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Marxism, Revolutionary Waves, and the Theory of the Weakest Link

Some Comments on Albamonte’s “The Marxist Method and the Present Time of Crisis, Wars, and Revolutions.”

Rob Lyons

March 15, 2021
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Left Voice has reproduced an important contribution to the understanding of the present state of the global class struggle. Written by Argentinian Marxist Emilio Albamonte in preparation for the national conference of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) and published beforehand to initiate discussion among all segments of the Argentinian Left, it was unfortunately overshadowed by the onset of the Trump attack on the U.S. Capitol and the New Year’s holidays.

An Important Contribution

Argentine Marxist Emilio Albamonte has produced an important contribution to an understanding of the state of the global class struggle and the historical dynamics underlying the processes producing today’s political situation.

Albamonte’s analysis is titled “The Marxist Method and the Present Time of Crisis, Wars, and Revolutions” — a title drawn from Lenin and Trotsky’s dictums that the First World War opened an epoch whose primary characteristics were these, an epoch that would, as Rosa Luxemburg famously declared, would end in either socialism or barbarism. Although Albamonte’s analysis was designed as part of the PTS’s ongoing internal discussion, it has international relevance for the Left in the imperialist countries of North America and Europe.

This document is long and has areas that are country specific, so I don’t intend to delve into the contents of these sections. There are, however, three areas of the analysis that need elaboration, because they contain assumptions about theoretical issues that are not common coin among North American leftists. This is partly because there is so little theoretical discussion among the different components of the North American Left, but is more strongly linked to the nature of Marxism itself.

The Development of the Marxist Method of Analysis

The Marxist method is not a recipe book or cookbook from which certain concepts are learned by rote and then applied mechanically to a different set of political and historical circumstances. Neither is it something that can be reduced to an academic syllabus and taught in abstraction from the real living class struggle of the society, but it’s very nature is to enrich itself as a result of that struggle.

Where the class struggle is at a low level for prolonged periods, the development of Marxist theory stagnates, as do the organizations of Marxists, becoming numerically and theoretically weaker as the years roll on.

There are, however, places where the class struggle is continually renewing itself, where periods of prolonged social and economic crisis create social shocks and uprisings. These in turn produce different forms of political domination, from overt military dictatorships to “left” Bonapartist and reformist governments of the Chavez and Morales variety. In such places, revolutionary Marxists must develop a theoretical conceptualization that enriches their understanding of the world and the classes in struggle.

To illustrate this point, let’s examine the question of Bonapartism as a characteristic of the Trump political regime. Before 2016, very few commentators on the U.S. Left would proclaim that there was a tendency toward the establishment of such a regime. After Trump’s election, some sectors of the Latin American Left quickly explained two fundamental points as to the meaning of his election. The first point was that his election represented a turning point in the strategic direction of U.S. imperialism, and that it was as a result of the weakening of the hegemonic position within the Western imperialist bloc.

The second point, which few in North America understood at the time, was that Trump’s imperial presidential ambitions were Bonapartist, and that he espoused a weak form of Bonapartism more akin to what appeared in Europe before the Second World War.

Both points of analysis were proved correct, and the North American Left was forced to deal with the concept of Bonapartism, how or if it was applicable, what it meant for the class struggle in the United States, and so forth.

The change in the nature of the class struggle, signaled by the emergence of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and framed by the cynical and manipulative Obama presidency, whose crass warmongering and neoliberalism helped lay the basis for the emergence of the Democratic Socialists of America, and whose disillusionment was crystallized by the Sanders insurgency within the Democratic Party. This required the Left to develop an analysis of the Trump presidency’s Bonapartist nature, which is to say that it was enriching itself from the living forces of the class struggle itself.

When the history of the class struggle in Latin America is examined in this light, the vast body of Marxist analysis makes assumptions that are often missed by readers from outside that tradition. It is not so much a problem of linguistic translation, but a problem of translating experiences common to one audience, but not another.

