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Why the Socialist Revolution Has Failed

Jack Bernard

IN HIS article "Why the German Revolution Failed", republished in the first issue of What Next?, Walter Held claimed that: "With the German collapse ... lies ... the cause of the world revolutionist, Trotsky’s, downfall in Russia." Held added the further claim that: "He [Leon Trotsky] always attributed the decisive reason for the defeat of his tendency in Russia to the defeat of the German Revolution."

But though Trotsky attributed the defeat of the "great historical tragedy of 1923" in Germany to a "’subjective’ cause",1 that is, to a failure of revolutionary leadership, he did not attribute the defeat of the Left Opposition in Russia to this or any other "’subjective’ cause". Neither did Trotsky claim there to have been a single decisive reason for the defeat of his tendency in Russia. Instead, in a 1932 series of written answers to questions, he identified not subjective conditions but "the decisive importance of objective conditions"2 in explaining the victory of Stalin’s faction, and continuing, he argued:

"Without a correct strategy victory is impossible. But even the most correct strategy cannot give victory under unfavourable objective conditions. The revolution has its own laws: in the period of its culmination it pushes the most highly developed, determined, and farseeing stratum of the revolutionary class to the most advanced positions. Yet the proletariat has not only a vanguard, but also a rearguard, and besides the proletariat there are the peasantry and the bureaucracy. Not one revolution up to now has brought all that was expected of it by the masses. Hence the inevitability of a certain disillusionment, of a lowering of the activity of the vanguard, and consequently of the growing importance of the rearguard. Stalin’s faction has raised itself on the wave of reaction against the October Revolution. Look back at history – those who guided the revolution in the time of its culmination never kept their leading positions long after the turning point. In France, the leader of Jacobinism perished on the guillotine; with us, the change of leadership was achieved by means of arrest and banishment. The technique of the process is gentler, but its essence is the same."

The "inevitability of a certain disillusionment, of a lowering of the activity of the vanguard" is an objective factor whose effects cannot be overcome by the subjective will of the vanguard of the vanguard, i.e. of the revolutionary Marxist party. The defeat of the German revolution reflected a weakness of the international revolution, and this defeat and other subsequent defeats "by weakening the world proletarian vanguard, weakened the Left Opposition" and strengthened the bureaucracy. Trotsky based his reasoning on such objective causality when elaborating the following considerations in 1934:

"1. The Russian Left Opposition, which expressed the most consistent, dynamic tendencies of the Russian proletariat, must have become weakened in proportion as the bureaucracy grew out of the revolution and pushed the proletariat into the background.

"2. The Left Opposition, which expressed the connection between the October Revolution and the international revolution, must have become weakened in proportion as the weakness of the international revolution manifested itself.

"3. The Left Opposition was dealt the first cruel blow immediately after the capitulation of the German Communist Party in 1923; the defeat of the Polish proletariat and of the English General Strike in 1926, by weakening the world proletarian vanguard, weakened the Left Opposition, the vanguard of the vanguard; the collapse of the Chinese Revolution of 1927 swung the scales decisively in favour of the theory and practice of ’socialism in one country’; and finally, without dwelling on a whole series of intermediate events of the same type, the German catastrophe of 1933 dealt the cruellest blow to the world proletariat. With these unheard-of historical defeats as a background, the Opposition was able to educate by its theoretical analysis numerically small cadres, but could not lead the masses.

"4. The decline and the demoralisation of the Comintern could not but compromise, in the eyes of the masses, all revolutionary groupings, especially those that were connected with the Comintern by their origin.

