Lecture eight: The 1920s—the road to depression and fascism

Part 1

By Nick Beams
5 October 2005


The following is the first part of the lecture “The 1920s—the road to depression and fascism.” It was delivered by Nick Beams, the national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party of Australia and a member of the WSWS Editorial Board, at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The lecture will be presented in five parts.

This is the eighth lecture given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century” was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1. The second, “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century,” was posted in three parts on September 2, 4 and 5. The third, “The origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done?” was posted in seven parts from September 6 to September 13. The fourth, “Marxism, history and the science of perspective,” was posted in six parts from September 14 to September 20. These lectures were authored by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North.

The fifth lecture, “World War I: The breakdown of capitalism,” was delivered by Nick Beams, the national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party of Australia and a member of the WSWS Editorial Board. It was posted in five parts, from September 21 to September 26. The sixth, “Socialism in one country or permanent revolution” was delivered by Bill Van Auken and posted in three parts, from September 27 to September 29. The seventh, “Marxism, art and the Soviet debate over ‘proletarian culture,’ ” was given by David Walsh, the arts editor of the World Socialist Web Site, and posted in four parts from September 30 to October 4. The ninth, “The rise of fascism in Germany and the collapse of the Communist International,” was delivered by Peter Schwarz, the secretary of the International Committee of the Fourth International and a member of the WSWS Editorial Board, and posted in three parts from October 11-13.

The aftermath of World War I: Revolutionary conditions in Europe

At the conclusion of the lecture on World War I, we examined some of the propositions advanced by Professor Neil Harding. The most significant charge he brings against Lenin, and Marxism as a whole, is that there is not, and cannot be, a “science of revolution,” and therefore “the search for definitive guidance with regard to the ‘objective’ limits of action, particularly and especially in periods of revolutionary trauma [is] doomed to failure.” [1] If this charge is true, then one would have to acknowledge the failure of Marxism, which, as Lenin insisted, is, above all, a guide to action.

Harding bases himself on remarks by Engels in his preface to Marx’s work The Class Struggles in France. Engels noted that in any given political situation it was not possible to have full knowledge of the underlying economic processes and changes. “It is self-evident that this unavoidable neglect of contemporaneous changes in the economic situation, the very basis of all the processes to be examined, must be a source of error. But all the conditions of a comprehensive presentation of current history unavoidably include sources of error—which, however, keeps nobody from writing current history.”

This applies even more to revolution. In Harding’s view, Marxism becomes, on this basis, irresponsible, one could say criminal, because it exhorts masses of people to “lay their lives on the line in a civil war” without being aware of changes in the underlying economic situation that must be the source of error. While Engels noted that the problems he identified did not prevent anyone from writing current history, it is a vastly different matter, according to Harding, when it comes to making it by carrying out a revolution.

“Precisely the same strictures,” he continues, “can be levelled against Lenin’s theory of imperialism (the economic constant of his whole analysis), and his derivative theory of the state.” [2]

That is, the central argument against the theory of imperialism, which formed the theoretical foundation for the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, is that it could not provide a definitive answer as to the fate of world capitalism.

“Lenin urged his followers on with the certainty of an ideologue, and, consequently, he had to ignore the methodological uncertainties that lay at the very heart of his analysis. This does not mean that Lenin violated the logic of Marxism in inspiring and leading the October Revolution. It merely means that Marxism could never supply in advance a specification of the necessary and sufficient conditions for a successful socialist revolution. Marxist revolutionary action could only be based upon a series of more or less well-informed predictions or inferences from a more or less accurate analysis of a temporally distant socio-economic structure. Its ‘justification,’ therefore, always lies after, rather than before, the event. It is justified if, and only if its predictions turn out to be accurate. That, precisely, was the burden of difference between making history and merely writing it. In the event, none of the principal predictions, upon which the whole Russian revolutionary venture was premised, in fact materialised. The country was forced in upon its own ruined resources and low cultural level. In these circumstances the regime, as even Lenin was prepared to admit, was bound to degenerate. But what was never conceded was Lenin’s (and the Bolsheviks’) huge responsibility for inaugurating a venture of total transformation that turned to cataclysm when the predictions upon which it was based proved to be false. Men can, no doubt, be inspired by ideas to heroic and self-denying action but, by a similar token, those same ideas can inspire actions that, inadvertently perhaps, lead on to barbarism. Ideologies, are, in this sense, never innocent; they always wear upon themselves the mark of Cain.” [3]

In other words, the Russian Revolution was a “leap in the dark,” a gigantic gamble, a criminal venture, whose failure brought tragic consequences. The ultimate responsibility for Stalinism lies with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, for, while they may have opposed Stalin and the bureaucratic apparatus that he headed as it emerged, they launched the revolution in a situation where, as events were to show, the conditions did not exist for it to spread. They launched a revolutionary struggle in conditions where they could not know what the outcome would be, and are therefore responsible for everything that followed.

