Hal Draper


The “Inevitability of Socialism”

The Meaning of a Much Abused Formula

(December 1947)

From New International, Vol.13 No.9, December 1947, pp.269-279.
Reprinted in International Socialism (1st series), No.15, Winter 1963/64 (slightly abridged).
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Anoma Cartwright (July 2008).

The meaning of the formula, “the inevitability of socialism,” is not a new question, but there has arisen an attempt to give it a new importance and a new emphasis as well as a distorted meaning.

The dust which is being kicked up on the subject comes in the first place from the direction of J.R. Johnson, formerly of the Workers Party, and also from the theoreticians of the Cannonites (Socialist Workers Party). It is first of all a theoretical-philosophical question, a question of scientific Marxism (which does not mean that it has no political implications). But the motivation for its elevation to its present status is an attack upon the Workers Party position that Stalinist Russia is a new exploitive social order which is neither capitalist nor working class, a social order for which we use the label “bureaucratic collectivism.”

Associated with this position (on which we differ from Trotsky’s last-held views) is our use of the warning: “Socialism or barbarism – these are the alternatives before humanity in our epoch,” in the use of which we are at one with Trotsky. The combination of the two, however, apparently arouses in the aforementioned comrades a violent reaction. This takes the form of heatedly denouncing as un-Marxist any suggestion that capitalism can be possibly followed by a society other than socialism; crystallizes in a mechanical formulation of inevitability; and accuses us of “abandoning Marxism” in posing the existence of historical alternatives.

When the founts of theoretical ignorance are exhausted along these lines, there not infrequently follows the slanderous insinuation that the Workers Party predicts or expects the worldwide coming to power of bureaucratic collectivism, which naturally entails an abandonment of the socialist perspective and any reason for continuing the socialist struggle. But here we shall consider only the attempt to lay a theoretical base for these slanders. For this we must go back to fundamentals of Marxist theory and dialectical materialism.

We begin where the Cannon-Johnson view tries to grapple with the subject in really “deep” and “scholarly” fashion. It is in any case necessary to start this far back. A Johnson disciple, Dickson Woods (in a recently circulated piece on the subject), offers us a springboard when he states what he believes to be the heart of the scientific question, as follows:

If one poses two or more possible lines of future historical development and sees the equal possibility of the realization of any one of them, he is claiming, in effect, that history is a matter of chance.

We have to analyze (a) the Marxist kernel of thought which this writer had in mind in framing this sentence, and (b) the way he has managed to convert this Marxist thought into nonsense.

Principle of Determinism

The Marxist “kernel” is the Marxist view of determinism and causality. This may be briefly stated in the following propositions:

(1) Marxism is materialist in philosophy. The world of matter and energy is an objective reality which does not depend for its existence upon the prior existence and activity of any mind or supernatural force. On the contrary, mind – thinking, ideas, mental phenomena in general – are derivative. They exist, to be sure, and are not illusion; but they exist only as products of a special organization of matter – namely, a material brain.

(2) This world of nature, of which man and his works are a part, is governed by natural laws. This is the actual assumption upon which science works and which alone makes science possible, even if the scientist addresses prayers to a god on Sundays or professes to think otherwise when he leaves his laboratory and writes an article on philosophy. There is no “consciousness” or “purpose” or “will” behind nature’s constant change and motion, even when this natural change is seen to be proceeding not helter-skelter but in a definite direction, in accordance with natural law.

(3) To say that natural laws exist is the same thing as saying that: every event that takes place is the product of a given cause or combination of causes. The Marxist view of causality has another and equally essential proposition: the same concatenation of causes will ever produce the same effect. Certain scientist-would-be-philosophers have put forward the fantasy that, when hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water, we are witnessing not an inevitable coupling of cause and effect, but merely a highly probable succession of two events which have no inherent connection. Presumably, it is possible that some day some one may put hydrogen and oxygen together and get a highball instead, or nothing at all. However, if something like this were actually to happen, no scientist would rest until he had discovered what change in the conditions had brought about the different effect – i.e., what change there was in the concatenation of causes. Marxist materialism rejects such an idealist version of causality and insists upon the strict determination of given events by determinate causes.

Chance and Accident

(4) There is thus left no room at all for what is called “chance determination,” or “accident” as opposed to causation. It will be necessary to explain what chance and accident do mean; but they do not mean that at one or another time or in connection with even one event out of a billion, the principle of causality is “suspended” or inoperative, or that any event is not completely determined by certain prior events.

What then do the words “chance” and “accident” mean to a materialist determinist? They are left with only a relative meaning, but with a meaning nonetheless.

Thus, in the year 480 B.C., the Persian Empire staged an assault upon Athens by sea and land forces which was overwhelming in its numerical superiority. However, several hundred ships of the Persian fleet were destroyed in a storm before they even saw action; and not long after, another number of Persian men-o’-war were destroyed in another storm while trying to outflank the Greek fleet. As a result, the Greek navy was not crushed, though the soldiers of Leonidas perished to the last man at the pass of Thermopylae; and later in the year the Greek fleet was able to administer an almost annihilating blow to the Persian sea forces in the historic battle of the Bay of Salamis. Thus Athens, Greece and Greek civilization were saved – or so the historians tell us!

Now it is easy enough for the Marxist to show that, much as this particular Greek victory was aided or perhaps even decisively won by the “accidental” quirks of Aegean weather, these chance storms cannot be credited with any substantial effect upon the course of history and society, including the “saving” of Greek civilization. But this is not the point. While the Marxist assigns a minor role to such “accidents” in history, and then only in determining the form and tempo of historical events, the question for us here is how we can speak of “accident” at all – major role or minor role – in a world where all events are determined by particular causes. Didn’t the Persians have a run of “hard luck”? But, on the other hand, what is hard luck in a deterministic universe?

This is no difficulty for dialectical materialists. It is obvious firstly that the anti-Persian storms were historical accidents but they were not meteorological accidents. The principle of causality applies to these storms with complete force, but their causes lay in the weather conditions and not in social conditions. When an event whose causes lie in one field (in this case, meteorology) has an effect on events in another field (here, society), it appears as an accident in relation to the latter field ... just as mountains whose tops show through sea-level appear as islands in relation to the ocean while they remain mountains in relation to the solid crust of the earth. Our storms, then, were not “accidents,” but they were historical accidents.

We saw above that a strict determinist denies the existence of chance and accident as the objective determinant of events; we now see that he recognizes chance and accident as an existing relationship from a human-subjective point of view. His yes or no depends on which question is being asked.

We should mention another relationship to which the name “chance” is commonly and usefully given, even when it is a “rigid” determinist that is talking. The classic example of chance is the throw of the dice. But the physical forces which cause a seven to turn up rather “than a two are far from mysterious or indeterminate. What introduces the element of “chance” into crap-shooting are two facts: (1) we probably do not know all of the causal factors involved, though they are far from unknowable; and (2) whether we know or do not know them, the player is unable to control the causal forces. In fact, efforts to control them are frowned upon in the game.

