YET AGAIN THE CRUCIAL QUESTION:
THE "CENTER"--CAN IT "HOLD"?...
SOME LESSONS FROM HISTORICAL EXPERIENCE
By Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP,USA
Revolutionary Worker #1081, December 3, 2000, posted at http://rwor.org
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article, with its discussion of contradictions within the U.S. ruling class, not only historically but in the present period, was written before the latest conflict around the U.S. presidential election. But it is noteworthy that, in the conclusion of this article, it is pointed out: "The question remains as to when and how these significant and in some ways deep divisions [within the ruling class] will again boil to the surface and with what effect, not only within the ruling class itself but more broadly in society as a whole."
There are a number of important, strategic dimensions to learn from the experience of Hannibal and his fight against the Romans. One of them has to do with the reasons why Hannibal, even after delivering a devastating defeat to the Roman army at Cannae (in what is now Italy), was not able to capture Rome itself and was ultimately unable to defeat--and was later vanquished by--Rome.1 What I'm referring to especially is how the representatives of the Roman ruling class (as concentrated in the Senate in particular) pulled together and even sacrificed their own particular interests for the greater good of Rome, in the face of the threat posed by Hannibal, especially after the devastating defeat he delivered to prize Roman legions at Cannae. In other words, in this context--even under such extreme pressure, and with significant parts of the Roman army shattered and in shambles--the Roman state was able to re-group and, as we would say, the center "held" in that case.
How does this apply to the U.S. imperialists today? We would have to say that, like the Roman ruling class of that time and its political representatives, the U.S. ruling class has so far shown a strength and resilience in being able to keep its center together, and hold its ranks together, including in conditions representing a severe test for them.
We've had the experience of the Vietnam war--where, as even Henry Kissinger had to admit, there was serious conflict within the ruling class, and correspondingly a definite political paralysis, but ultimately the imperialists were able to resolve that without its developing into a legitimacy crisis (or a Constitutional crisis), let alone a full-out revolutionary crisis. Having said that, it is important to emphasize that things did get pretty close to a serious Constitutional crisis; and we do have to consider whether even a revolutionary crisis might have developed, especially if the revolutionary movement had made further qualitative advances and, in particular, had developed an actual proletarian vanguard that could have rallied the revolutionary masses to mount a more fundamental challenge to the whole system. But, while there is definitely some value in exploring these questions up to a certain point, particularly with an eye to the future, it is also important to keep in mind that the weaknesses of the revolutionary movement at that time--including the fact that such a proletarian vanguard did not exist, and was not able to be brought into being during that period-- was itself, in certain important aspects, an expression of the character of the class struggle and the relative strengths of the contending class forces at that point.
Generally, throughout its history, it has to a large degree been a strength of the U.S. ruling class, politically--and a reflection of its underlying material strength--that it has been able to maintain its unity and cohesion and to keep the more narrow interests of particular sections of that class from overwhelming its larger interests. We are going to have to take this into account.
MacArthur, Truman and Korea
With this in mind, it is worth examining an experience which put the U.S. ruling class to a severe test during the Korean War. This had to do with MacArthur's role as the commander of U.S. forces there and his conflicts with the Truman administration, and even the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over major policy questions related to that war. It is very clear that MacArthur, on the basis of the prestige and reputation he acquired through World War 2, and his position as Far East Commander of U.S. forces, pretty much ran roughshod over the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Truman for a while, or at least set the tone and the terms of things, to which they were forced to respond, during the early stages of the Korean War.
This didn't immediately reach any kind of crisis proportions because once the U.S. imperialists re-grouped from the initial blow they took in Korea--and particularly once they went ahead with the Inchon landing--their forces were rolling up the North Koreans and winning one victory after another. There was some controversy about the Inchon landing before it was launched, and MacArthur had to insist on having his way, but he got it, at that point. It was a successful landing and did turn the tide of the war in the U.S. imperialists' favor, in the short run. They began marching pretty much uninterruptedly toward the Chinese border. All of which further increased MacArthur's prestige and power.
But, at that point, there developed a sharp division in the U.S. ruling class, over whether to carry the war to the Chinese and into China itself, which is what MacArthur wanted. He wanted to actually try to roll back the victory of the Chinese revolution--to involve Chiang Kai-shek's troops and all this kind of thing--either on the calculation that this would not become a wider war involving the Soviets or that, if it did, so be it, the U.S. would fight it through. But the U.S. ruling class rallied around Truman and rebuffed MacArthur--and it could be said that this was unfortunate for our side and our cause, in the largest strategic sense, because the implementation of MacArthur's orientation might very well have led, ultimately, to a devastating defeat for imperialism and a great qualitative advance for the world proletarian revolution, even though at the cost of tremendous destruction and the loss of perhaps tens, or even hundreds, of millions of lives.
