John Strachey 1941


Source: Chapter VII of Victor Gollancz (ed), The Betrayal of the Left, published in 1941 by Victor Gollancz Ltd, London. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

I have previously suggested that the root difference between those who can, and those who cannot, accept the present revolutionary defeatist policy of the Communist Party is on the question of the characterisation of Fascism.

The Communist International is grossly underestimating both the strength and the vileness of Fascism. It underestimates (in theory, though not perhaps so much in practice) the capacity of a Fascist government to combat and hold in check for important periods the inherent contradictions of a capitalist economy. But here I wish to deal with the other side of the underestimate; with the Communists’ underestimate of the vileness of Fascism.

What is it that every decent, normal man finds so unspeakably vile in Fascism? Undoubtedly it is what we call totalitarianism. Most of us know perfectly well what totalitarianism is in the sense that we could unhesitatingly point to instances of it. But if we had to define totalitarianism we might be at a loss. The best short definition of it will probably be ‘enforced uniformity’. A country is totalitarian if uniformity of all kinds is enforced upon the people of that country by the state. We primarily think of such enforced uniformity as mental uniformity; for it is in the mental sphere that such enforced uniformity is most striking and most repulsive. But such enforced mental uniformity necessarily involves uniformity in everyday, material life, in living conditions, even in clothes (such as uniforms), etc, etc.

Most people instinctively and passionately dislike such enforced uniformity, and do not suppose that it requires any argument to show that it is a supreme evil. But this is a dangerous attitude. It is important to think our way clearly through this question, for the truth is that although totalitarianism is certainly an extreme evil, yet it is so for reasons rather different from what might at first sight appear. Moreover, although it is a supreme evil, totalitarianism has, in the short run, advantages which undoubtedly attract many people to it. It is this which makes it so dangerous. Some people, in particular, do not think that totalitarianism, or enforced uniformity, matters to the working class. It is suggested that, if such enforced uniformity provides the working class with rather better living conditions and more economic security, then the loss of the right to differ does not matter to workers in the least.

Scientific Uniformity

Let us first of all notice that uniformity, even mental uniformity, is not necessarily and in itself an evil. Mental uniformity is not necessarily evil even when that uniformity is taught by authority. Mental uniformity is not only harmless but highly beneficial in any case where the truth of a matter is fully known. The best example of this is afforded, of course, by the older sciences. In the case of elementary physics and chemistry, for example, the basic laws are well established, and it is an immense benefit to the whole of humanity that everyone thinks alike on the question of these laws, and that they can be authoritatively taught to every new student. Once, in a word, the human mind has fully grasped any particular sphere of knowledge, there need be no two opinions about it. For instance, it is not only harmless, but vitally important, that we should all agree that two and two make four. Unless there is mental uniformity on this point we cannot get on with mathematics. It is true that there will be no need to enforce the theory that two and two make four, by establishing pains and penalties for those who heretically assert that two and two make five. But it will be necessary to teach children that two and two make four, and the difference between the authoritative teaching of the young and the enforcement of a theory on adults is one of degree.

However, these scientific examples of beneficial mental uniformity should at once make us pause; for in our own time the basic laws of physics have been altered by the discoveries of Einstein, Bohr, Planck and the other contemporary physicists. We see that, even in the case of one of the best-established sciences, further progress would have been barred if mental uniformity on these basic laws had been enforced with legal sanctions. As it was, the scientific world came to accept the new theories, and they began to be taught instead of the old ones, because they were demonstrably preferable. But, notice this, the net result has not been to destroy the uniformity of scientific thought on elementary physics, it has been merely to replace an old uniformity with a new one. This is because, in the case of the exact sciences, rival theories can be tried out in practice against each other, and the superior one selected.

The example of the revolution in physics which has taken place in our times will make us see how far more dangerous an enforced uniformity would be in the case of the younger, less exact sciences. In the case of psychology, for example, it is far less possible (though in my opinion it is to some extent possible) to apply the test of practice to the various psychological theories present. Hence follow two things. On the one hand it would be still more obviously disastrous to the possibility of further development to enforce uniformity on any psychological theory. Second, we cannot expect some new psychological theory to replace the old one in the way that new physical theory replaces old physical theory. We must expect that two or more contradictory psychological theories will exist together in the world for some time. This will be, no doubt, in itself harmful to psychological progress; but it will be far less harmful than an artificial enforcement of one or other of the rival theories when we do not really know which is the truer one.

Fascist Uniformity

I am giving these scientific examples to show by contrast how and why we are perfectly right in regarding it as a monstrosity to enforce a particular social, economic and, above all, political doctrine. For, of course, we know far less of the truth in these spheres than in the case of the sciences. Therefore what is enforced is almost certain to be largely untrue, and the enforcement of mental uniformity on the basis of an untrue doctrine will have catastrophic consequences for the human mind. We can probably claim little more in these fields of knowledge than the negative certainty – though this we know for sure – that the political doctrine that is being enforced in the leading totalitarian state is utterly untrue. Fascist, and more especially Nazi, doctrine is so wildly untrue (that is, it so wildly contradicts the objective facts of the real world) that it corrupts, and will ultimately destroy, all those on whom it is enforced.

There will be a wide measure of agreement that Fascist doctrine has this character, but this agreement may conceal a very sharp disagreement. One may object to Fascist totalitarianism for two different reasons. One may object to it because the mental uniformity which is enforced is an untruth; or one may object to it because mental uniformity is enforced. Communists, on the whole, object to Fascism only because they believe that the mental uniformity enforced by the Fascists is on the basis of an untrue doctrine. Those of us who take a more serious view of Fascism object to it, not only for this reason, but also because under Fascism mental uniformity is enforced. We do so because we do not believe that anybody has yet discovered enough about political, social and economic theory to justify the authoritative enforcement of any particular doctrine.