But these two considerations – human knowledge and control of events – are quite irrelevant to the question whether immutable cause-and-effect (strict determinism) is operating. On the objective plane of natural law, there is no “chance” operating in a dice game; from the human-subjective point of “view, we can and do speak of chance. Thus again, our yes or no depends on the nature of the question being asked. We emphasize this because we shall meet with this situation again.

Objective Aspect of Determinism

(5) The point of view of Marxism is, therefore, strict determinism. We can now give the determinist viewpoint an especially sharp and uncompromising formulation. If we look at the world objectively (not from the human-subjective angle explained), then we must be willing to conclude that:

  1. Every event is the inevitable result of all preceding events. Given all preceding events, it could not have happened otherwise. And this inescapably produces the corollary that –
  2. With regard to any future event posed, there are only two alternatives. That event is either inevitable or impossible. All the events which have already taken place determine those which will take place, with the relation of cause to effect. And if, as we have said, a given constellation of causes can produce only a certain determinate effect, then the italicized statement is unavoidable. It is not a question of the simple alternatives: “The event either will take place or it will not take place.” The italicized statement means: “The event either must take place or it cannot take place” – inevitable or impossible. There is nothing “in-between” on the objective plane of the world of natural law which we have been discussing.

If this statement, however, seems too sweeping or exaggerated to any reader who thinks he otherwise accepts fully the principle of determinism, the impression is undoubtedly due to a misunderstanding which it will be the business of this section to clear up presently. For one thing, it may appear as if we have already settled the question of the inevitability of socialism, at least for socialists. If any future event is either inevitable or impossible – whether it be rain tomorrow, a third world war, the next throw of the dice, or the election of Dewey to the presidency – then certainly this is also true of socialism. It would then appear that he who denies the inevitability of socialism is either (a) affirming the impossibility of socialism, or (b) rejecting the principle of determinism; that is, in Woods’ words, “claiming in effect that history is a matter of chance.”

That such at least is the Woods-Johnson mechanical train of thought is obvious from the former’s document.

For he obviously is under the impression that the propositions on determinism which we have laid down condemn anyone who “poses two or more possible lines of future historical development and sees the equal possibility of the realization of any one of them.” After all, if any future event is either inevitable or impossible, how can one speak of “equal possibility”? More to the point, how can one speak at all of any “possibility” or “probability” since all is determined?

Relativity of Human Knowledge

So we must return to the method we used in analyzing the meaning of chance and accident. What we will find here again is that our mechanist is overlooking the relativity of human knowledge and truth. It is characteristic of such mechanical-materialist vulgarizers of Marxism that they amiably enfold dialectical materialism in a crushing and lethal embrace.

We remind ourselves that we have said: Any future event posed is either inevitable or impossible; there is nothing “in-between” on the objective plane, of the world of natural law. To make clear the import of this statement and in particular of the second part of it, let us take an example from the same field that was involved in our case of accident in history: the weather and meteorology. We return to their field precisely because there is hardly another science which so frequently uses the words “possible,” “probable,” “likely,” “maybe,” and similar expressions in-between inevitability and impossibility.

The weather report for tomorrow reads “Probably rain.” Apparently, according to this, rain tomorrow is neither inevitable nor impossible. Yet we would agree that the weather is the result of the operation, or interaction, of many physical and chemical forces, all of which are as determined, caused and obedient to natural law as our earlier case of the union of hydrogen and oxygen in a test-tube. Given all the events which have already taken place, rain tomorrow or no rain

tomorrow is already in the cards – determined – inevitable.

But the weather bureau does not know all the events which have already taken place.

We say: “given all the events.” Should we rather say: “given all the meteorological events,” or “all the events having to do with the weather”? This would not change the matter, since the weather bureau does not know these either. But as a matter of strict accuracy, the qualification would be wrong. Just as the weather can affect social history, so other fields can affect the weather – always then appearing, we remember, as “meteorological accidents.” Thus, an aviator sowing dry ice in the clouds must also be taken into account if one aims at inevitability – and social history affects the weather. Sunspots and other astronomical events take us onto a broader field; volcanoes have affected even worldwide weather (Krakatoa) and take us to geology, which itself has biology among its causal substrata; etc., etc. We merely insist that when the sweeping concept of inevitability is involved, only formulations concerning all preceding events are acceptable.

At any rate, the weather bureau does not know enough. In order to make an “inevitable” prediction, it would have to know not only all preceding events but all the relations between them, especially all the relations which we call scientific laws.

Let us imagine that Woods – who objects in the name of dialectical materialism to posing historical possibilities because history is not a matter of chance – is the Marxist head of the weather bureau and tells us:

A. – Rain tomorrow is either inevitable or impossible.

Q. – Like everything else?

A. – Without exception.

Q. – Good, I see you are a Marxist. But what I want to know is, Will it rain?

A. – I think it will.

Q. – That means you think it is inevitable?

A. – Well, rain is certainly possible. In fact, I think it’s probable.

Q. – Then that means you think rain is probably inevitable ...?

A. – Well, the probability of its being inevitable is greater than the possibility of its being impossible ...

Q. – Uh-huh. And what’s the forecast on the temperature – warmer or cooler?

A. – I don’t know.

Q. – You mean either is possible?

A. – I mean I’m not sure which is inevitable.

Q. – As far as you know, a higher temperature is as likely to be inevitable as a lower temperature is to be impossible?

A. – Something like that.

Q. – Then there is an equal possibility of one or the other?

A. – NO, NO, NO! For that would mean that the weather is a matter of chance!

Even under complete communism, when dialectical materialism will already be the dominant philosophy, the above will still be a bedlam-piece. The citizen of even the third generation after the revolution will not have any difficulty in reconciling the equal possibility of “warmer” or “cooler” with a deterministic view of the weather.

The Meaning of Possibility

What has happened is that two questions have been confused. They are, in terms of our running example: (1) Is tomorrow’s weather already determined by the operation of natural law? (2) What do we know about the determination? Granted that the indicated outcome is either inevitable or impossible, how shall we formulate our state of knowledge as to which is true?

It is in answer to the second of these questions that the words “probable,” “possible,” “equally possible,” etc., take on a meaning for the determinist, indeed for the “rigid” determinist. These words are measures of human knowledge and ignorance in the face of the ramifying complexity of the causal chain leading up to the simplest event.

When we affirm the proposition that any future event is objectively either inevitable or impossible, we are answering a very important question about the nature of the universe. But when we are called upon to answer a question about a specific future event, all we can do is to manifest our state of knowledge, the limitations of human capacity and the relativity of human truth, in language that runs up and down the spectrum of probability. [1]

When the Marxist poses alternatives for future historical development – even “equally possible” alternatives-he is considering the weight of evidence leading to one conclusion or the other, and not at all impugning his deterministic convictions. Dispute is possible on the degree of certainty permitted by the evidence; but it is not the principle of determinism which can settle that question.

“Socialism or Barbarism”

Thus, the Fourth International since its foundation has presented the great alternatives of our epoch as: socialism or barbarism.

Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period, at that – a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind ...

The capitalist world is mortally wounded. In its agony it exhales the poisons of fascism and totalitarian war, which threatens to subject the workers and farmers everywhere once more to a new and horrible servitude, and to unleash the forces of destruction which will shatter modern civilization ...

