Archive for April, 2012

Lessons of the 1960s Radicalization

[I wrote the following article in 1970. It was published as the introduction to the 1971 book, Towards An American Socialist Revolution: A Strategy for the 1970s, published by Pathfinder Press. The book has long been out of print.

I believe that this article captured our feeling at the time about the lessons of the 1960s radicalization and about the prospects it posed for the socialist movement in the United States. Although, in hindsight, one can easily point to miscalculations and overly optimistic expectations about the period, I believe that it still has value in attempting to incorporate some of the experience and lessons of the 1960s radicalization into the corpus of Marxism The ideas expressed here were not just my own, but represented the general thinking of the SWP at the time. – Gus Horowitz, 2012]

 

 

Not too many years ago, the prospect of an American revolution seemed realistic to only the most farsighted politicians. To most people, it appeared as if theUnited   Stateswere entering an era of unchallenged supremacy abroad and social tranquility at home, invulnerable to challenge, whether by foreign military power, international economic competition or social revolution. However volatile political life might be elsewhere, the United States, at least, seemed to have achieved domestic stability: the crisis of the depression years had been surmounted, and the economy was booming; the labor movement had been tamed; the radicalism of the 1930s had given way to the conservatism and complacency of the 1950s; and if the “silent generation” of American youth afforded a preview, this was to be the mass mood for years to come. Sure of its international power and of its dominance at home, the American ruling class looked to the future with unshakable confidence.

 

The magnitude of the remarkable changes that have occurred since then need hardly be described. The American ruling class, previously so self-assured, has been shaken by an unfavorable shift in world military and political alignments; by growing international economic competition and a recurring monetary crisis that threatens the post-World-War-II system of international trade and investment; and, most of all, by a worldwide revolutionary upsurge that has spread beyond the colonial revolution. What is more, the new generation of revolutionaries throughout the world includes a sizable American contingent. We are today just at the beginning of what is already the most thoroughgoing radicalization in American history.

 

The Black liberation movement, the antiwar movement, the student movement and the Chicano movement, more and more, have all grown into massive, independent movements of strug­gle. The women’s liberation movement, now only in the initial stages of development, is beginning to grow rapidly and has already had a deep impact. The mood of militancy, protest and struggle is taking root among Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and Asian-Americans. The radicalization is penetrating what would have seemed earlier the most unlikely areas. It has affected prisoners in the jails, GIs, welfare recipients, homo­sexuals. The churches, the professions, cultural, artistic and intellectual circles have each contributed their share of protest.

 

These new movements are all growing. Each affects, interacts with, cushions the difficulties of and spurs on the others. Furthermore, the widespread climate of protest and struggle insures that other movements will arise and take their part in the radicalization process too. The massive organized labor movement will be transformed and will play a political role that few in this generation have yet conceived. It is already clear that no sector of the population and no section of the country has been unaffected. There is no form of oppression, no reactionary prejudice, no outmoded social institution that is too deep-rooted, too venerable or awesome to be free from challenge. This challenge to all aspects of the existing social order is one of the best proofs of the thoroughgoing character of the current radicalization.

 

As a result, the prospect for revolutionary change in Amer­ica is gaining greater and greater credence. It is talked about by political pundits of every variety. The catchwords of revo­lution have become part of the language of our age.

 

But how can a real revolution — a social transformation that will truly overturn the established order, throw out the old ruling class and institute a new social system based on, controlled by and responsive to the human needs of the great majority of oppressed and exploited — actually occur in the United States? What kind of revolution must it be? Will it be a “classical” socialist revolution? These are questions of great concern to the current generation of radicals, and it is to them that this book is addressed.

 

The authors of this book are Marxists — revolutionary so­cialists active in the Socialist Workers Party. For them, a social­ist revolution in the United States is a realizable goal. Moreover, they put forward the thesis that the current radicaliza­tion in the United States-even though it will suffer temporary setbacks — will not be decisively reversed before the possibility of socialist revolution is posed in practical terms. Whether or not that possibility is realized will depend on the ability of a revolutionary socialist party to provide leadership based on a political strategy adequate to such an immense undertaking. The authors of this book are actively engaged in constructing just such a party. The revolutionary strategy they project for the 1970s derives from a Marxist analysis of the objec­tive roots and dynamics of the current radicalization. But anyone expecting to find here a stereotyped version of Marxism will be disappointed. This book offers a fresh and stimu­lating application of the Marxist method to the new and dif­ferent forms that the class struggle is taking in the United States today. The analysis and strategy presented here con­trast sharply with the shortsighted, pragmatic and eclectic ap­proach of some theorists of the New Left and with the dog­matic and stereotyped version of Marxism that is commonly associated with the “Old Left.”