The obvious conclusion is not just that the Russian Revolution was wrong, but that the road of revolution must never be taken again because it is impossible to know the outcome, because it cannot be determined with absolute certainty whether the economic conditions have sufficiently matured.

The fundamental theoretical analysis that underlay the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power was, as Lenin put it, that the chain of imperialism had snapped at its weakest link. It was not just the link that broke, but the whole chain—that is, Russia was only the most advanced expression of the developing revolutionary situation across Europe as a whole.

That analysis was not Lenin’s alone. It was shared to a greater or lesser degree by the leaders of European imperialism and the US president, Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson’s famous 14 Points, issued in January 1918, was a direct response to the Russian Revolution, and, in particular the Bolsheviks’ call for the negotiations with the German High Command at Brest-Litovsk to become the basis for a general peace agreement. Responding to an appeal issued by Trotsky calling on the peoples of Europe to force the convening of a general peace conference, US Secretary of State Robert Lansing advised that the appeal should be ignored.

Attacking the “fundamental errors” of the appeal, in a memo to Wilson, he warned that the Bolsheviks were appealing “to a class and not to all classes of society, a class which does not have property but hopes to obtain a share by process of government rather than by individual enterprise.” In a graphic display of the notions of biological superiority that were so widespread in the ruling elites, Lansing denounced the document as “an appeal to the ignorant and mentally deficient, who by their numbers are urged to become masters. Here seems to me to lies a very real danger in view of the present social unrest.”

The danger of the appeal, he wrote, was that “it may well appeal to the average man, who will not perceive the fundamental errors.” In addition to their attacks on property, the Bolsheviks were undermining nationalism by advancing “doctrines which make class superior to the general concept of nationality.... Such a theory would be utterly destructive of the political fabric of society and would result in constant turmoil and change. It simply cannot be done if social order and government stability are to be maintained.” [4]

Wilson, however, knew that the Bolsheviks’ appeal could not be ignored. The political situation was growing more dangerous for all the Allied governments as mass discontent deepened. His concerns were elaborated in a discussion with the retiring British ambassador on January 3.

According to a report of the meeting: “He himself [the president] with the full consent of the American people and with their express approval has made an appeal to the German people behind the back of the German Government. The Bolsheviki in Russia were now adopting the same policy. They had issued an appeal to all the nations of the world, to the peoples and not to the governments. He was without information at present, or at least without certain information, as to what reception had been given to this appeal. But there was evidence at hand that certainly in Italy and probably also in England and France the appeal had not been without its effect. In the United States active agitation was proceeding. It was too early yet to say with positive certainty how successful this agitation had been. But it was evident that if the appeal of the Bolsheviki was allowed to remain unanswered, if nothing were done to counteract it, the effect would be great and would increase.... ” [5]

Already, before the outbreak of the war, class tensions had been on the rise amid warnings in all the major European capitals of an approaching pre-revolutionary situation. In Austria, official circles had concluded that the only alternative to civil war was a general European conflict. In Russia, the strike wave that developed in 1913 and 1914 was even bigger than that which accompanied the 1905 revolution. In Germany, especially after the victory of the Social Democratic Party in the 1912 elections, there had been speculation and discussion within ruling circles over whether an external conflict could be used to release the tensions building up. Prince von Bulow wrote in his memoirs: “At the end of 1912 I heard from Dusseldorf that Kirdorf, one of the biggest Rhenish industrialists...had declared that if this goes on another three years Germany will have landed in war or revolution.”

In Italy, the months preceding the outbreak of the war were marked by riots and strikes on a wide scale and local republics were set up in many towns. The red flag was hoisted over the town hall of Bologna. In France, there was a growing militancy in the working class, with 1,073 strikes involving a quarter of a million workers taking place in 1913 and including postal and telegraph workers previously considered loyal to the state. Strikes by agricultural workers often led to riots and the burning of owners’ houses.

In Britain, the immediate pre-war period was one of growing violence in which, according to the writer George Dangerfield’s account, “fires long smouldering in the English spirit suddenly flared, so that by the end of 1913, Liberal England was reduced to ashes.” The long-time Labour politician Emanuel Shinwell recorded in his memoirs: “The discontent of the masses spread, the expression of millions of ordinary people who had gained little or nothing from the Victorian age of industrial expansion and grandiose imperialism.”