Humanity can be saved from the new barbarism that menaces it only under the leadership of the revolutionary working class ... (The Founding Conference of the Fourth International, pp.16, 66-57, 58.)

And much more to the same effect. Our mechanistic dogmatists – such as the SWP’s theoretician Warde, J.R. Johnson or his disciples – cannot make head or tail of this concept. [2] Since it was written into the “books” by Trotsky himself, it is obviously immune from overt attack; but it cannot be fitted into the ritual. The same is true with regard to the Communist Manifesto which poses the alternatives of the class struggle ending “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

And completely bewildering to these muscle-bound Marxists was Trotsky’s bombshell in The USSR In War, where he speaks of “the historical alternative, carried to the end” as either socialism or a totalitarian bureaucratic slave society, “if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed on it by the course of development.” We will discuss presently the impermissibly pessimistic conclusion which he draws from the latter possibility. What is of interest now is that Trotsky freely speaks of historical alternatives and discusses our degree of certainty. In his follow-up article (In Defense of Marxism, p.30-31) Trotsky sharpens the point:

Some comrades evidently were surprised that I spoke in my article (The USSR in the War) of the system of “bureaucratic collectivism” as a theoretical possibility. They discovered in this even a complete revision of Marxism. This is an apparent misunderstanding. The Marxist comprehension of historical necessity has nothing in common with fatalism. Socialism is not realizable “by itself,” but as a result of the struggle of living forces, classes and their parties. The proletariat’s decisive advantage in this struggle resides in the fact that it represents historical progress, while the bourgeoisie incarnates reaction and decline. Precisely in this is the source of our conviction in victory. But we have full right to ask ourselves: What character will society take if the forces of reaction conquer?

Marxists have formulated an incalculable number of times the alternative: either socialism or return to barbarism. After the Italian “experience” we repeated thousands of times: either communism or fascism. The real passage to socialism cannot fail to appear incomparably more complicated, more heterogeneous, more contradictory than was foreseen in the general historical scheme. Marx spoke about the dictatorship of the proletariat and its future withering away but said nothing about bureaucratic degeneration of the dictatorship. We have observed and analyzed for the first time in experience such a degeneration. Is this revision of Marxism?

... what social and political forms can the new “barbarism” take, if we admit theoretically that mankind should not be able to elevate itself to socialism? We have the possibility of expressing ourselves on the subject more concretely than Marx. Fascism on the one hand, degeneration of the Soviet state on the other, outline the social and political forms of a neo-barbarism. An alternative of this kindsocialism or totalitarian servitudehas not only theoretical interest, but also enormous importance in agitation, because in its light the necessity for social revolution appears most graphically. [3]

Note that it is here not a question of an “equal possibility,” which is a term dragged in neither by Trotsky nor the Workers Party. It is a question simply of the existence of historic alternatives. That is why Trotsky in this passage, and we, emphasize: only in the light of these historic alternatives does the struggle for social revolution take on a meaning – and “most graphically” so when the alternative to socialist victory is the slave state already outlined by the decomposition of modern society.

It is our conviction that the socialist revolution will triumph. There is no question of “equal possibility.” But this conviction is based on an examination of evidence – in the first place, upon our Marxist analysis of the social forces at work, the truth of which, like all human truth, is tested and confirmed only in practice (in struggle). It is not a conviction deduced from a priori reasoning concerning determinism, though fully founded on the deterministic principle.

Fatalist View of Inevitability

We can now characterize the nature of the Johnson formulation on the inevitability of socialism.

It is fatalism, a species of immanent predestination or preordination. It has nothing in common with Marxism and dialectical materialism. Pushed to its logical end (which, to be sure, is too much to expect from its sponsors) its roots are dearly visible in idealism, as is necessarily true of all varieties of fatalism. It may be objected that I have up to now been characterizing it as “mechanical materialism.” This is a well-known phenomenon in the Marxist analysis of philosophy and, far from being disconcerting, should have been expected. Mechanical materialism regularly tends to turn into its opposite, idealism – this is the philosophic analogue of the tendency of sectarianism to turn into its opposite, opportunism, on the political field.

Dialectical materialists reject this fatalist view of the “inevitability of socialism” formula. Its political meaning will be discussed later.

Trotsky’s Formulation

Before we turn to examine what the “inevitability of socialism” does mean, there is still another interpretation we must note. If anything it is the opposite of the Johnson concept; at least it topples over in an opposite direction.

Trotsky, for one, put it forward in passing in 1921 (The First Five Years of the Comintern, p.299) in a very interesting passage:

... all the efforts of the bourgeoisie, all the energies expended by it in maintaining class equilibrium, manifest themselves invariably at the expense of the economic soil on which the bourgeoisie rests, at the expense of its economic base. The bourgeoisie and the working class are thus located on a soil which renders our victory inescapable – not in the astronomical sense, of course, not inescapable like the setting and rising of the sun, but inescapable in the historic sense, in the sense that unless we gam victory all society and all human culture is doomed.

And the passage continues in a way which underlines the difference between this “astronomical sense” and this “historic sense”:

History teaches us this. It was thus that the ancient Roman civilization perished. The class of slave-owners proved incapable of leading toward further development ... There was no other class to supersede it and the ancient civilization perished. We observe analogous occurrences in modern history too ... As warriors of revolution, we are convinced – and the objective facts corroborate us – that we as the working class, that we as the Communist International, will not only save our civilization, the centuries-old product of hundreds of generations, but will raise it to much higher levels of development. However, from the standpoint of pure theory, the possibility is not excluded that the bourgeoisie, armed with its state apparatus and its entire accumulated experience, may continue fighting the revolution until it has drained modern civilization of every atom of its vitality, until it has plunged modern mankind into a state of collapse and decay for a long time to come.

The month before, Trotsky had expressed a similar thought (p.293):

With the aid of these [state] organs, which in relation to the economic foundation represent a “superstructure,” the ruling class may perpetuate itself in power for years and decades after it has become a direct brake upon the social development. If such a situation endures too long, an outlived ruling class can drag down with it those countries and peoples over whom it rules.

Hence arises the necessity of revolution.

We shall comment later on the last sentence of this passage. Right now we are mainly concerned with Trotsky’s formulation: “inescapable in the historic sense, in the sense that unless we gain victory all society and all human culture is doomed.”

“Inevitable Alternatives”

This would seem to be a very peculiar explanation of the term inevitable (inescapable). First of all, Trotsky makes a distinction between historic inevitability and “astronomical” inevitability (astronomy being merely a representative of so-called exact science). He cannot be making a distinction between the validity of the principle of determinism in one or the other field. He is recognizing the difference between our ability to establish inevitability in one or the other field. In the field of history, Trotsky defines inevitability as the inescapability of one or the other of a limited number of alternatives – that is, he merely establishes the existence of inevitable alternatives.

To be sure, it is legitimate to do so. In fact, in common parlance the word “inevitable” is often enough used in such context: “Unless he makes some terrible blunder, his election is inevitable,” “If reinforcements do not arrive, the army is doomed to defeat,” “As long as capitalism exists, war is inevitable,” etc. But the existence of inevitable alternatives, or our ability to establish their existence, is not itself a distinction in kind between history and astronomy or the “exact” sciences.