 

During the 1960s many people in the radical movement made the error of considering Marxism a dogmatic schema foreign to the developing radicalization and even at odds with it The various political currents loosely defined as the New Left, and often incorrectly identified as the sole political rep­resentatives of the radicalization that began in the 1960s, re­jected Marxism (as they understood it).

 

There were two aspects to this attitude of the New Left. On the positive side, it signified a rejection of bureaucratic, con­servative and narrow-minded political tendencies in the “Old Left” The New Left, like most of the forces in the radicaliza­tion today, had a deep and justified distrust of the political policies and organizational methods of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and other groups that can properly be labeled Stalinist or Social Democratic. Most radicalizing young militants spurned these discredited tendencies because they were interested in a radicalism that was militant, independent and politically and intellectually honest

 

Because Stalinism and Social Democracy were the largest and best-known political tendencies in the radical movement during the preceding decades, and because they both professed to trace their origins to Marx and to the political struggles of the working class, the New Left incorrectly accepted them as the authentic representative of Marxism. This led to the negative side of the New Left approach. The failures and inadequacies of these two “Old Left” currents were seen as proof both of the dogmatic character of Marxism and of its inap­plicability to American conditions. So, along with the Stalinist and Social Democratic perversions of Marxism, the New Left rejected Marxism itself. It rejected the value of all previous experience acquired by the revolutionary movement, preferring to test what seemed to be new ideas and new organizational methods.

 

This was the approach of the major New Left organization, Students for a Democratic Society, and was to prove its un­doing. Young its most of it was, SDS proved incapable of appreciating and embracing new developments in the radical­ization that arose only a few years after it. SDS had been quickly raised high, but was just as quickly pushed down by changing political winds that it was unable to understand. Ironically but predictably, in rejecting the value of historical experience, SDS found itself unwittingly adopting many of the political policies and organizational methods that had been tried and found wanting in the earlier history of the radical movement — including policies and practices of the Stalinists and Social Democrats. This was not the least of the reasons for its rapid disintegration in the late 1960s.

 

The Communist Party, the dominant party claiming to represent socialism during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and thus the chief symbol of the “Old Left,” has likewise been ineffective in these years of rising radicalism, despite its initial advantage in numbers and resources relative to other forces in the radical movement. The Communist Party has failed to make significant gains, either in numerical growth or in political influence over the current radicalization. There have been two basic reasons for this failure.

 

First, and most important, has been a fundamental error in its political policy. Since the 1930s, the Communist Party has consistently attempted to get the mass movement to center its activity around the election of liberal capitalist politicians, primarily those in the Democratic Party. The bankruptcy of this policy was shown by the experience of the New Deal, which did not advance the radicalization of the 1930s, but retarded and blunted it. The then-influential Communist Party, with its pro-Democratic Party line, was a factor in diverting the mass radicalization of the 1930s into support of New Deal liberalism, where it eventually expired. The experience of the 1930s proved once again that it is a fatal course for radicals to work within the framework of the Democratic Party — and the reason is very simple. The Democratic Party is controlled not by those who vote for it but by a section of the ruling class. Con­sequently, political activity within or in support of the Democratic Party is severely circumscribed; it cannot go beyond the limits of procapitalist liberalism.

 

The corollary to the policy of tail-ending liberalism is the attempt to tone down the militancy and restrict the independence of the mass movement, a policy the Communist Party has long tried to implement. This conservative policy set it at odds with the militant and politically independent thrust of the new radicalization. For example, the Communist Party has felt uncomfortable with an antiwar movement whose principal ac­tivity is mass street demonstrations and whose principal de­mand is immediate and unconditional U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. It would have preferred a movement that spent most of its energies in election campaigns for Democratic Party “doves” and that raised less militant and more “realistic” demands, that is, demands acceptable to these capitalist politicians. The Communist Party rejects as divisive the growing nationalism of the Black and Chicano movements, which refuse to subordinate themselves to white liberals. It fears that the militancy and independence of the student and women’s liberation movements will go too far for the good of liberal politicians.

