From the Arsenal of Marxism:
Theses on the American Revolution
By James P. Cannon
The economic crisis of 1929 was not a cyclical crisis such as periodically accompanied organic capitalist development in the past, leading to new and higher productive levels. It was a major historical crisis of capitalism in decay, which could not be overcome through the normal channels; that is to say, through the blind interplay of the laws governing the market.
Production virtually came to a standstill. National income was cut into less than half, plummeting from $81 billion in 1929 to $40 billion in 1932. Industry and agriculture sagged. The army of unemployed swelled tenfold normal, reaching the dizzying figure of 20 million. According to official estimates, based on 1929 averages, the losses in the years 1930-38 amounted to 43 million man-years of labor, and $133 billion of national income.
By 1939 the national debt soared to $40 billion, or $14 billion more than the highest point at the end of the First World War. The number of unemployed kept hovering at 10 million. Industry and agriculture stagnated. The foreign trade of the U.S. in a reduced world market fell to less than half of its normal peacetime share.
What all these figures really express is the fearsome degradation of living standards of the workers and the middle class, and the outright pauperization of the underprivileged one-third of the population. The wafer-thin layer of monopolists, naturally, did not suffer at all, but on the contrary utilized the crisis in order to gobble up even a larger share of the countrys wealth and resources.
The bourgeoisie saw no way out of the crisis. They had no way out. They and their regime remained the main obstacle in the way not only of domestic but of world recovery. In its downward plunge, the American bourgeoisie dragged the rest of the capitalist world with it, and kept it down.
Decisive is the fact that despite all the pump-priming, brain trusting, and emergency reforms, American capitalism was incapable of solving the crisis. The partial upswing of 1934-37 proved to be temporary and passing in character. The precipitous drop that occurred in 1937 revealed the abyss facing American capitalism. The threatening new downward plunge was cut off only by the huge expenditures made in preparation for the Second World War.
Only the war temporarily resolved the economic crisis which had lasted in both hemispheres for ten years. The grim reality, however, is that this solution has solved exactly nothing. Least of all did it remove or even mitigate a single one of the basic causes for the crisis of 1929.
The basis of the current American postwar prosperity is the artificial expansion of industry and agriculture through unprecedented government spending which is swelling constantly the enormous national debt. In its fictitious character the war and postwar boom of the early forties far exceeds the orgy engaged in by European capitalism during 1914-18 and the immediate postwar years. The diversion of production into war industry on an unheard-of scale resulted in temporary shortages of consumer goods. The home and foreign markets seemed to acquire a new absorbing capacity. Universal scarcities and war havoc are acting as temporary spurs to production, especially in the consumers goods field.
Overall there is, however, the universal impoverishment, the disrupted economic, fiscal, and government systemscoupled with the chronic diseases and contradictions of capitalism, not softened but aggravated by the war.
If we multiply the condition in which European capitalism, with England at its head, emerged from the First World War by ten times and in some instances a hundred timesbecause of the vaster scale of the consequences of World War IIthen we will arrive at an approximation of the actual state of American capitalism.
Every single factor underlying the current peacetime prosperity is ephemeral. This country has emerged not richer from the Second World War as the case in the twenties, but poorerin a far more impoverished world. The disproportion between agriculture and industry has likewise increased tremendously, despite the hothouse expansion of agriculture. The concentration of wealth and the polarization of the American population into rich and poor has continued at a forced pace.
The basic conditions that precipitated the 1929 crisis when American capitalism enjoyed its fullest health not only persist but have grown more malignant. Once the internal market is again saturated, no adequate outlet can be hoped for in the unbalanced world market. The enormously augmented productive capacity of the U.S. collides against the limits of the world market and its shrinking capacity. Ruined Europe herself needs to export. So does the ruined Orient, whose equilibrium has been ruptured by the shattering of Japan, its most advanced sector.
Europe is in dire needs of billions in loans. In addition to lend-lease, Wall Street has already pumped almost $5 billion in loans into England; almost $2 billion into France; and smaller sums into the other satellite countries of Western Europewithout however achieving any semblance of stabilization there. Bankrupt capitalist Europe remains both a competitor on the world market and a bottomless drain. The Orient, too, needs loans, especially China, which, while in the throes of civil war, has already swallowed up as many American dollars as did Germany in the early twenties.
At home, the explosive materials are accumulating at a truly American tempo. Carrying charges on the huge national debit; the astronomic military peacetime budget ($18.5 billion for this year); the inflation, the overhead expenditures of Wall Streets program of world domination, etc., etc.all this can come from one source and one source only: national income. In plain words, from the purchasing power of the masses. Degradation of workers living conditions and the pauperization of the farmers and the urban middle classthat is the meaning of Wall Streets program.