To take Trotsky’s astronomical example, the setting or rising of the sun is inevitable – unless the sun becomes a nova and converts the earth into a wisp of burnt ash (an event which might have a bearing upon the inevitability of socialism also); and since no astronomer can assure us that this cannot happen the day after tomorrow, it would seem that here too we have only alternatives from our human-subjective point of view. There are differences between the two cases but they are not such as to make Trotsky’s formulation adequate.

For if Trotsky is saying that socialism is inevitable unless barbarism wins out, then it would be equally true to say that barbarism is inevitable unless socialism wins out. A glass of water which is half full is the same as a glass of water which is half empty. We have therefore succeeded in establishing (following Trotsky’s formulation) the inevitability of both socialism and barbarism, which is disconcerting since it “proves” too much and not enough. Or rather, to put the matter less paradoxically, all that Trotsky has really asserted here is the inevitability of the disjunction “socialism or barbarism,” and not at all the inevitability of socialism, which is in effect abandoned.

This is in fact the approach which Professor Sidney Hook chose to take to the question in his book Toward the Understanding of Karl Marx, written while he still considered himself a Marxist. Hook wrote:

We are now in a position, to understand what Marx really means when he speaks of the historic inevitability of communism. Communism is not something fated to be realized in the nature of things; but if society is to survive, communism offers the only way out of the impasse created by the inability of capitalism, despite its superabundance of wealth, to provide a decent social existence for its own wage-earners. What Marx is really saying is: either this (communism) or nothing (barbarism). That is why communists feel, justified in claiming that their doctrines express both the subjective class interests of the proletariat and the objective interests of civilization. The objectivity of Marxism is derived from the truth of the disjunction; the subjectivity from the fact that this is chosen rather than nothing. Normally a recognition of the truth of the disjunction carries with it a commitment to communism. But the connection is not a necessary one any more than the knowledge that milk is a wholesome drink makes one a milk drinker ... It is only when one accepts the first term of the disjunction – which is a psychological, and, if you please, an ethical act – that he has a right to the name [of Marxist]. (Page 113-114. Emphasis in original.)

The reader will note that the conclusion to which Hook directly drives Trotsky’s formulation is that the acceptance of socialism is a moral choice. This is one of the observations which tends to drive the epigones into a frenzy. Indeed it is a conclusion drawn not from Trotsky’s inadequate interpretation of the meaning of the “inevitability” formula, but from his assertion of the existence of historic alternatives. And if it is taken in the context which Hook here gives it (not that given by the Hook of today) the conclusion is unobjectionable. [4]

With all this behind, we can now turn to a positive analysis of the meaning of the formula “the inevitability of socialism.” Even so some ground still has to be cleared.

Inevitability and Certainty

The concept of “inevitability” is closely bound up semantically with that of “certainty.” Now just as we saw there was both an objective and a human-subjective moment (aspect) to the first question, so is it also with “certainty.” Thus consider the statements: (1) “It is certain to fail.” (2) “I am certain it will fail.”

These two statements may carry different implications. The first has the connotation that the proposition is objectively provable; the second, the connotation “I am (morally) convinced of this but cannot prove it,” as in the case where the disputant, fresh out of argument, stamps a foot and says, “But I’m certain I’m right!”

Thus the words “inevitable” and “certain” may tend to fuse their objective and human-subjective moments – if you wish, to confuse them. There is thus a tendency for the word “inevitable” to be used in contexts which give it the connotation neither of a predetermined fate nor of an assigned degree of probability; but rather merely the connotation of asserting high confidence and conviction.

In Marxist literature we meet this element especially in agitational passages or perorations. We might call it the hortatory use of the word. It is interesting that the Communist Manifesto’s first part begins with the historical analysis of the alternatives of “revolutionary re-constitution or common ruin” but that it ends in a brilliant peroration climaxed by: “Its [the bourgeoisie’s] fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” The logical purist might object that the expression “equally inevitable” makes as much sense as “equally dead,” but he would be making the mistake of believing that Marx and Engels are here trying to write with philosophic rigor.

The fact is that it is practically impossible to use language without leaving much unexpressed and “understood.” Thus – to use an example I did not have the felicity to invent – if a young man phones his girl and asks, “Is anyone home right now?” and she says, “No,” and he says, “Then I’ll be right over,” it is easy to point out that the question is nonsense and the answer is wrong, since the young man knew all the time that there was someone home, namely the girl he was talking to. This is a particular kind of example because the reaction may be, “Well, that’s a piddling quibble,” by which it is conveyed that there is little possibility of a misunderstanding arising in this case from the elliptical nature of the question and response.

In so far as one attempts to avoid ellipsis, one gets the (perhaps justifiedly) cumbersome jargon of philosophical treatises. On the other hand, as soon as a question is raised, the “understood” is obviously riot understood and has to be made explicit.

Limitations of Marxist Formulas

This is what we now have to do with the formula “the inevitability of socialism.” Because all formulas are by their very nature elliptical.

A formula is an attempt to reduce a more or less extensive group of facts to a shorter generalization. But a generalization can never be completely equivalent to the facts which it generalizes. Its value lies in that it can usually be substituted and that it usually works in such substitution; but the process of generalization requires that one leave out part of the data. All generalizations, all formulas, can have only relative validity. The old saw, “All generalizations are false, including this one” has its counterpart in “All Marxist formulas are wrong, including this one.”

Any formula is an attempt to tie up reality in a bundle and put a label on it. The infinite complexity of reality does not lend itself to this. This is the dilemma of the natural scientist no less than of the social scientist: both: have to dissect a living organism in order to study it. As soon as you dissect it, you are no longer studying a living organism. Yet it has to be done. The scientist must understand that much or most of the time he is studying phenomena abstracted out of context, and that necessary as this step is, it is not the end of his investigation but the beginning of a dialectical understanding of the phenomena in their dynamic interrelations. Formulas are dead pieces of living reality. Just as a scientific laboratory may be full of very useful jars filled with organs pickled in formaldehyde, so Marxist literature is full of very useful formulas.

To take one example where a hundred would not be too much for the re-education of muscle-bound Marxists: – Lenin’s writings during 1917 hammered away at the socialists who became defensists under Kerensky, with the formula “The character of the class in power determines the character of the war,” “The criterion is, first of all: which class is in power, which class continues to rule ...,” etc. This was a generalization from a certain number of facts about the nature of the capitalist state and imperialism. But when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, this formula stood a small section of the Trotskyist movement on its ear. The party and Trotsky came out in favor of military defense and material support (not political support) to the Loyalist government as waging a progressive war. “What! but isn’t the capitalist class in power in this Loyalist government of Azaña’s? Doesn’t the capitalist class continue to rule?” The Lenin quotations were exhibited. We countered in essence with another but wider formula of Lenin’s: War is a continuation of politics by other means, and the character of a war is determined by the character of the politics of which it is a continuation. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, in the case of capitalist-imperialist states, the politics from which their wars flow is ... capitalist imperialism. In Spain, we analyzed the concreteness of events and determined that the politics from which the Loyalist war flowed was primarily defense against fascism. The sectarians could never understand how it was possible for Trotsky to go behind a formula committed to paper by Lenin.