 

A second reason for the Communist Party’s failure to regain its powerful position on the left has been its inability to understand the new radicalization. It does indeed have a dogmatic and stereotyped view of Marxism and the radicalization process. The adherents of the Communist Party expected the new radicalization not only to be a repetition of the radicalization of the 1930s, but also a repetition as they understood it.

 

To them, this meant a massive labor upsurge through the union movement as the dominant feature, with all other mass movements tied and subordinate to it, and with the labor movement itself tied and subordinate to the Democratic Party. They have viewed the independent development of the women’s, student and antiwar movements, for example, as incidental to the “real” struggle of the working class that will come later, and only through the trade unions. They expect these new independent movements to fade into the background when the trade union radicalize. In short, the preconceived notions of the Communist Party have been alien to the basic thrust of the new radicalization and its growing effect on the American workers. As a result, the Communist Party has been unwilling and unable to participate fully in the new movements that have arisen and to develop an effective strategy for them.

 

The Socialist Party has been even less effective in the current radicalization. Whereas the Communist Party’s conservative brand of socialism flows ultimately from its subservience to the needs of the privileged bureaucratic layer in theSoviet Union, the Social Democrats follow the plodding footsteps of the privileged trade-union bureaucracy in theUnited States. Mired in cold-war ideology, deeply committed to the welfare of Democratic Party hacks, the position of the Socialist Party in practice has even been to the right of many liberals. The Social Democrats have bitterly opposed the new independent movements and have boycotted the radicalization. Not surprisingly, they have been completely rejected by the new radicals.

 

The authors of this book show how the Socialist Workers Party and the youth group in political solidarity with it, the Young Socialist Alliance, have been able to orient effectively to the new radicalization, avoiding both the shortsighted empiricism and eclecticism of the New Left and the sterile dogmatism of the Stalinists. There have been two main aspects to this revo­lutionary socialist approach. First has been the insistence on adhering to the central principles of Marxism, which are invaluable acquisitions tested through many years of experience in revolutionary struggle. Second has been the ability to act as revolutionists in the new situation. This has meant identify­ing with the new radicalization, participating in it, and applying the basic principles of revolutionary strategy within it. These were the prerequisites for learning from the new rad­icalization, refining and adding to the basic political strategy of the revolutionary socialist movement, and affecting the radicalization through participation in it on the basis of this strategy.

 

The Socialist Workers Party began by rejecting the perspective of permanent stability and invincibility for American capitalism. It saw in the very expansion of American capitalism after World War II the creation of conditions that would lead to a new revolutionary upsurge. This estimation reaffirmed Trotsky’s farsighted analysis of 1928: “… 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 current radicalization has borne out this analysis, affording a striking illustration of the various ways in which the capitalist system, through its inability to achieve political, economic and social stability, and improvement in the quality of life, creates the conditions for and radicalizes the agents of its own destruction. The understanding of these long-term trends in the evolution of capitalism and the class struggle enabled the Socialist Workers Party to see beyond the temporary conditions of reaction in the 1950s and prepared it for a new upsurge of radicalism in the United States. And when this occurred, the Socialist Workers Party was able to see it, not as ephemeral, but as a development growing out of the very structure of American capitalism. This is one of the key factors indicating that the projection of a revolutionary strategy for the 1970s is politically realistic.

 

The Socialist Workers Party also reaffirmed the Marxist conception of class struggle and the central importance of the working class — Black, Chicano and white, women and men, young and old, in uniform and out — in a socialist revolution. It pointed to the prospect of a resurgence and transformation of the labor movement.

 

But this analysis had nothing in common with crude economic determinism, which can conceive of a radicalization de­veloping only as a result of a 1929-type economic depression and taking organizational form solely through the trade unions. Prior to its development, it was impossible to predict the spe­cific social, political and economic issues that would give rise to a new radicalization, the specific forms it would take and the tempo at which various sectors of the population, among them the labor movement, would be involved. Essential to its development would be the involvement of masses in struggle against the ruling class and organized independently of the bureaucratic formations in the workers movement and the capitalist political institutions.