Soviet Uniformity

We may illustrate this last point by turning to a consideration of the Soviet Union. Now, it cannot be denied that the Soviet Union is a totalitarian society on the basis of the above definition. There is in the Soviet Union, that is to say, an enforced mental uniformity. But the doctrine on the basis of which this mental uniformity is enforced is incomparably truer (that is, gives an incomparably better and closer interpretation of reality) than is Fascist doctrine. For the doctrine on the basis of which mental uniformity is enforced in the Soviet Union is Socialist or Marxist doctrine. The fact that the Soviet Union is totalitarian does not mean that it is not Socialist, with all the immense advantages of a Socialist society. The Soviet Union is Socialist in the precise sense that it has totally expropriated its capitalists and is conducting its productive system for use upon a planned basis.

Now, there would be no objection to mental uniformity in the Soviet Union if the doctrine enforced were completely true. In that case, however, just as there would be no objection, so also there would be no need, or at any rate less and less need, of enforcement. A completely true political and economic doctrine (that is, a doctrine which completely and adequately accounted for all the phenomena of social life) would without doubt so completely captivate and dominate the human mind that there would be less and less need to inflict pain and penalties on anyone who disagreed with it.

It is, of course, the claim of most Communists that Socialist and Marxist doctrine, as it is enforced in the Soviet Union, is of this character. Communists have no hesitation or scruple in enforcing mental uniformity on those peoples over whom they have power, because they honestly believe that they are enforcing the truth, and nothing but the truth, upon them. Now, the test of whether or not they are mistaken in this view is provided by observing whether or not they are able progressively to dispense with the apparatus of coercion used for enforcing their doctrine. If contemporary Communist doctrine is completely true, in the sense that it gives, not only the best available, but a fully adequate, interpretation of reality, then it will be less and less necessary to prevent anybody from differing from it; for no sane man will wish to differ from it. If, on the other hand, Communist doctrine (Marxism – Leninism – Stalinism), even though it is the best interpretation of social phenomena which the human mind has yet achieved, is not a fully adequate interpretation, in the sense that it cannot account for important observed phenomena, then the attempt to prevent people from differing from it will become more and more difficult; a larger and larger apparatus of mental coercion will become necessary; or worse, the apparatus of mental coercion will kill the capacity of genuine thinking, and mental uniformity will be achieved, but at the price of killing mental life.

The Class Basis

We can now approach the question of totalitarianism from another angle. The most obvious feature of totalitarianism is enforced agreement with what the government says. But what will the government say? The government will say what it believes will keep it in power. This is the immemorial purpose of governments. The achievement and maintenance of power are their supreme objective. But what is a government? Marx teaches us that a government is always representative of a particular social class, or of a coalition of such classes, or, occasionally, of a balance of forces between two or more classes. Therefore, what the government says will be designed, in the last analysis, not so much to keep itself in power for its own sake, as to keep in power the class, or classes, which it represents. This is easy enough to see in the case of Fascism. Fascism totally imposes on the peoples within its power an ideology convenient to the classes which the Fascist government represents. Marxists do not believe that Fascism can permanently succeed in imposing such an ideology on the whole population, because Fascism cannot eliminate the classes (that is, workers and peasants) of which that ideology is not representative. Fascism will be unable, in the long run, to impose the ideas of the classes (that is, capitalists, landlords, etc) which it represents on the suppressed classes. For the real interests of the workers and peasants will always be driving them towards a refusal to accept the Fascist propaganda. Therefore, the Fascist attempt to enforce mental uniformity on the basis of the ideology of the ruling classes can never be a success.

I agree with this analysis, although I fear that the inevitability of the people’s reaction against the ramming down their throats of the alien ideology of Fascism is greatly exaggerated. What is true is that the Fascist attempt to impose the lies of the governing classes on the minds of the whole people must either provoke a great popular reaction, in which Fascism is destroyed, or must corrupt the whole of civilisation through and through, and ultimately destroy it. This second alternative is just as possible as the first, and Marx was careful to note that it was. (See the passage in The Communist Manifesto where he says that every class conflict must result in the victory of the suppressed class or the common ruin of both classes.) [1]

But Communists believe that the mental uniformity being imposed upon the Russian people by the Soviet government is of a fundamentally different character. The ideology which is being imposed is the ideology convenient and appropriate to the Russian workers and peasants. It is argued that this ideology does not have to be enforced on the Russian masses, to whom it comes naturally, but on the remainder of the former privileged classes alone. It is further argued that these privileged classes can be, and are being, totally eliminated, and absorbed within the Russian masses, thus making a classless society. As and when this process is completed, the ideology being imposed will become the natural ideology, not of any class, but of the whole of society. Therefore, there will be no inevitable and ever-growing resistance to this ideology from suppressed classes; for these suppressed classes will have ceased to exist. And at that stage, the need to continue to impose the ideology, or any other mental uniformity, will, presumably, cease to exist.

This is the reason why Communists believe that the Soviet government’s suppression of all differences of political opinion need not, and will not, have the ordinary consequences of suppression; that it will not drive the opposition underground, create plots, necessitate the permanent maintenance of a vast secret-police system, and generally destroy the freedom of the community. For, Communists believe, for the first time in human history there will be no class basis for any movement of opposition to the government. Therefore the Soviet government’s suppression of all opposition views is, for the first time in human history, fully justified; since, for the first time in history, it can be completely and finally successful, and therefore cease.