There are thus three areas of Albamonte’s document that need to be “translated” into a North American and European context. They are (1) his use of the Trotskyist Marxist method, which is applicable in an imperialist country; (2) the notion of the “weakest link,” and (3) the concept of the revolutionary wave. All three are interconnected in their implications for political practice by revolutionary Marxist organizations in the imperialist countries.

Imperialist Dynamics and the State of Capitalist Equilibriums

Albamonte begins his analysis by stressing the importance of the use of the Marxist method to understand the nature of the class struggle today. He reiterates the basic revolutionary Marxist understanding of imperialism, that it is a global system whose dynamics are more than the sum of its national parts and whose fundamental tendencies of development shape national developments, no matter how strong any individual imperialist nation may be.

Trotsky, writing in The Permanent Revolution, Postulate 10, expressed it this way:

The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. One of the basic reasons for the crisis in bourgeois society is the fact that the productive forces created by it can no longer be reconciled with the framework of the national state. From this follows on the one hand, imperialist wars, on the other, the utopia of a bourgeois United States of Europe. The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion, only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.

The system is dynamic, constantly structuring and restructuring itself and thereby the global working class. Albamonte identifies three major components of this system: the economic tendencies, the interstate relations, and the class struggle. Of these three he identifies the class struggle as the most important in initiating the periodic economic, social, and political crises that are a feature of capitalist dynamic equilibrium.

How does this analysis apply to the imperialist countries? Taking China and U.S. relations as an example, the history of the past few decades illustrates this process very well. Ever since “Disco” Deng Shu Peng danced at the New Year’s Eve party at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, imperialist capital has flowed into China, creating a massive new working class while slowly eroding the productive basis of the major capitalist economies themselves; destroying whole industries and cities in the process, displacing tens of millions of workers, from Akron, Ohio, to Sheffield, England; from Toulouse, France; Milan, Italy, and Belfast, Ireland, to Charleroi, Belgium, and Umea, Sweden.

This economic process has created a contradictory interstate political environment, where China, now the largest holder of U.S. foreign debt on the one hand, has become the bête noir of U.S. imperialism as China’s growth in technology challenges that of the mega-national corporations like Intel, Alphabet, and Amazon, and more importantly, has been developed within the framework of China’s national defense policy and military production, thereby threatening the dominance of the U. S. military-industrial-technology complex in the field of arms sales.

While the U.S. has handed its space exploration program, and all the technological prowess that it engenders, to modern-day robber barons like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the Chinese government has quickly pushed ahead with a series of projects that easily match those of present-day U.S. capabilities.

Yet a class struggle dynamic is unleashed by these processes, whether it is the massive number of Chinese workers fighting sweat shops and repressive social conditions in the coastal cities of southern China, or a new and combative layer of young workers organizing in the United States logistics sector, a sector built to deliver the goods produced in those same Chinese sweatshops. This struggle is itself both driving and exposing the contradictions created by capitalist restructuring.

These processes are conditioned by the interaction and relationships between its components. For example, the struggle of the Chinese working class has forced the Stalinist bureaucracy of the Chinese CP to move in the direction of creating an internal market, the success of which depends on the relative prosperity of the workers themselves, of wage increases which allows consumer consumption.

The moves in this direction has resulted in a slowdown of foreign direct investment (FDI), in some cases a withdrawal of capital from China and an investment in lower-wage areas, like the garment industry in the horrible sweatshop conditions of Bangladesh. This, of course, creates another new working-class component as the rural youth of Bangladesh are drawn into the cities to escape the grinding poverty and lack of opportunity for a decent existence there, only to be another casualty of capitalist exploitation.

These developments occur independently of any overall plan. They are produced and reproduced because of the exigencies of imperialism, a system into which all nation-states on earth are bound. It is this relentless global process that causes the periodic national crises, leading to wars, uprising, victories, and defeats of the global working class.

