A new stage in the crisis of capitalism - Part Five

The loss of belief in the existing society, its institutions, laws and morality, is a prior condition for revolution. But such a change does not happen all at once. Gradually, to the degree that the given socio-economic system begins to fail, the feeling grows that “something is not right” with society, that some kind of change is necessary. [Part one]

The “New Normality”

Workers in France protesting in January 2009. Photo by Grégoire Lannoy.Workers in France protesting in January 2009. Photo by Grégoire Lannoy.In Britain, the capitalist country where the idea of bourgeois parliamentary democracy has sunk the deepest roots in the popular psyche, the scandal over M.P.’s expenses has led to a widespread questioning of organized politics and its institutions. In the USA there is a burning anger against the bankers and Wall Street, accompanied by a deep-seated desire for change.

In Greece, where a semi-insurrectionary situation is developing, the mood of popular discontent has taken to the streets. However, the present situation is rooted in the whole of the previous period. In most countries of Western Europe the working class has experienced almost five decades of relative improvement in living standards. The idea that all problems can be settled by reforms is deep-seated in the population because it corresponds with past experience.

It is true that the mass of workers of Europe and the United States have not yet grasped the real seriousness of the situation. They hope that the crisis will only be temporary, and that after a time things will return to normal. Naturally, the reformist leaders (both political and trade union) strive with all their might to reinforce this idea. But it is a profoundly mistaken idea.

One far-sighted bourgeois commentator, Martin Gilles, WestLB's Head Equity Strategist, has said that we can expect to return to normality – but it will be a "new normality". This interesting expression contains a profound truth concerning the nature of the new period we are now entering into. According to WestLB's Head Economist, Holger Fahrinkrug, global economic growth is expected to be only 3% this year, and average economic growth in the industrialized nations will be no more than 1.6%.

“However, WestLB does not expect to see a self-sustaining upswing with strong capital expenditure and significant increases in employment. On the contrary, employment will initially fall yet further.” (WestLB Report, November 26, 2009)

These forecasts were made before the start of the Greek crisis. In reality the outlook is even worse. But the most important thing to note is that the serious strategists of Capital have concluded that there is no possibility of returning to the “good old days” for the foreseeable future. The report continues:

“For the next few years, the US economy will display much weaker growth than is usual in the aftermath of a recession. It will be essential to overcome the country's extreme dependency on consumption and develop a new, viable growth model. The repercussions of the financial crisis on the real economy are likely to be with us for some time to come and bear down upon public finances, private consumption and investment activity.”

This is the reality of the crisis of capitalism. It is a long period of low growth, high unemployment, and constant attacks on consumption. Therefore, what is needed is a root-and-branch change in society, and therefore a root-and-branch change in the political and trade union organizations of the working class.

What now?

There have been periods of capitalist upswing when the capitalists were able to make concessions to sections of the working class and concede reforms. Such a period was the period before the First World War, and the period from 1945 to 1973. But the period we have now entered into has an entirely different character. It will see a long-term decline in living standards for entire populations. This fact has not yet been understood by the majority of the working class. But on the basis of events it will be burned into the consciousness of millions. It will have a profound effect on the class struggle everywhere.

The bourgeois of every country in Europe is following the same path, a path dictated not by the caprice of individual governments or politicians but by the gravity of the economic crisis. As a general rule, similar conditions will tend to produce similar results. The period we are now entering will be far more similar to the 1970s and 1930s than to the last thirty years.

The present situation is complex and contradictory, but this is only a way of expressing the transitional nature of the period, which contains elements from the past, which are struggling with elements of the new period. The old ideas and prejudices will not easily be eliminated. They are tenacious and deeply rooted in the psychology of the masses. Great events will be needed to shake up the masses to the point where they are ready to break with the old ideas and embrace new ones.

One might argue that the consciousness of the masses and the mass organizations is lagging far behind the objective situation, and this is correct, as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough. The consciousness of all classes is conditioned by the previous period. Marx explained:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living.” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)

It will take time for the workers of Europe to shake off the old habits and psychology shaped by the last period. For over half a century the workers of Europe have been accustomed to economic growth, full employment and steadily improving living standards. The idea gradually crystallized in their minds: today we are better off than yesterday and tomorrow we will be better off than today. Gradually, on the basis of a long period of economic growth, living standards improved and the class struggle was muted. The bad old days of the 1930s seemed like a bad dream. This was the material base upon which reformism was strengthened.