"5. Finally, one must add the eleven years’ campaign of slander organised by the Stalinist bureaucracy over the whole world. In the entire political history of mankind, there is hardly to be found a persecution so rich in financial resources and in apparatus, so systematic and persistent, so poisoned in content, and that, at the same time, was covered by the authority of the first workers’ state."3

Held’s article is a systematic denial of the decisive importance of objective conditions in determining the process of revolution. Instead he attributes decisive historical importance to the subjective factor within one particular revolution and suggests that this was key to the subsequent failure of the international revolution. Held wrongly attributes a too-commanding, all-decisive, role to the ideas and aims of revolutionaries within the revolutionary process. Trotsky wrote on this matter in his History of the Russian Revolution: "No revolution has ever anywhere wholly coincided with the conceptions of it formed by its participants, nor could it do so. Nevertheless the ideas and aims of those engaged in the struggle form a very important constituent element of a revolution."4

The masses do not make revolution because of the "ideas and aims" of the leaders of the revolutionary party but because of their own ideas and aims. This applies as much to the international revolution as to its national manifestations. By wrongly suggesting that "the collapse of the world revolution", allegedly through the mechanism of the defeat of the German revolution, resulted from "the failure of the Communist International", Held reverses the actual relationships thus constituting an idealist conception of history: it puts the subjective factor in the position of being ultimately determining. Thus Held poses the following question at the end of his article: "Why had not Lenin and Trotsky succeeded in building a serious Marxist International during the period from 1917 to 1923?" A more appropriate question is: Why was the international revolution so weak in the period following the first world war?

It is true that in both the situations of March 1921 and October 1923 in Germany a chief deficiency was in the policy pursued by the leadership of the German Communist Party and advocated by certain leaders of the Comintern, but these factors gave rise to neither "the bureaucracy [that] grew out of the [Russian] revolution" nor "the weakness of the international revolution" as expressed in the defeats suffered by the working class in the inter-war period.

Today with the collapse of at least the East European workers’ states, i.e. their replacement by bourgeois states, it is necessary to explain the particular weakness of the international revolution in the latter half of the twentieth century, i.e. to answer the question of why capitalism’s "death agony"5 has been so protracted. This requires identifying objective and not subjective reasons.

The nature of the socialist revolution
The socialist revolution will succeed with the establishment of a new social system that is distinguished by economic planning, the relative absence of private property in the means of production and the attainment of a higher productivity of human labour than under capitalism. Contrary to popular belief, this revolution was not inaugurated in October 1917 in Russia. The beginning of the epoch of the highest stage of capitalism, i.e. the epoch of imperialism: monopoly capitalism, was also the beginning of the epoch of the socialist revolution. This epoch began in the crisis of 1900-03 with the establishment of the economic dominance of finance capital.6 The birth of the Russian workers’ state in October 1917 represented merely the belated political inauguration of the socialist revolution.

Trotsky identified the basic relationship between economics and politics that is expressed here by arguing that: "Politics, considered as a mass historical force, always lags behind economics. Thus, while the reign of finance capital and trust monopolies already began towards the end of the nineteenth century, the new epoch in international politics which reflects this fact, first begins in world politics with the imperialist war, with the October Revolution, and the founding of the Third International."7

Of course politics considered on a lesser scale: the politics of, say, a particular country, may well lead rather than lag behind the economics of the respective national economy, but on a "mass historical" scale such expressions of uneven development are not to be found. On a mass historical scale it was imperialism, i.e. world society of monopoly capitalism, that began the economic tasks of the socialist revolution – tasks, however, that imperialism cannot complete.

In his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, written to pass the scrutiny of the censor, Lenin identified the tendency – and it is only a tendency – of imperialism to evolve into the social order that would replace it: "Capitalism in its imperialist stage leads directly to the most comprehensive socialisation of production; it, so to speak, drags the capitalists, against their will and consciousness, into some sort of a new social order, a transitional one from complete free competition to complete socialisation."8

Later in the same work Lenin explained what he meant by socialisation of production: "when a single centre directs all the consecutive stages of processing the material right up to the manufacture of numerous varieties of finished articles; when these products are distributed according to a single plan among tens and hundreds of millions of consumers (the marketing of oil in America and Germany by the American oil trust) – then it becomes evident that we have socialisation of production."9

When we trace the thread of a materialist analysis of objective factors it becomes clear that economically, imperialism is not the complete antithesis of socialism that a more subjectively orientated analysis, typical of much of the left, considers it to be. We can see this point of difference indeed to have also arisen at the Bolshevik conference of April 1917. In his speech in favour of the resolution on the current situation, Lenin explained to his comrades:

"Before the war we had the monopoly of trusts and syndicates; since the war we have had a state monopoly. Universal labour conscription is something new, something that constitutes part of a socialist whole – this is often overlooked by those who fear to examine the concrete situation.