And it is interesting and significant that the ruling class turned decisively against MacArthur only after his efforts to take the war to the Chinese began to lead to a debacle, when the Chinese entered the war in a massive way and began to administer severe defeats to the U.S. armed forces (and their allies). At that point, the U.S. ruling class was put to a serious test, because MacArthur was basically defying Truman and wanted to continue to escalate the war--not only to engage in a larger-scale fight with the Chinese in Korea, but to broaden the war, or to do things that would threaten to broaden it in a significant way--and this is when, finally, in the face of actual insubordination by MacArthur, Truman stepped in and relieved MacArthur of his command. This could have become a very serious crisis within the U.S. ruling class, and in American society as a whole, but the imperialists were able to resolve it before it developed into such a crisis. In fact, MacArthur himself ultimately accepted this, rather than rallying sections of the army against Truman, for example, and even attempting something like a coup.
This ties in with the fact that the interests of the U.S. ruling class were not fully on the line at that stage, although it should not be underestimated how serious a situation--and in a real sense, crisis--this was for the U.S. imperialists. Yet they did hold together then.2
Then, if we look at the "Vietnam era," on the one hand very sharp contradictions and conflicts developed within the U.S. ruling class, and there was a certain very real paralysis associated with that. Still, not only throughout that war but when it came to the Watergate scandal--right after the U.S. had essentially withdrawn, in defeat, from the Vietnam war--once again the ruling class held together. There was apparently noise made by Alexander Haig at that point--rumblings about mobilizing troops to surround the White House to "protect Nixon"--but Nixon himself ultimately acquiesced and resigned from office. He put up a lot of resistance and was stubborn up to a point, but ultimately he stepped down.
I think that, to a significant degree, this represented a kind of "imperialist self-sacrifice" on Nixon's part and was done out of consideration for what Nixon perceived to be the larger interests of the system and the ruling class. He resigned rather than bringing things to an all-out crisis--minimally a Constitutional crisis--which would have resulted if, for example, he refused to resign and refused to accept impeachment, and beyond that tried to rally forces to his side, even rallying parts of the army (as Haig was purportedly talking about doing). In any case, when all was said and done, the ruling class was able, once again, to hold together.
Now, here again, even with the serious crisis that Vietnam actually did bring for the system and the ruling class, this was not a case where they had no choice but to continue the war at all costs and fight it to a thorough resolution--in other words, put everything on the line. They had both the necessity but also the freedom, in those circumstances, to pull back and re-group internationally, even though it cost them some further losses in the short run. And, correspondingly, in their intra-ruling class struggle, they had the maneuvering room to work this out without it coming fully to a head.
But that's not to say that, either in the situation with MacArthur in Korea or Nixon and Vietnam (and Watergate), things couldn't have gotten more out of hand. The ruling center could have become more unraveled; the center might not have held fully. And things did get pretty close in those situations, even though they didn't get to the point of extreme crisis. Still, we do have to recognize, because it is part of the objective reality we have to deal with, that the U.S. ruling class was able, in those circumstances, to once again assert what has been a certain historic strength on its part--having to do with its underlying material strengths as well--its ability to hold together in a situation of significant crisis and strain.
At the same time, we should not forget that there has been the historical experience of the Civil War in the U.S., an all-out crisis for the ruling class (or the contending slave-owning and capitalist classes represented in the ruling structures and institutions), which literally fractured into two antagonistic camps. There was, in that situation, the particularity that this Civil War was an expression of the intensifying contradiction between two different modes of production--developing capitalism centered in the north and the slave system in the south--both of which had, up to that point, been represented in the same ruling structures and institutions. These two modes of production came into antagonism at a certain point, leading to the Civil War to resolve this antagonism. While that particularity is significant, it is not necessary for there to be conditions such as those--where there is an antagonism between forces actually representing different modes of production--in order for a crisis to erupt which qualitatively undermines the cohesion of the ruling class, contributing in a major way to a legitimacy crisis and possibly even a revolutionary crisis.
Conditions for Revolution
This question that I keep coming back to--the "center holding," or not "holding," at critical junctures--is very much bound up with points I have made elsewhere about when it would be time to launch an armed insurrection in a country like the U.S. It has to do with the orientation of hitting them at a point when the blow of the armed insurrection can cause them to "crack"--not in the sense that they literally fall apart, but that a certain dynamic sets in where, through the back and forth of the struggle--of the war--their weaknesses increasingly assert themselves, rather than a situation where you hit them and they are like a giant, rising to its full strength and then smashing with its full power the forces that have risen up against it and have struck a blow at it.