According to the diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson, the growing industrial upheavals, marked by the unfolding of a “revolutionary spirit,” combined with the crisis over Irish home rule, had brought the country “to the brink of civil war.” In a conference held in Buckingham Palace in July 1914, George V warned: “That cry of civil war is on the lips of the most responsible and sober-minded of my people.” The historian Halevy has described the industrial unrest as “verging at times on anarchy,” concluding that it was a “revolt not only against the authority of capital but against the discipline of trade unions.”

Now the threat that had been haunting the European ruling classes—that the so-called “social question” would one day give rise to revolution—had been realised in the form of the Russian Revolution. On November 4, 1918, Beatrice Webb, one of the leading Fabian socialists and a strident advocate of parliamentarianism, recorded in her diary the fears of ruling elites throughout Europe: “Are we to be confronted with another Russia in Austria, possibly even in Germany—a Continent in rampant revolution?” [6]

When the Allies convened in Paris to draw up a treaty to present to Germany, the Soviet government was not invited. But throughout the months of complex negotiations, as the Allies attempted to resolve their conflicts, the revolution was ever present. “Communist Russia,” wrote Herbert Hoover, at that time in charge of American distribution of food supplies in Europe, “was a spectre which wandered into the Peace Conference almost daily.” [7]

Wilson’s close associate, the journalist Ray Stannard Baker, pointed to the contrast between the Congress of Vienna, which followed the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, and the negotiations at Versailles. “[A]t all times, at every turn in these negotiations, there arose the spectre of chaos, like a black cloud out of the east, threatening to overwhelm and swallow up the world. There was no Russia knocking at the gates of Vienna, apparently, the revolution was securely behind them; at Paris it was always with them.” [8] Few people, he noted, realised how “explosive was the situation throughout Europe during the conference. All the governments were shaky; a little misstep on the part of Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Orlando, and their ministries might have gone down.” [9]

During the Peace Conference, British Prime Minister Lloyd George sent a letter to French President Clemenceau in which he set out his fears: “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but of anger and revolution amongst the workmen against prewar conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.” [10]

The Peace Conference was convened under the banner of Wilson’s 14 Points. The final document, however, breached all of its principles. When a member of the American delegation, William C. Bullitt, announced his resignation in disgust over the peace terms to be presented to Germany, he insisted that Wilson should have made an appeal to the popular masses of Europe, over the heads of their governments. “Colonel” Edward M. House, Wilson’s closest adviser, explained why that was not possible.

There was no doubt, he said, that “if the President should exert his influence among the liberals and labouring classes, he might possibly overthrow the governments” of some of the Allies. But that would have involved a sharp political turn to the left throughout Europe, creating the conditions where “Bolshevism” could strengthen. This was why Wilson had been right not to pull out of the conference. Otherwise, there would have been “revolution in every country in Europe, and...the President was not ready to take this responsibility.” [11]

What these citations point to, as well as events themselves, is the existence of a revolutionary situation across Europe in the aftermath of the war. The fact that this situation did not lead to an actual socialist revolution was due to the role of the social democratic leaders of the working class, above all in Germany. There the leaders of the Social Democratic Party formed a counter-revolutionary alliance with the Army High Command to preserve the German state, while unleashing the Freikorps, the forerunners of the Nazi stormtroopers, to smash the workers’ councils created in the revolutionary upsurge in October-November 1918 and murder the revolutionists, in particular, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

However, notwithstanding the undoubted existence of an objectively revolutionary situation following the war, we are still left with the question of the longer term. Was this revolutionary period merely a passing historical moment, a kind of epiphenomenon of the war, destined to be followed by a restabilisation in which the capitalist class would resume control, or were there deep contradictions within the heart of the capitalist economy that would lead to further eruptions? This question, which concerns all the issues raised by Harding, can be answered only through an examination of the political economy of the post-war period.

To be continued

[1] Leninism (1996), p. 115.
[2] Ibid, p. 111.
[3] Ibid, p. 112.
[4] See Lloyd C. Gardner, Safe for Democracy, p. 161.
[5] See George F. Kennan, Russia Leaves the War (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989) p. 249.
[6] Cited in Arno Mayer, Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), p. 8.
[7] Cited in William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, pp. 113-114.
[8] Mayer, op. cit., p. 10.
[9] Cited in John M. Thompson, Russia, Bolshevism and the Versailles Peace (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1966), p. 14.
[10] Cited in E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 3, pp. 135-136.
[11] Mayer, op. cit., pp. 800-801.