The Soviet Experience

The question is, is all this true? It is obviously vital to understand it. It is hardly too much to say that all talk about liberty is mere vapourings unless the Marxist analysis of the question in terms of class power has been understood. Nevertheless, contemporary evidence is piling up that this analysis, as applied by the Communist International today, is so serious an over-simplification of the real facts as to amount to a very dangerous error in practice. For what is the Soviet experience in this matter? The fact has to be faced that it has been precisely in the last five years, which began eighteen years after the establishment of Soviet power, that the enforcement of mental uniformity in the Soviet Union has become total, that the apparatus of coercion for enforcing this mental uniformity has been greatly increased, that the resistance to the enforcement of this mental uniformity has become really vicious, involving plots, attempted risings, purges, sabotage and executions. All this is not in itself conclusive evidence of the falsity of the view that such opposition to Marxist ideology would disappear when the class basis for it had disappeared. There was left in Russia throughout the 1930s a certain amount of class basis for opposition to the Soviet government’s attempt to enforce the acceptance of Marxist ideology. The richer peasants had only very recently been dispossessed. The older generation of ex-bourgeois could remember the days of their privileges. And above all, of course, the fact that the rest of the world remained capitalist gave all those dissatisfied remnants hope and vitality.

When all this has been said, however, can it possibly account for the ferocity of the struggle which broke out in Russia between 1935 and 1940? Are we not forced by the occurrence of this struggle to say that it affords evidence which, if not conclusive, yet cannot be neglected, that, in the present stage of human development, the attempt to enforce the current Communist ideology produces all the familiar counter-movements, and at these reactions in turn inevitably produce a violent rigidity in the enforcing authorities, with all the evil results with which the world has age-long familiarity?

It is not, let it be emphasised, a question of the merits of the struggle between Stalin and the Soviet government on the one hand, and Trotsky, Bukharin, Radek and the opposition generally. In my view, as far as I have been able to study the matter, Stalin and the Soviet government were throughout in the right. Trotsky’s leadership would have been a catastrophe, and Bukharin would have led the Soviet Union to a deal with the Nazis, concluded much earlier, and on a basis much more advantageous to the Nazis. What is in question is the fact that this struggle took place, and that it was conducted on both sides with limitless ferocity and violence. Guilt which they can never expiate rests on the heads of the opposition leaders and their followers for having at the beginning pushed their opposition to the point of plot, espionage and sabotage. For it was almost certainly because the Trotskyists, Bukharinists and the rest did this, that the new period of extreme Soviet totalitarianism arose. There is strong evidence that, about 1935, Stalin and the Soviet government were genuinely looking forward to a liberalisation of the whole Soviet community. Stalin made his ‘Life is getting happier’ speech. In his interview with Roy Howard, he said that he looked forward to lively contested elections under the new constitution. There was an anti-totalitarian current. Then the murder of Kirov touched off the whole sequence of plot, suppression, purge, trial and executions. In such a period the imposition of totalitarianism, that is, of the extremely rigid enforcement of mental uniformity, took place.

Did it matter that the Soviet Union fell into this totalitarian period? It is utterly impossible to say that it did not matter. The cost, in terms of economic loss and in diminution of military efficiency, was gigantic. The cost in capacity for progress in civilisation may yet prove to have been more gigantic still. So much is in a way admitted, privately if not publicly, by all sides (that is, Stalin’s warning to the opposition at the end of the 1920s that if they carried their opposition line to its logical conclusion they would do great harm to the party). But was this struggle, with its totalitarian outcome, avoidable? There is a very strong tendency amongst Communists to suggest that this struggle had to be fought out in any case; that this development had to be gone through as an unavoidable stage in the creation of a classless society. This view is disastrously mistaken. No doubt some such period of political struggles in the 1930s was inevitable; but Communist fatalism overlooks the whole, and all-important, question of how those struggles were to be conducted. For, of course, the insane ferocity with which those struggles were in fact fought out was avoidable. And if this insane ferocity had been avoided the Soviet Union would be in a ten times stronger position than she is today. If, in a word, the Russians, above all the Russians within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had known how to conduct their, in themselves, inevitable political struggles within the limits of sanity and reason, instead of plotting, counter-plotting, murdering and executing each other, the world would be an incomparably better place than it is today. But every Communist on principle shuts his mind to this obvious fact. He refuses to see or admit it. Nevertheless, the fact is that Soviet totalitarianism has not hitherto, at any rate, turned out to be of a totally different character from other totalitarianisms. It has not, as was hoped, turned out to be the case that the doctrine on the basis of which mental uniformity is enforced is so true that it will not provoke violent counter-movements. Nor has it turned out to be the case that this doctrine has proved to be so true that its enforcement will avoid tending to stifle mental life. This does not mean, I repeat, that the Soviet Union is not Socialist; but it does mean that she is paying a staggering price both in economic and military efficiency, and in capacity for cultural life, for the methods by means of which the Russians insist on fighting out their political conflicts.

Totalitarianism and the Workers

If we are forced to recognise that even the Soviet Union, which is enforcing a doctrine incomparably truer than the Fascist doctrine, is paying a frightful price for totalitarianism, we can imagine the immeasurable price which the peoples of the Fascist countries are paying. We can imagine, above all, the immeasurable price which humanity as a whole would pay if Fascist totalitarianism were enforced, as a result of a Nazi victory, on the whole world. For it is literally mad to say that the exploitation of the workers under Fascism is ‘only a little worse than under a democratic capitalism’. Fascist exploitation is total exploitation; under a Fascist government, with its effective methods for the total enforcement of any doctrine, exploitation and injustice can, and do, go to any lengths. The erection of war as the supreme end and object of human life is in fact only an instance of this. It is only an instance of the fact that under a Fascist regime the welfare objective can be totally discarded and the power objective totally adopted. In other words, the interests of the workers, which in a democratic, non-totalitarian capitalism must always be considered to the extent to which working-class agitation can force their consideration, can be wholly disregarded in a Fascist state. This is the simple and obvious reason why totalitarianism matters passionately to the working class. The creation of a totalitarian regime sweeps away at one blow every safeguard against limitless exploitation which centuries of working-class effort have built up in the West. It is perfectly true, of course, that the difference between totalitarian exploitation and the exploitation suffered by the workers in the democratic capitalisms is ‘only a matter of degree’. But then the difference between shaving and cutting your throat is ‘only a matter of degree'; it is only a matter of the degree of pressure which you put on your throat with the razor.