Above every formula is the Marxist method. A formula takes on meaning and is tested in every application of it. Every formula involves some exaggeration of an aspect of the truth, which is made bigger than life-size in order to emphasize it. One cannot avoid using formulas but one can avoid making them into fetishes. Anything else is an abandonment of dialectical materialism, whether or not it be accompanied by loud outcries of love and faith for that first victim of pseudo-Marxist dogmatism. It is not really paradoxical to note that the aspect of Marxism which has been most frequently turned into a dogma pickled-in-formaldehyde is dialectical materialism itself.

Historic Inevitability of Socialism

This understanding of Marxist formulas is an essential context for understanding the meaning of the “inevitability of socialism” in the light of the Marxist method. Without it one is doomed to oscillate between the fatalistic view of inevitability on the one hand, and on the other the conclusion that all one can do is speak of the socialist perspective in terms of varying degrees of possibility or probability.

What we have to do is to fill out the formula “the inevitability of socialism.” If it is objected that we are “reading something into it,” then we have explained in vain why it is of the very nature of formulas that this must continually be done.

Easy to see, first, is the fact that “the inevitability of socialism” is not even the complete formula.

Trotsky’s passage indicated this at least: that the Marxist concept is that of the historic inevitability of socialism. (Hook also correctly filled out the term.) The difference should be readily appreciated on the basis of our previous discussion of the operation of causes in different fields.

Historic inevitability means: inevitable on the basis of the social-historic causes and tendencies operating.

This should rid us at once of the wiseacre who thinks he has refuted the Marxist concept when he asks: “Is socialism still inevitable if a wandering star crashes into our sun and wipes out the solar system?” or some similar “sticker” (usually astronomical or geological in nature). The trouble with this kind of “annihilator” of Marxism is that he shares the Johnson interpretation of “inevitability” and cannot stomach it. The distinction we have made is the valid kernel of Trotsky’s distinction “inescapable in the historic sense.”

But the very use of the term “historically inevitable” forces a second realization. We said it means: inevitable on the basis of the social-historic causes and tendencies operating. In other words, what we are asserting is the existence of an inevitable tendency.

We must now examine what it means to juxtapose these two words, inevitable tendency. Does one cancel the other? That is, is it true that as soon as we speak of a tendency we can no longer speak of inevitability?

Not at all. In fact, any assertion of inevitability by human beings can only be an assertion about precisely an inevitable tendency. This applies with full force to the so-called “laws” of our exact sciences. It is only to the popular-science layman that they describe what must happen; scientists themselves are more aware that what they describe are forces or causal factors acting in a certain direction and inevitably tending to bring about a given result. The “law of gravity” does not assert that “what goes up must come down.” It simply says that what goes up will inevitably tend to come down.

The same thing is true of Marxist formulas. Thus, the “law of the fall in the rate of profit” becomes in the hands of careful Marxist economists “the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall,”, etc. Again: our sectarians at the time of the Spanish Civil War might have managed to understand Marxism if they had read their pet formula “The character of the class in power tends to determine the character of the war.” It will be seen that the use of “inevitable” in connection with the word “tendency” first of all asserts the existence of determinate causes behind the tendency. If anything, the objection can be made that “inevitable tendency” is not contradictory but, quite the opposite, tautological. For does not every tendency stem from determinate causes?

Meaning of “Inevitable Tendency”

Here we only run again into the difference between objective inevitability and the relativity of human knowledge. Thus, Prof. Morris R. Cohen (in a different connection) cites the example of “a correlation of 87 per cent between the membership of the International (really American) Machinists’ Union and the death rate of the state of Hyderabad” in India, for a period of twelve years. This “tendency,” however, was not the result of any operative cause linking up the two phenomena; in other words, it was “accidental.”

In the field of history there are also tendencies set up by non-historic (“accidental”) factors which may be temporary and doomed to peter out and disappear. The tendency toward socialism, however, inevitably arises from the conditions of man’s social progress toward the conquest of nature – in the last analysis, inevitably arises from the social nature of man – and this is merely expressed in fewer words when we say: inevitably arises from history. This is the content of the Marxist formula.

This not only distinguishes the tendency toward socialism from tendencies set up by non-historic factors. It also permits us to understand the disjunction “socialism or fascism” (or “socialism or barbarism”) and its relation to the historic inevitability of socialism.

True, the tendency toward fascism, which we see, is not set up by non-historic factors. Its causes are also rooted in the field of society and history, in the decay of modern capitalism. But on the basis of the Marxist analysis there is an all-important difference between the tendency toward socialism and the admittedly existent tendency toward a “slave state.” If this latter is beaten back by the definitive triumph of the proletariat in socialist revolution, then it is dead, consigned to the famous garbage-heap of history. But if fascism triumphs, the tendency toward socialist freedom still must and will continue to re-assert itself under fascism itself, or – note! – under a bureaucratic slave society.

This is the difference which is pointed to by the formulation of the historic inevitability of the socialist tendency. In this context, the tendency toward the “slave state” is a conjunctural tendency; the tendency toward socialism derives its historic inevitability from its causal roots deep in the very nature of man’s society.

It is Antaeus – the Titan who, dashed to earth, comes back with strength renewed from contact with Earth, his mother. The Greek myth tells us that Hercules finally vanquished him by holding him aloft in the air and strangling him. Ruling-class society cannot do this to its Antaeus; for with relation to the working class it is both Hercules and Gaea – both its antagonist and its earth-mother. Herein too lies the historic inevitability of the socialist tendency.

Inevitable Only Under Capitalism?

This is also why it is wrong to limit the applicability of the historical inevitability of socialism to the conditions of capitalism; that is, to make it mean only “inevitable under the conditions of capitalism.”

Even with regard to the past: it would not be correct to say that the tendency toward socialism came into existence only with the birth of capitalism. What came into existence then, and could come into existence only then, was scientific socialism (Marxism) – the coming-of-age of the tendency toward socialism as a conscious movement understanding its own nature – and the possibility of victory. Before capitalism, socialist strivings were part reminiscence and part anticipation – partly a nostalgic memory of primitive tribal communism and partly a leap into the future far as human eye could see, the two elements inevitably merging in varying proportion in the like of a Spartacus or a Thomas Muenzer – but, however embryonic, never absent. No other status was possible under the then level of the productive forces. All this with regard to the pre-capitalist past, when, to be sure, assertion of the existence of a tendency toward socialism must be understood in its context.

But the important question is not with regard to the pre-capitalist yesterday but to the post-capitalist tomorrow. To believe that, with the disintegration of our doomed social order of today, the tendency toward socialism will die out unless it is actually realized is to misunderstand its roots.

If the theoretical alternative discussed by Trotsky is realized – a bureaucratic-collectivist “slave state” – then the fact that the means of production are now in the hands of a totalitarian state-power certainly would change the forms of the socialist struggle but could not eradicate it. From a struggle to take the factories out of the hands of the exploiters and therefore to take the state out of their hands, it would become a struggle to take the state out of their hands and thereby the factories. Starkly – even more starkly than today – would the social task be presented to the masses: the state “owns everything” but we do not own the state: the target is visible without camouflage.