When the imperialist system is in crisis, as it is now owing to the fall in the rate of profit on a global basis, the tempo of these crises increases, and results in an upturn in the global class struggle, creating more dangers of regional or global warfare, and more opportunities for revolutionary rupture. Albamonte terms this situation “incipiently pre-revolutionary,” and in a polemic with the former leader of the Partido Obrero, Jorge Altamira, explains what this means in the context of Argentina:

Today, capitalism faces ever-greater difficulties. It contains them through partial concessions, but it cannot contain the profound contradictions that run through it. In the case of interstate contradictions, as Claudia Cinatti’s article on the international situation points out, even though Biden has won, there can be no return to the situation before Trump’s inauguration. The conflict with Russia will continue; the conflict with China will continue; regional conflicts will continue. We are facing a scenario full of interstate tensions and growing difficulties for the accumulation of capital. Revolutionary and military responses are inscribed in the situation. We revolutionaries believe that although the situation is complex and although the revolution is full of difficulties, it is a much more realistic solution than the reformist proposals that ultimately don’t solve anything and lead ever-greater masses to poverty. Capitalism has found a limit to its accumulation since the 1970s, and its crises are more recurrent and profound.

This does not mean that the present crisis is the final one, nor the final war, nor the final class struggle, nor the final proletarian revolution; claiming that would be ridiculous. But in each of the processes that arise, we can advance in the construction of a proletarian party, and many of these processes can open up a revolutionary perspective.”

The Theory of the Weakest Link

Both Lenin and Trotsky advocated the theory of the weakest link (and its corollary, the revolutionary wave), both explicitly and implicitly in their writings on both the causes and perspectives of the Russian and European revolutions.

Briefly, the weakest link theory posits that the chains of imperialism will be broken at those links where the contradiction between the growth of the productive forces and the weakness of the national bourgeoisie can no longer contain the class struggle within normal channels, but forces the masses onto the stage of history to forge their own destiny, to break the chains that bind the social development of society, and to use the productive forces already developed to benefit humanity, and not the bank accounts of the ruling classes.

In the case of czarist Russia, as is the case for a vast swath of the earth’s population in the former colonial world, such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America, imperialism and its allies, the national oligarchies, heap on the masses of these areas a burden so heavy that at some point it becomes intolerable, that the increase in suffering outweighs the ability of the underdeveloped productive forces to alleviate it. An imperialist system in crisis means an increase in suffering as the national bourgeoisie attempts to place the burden of this crisis on the already overloaded backs of the working masses.

In his speech to the youth of the Danish social democratic party in 1932, Trotsky explained this process:

The fact that the proletariat reached power for the first time in such a backward country as the former Tsarist Russia seems mysterious only at a first glance; in reality it is fully in accord with historical law. It could been predicted, and it was predicted. Still more, on the basis of the prediction of this fact the revolutionary Marxists built up their strategy long before the decisive events.

The first and most general explanation is: Russia is a backward country, but only a part of world economy, only an element of the capitalist world system. In this sense Lenin solved the enigma of the Russian Revolution with the lapidary formula, “The chain broke at its weakest link.”

A crude illustration: the Great War, the result of the contradictions of world imperialism, drew into its maelstrom countries of different stages of development, but made the same claims on all the participants. It is clear that the burdens of the war would be particularly intolerable for the most backward countries. Russia was the first to be compelled to leave the field. But to tear itself away from the war, the Russian people had to overthrow the ruling classes. In this way the chain of war broke at its weakest link.

Still, war is not a catastrophe coming from outside like an earthquake, but, as old Clausewitz said, the continuation of politics by other means. In the last war, the main tendencies of the imperialistic system of “peace” time only expressed themselves more crudely. The higher the general forces of production, the tenser the competition on the world markets, the sharper the antagonisms and the madder the race for armaments, so much the more difficult it became for the weaker participants. That is precisely why the backward countries assumed the first places in the succession of collapse. The chain of world capitalism always tends to break at its weakest link.

History has confirmed the prognosis of Trotsky and Lenin. The socialist revolutions in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Cuba have all been in countries where the internal contradictions shaped by imperialism allowed the masses to break the imperialist chains that bound them to their suffering.

There is no reason to expect that to change, and thus as Trotsky pointed out:

It could have been predicted and it was predicted … on the basis of the prediction of this fact, the revolutionary Marxists built up their strategy long before the decisive events.