"The first part of the resolution concentrates on an analysis of the conditions of capitalist economy throughout the world. It is noteworthy that twenty-seven years ago Engels pointed out that to describe capitalism as something that ’is distinguished by its planlessness’ and to overlook the role played by the trusts was unsatisfactory. Engels remarked that ’when we come to the trust, then planlessness disappears’, though there is capitalism. This remark is all the more pertinent today, when we have a military state, when we have state monopoly capitalism. Planning does not make the worker less of a slave, but it enables the capitalist to make his profits ’according to plan’. Capitalism is now evolving directly into its higher, regulated, form."10

The obstacle to the evolution of imperialism into socialism is, however, not a minor one. The obstacle is the very political system of imperialism – a system of states that defends social relations which conflict with an overall development of the productive forces11. This conflict constitutes one of the two fundamental contradictions of imperialism which imperialism cannot itself resolve.

The fundamental contradictions of imperialism
In a programmatic resolution "War and the Fourth International", written in 1934, Trotsky stated his conception of the fundamental contradictions of imperialism within the following statement: "The national state created by capitalism in the struggle with the sectionalism of the Middle Ages became the classical arena of capitalism. But no sooner did it take shape than it became a brake upon economic and cultural development. The contradiction between the productive forces and the framework of the national state, in conjunction with the principal contradiction – between the productive forces and the private ownership of the means of production – make the crisis of capitalism that of the world social system."12

Far from being an ideal arena for the development of capitalism, the bourgeois state immediately "became a brake upon economic and cultural development" – a feature which it inexorably and increasingly continues to manifest. It is a brake upon development because, firstly, it defends private property in the means of production and this conflicts with the social character of these means of production, i.e. that they produce use values for society, not for their owners. Contrary to some left-libertarian claims, it is necessary to acknowledge that social production under imperialism, though it is for profit, is primarily for social need. Secondly, the bourgeois state is a social relation of a national character whereas the productive forces in the epoch of imperialism are global in character because they produce for a global market.

"Globalisation" is nothing new. What is new is the extent reached by the global economy’s increasing demand for a legal and political superstructure13 of a correspondingly global character. In this area both bourgeois ideology and the ideology of Stalinism are guilty of peddling essentially national social and national economic "theory". Contrary to this it is necessary to insist that on this key theoretical point: economic base and legal and political superstructure are primarily not attributes of national society but of the world social system.

In the imperialist epoch the two social relations: "private ownership of the means of production" (private property) and "the framework of the national state" have conflicted with the development of the productive forces of the world social system. The evolution of this conflict has been the motor force of modern history. Its product is twofold: war and revolution. Commenting about the first world war in a 1926 speech, Trotsky, argued: "What was the imperialist world war? It was the revolt of the productive forces not only against capitalist property relations but also against the national boundaries of the capitalist states. The imperialist war was proof of the fact that these boundaries have grown too narrow for the productive forces."14

And in 1930, again criticising "official Marxism", he highlighted the importance of the second fundamental contradiction of capitalism in determining the character of the imperialist stage of capitalism: "it must not be forgotten that wars and revolutions in our epoch result not from conjunctural crises but from the contradictions between the development of the productive forces on the one hand and the national of boundaries of the bourgeois state on the other, carried to their ultimate conclusion. The imperialist war and the October Revolution have demonstrated the depth of these contradictions."15

The relative absence of imperialist war and revolution in the last 45 years, i.e. from the beginnings of the Korean War boom through the post-war boom and up to the present, is the result of a partial resolution of the conflict of the productive forces with the bourgeois national state framework. This partial resolution reflects a change in the legal and political superstructure of the world social system.

A change in the superstructure of world society
Writing during the early years of the first world war, Lenin saw the political superstructure of imperialism as being effectively the summation of "a handful of Great Powers, i.e. powers successful in the great plunder and oppression of nations"16: Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States of America, presiding over the remaining, lesser powers. At that time the Great Powers, and particularly those of Europe, had previously carved up the world between them and were involved in a recarving.