 

In analyzing the new radicalization, the authors of this book show how it has confirmed the central propositions of Marxism. What we are seeing in theUnited   Statesis new, but not inexplicable. We are seeing the develop­ment of new methods of struggle against the capitalist class, new ways in which the capitalist system is being challenged, new aspects and new forms of the class struggle. The process is still far from reaching its full development, but it is lead­ing in the direction of deepening mass struggles of the oppressed and exploited and points toward a socialist alternative to the inhumanities of capitalism.

 

The issues raised in the current radicalization may not all be identical to the issues raised in the 1930s, but they go right to the heart of the key contradiction of capitalist society. This is the contradiction between: (1) increasing social and economic interrelationships, interaction and interdependence among peo­ple throughout the world, and a level of technology making it possible for the first time in history to satisfy the basic needs of all humanity; and (2) the continued existence in a whole series of nation-states of the capitalist system, in which a wealthy few personally own the commanding heights of the economy and who, from this position, are able to control all major decision-making — their own private gain rather than humanity’s needs being the guiding principle deciding the fate of the vast majority.

 

The current radicalization reflects the growing awareness of this antithesis. Increasing numbers of people see the gap between what can potentially be achieved, given the present cultural and technological level in the United States, and what is actually being achieved under the present system of social organization.

 

The mass movement against the Indochina war, an unpre­cedented development during a shooting war, is an illustration of this trend. There is questioning and rejection of the myriad social institutions and forms of ideological backwardness and prejudice serving to prop up an outmoded order. This is a fea­ture, to one degree or another, of the women’s liberation movement, the movements of oppressed nationalities, the student movement, the revolution in culture and many other aspects of the current radicalization. More and more people are becom­ing aware of what their real interests are; they are beginning to demand the right to decide major questions of social policy on the basis of their own human needs; and they are relying on their own independent strength and that of their potential allies in struggling against the capitalist class. These struggles are part of, forms of, or potentially allied to the general class struggle of the working masses against the capitalist system. The ability to see this feature of the current radicalization, to see it within the framework of basic Marxist concepts, and to orient to it on that basis demonstrates the richness and via­bility of the Marxist method.

 

The new movements highlight yet another fundamental aspect of the Marxist analysis, the law of uneven and combined devel­opment, and show that it is applicable to the United States. Social reality is complex and uneven. In the United States as elsewhere, there is no such thing as a theoretically “pure” form of capitalism, and thus no “pure” form of class struggle. Under capitalism, side by side with the exploitation of the working class there also exist new forms of long-known oppression, the reactionary institutional and ideological remnants of a precapitalist era; the oppression of women and nationalities, religious superstition, the persecution of homosexuals, reactionary social morality, restrictions on civil liberties and human rights are but a few examples. These have become instruments for upholding the present system and cannot be eliminated within its framework. As a result, the coming American revolution will have to accomplish an entire range of historically overdue democratic tasks, as well as socialist tasks, such as nationalization of industry under working-class control.

 

With this in mind, we see that movements such as the wo­men’s liberation movement, the struggles of oppressed national­ities for self-determination, the gay liberation movement, and the revolution in culture are a part of the general struggle against the outmoded capitalist system. The authors of this book show how the national question is so interwoven with the class struggle in the United States that the American revo­lution will actually be a combined revolution: a revolution by the oppressed nationalities for liberation and self-determination, combined with a revolution of the working class against the exploitation and alienation of capitalist relations. That is the only way in which capitalism can be overturned in the United States That is the only way the door can  be opened to the eradication of racism, sexism, exploitation, alienation and the warped human relations bred by capitalist society.

 

Thus these new movements are not unimportant or peripheral to the socialist revolution, but at the center of its advance. Furthermore, they have all developed independent of the ruling-class institutions, and they are free from domination by the Communist Party and the trade-union bureaucracy. The polit­ical thrust of their demands is directed against the ruling class and in the interests of the great mass of American workers. So, far from diminishing in importance as the labor movement itself radicalizes, these movements will grow and continue to be a key part of the general process leading to a socialist revolution. To think otherwise is to think that the radicalizing layers of the working class will be completely incapable of identifying with feminism, Black nationalism, gay liberation and progressive standards of social morality. If that ware the case, there would be no prospect of the working class identifying with the goals of a socialist revolution. To the contrary, the radicalization already involves large numbers of workers — as women, as GIs, as Blacks, as Chicanos, as gays, as youth, as antiwar activists — who will play a key role in the radicalization of the labor movement. This makes it all the more apparent that the radicalization of labor will necessarily in­clude support to the central demands of the sectors of the popu­lation already engaged in Independent struggle.

