“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Oct 20, 2003
The text that follows is the translation of a document adopted by the 33rd Congress of Lutte Ouvrière (LO), the French Trotskyist organization, in December 2003. As its title indicates, it is meant to encapsulate the political tradition and approach on which LO is based.
The "Communist Manifesto" was barely a few decades old when its basic premises – that the inescapable class divisions in capitalist society meant humanity could not go forward without a revolutionary upheaval in which the working class would overthrow the bourgeoisie – were being called in question by people who attached themselves to the workers movement. This tendency came out in the open with arguments pushed by Eduard Bernstein inside the German Social Democracy starting in the late 1800s, insisting that capitalism was in the process of resolving its basic contradictions, that the division into classes was being ameliorated, and that progress could be made by a continual fight for reforms. Engels, in his last years, had begun the fight to reassert the validity of Marx's conceptions.
Every revolutionary generation since that time has had to re-fight the same battle, insisting first with Luxemburg, then with Lenin and Trotsky that the basic ideas of Marxism were every bit as valid for their day as they were in 1848. Trotsky reiterated the argument in April 1939 , in an essay called "Marxism in Our Time, " in which he showed the relevance of Marx's ideas for the situation humanity was then going through.
We reprint the text of LO because it, too, is a reassertion, for our day, of the vitality of the Marxist conception for the revolutionary workers movement. There are a few things particular in this text about the French situation, but most of it could have been written about the situation in the United States, or in any other country, for that matter.
In 1848, in the "Communist Manifesto," Marx and Engels wrote: "Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat."
The program and the practice of proletarian revolutionaries are based on this fundamental assertion, which has been tested against a century and a half of historical development.
Since the beginning of the 16th century, the development of the bourgeoisie in Europe, along with manufacturing and trade with America, Africa and India, led to the expansion of world trade, often in the form of looting, and, by the same token, to the establishment of a national and world market.
Industrialization resulted in an exodus from the countryside towards the towns, growing urbanization and the emergence of an industrial proletariat. This proletariat was herded into unhealthy slums near production sites and subjected to horrific working conditions.
With the industrial revolution, starting early in the 19th century, the world market grew enormously. The industrialization of Western Europe and, subsequently, the eastern coast of the USA, resulted in an international division of labor and the birth of the modern proletariat.
The development of the means of production – both industrial and agricultural – linked to the development of the bourgeoisie, created an economic basis on which it was possible to provide for the needs of the entire population of the whole world, whether their ordinary physical needs, or their material and intellectual ones.
Today it is already possible to build a world free from hunger, poverty, exploitation and alienation. It is towards the building of such a communist society that we wish to contribute.
The high birth rate in most underdeveloped countries will not be an obstacle to building such a world, contrary to the claims of some economists, who blame the birth rate for under-development. As shown by the history of the western countries, the birth rate stabilizes or is even reduced as the standard of living and culture increase. The population increases in western countries are based on immigration from the poor countries.
The struggle of the proletariat cannot be conceived within the limited framework of national borders. On the contrary, it is an international struggle, which sets itself the aim of destroying the political and economic power of the bourgeoisie and organizing the working class as the ruling class, both economically and politically, on a world scale. Internationalism expresses this fundamental community of interests and objectives, rather than just solidarity. Politically it implies, as the Communist Manifesto says, that "in the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they [the communists] point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independent of all nationality." The Russian Revolution experienced the horrific bureaucratic degeneration represented by Stalin due to its isolation.
The work of building a revolutionary communist party in any country – that is, winning a section of the working class and other laboring classes who are exploited directly or indirectly over to revolutionary communist ideas – can only be conceived of as part of the building of a world party of socialist revolution or, at least, within the perspective of building such a party.
Despite the absence of such an International, we must always strive to approach the political problems faced by the proletariat and society in our own country as a function of the social and political interests of the world proletariat.
Our program is based on the political achievements of the international communist movement and, therefore, on the programmatic foundations formulated in the Communist Manifesto, the first four congresses of the Communist International and the Transitional Program, the founding program of the Fourth International.
Stating that "the proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class," the 1848 Communist Manifesto stressed the irreplaceable role of the proletariat in social change.