Our conclusion must be that to ignore the question of totalitarianism, as the Communist International is ignoring it today, is an error which vitiates all thinking in the contemporary world. The Communist International, by its present policy of revolutionary defeatism within the capitalist democracies, ignores the existence of Fascist totalitarianism. Communist spokesmen admit, of course, that Fascist totalitarianism exists, and that it is deplorable; but they say that the difference between it and the conditions of capitalist democracy is now not important in practice. Similarly, Communist spokesmen ignore, or rather actively deny, the unquestionable existence of Soviet totalitarianism. They do not, as they well might, claim that such totalitarianism is a deplorable but inevitable necessity of the class struggle in the Soviet Union. They simply pretend that it is not there.

Totalitarianism Cannot Be Ignored

This double failure on the part of the Communist International to recognise totalitarianism, which is one of the most glaringly obvious facts of the contemporary world, makes the International’s whole position unreal. For nobody else ignores this issue. The Communist International would, in a sense, be justified if the working classes of the Western capitalist democracies showed themselves to be indifferent to the issue of totalitarianism; if the British workers, for example, showed that they did not care whether they were exploited in the limited way possible under democratic capitalism, as at present, or totally under a Fascist regime, then the Communist International would, at any rate, be genuinely representing working-class opinion if it ignored this difference too. But everything which the British workers say and do shows that, since they are ordinary, sane, sensible people, they attach the utmost importance to this difference. They daily evince their horror and disgust at totalitarianism. They show that they are fully aware of the immense value of the safeguards against unlimited exploitation provided by the liberties which they have won. In the same way workers who passionately sympathise with the Soviet Union, and recognise that it is a Socialist community, are yet unwilling to pretend that it is not totalitarian, or to ignore the grave disadvantages, precisely for the workers, of even the Soviet form of totalitarianism.

Naturally, totalitarianism is not the only, or even the deepest issue in the contemporary world. I notice, for example, that Dr John Lewis, in reviewing Lucien Laurat’s Marxism and Democracy [2] in the Daily Worker, alleged that for me the difference between Socialism and Capitalism had been totally obscured; that the only difference which I now saw was between Democracy and Dictatorship. But no, not being deprived of common understanding, I can see both the difference between Socialism and Capitalism and the difference between Democracy and Dictatorship; and I think that both differences are important.

It is exactly typical of what the Communist mind has become that Dr Lewis should suppose that one must ignore the difference between Capitalism and Socialism because one can appreciate the difference between Dictatorship and Democracy. He naturally thinks this because he has found it necessary, in order to emphasise the difference between Capitalism and Socialism, to pretend that there is no difference between Democracy and Dictatorship. More balanced people are not under this sort of compulsion to render themselves blind to one set of phenomena in order to see another set.

It is the same in the case of totalitarianism – which is, of course, an aspect of dictatorship. Because we insist upon the importance of the difference between totalitarianism on the one hand, and relative liberty and toleration on the other, we have not lost sight of the difference between Capitalism and Socialism. What we know is that at the present stage of human development the enforcement of totalitarianism upon the world would be a catastrophe from which human civilisation might well not recover. This may not always be so. It may be that we shall arrive at such certainty of knowledge in political and economic science that mental uniformity in these fields will become not only harmless but immensely beneficial. But then, by that time, there will be no need to enforce such mental uniformity.


1. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, available at < > – MIA.

2. Lucien Laurat, Marxism and Democracy (London, 1940); available at < > – MIA.


John Strachey

The Struggle For Power

Source: Chapter IX of Victor Gollancz (ed), The Betrayal of the Left, published in 1941 by Victor Gollancz Ltd, London. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

During the last years of the nineteenth century, and the first of the twentieth, the question of how the labour and working-class movements of the highly developed, industrialised countries of Europe might come to power, became the dominating question for all Socialists.

It was during these years (the last years of his life) that Engels wrote his famous Preface to the Class Struggles in France. [1] In it he gave a general indication of his view of the way in which major working-class parties might come to power. The fate of that Preface revealed at once the burning and acute character of the question. It was half suppressed and half falsified by the leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party. It was made into an unconditionally ‘reformist’ document, virtually repudiating the very possibility of armed struggle. Its correct text was only unearthed (by the Marx-Engels Institute) in our day.

The correct text of the Preface shows it to have been, like all Engels’ writings, a beautifully balanced statement. Indeed, it remains by far the best statement which has ever been made on the subject. The claim to the immense authority of Engels, which the German Social-Democrats used on behalf of their policy for the next thirty years, is shown by the full text to have been quite unjustified. But, on the other hand, the claim made by the spokesmen of the Communist International, that Engels had, in the main at any rate, foreseen and endorsed the view of the question which Lenin was to develop over those same years, cannot be justified either. In fact, Engels put forward a view of the correct strategy and tactics for the waging of the class struggle which has never been adopted in practice by any working-class party. The purpose of this article is to suggest that this may be one of the reasons why no working-class party in a highly-developed, Western industrial country has ever achieved power.

The Social-Democratic Way

Let us recall in turn two utterly opposed views of the correct attitude for a working-class party to adopt in its attempt to take power into its hands. There have been, first, the Social-Democratic or reformist view, and, secondly, the Communist, Leninist or revolutionary view.

The Social-Democratic view has been, characteristically, looser and less sharply defined than the Leninist view. It has been both preached and practised in various forms and with various emphasis. In theory, as put forward, that is to say, by many of the principal Social-Democratic spokesmen, such as Kautsky and Otto Bauer, for example, it has appeared to be very near to the position of Engels as defined in his Preface. As practised, however, by Western European Social-Democracy, by practical leaders of the majority of working-class parties, such as Scheidemann and Hilferding in Germany, Vandervelde in Belgium or MacDonald in Britain, and as preached by one or two Social-Democratic theorists (Bernstein in Germany and MacDonald and Snowden in Britain), it has amounted to a repudiation not only of Engels’ view of the class struggle, but of the very conception of the class struggle itself.

