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July 15, 1975: The Need for a Third Road Printer Friendly Version

[Prefatory Note, April 2007: By Third Road I meant neither Bolshevism (Lenin) nor Social Democracy (Kautsky). I must have taken the notion from Korsch. I called myself a Third Road Radical throughout the seventies. But I also used it in the more general philosophical sense of escaping the dualities, which I was intent to do. So I saw myself as being neither individualistic or authoritarian, tolerant or intolerant, materialist or idealist, and so forth. As for my attempt to gaze into the future, thank heavens I didn't make a habit of it. I guess I was only beginning to sense in 1975 that we were entering a period of conservatism. Actually the counter-revolution had been underway for at least five years, and the Reagan Revolution was just half a decade away. But the right-wing revolution did not take the form of state-capitalism, that is, of the government taking over private enterprise, but of private enterprise taking over the government (neoliberalism). Furthermore, in 1975 the anti-colonial marxist-leninist revolutions were already over. I was just ill informed. And the Soviet Union itself was to collapse twenty-five years later. Plus it was not the managerial, bureaucratic elite with which the right-wing allied itself, but with Christian fundamentalists. At least I was right about the universities becoming more conservative. And I was dead on about the need for a new political initiative. To my great dismay, this is as true today, thirty-two years later, as it was then.]

The Need for a Third Road

James Herod
July 1975

``A fundamental debate on the general state of modern Marxism has now begun, and there are many indications that despite secondary, transient or trivial conflicts, the real division on all major decisive questions is between the old Marxist orthodoxy of Kautsky allied to the new Russian or `Leninist' orthodoxy on the one side, and all critical and progressive theoretical tendencies in the proletarian movement today on the other side.''
        – Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, 1931

The need for a new political initiative, a Third Road, is even more urgent now than it was at the beginning of the decade. The collapse of western Liberalism is ever more complete while the spread of eastern Communism is ever more ominous. Thus the West, the capitalism of the core countries, hangs suspended in an unprecedented vacuum, and neither of the prevailing strategies in the movement, egoism or vanguardism, are viable answers. This vacuum will be filled in one of two ways I believe. There will either be a proletarian revolution or else there will emerge a western version of the state-capitalist systems of the East. It is very hard to judge which of these outcomes is most likely. What does seem possible to say however is that if a full-fledged revolutionary movement aimed at abolishing the wage-system does not get under way fairly soon in the core capitalist countries, say within the next quarter century or half century at the most, it may not get under way at all. It may be too late after that. The chance to create a democratic society may pass from the historical scene, at least for a very long time. The opportunity still exists at this point, but only, or mainly, in the bourgeois democracies of the capitalist West, not in the totalitarian bureaucracies of the capitalist East. The situation there is very different, although the regimes of Eastern Europe are a special case.

  Moreover, overthrowing wage-slavery is not something that can happen out of the blue, overnight, spontaneously. Nor is it something that can emerge suddenly out of the depths of a crisis or breakdown. Rather it is a project that must be consciously sought by the vast majority of proletarians over an extended period of time, a period sufficiently long to enable them to develop the necessary skills, clarify the issues, and evolve appropriate strategies and plans. The idea of overthrowing the wage-system could of course emerge fairly rapidly into the prevailing consciousness and be seized as a goal by the vast majority. This could indeed happen almost overnight, given the right circumstances. But the realization of that goal could not occur with such speed. That such a movement could emerge, a majoritarian movement to overthrow wage-slavery, is a possibility that should not be ruled out. It is a possibility that seems remote at the moment, that is true. But there are reasons to think that it might happen, not the least of which is the current prevailing vacuum itself, the definite and widely comprehended impasse that has been reached in western countries. Just about everyone realizes that these countries are in deep crisis, that things can't go on like they are, and that the system is increasingly bankrupt, corrupt, arbitrary, unworkable, tyrannical, chaotic, and destructive.

  At the same time however, the so-called communist regimes of the East, especially Russia, are widely perceived, and correctly so, as totalitarian, and as merely a worse version of what already exists here. Thus Communism is not thought to offer a way out, nor to be a solution to or alternative to the disintegrating structures of the West. This is why the battle for state-capitalist regimes in the West, in which the bourgeoisie will be dispossessed of its privately owned corporate wealth, is not likely to be fought under the banner of Marxism-Leninism, although at times this dogma has seemed to spread rapidly. Throughout the better part of the first half of the seventies, I was dismayed, angered, and frightened at the resurgence of Marxism-Leninism and the fairly massive shift of New Left radicals into the Old Left, although I always hoped that this wouldn't get very far. It now seems that this resurgence has already burned itself out, and that it is still a fantasy to suppose that Marxism-Leninism could ever catch on here and become a majority outlook.

  Thus in the West the battle for state-capitalism will be fought under different auspices (although France and Italy may be exceptions). It will be fought in the name of Law and Order, the Common People, and Public Safety. The mainstream view is not now, nor is it likely to become, Communist, nor Liberal, nor Feminist. There will probably continue to be scant support therefore for the main dictatorial groups now clamoring to install themselves in power. I doubt whether many people are interested in the dictatorship of a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist vanguard party; or the dictatorship of professors, social workers, and bureaucrats; or the dictatorship of matrons in a matriarchal society; or the dictatorship obviously thrown up by individualism. It is still possible however that massive support could be forthcoming for a Champion of the Common People and that such a person could be installed as a dictator in the name of God, Mother, and Country. Even these ideals however have an increasingly hollow ring to them.

