At the dawn of a new year

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The year 2009 is a year of many anniversaries. As they will soon be reminding us, this is also twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was a time when the capitalists and their spokespersons felt triumphant. They announced the end of Communism, the end of Socialism, even the end of History. But now it is clear to all that their predictions were false. What collapsed 20 years ago was not socialism or communism but only a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism. The collapse of Stalinism was a great historical drama, but in retrospect it will be seen by history as only the prelude to an even greater drama: the collapse of capitalism, which is already being prepared. Alan Woods looks at the prospects for 2009.

With the exception of New Year, the most important festivals in the western world are associated with events in the Christian calendar. However, it is well known that these festivals have their real roots in the old pagan religions and were generally linked with the different solstices and their relation to agriculture.

Christmas was the old pagan winter festival derived from the Roman Saturnalia with other pagan admixtures of Germanic and Scandinavian origin. There is no mention of the date of Christ's birth in the Bible. The early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ on the sixth or seventh of January (a tradition still maintained in the Orthodox Church). With their customary opportunism, the leaders of the Church changed the date to the 25th December to take advantage of the old pagan tradition.

Easter was the festival of the Spring Equinox, with its associations with ancient fertility rites (the English word Easter is derived from the pagan goddess Eostre or Ostara). Haloween has roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, when people communed with the spirits of the dead and thereby averted their anger. There are countless other examples that bear witness to the stubbornness with which humanity clings to the past.

The persistence whereby men and women preserve ideas and beliefs rooted in a remote and primitive past is proof of the profoundly conservative nature of human thought in general. Tradition, habit and routine weigh heavily on human consciousness. As a rule people do not like change, particularly sudden change that upsets their preconceived notions and beliefs.

But at decisive moments a series of small, imperceptible changes reach a critical point where quantity becomes transformed into quality. Then all the old ideas and prejudices are thrown into confusion. Men and women are forced in spite of themselves to question their old ideas, and also the kind of society they live in, its morality and justice.

Such a critical point was reached in 2008, when, after a long period of economic growth, the world economy entered into a sharp decline, which has not yet run its course. This fact has profoundly impacted on the consciousness of all classes in society, from the ruling class, the bankers, politicians and bureaucrats, through the middle class, small businesspeople and intellectuals, to the majority of humankind: the workers, peasants and poor people.

After a long period of relative prosperity, in which the values of "free market economics" were accepted without question and the impressive firework display of globalization dazzled the vision and befuddled the brains of the so-called intelligentsia (including the "Left"), it is no wonder that the first reaction to the economic crisis is one of shock and disbelief. Consciousness, with its innate conservatism, is still lagging far behind events, which are moving at breathtaking speed throughout the planet.

This state of affairs can only be surprising for minds that have been atrophied by formalistic thinking. For anyone with the slightest knowledge of dialectics, it is no surprise at all. Formalism rejects contradictions and cannot cope with them, whereas dialectics embraces contradictions and explains their logic and necessity.

It will take some time for the consciousness of the masses to catch up with events. This consciousness still lives in the past and is hoping against hope that the present crisis will be only a temporary interruption of "normality" which, if we are patient, will surely return. The alleged "backwardness" of the masses is only apparent and is destined to change into its opposite.

The real backwardness is in the psychology of the leaders of the mass organizations: the leaders of the trade unions, the socialist and communist parties, who have long ago abandoned all idea of socialism and adapted themselves to capitalism. Their only aspiration is that capitalism will, for some reason unknown to science, shed its ugly and oppressive features and acquire a humane and progressive character.

But the economic crisis has placed on the order of the day not a peaceful and democratic capitalism, but mass unemployment, savage cuts in wages and conditions, the abolition of social reforms and a general worsening of living standards. This is a recipe for class war on a massive scale. That is the reality of capitalism in 2009 and not the sugary illusions of the reformists who understand nothing and are only capable of seeing the backside of history.

It frequently happens that the intelligent representatives of Capital come to the same conclusions as the Marxists. At the time when the reality of the financial collapse finally made itself clear to all, the Financial Times on 5/11/2008 published a very interesting article by Chrystia Freeland, which deserves to be studied carefully for what it reveals about the current state of mind of the ruling class in the United States.

Ms. Freeland begins with a small anecdote that in the Halloween celebrations last October, in addition to the time-honoured witches and demons, current events inspired many of the revellers at the street party in New York's Greenwich Village to put on a more unusual costume - Sarah Palin disguises. This fact, trivial in itself, reveals the degree of contempt with which people in the USA viewed the discredited Bush administration - a contempt which they subsequently expressed at the polls.