This statement also provides the true meaning of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" which was defined by Marx, in 1852, as the democratic power of "the proletariat organized as the ruling class" (which has nothing to do with the distorted version of this concept imposed by Stalinists to justify the dictatorship of the bureaucracy in the USSR). It is a dictatorship only in so far as its essential function will be to organize "despotic inroads on the rights of property and on the conditions of bourgeois production ... as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production."
Workers' power will be the antithesis of the bourgeois state which, even dressed in its most formally democratic clothes, retains a dictatorial character due to its fundamental role – that of defending bourgeois property ownership and the capitalist mode of production.
The "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat" will have to be, right from its inception, more democratic than the most democratic of all bourgeois regimes – in which, behind the cover of elected institutions, big business imposes its own dictatorship. It will be a form of political power which is destined to whither away and be replaced by "an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."
This Marxist conception of the state, of its role and nature – bourgeois today, proletarian after the revolution – and of its inevitable withering away, as society moves forward, was formulated and, above all, advocated by Lenin in August 1917, between the February revolution which had overthrown the czarist regime and the October-November revolution which overthrew the bourgeoisie.
In his pamphlet, "State and Revolution," written in August 1917, Lenin reaffirmed Marx's thinking on the question. Shedding new light on Marx's and Engels' ideas, Lenin used the experience of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions and the revolutionary crisis that was taking place at the time he was writing against the opportunists who had deformed these ideas while pretending to represent them.
From the first four congresses of the Communist International we draw our conviction that it is indispensable for the proletariat to have a political party in order to carry out the socialist revolution.
"Only if the proletariat is led by an organized and experienced party which has definite aims, and a worked-out program for immediate action in the sphere of both internal and external affairs, can the seizure of power be the starting point for a long period of communist construction instead of merely a chance episode." (2nd congress of the Communist International).
This distinguishes us not only from the anarchists, but also from a whole range of present-day currents, which oppose the very idea of a political organization for the exploited and oppressed classes, referring instead to "social movements." In fact, behind their denial of politics, these currents always conceal reformist, if not reactionary, political objectives.
But this also distinguishes us from the supporters of a "mass workers' party." A party which works towards the revolutionary transformation of society will only be a mass party in the context of a revolutionary period, when the vast majority of the working class itself is convinced of the necessity to take political power. The idea of a "mass workers' party" is generally used as a cover for those who defend a reformist policy. In normal times, most workers are not revolutionary. On the contrary, the masses are reformist and it is only in critical periods that the need for a radical political change takes hold among the masses. Outside such periods, only a minority of the working population can be won over to revolutionary ideas.
While building on previous programmatic documents, the Transitional Program (September 1938) provides an analysis of the bureaucratic degeneration of the first workers' state and upholds the communist program against Stalinist distortions. It defines the "transitional demands" it contains as "stemming from today's conditions and today's consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat" as opposed to the split between "the minimum program which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future."
Guided by this program's approach and based on today's economic, social and political conditions, we put forward the demand for a ban on all layoffs under threat of requisition by the state without compensation, particularly against companies which, at the same time, boast cynically of their profitability. This is a transitional demand in so far as the class struggle would have to reach a high enough level to put capitalist private property into question for the demand to be implemented.
Likewise, the demand to abolish commercial and financial secrecy is a transitional demand in so far as only the proletariat can actually implement it. Indeed, if this objective were reduced to making the publishing of accounts and business transparency dependent on the law, or to leaving the scrutiny of company accounts to institutions of class collaboration such as representatives of the unions, this objective would not be revolutionary, but crudely reformist. However, if the proletariat would assume this objective when it is mobilized, this could lead it to exercise control over the books of companies and banks, intervene in their management and, at the end of the day, put into question the monopoly exercised by the rich bourgeoisie over industrial, commercial and banking capital.
The Transitional Program is the key to understanding not only the bureaucratic degeneration of the first workers state, but also the distortions introduced by Stalinism to the program and basic values of the working class movement. We have always fought for a Trotskyist analysis against the many currents (some predating Trotsky's death, but mostly post-dating it) which, by dropping the characterization of the USSR as a degenerated workers state, effectively renounced the very concept of a workers state.