The following conclusion flows from the objective situation: U.S. imperialism which proved incapable of recovering from its crisis and stabilizing itself in the ten-year period preceding the outbreak of the Second World War is heading for an even more catastrophic explosion in the current postwar era. The cardinal factor which will light the fuse is this: The home market, after an initial and artificial revival, must contract. It cannot expand as it did in the twenties. What is really in store is not unbounded prosperity but a short-lived boom. In the wake of the boom must come another crisis and depression which will make 1929-32 conditions look prosperous by comparison.
The impending economic paroxysms must, under the existing conditions, pass inexorably into the social and political crisis of American capitalism, posing in its course point-blank the question of who shall be the master in the land. In their mad drive to conquer and enslave the entire world, the American monopolists are today preparing war against the Soviet Union. This war program, which may be brought to a head by a crisis or the fear of a crisis at home, will meet with incurable obstacles and difficulties. A war will not solve the internal difficulties of American imperialism but will rather sharpen and complicate them. Such a war will be met with fierce resistance not only by the peoples of the USSR, but also by the European and colonial masses who do not want to be the slaves of Wall Street. At home the fiercest resistance will be generated. Wall Streets war drive, aggravating the social crisis, may under certain conditions actually precipitate it. In any case, another war will not cancel out the socialist alternative to capitalism but only pose it more sharply.
The workers struggle for power in the U.S. is not a perspective of a distant and hazy future but the realistic program of our epoch.
The revolutionary movement of the American workers is an organic part of the world revolutionary process. The revolutionary upheavals of the European proletariat which lie ahead will complement, reinforce, and accelerate the revolutionary developments in the U.S. The liberationist struggles of the colonial peoples against imperialism which are unfolding before our eyes will exert a similar influence. Conversely, each blow dealt by the American proletariat to the imperialists at home will stimulate, supplement, and intensify the revolutionary struggles in Europe and the colonies. Every reversal suffered by imperialism anywhere will in turn produce ever-greater repercussions in this country, generating such speed and power as will tend to reduce all time intervals both at home and abroad.
The role of America in the world is decisive. Should the European and colonial revolutions, now on the order of the day, precede in point of time the culmination of the struggle in the U.S., they would immediately be confronted with the necessity of defending their conquests against the economic and military assaults of the American imperialist monster. The ability of the victorious insurgent peoples everywhere to maintain themselves would depend to a high degree on the strength and fighting capacity of the revolutionary labor movement in America. The American workers would then be obliged to come to their aid, just as the Western European working class came to the aid of the Russian revolution and saved it by blocking full-scale imperialist military assaults upon the young workers republic.
But even should the revolution in Europe and other parts of the world be once again retarded, it will by no means signify a prolonged stabilization of the world capitalist system. The issue of socialism or capitalism will not be finally decided until it is decided in the U.S. Another retardation of the proletarian revolution in one country or another, or even one continent or another, will not save American imperialism from its proletarian nemesis at home. The decisive battles for the communist future of mankind will be fought in the U.S.
The revolutionary victory of the workers in the U.S. will seal the doom of the senile bourgeois regimes in every part of our planet, and of the Stalinist bureaucracy, if it still exists at the time. The Russian revolution raised the workers and colonial peoples to their feet. The American revolution with its hundred-fold greater power will set in motion revolutionary forces that will change the face of our planet. The whole Western Hemisphere will quickly be consolidated into the Socialist United States of North, Central, and South America. This invincible power, merging with the revolutionary movements in all parts of the world, will put an end to the outlived capitalist system as a whole, and begin the grandiose task of world reconstruction under the banner of the Socialist United States of the World.
Whereas the main problem of the workers in the Russian revolution was to maintain their power once they had gained it, the problem in the United States is almost exclusively the problem of the conquest of power by the workers. The conquest of power in the United States will be more difficult than it was in backward Russia, but precisely for that reason it will be much easier to consolidate and secure.
The dangers of internal counterrevolution, foreign intervention, imperialist blockade, and bureaucratic degeneration of a privileged labor castein Russia all of these dangers stemmed from the numerical weakness of the proletariat, the age-long poverty and backwardness inherited from tsarism, and the isolation of the Russian revolution. These dangers were in the final analysis unavoidable there.
These dangers scarcely exist in the U.S. Thanks to the overwhelming numerical superiority and social weight of the proletariat, its high cultural level and potential; thanks to the countrys vast resources, its productive capacity, and preponderant strength on the world arena, the victorious proletarian revolution in the U.S., once it has consolidated its power, will be almost automatically secured against capitalist restoration either by internal counterrevolution or by foreign intervention and imperialist blockade.