However, far more interesting was the comments this journalist quoted from leading figures in the US Establishment. And when we read these comments, let us bear in mind that they are not meant to be read by ordinary men and women. The Financial Times is not an ordinary newspaper but something like an internal bulletin for the bourgeoisie. This makes what we read here even more important:

"That day a senior Wall Street executive ruefully predicted to me that next year it will be New York bankers who are the nation's villains of choice." And the article continues: "In private, some of America's most influential business and political leaders are uttering the same warning: with the election resolved, the big political story in the US will be the wave of public anger directed at capital and capitalists, particularly of the financial variety." (My emphasis, AW).

These are quite extraordinary things to read in a paper like the FT. What do they mean? They mean that the ruling class in the USA is well aware that the political and social effects of the economic crisis have not yet manifested themselves. The growing anger of the people has temporarily been diverted by the electoral circus (this is its main purpose in any case). The blame for the crisis is placed on the shoulders of the Bush administration in the first place. And while the masses were distracted by the Obama campaign (which undoubtedly sowed great illusions) the bankers and capitalists were temporarily forgotten. But this will not last.

The banker quoted in the above lines is not any banker, but a senior Wall Street executive (who does not want to be named for obvious reasons). What is he predicting? He predicts that as soon as the intoxicating fumes of the Presidential elections clear away, there will be an explosion of popular anger directed against capital and capitalists, particularly of the financial variety. It would be impossible for us to put it any clearer than this! The article continues:

"In recent weeks, a former Clinton cabinet member warned a private equity firm he advises that this new hostility will be the single biggest threat facing the company. An east coast senator told a lunchtime group of Wall Street supporters that public anger toward them will top the political agenda, and expressed sympathy for the peoples' rage. A memo about the financial risks the new president will face prepared for Barack Obama's transition team listed as point one the possibility that ‘sympathetic victims drive policy response' ". (My emphasis, AW)

Here again, the real situation in the USA is admirably expressed. This unnamed former cabinet member warns the US capitalists that they will face the anger of the population, that this question will "top the political agenda" in 2009 and that he himself has some "sympathy for the peoples' rage".

Some of this anger already found expression during the election campaign, when both Democrat and Republican politicians sought popularity by denouncing "Wall Street greed". The article continues:

"But this riveting election campaign, and the financial wildfire that erupted in the middle of it, may actually have served to muffle public anger. The financial crisis is the reason Wall Street is out of favour, to be sure, but from September 15, when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, to October 13, when Treasury secretary Hank Paulson coercibly bought an equity stake in all of America's big banks, the urgency and the severity of the economic threat were so great as to preclude much of a hunt for culprits. The political battle, meanwhile, featured many rhetorical shots aimed at Wall Street, but the real fight was between the two political parties, and their two champions, who have been the main focus of public passion in recent weeks.

"Today, that has changed. The credit crisis, ever so slowly, seems to be easing, and with it the fears of a second Great Depression. America has chosen a new president. The country now has the leisure to reflect on its economic plight - and demand that the man it elected yesterday act on its conclusions."

This is the central problem. Having struggled to divert the attention of the public from the crisis of capitalism by building up the image of Obama as the miracle man, the American ruling class is preparing the ground for a colossal backlash when the miracles do not appear. We continue to read:

"Americans already are unhappy -Wharton economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have found that overall happiness plunged in September, the month the Dow did, and has now declined as deeply as it did during the 1981 recession. Things are likely to get worse, with further economic contraction and concomitant job losses and bankruptcies. Moreover, the hundreds of billions the state has committed to shore up the financial sector have not translated into cheaper personal credit, or fewer foreclosures, for ordinary Americans.

"Financiers are bracing themselves for a wave of public rage - hence, for instance, the recent meeting at which they agreed collectively to promise not to use the Treasury's $135bn capital infusion to pay bankers' bonuses. They know, however, that gestures like this one won't be enough."

Barak Obama reminds one of the fake medicine men in the Old West who travelled around the small towns selling bottles of "snake oil" guaranteed to cure every known ailment for a modest fee. The promise was highly attractive and many people queued up to purchase this wondrous medicine. The problems arose when, after consuming it, no signs of improvement were observed, by which time the medicine man, now considerably richer, had driven his wagon to the next town. However, Barak Obama cannot just get into his wagon and move on. He must stay and face the consequences of the expectations he has aroused.

The revelations of fraud and downright corporate robbery that are already emerging will pour petrol on the flames. Smart politicians like congressman Henry Waxman will make their careers from mercilessly exposing leading hedge fund managers in Washington. In an attempt to pacify public opinion there will be Enron-style trials, and some bankers are certain to go to jail. But all this will not be enough to prevent the gathering storm. The article ends with a significant historical parallel:

"Americans will be pressing their new leader to help them determine who is to blame. That is, after all, a favourite question of angry people during turbulent times: it was one of the slogans of the Russian revolutionaries. If he is to be successful, the president-elect must find a way to move the national debate beyond this vengeful query to the other great Russian revolutionary cri de guerre: What is to be done?"