  At least this is how I read the mainstream sentiment. And this is what creates the vacuum. Everything is disintegrating but yet there is nothing to take its place, nothing believable, that is. It is this situation, exacerbated by the concurrent collapse of liberalism as a heavily traveled but dead-ended escape route, that gives rise simultaneously to the hope that the Third Road will open up at long last as a way out of the impasse, but also to the fear that the vacuum will instead be filled with a Big Brother regime of capitalist slavery that will make both the Third Reich and Stalinist Russia seem infantile by comparison. Many of the necessary pillars for such a slavery are already in place and any realistic view of the situation has to concede that there is at present more reason to fear than to hope, although this does not resolve the question for the long run.

  I still hope nevertheless that Marx was right when he said that bourgeois democracy would be the final battle ground of the proletarian revolution. But if the whole world first becomes Communist (with a big C), even though this system is given a different name in the West, then another whole historical epoch, possibly a very long one, may have to be crossed before the chance to abolish slavery and establish real communism again appears, assuming that we even survive as a species and don't relapse into barbarism. This is not a happy prospect.

  The longer it is, moreover, that the goal of abolishing wage-slavery fails to be embraced by the majority, the less likely it seems that this will even happen at all, or emerge victorious if it does happen. Time is running out. Time is not on the side of the working class, contrary to what has so often been assumed. Time is on the side of state-capitalism. Not only are state-capitalists (Marxists-Leninists) gaining ground all over the world, the protagonists of proletarian revolution in the West (democratic communists) are continuously and relentlessly undermined and diminished, both from the inside and from the outside. Every new victory, for example, by a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party in some neo-colony of western capitalism reinforces the vanguardists agitating inside the core countries. We need only recall the devastating impact of Lenin's and Stalin's Third International on the western proletarian movement to dispel any doubts we might have had about the deadly hostility that these Vanguard Revolutions will exhibit toward any genuinely communist movement (with a small c) in the West, or anywhere else. Several other countries – China, Cuba, Vietnam, Korea, Mozambique – now add their support to the suppression of the western revolution. Proletarians in the West now have two powerful enemies instead of one: the state capitalists of the East and the corporate capitalists of the West.

  It might be noted furthermore that internal opposition to vanguard parties and to the authoritarian conception of the revolution has grown steadily weaker in the colonial revolutions throughout the twentieth century. It was very pronounced in the Russian revolution, still strong in Spain, weak in China and Algeria, and apparently absent, or virtually so, in Vietnam and Mozambique. The communist revolution in the core capitalist countries is being slowly boxed in by Marxists-Leninists-Maoists. This is not the main threat however since Marxists-Leninists are likely to remain, despite all this, a minority force in western countries, although this should not be taken for granted. Also, opposition in the West to the vanguard strategy is not exactly dead, and may even be on the upswing.

  The main threat is the emergence in the West of an indigenous philosophy to justify state-capitalism here. And such a philosophy is indeed emerging. Concurrently with the collapse of liberalism, there has emerged a new and improved version of right-wing doctrine in the form of management philosophy, general systems theory, structuralism, and organization theory. The universities, once bastions of liberalism, are rapidly being transformed into strongholds for this new conservative creed. Nor is this creed confined mainly to the universities. Far from it. As bureaucratically trained, bureaucratically certified, and bureaucratically organized professionals have moved into practically every arena of activity, the managerial mentality has gone with them. This, plus the deep penetration of military values and outlooks into civilian life; plus the slow eclipse of the egalitarianism of the small farmer and small shopkeeper as the petty bourgeoisie has dwindled away; plus the obsession with crime and safety and the consequent proliferation of policemen; firemen, guards, counselors, and protectors of every imaginable hue; plus the displacement of the image of direct democracy by ideas of representative democracy, elections, officers, terms of office, secret balloting, Robert's Rules of Order, quorums, and Presidents; plus the incessant authoritarian drumming of professional sports; this, is the content of the contemporary Reaction.

  This new conservative creed presupposes hierarchy. It takes the managerial function as a given and hence regards a governing elite as natural, inevitable, and inherent to all collective endeavors. In these respects it is quite similar to Marxism-Leninism, which presupposes the Party as the managerial component of the system and takes leaders as a natural given. In fact general systems theory is merely a sanitized version of Marxism-Leninism, or perhaps Marxism-Leninism is a jazzed up version of general systems theory.

  In any case, the point is that the capture of the universities and the professions by the structuralists, bureaucrats, and managers may make possible an alliance between intellectuals and the conservative majority which was not possible before under the prevailing liberalism, which retained, in spite of its welfare-statism, a few anti-authoritarian threads, although individualistic not collective ones. This alliance could thus become a powerful force to frustrate and suppress any move toward workers control and democratic communism, as well as a force to support attempts to overthrow the private bourgeoisie in favor of state-capitalism. It is obvious that the managerial mentality has permeated very deeply into western cultures, to such an extent even that when a few wage-laborers do finally get together on occasion to form an association to deal with their common problems collectively, their tendency is to reestablish right in their own ranks the very same hierarchical structure which gave rise to their need to meet in the first place. They immediately elect officers, delegate authority, curtain their meetings, restrict collective discussion of the problems, and relinquish in numerous other ways their own power, thereby reestablishing an authoritarian regime among themselves, even though the bosses are nowhere near.

  Nevertheless, as I said before, it is extremely difficult to judge the strength of these tendencies. It may turn out that the acceptance of hierarchy and the willingness to seek individual salvation through promotion into the ranks of management is only a surface thing, while a deep but perhaps muted humiliation from being a slave will emerge, given the right conditions, as the predominant sentiment, thus sparking the proletarian revolution. It is really hard to say one way or the other, and it certainly can't be predicted.