Nikolai Bukharin in his Imperialism, written in 1915, noted that though Britain, Germany and the United States of America were "the three countries that have attained the highest level of industrialism",17 he also particularly observed the following: "the war has ... considerably accelerated the appearance on the world arena of one of the largest state capitalist trusts, possessed of an unusually strong internal organisation. We mean the United States of America. The war has placed the United States in an unprecedented, exclusive position. With the cessation of the Russian grain export, etc, to Europe, the demand for American agrarian products has increased; on the other hand, there is a stupendous demand for the products of the war industry of the United States on the part of the belligerent countries. To the United States is also directed the quest for credit capital (foreign loans, etc). Only recently America was a debtor to Europe; in consequence of the war the situation changes rapidly: America’s debts are being repaid, and in the field of current accounts and short term credits America is becoming the creditor of Europe. This growing financial importance of the United States has another no less significant side to it. The secondary American states used to import capital from Europe, mainly from England and France, while the import of capital from the United States, itself an importer of European capital, was of little importance. During the war, however, Canada, Argentina, Panama, Bolivia, and Costa Rica have placed their loans not in Europe but in the United States. ’The American countries have received small sums, but what is characteristic in this transaction is the fact that the enumerated countries had usually been clients of the London market. Thus New York has replaced London for the time of the war and has, as it were, given impetus to the realisation of the financial section of a Pan-American programme.’ The continuation of the war, the payments for war orders and loans, later the immense demand for capital in the post-war period (when the reconstruction of fixed capital will have to be undertaken, etc) will increase the financial importance of the United States still more. It will hasten the accumulation of American capital; it will widen its sphere of influence in the rest of America, and will rapidly make the United States a prime factor in the world struggle for markets!"18

Here Bukharin acknowledged the growing economic and financial importance of the United States of America. By contrast his draft programme for the Comintern, written some twelve years later, came under the following criticism by Trotsky in 1928: "To characterise the first, fortunately discarded draft, it suffices to say that, so far as we recall, the name of the United States of America was not even mentioned in it."19

And concerning Bukharin’s second draft Trotsky added: "America’s new role in Europe since the capitulation of the German Communist Party, and the defeat of the German proletariat in 1923, has been left absolutely unevaluated. No attempt at all has been made to explain that the period of the ’stabilisation’, ’normalisation’, and ’pacification’ of Europe as well as the ’regeneration’ of the Social Democracy, has proceeded in close material and ideological connection with the first steps of American intervention in European affairs.

"Moreover, it has not been shown that the inevitable further development of American expansion, the contraction of the markets of European capital, including the European market itself, entail the greatest military, economic, and revolutionary convulsions, beside which all those of the past fade into the background.

"Again, neither has it been made clear that the further inexorable pressure of the United States will reduce capitalist Europe to constantly more limited rations in world economy; and this, of course, implies not a mitigation, but on the contrary, a monstrous sharpening of interstate relations in Europe accompanied by furious paroxysms of military conflict, for states as well as classes fight even more fiercely for a meagre and a diminishing ration than for a lavish and growing one.

"The draft does not explain that the internal chaos of the state antagonisms in Europe renders hopeless any sort of serious and successful resistance to the constantly more centralised North American republic; and that the resolution of the European chaos through the Soviet United States of Europe is one of the first tasks of the proletarian revolution. The latter (precisely because of the existence of barriers) is immeasurably closer in Europe than in America and will, therefore, most likely have to defend itself from the North American bourgeoisie.

"On the other hand, no mention at all has been made of the fact (and this is just as important a phase of the same world problem) that it is precisely the international strength of the United States and her irresistible expansion arising from it, that compels her to include the powder magazines of the whole world into the foundations of her structure, i.e. all the antagonisms between the East and the West, the class struggle in Old Europe, the uprisings of the colonial masses, and all wars and revolutions. On the one hand, this transforms North American capitalism into the basic counter-revolutionary force of the modern epoch, constantly more interested in the maintenance of ’order’ in every corner of the terrestrial globe; and on the other hand, this prepares the ground for a gigantic revolutionary explosion in this already dominant and still expanding world imperialist power. The logic of world relations indicates that the time of this explosion cannot lag very far behind that of the proletarian revolution in Europe."20

Here Trotsky identified not only the continuing economic importance of the United States of America but also its growing political importance – that "North American capitalism" had been transformed "into the basic counter-revolutionary force of the modern epoch".