The Coming Revolutionary Wave

Based on the preceding analysis, the idea of a socialist revolution in one of the imperialist countries of North America might seem a utopian hope. Such an idea, however, is a mechanical interpretation of the weakest link, for it ignores the concept’s corollary.

Albamonte explains it this way:

We are fighting for a socialist society in which everyone gives to society according to their ability and takes from society what they need to survive…. Our goal is to develop the revolution in the international arena, and we know that this process cannot be completed if the U.S. proletariat does not manage to disarm the madness of weapons of all kinds — including nuclear weapons — in the arsenals of U.S. imperialism.

The United States spends almost $750 billion a year on the military, to make nuclear submarines, Tomahawk missiles, stealth aircraft, nuclear weapons, and so on. The state cannot provide universal health care, but it spends so much on defense — it’s almost twice what 45 million Argentineans produce in a year. The working masses in the United States have shown great vitality in the fight against racism in response to the murder of George Floyd. This is expressed not only in the shift to the Left when they voted for Sanders, who is a reformist, but in direct struggles, in the mobilization that took place, some peaceful and some violent. The U.S. proletariat can also be moved by a wave of revolutions that will not necessarily begin in the U.S. but could begin in weaker countries, as happened with the Russian Revolution, for example. Communism went from being marginal to being an important movement in Latin America thanks to the Russian Revolution. That is the norm: revolutions spread and win sympathy, and if they succeed in reducing work hours and making it possible for everyone to live more dignified lives, this would be an enormous example for the workers of the whole world to disarm the madness of their ruling classes.

What is a revolutionary wave, and how does it make an impact on the global class struggle? Without going into vast amounts of detail, revolutionary waves are connected to the long-wave cycles of capitalist development, in which periods of relative capitalist prosperity, tracked by a rising rate of profit on a global basis, are then replaced by long periods in which the rate of profit tends to fall, the result of which is the creation of the economic, social, and political crisis, which the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called “an organic crisis,” that is, one that is not a conjunctural phenomenon but has an epochal quality.

These waves are never linear, but have within themselves periods of advancement and retreat. They are akin to the tidal cycles. When the tide is on the flood, even though the waves advance and retreat, the general motion is advancement, with the strength of the individual wave gaining in magnitude. When it is on the wane, the same movement occurs, but in the opposite direction, with each individual wave fighting the retreat of the general direction of movement.

The same can be said of revolutionary and nonrevolutionary periods in history. Even though 1914 opened the epoch of wars and revolutions, it has seen periods of advancement that produced the Russian Revolution, the Hungarian Soviet, the Chinese Revolution, the failed German Revolution, the failed Spanish Revolution, and the Second World War and its aftermaths, as well as periods of retreat when revolutionary ruptures were few and far between, or aborted halfway.

The retreat of the revolutionary wave is also the advance of the counterrevolutionary one, symbolized by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and before that the split between the Chinese and Soviet bureaucracies, and their rapprochement with imperialism (the most grotesque form being the Chinese labeling the Soviet Union a bigger threat than imperialism).

According to Albamonte’s analysis, the current period is one of incipient prerevolutionary waves; that the contradictions of imperialist crisis are overdetermining class struggle as the dominant force in capitalist equilibrium; and that there is an urgency to building revolutionary parties and international organizations to take advantage of the coming uprisings and rebellions.

The Material Basis for Revolutionary Waves

Revolutionary waves are not just a theoretical concept but form an important part of understanding history. One can reach back into the late Middle Ages and see the influence that the ideas of Martin Luther had throughout Europe, as the changing feudal modes of production, and a general increase in the cultural level of the masses produced by the Renaissance, combined to inspire the peasantry across Europe to fight for the good of the commons, an early expression of primitive communism.

Those early expressions live on today, whether it is the celebration of the Diggers and Levelers in English folk songs, or in actual living communities like the descendants of the original Anabaptist movements found in North America, like the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Hutterites. (The latter sect still lives in a communal lifestyle, holding all their goods in common, with housing, food, and all basic needs and amenities provided by the colony for all its members, and a place for all in the work and life of the community.)

