The Crisis of Capitalism and the tasks of the Marxists – Part Two

The present world crisis of capitalism means we have entered a new period in which the workers will face a situation of permanent austerity, with cuts in welfare and attacks on working conditions. This is already having a radicalising affect on millions of workers and youth, particularly in Latin America and other underdeveloped parts of the world and it is spreading to the advanced countries also.

A whole period of austerity

Over a period of fifty years, thanks to the economic upswing, in the advanced capitalist countries (Europe, the United States, Japan, Australia, etc.), the working class and its organizations were able to conquer at least semi-civilized conditions of existence. They considered these conditions to be normal because they have never known anything else. But the last fifty years were not normal at all. This was an historical exception, not the normal state of affairs under capitalism.

Take the question for example of pensions. The first man to introduce pensions was Bismarck. This reactionary Bonapartist kindly introduced pensions for everybody over 70 years of age. At that time in Germany, the average life expectancy was 45. Bismarck was a really smart man! Nowadays workers in many countries consider it a right that when they finish working at 60 or 65 they have the right to some money from the state. They think it is normal, an automatic right. But it is not normal and it’s not an automatic right.

Now the bourgeois are saying this publicly: we can’t afford this. We can’t afford to maintain so many old and unproductive people. The problem is that people are living too long. They should do us a favour and die a bit earlier! Let me quote The Economist editorial of the 27th of June. “Whether we like it or not, we are going back to the pre-Bismarckian world where work had no formal stopping point.” In other words you work until you drop dead.

Pensions will be under attack, beginning in the United States. President Obama represents the smiling mask of capitalism. The man wears a permanent smile that resembles an advertisement for toothpaste. But this nice smiling reasonable mask is going to slip very quickly, and behind the smiling mask the people will see the real brutal, savage, ugly face of capitalism. It’s not a question of stupidity, or because they’re vicious (although they are vicious) it’s a question of absolute necessity. From a capitalist standpoint, they have no choice except to do this.

When they say we can’t afford these reforms, from the standpoint of market economics, they’re telling the truth: they must cut, and cut, and cut again, even when there’s a boom. British Airways recently demanded that workers work for nothing, “we can’t afford to pay your wages,” they say. In January the Teamsters, which is a powerful section of the working class of the USA, accepted a wage cut of ten percent.

What conclusions does one draw from this? Do we say that there’s a low level of consciousness, that the workers are not revolutionary, the usual nonsense we hear from the revisionists and the sects? No! We don’t draw any conclusion like that. Things like this are an inevitable consequence of the present phase through which we’re passing – the transition from one period to another, very different, period.

Ferment in society

What we have described is not a simple or uniform process. There are some quite bitter strikes taking place, even now. There have been factory occupations, not just in South America, but even in Britain there have been some factory occupations. One week ago there was a factory occupation in the Isle of Wight. I don’t know if the comrades have ever heard of the Isle of Wight? It’s a little island on the south coast of England where rich people go to play with their yachts, where people go on holidays, where the Conservative Party always wins by big majorities. For the Venezuelan comrades, it’s a bit like the Isle of Margarita, except that it rains all the time. Otherwise it would be very nice.

There was a factory occupation a week ago on the Isle of Wight. That’s a fact, and quite a significant fact, but we must be careful about this. If I said that was the general picture of workers in Britain that would be false; it’s not the general picture, at this stage. That will come later. But it is not yet the case. However, one cannot draw an automatic parallel between strikes and radicalization, which can express itself in many ways. Marxists would not expect immediately a lot of strike activity in a deep crisis: this would be completely unreal. There’s a very low level of strikes as a matter of fact: in Britain, in Italy, in France, in the USA. But that does not exhaust the question.

There is a tremendous ferment in society, there’s a widespread questioning of the capitalist system which was not there before. This is our terrain; it’s a terrain in which our ideas can make a big impact. This is a change, and it is an important change. It must create favourable conditions for the development of the Marxist tendency. I said in America from 1929 to 1933 there were almost no strikes, but the American Communist Party grew quite rapidly in those days, among the unemployed and blacks in particular.