By not calling in question the fundamentals of Trotsky's analysis of the USSR, even though the Soviet Union has splintered and virtually all its leaders are working towards the restoration of capitalism, we are continuing this political fight. Indeed, even today, some of the features of the former Soviet society cannot be explained without reasoning on the basis of Trotskyist analysis. Above all, because the evolution towards total social and economic domination by the bourgeoisie is still far from being completed.
The Fourth International, which was founded by Trotsky in 1938, was, until his death in 1940, the only political continuation of the movement which had been represented previously by Marx's and Engels' International Workingmen's Association, the Second International until World War I and the Communist International between 1919-1923. Although the Fourth International did not survive World War II as an international leadership, its founding program, the Transitional Program, remains the best existing guide for proletarian revolutionaries, despite being marked by the circumstances in which it was written. In other words, the fundamental task of proletarian revolutionaries is to rebuild a revolutionary communist international.
The rebuilding of an International requires the building in every country of proletarian parties which defend the historical role of the proletariat. This does not prevent them from defending the immediate interests of the proletariat – quite the contrary, as long as they do it keeping in mind and within the framework of the defense of the general interests of the proletariat, that is, the interests of society as a whole.
On our scale, this implies that our working class comrades take part in all struggles, large or small, waged by workers and more generally by the exploited, to defend the conditions of their lives, just as it implies that these comrades should get involved in some form of trade-union activity. However, in the large and small struggles against the bourgeoisie and its state, just as in trade-union activity, revolutionary communists should, to use the formulation of the Communist Manifesto, "always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole."
Building genuine proletarian parties and fighting for the socialist revolution require a rigorous delineation – both politically and organizationally – of the class basis chosen by revolutionaries. In particular, in response to the many kinds of "fronts" aimed at putting the working class in the tow of bourgeois organizations and interests, revolutionaries should defend the need for an independent proletarian organization and policy, whose aim is to establish the democratic power of the proletariat represented by a number of revolutionary parties.
Bourgeois society maintains and reproduces many forms of oppression and exclusion: against women, national or ethnic minorities and many others. In fact, it constantly produces new oppressed groups – illegal immigrants, the homeless, etc. – thereby triggering reactions of protest, whether occasional or permanent, just as the consequences of the capitalist system's operations trigger many other protests.
Revolutionary communists support any challenge to the capitalist organization of society, even limited and partial. However they do not automatically assume that such challenges have a revolutionary content – which, in most cases, they do not have.
Most of the objectives of the working class movement have been distorted or deprived of any content by Stalinism. This is true of "anti-imperialism," "anti-capitalism," and even "internationalism." This is why, today, many political currents which have no link – neither past nor present – with the working class movement, can hijack these words and be all the more vocal in using them as they deprive them of any meaning.
The anti-globalization current is only the most recent example of such currents, which use notions inherited from the working class movement, albeit emptied of any content, to channel the indignation or revolt caused by some of the most blatant injustices or catastrophic consequences of the capitalist economy.
We should distinguish ourselves clearly and firmly from these currents, exposing the ambiguity of their language and denouncing their policies which, although apparently challenging the system, in fact fully respect the existing social order.
Likewise, Stalinism has distorted the Bolshevik tradition of the revolutionary communist party upheld by the Communist International. Instead of a party which was both disciplined and democratic, and above all totally devoted to the political interests of the proletariat, Stalinism introduced a party in which discipline was replaced by an authoritarian regime. This was aimed at preventing any criticism which might reveal that the party had given up defending the interests of the working class in order to serve, first of all, the Soviet bureaucracy and then, through it, the interests of the bourgeoisie in every other country.
The political and organizational transformation of the Stalinist parties into social-democratic parties completed their evolution. Under the pretext of breaking with their Stalinist past, the Communist Parties – and in particular the French C.P. – abandoned above all their references to the communist tradition. The C.P.'s own evolution contributed to throwing out the idea that the proletariat needs a democratic political party, which is both centralized and disciplined, in order to achieve its emancipation. Many pseudo-revolutionary organizations followed suit, asserting today that a party is no longer a necessity for the social revolution.