 

The new movements, the new forms of independent struggle, the new issues that are being raised, all give a preview of what some of the new characteristics of the more general work­ing-class radicalization will be. When large masses of workers radicalize, they not only will have to fight through the trade unions, and within the trade unions against the union bureau­cracy, but also will adopt new and different methods of strug­gle, including some learned from these other movements. In addition to struggling through the trade unions, the insurgent working class will also undoubtedly create organizational forms that are distinct from the official trade unions. It is pointless to try to predict exactly what will happen. What is essential is to realize that the existence of social forces already involved in independent struggle and the deepening of radical conscious­ness among large sectors of the population will have a major effect in impelling the working class as a whole onto the field of mass anticapitalist political action. When this occurs, the already powerful radicalization will take a giant leap forward.

 

In addition to the creative application of the Marxist method in analyzing the new forms of anticapitalist struggle that have arisen, the authors of this book show how the Socialist Workers Party has been able to translate theoretical appreciation of the new radicalization into action. It is only the combination of previously acquired theory with current application in action that enables a revolutionary organization to fully understand new developments, participate in them effectively, and work out a political strategy that can lead to a socialist revolution. The basic strategy put forward in this book is embodied in what is called a transitional program.

 

This program is totally different in conception from the ap­proach of reformists and ultralefts. Reformists look upon socialism as a far-distant goal, irrelevant to the practical struggles of the day — and thus justify limiting the scope and blunting the thrust of the mass movement. Ultralefts, substituting the actions and conceptions of a handful for the actions and aspirations of the masses, reject all practical struggles aimed at bettering the immediate conditions of life. The strategy of the transitional program, by contrast, begins on the basis of the present objective conditions and the present needs of the oppressed and exploited. It raises a series of democratic and transitional demands aimed at winning the immediate support of the vast majority engaged in a given struggle, at their present level of consciousness. But the demands raised at any given moment are part of a unified program designed to lead in the direction of an anticapitalist revolution. Through the struggles waged around these demands, it is possible to make the transition to the mass realization of the necessity for and possibility of a socialist revolution. This book indicates some at the central demands raised as part of the transitional strategy that the Socialist Workers Party has applied in the current radicalization. **

 

The growth of a new radicalization in the United States has offered great opportunities to all political tendencies and organizations on the left. But it has also been a great challenge to each of them. It has tested the validity of their political analysis and their ability to carry out their policies in action. As a result of the response to these challenges, a continuing process of shake-up and political realignment is occurring in the American Left. The past political dominance of the Communist Party has been shattered. The Social Democrats have floundered. SDS has disintegrated, and other New Left groupings remain fundamentally without political perspective. Assorted Maoist and other ultraleft sects remain small and isolated. In contrast, the Socialist Workers Party and theYoung Socialist Alliance have been able to grow significantly by identifying closely with the growing radicalization, deepening their ties to it, while retaining their theoretical heritage of Marxism and their grounding in revolutionary socialist principles. As a result, the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance are beginning to pull ahead of their rivals in the radical movement. For the first time in American history, the revolutionary socialist movement is in a position to become the most influential political force on the left. The successful continuation of this process will greatly advance the prospects for an Amer­ican socialist revolution, for it will mean the creation of a mass revolutionary party with a cadre and program adequate to the task of overturning the American ruling class and inau­gurating a new era in American history, and in world history an well.

 

 

 

 

* Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin

 

** For a more specific outline of the features of a transitional program, the following are recommended:

 

The,Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International  by Leon Trotsky [Pathfinder Press, New York], This is the basic programmatic document of the world Trotskyist  movement and was adopted by the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938.

 

A Transitional Program for Black Liberation and The Worldwide Youth Radicalization and the Tasks of the Fourth International [Pathfinder Press, New York]. These are recently drafted documents that outline a transitional strategy for the Black liberation struggle and for the student movement.