The “Third World”

What is true for the advanced capitalist countries is ten times truer for the so-called “third world.” I don’t like the expression “third world,” I think it’s an unscientific expression but I can’t think of an alternative. We’re referring to parts of Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.

When Marx said the choice for humanity was socialism or barbarism, that is literally true. Sub-Saharan Africa was an absolute nightmare situation, even during the boom: a terrible genocide in Rwanda, a horrific civil war in the Congo which no one even talked about, in which at least five or six million people were slaughtered. Now there’s a savage war taking place in Somalia. Recently an American strategist said “you’re all worried about Afghanistan, you should be more worried about Pakistan and Somalia where you can have a similar developments taking place.”

But even in Africa there are key countries where there is a powerful working class: Nigeria, Egypt, where there have been big strikes. But the key country in black Africa is South Africa. The ANC came to power on the basis of a betrayal, a complete sell-out. The mass of black workers got hardly anything out of that deal. All that happened was that there was a black bourgeoisie and a black middle class that fused with the white exploiters and there was a bourgeois section of the ANC led by Thabo Mbeki. He was a Stalinist and then became a complete bourgeois and as a result there was an open split in the ANC.

South Africa is severely affected by the economic crisis, although they had no crisis for 17 years. Now they have a deep recession, the official unemployment rate is 23.5%, the real rate is much higher. Zuma replaced Mbeki and it’s clear that the mass of black workers thought Zuma was going to be on the left, that he was going to defend their interests. But last week there was a massive strike in South Africa. It started with the bus workers, but on Monday and Tuesday of this week there have been big strikes in all the major cities of South Africa, not just the buses but the clinics, the traffic officers, the libraries, the parks, the public sector in general. The municipal workers’ union is demanding a wage increase of 15%. And it looks as if they’re going to get it. But there have been clashes with the police, barricades have been set up and the police are firing rubber bullets against the workers. At least 12 workers were injured in these clashes, and this is continuing. So now the revolutionary movement is spreading to the key country in Africa, which is South Africa.

I won’t say much about Latin America because we have discussed that quite a lot. It remains, of course, an absolutely key sector of the world revolution. In Venezuela the revolution has lasted for over ten years, which is an incredible state of affairs, unknown in history that the situation should last as long as that. But here there is a problem of leadership. Chavez is a very courageous and honest man, but he’s proceeding empirically, improvising, making up a programme as he goes along. He is trying to balance between the working class and the bourgeoisie. And that is impossible. It cannot be maintained.

He was able to do this for quite a long time because of the economic situation. As Lenin said, politics is concentrated economics. The high price of oil saved them. They were able to make concessions, reforms, the missions, and so on, but that’s finished. The price of oil has fallen. It has recovered a little bit but that’s not enough. According to the figures I’ve seen, inflations is at about 30%. Therefore there has been a fall in real wages. Many of the welfare schemes are being cut and unemployment is increasing.

I don’t doubt that the Venezuelan workers still remain loyal to Chavez, but I also have no doubt whatsoever that many workers, even dedicated Chavistas, are saying, and thinking: what sort of a Revolution is this? What sort of Socialism is this? Are we going to solve these problems or not? And that must have a reflection within the Socialist Party, within the PSUV, which is holding its Congress in the autumn.

The Party has been heavily bureaucratized and the leadership is dominated by reformists, but the pressure from below will be there. There is a sharp polarization between the left and the right within Venezuela and this polarization must be reflected within the Bolivarian movement itself. And that should be a very favourable condition for the Marxist tendency.

You can see how correct we were, when we insisted so persistently on the central role of the mass organizations. In South Africa we said the movement would go through the ANC and the South African Communist Party and of course the trade unions COSATU. It was a little bit delayed, and in general the processes have been delayed because of the economic situation. We have to be patient. But in South Africa our perspectives are taking place before our eyes.

And in Venezuela it will be the same, because the comrades have done marvellous work in Venezuela, combining theoretical firmness with the necessary tactical flexibility, always stressing the role of the Bolivarian movement and the PSUV. In the next couple of years I believe the foundation will be laid for a mass left-wing opposition within the PSUV, in which we will participate, of course, fertilizing it with the ideas of Marxism.