As for the danger of bureaucratic degeneration after the revolutionary victorythis can only arise from privileges which are in turn based on backwardness, poverty, and universal scarcities. Such a danger could have no material foundation within the U.S. Here the triumphant workers and farmers government would from the very beginning be able to organize socialist production on far higher levels than under capitalism, and virtually overnight assure such a high standard of living for the masses as would strip privileges in the material sense of any serious meaning whatever. Mawkish speculations concerning the danger of bureaucratic degeneration after the victorious revolution serve no purpose except to introduce skepticism and pessimism into the ranks of the workers vanguard, and paralyze their will to struggle, while providing fainthearts and snivelers with a convenient pretext for running away from the struggle. The problem in the U.S. is almost exclusively the problem of the workers conquest of political power.
In the coming struggle for power the main advantages will be on the side of the workers; with adequate mobilization of their forces and proper direction, the workers will win. If one wishes to deal with stern realities and not with superficial appearances, that is the only way to pose the question. The American capitalist class is strong but the working class is stronger.
The numerical strength and social weight of the American working class, greatly increased by the war, is overwhelming in the countrys life. Nothing can stand up against it. The productivity of American labor, likewise greatly increased in wartime, is the highest in the world. This means skill, and skill means power.
The American workers are accustomed to the highest living and working standards. The widely held view that high wages are a conservatizing factor tending to make workers immune to revolutionary ideas and actions is one-sided and false. This holds true only under conditions of capitalist stability where the relatively high standard of living can be maintained and even improved. This is excluded for the future, as our whole analysis has shown. On the other hand, the workers react most sensitively and violently to any infringement upon their living standards. This has already been demonstrated by the strike waves in which great masses of conservative workers have resorted to the most militant and radical course of action. In the given situation, therefore, the relatively high living standard of the American workers is a revolutionary and not, as is commonly believed, a conservatizing factor.
The revolutionary potential of the class is further strengthened by their traditional militancy coupled with the ability to react almost spontaneously in defense of their vital interests, and their singular resourcefulness and ingenuity (the sit-down strikes!).
Another highly important factor in raising the revolutionary potential of the American working class is its greatly increased cohesiveness and homogeneitya transformation accomplished in the last quarter of century. Previously, large and decisive sections of the proletariat in the basic industries were recruited by immigration. These foreign-born workers were handicapped and divided by language barriers, treated as social pariahs, and deprived of citizenship and the most elementary civil rights. All these circumstances appeared to be insuperable barriers in the way of their organization and functioning as a united labor force. In the intervening years, however, these foreign-born workers have been assimilated and Americanized. They and their sons today constitute a powerful, militant, and articulate detachment of the organized labor movement.
Much has been said about the backwardness of the American working class as a justification for a pessimistic outlook, the postponement of the socialist revolution to a remote future, and withdrawal from the struggle. This is a very superficial view of the American workers and their prospects.
The decisive instrument of the proletarian revolution is the party of the class conscious vanguard. Failing the leadership of such a party, the most favorable revolutionary situations, which arise from the objective circumstances, cannot be carried through to the final victory of the proletariat and the beginnings of planned reorganization of society on socialist foundations. This was demonstrated most conclusivelyand positivelyin the 1917 Russian revolution. This same principled lesson derives no less irrefutablyeven though negativelyfrom the entire world experience of the epoch of wars, revolutions, and colonial uprisings that began with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
The hopeless contradictions of American capitalism, inextricably tied up with the death agony of world capitalism, are bound to lead to a social crisis of such catastrophic proportions as will place the proletarian revolution on the order of the day. In this crisis, it is realistic to expect that the American workers, who attained trade union consciousness and organization within a single decade, will pass through another great transformation in their mentality, attaining political consciousness and organization. If in the course of this dynamic development a mass labor party based on the trade unions is formed, it will not represent a detour into reformist stagnation and futility, as happened in England and elsewhere in the period of capitalist ascent. From all indications, it will rather represent a preliminary stage in the political radicalization of the American workers, preparing them for the direct leadership of the revolutionary party.
1. From The Struggle for Socialism in the American Century, James P. Cannon, Writings and Speeches, 1945-47,(New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977).
2. In response to the world depression, the British government in 1932 abandoned its previous policy of free trade and adopted tariff barriers against foreign competitors. At a conference at Ottawa, Canada, the same year it established the Empire Preference System, which exempted from tariff duties countries of the British Commonwealth.
3. The Lend-Lease Act was passed by Congress in March 1941. It authorized the delivery of immense quantities of war material to Britain (and later to the Soviet Union). Congress and the president rejected the idea of a cash loan because Britain had already defaulted on its payment of debts incurred to American creditors from World War I. The British government opposed an outright gift as an affront to its pride. This led to the fictitious formula that the munitions and equipment shipped by the U.S. government were being leased by the British and would be returned or paid for at the end of the war.
4. The term Sixty Families was popularized in the book Americas Sixty Families (1937) by Fedinand Lundberg. In this work Lundberg showed that the basic core of the American ruling class consisted of sixty immensely wealthy families, the most famous of which are the Morgans, Rockefellers, and Du Ponts.