Now all this has reached its limits. Capitalism is faced with the most serious crisis in the last 70 years – possibly the most serious in its whole history. But after a long period in which the class struggle has been somewhat muted in many countries, the working class, like an athlete after a long period of inactivity, requires a period of “limbering up”, before it undertakes more strenuous and serious activities.

“National unity”

There is no political slogan so false, hollow, deceitful and reactionary as the slogan of national unity. But that is the slogan of the day in every crisis of capitalism. “We must all pull together in the National Interest!” This is the fighting slogan of all the bourgeois and reactionary parties. They wish to use the idea of national unity in order to convince the workers that they must accept sacrifice and austerity to “save the nation”, while the rich continue to fill their pockets.

In Britain, Conservatives and Liberals unite in a coalition government in the name of the National Interest. The trade union leaders everywhere attempt to hold the workers back on the same basis. To this we answer: the unity you are talking about is the unity of the horse and its rider. The latter sits on his back, digs in his spurs and shouts: forward! But when the rider is too heavy and the spurs dig in too deeply, a spirited horse will rear up and throw the rider to the ground.

Some people on the Left have argued that it is necessary to support the “solidarity plan” as a lesser evil. This argument is both false and dangerous. The worst aspect of the present situation is that the harsh measures adopted will prove useless in practice. All the cuts introduced by Papandreou, Zapatero and others will not solve the crisis. On the contrary, by slashing public spending, the cuts will reduce demand and deepen the crisis. Europe will enter a downward spiral that has no ending.

In Greece, as in Spain, the right wing New Democracy has opposed the austerity measures taken by the Pasok government for the sake of electoral popularity. But in reality they have nothing else to offer. The only road open to the bourgeoisie is to attack the living standards of the workers and the middle class. It is not a matter of personal caprice of this or that politician or government. It is a matter of life and death for capitalism. That is why all the governments in Europe, whether “Centre-Left” or “Centre-Right”, are pursuing more or less the same policies.

The bourgeoisie tells the Greek workers that they must accept wage cuts and work harder to compete with the German workers. They tell the German workers that they must accept wage cuts and work harder to compete with the French and British, and so on. In the end, if the workers receive less, the bankers and capitalist will get more profits. That is the kind of “solidarity” we are talking about here. It is the “solidarity” between the exploiter and the exploited.

The trade unions

The crisis of capitalism threatens the jobs, conditions and livelihoods of millions of workers in every country and continent. In the past, it may have been possible to win concessions without a fight. At a time when order books were full and the bosses were making fat profits, they might have been willing to arrive at concessions for the sake of peace. Under such conditions the leaders of the unions had an easy life. The idea was put about of so-called New Realism: that is, of class collaboration and the alleged identity of interest of Wage Labour and Capital.

Now all that has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Under conditions of capitalist crisis there is no alternative but to fight, not just to obtain concessions, but even to preserve the gains of the past.

All the attempts of the union leaders to arrive at a deal with the bourgeoisie in these circumstances are doomed to fail, for the simple reason that the capitalists have nothing to offer them. There is no way out on a capitalist basis. Under the dictatorship of the big banks and monopolies, there is no way forward for the workers of Europe except a future of constantly decreasing living standards and increased exploitation.

The period that now opens up before the European working class will bear a far closer resemblance to the 1930s than to the 1990s. It will be a period of storm and stress without parallel in history. There will be violent swings of public opinion to the left and the right. Under the hammer blows of events the consciousness of the masses will be transformed. The mass organizations, starting with the unions, will be shaken from top to bottom.

The seriousness of the crisis is forcing the bourgeois to take up an intransigent attitude in relation to the trade unions. The bosses have a strategy of taking on some key militant sections and defeating them in order to send out a message to the rest of the class. They are also taking advantage of the recession to go onto the offensive. The old, cozy relationship with the union leaders is no longer possible.