In present-day terms, the socialist struggle becomes a struggle for “political democracy”; but this language would be as inadequate and obsolete to describe the social reality as when a savage describes a gun as “the arrow that kills from afar.” For the content of “political democracy” under such conditions becomes not a harking back to outlived bourgeois democracy but becomes synonymous with proletarian, socialist revolution and economic democracy. The seizure of the state power by the proletarian democracy already finds the means of production collectivized. The speculations of Burnham concerning the possibility of his “managerial society” evolving toward political liberty are poppy-cock; for any real “political liberty” in such a state means the voluntary abdication of the ruling class – and this has never happened in the history of human exploitation.

We have pursued this question this far for its “theoretical interest” (to use Trotsky’s expression) with regard to the practice of narrowly limiting the historic inevitability of the socialist tendency to the conditions of capitalism. There is an equal and opposite mistake: namely, to try to use this line of thought to “prove” that the socialist struggle would indeed be “easier” (in some sense) under conditions of bureaucratic-state centralization and control of production. This is akin to the present-day Cannonite argument that the proletarian revolution is, in some sense, “easier” in Stalinist Russia because it would not have to expropriate the factories from a private capitalist class. I do not have to emphasize, I trust, that at least for an historic period the victory of the “slave state” on any world scale would be a severe setback to the socialist goal and a hurling back of civilization itself. I am at the moment concerned only to insist that the historic inevitability of socialism loses nothing of its force in a hypothetical post-capitalist but non-socialist society. [5]

It is also necessary to point out a consequence of the view that the “historic inevitability” is limited to the conditions of capitalism. This is simply that it cuts the ground from under any consistent interpretation of the meaning of this formula. For if the victory of the “slave state” means that the tendency toward socialism is dead, that the latter also is consigned to the aforementioned garbage-heap of history, then it is impossible to make any distinction between the “inevitability” of the socialist tendency and the “inevitability” of a bureaucratic-state tendency. Certainly the distinction which we made above becomes impossible and there is no tenable substitute. Then, indeed, and only then does the victory of socialism as against barbarism become only a matter of possibility or high probability or some other shade of the spectrum. This consequence is not the reason for rejecting this false concept, but it should give pause.

It is all the more necessary to belabor this point since, in the momentum of his polemic against us in 1939, Trotsky ran headlong against it.

I have already referred to this passage in The USSR In War where he speaks of “the historic alternative, carried to the end”:

Either the Stalin régime is an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society, or the Stalin regime is the first stage of a new exploiting society. If the second prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. [6]

And this passage continues:

However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia. It is self-evident that a new “minimum” program would, be required – for the defense of the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society.

It is indeed self-evident that the revolutionary Marxist’s program of immediate and transitional demands would be different in many ways from the one we fight for today, but Trotsky’s meaning here seems to be that such a “minimum” program would have to be the whole program, no struggle for socialism being possible. Socialism becomes a Utopian dream – unrealizable – i.e., impossible. Thus we see the interesting transformation: by limiting the “inevitability of socialism” to “under the conditions of capitalism,” the formula is turned into “the impossibility of socialism under any other conditions.”

A few pages later, Trotsky again uses the adjective “self-evident”:

Yet it is absolutely self-evident that if the international proletariat, as a result of the experience of our entire epoch and the current new war, proves incapable of becoming the master of society, this would signify the foundering of all hope for a socialist revolution, for it is impossible to expect any other more favorable conditions for it; ...

But immediately after making this “self-evident” categorical assertion about “the foundering of all hope for a socialist revolution,” Trotsky makes refutation unnecessary by adding: “... in any case no one foresees them now, or is able to characterize them.”

As far as our present point is concerned, it is not necessary to foresee or characterize “more favorable conditions,” about which we have already said what is needed; we merely maintain that the “second prognosis” would not in any case make socialism a Utopia.

This line of thought about the hypothetical future has an immediate bearing upon the real present. Trotsky is saying: if all countries were like Stalinist Russia, socialism would be a Utopia. But one country today is like Stalinist Russia – namely, Russia. Is the struggle for socialism possible there? And if it is, is it only because capitalism still exists in the rest of the world? Does a proletarian revolution have any roots in Russia itself or does it depend solely on the working-class movement abroad? Such implications from Trotsky’s polemical mistake get uncomfortably close to what we heard about Nazi Germany after the crushing of the labor movement there: salvation can come only from outside; the forces within are “finished.” Furthermore: one country like Stalinist Russia means – a workers’ state, which we must defend against capitalism as representing the future of humanity; all countries like Stalinist Russia mean – the impossibility of socialism!

No sense can be made along these lines.

Historic Alternatives and “Pessimism”

Why does Trotsky fall into this projection of pessimism into the future? The answer is clear from his context: he is pushing hard against another kind of false pessimism, and has pushed himself over in the opposite direction. The paragraph we have just quoted continues straight on into the following, just as if the same thought were being expressed:

Marxists do not have the slightest right (if disillusionment and fatigue are not considered “rights”) to draw the conclusion that the proletariat has forfeited its revolutionary possibilities and must renounce all aspirations to hegemony in an era immediately ahead. [And so on in an excellent vein along the same line.]

In other words, what Trotsky is gunning for is the pessimism of those (he mentions Bruno R. and Hugo Urbahns) who maintain the impossibility of socialism in our epoch, and is thus himself led into proclaiming the impossibility of socialism in the epoch of the “second prognosis,” catching himself up only at the last moment. It is “self-evident” from our discussion that one does not follow from the other, and that both “impossibilities” are wrong.

As we set out to do, we have been tracing the “theoretical interest” of the historic alternatives previously emphasized by Trotsky and summarized in the “socialism or barbarism” road-fork – tracing this theoretical interest as it bears upon the problem of the historic inevitability of socialism. It is, however, characteristic of the Cannon-Johnson epigones of Trotsky that they view with distaste any such theoretical interest. When, in the tradition of Marxism and in the words of Trotsky, the Workers Party has said: “Socialism or barbarism – these are the alternatives before humanity in our epoch,” and when we further point to the phenomena which today “outline the social and political forms of a neo-barbarism,” they exclaim with horror: “Pessimism! Lack of faith in the working class! Abandonment of the socialist perspective!”

As if pessimism is the conclusion which flows from the existence of these historic alternatives! Exactly the contrary. We repeat loudly and insistently with Trotsky:

“Hence arises the necessity of revolution.”

And again!

“In its light the necessity for social revolution appears most graphically.”

This will never be understood by our pseudo-Marxist mechanics. To these theoreticians of inevitability, Trotsky’s writings on this question will always be an aberration to be hushed up like a daughter’s fall from virtue for a respectable bourgeois. The latter may console himself with “Well, anyway she still goes to church,” and the former console themselves with quoting Trotsky’s attacks on the version of bureaucratic collectivism which is not held by the Workers Party – but for them “socialism or barbarism” will ever be only a phrase with a purely ceremonial character, like certain parts of the marriage ritual for most people. It can be used in agitation, of course ... kind of jolts people when you hit them with it ... but as soon as you study our catechism, comrade, you’ll find out we don’t really mean it ... scientifically speaking, socialism is inevitable, after all ... this talk about historic alternatives is Shachtmanite revisionism ... Thus is agitation interpreted as hypocrisy, and theory as dogma.