In brief, what one or two Social-Democratic writers have said, and what every important Social-Democratic leader has always done, have been based on the following set of propositions. It has been claimed that Marx immensely exaggerated the degree to which historical events have been, and are, governed by the clash of class interests. Moreover, it is claimed that in so far as events have been and still are so motivated, this clash of interests can be fought out within the framework of the democratic institutions which had been set up within every Western European country. With this political doctrine has been associated an economic doctrine which denied Marx’s theory of the inevitable decline of capitalism, and still more thoroughly denied Lenin’s elaboration of that theory in his work on Imperialism. The Social-Democrats based their practice, whatever some of them may have said in theory, on the view that there was nothing much in Marx’s demonstration of the inevitable growth of monopoly and stagnation within every capitalist system (basically due to the drag of the falling rate of profit), and that consequently the centrifugal tendency of every capitalism to break out through aggressive imperialism into war, was also non-existent, or at any rate greatly exaggerated. Hence, concludes the theory, there was nothing either political or economic to prevent an almost imperceptible growth into power, by purely democratic and constitutional means, of the party of the labour movement. In the minds of the right-wing Social-Democrats, of such theorists as Bernstein or of such politicians as MacDonald, this view came to amount to a complete repudiation of any idea of the class struggle as the main historical determinant.

We know only too well what was the fate of this theory, and of the practice which was based upon it. The theory became bankrupt, the practice became treachery. There is now conclusive evidence that Marx was not wrong when he placed the class struggle in the centre of his picture of human history as its great determining factor. It is equally clear that Marx was right when he foretold that every national capitalism would congeal into stagnation at home and would burst out into imperialist aggression abroad. There is, moreover, conclusive evidence that democratic institutions cannot be relied upon as guarantees of capitalist acquiescence in the assumption of power on the part of the working class. We now know that labour governments such as the two British Labour governments in the 1920s or the Blum administration in the 1930s, which rely on the normal capitalist process of profit-making to sustain the economy and provide employment for the population while social reforms are being carried through, are engulfed in a marsh of economic stagnation. We now know that labour movements such as the German or Austrian, which rely on their opponents’ maintaining the framework of democratic institutions, merely prepare the way for the Fascist tyrants and torturers.

We know also that the Left or Left-Centre sub-variety of this general Social-Democratic point of view leads to no better results. The leading exponent of this Left-Centre view was Kautsky in Germany, and much its ablest practitioner was Otto Bauer in Austria. It is true that the Austrian movement, dominated by the ideas of Bauer, did fight for its existence. But it fought so late (after, on Bauer’s own admission, surrendering, out of a fetishistic respect for democracy, all opportunities of success to its opponents) that the unfortunate Austrian workers could save nothing but their honour.

The Leninist Way

As the alternative and antithesis to this Social-Democratic point of view, there has grown up during the past forty years the Communist, or Leninist, view, of how the working class may hope to take power. This view is based on the following foundations.

First, it re-emphasises Marx’s insistence on the clash of class interests as the essential determining factor of human history. Lenin did not, on the whole, suggest that the class struggle is the sole determinant of historical events, though he came near to doing so. A good deal of the contemporary doctrine of the International appears to me to do this.

Second, it is laid down that the existence, or non-existence, of democratic s in any given community is basically irrelevant to the question of how the working-class movement may get power. Lenin never suggested that democracy itself, that is, the ideal of government on behalf of, and by, the people, was not of supreme importance. On the contrary, he reiterated that the achievement of the maximum degree of democracy possible, even while capitalism was still in existence, was a matter of the greatest importance. And he wrote that the object of a working-class regime, on its political side, was, precisely, to perfect and complete democracy in every possible way (for example, his famous passage on the necessity of associating every cook in the actual work of governing the Soviet Union).

Lenin unquestionably regarded Socialism as indissolubly connected with the practice of the fullest and freest possible democratic institutions imaginable. Nor, I repeat, did Lenin despise democratic institutions in capitalist states, in the sense that he denied the importance of these institutions to the labour movement. He was never an anti-Parliamentarian in the old Glasgow sense. He was, and, of course, so is the Communist International today, thoroughly in favour of the use by the working-class movement, for its own purposes, of every scrap of democracy and political liberty which may exist in any given country.

But Lenin did reiterate his settled conviction that in every country of the world, including the great Western democracies (that is, Britain, France and America), there was no possibility that the transition to a collectivised Socialist economy could be made within the democratic framework. He repeatedly stated the view that the class struggle would inevitably rise to such a white heat that one side or the other would be bound to break through this democratic framework during the course of the painful transition to Socialism. For this reason, he bade the British labour movement, for example, to ‘prepare for a heavy civil war’. This was not because Lenin desired a civil war, or underestimated the horrors and tragedies which it would produce, but because he regarded any hope that the transition to Socialism in such a community as Britain could be achieved without such a civil war as a dangerous illusion, the existence of which would inevitably result, not in the avoidance of civil war, but in the workers’ defeat in the civil war when it did come.

