Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Edward Thompson's Warrens: On the Transition to Socialism and Its Relation to Current Left Mobilizations. (Presentations 1: Legacies of E.P. Thompson)

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Edward Thompson's Warrens: On the Transition to Socialism and Its Relation to Current Left Mobilizations. (Presentations 1: Legacies of E.P. Thompson)

Article excerpt

EDWARD THOMPSON developed a distinct view of the transition from capitalism to socialism. Rejecting the concept of a catastrophic change in which the vanguard party would serve as the institutional nucleus of a new society, Thompson argued that capitalism had been "warrened" from within by a network of local, self-governing, working-class institutions that prefigured a socialist world. In the mid-1960s, however, Thompson turned to other matters and failed to resolve the longstanding debate on the Left about the role of trade unions in a transition to socialism. Recent events in Seattle, Quebec City, and Genoa suggest that workers and students acting through new institutions improvised for the occasion must work together in actually bringing about revolutionary change. The same pattern shows itself in highpoints of working-class activity in the 20th century, as in Russia in 1905 or Hungary in 1956.

EDWARD THOMPSON a elabore un vue distincte de la transition du capitalisme au socialisme. En refusant la concept d'un changement catastrophique dans lequel le parti d'avant-garde servirait comme le noyau institutionnel d'une nouvelle societe, Thompson a constate que le capitalisme s' est fait << embrouille >> a l'interieur par un reseau d'institutions locales, autonomes et de la classe ouvriere qui a prefigure un monde socialiste. Au milieu des annees 1960s, toutefois, Thompson s'est tourne vers d'autres affaires et a manque de resoudre le debat invetere sur la gauche a propos du role des syndicats dans une transition au socialisme. Les evenements recents a Seattle, Quebec et Genoa suggerent que les travailleurs et les etudiants agissant par l'intermediaire de nouvelles institutions improvisees pour l'occasion doivent travailler ensemble pour y apporter des changements revolutionnaires. La meme tendance s'est revelee aux evenements des activites de la classe ouvriere au [20.sup.c] siecle, comme en Russie en 1 905 ou en Hongrie en 1956.

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THE PROBLEM OF THE TRANSITION from capitalism to socialism has nagged at and puzzled me all my adult life. As a high school student I pursued my political education during the half hour trip to school on the New York City subway. I devoured Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station. I read Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine, still my favorite novel. And I also read a book by an ex-Trotskyist named James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution. (1)

Burnham argued that the bourgeois revolution occurred only after a long period during which bourgeois institutions had been built within feudal society. The position of the proletariat within capitalist society, he contended, was altogether different. The proletariat has no way to begin to create socialist economic institutions within capitalism. Hence, he concluded, there would be no socialist revolution

I have no distinct memory, but I assume that when I got off the subway and back to my parents' home I reached for Emile Bums' Handbook of Marxism, or some such source to find out why Burnham was wrong. (2) The problem was I could not find an answer. Nor have I have been able to find one during the more than half century since. In 1987 I rephrased Burnham's argument in The Journal of American History:

The transition from capitalism to socialism presents problems that did not exist in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In late medieval Europe, a discontented serf, a Protestant artisan, an experimental scientist, or an enterprising moneylender could do small-scale, piecemeal things to begin to build a new society within the old. He could run away to a free city, print the Bible in the vernacular, drop stones from a leaning tower, or organize a corporation, all actions requiring few persons and modest amounts of capital, actions possible within the interstices of a decentralized feudal society. The twentieth-century variant of this process, in Third World countries, also permits revolutionary protagonists in guerrilla enclaves, like Yenan in China or the Sierra Maestra in Cuba, to build small-scale alternative societies, initiating land reform, health clinics, and literacy. …

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