of the Stalinist, Maoist, and social democratic bureaucracies and the depraved trade union bureaucracy in the United States. In country after country, the main working class parties worked consciously to divert the proletariat from the road of socialist revolution. In France in 1968, in Italy in 1969, in Portugal and Greece in 1974, and again in Spain in 1975-76, the Stalinist-led Communist parties did everything in their power to stabilize bourgeois rule and restore the confidence of the shaken ruling class. The greatest betrayal of all was carried out in Chile, where the Stalinists subordinated the working class to the bourgeois popular front government of Salvador Allende which paved the way for the military-fascist coup of September 1973.
The contribution of the social democrats to the defeat of the Chilean working class was in keeping with their role in all other parts of the world. Whether alone or in collaboration with the Stalinists, the social democrats during these years of crisis served the most essential interests of imperialism—as seen in the policies of Brandt in Germany, Soares in Portugal, Gonzalez in Spain, Whitlam in Australia (who accepted his own removal from office and derailed the movement of the working class against the governor-general’s coup) and, of course, Allende in Chile.