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As 2012 dawns: Once more on optimism and pessimism

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Exactly twelve months ago, in an article entitled: 2011: - Optimism or pessimism? I wrote the following: “The first effect of the crisis was one of shock, not only for the bourgeois but also for the workers. There was a tendency to cling to jobs and accept cuts in the short term, especially as the union leaders offer no alternative. But this will be replaced by a general mood of anger and bitterness, which will sooner or later begin to affect the mass organisations of the working class.”

These predictions were translated into reality far more quickly than I had any right to expect. The world is changing rapidly before our eyes. Over the last 12 months events have been unfolding with breathtaking speed.

It is difficult to imagine that one year ago Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi were apparently firmly in power. Berlusconi, Papandreou and Zapatero were still at the head of their respective countries. Nobody had heard of the indignados or the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Nobody talked of the imminent demise of the euro.

How things have changed! As the New Year dawns, the ruling class is gripped by a growing sense of pessimism, bordering on panic. All the attempts to breathe new life into a languishing world economy have failed. The injection of trillions of dollars into the banks has only served to transform a black hole in the heart of the world financial system into a black hole in the public finances of Europe and the USA.

No way out

The capitalists can see no way out of the present crisis. Their only policy is to cut, cut and cut again, seeking to destroy all the conquests made by the working class over the past 50 years. If they succeed, it would mean pushing society back to the kind of conditions experienced by the workers in the days of Marx and Charles Dickens – the kind of conditions the Chinese workers are suffering at the present time.

Such a policy will not solve the crisis but, on the contrary, will only make it ever deeper. By slashing wages and pensions, they will reduce demand still further, and so aggravate the crisis of overproduction, which manifests itself as excess capacity on a global scale.

In a confused fashion this is understood by the Keynesians who advocate measures to reactivate the economy by boosting demand. The same song is sung by the reformists of all shades, from the Social Democrats to the ex-Stalinists who have abandoned all pretence of allegiance to communism and seek solutions within the bounds of capitalism. These people do not like the present capitalism. They want to replace it, not with socialism (they no longer even mention the word) but a different capitalism, a nicer capitalism, a gentler, more humane capitalism – capitalism with a human face. This is what they call “realism”. It resembles a desperate attempt to square the circle, or teach a man-eating tiger to eat salads.

They believe that it is merely a question of stimulating demand. But how it is possible to boost demand? Maybe by reducing interest rates? But interest rates are close to zero already. Or by boosting state expenditure? But the main problem facing Europe and the USA is precisely how to eliminate the huge mountain of public debt left over from the banking crisis of 2008. How can governments that are bankrupt boost state expenditure? Despite all their best efforts, the alchemists never succeeded in transforming base metal into gold. And, as the ancients used to say, “ex nihilo, nihil fit” – nothing comes from nothing.

The only possible solution to this conundrum is what they call “quantitative easing”, that is, that the state should print large amounts of money to plug the yawning gap in the public finances. This is a desperate measure that would inevitably lead to an explosion of inflation and a new and even deeper collapse later on. Compared to the voodoo economics of the Keynesians, the hocus-pocus of the old alchemists was a brilliant exercise in logic.

The picture could scarcely be more desolate. On 31st December the Financial Times, the most prestigious organ of the British capitalist class, summoned up the courage to publish an editorial with the encouraging title: Finding reasons to be cheerful – after all who wants to be miserable on New Year’s Eve? What is significant is that reasons to be cheerful must be searched for in the first place. In any case, the readers of the FT will have found very little cheer in an article that begins with these words:

“Will anybody mourn the passing of 2011? This has been a year of non-stop crisis and deepening economic gloom. From the tsunami that sparked the nuclear catastrophe of Fukushima, to the paralysis of European leaders as investors’ faith in the euro began to founder, there is little reason to ring out the year with any sense of regret.

“Next year looks little better with the prospect of recession looming over large parts of Europe, while even the economic powerhouses of Asia are beginning to feel the pressure. Far from welcoming 2012, many of us will be reluctant to celebrate a new year that promises even more austerity and uncertainty.”

Whatever crumbs of comfort the FT could think of in its editorial were immediately contradicted by the front page headline of the same edition, which informs us that $6.3 trillion were wiped off markets in 2011. Sharp falls in the world’s stock markets indicate that the capitalists, who had no cause to celebrate the year 2011, will have even less to celebrate the advent of 2012.

The bosses moan about their falling profits and sliding shares. But in the midst of the crisis, the super rich remain super rich. The same bankers who presided over the ruin of the world’s financial system are rewarding themselves hundreds of millions in bonuses. Nobody is called to account. Nobody goes to gaol. The money keeps pouring in. The champagne still flows.