Third, from this view of democracy, Lenin derived his re-emphasis of Marx’s and Engels’ theory of the state. He, like them, saw the state as exclusively an organ of class rule, and he laid special emphasis on a particular passage in Marx where the latter writes (in connection with the Paris Commune) that the working class cannot take over the existing state apparatus, but must break it to pieces and set up a new apparatus of its own. Lenin gave to this statement of Marx’s an extremely wide and deep application. This doctrine, for him, did not mean merely that the working class, when it got power, would need to sack most, or all, of the civil servants, functionaries, etc, of the old state. Lenin meant that the existing institutions, including, for example, Parliament, the Army and Navy and Air Force, all the organs of local government, the educational system, etc, must be completely destroyed, and alternative and different institutions serving analogous functions for the working class must be set up. Thus, Soviets must succeed Parliament as the representative institutions of the community; a new and Red Army, Navy and Air Force must take the place of the old Army, Navy and Air Force, which must be dispersed; a new apparatus of local government must be created and the whole existing machinery destroyed; and so on in regard to all the organisations of public life. Since this was so, Lenin argued, it was absolutely clear that the framework of democracy and legality would be broken through in the course of the struggle. For while it was possible to imagine that the working class might be able to take over the existing machinery and govern by democratic means, it was impossible to imagine that anything except a working-class dictatorship, capable of forcibly crushing all capitalist resistance, could accomplish this immense and, in his view, indispensable task of breaking up all established public institutions and substituting new ones for them.

Fourth, Lenin re-emphasised Marx’s prediction of the inevitability of the growth of capitalist monopoly. He does not, as a matter of fact, lay much emphasis on the declining rate of profit, although, of course, he accepts it, or on the inevitable emergence of a strong tendency to stagnation within the highly developed and industrialised countries. It was, however, the appearance of this tendency to stagnation as one of the dominant characteristics of capitalism after 1918 which, above all in Britain, exposed the bankruptcy of Social-Democratic practice, as exemplified by the two MacDonald administrations. It was certainly this factor which above all opened my eyes to the fact that MacDonald’s strategy must bring ruin to every labour movement which adopted it. If, for example, it had not been for the tendency of capitalism in its present decline to run into vast and profound economic depressions, such as that of 1929, and to fail to recover completely from these depressions, it might well have been that the British labour movement would, in spite of everything, have secured a steadily increasing grip upon power in Britain. (Indeed, I have always believed that, in spite of the onset of these depressions and of the ever-deepening general tendency to stagnation, the labour movement might well have continued to thrive and grow, if its leaders had made any vigorous attempt to cope with the onset of stagnation.)

Fifth, Lenin laid his main economic emphasis on the corollary to his acceptance of Marx’s prediction of economic decline. Capitalism’s only way of meeting, and, for a time, overcoming, this decline was to turn to all-round imperialist expansion. This, because of the unevenness of capitalist development as between the rival empires, inevitably led to recurrent imperialist wars.

The Revolutionary Defeatist Conclusion

It was, perhaps, historical events themselves rather than Lenin’s own doctrine which gave overwhelming significance to the final conclusion to Lenin’s analysis. Lenin never laid it down that the only opportunity for the working class to get power lay in the occurrence of one of these inter-imperialist wars. But the fact that the only occasion on which the workers did get power arose as a result of imperialist war inevitably led to this implication being derived from the general Leninist view. The Russian Communist Party got power on behalf of the Russian workers as a result, moreover, of the specific application of Lenin’s ‘revolutionary defeatist’ policy, applied in an imperialist war.

The revolutionary defeatist policy has already been explained in these pages. [2] From the point of view of the struggle for power, what is important to note is that this strategy, successfully executed by means of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1917, did lead to the crushing of all capitalist resistance and to the socialisation of Russian industry. In the midst of the present war, therefore, it is inevitable that this revolutionary defeatist strategy, designed to culminate in what may be called the Brest-Litovsk gambit, should appear to some as the real culmination and essence of Leninism. The question of the hour is: can the workers of the West get power by this method? Can they get power, that is to say, by a relentless intensification of the class struggle, when their bourgeoisie is engaged in war, thus securing the defeat of that bourgeoisie at the hands of its imperialist rival, and then beating off that rival in the moment of his victory? If this strategy will work in the 1940s in the West, as it worked in 1917 in the East, then Leninism, as the doctrine has been developed by the Communist International over the past twenty years, will have proved itself justified. But if not, not.

The Available Evidence

Has, then, the present war yet provided us with evidence which indicates whether the Leninist strategy, culminating in revolutionary defeatism and the Brest-Litovsk gambit, is still a practicable road by which the working class may seek to achieve power? This war has already witnessed the defeat of the bourgeoisie of a number of small powers, and of one great power. It may be extremely difficult to interpret the evidence afforded by these events, but it is certain that they do afford evidence which it would be criminal for the labour movement to refuse to consider.

At first sight, at any rate, the fact that sticks out from these events is that neither in the case of the collapse of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium, nor in the case of the collapse of France was there the slightest sign of an attempt, even, on the part of the working-class forces to use the supposed opportunity of the debacle of their own bourgeoisie to take power into their own hands. It may be said, and with considerable truth, that this fact is not of great significance in the case of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland or Belgium. These were small states essentially subsidiary to the Great Powers, only partially and in varying degrees independent. Hence the collapse of the bourgeoisies of these states cannot be regarded as first-rate world political events. It may be claimed that, if the bourgeoisie of such states as these are conquered by a neighbouring imperialist power, there is no opportunity for the workers to take power, for the imperialist forces rapidly occupy the whole of the territory, preventing any possibility of a Brest-Litovsk peace. This is quite true. At the same time, it is remarkable that in the case of the collapse of none of these small states did the revolutionary wing of the working-class movement emerge as a national leadership, rallying the people in any form of struggle against the imperialist power which had occupied the country.

But in any event this objection does not apply in the case of the collapse of the French bourgeoisie. Here we have a classical example of what in fact happens when ‘one’s own’ bourgeoisie is defeated in the present war. The French Communist Party, by far the most powerful and effective in Western Europe, had pursued the revolutionary defeatist policy, from the moment of its adoption by the International, with undeviating thoroughness and vigour. They had devoted all their great energies and considerable resources to persuading the French people that this was an unjust imperialist war, fought out between the rival bourgeoisies of Europe, for a redivision of colonial spoils. In particular the French people were, they said, being used as the catspaw of the great financial interests of the City of London; the French people, the Communists reiterated, had nothing to gain by fighting in such a war. The extent to which the French Communist Party succeeded in permeating the French people, and the French Army in particular, with this point of view is a matter of heated controversy. But at any rate it did its level best for nine months along these lines.