The problem for the ruling classes of the USA and the rest of the world at the dawn of the New Year is that they have not the slightest idea of what to do. The vast quantities of money that have been handed over to the bankers in various ways have had very little observable results. The snake oil is not working. The banks pocket the loot and refuse to lend to the consumer, the industrialist or even to each other. Demand and credit continue to shrink, leading to more bankruptcies, closures and unemployment.

No Happy New Year for the people in Gaza (drawing by Latuff)At first sight 2009 has opened under the black flag of reaction. Israeli imperialism has concentrated all its military might on the bloody task of battering a defenceless Gaza into submission. As usual the "United Nations" display utter impotence, while the leaders of the "Free world" reveal their nauseating hypocrisy by placing victims and aggressors on an equal plane, shaking their heads and weeping crocodile tears about the evils of "violence".

The bloody events in Gaza are a further expression of the impasse of capitalism on a global scale. It manifests itself in universal turbulence at every level: economic, social, political and military. These are the convulsions of a socio-economic system that has no future yet refuses to die. The results of this contradiction will be untold misery, poverty, unemployment, wars, death and suffering for millions. This is the only future that capitalism has to offer the peoples of the world at the dawn of 2009.

But appearances are deceptive. Beneath the surface, powerful forces are maturing. As the crisis unfolds, millions of people will begin to draw the necessary conclusion, which is this: the capitalist system must die in order that humanity can live. The capitalist class is well aware of the dangers facing them. The strategists of Capital look to the future with fear and trembling. The pages of their press are filled with the blackest pessimism and foreboding.

The year 2009 is a year of many anniversaries. It is the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, when the people of that courageous island stood up against the might of US imperialism and defeated, ending the rule of landlordism and capitalism. Today the Venezuelan Revolution is reaching the decisive moment when it must also break the economic power of the oligarchy by expropriating the landlords and capitalists, or else face defeat in the future.

As they will soon be reminding us, this is also twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was a time when the capitalists and their spokespersons felt triumphant. They announced the end of Communism, the end of Socialism, even the end of History. But now it is clear to all that their predictions were false. What collapsed 20 years ago was not socialism or communism but only a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism.

The collapse of Stalinism was a great historical drama, but in retrospect it will be seen by history as only the prelude to an even greater drama: the collapse of capitalism, which is already being prepared. Of course, capitalism will never collapse under its own weight, through its own contradictions. History requires the conscious intervention of men and women, fighting for their own emancipation. It requires the revolutionary movement of the working class, organized and led by its most conscious representatives.

January 1919 is a tragic anniversary in our revolutionary calendar. It is the anniversary of the Spartakist uprising in Berlin, which ended in defeat and the murder of two of the most outstanding revolutionary leaders of the international proletariat: Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. That was a terrible blow against the German working class. Then too, the bourgeois and their agents in the leadership of the Social Democracy, Noske, Ebert and Scheidermann, felt that they had triumphed. But the German proletariat recovered from the defeat - as the workers of all countries always recover from every defeat - and went on to defeat the Kapp putsch in 1920 and two years later formed a mass Communist Party.

1919 was not only the anniversary of a terrible defeat but also of a great step forward. In March of that year in Moscow the Communist International held its first Congress, uniting the genuine proletarian revolutionaries of the whole world. In the programmatic documents of the first four years of the CI we find the summing up of all the rich experience and theoretical heritage of our movement, beginning with the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels.

Today, ninety years later, we stand on the basis of these marvellous ideas, which have been vindicated by history and which today are more relevant than ever. While the bourgeoisie and its ideological defenders and reformist hangers-on are plunged in despair and pessimism, we Marxists look to the future with confidence and optimism. The American banker who spoke to the Financial Times last Halloween was already terrified of a phantom - the same phantom that haunted Europe in 1848 - the phantom of Communism.

The forces of genuine Marxism were thrown back for decades by the material conditions of capitalism and the crimes of Stalinism, forced to swim against a powerful current. Now the tide of history is beginning to flow in another direction and we are beginning to swim, not against the current of history, but together with it.

The International Marxist Tendency, which is proud to stand on the basis of the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, has consistently defended these ideas when it was difficult to do so. Other tendencies that laid claim to the name of Marxism have sunk without trace or else abandoned the defence of these ideas. The next period will create the most favourable conditions for the growth of the IMT.

When the agents of the ruling class murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht, they thought they had settled the matter. When the agents of Stalin murdered Leon Trotsky, they thought the same. But you cannot murder an idea whose time has come. On this historic anniversary, as we pay homage to the memory of the martyrs of our movement, we call out with a confident voice: "WE ARE HERE AND READY TO CONTINUE THE FIGHT!"

History & Theory » Perspectives