With the restabilization of world capitalism in the immediate postwar period and the subsequent 25-year boom, the defense of the past gains of the working class, and the advancement of new ones, was, to a great extent, separated from the struggle for political power. Capitalist expansion saw a revival of the discredited thesis of social reformism and opportunism, and their insistence that the “actual struggles” of the working class could never transcend the framework of capitalism.
The expansion of capitalism in the postwar boom meant that there was, so to speak, an objective gap between the immediate demands of the working class and the political struggle for its long-term interests. The International Committee and its sections fought, throughout this period, to bridge this gap through the struggle to mobilize the working class around the demand that its leadership break its ties with the bourgeoisie and undertake the fight for a socialist program.
Under conditions in which material gains could be made through trade union struggles, masses of workers gave their allegiance to the social democratic and trade union leaders. The International Committee fought to break the misplaced confidence in these leaderships by bringing the working class into a political struggle against them. Large sections of the petty-bourgeois radicals denounced this tactical initiative, none more vociferously than the Spartacists. Their opposition then, as now, was to the mobilization of the working class on an independent program against the labor bureaucracy.
While the working class was able to make certain material gains on the basis of militant trade union struggles, the post-war experience by no means refutes the Marxist thesis on the relationship between reform and revolution. It has been vindicated both positively and negatively. The immediate advances in the social position of the working class, in the aftermath of the war, were a direct expression of the fear of the bourgeoisie that if concessions were not made, they would face revolutionary struggles. To be sure, the bourgeoisie was able to rely directly upon the social democratic and Stalinist leaderships, who were committed to the post-war restoration of capitalist order. But had the conditions of the 1930s returned, there would have been a significant and rapid shift of the masses to the left.
The other period of major social advance—from the end of the 1960s to the first years of the 1970s—was likewise the outcome of the potentially revolutionary struggles, stretching from the May-June 1968 events in France, to the bringing down of the Heath Tory government by the British miners in 1974.
And the Marxist thesis has received a no less powerful negative confirmation. It was precisely the separation of the struggles for its immediate interests from a socialist political perspective that left the working class unprepared for the global offensive undertaken by the bourgeoisie over the past two decades.
The essential argument that the Spartacists advance against the International Committee is one of the standard refrains of social democrats, Stalinists and opportunists of every stripe, i.e., that to tell the working class it can defend its interests only on the basis of a revolutionary program is to sow defeatism. The unspoken assumption behind this argument is the demoralized view that the working class can never achieve the degree of political consciousness and organization necessary to overthrow capitalism, thus the perspective of socialist revolution is unviable.
Spartacist’s position can be reduced to the following line of argument: The trade unions are the only legitimate form of working class organization. Their traditional program of applying pressure on the bourgeoisie is the only viable program. If these organizations and this program are no longer capable of defending the working class, then all is lost. Either one accepts the present, reformist level of political consciousness in the working class, and the organizations that uphold that consciousness, or one abandons any form of struggle.