Thus the stage was precisely set last May for a repetition of the Brest-Litovsk gambit in the event of a defeat of the French bourgeoisie. And I can confirm from my own experience what has been said by a previous writer in this volume, [3] that members of the Communist International in this country confidently and eagerly expected from one day to the next that, as the German armies rolled over the plains of Northern France, risings would take place in Paris and throughout unoccupied territory; the French workers would assume power; a separate peace of a Brest-Litovsk character would be offered to the Germans: if they accepted it, a Red France would be organised in unoccupied territory; if the Germans refused such a peace, national working-class resistance would be organised.

I went on to record before the French defeat, that this glowing prospect was, unfortunately, a total illusion. I judged it to be an illusion because of four or five specific factors of difference between the situation in Western Europe in 1940 and that which existed in Eastern Europe in 1917. It seemed to me impossible to anticipate that the working class of one of the Western bourgeoisies, defeated by the Germans in this war, would have the slightest opportunity of taking or of retaining power. I felt sufficient confidence in this pessimistic conclusion to cause me in April to repudiate the revolutionary defeatist line of the International, as one which must lead, not to working-class, but to Fascist, triumph in the present situation. But I could not help hoping passionately that I was wrong. I awaited the event, at the time of the collapse of France, only too anxious to confess my error, if in fact the French working class were able to seize their opportunity.

The Test In France

As we all know, the event confirmed the most negative possible judgement as to the opportunity for working-class power being reached along the revolutionary defeatist road. Not only did the French working class not take power, but the French Communist Party was unable to make any gesture even towards doing so.

It is, of course, because of the primary importance of the evidence afforded by the military defeat of the French bourgeoisie that controversy rages so viciously on this subject. There is nothing which members of the Communist Party so passionately resent as the statement that the nine months of revolutionary defeatist work put in by the French party played any part in producing the actual defeat. But as a matter of fact, all this controversy is more or less irrelevant. There is very little point in demonstrating that, of course, it was the French Fascists who betrayed the country; that Social-Democratic weakness and vacillation played an important part in that betrayal; that the French Communist Party was not in undisputed leadership of the French working class. All that is obvious. These facts were part of the objective situation which had to be weighed in estimating whether the revolutionary defeatist line had a chance of success. (As a matter of fact, the French Communist Party was probably more rather than less influential in the French working class before the French collapse of 1940 than were the Bolsheviks in Russia before the 1917 revolution.) The remarkable and undeniable fact remains that when history struck the balance it was found utterly impossible to make any move even towards carrying through the Brest-Litovsk gambit.

The fundamental factors which have made it impossible to win power today by means of the revolutionary defeatist line have already been set out in this volume. [4] If I may be forgiven for briefly recapitulating them for the purpose of the present argument, they are:

1) The difference in the geographical situation – in the fact that in the West there is no Siberia to retire to if need be.

2) The decisive change in military technique since 1917; the appearance of the tank and the bomber, making possible conquest and occupation, even of a Great Power, at an incomparably more rapid pace than ever before. (Roughly speaking, the speed of an advancing army remained constant from the time of Julius Caesar to 1939: it was the speed of a marching infantryman. Today it is the speed of a motorised unit, say thirty to forty miles an hour, and, so far as advanced artillery preparation is concerned, the speed of a bombing aeroplane, two or three hundred miles an hour.) Moreover, this change in military technique (it is, of course, a reflection of the productive forces having reached a new level of development) is even more important in respect of the possibility of holding down indefinitely a hostile population than in respect of the initial conquest.

3) The psychological, subjective, difference in the attitude of mind of the peoples of the Western democratic capitalisms today and the attitude of mind of the Russian workers and peasants in 1917, towards their respective bourgeoisies. This difference makes it an obvious psychological impossibility first to destroy, by means of revolutionary defeatist propaganda, the people’s will to resist the imperialist antagonist, and then to mobilise and organise resistance l'outrance, first to their own bourgeoisie, and then to the imperialist antagonist, if he still persists in his attack.

4) The character and importance of Fascism as a new and higher form of imperialism, capable of destroying the very roots of the working-class movement in any country which it occupies, to a degree inconceivable to the older imperialisms of Lenin’s day.

I had come to these conclusions last spring, before the matter was put to the test. Now the matter has been tested out, and these conclusions turn out to have been correct. No doubt it may be said that the evidence afforded by the collapse of a single Great Power, that is, France, is not conclusive; that although the conquest of French imperialism by German imperialism offered no opportunity for the French workers to take power, yet the conquest of British imperialism by German imperialism, for instance, would offer the British workers an opportunity to take power. To this we can only reply that, in the case of historical and political events, if you wait for conclusive evidence you will always wait until it is too late. It is true that we should not know with mathematical certainty that the conquest of a rival bourgeoisie by a Fascist power did not offer the working class of that bourgeoisie any opportunity to take power, until the last of such bourgeoisies had been conquered by Fascism. But when that had happened our certain knowledge would be of purely academic and posthumous interest.

Soviet Help

An important counter argument is often advanced in this connection. It is sometimes admitted by the spokesmen of the Communist International that the above-mentioned factors have made the revolutionary defeatist strategy more difficult. But, it is argued, this increased difficulty is more than counterbalanced by the great new factor of the existence of the Soviet Union. It is true, it is argued, that it is more difficult for a working class taking power in the face of a successful German invasion, for example, to maintain itself, because of tanks and bombers. But today a working class in that position would have the invaluable assistance of the Soviet Union.