The refuse collectors’ strike in Denmark was very militant, although it took place in the midst of a general collapse of strike activity in the country. The intention was to take them on, use any means possible to smash them and then move on. This is similar to the struggle of the Mexican electricians. The struggle attracted the attention of the whole labour movement. The postal workers’ strikes in Britain had a similar aspect. The management seemed prepared to take on the workers, taking advantage of the more general mood and make an example of them. On that occasion, the union leaders found an excuse and backed off, but the problem remains.

It is natural that under conditions of crisis there will be a ferment in the unions and divisions will open up between different layers of the union bureaucracy. One can say that this is only a struggle between rival bureaucrats, and in a sense that is true. But it is a superficial view that does not take into account the fact that such struggles in the bureaucracy are a reflection of powerful pressures that are building up under the surface.

Crisis of reformism

All history shows that when the mass of the class moves into action, they always express themselves in the first case through the existing mass organizations, no matter how right wing, bureaucratic and reactionary the leaders may be. We have seen this many times in the history of the last 100 years.

The crisis of capitalism is also the crisis of reformism. In the long years of capitalist upswing that followed the Second World War, the reformists were able to grant reforms. But in the last period the Social Democratic governments have been carrying out a policy of counter reforms, undermining and destroying the reforms of the past. Now, with the developing crisis of world capitalism, the policies of reformism are revealed as bankrupt in the most literal sense of the word.

The reformist leaders (including the ex-Stalinists) usually confine themselves to parliamentary or electoral activity. In the hothouse atmosphere of parliament they become divorced from the lives and conditions of the masses and lose whatever revolutionary ideas they may have once had. They learn to be “respectable” and “statesmanlike”. That is, they learn to take upon their shoulders the responsibility for carrying out the dirty work of the bankers and capitalists. This is particularly the case in a crisis. They fall over one another to defend the system.

In reality, the bourgeois and the reformist politicians are trapped. They have exhausted the old tricks of the past. The policies of monetarism and unrestricted market economics have landed them in a mess. The policies of laissez-faire capitalism (“neo-liberalism”) have collapsed. The attempt to return to the old discredited policies of Keynesianism will only make things worse. A combination of the two will get the worst of all worlds. All the old recipes have failed.

The European bourgeois tried to get balanced budgets through the Maastricht Treaty but now this idea has been thrown out of the window. The public debt has soared. This is a measure of desperation. The unprecedented levels of public borrowing will not succeed in getting Spain or any other country out of the crisis, but it will mean a long period of austerity and attacks on living standards.

The aim is to solve the crisis of capitalism by driving down the living standards of the working class and place it at the mercy of Capital. But this will not work. The bourgeois will face an explosion of the class struggle. The period we are in will see movements involving millions. In the course of these struggles, the mass organizations will be under intense pressure from the bourgeoisie and the working class. This will inevitably result in a whole series of internal crises and splits. The formation of Die Linke in Germany was already an anticipation of a process that will take place in one European country after another.

Sectarianism – a dead end

All the attempts of the sects to build phantom “revolutionary parties” outside the existing mass organizations are doomed to ignominious failure. This was revealed graphically in the recent British elections, which indicate a complete collapse of the votes for the sectarian groups, although the conditions for their success were apparently ideal.

In Greece, which is rapidly moving in the direction of a pre-revolutionary situation, the masses are being mobilized through the trade unions. The largest confederations have ties with the ruling Socialist party, Pasok, while a minority leans towards the Communist Party of Greece (KKE).

On the fringes of the movement frustrated youths throw rocks and petrol bombs and attack property. As always, anarchist elements take advantage of this to spread confusion. The frustration of the youth is understandable, but such acts of petty violence lead nowhere. There are dangers in this situation. If the workers’ organizations do not give a lead, it can lead to terrorism, which in turn can easily be manipulated by the state security forces and infiltrated by provocateurs.

Impatience and frustration are always bad councilors. We cannot run too far ahead of the working class, but must patiently go through the experience with them. Our task is to penetrate the mass organizations, which will be shaken to the foundations by the crisis. At a certain stage the emergence of mass left wing and centrist currents is inevitable. We must establish friendly relations with these currents and assist them to overcome their limitations, confusions and vacillations, and win them to the policies and programme of Marxism.

