When Karl Marx helped to found the International Working Men’s Association, in 1864, the era of capitalist revolutions in Europe had come to a temporary close. The hopes which Marx and Engels had cherished of a working-class revolution following closely upon the political victories of the capitalist class had been abandoned as premature, and the founders of scientific Socialism set about the task of building up an international organisation of workers. Never did Marx and Engels conceive the workers’ challenge to capitalism as a movement that should be divided by national frontiers. In the famous “Communist Manifesto,” published in 1848, they had already proclaimed the need for the unity of the workers everywhere; despite the setbacks inevitable at that stage of world conditions, they held fast to this view to the end.
Before the death of Engels, in 1895, the Socialist movement appeared to have made gigantic strides. Particularly in Germany, the movement known as “Social-Democracy” raised the hopes of revolutionary-minded workers, and it is undeniable that the early leaders of the German party were able exponents of Marxism. But this knowledge was merely confined to the top. The mass membership was recruited on issues far removed from the principles of Socialism. Nevertheless, the leadership of the german party was acknowledged by many workers in all countries, and the debates at the conferences of the Second International (founded in 1889 to carry on the work of the defunct First International) reached a high level. Here the leaders felt themselves at liberty to theorise about revolution whilst back in the confines of their national movements they were constrained to bow to the demands of day-to-day politics.
The First World War shattered all illusions. It is reported that when Lenin first heard of the support of German Social-Democracy for the war, he refused to believe it. He thought it a trick of capitalist propaganda. More bitter was his hatred for his former idols, such as Kautsky, when the truth became known. He had not grasped what was already obvious to members of the S.P.G.B., namely, that the apparent militancy of the German movement was not based upon the will for Socialism, but was largely incited by the semi-feudal character of the German State-power and the hindrance it caused to German capitalist development. It is, in fact, a principle of modern reformist working-class parties that their militancy varies in proportion to the existence of feudal remnants.
The Russian Revolution is a clear illustration of this. After their success the Bolsheviks claimed the world leadership of the proletariat as their due. But it soon became clear that what had seemingly originated in the sphere of working-class struggle was more nor less than the Russian National Revolution, designed to bring the backward Russian economy into line with Western capitalism. That, in the absence of a strong capitalist class, this task had to be accomplished by a group of “intellectuals” hitherto associated with Marxism, is not an accident of history, it is a significant fact proving the growing power of Socialist ideas. However, ideas in the heads of a few cannot withstand the pressure of historical needs. As with German Social-Democracy, achievement of their real, as contrasted with their proclaimed objective, has shorn the Bolsheviks of much of their working-class appeal, as well, let it be remembered, of the men who provided them with the reputation of a Marxist party.
The real objective of German Social-Democracy in 1918 was the establishment of the democratic capitalist republic. Having achieved this, they wanted to sit back upon the haunches of German capitalist economy waiting for working-class approval. But the post-war difficulties of the German economy did not permit this luxury. Enjoying the confidence of large masses of workers for propagandising its objections to the hardships of capitalism is a pleasant experience common to all so-called Labour parties. It is quite a different matter when these parties are thrust into power and called upon to “deliver the goods.” The British Labour Party is in the process of finding this out for itself. It is apparent that the experience of its fellow-party in Germany has not been a deterrent.
It should have been. The fate of German Social-Democracy was shattering. When the democratic republic, their present to the German workers, failed to capture popular support, the morale of German Labour was smashed. They had not the will and zest for a violent struggle against Hitler, and so, to the astonishment of the world, a movement numbering millions disappeared almost without a trace. Here is the answer to those who look to the big battalions for success and ignore the strength only to be found where there is understanding.
With the rise of the Nazi Party a profound change overtook working-class politics. From being nurtured in the belief that workers’ organisations, whether “Labour” or “Communist,” must inevitably take the offensive against the ruling class, the new menace threw everyone, excepting Socialists, on the defensive. Not the winning of a new world, but the maintaining of the old, was the order of the day. Few realised that the clash of ideologies masked the capitalist world-rivalry for economic gain. To comprehend this preliminary to World-War Number Two, even now, after the event, is of decisive importance. The capitalists’ need for working-class support for war is now so great that to achieve it the ruling-class groups must prove that the major causes for the conflict spring from ideas held by “working-class” parties. Thus the growing quarrel between Russia and the Western Powers has immediate consequences of a grave character for the workers. Already certain quarters are posing the new line-up as a clash between “Social-Democracy” and “Totalitarian Communism.” The result could be that the workers may be divided into pro- and anti-Russian factions. This would be disastrous. Forgetting working-class aims, they will be just as divided as if their rulers were already at war. And this division of the workers will facilitate war. All the reactionaries, from Mr. Churchill to the Pope, as well as Fascists, would, of course, claim to be on the side of “Social-Democracy.” This factor alone should put workers on their guard.
For the time being, world capitalism has to make good the ravages of war. A large part of Europe is in ruins; millions of people are shunted back and forth over the continent like cattle. In such a situation the attempt to extricate capitalism from the mess is pathetic. Indeed, the attempt is being made, largely by so-called working-class parties, and is camouflaged as “Socialism.” Not, mind you, the theoretical Socialism of Karl Marx! This is the phase of “Practical Socialism,” when “things are done, not talked about!” We will not have long to wait before the bluff is called. There will no longer be the “settled” periods of capitalism, when the system could recover its equilibrium. The momentum of economic development throughout the world has now become tremendous. It is accompanied by a rapid change in the backward countries of India and China. Together with the discovery of atomic energy, these changes cannot be absorbed by world capitalism without throwing the whole social mechanism out of gear. Against this social background the efforts of reformers can be compared to the throwing of pails of water into an erupting volcano.
The Class-Struggle of the workers versus capitalists can therefore be divided into distinct stages. During a century of capitalism the working-class movement first took up positions for organised battle under the guiding ideas of Karl Marx. Then came the period of “Gradualism,” when the mass-parties of Labour and Social-Democracy held sway with their theories of “nibbling” at the walls in order to make the “breach.” The Russian Revolution appeared to indicate the “short cut” to Socialism and managed to win a large proportion of workers away from the Gradualists. Now, in the world emerging from the Second World-War, these two forces hold political power over a large part of the world. The “Practical” Socialism, which in reality means a “Planned” capitalism, is being put to the test in Russia under Communists and in Britain under Labourites. During these coming years working-class opposition to both these camps must inevitably grow. To-day, the party of Socialism appears as the only working-class force free from political ties with those who hold the state-power for capitalism. This is our opportunity. Admittedly, the problem is vast, the difficulties immense. Our resources are at present, by comparison small. But the magnificent work of Marx and Engels proves that when history is the teacher and survival is the stake, the human race is a quick and ready pupil. The Communist Manifesto and the First Workers’ International were the labour of only a few, but they shook the world of capitalism at the very beginning.
Utilising the knowledge of Scientific Socialism, not as a theoretical shelter to hide from a world in trouble, but as a spur to action, the workers can now change the world.