For the poor and unemployed, by contrast the crisis of capitalism signifies a nightmare of poverty and humiliation, homelessness and despair. For millions of families in the USA there is no cause for New Year celebration.

The masses move into action

But every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Everywhere the masses are beginning to move into action. The most striking manifestation of the changed situation is the emergence of a worldwide protest movement that is rejecting capitalism. A growing number of people are reacting against the existing order: the unemployment that condemns millions to enforced inactivity; the endless wars, racism and injustice: and above all, the gross inequality, which concentrates obscene wealth in the hands of the 1% who rule society, while condemning the vast majority of the world’s population to a life of increasing impoverishment, misery and degradation.

The most significant feature of this worldwide movement is the similarities both in causes and aims. This has been realised by the most perceptive representatives of the bourgeoisie. Thus, Gideon Rachman writes:

"For all the patent differences in levels of wealth and freedom betweenEurope and the Arab world, it was difficult not to see some parallelbetween the crowds of angry, young unemployed people in North Africa and southern Europe. The indignados - who occupied central Madrid in May to protest against a youth unemployment level of 40 per cent in Spain - made the connection explicit by rather vaingloriously claiming the mantle of Tahrir Square.

"After riots in London and popular protests against inequality and corruption in countries as diverse as Chile, China, Israel and India, I wrote a column at the end of August, headlined - '2011, the year of global indignation.' At the time, I speculated that the US might prove immune to the wave of social protest spreading around the world. But that idea was quickly proved wrong. By September, the Occupy Wall Street movement had got going." (FT, 30/12/11)

The movements that are unfolding display many of the features of a revolutionary or prerevolutionary situation. That is true not only of Egypt and Greece but of the United States of America. “In the face of popular fury, political invective and protest movements on their doorsteps, the rich are fighting back in the new bout of US class warfare”, we are informed by the FT (22/12/11).

Of course, we are speaking here only of the very early stages of the revolution – that stage when the mass of people who hitherto took little or no interest in politics now find themselves on the streets protesting and demonstrating against a social and political order that has become intolerable.

It is easy to point out the deficiencies of the movement: its unorganized, spontaneous and chaotic character, the lack of clear objectives and programmes. But such deficiencies are characteristic features of the early stages of every revolution in history.

The school of revolution

The masses everywhere and at all times do not learn from books but only from their direct experience. Great events are needed to shake the masses out of their customary apathy and political indifference. The revolution is their school, where they learn some very painful lessons. But in a revolutionary situation they learn more in a single day of action than in twenty years of “normal” existence. Who can doubt that the workers and youth of Egypt learnt more in a few weeks of struggle than in all the previous decades of their lives?

One can, of course, object that none of the basic objectives of the Egyptian Revolution have as yet been achieved. Cynics will say: “You see! The old order has merely changed its form of rule, while all the old corrupt elements remain in power. The military holds power and is crushing the revolution under its jackboot.” Such is the “wisdom” of the Pharisees, who can see no further than the end of their nose and the sceptics who see only the backside of history, never its face.

All revolutions pass through definite stages, following a pattern that reproduces itself in the most variegated circumstances with the most astonishing regularity. Above and beyond the individual events, Marxism enables us to see the process as a whole –with all its inevitable contradictions, cross-currents and incessant ebbs and flows.

The initial stage is always the same: a phase of euphoria in which the mass movement seems to sweep everything before it. For those who live through it, this is an intoxicating experience. It is as though suddenly everything is possible. Victory seems inevitable, defeat unthinkable. It is the stage of democratic illusions.

In 1917 in Russia this phase was represented by the February Revolution, when the workers and soldiers overthrew the Tsar and set up the Soviets. But despite the euphoria of the masses, the February Revolution solved nothing fundamental. After the fall of the Romanovs, the landlords and capitalists, the bankers and generals, regrouped behind the protective facade of the Provisional Government. They ruled by “democratic” means, while simultaneously preparing the counterrevolution.

The Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky remained a minority in the Soviets, which were dominated by the reformist leaders of the SRs and Mensheviks who backed the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks demanded the transfer of power to the Soviets, but the reformists clung to the bourgeoisie.

As a result, the pendulum swung sharply to the right. Lenin had to flee to Finland. Pravda’s printing presses were smashed by reactionary mobs. Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders were imprisoned. The result was the attempted coup of General Kornilov, which was defeated by the action of the masses.

This prepared a new swing to the left, in which the Bolsheviks won the decisive majority in the Soviets, preparing the way for the transference of power to the Soviets in October (7 November in the modern calendar). We see a similar pattern in the Spanish Revolution of 1931-37, and also in the French Revolution of 1789-93.