Political Psychology of Fatalism

The Cannon-Johnson accusation of “pessimism,” directed against the posing of “socialism or barbarism” as historic alternatives, is logically and politically absurd; but that is not to say it has no meaning. Confusing the historic inevitability of socialism with a fatalist dogma of socialism as inevitably the next stage of society, they conclude: “If you believe ‘barbarism’ is also possible (or ‘equally possible’), then you have lost faith in the revolutionary potentialities of the proletariat and are on the road to giving up the struggle for socialism.”

This political and logical absurdity has, however, a corollary reflecting back on its maker: “In order to maintain my will to struggle, I must continue to believe that there is no alternative to socialism in our epoch, that socialism is fated to ensue; I cannot permit myself to think in Trotsky’s terms because it would undermine my faith.”

We know what we would say to a worker who would refuse to fight and struggle unless guaranteed the impossibility of defeat. But there is a political-psychological force concealed behind such phenomena.

The name of Achilles comes to us from Greek legend as the symbol of the brave and valiant warrior. Yet we also learn that this exemplar of courage was endowed with a practical invulnerability in battle by the magic of the gods. In terms of logic we can ask: How can we ascribe courage to him who need fear no wound? In terms of psychology we can ask: Was not his “courage” due to the comforting knowledge of his invulnerability? And in answer to both questions we can say: Here we see fatalism as a substitute for faith in oneself.

The fanatical Calvinist, convinced by the doctrine of predestination that his doom to hell or election to heaven was already written on God’s ledgers at birth, yet was spurred to good works to save his soul. Logically this was also absurd and a thousand philosophers have proved it. Why should a man be spurred to activity to bring about that which is already pre-ordained? Psychologically there is less difficulty. The Calvinist stayed on the straight and narrow path for no other reason than to reassure himself from day to day of the fact that he was indeed among the elect.

In politics we see this process at work as frequently and as clearly. It is indeed behind the hortatory use of the concept of inevitability of socialism, even when this latter is not distorted into fatalism. In the Cannon-Johnson tendency, it becomes the basis of politics for them – a substitute for faith in the historic process of the Marxist sense, a substitute for “revolutionary optimism,” a substitute for the will to struggle, a means of reassuring themselves with the ersatz of dogma against the danger of yielding to defeatist moods. It is in the company of the contradictory phenomena of the cowardly bully or of the morbid arrogance generated by an inferiority complex.

The defeats of the working class have left their mark on the brow not only of the renegades from Marxism but also of its loyalists. Defeatist moods are not only manifested in an open flight from revolutionary faith in the class struggle. Within the Trotskyist movement we see the two forms of the process: the IKD on the one hand, Johnson (out-Cannoning Cannon) on the other.

What this explains is not only the fact that Cannon-Johnson distort the Marxist meaning of the inevitability of socialism, but even more the fact that Johnson works himself into such a lather on the subject – what it explains is the pinnacle of importance to which he raises the holding of his saving dogma. For his faith is at stake. The great Marxists have asserted confidently, vigorously, and cogently their conviction of the coming triumph of the proletarian revolution and their belief in the historic inevitability of socialism, and we follow in their footsteps; but no revolutionary Marxist has tried to center his politics on it, on a crudely fatalist version of the formula at that (the two have to go together). This is a phenomenon of our own day. It is the reverse side of the coin on one side of which is inscribed the thesis of the fourth chapter of James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution.

In 1921 Trotsky, at the head of the greatest revolutionary organization the world has ever seen, with the first workers’ state in history in existence, after four years of the first worldwide revolutionary upsurge – Trotsky could explain in passing that although “we are convinced” that the working class will triumph, “the possibility is not excluded” that the exploiters may drag down “modern mankind into a state of collapse and decay for a long time to come,” and warn eloquently that “unless we gain victory all society and all human culture is doomed,” and conclude “hence arises the necessity of revolution.” But in 1947, after almost three decades of proletarian defeats, his epigones find it necessary to exclude such theoretical interests from the pale of thought! This is the picture that tells the tale.

Fatalism and Reformism

A second impact of the theory of predestined inevitability is to be noted, as expected, on the question of organization. We asked with regard to our fanatical Calvinist: Why should a man be spurred to activity to bring about that which is already preordained?

Logically there can be only one consistent organizational conclusion. But there is no law which obliges any man to be logically consistent, and there are many which often force him to drop his eyes when the logic of politics stares him pitilessly in the face. We have not one but three answers to consider in reply to the paradoxical question: What kind of organization do you need to bring about a foredoomed event?

(1) No party organisation is necessary at all. This is the consistent conclusion. Needless to say, it has never been held by any organized movement! There is Paul Mattick, of course. I have heard it from the breed known as the “parlor pink” who is utterly convinced that socialism is coming apace, who is naturally delighted at the prospect, and who is so void of doubt on the subject that any stir on its behalf is a work of supererogation. But such, alas, are the defects of human nature that even this admirable specimen of consistency occasionally wrenches himself from the strict demands of logic in order to contribute a few dollars when Norman Thomas runs for president.

(2) No revolutionary party organization is necessary. In socialist history, the classic exponents of the plain-simple-and-flat inevitability theory were the theoreticians of the Second International, and in particular of the German Social-Democratic reformists. They also deduced from an extensive textual acquaintance with Marxism that socialism was coming wafted on the wings of the “objective historic process.” Being students of Marx as well as practical reformist politicians, they were both able and willing to transfuse this theory of the “historic process” with a few more drops of Marxist blood. For had not Marx said:

History does nothing; it “possesses no colossal riches”; it “fights no fight.” It is rather man – real, living man – who acts, possesses and fights in everything. It is by no means “History” which uses man as a means to carry out its ends as if it were a person apart; rather History is nothing but the activity of man in pursuit of his ends.

The activity of man, then, is also a part of the historic process – in fact, a part without which “History” fails to “process” at all – and so socialist organization is necessary. But had not Engels described how capitalism is being transformed by “the invading socialist society”? Capitalism is being changed over into socialism, as inexorably as petrifying wood changes into stone, molecule by molecule. If socialism is inevitable anyway, then all that has to be done is to build the movement, and the goal will take care of itself. A socialist movement – yes; revolution – no. Insurrection has become obsolete since Marx discovered the objective historic process to take care of the business for us. The “inevitability of socialism” becomes the “inevitability of gradualness.” Marx turns in his grave, Engels being unable to do so since his ashes had been consigned to the sea.

Fatalism and the Party Question

The First World War, the Russian Revolution and the revival of revolutionary Marxism by the Bolshevik movement exploded this reformist claptrap. Cannon and Johnson stand on the shoulders of this movement: they cannot go back to the Social-Democratic version of inevitability without breaking with it. But their theory of inevitability nevertheless shadows their concept of organization.