Twelve years later – only months before his assassination and with the second world war having already begun – Trotsky wrote the following illuminating lines effectively completing an outline post-war perspective of international state relations:

"While Great Britain has exerted every effort since the first months of the war to seize blockaded Germany’s vacated positions in the world market, the United States has almost automatically been driving Great Britain out. Two-thirds of the world’s gold is concentrated in the American vaults. The remaining third is flowing to the same place. England’s role as banker for the world is a thing of the past. Nor are matters in other spheres much better. While Great Britain’s navy and merchant marine are suffering great losses, the American shipyards are building ships on a colossal scale, which will secure the predominance of the American fleet over the British and the Japanese. The United States is obviously preparing to adopt the two power standard (a navy stronger than the combined fleets of the next two strongest powers). The new programme for the air fleet envisages securing the superiority of the United States over all the rest of the world.

"However, the industrial, financial, and military strength of the United States, the foremost capitalist power in the world, does not at all insure the blossoming of American economic life, but on the contrary, invests the crisis of her social system with an especially malignant and convulsive character. Gold in the billions cannot be made use of, nor can the millions of unemployed! In the theses of the Fourth International, ’War and the Fourth International’, published six years ago, it was predicted:

"’U.S. capitalism is up against the same problems that pushed Germany in 1914 on the path of war. The world is divided? It must be redivided. For Germany it was a question of ’organising Europe’. The United States must ’organise’ the world. History is bringing humanity face to face with the volcanic eruption of American imperialism."21

"The ’New Deal’ and the ’Good Neighbour’ policies were the final attempts to postpone the climax by ameliorating the social crisis through concessions and agreements. After the bankruptcy of this policy, which swallowed up tens of billions, nothing else remained for American imperialism but to resort to the method of the mailed fist. Under one or another pretext and slogan the United States will intervene in the tremendous clash in order to maintain its world dominion. The order and the time of the struggle between American capitalism and its enemies is not yet known – perhaps even by Washington. War with Japan would be a struggle for ’living room’ in the Pacific Ocean. War in the Atlantic, even if directed immediately against Germany, would be a struggle for the heritage of Great Britain.

"The potential victory of Germany over the Allies hangs like a nightmare over Washington. With the European continent and the resources of its colonies as her base, with all the European munition factories and shipyards at her disposal, Germany – especially in combination with Japan in the Orient – would constitute a mortal danger for American imperialism. The present titanic battles on the fields of Europe are in this sense preparatory episodes in the struggle between Germany and America. France and England are only fortified positions of American capitalism, extended beyond the Atlantic. If the frontiers of England are located on the Rhine, as one of the British premiers put it, then the American imperialists might well say that the frontiers of the United States are on the Thames. In its feverish preparation of public opinion for the coming war, Washington does not spare noble indignation over the fate of Finland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium.... With the occupation of Denmark, the question of Greenland arose unexpectedly as being ’geologically’ a part of the Western Hemisphere and containing by happy chance deposits of cryolite, indispensable in the production of aluminum. Nor does Washington overlook enslaved China, the helpless Philippines, the orphaned Dutch Indies, and open sea routes. Thus philanthropic sympathies for oppressed nations and even considerations of geology are driving the United States into war.

"The American armed forces, however, could intervene successfully only so long as France and the British Isles remain solid bases of support. Should France be occupied and German troops appear on the Thames, the relationship of forces would shift drastically to the disadvantage of the United States. Washington is forced by these considerations to speed up all the tempos but likewise to ponder the question: has the opportune moment not been missed?