The generalized struggles throughout Europe didn’t arise spontaneously but were formed by the change in material circumstances, and whose central messages were spread by the landless peasants and the traveling poets and storytellers, the vagabonds of the period. These revolutionary ideas became a material force when the oppressed peasants saw them as viable and attractive, and acted on them to revolt against their oppression.

The year 1848 is symbolic for its revolutionary history in that it was the culmination of the revolutionary wave that began with Cromwell, ran through the American revolution and Thomas Paine’s declaratory exhortations of liberty, and the French revolution’s inspiration finding its battle cries in the English Chartist movement.

The Russian Revolution and the emergence of Bolshevism quickly had an impact throughout Europe, kicking off worker-council forms of government stretching from Berlin to Budapest, and from the Don Basin of the Ukraine to Vladivostok. It inspired the North American working class to emulate its proletarian sisters and brothers in the Winnipeg and Seattle general strikes, the Vancouver general strike and the Glace Bay Soviet, and created the Third International with its mass revolutionary parties in a whole string of countries.

This revolutionary wave was created by the Russian working class seizing power, an event that shook the world, like throwing a large boulder into a pond creating waves within waves of class struggle internationally.

In Latin America, the Cuban Revolution inspired a generation of working-class militants and intellectuals to shake off the turbid reformism of the official Communist Parties and to strike out to create new revolutionary forms of organization and struggle, whether it was Che’s guerrilla foco in Bolivia or Hugo Blanco’s armed peasant unions in Peru, or Douglas Bravo’s armed front in Venezuela, the question that the Cuban Revolution put on the table of history was the that of the revolutionary overthrow of the imperialist-backed governments of the oligarchies that were and are sucking the Latin American working people dry.

In Vietnam, meanwhile, the national liberation struggle and the horrific actions of the U.S. imperialists created an international anti-war movement that raised the internationalist questions about how to defeat imperialism.

All the above are examples of how the class struggle at a national level quickly exceeds national boundaries, and becomes part of the international class struggle. So what are the implications of this for today, for North American revolutionaries and for those living in the imperialist metropolises of Europe?

When we combine the ingredients of a capitalist system in crisis, with the examples of the historical validity of the weakest link theory of revolutionary rupture, and the existence of the revolutionary wave as a transmission mechanism for the lessons of that rupture, it points to certain political consequences for revolutionary Marxists.

What Is Going to Happen?

The first of these is that we cannot expect to see a full-blown prerevolutionary crisis break out in the imperialist centers, but we can expect to experience the tremors of these social earthquakes from the South. This has been confirmed in the past decade with the mass social struggles ranging from Chile to Guatemala, and the sharp but more localized uprisings in locations like Chiapas and Oaxaca. These struggles, and the rate of multiplications of these struggles, will only increase as the social, political, and economic crisis deepens, and the class struggle becomes more and more a matter of life and death for millions upon millions of hungry people.

To understand the enormity of the problem facing Latin American workers and poor people, this report from the Food And Agriculture Organization of the United Nations puts the issue of starvation squarely on the table: “Hunger now affects 42.5 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

The second consequence is that these tremors will have a greater and greater impact on the material life of the working masses in the imperialist centers, as the capitalist-environmental crisis intersect, producing mass migrations like the ones we now see originating in the impoverished countries of Central America, creating a social dynamic that will affect the consciousness of hundreds of millions of workers in Europe and North America.

The third thing we can expect is the successful overthrow of the governments in one or a series of weakest links in Latin America, an overthrow that, given the proper circumstances, can lead to the opening of a mass socialist upsurge on a continental basis. Latin America is, as a whole, one big weak regional link in the chain of Yankee imperialism, some countries more so than others. Bolivia and Venezuela come to mind, as do all the highly imperialized countries of Central America, where the general weakness of the national oligarchies is matched by their viciousness and arrogance, racism, and venality.