Let us be clear about the relationship between the two. The Social-Democrats did not deduce their reformism from their theory of inevitability. The latter played the role of “Marxist” justification for the former. Given a period of expanding capitalism, an apparent prospect of limitless reforms, a period during which the labor aristocracy of the advanced countries grew fat on the crumbs of imperialism, the reformism of the Second International was the yielding of the socialist movement to the degenerative social tendencies and forces of its times. Their theory of inevitability, created out of scraps of Marx-quotations, was on the one hand the ideological manifestation of this process, and on the other, its rationalization and bridge with the past.

In our epoch, the degenerative social influences which arise from the noxious exhalations of a decaying world and which breathe their vapors also on the revolutionists, are no longer those of an expanding capitalism and a bribed labor aristocracy. Today the odor that permeates the world is that of the “totalitarian servitude” whose outlines have become visible. The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of the ruling class. Capitalist ideology is transformed; even “totalitarian liberalism” appears – and what shall we say of revolutionists?

Where sin runs riot, even a deacon may slip; where license reigns as the norm, even the strait-laced lady may begin to look with less horror on an innocent flirtation; and I have read that dentists may get to like the odor of a decayed tooth. And so, while our “capitalist-democrats” propose universal conscription for the militarization of the youth – Cannon enunciates the principles of a monolithic “Trotskyist” party. And while Freda Kirchwey bewails American imperialism but concludes that its foreign policy must be upheld in the main – Johnson decides that though he does not approve of Cannon’s monolithism, he yet belongs at his side. He explains that Cannon’s unfortunate tendencies toward Stalinization will be taken care of by the objective historic process. There is the third answer:

(3) No democratic party organization is necessary. As long as we are for Soviets, shop-committees, the self-mobilization of the masses,- and against retrogressionism, the inevitability of socialism will be at our right hand in beneficent vigil. Social fatalism plays the same role today as it did for the Social-Democrats.

The Last Thousand Feet

While writing this, I have been reading the book just published by James Ramsay Ullman on the history of the seven attempts to climb Mt. Everest, summit of the world. It is a history of continuous defeats since the First World War. Yet there were no insuperable technical obstacles. More than once men have struggled to within a thousand feet of the goal – some turned back to defeat, Mallory and Irvine went on to death. But no one has come forward with the theory that there is something inherent in the nature of men and mountains which makes the Everest dream Utopian. And Ullman says:

That the world’s highest mountain will some day be climbed is inevitable – as inevitable as the crossing of the oceans, the spanning of the continents, the discovery of the poles. Perhaps the victory will be won on the next attempt; perhaps not for generations. But still men will try, and more men ... and those men will get to the top.

And if you ask why they will struggle, he answers:

“Have we vanquished an enemy?” George Mallory once asked himself, standing with his companions upon a high, hard-won summit and looking down at the long way they had come. And there was only one answer: “None but ourselves.”

So Leon Trotsky wrote: “The present crisis in human culture is the crisis in the proletarian leadership.” Man struggles to conquer and control nature through a half million years of technological revolution and today finds himself up before the last obstacle: his own society – the last thousand feet. It too will be spanned with the historic inevitability of man’s ascent to humanity.


1. There is another facet to the meaning of probability which does not concern us here. This is probability as “relative frequency.” E.g., the probability of a blindfolded man picking: a black ball from a sack which contains ten black and a hundred white balls – “mathematical probability” – or the probability of a man of sixty dying in ten years – “statistical probability.” In the last analysis, however, this probability exists as a manifestation of the lack of human knowledge and control, and not because of the lack of a cause-and-effect relationship. The attempt to interpret all expressions of probability in statistical terms has no possibility of success; this view would exclude probability in connection with unique events. Thus, what would be the meaning of the statement. “My husband phoned that he’s working late at the office but he’s probably lying,” in terms of statistical probability?

2. Outside the Trotskylst movement, add Paul Mattick, whose pamphlet, The Inevitability of Communism, walks around the question just as uneasily. This ancestor of Johnsonism notes “the alternatives presented by the Communist Manifesto – communism or barbarism” but he does not permit himself to be dissuaded that history is inexorably fated to achieve communism through the spontaneous revolutionary action of the masses without the conscious intervention and leadership of a vanguard party.

3. Emphasis in all quotations throughout this article is mine, unless otherwise noted.

4. Provided, naturally, the word “moral” or “ethical” is itself first taken in the Marxist sense. The acceptance of socialism (rather than “barbarism”) is a moral choice for the individual in relation to society, but it is not a moral choice hanging over society – the latter does not exist. This is no more than to say that there are no “eternal” or supra-social moral principles, but only “good” or “bad” moral choices in terms of social ends. In class society this means: In terms of class antagonisms. It is because the interests of the working class coincide with those of humanity that revolutionary morality is today the only truly human morality. As for this latter, there is no use going into it here when anyone can buy and read one of the most brilliant works in Marxist literature. Leon Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours. What bothers the epigones most is not their ignorance of the Marxist meaning of “moral choice.” It is the fact that any “choice” implies historic alternatives, and this is still what they cannot understand.

5. Around here we find the common ground in theory between Johnson and his bête noire, the IKD. The basis of both is the belief that the advance of “barbarism” over socialism would tend to wipe the latter off the agenda. Johnson does not see this happening now; the IKD does; therefore they appear as diametrically opposed in political conclusions, in the same sense that sectarians and opportunists are diametrically opposed. The IKD interprets the decline of capitalism into barbarism as “a reversal ... of all relations, foundations and conditions valid for the ascending development of capitalism”; as “the exact counterpart” in reverse of this ascending development; as creating “conditions in economics, politics, social relations, etc.. which are like the conditions of the epoch of the origins of capitalism” with “ever more backward-reaching features”; as “shoving society back to the barbarism of the Middle Ages,” etc.; and concludes that socialism can no longer base itself on the working class but on an “all-sided” (by which they mean “all-class”) struggle for the “democratic political revolution.” Necessarily, on the basis of this view of the tendency toward barbarism as a rewinding of the capitalist film in reverse, they see the Stalinist degeneration as a reversion to capitalism, as does Johnson.

6. It is not germane to the present point, but it should be mentioned that the alternatives as formulated here by Trotsky are not mutually exclusive. The Workers Party, for example, believes that “the Stalin regime is an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society,” and also that this abhorrent relapse has thrown up a new exploiting class already. Trotsky’s implicit assumption throughout is that bureaucratic collectivism cannot exist in one country even as an abhorrent relapse, even as temporarily as a workers’ state can exist in one country (and still does, in Trotsky’s view). This is because, in the article quoted, he is arguing not against the position of the Workers Party (which was not developed until 1941) but against the position of one Bruno R., who (according to Trotsky) did maintain that the new slave society is now “replacing capitalism throughout the world (Stalinism, fascism, New Deal, etc.).” This latter view is also the position of Dwight Macdonald and (with an additional “managerial” vagary) of James Burnham. It is, of course, rejected by the Workers Party. The fact that Bruno R. and Macdonald use the same term that we do, “bureaucratic collectivism,” is found very enlightening by the Cannon-Johnson epigones – in exactly the same way as Burnham and Macdonald are illuminated by the discovery that both Stalinists and Trotskyists speak of “socialism” or a “working-class state.”


Last updated on 30.7.2008