"Against the official position of the White House are launched the noisy protests of American isolationism, which is itself only another variety of the very same imperialism. The section of the capitalists whose interests are bound up primarily with the American continent, Australia, and the Far East, calculate that in the event of the defeat of the Allies, the United States would automatically gain a monopoly for its own benefit not only of Latin America but also of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. As for China, the Dutch Indies, and the Orient in general, it is the conviction of the entire ruling class of the United States that war with Japan is in any case inevitable in the near future. Under the guise of isolationism and pacifism, an influential section of the bourgeoisie is working out a programme for American continental expansion and preparing for the struggle with Japan. War against Germany for the domination of the world, according to this plan, is only deferred."22

Trotsky in 1928 had identified North American capitalism as "the basic counter-revolutionary force of the modern epoch", and with the end of the second world war it had defeated all its rivals for this position. The United States of America (USA) had won the "war against Germany for the domination of the world" and had completed its transformation into a superpower.

The basic make-up of the legal and political superstructure of the world social system had thus changed from the beginning of the first imperialist war to the end of the second, i.e. between 1914 and 1946. No longer were there a number of relatively equal Great Powers. The jousting and jockeying for position had produced a clear leader, a super-arbiter from among their own ranks: the USA.

Britain’s world dominion of the late nineteenth century had as its precursor Britain’s period as "workshop of the world". Similarly, the USA’s political pre-eminence as "the basic counter-revolutionary force of the modern epoch" was preceded by its economic ascendancy. But the pre-imperialist world of Britain’s supremacy was a still-expanding capitalist world that allowed for the development of a number of Great-Power competitors. When capitalism entered its imperialist stage it had completed a financial division of the world and the definitive establishment of a world economy. But resting on this economy was a legal and political superstructure corresponding to the period of "organic", "competitive" capitalism, i.e. of the period of the relatively unbounded development of capitalism in its pre-monopoly stage. This superstructure consisted of a system of competing Great Powers which then, through a process of two world wars separated by a "national capitalist" interregnum, developed into a more hierarchical system with a presiding superpower.

Power and superpower
The national state is not so much a thing or series of things but a relation, a power. In his State and Revolution, Lenin wrote concerning a section of Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State: "Engels elucidates the concept of the ’power’ which is called the state, a power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it. What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc, at their command."23

The national state is thus a relation, a social relation, which like all relations is always attached to things and is, understandably, often confused with these things themselves: in this case with the special bodies of armed men, with the state territory, with that chaotic conception: country, etc

One characteristic that distinguishes the USA’s world-wide empire from Britain’s empire of the 19th century is the former’s avoidance of formality in the demonstration of its power. Direct colonial rule has, for instance, been replaced by informal means of rule that lurk behind the formal political independence of otherwise subjugated countries. When comparing the post-war USA’s "special bodies of armed men" with those of late 19th century Britain, it is necessary to look at the times since the last world war when armed men acting under effective US control have significantly appeared.

It was United Nations (UN) forces, made up largely of US troops and commanded by US General MacArthur, that invaded North Korea in September 1950. Carrying on from the Korean War, the US widened the activities of the "special bodies of armed men" under its control by assuming responsibility for ’protecting’ Taiwan. Also, additional military aid was extended to the French in Indochina. In December 1950 Truman had called for a crash programme of rearmament, not just to support the forces in Korea but especially to expand the US presence in Europe. As a result US defence expenditure rose to $53.6 billion in 1953, four times the pre-Korean War level. This declined only modestly after the signing of the armistice in the same year.

In 1968 the USA had 1,000,000 troops in Vietnam but by the end of 1973 these had all but been pulled out of a war estimated to have cost the USA $200 billion. The next major deployment of "special bodies of armed men" by the USA was, as with its Korean engagement, organised through the United Nations Security Council with the USA supplying 540,000 of the 700,000 troops deployed against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. The USA demanded that its allies help pay the bill which apparently they reluctantly did with the notable exception of Japan.

But though the USA, after its embarrassing defeat in Vietnam, had returned to using the UN as a front for its more controversial military operations, the latter hardly constitutes a genuinely independent power. The special UN bodies of armed men are those of the separate national states tactfully drawn together for each particular occasion. The partial exception to this is the permanent military division of labour involved in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) but here overall military command still remains in the hands of US military personnel.