The fourth element of this scenario, the one that is ultimately the most important, is the ability of the revolutionary vanguard of the masses to create political organizations strong enough, with enough legitimacy and internal cohesion, to take advantage of these revolutionary uprisings, to give it a direction and to be unafraid of seizing power and opening the road to the socialist future. Without that resolve and perspective, the revolution will go only part way, stop, and then be driven back by the forces of imperialism and its overt national allies, like Juan Guaidó or Lenín Moreno, or its pink diaper allies like Cristina Fernández or Nicolás Maduro.

Anti-imperialist Bystanders or Participants? Your Choice!

Does this mean the role of the Left in the imperialist centers is reduced to that of bystanders or cheerleaders for other people’s revolutions? Of course not, though that is a choice the Left itself will have to struggle with, whether they choose to become active participants or a ragtag group of cheerleaders siding with whatever government that they proclaim to be anti-imperialist.

That is, how the North American Left solves the question of campism versus anti-imperialism will in part determine the answer. How the preparations are made at the level of theory and practical application to leverage the coming revolutionary waves will determine, to a great extent, the outcomes.

Building a revolutionary organization as an integral part of an international movement is an absolute vital step in preparing the North American working class to develop the consciousness where it sees and understands that the liberation of those oppressed by imperialism is the key to their own freedom, that the working masses and not the bourgeois nationalists, no matter how radical sounding their verbiage, are the true liberators of their nation, their region, Our America, as Martí called it.

For North American revolutionaries, it means putting anti-imperialism at the heart of its strategy and developing a program that links escaping the misery suffered by the hundreds of millions of working people of the Americas, to the demand and struggle to end imperialism. It means building a movement that contrasts the obscene expenditures of the Pentagon and police departments with social needs — housing, health care, universal education, mass transit — and the demand for an end to layoffs and a dignified life for working people.

It means linking the fight against climate disaster by showing the links between the carbon monsters and their political cronies, from Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, from Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland to AMLO and Lenín Moreno.

It means countering the lies of the mass media about the social movements of the South, by telling the truth not only about the role that imperialism plays in subjugating the working people in all countries. It means stressing the links between the struggle of the working classes of all countries against the imperialists and their national oligarchies and their bourgeois political representatives of all stripes.

It also means educating the working classes of the imperialist centers by laying bare the real relationships of imperialism, and in doing so emphasizing the commonalities of struggle, whose highest organizational expression is the international party, but whose common struggles can be linked at sectoral levels, as the socialist women’s movement, Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses) is doing: from Mexico to Cape Horn.

For a revolutionary Left with this perspective, as the revolutionary waves emanating from the tortured social zones of the South come crashing against the walls of Fortress North America, the working class of the North will recognize them not as something to be feared but as the sound of the oppressed, crying out for solidarity and for action: “Free yourselves! Disarm our common oppressors!”

The wall that the Democrats and Republicans built at the U.S.-Mexico border is real, but it also stands as a metaphor for the relationship between the working classes of the United States, Canada, and Quebec, on the one hand, and the working masses of those south of the Rio Bravo. To paraphrase a former United States president, our cry must be “Revolutionaries of the Americas, tear down these walls!”

Contrast the hypocrisy of Reagan’s words with the line of march that history has taken since they were uttered. We can expect to hear more of this cant and cynical manipulating of the meaning of words from the pens of Biden’s speech writers, and the lips of the servile commentariat.

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Rob Lyons

Rob Lyons joined the Canadian section of the USFI in 1971, after a stint as a journalist who covered the Prague Autumn of 1968, and as political organizer for the New Democratic Youth, the left wing youth group of the Canadian labour party based on the trade unions. Until recently, he was the International Coordinator for Socialist Action/Ligue pour lÁction Socialiste, a Canadian Trotskyist organization excluded from the EUSecFI, and in that capacity attended the founding conference of the Tendency for a Revolutionary International. He has been a wilderness and air ambulance pilot, a trade union organizer, and elected union leader, and for 10 years was an elected member of the Saskatchewan, Canada, provincial legislature representing a heavily unionized, working class constituency. He presently writes political commentary and organizes from a working class barrio in southern Costa Rica.

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