This is a real factor, which certainly should not be lost sight of. But if, as has been shown in Chapter IV, [5] it played no part whatever in the actual example which we have before us: if the question of Soviet intervention on behalf of the French workers could not even arise, for the French workers never had an opportunity to take power, and if they had, their crushing by the German Panzerdivisionen and the German Air Force would have been literally a matter of hours; what possible reason or assurance could we have that the Soviet Union would be in a better position to intervene on behalf of the British workers, for example, in a comparable situation? Great Britain is even more geographically remote from the Soviet Union than is France. It is even smaller. It would be, in the event of the defeat of the British bourgeoisie, even easier to occupy completely by mechanised forces, or to destroy totally by air bombardment. To think that the Soviet Union, with the best will in the world, could save a working-class British government, taking power somewhere on the farther side of the Pennines after a British defeat by Germany, is the saddest little piece of wishful thinking which has been put forward in the whole controversy.

What To Do?

If it has to be admitted, as sooner or later it will have to be, that the revolutionary defeatist, Brest-Litovsk, line is no longer applicable to the situation of the West, what has to be done? The other, or Social-Democratic, method of reaching power was exhaustively tried out in the twenty years between the two great wars, and was shown to be bankrupt. It is impossible to return to it. There remains, in my opinion, the approach originally advocated by Engels in his Preface to Class Struggles in France. It would not be accurate to call this a centrist line, attempting to find a half-way house between the Social-Democratic and Communist policies. It is rather a third approach, different from either.

There is, as a matter of fact, a good deal of evidence which could be produced (see, for example, Lenin’s endorsement of Engels’ denunciation of those who refused to make compromises with the bourgeoisie, Selected Works, Volume 6, page 208, [6] and the whole of ‘Left-Wing’ Communism) [7] that Lenin hoped and expected the Communist parties of the West would adopt what I will call for short this Engelean attitude to the struggle for power. At any rate, such an attitude might be held to be compatible with Lenin’s views. However, controversies as to what a dead man would or would not have thought are never very fruitful.

The Engelean approach is one to which many spokesmen of the International and, for that matter, many Left-Wing Social Democrats, have paid lip service from time to time. It is the obvious attitude of combining effectively legal work, that is, the very utmost use of the democratic institutions of the community, with the repudiation of all illusions that the governing class will certainly and in all circumstances adhere to these democratic institutions. But today such an approach will have to be based upon one new factor in the situation. It is this. There is no longer the slightest doubt that a new method of carrying on a capitalist, or rather perhaps quasi-capitalist, economy has been found. During the past ten years it has been found possible to combat, in some cases effectively, the hitherto overwhelming tendency to stagnation of capitalism in its present phase of decline. This has been done by means of a characteristic system of central controls. These central controls are based above all on financial control. The possibility of their development has arisen from the growth of monopoly in the banking field, which has produced a change in the nature of money itself, which ceases to be a commodity and becomes an instrument for the conscious control of the economic system. (Marx, as a matter of fact – Kapital, III, 607 – foresaw that this might happen.) [8]

We now know that this system of controls may be set up under ultra-reactionary, or Fascist, auspices. If so it will be used for the purposes of imperialist conquest. Or it may be set up, as in the case of the New Deal in America, with a welfare objective in view, and be used, as on the whole it has been in America, for raising the standard of life. In a sentence, the controls may be used for either a welfare or a warfare objective. There is now no doubt that this new possibility of the further development of capitalism exists.

According to Marx, no economic system ever disappears until the last possibility of its development has been exhausted. Therefore, it is idle to think that we can jump over this stage. On the contrary, it must be lived through. The only question at issue is whether it will be lived through in the Fascist, German style or in the New Deal, American style. That is still an open question so far as Great Britain is concerned. The answer to it depends very largely on whether or not we prevent our defeat at the hands of Fascism in this war. But it depends also upon whether the Left, and above all the thinking, conscious, Marxist Left, recognises that this is the phase of development which we are in. Effective political action today is quite impossible unless it is realised that the class struggle is being, and will be in the next phase, fought out precisely over the question of who is to use the central controls which are being set up, and which will be set up with ever-increasing rapidity.

It is a sign of the profound intellectual ossification (or tendency to bone in the head) of most Marxist thinkers in this country that they utterly refuse to recognise the existence of such facts as these. Because these facts may not be pleasant, because they upset preconceived notions, they are just ignored, and immense pressure is put upon everyone to ignore them also. All those who are incapable of genuinely thinking for themselves yield to this pressure, and Marxist thinking, which should be the most illuminating of all guides to action, becomes a set of blinkers.

If it is asked, how in detail, by employing the Engelean approach, can we win the central controls for welfare instead of for profits, the answer is that such blueprints are a question of tactics and not of strategy, with which I am here exclusively concerned. Questions of that kind can be answered in action alone. But one thing is certain; there can be no successful action if the strategy is wrong, and if at the same time a crucial new factor in the situation is ignored.


1. Friedrich Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850, – MIA.

2. This refers to Victor Gollancz’s articles ‘Where Are You Going?’ and ‘"Revolutionary Defeatism” and Its Development in CP Policy’, Chapters I and IV of The Betrayal of the Left – MIA.

3. This refers to ‘The Communists in France’, Chapter II of The Betrayal of the Left – MIA.

4. This refers to Victor Gollancz’s article ‘"Revolutionary Defeatism” and Its Development in CP Policy’, Chapter IV of The Betrayal of the Left – MIA.

5. This refers to Victor Gollancz’s article ‘"Revolutionary Defeatism” and Its Development in CP Policy’, Chapter IV of The Betrayal of the Left – MIA.

6. VI Lenin, ‘On Compromises’, Collected Works, Volume 25, available at – MIA.

7. VI Lenin, ‘“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder’, Collected Works, Volume 31, available at – MIA.

8. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3, Chapter XXXII – MIA.