Apart from its manifestation as "special bodies of armed men", the national state has, from its inception, increasingly involved itself in economic relations. Similarly the US superpower was, following the second world war, obliged to likewise operate at an overtly supernational level. Under the Marshall Plan, beginning in 1947, the USA during 4 years transferred $13.6 billion to the stricken economies of western Europe in addition to $9.5 billion in earlier loans. The bulk of this $13.6 billion was direct grants.

In the first period of their existence, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) both focused their activities on the advanced industrialised countries but by the end of the post-war boom switched their attention to the "Third World" and particularly then to the debt crisis that reached its peak in the 1980s. In Third World countries it is now essentially not the respective national state that intervenes in the national economy but the IMF. This does not signify a power of a different character to the national state but merely a power far greater than that of Third World national states. It signifies a superpower but not an ultrapower, i.e. not a power that has rendered the national state obsolete. In essence, Lenin’s characterisation of imperialism as "the epoch of the constantly increasing oppression of the nations of the world by a handful of ’Great’ Powers"24 remains correct. From amongst the "’Great’ Powers" the USA established its supremacy and has played the role of military and economic policeman thus mitigating the fundamental features of the epoch – war and revolution – during the post-war period.

Though the US economy today remains by far the largest national economy, the USA, i.e. the state itself, had become the biggest debtor in the world by the mid-1980s. In other words, the cost of being a superpower, of maintaining super "special bodies of armed men", have clearly been, and remain, enormous. The problem of getting the other Great Powers to help pay the bill is that they are unwilling to do this whilst superpower policy remains outside of their control, i.e. remains that of the USA. The UN with its military presences, its IMF and its World Bank is not, never has been and never will be, an "ultra-imperialism"25: it remains essentially the apparatus of a superpower, of merely the supreme national state.

The emergence of an enormous usury capital that appears to be beyond even superpower control does not signify that imperialism can dispense with the national state. Similarly, the ’information super-highway’ may readily pass unhindered through the customs posts of the national state, but it does this without rendering state power obsolete. The bourgeois national state is a power that itself embodies contradictions, but it is a power that is not going to wither away. State power is fundamental to class rule. The state is a "special repressive force"26 that can only be rendered obsolete as class society itself is rendered obsolete. This first requires the smashing of all states that defend the basic social relation of imperialism – private property – and their replacement by a workers’ state with no national boundaries.

Imperialism is itself abolishing the national state but only to the extent that it is tending to construct a premier league of superstates, of super-superpowers: of North America, Europe, etc. Attempting to do this in each case poses the huge task of abolishing the present national state as defender of the "wealth of the nation", i.e. of the privileges of the ’chosen’ nation, within the new "multinational society" – within the dreamt-of, single-state, bourgeois Europe or North America. But in the imperialist epoch such internal "equality" can only be achieved peacefully by exporting its costs, i.e. by exporting war in order to avoid civil war at home.

In summary
The problem with Held’s article is precisely its clear suggestion that the weakness of the international revolution in the inter-war period resulted primarily from its incorrect leadership. In fact it was the other way round. Despite unresolved problems, in the first decade of the inter-war period, imperialism achieved a "’stabilisation’, ’normalisation’, and ’pacification’ of Europe as well as the ’regeneration’ of the Social Democracy". This, according to Trotsky, had "proceeded in close material and ideological connection with the first steps of American intervention in European affairs". The "stabilisation" of Europe saw a growing passivity of the proletarian vanguard and a corresponding ascendancy of the proletarian rearguard.

The motor force within society that drives it towards war also drives it towards revolution by creating the objective conditions for revolution. This motor force is the "contradiction between the productive forces and the framework of the national state, in conjunction with the principal contradiction – between the productive forces and the private ownership of the means of production". Successful revolution is not simply the product of correct leadership, it first requires the presence of a number of objective conditions.

"A revolution is ... a complex social phenomenon which arises only when a series of historical conditions are at hand. We shall recall them once more: the bewilderment and the division of the ruling classes; the indignation of the petty bourgeoisie and its loss of faith in the existing order; the growing militant activity of the working class; finally, a correct policy of the revolutionary party – such are the immediate prerequisites for a revolution."27

The absence of imperialist war and of revolution in the advanced capitalist countries during the past fifty years was due to the USA’s ability to maintain peace among the Great Powers. This reflected changes in the legal and political superstructure of the world social system that partly subordinated the other Great Powers to the new superpower.