So the importance of the point about the "center (not) holding" and "legitimacy crisis" lies especially in its relation to revolutionary crisis and more particularly to the question of when is the right time to launch the armed insurrection--when is there the right alignment and the best possible circumstances. This does not mean that the revolutionaries in a country like the U.S. could have perfect, ideal circumstances. But when are the circumstances such that striking this powerful blow of the armed insurrection against them would lead to a further unraveling of their cohesion and their power--not in a linear way but through the overall waging of the revolutionary war?
Looking forward from today toward that situation, we can see the importance of certain ways in which, even now, there is an aspect of the fraying, if not yet a real unraveling, of the unity of the ruling class. One sharp example is the recent Clinton impeachment. (And we might ask, for example, what is the significance of what has happened with Buchanan--not only his writing A Republic, Not an Empire at this time, with some of its themes and arguments, but also what is the significance of his bolting from the Republican Party, to the Reform Party--to what degree does this reflect serious conflicts within the ruling class and a certain "dispersion" of the "center"?)
Now, there is apparently an effort to somewhat "shore up" the "center" through having politicians who have been identified as part of the "moderate center" be the leading contenders in the upcoming Presidential contest (i.e., George W. Bush and Al Gore--and this illustrates how far to the Right the "center" of bourgeois politics has been moved!). But the fact remains that the kind of intra-ruling class conflict that, with the Clinton impeachment, erupted into a serious, open political battle, has not at all disappeared nor even been fundamentally mitigated, even though that particular confrontation (that is, the impeachment battle) was resolved short of a Constitutional crisis, let alone a revolutionary crisis. The question remains as to when and how these significant and in some ways deep divisions will again boil to the surface and with what effect, not only within the ruling class itself but more broadly in society as a whole.
Now all this has to do with questions I have addressed elsewhere about what would be the necessary conditions for launching a people's war in a country like the U.S. This involves questions about what would be the timing, in a country like the U.S., for launching armed insurrection and striking a blow that would cause a deeper fissure and crack in the structure of the ruling class? It also involves, more generally, the "three conditions"3 that Lenin spoke of for an armed insurrection--and particularly the third of those conditions, which has to do with the vacillation and paralysis among the ruling class and among the weak, half-hearted, and irresolute friends and allies of the proletarian revolution. And, in turn, this has to do with how, in a country like the U.S., the strategy of United Front under the Leadership of the Proletariat--in both aspects (united front and proletarian leadership)--must be developed with the goal of armed insurrection (and civil war) in mind. And that UFuLP strategy must assume the most powerful possible military expression at the time when conditions emerge, in a country like the U.S., for the launching of the armed insurrection, as well as assuming a heightened political expression then. (And both the military and the political expression would increasingly develop--indeed must make qualitative leaps--through the course of the armed insurrection and then the civil war).
All this also underscores once again the importance of recognizing the contradictions within the "great middle class," and between it and the ruling class--including those involving women, and youth, as well as national oppression--and the importance of dealing with these contradictions in accordance with the fundamental interests of the proletariat and the fundamental requirements of the proletarian revolution.
1 At least these are the reasons according to the analysis in the book Hannibal, by Theodore Ayrault Dodge, an American military officer, writing at the end of the 19th century.
2 Another, although lesser, example of conflicts involving "heroic war leaders" of the U.S. imperialists and their differences with official policy centered around General George Patton at the end of World War 2. Patton (who was already creating controversy by his advocacy of the use of "ex" Nazis in administrative posts in Eastern Europe) actually called for re-arming the Germans to fight the Soviet Union. In this, Patton was anticipating the emergence of the contradiction between imperialism, headed by the U.S., and the (then) socialist Soviet Union as the main contradiction the imperialists would be facing (and indeed the principal contradiction in the world as a whole). But this did not mean that the imperialists were then prepared, at all costs, to go to war with the Soviet Union or that it would have been in their interests to engage in such a war at that point. This was resolved without a tremendous struggle--and Patton's view never became more than a "maverick position"--within the U.S. ruling class.
3 The "three conditions" (or requirements) that Lenin spoke of for insurrection are (in basic terms): An insurrection must be the act of an advanced class, and not of a party acting on its own--though it requires the decisive and bold leadership of a vanguard party. An insurrection must rely on a revolutionary people, on a mass revolutionary upsurge. And an insurrection requires a serious crisis in society and in government, including as one of its features political "paralysis" and indecisiveness not only among the ruling class but also among what Lenin described as the half-hearted, weak, and irresolute friends (or allies) of the proletarian revolution.
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