The overthrow of Mubarak was a huge step forward. It showed the immense power of the masses. But, like the February Revolution in Russia, it did not solve any of the fundamental problems of the masses. And it is not possible to solve problems like unemployment, homelessness and poverty as long as the land, the banks and big industries remain in the hands of a privileged minority.

Even the promise of democracy will remain an empty phrase under capitalism. The propertied classes are regrouping behind the army officers, who themselves own a great part of the Egyptian economy and have a vested interest in resisting change. The masses have understood this and are acting accordingly. The youth are naturally in the front line of the revolutionary struggle. Borzou Daraghi writes:

“Asked again and again what they would do if someone tried to hijack their revolution, young Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans have given the same answer: stage another revolution. Few have suggested forming or joining a political party to represent their interests.

“‘We are the ones who made the revolution,’ said Siraj Moasser, a 26-year-old Libyan. ‘If the revolution goes awry, we will make another one. We have nothing else to lose’.”

And again:

“‘We hope the freedom and justice, and for the shabab [working-class youth] to finally find jobs,’ says Mohammad Medhad, a 21-year-old unemployed Cairo man who was among the Tahrir Square protesters in January and again last month. ‘The youth are the ones who should be in charge because they made the revolution’.” (Financial Times, 30/12/11)

This is the authentic voice of the revolutionary masses and the youth.

The weakest link

Last January I wrote:

“Those sceptics who moan about the alleged ‘low level of consciousness’ of the masses merely show that their knowledge of Marxism consists only of undigested scraps. Their pedantic approach to the class struggle is a toxic mixture of ignorance and intellectual snobbery. All the impotent jeremiads of the sceptics will be confounded on the basis of the titanic events that are being prepared. Unlike the eunuchs, the masses can only learn through struggle. There will, of course, be many defeats, mistakes and setbacks, but through all these experiences, the movement will learn and grow. There is no other way.

“Step by step, the disintegration of capitalism is preparing the way for revolutionary developments. The road to great social transformations is prepared by a whole series of partial struggles. This is the necessary preparatory stage in which we find ourselves.”

Twelve months later I have no need to change a single comma of what I wrote then. The preparatory stage of the worldwide revolutionary struggle for socialism will inevitably be long drawn out because of the weakness of the subjective factor: the revolutionary party and leadership. This will have to be built in the fire of events.

The real significance of the Arab Revolution is this: that capitalism has begun to break at its weakest link. The crisis in the Arab world is far deeper and more explosive than the crisis in Europe or the United States. But at bottom it is the same crisis. This is recognized by at least some of the strategists of Capital, like Andreas Whittam Smith, a financial journalist and founder of the Independent.

On 20 October 2011 Whittam Smith wrote a piece with the title: “Western nations are now ripe for revolution”. In this article he points out that at the beginning of 1848 no one believed that revolution was imminent. Naturally! Hypnotised by superficial phenomena, the so-called experts of the bourgeoisie are blind to the processes at work in the deepest recesses of society. Above all, they are organically incapable of understanding the real moods of anger and frustration that are developing in the masses. Therefore, they are always taken by surprise by revolutions.

The inability of the bourgeois to understand revolution was starkly exposed by the Arab Revolution. As late as January 6, 2011, The Economist wrote: “Tunisia’s troubles are unlikely to unseat the 74 year-old president or even to jolt his model of autarchy.” A few weeks later Ben Ali had been overthrown and his regime was in ruins.

On January 25, 2011 Hilary Clinton stated: “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” This was when the masses had already come out onto the streets of Cairo.

The same lack of awareness was shown by other bourgeois commentators, such as the BBC correspondent in Cairo who wrote on January 17 that no revolt would happen in Egypt because people there are apathetic: “Unlike Tunisia, the population has a much lower level of education. Illiteracy is high, internet penetration is low.”

The article, signed by Jon Leyne in Cairo was entitled: “No sign Egypt will take the Tunisian road.” To make matters worse, these lines were also included in his report of the events on January 25, the mass demonstration which marked the beginning of the revolution. That was the full extent of the wisdom of the bourgeois experts who even less than twelve months ago denied the very possibility of the Arab Revolution.

Of course, it is clear that the Revolution is not finished and must still run through a whole series of stages, the precise course of which it is impossible to predict. There are too many variable factors both nationally and internationally to perform such a task. All that is possible is to predict the general line of development and indicate the different possibilities inherent in the situation. However, the main thing is to see that the revolution has begun and will continue to unfold through a whole series of stages before it reaches its final denouement.