Tensions have now arisen that signal an end to the era of the USA’s unchallenged superpower supremacy. In turn this signals a re-awakening of the epoch of imperialist war with all the horrors that it promises. But it also signals the prospect of revolution. The death agony of imperialism is the death agony of a world social system. As yet, the worst symptoms of illness have appeared in the weakest parts of this system: in the impoverished Third World and in the former workers’ states. But this illness is also slowly but progressively bringing into being the prerequisites of revolution in the advanced capitalist countries starting with "the bewilderment and the division of the ruling classes". The defeat of the socialist revolution in this century therefore heralds its victory in the next.


1. See The Third International After Lenin, p.101.

2. "Answers to Views of Louis Fischer", October 1932, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932, p.289.

3. "A Letter to a Group of SAP Comrades", 11 January 1934, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, pp.202-3.

4. History of the Russian Revolution, Sphere Books 1967, Vol.3, p.351.

5. To use Trotsky’s term from his notable programmatic document of 1938: "The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International."

6. In his Imperialism Lenin considered that capitalism had become transformed into imperialism "about the beginning of the twentieth century". In "Revision of the Party Programme", 6-8 October 1917, Collected Works Vol.26, p.164, he states that in the former work he had "cited the testimony of an economist who has made a special study of cartels and syndicates. According to him, the turn towards the complete victory of the cartels in Europe came with the crisis of 1900-03".

7. "The Draft Programme of the Communist International – A Criticism of Fundamentals, Strategy and Tactics in the Imperialist Epoch", June 1928, The Third International after Lenin, p.80.

8. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, January-June 1916, Collected Works Vol.22, p.205.

9. Ibid, p.302

10. "Speech in Favour of the Resolution on the Current Situation, Seventh Conference of the RSDLP(B)", 29 April 1917, Collected Works Vol.24, p.305-6.

11. Productive forces: wage labourers and their tools including factories, etc, whereas the means of production is the factories, etc, plus the raw materials for production.

12. "War and the Fourth International", 10 June 1934, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, p.304.

13. Marx’s idea that "the anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy" and that it consists of an "economic structure [base] ... on which rises a legal and political superstructure" is contained in his "Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy", January 1859, Marx and Engels: Selected Works Vol.1 (of 3 volumes), pp.502-6. This piece is also contained in Marx, Engels, Lenin: On Dialectical Materialism, pp.43-6.

14. "Speech at the Seventh Plenum of the ECCI", 9 December 1926, Challenge of the Left Opposition 1926-27, p.181.

15. "The ’Third Period’ of the Comintern’s Errors", 8 January 1930, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930, p.40.

16. "On The Slogan For A United States Of Europe", 23 August 1915, Collected Works Vol.21, p.340.

17. Imperialism, 1972, p.22.

18. Ibid, pp.145-6.

19. "The Draft Program of the Communist International – A Criticism of Fundamentals", June 1928, The Third International After Lenin, p.6.

20. Ibid., pp.7-8.

21. "War and the Fourth International", 10 June 1934, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, p.302.

22. "Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution", May 1940, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, pp.187-190.

23. The State and Revolution, Chapter 1, part 2, August-September 1917, Collected Works Vol.25, p.394.

24. "Socialism and War", July-August 1915, Collected Works Vol.21, p.317.

25. In his Imperialism Lenin criticised Karl Kautsky who argued: "Cannot the present imperialist policy be supplanted by a new, ultra-imperialist policy, which will introduce the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital in place of the mutual rivalries of national finance capitals? Such a new phase of capitalism is at any rate conceivable. Can it be achieved? Sufficient premises are still lacking to enable us to answer this question." Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.22, p.293.

26. See Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, Progress Publishers, 1978, pp.340-1; and V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, Chapter 1.

27. Trotsky, "How Long Can Hitler Stay?", 22 June, 1933, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p.409.