The slogan of the general strike

In more than one country the idea of a general strike is beginning to occupy a central role. There has even been some talk about an all-European strike or day of action. But what is proposed is not an indefinite general strike, but a limited general strike of 24 hours, or less. An indefinite strike can pose the question of power, but a one-day general strike is a demonstration of strength. It can play an important role as a means of mobilizing the workers (even for one day) and, if it is successful, can be a step forward in giving the workers a sense of their power, increasing militancy and raising consciousness.

However, we must also understand that on many occasions the trade union leaders have used one day general strikes as a safety valve – a convenient method of blowing off steam. In Italy in the past, the union bureaucrats called many general strikes of one day, four hours, one hour, and so on, in order to channel the militancy of the rank and file and wear the workers out. In Spain, Greece and France also the union leaders have called general strikes, allowing the workers to express their anger for a few hours on the streets and then afterwards merely returned to “business as usual.”

Naturally, Marxists will agitate in favour of a general strike as a means of mobilizing the maximum numbers of workers in struggle. Particularly where there has not been a general strike for a long time, it can serve to give the workers a sense of their power and raise their fighting spirit. Marxists will make use of such actions to raise class consciousness and extend our influence and authority among the workers, beginning with the most advanced elements.

However, we do not make a fetish of the idea of general strikes, or present them as a panacea. Such tactics will only serve to miseducate and confuse the advanced workers and our own comrades, especially the youth. Where a 24 hour strike has taken place, the question is posed: what now? Do we call for another 24 hour general strike? Or a two day stoppage? Under certain conditions, the capitalists may make concessions under pressure. But even then, they will later take back with the right hand what they have given with the left. Wage increases will be cancelled out by inflation etc.

Moreover, in the present situation, the capitalists are not in a position to grant serious and lasting concessions. The entire situation compels them on pain of extinction to liquidate the concessions they have made over the last fifty years. Under such circumstances the idea that the workers can “force” the capitalists onto a different road by mass pressure is a delusion. In essence, it is only a repetition of the old arguments of the anarcho-syndicalists before 1914, who regarded the general strike with the same kind of awe that fervent Catholics regard the Immaculate Conception.

Trotsky answered this false idea in advance. In an article written in 1931, when Spain was in the grip of a widespread strike movement, he wrote the following:

“In reality, in spite of the mighty sweep of the struggle, the subjective factors of the revolution – the party, the organization of the masses, slogans – are extraordinarily behind the tasks of the movement – and it is this backwardness that constitutes the main danger today.

“The semi-spontaneous spread of strikes, which have brought victims and defeats or have ended with nothing, is an absolutely unavoidable stage of the revolution, the period of the awakening of the masses, their mobilization and their entry into struggle. For it is not the cream of the workers who take part in the movement, but the masses as a whole. Not only do factory workers strike, but also artisans, chauffeurs and bakers, construction, irrigation and finally agricultural workers. The veterans mould the limbs, the new recruits learn. Through the medium of these strikes, the class begins to feel itself as a class.

“However, the spontaneity – which at the present stage constitutes the strength of the movement – may in the future become the source of Its weakness. To assume that the movement also in the future will be left to itself without a clear programme, without its own leadership, would mean to assume a perspective of hopelessness. For the question involved is nothing less than the seizure of power. Even the most stormy strikes – all the more so the scattered ones – do not solve this problem.” (The Spanish Revolution, January, 1931).

The depth of the present crisis places on the order of the day a fundamental transformation of society. Half measures are of no use, and, in the best case, can only have a temporary effect. But as Largo Caballero once remarked, you cannot cure cancer with an aspirin. Drastic problems require drastic solutions.

A transitional programme needed

The relation between economic crisis and the class struggle is not automatic, as some ultra left sectarians believe, but dialectical and contradictory. At first the masses are in a state of shock. They cannot believe that the crisis is so serious. Surely, if we take the necessary steps, accept a temporary reduction in living standards, everything will come right in the end?

But time passes, and the crisis, far from improving, becomes ever deeper, threatening to destroy all social stability. The reforms and concessions conquered over half a century are under threat, and with them the semi-civilized conditions of life. The masses are threatened with a systematic destruction of their lives. The middle class is threatened with ruin. Society is threatened with disintegration and barbarism.