The fight for a new world

The events that are shaking the Arab world to its foundations are just one manifestation of the general crisis of world capitalism. Not one of the problems faced by the peoples can be solved in the narrow confines of the capitalist system. That is the root cause of the revolutionary explosions in North Africa and the Middle East. That is why the Arab Revolution cannot stop until it has tackled the root problem which is private ownership of the means of production and the nation state, which are too narrow to contain the colossal potential of the productive forces.

The new movements are an expression of the deep crisis of the capitalist system. On the other hand, these movements themselves have not understood the seriousness of the situation. For all their energy and élan, these movements have limitations that will quickly be exposed. The occupation of squares and parks, though it can be a potent statement, ultimately leads nowhere. More radical measures are necessary to bring about a root-and-branch transformation of society.

Unless the movement is taken to a higher level, at a certain stage, it will subside, leaving the people disappointed and demoralized. Upon reflection of their experience, an increasing number of activists will come to see the need for a consistent revolutionary programme. It is the contention of this writer that this can only be provided by Marxism.

The road we have entered will not be an easy one. There will be many ups and downs. There will be defeats as well as victories. But one thing is clear. The capitalist system has entered into a phase of terminal and irreversible decline. It has nothing to offer humanity except a future of convulsions, chaos, crises and wars. Its continuation threatens the very foundations of civilization and culture, and in the long run even places a question mark over the future of life on earth.

It is easy to be discouraged by the horrors that surround us on all sides: the starving millions, the mass unemployment, the constant wars and upheavals, the inevitable defeats and setbacks. Sentimental moralists and tearful pacifists may shake their heads at this monstrous spectacle. They see only the surface manifestations but are ignorant of the deeper causes. But what is needed is not plaintive moans and sighs about “man’s inhumanity to man” but a scientific diagnosis and proposals for a remedy.

History is not just a senseless catalogue of disasters and crimes. Careful observation will reveal definite patterns that constantly repeat themselves. The period we are now living through has many similarities to the period of the decline of the Roman Empire, which reflected the impasse of an outmoded system of production – slavery. This long decline was drawn out for several centuries. There were periods of apparent revival, which were only the prelude to new and even steeper falls.

The stagnation of the productive forces led to a general crisis of confidence, beginning with the ruling class itself. In the period of its decline there was a general feeling of pessimism in Roman society, reflected in irrational tendencies in philosophy and religion. Almost nobody believed in the old Gods. Instead there was an epidemic of mystical sects from the Orient. The same all pervasive smell of decay – economic, social, moral and intellectual – everywhere clings to capitalist society today.

Reactionaries blame the youth for their lack of belief. But what is there for young people to believe in? There was a time when the Socialist and Communist Parties held out the perspective of a fundamental change in society. It is one of the central contradictions of the period that the leaders of the parties and organizations set up by the working class to change society have become monstrous obstacles in the path of change.

Nevertheless, the working class is a thousand times more powerful than the most powerful bureaucratic apparatuses. The events of the last twelve months are a devastating answer to all the cynics and sceptics. They provide an irrefutable proof that nothing can destroy the will of the masses to change society.

The rulers of society – like the elite of the Roman Empire – are struggling to strangle this new world at birth. They are not willing to surrender power, or cede a single particle of their wealth and privileges. They will not give up without a ferocious fight. They must be overthrown by the conscious movement of the working class – those modern slaves who produce all the wealth of society and who alone are capable of reconstructing a new social order from the ruins of the old. What is plain from the inspiring events in Tunisia and Egypt is that once the masses are mobilised to change society, no force on earth can halt them.

The worldwide revolutionary movement has begun. It will experience many vicissitudes, defeats and setbacks. But through all these experiences the advanced workers and youth will learn and draw conclusions. Marxists place all our faith in the workers and youth of Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, Spain, the United States... Our role is not to preach from the sidelines but to engage in the struggle. Our place is by their side, participating in each and every struggle, while explaining that the only real solution is the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a society fit for human beings to live in – socialism.

We understand that all the horrors we see around us are the painful travails of a new world that is struggling to be born. Temporary defeats will not deter us from our course. Capitalist society is rotten to the very marrow. It is sick unto death. It cannot be saved, and all the attempts to prolong its existence merely prolong its death agony, provoking new horrors for humanity: new outbursts of violence, wars, terrorism and death for millions of people. The capitalist system must die in order that humanity may live.

Somebody once told Durruti – the courageous Spanish anarchist who through his own experience came close to Bolshevism – “even if you win you will be sitting on a pile of ruins”. To this Durruti delivered a characteristically revolutionary answer: “We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a while. For, you must not forget, we also know how to build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and in America, and everywhere.

“We, the workers, can build others to take their place, and better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute”.

London, 3rd January, 2012

History & Theory » In defence of genuine Marxism