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December 1, 1972: The Impasse Printer Friendly Version

The Impasse

James Herod
December 1972

  It seems to me undeniable that in the real heartlands of capitalism, in North America, the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and Japan, the proletarian revolution is stymied. It is at an impasse, and has been for decades. Insofar as this impasse is rooted in problems of strategy, the inability of revolutionaries to transcend it can be traced primarily to one overwhelming fact: our failure to define concretely the nature of proletarian democracy and to comprehend fully the differences between bourgeois democracy and proletarian democracy. In the absence of clarity on this crucial point, the goal, it has been impossible to develop a strategy capable of overthrowing capitalism, or even of effectively resisting the enormous forces seeking to annihilate the proletarian movement. Instead, revolutionaries have impaled themselves again and again on the twin horns of vanguardism and individualism, which in reality are merely the two dominant modes of bourgeois life, dogmatism and pluralism, in radical guise.

  This failure is evident from the very beginning of the movement, in the writings of militants struggling to see things from the proletarian point of view. It is apparent even in Marx, who of all revolutionaries is by far the most consistently proletarian in his writings (egalitarian, collective, democratic, nonelitist, nondualistic). Nevertheless Marx can talk openly in his letters to Kugelman about keeping ``behind the scenes all the time'' and about having ``to lead the whole society'' (the IWA), but then turn around and claim, in his fight against Bakunin in the First International, that the IWA is a completely democratic organization functioning according to the legitimate rules democratically established at its annual congresses. It is hard to reconcile these statements. Marx can also let slip on occasion, in spite of his frequently articulated principle that proletarians must emancipate themselves, phrases about the General Council ``having its hand'' on the English working class and about having ``control of the working class here.'' Worst of all, Marx can praise, on the one hand, the egalitarian legislation enacted by the Paris Commune and then complain, on the other hand, that a major mistake in the civil war in France was that ``the Central Committee surrendered its power too soon, to make way for the commune.'' Is self-government something that can be given to the working class by the Central Committee?

  This failure is even more apparent in Engels, who was slower than Marx to come to the principle of the self-emancipation of the working class and was always less deeply affected by it. Engels can say with apparent equanimity that, ``It was the want of centralization and authority that cost the Paris Commune its life. Once you have won you can do with this authority whatever you like...'' It is by now abundantly clear that you cannot do whatever you like with this authority once you have won. Who is this `you' anyway, and what does it mean `to win'?

  This same failure is also evident in Lenin, who, in State and Revolution, elevates the principle of workers councils to one of central importance (in theory) all the while (in practice) he is directing the revolution almost single-handedly from behind the scenes, and while the only real democracy in sight exists only in the Central Committee where all the major decisions are made by a small group of men who issue, beginning in October 1917, an endless stream of directives that are binding on the whole nation.

  It is apparent in Gramsci, who remained committed to the strategy of the vanguard party to the very end, although he was as sensitive to the issue of proletarian self-emancipation as any well known militant in the World War I period, at least in his early years. It is especially and painfully apparent in Luxemburg, who fails in her brilliant critique of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism precisely on the questions of the Constituent Assembly and universal suffrage because she has no concrete image of proletarian democracy and therefore has to fall back on a bourgeois conception of democracy in her opposition to the totalitarian developments in Russia. It is apparent in Mao's writings on democracy since the presupposed existence of the centralized vanguard party so permeates these essays that they are virtually useless in trying to understand real proletarian democracy. Martov probably came as close as anyone did in that period to escaping the vanguard trap in his insistence on the distinction between seizing the state and seizing the government, a distinction he pressed unrelentingly on the very eve of the Bolshevik party's seizure of power, since he had absolutely no illusions about what was going on. But of course the vanguardists have succeeded marvelously, to this very day, in relegating Martov to the dustbin of history.

  Nor do we fare any better if we turn to the recent critics of the strategies of the Old Left, to Gorz, Magri, Marcuse, Sartre, or even to Lukacs. Gorz demolishes the strategy of the vanguard party in a devastating critique but then lets the vanguard in again through the back door in the form of a temporary organization of worker-intellectuals and heavy theoreticians who will somehow mediate the revolution but then disband voluntarily. Magri argues convincingly that

``The party inevitably becomes an authoritarian and bureaucratic apparatus if it coexists with a disorganized mass. Its strategy will necessarily oscillate between parliamentarism and putschism. The only way to overcome this schema is not merely or mainly to `change the party' (democratization of internal life, right of tendencies, mass recruitment), but to introduce a new element altogether: workers councils. Between the party and the masses there must be a third term, which mediates the relationship between them; autonomous and unitary political institutions of the working class. These institutions must emerge right across society (factories, offices, schools), with their own structures – in which the party then acts as an element of stimulus and synthesis. There is no space to develop my argument here. I only want to emphasize my view that a creative revival of the theme of soviets is today essential to resolve the theoretical and strategic problems of the Western Revolution.''

  But as far as I know Magri has not done what he has said must be done; he has not developed the idea of councils in a way that would allow it to transcend the impasse of the revolution. His failure is already apparent here: he argues that the workers councils must be autonomous; and he hangs on to the idea of the Party as an outside force. In both instances he has failed to transcend the false duality (party/mass) which he took as his point of departure.

  Marcuse writes about the liberated, nonauthoritarian society, but then condemns the anti-authoritarian and anti-organization tendencies of the New Left as naive and juvenile. He lumps these two together, thus revealing his lack of clarity on this and betraying his own authoritarian stance, arguing weakly that it is important to distinguish between rational authority and irrational authority. Sartre comments lamely, in reflecting on the problem of the role of the party, that ``The problem, then, is how to prevent it from degenerating into an `institution'.'' But to my knowledge he never solves the problem but only continues to pose it, by saying, for example, that the party ``has enormous difficulty in ever escaping from the bureaucratic rut which it initially accepted to make the revolution against a bureaucratic-military machine.'' Lukacs can be found saying as late as 1968 that ``The problem of socialist democracy is a very real one, and it has not yet been solved.''

  Thus the failure to clarify the essential nature of proletarian democracy, and hence of a strategy for achieving it, is apparent at every turn. And this is no trivial thing either. It is a matter that strikes at the very heart of the proletarian revolution. If it is impossible to identify concretely the basic features of ``an association of free and equal producers,'' as Marx described the new communist society time and again, then we are in deep trouble. This is precisely the impasse that has blocked the revolution in the advanced capitalist societies for decades.

  I do not want to attempt to explain at this point why none of the pioneers of the proletarian revolution were able to grasp a concrete vision of the proletarian exercise of power. The reasons are many and complex, and as broad as the difference between one historical phase of the revolution and the next. It is certainly no mere intellectual failure but a failure that has social roots as deep as the class struggle itself. Be that as it may, I believe that it is now possible to see a way through this impasse, at least in broad outline, and to break out. The way out, it seems to me, lies in the direction of a network of workers councils united on the basis of direct democracy. This is what we have to explore.