Under such conditions, the innate conservatism of human beings is shaken to the core. People are compelled to reconsider their most cherished beliefs and their most deeply-held dogmas. Even the most formerly inert and “non-political” layers begin to move into action. Things begin to turn into their opposite.

As Trotsky pointed out in the above quotation, the only real solution for the problems faced by the working class is that the proletariat must take power into its own hands. But this idea has not yet been grasped by even the most advanced workers, never mind the mass of politically untutored workers. Great events will be needed to convince them of the need for a radical change. But events are already delivering one shock after another. In the coming period, the existing consciousness will be shaken to the foundations, preparing the way for a revolutionary transformation.

In order to assist this development, it is necessary to work out a programme of demands that will enable us to move from A to B, starting out from the existing conditions and consciousness. What is needed is a serious plan of action. This must insist on the central idea of the expropriation of the big banks and monopolies, for workers’ control, for a socialist plan of production.

Already we see the early beginnings of an anti-capitalist mood developing, especially among the youth. At a time when governments are asking people to sacrifice while pouring public money into the banks, bank profits are booming and bankers’ bonuses have again reached record levels. Many people are therefore questioning the role that bankers have played in this crisis.

What is required is a socialist policy, a fighting policy to defend jobs and living standards. Not a single penny to the bankers and capitalists! Let the bosses pay for their crisis! We demand decent conditions and wages! If the bosses cannot guarantee these things, to hell with them and their system! For the expropriation of the banks and big monopolies under workers’ control and management! No to the Europe of the big banks and monopolies! For the Socialist United States of Europe!

The beginnings of the European revolution

What we see unfolding before us is not the Greek, Spanish, or Italian revolution, but the early stages of the European revolution, which is a vital link in the chain of the world revolution. The capitalist system is in crisis everywhere. It is a world crisis of capitalism. It is one single, indissoluble process, where the turbulence in one part of the globe swiftly communicates itself to every other part.

Lenin once said that politics is concentrated economics. The economic crisis must eventually find a reflection in the minds of millions of men and women, who will find their lives turned upside down. The old routines are violently upset, the old ideas and prejudices challenged at every step, the old institutions shaken to the foundations. This universal turbulence can last for years, with sudden swings to the left and right.

The words of Leon Trotsky have never been more relevant: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”

In the past a prerevolutionary situation would not last for long. It would de swiftly resolved either by the victory of the revolution or the counterrevolution. But now things are different. On the one hand, the bourgeois cannot move immediately in the direction of reaction. On the other hand, the working class is being held back by its leadership.

Trotsky wrote in 1938:

“The economy, the state, the politics of the bourgeoisie and its international relations are completely blighted by a social crisis, characteristic of a prerevolutionary state of society. The chief obstacle in the path of transforming the prerevolutionary into a revolutionary state is the opportunist character of proletarian leadership: its petty bourgeois cowardice before the big bourgeoisie and its perfidious connection with it even in its death agony.

“In all countries the proletariat is racked by a deep disquiet. The multimillion masses again and again enter the road of revolution. But each time they are blocked by their own conservative bureaucratic machines.”

These lines could have been written yesterday! But the power of the bureaucratic apparatus is not absolute. The mass organizations are subject to the pressures of society. The workers will turn repeatedly to the old traditional organizations, for the simple reason that there is no alternative. They will put them to the test time and again, peeling off one layer after another of the old leadership. This inevitable process of learning by successive approximations will be expressed in the rise and fall of leaders and currents.

The ideas we defend do not represent the present consciousness of the masses, which is rooted in a past that has already receded into history. Our ideas are a faithful reflection of the present and the future. Under the hammer blows of events, the masses will learn to distinguish between what is true and what is false. There will be a whole series of crises and splits, from which eventually, a genuine mass revolutionary tendency will emerge.

The Marxists, who aspire to the leadership of the working class, will have no shortage of possibilities in the coming period. But we must ensure that in the turbulent period that we have entered, a period of war, revolution and counter-revolution, that we build the forces of Marxism. We must find a road to the workers and youth, winning new adherents, educating cadres, and gathering the forces we need to build a genuinely mass Marxist International. There are no short cuts. There is no other way.

London, 9th June, 2010.