A revolutionary communist party which refuses to dissolve itself into broader fronts is an absolute necessity. This is true not only in the industrialized countries, where the tasks of the democratic bourgeois revolution have been completed and where the proletariat forms a very large class. It is also a necessity in the "under-developed" countries, where the tasks of the democratic bourgeois revolution have not been completed, where imperialist looting takes place and where the proletariat is often small and always subject to harsh exploitation. Although the vast majority of the world's poor countries no longer exist under direct colonial oppression, they are still subjected, more so than ever in fact, to the economic and political domination of imperialism. The main change brought about by decolonization is that a local elite has taken over the oppressive role that used to be played by the colonial power. In most cases, the states of the poor countries are corrupt dictatorships, which squeeze the population to get what is left over after imperialism has taken what it wants. The poverty of the masses in these countries has no limits.
Class contradictions remain, therefore, explosive in the poor countries. For a whole historical period, during and after decolonization, the aspirations of the masses to democratic rights and, above all, to a better life, were channeled by the influence of petty-bourgeois nationalist organizations, which were more or less progressive and even claiming to be, sometimes, Marxist-Leninist.
However, imperialist looting did not only bleed these countries. It also made them go backwards on the level of political consciousness. "Progressive" nationalism, pan-Africanism and other Third-Worldisms are giving way to the rise of reactionary forces – religious fundamentalism in some countries, ethnicism in others. Imperialist domination is pushing many poor countries back towards barbaric medieval situations, permanent wars and the rule of warlords.
In every poor country, proletarian revolutionaries would have to represent the anti-imperialist aspirations of the masses as well as their aspirations to democratic rights and freedoms. A proletarian party would seek to put itself at the head of this struggle by demonstrating, through its policy, that it is the only force able to lead it to victory.
But it should do this on a class basis – which means that it must remain rigorously independent from a class point of view. It should do it by constantly highlighting the class interests of the urban and rural workers and what makes them different – or opposed – to the social layers whose representatives may resort to an "anti-imperialist" language. This will put these parties clearly in opposition to fundamentalist and ethnic currents, but also to the petty-bourgeois nationalist organizations, including those which claim to be progressive.
We have never pretended to be an international, not even in the sense of the Fourth International when it was launched. At that time, although extremely weak as an organization, the Fourth International was led by Trotsky, who was the only one to embody the political capital inherited from the experience of the Russian Revolution and from the Communist International. This capital virtually disappeared with him. Various Trotskyist currents have since posed as internationals. Besides the fact that these games are absurd, they served only to conceal these currents' renunciation of all efforts to root themselves in the working classes of their own countries; in other words, abandoning the building of revolutionary communist parties.
We have always tried to reason on the basis of the interests of the international proletariat. It was from this point of view that we analyzed the developments which have taken place since Trotsky's death – such as the Peoples Democracies and the Chinese Revolution. As a result, our positions have often been different from, and sometimes opposed to those adopted by the other Trotskyist currents. Since the collapse of the Peoples Democracies, the object of these differences has disappeared, but their history has not, nor the differences in the methods used to analyze social processes. These differences can still be found in our respective assessments of the more or less radical nationalist currents of the poor countries, or in our respective attitudes towards social democracy and its by-products.
At the same time, we have also considered it our duty, when the opportunity arose, to help militants from other countries be active on the basis of revolutionary communist ideas.
Despite some electoral successes in France which were relatively significant – i.e. relatively, compared with our roots in the working class – our fundamental task remains what it was 20 or 30 years ago.
Besides the fact that our electoral influence is modest, it cannot be, in and of itself, a substitute for a revolutionary party. We may be prompted by circumstances to take part in many demonstrations in support of peoples in other countries, or particularly oppressed sections of the population. And it's a duty for revolutionary communists to stand in elections. But all these activities should remain within the perspective of building a proletarian revolutionary communist party and subordinated to it.
Of course, the emergence of such a party does not depend on us only. It also depends on circumstances, on the proletariat regaining confidence in itself, in France and elsewhere. What does depend on us, is that we maintain the ideas and program inherited from the history of the revolutionary working class movement over the past 150 years, that we refuse to allow these ideas to be dissolved into any kind of front or alliance for the sake of short-term successes at best, and that we try to organize workers around these ideas.
Our hope is that favorable circumstances will allow the seeds that are being sown today to blossom tomorrow. Our hope is based on the conviction that the development of history will vindicate the objectives of the social transformation of the revolutionary working class movement, because we are convinced that capitalism, exploitation, oppression, war cannot represent the only future for humanity.