In Mexico, again, we see the importance of leadership. In 2006, Lopez Obrador would have only had to lift his little finger and he could have had a successful socialist revolution in Mexico, where millions of people were on the streets. But because Lopez Obrador is who he is, I think he was more terrified of the movement than even Calderon, he tried to put the brakes on the movement. And therefore logically people are disappointed. In the recent elections, the PRD suffered a defeat and the old PRI got big support.

Does that mean to say the Mexican workers are reactionary, or that they have suddenly become conservatives? We must understand the psychology of the Mexican workers. They supported the PRD, they supported Lopez Obrador, but there’s a very serious economic crisis in Mexico. Whole areas of Mexico depend on the immigrants working in the United States (this is even more true of Central America, as you saw in Honduras, or El Salvador). When these immigrant workers are laid off, they can’t send money back to their families. It is a catastrophe. That explains the convulsions in Honduras. There will be similar convulsions in all the countries of Central America.

But workers are very practical people. A Mexican worker looks at the PRD and its leaders, and he says: “these people are hopeless, they’re not doing anything. I need to eat. I need a job. When the PRI were in power, we knew they were corrupt gangsters, but at least they gave me something to eat, I had a job.” So many people voted in the PRI, to see if they would do something for them. They will not, and the PRI will soon discredit itself. The PRD will recover on the basis of a further move to the left.

Threat of Fascism?

In this situation – a transitional situation we will find all kinds of contradictions, not just in South America but in Europe and in general. In the recent European elections, the Social Democrats in particular suffered a heavy defeat and in some countries the ultra-right gained some support. We know that the ultra-left sects have got serious psychological problems. They suffer from a nervous tic, and whenever the ultra-right parties get a little bit of extra votes, they immediately start to sound the tom-toms, and shout: “Fascism, Fascism, Fascism!”

This is crazy nonsense. The correlation of class forces in all countries rules out the possibility of fascism at this stage. Before the war, in countries like Italy, and Germany even, and Spain, the working class was a minority. Even in Germany there was a huge peasantry with could be easily recruited by the demagogic arguments of extreme right-wing and fascist parties. Even in France that was the case, before the war. Now all that has finished. The peasantry has almost disappeared in most European countries and the working class is now a decisive majority in society.

In the 1930s the students in all countries were the sons (there were very few females in the universities then) of the rich. Most were conservative and a large number were fascists and Nazis. In Britain in 1926 the students were strike-breakers. In Germany, Italy and Austria, most of the students were fascists. Is that the position now? You name me any country in the world where the Fascists control the students. On the contrary, in almost all countries the students are left-wing or even revolutionary.

Therefore it’s ridiculous to talk about fascism in the same terms as the 1930s. Insofar as they exist, the fascists are small organizations, in the main. They can be particularly vicious, violent and engage in provocations, but there’s no question of them taking power. In any case, the ruling class would only resort to open reaction after the working class has suffered a series of very heavy defeats. That was the case in Germany, it was the case in Italy also, and Spain also in the period 1919-39. Therefore, long before the question of reaction is posed, the workers of Europe and Latin America will try time and time again to take power. That is the real situation.

In Bolivia you could say there’s a fascist movement. At least there are fascists involved in the right-wing opposition movement. The heroic Bolivian working class in the last few years, on at least two occasions, could have taken power easily. If they did not take power, it was not their fault, but the confusion and the inadequacy of the leadership. The Bolivian workers staged two insurrections. They overthrew two governments. I ask of you, what more can you ask of the Bolivian workers? What more are they expected to do? But they failed because of the leadership who had no perspective of taking power.

Therefore you ended up with the reformist government of Evo Morales. This has opened up a period of sharp class struggle in Bolivia, which is not yet resolved. It depends on the capacity of the Bolivian Marxists to build the leadership and I’m very pleased to announce that the IMT has just approved the affiliation of two very important sections: the Bolivian section and the Moroccan section.

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