In the final part of this year’s World Perspectives document we deal with the class struggle in Europe, with particular emphasis on the events in Greece. We look at the relationship between economic crisis and political radicalisation. We answer the question of whether there is a threat of Fascism in the coming period and we also look at the impact of the recent period on the mass organisations of the working class and point to the tasks that lie ahead. [part 1] [part 2]
Crisis and class struggle in Europe
It is an elementary proposition that the advent of mass unemployment is not conducive to strike activity. The financial crisis did not immediately impact on workers in the workplaces, but as months went by unemployment started to increase dramatically. In the autumn of 2008 there were significant student mobilizations in Italy, Greece and other countries, where there were also general strikes. However at the beginning of 2009 the situation started to change with the steep rise in unemployment.
In most European countries a steep fall in level of strikes. This we have seen in a very marked way in Italy, but a similar trend can be observed in countries like Denmark, Britain, etc. According to the BBC News the level of strikes in Britain was one third what it was in the 1991-92 recession. The depth of the present crisis is one of the factors in this situation. However, the situation is contradictory, with outbreaks of very bitter and militant struggles of some sections, including factory occupations in Britain, Italy and even the United States.
In Italy in the very recent period, there have been a number of disputes, all involving larger factories where big numbers of workers are losing their jobs. This is provoking a reaction, with strikes, pickets and partial occupations. But in general the overall picture is still one of low level of strikes.
In the previous period Spain enjoyed rapid growth. Now it has experienced a spectacular fall. Spain is one of the few European countries to continue in recession as of January 2010, after a fall in GDP of 3.7% in 2009 (and a collapse of industrial production by 15.8%), and is forecast to continue in recession throughout 2010 with a fall of 0.5% of GDP. Unemployment has increased sharply, reaching an all time high of 4.3 million unemployed (18.8% which is double the EU average), having increased by 1.1 million in 2009, and another 1.2 million in 2008.
Official unemployment figures are expected to reach 20% in 2010, another year where there will be net destruction of jobs. Youth unemployment has now reached 39% according to the official statistics. Together with a rapid growth of unemployment, the general trend has been a falling off of strike activity. However, there have been some important struggles, such as the dispute of the Vigo metalworkers in Galicia and the strike in the Basque Country, which was a partial success (although it was only general in Guipuzcoa). Also, regarding the Basque national question, we must consider the statements of the historical leaders of the Abertzale Left who, since last year have been proposing a truce in the armed struggle of ETA, primarily emphasizing that the process of struggle for "sovereignty" in the Basque Country should be carried out as a purely political process for the political aspirations of the Basque people. This is a positive development which Marxists welcome. We should use this opportunity to patiently explain the ideas of Marxism amongst the ranks of the Abertzale Left. We must explain that we are opposed to the oppression of the different nationalities in the Spanish state by the most reactionary Spanish nationalism and we defend their democratic right, at the same time we emphasise that only workers’ unity and international socialism can solve the problems of the workers and youth in the Basque country and elsewhere.
There is the beginning of ferment in the unions (CCOO) and the United Left, where Cayo Lara is calling for a general strike. We must pay careful attention to this and intensify our work in the mass organizations of the working class.
The inevitability of sharp and sudden changes in the situation is shown by events in Iceland, a country that had enjoyed high living standards and political stability. In January 2009 protests in the capital Reykjavik brought thousands of people on to the streets in the biggest demonstrations the country has ever seen. As a result, the coalition government between the Samfylkingin (Social Democrats) and the Conservative Independence Party broke up. In what was formerly one of the most stable and prosperous country in Europe we see the beginnings of social ferment and political radicalization.
The class struggle is growing in Ireland, where, as in Iceland, a period of rapid economic growth and feverish speculation has ended in complete collapse. Between 2002 and 2007 Irish GDP grew at an average of 5.6 percent. In 2008 the economy contracted by over 2%. In February 2009 some 200,000 workers and their families took to the streets in Dublin, to demonstrate their opposition to the government's decision to impose a pension levy on 300,000 public sector workers.
There was a factory occupation of workers at Waterford Crystal. During the public sector strike in November 2009, tens of thousands of people: public sector and private sector workers and their families, unemployed workers, pensioners and students thronged the streets of eight cities in the south; while a further ten demonstrations took place in the north also. 70,000 marched into Merrion Square in Dublin, 20,000 in Cork, 10,000 in Waterford, 6,000 in Galway, 5,000 in Sligo, 5,000 in Limerick, 4,000 in Tullamore and 1,500 in Dundalk. (6 November, 2009). Over 250,000 Irish workers in the public sector were on strike on the 24th November 2009.
The achievement of monetary unity has only exacerbated the problems of European capitalists. We pointed out at the time that it is impossible to unify economies that are pulling in different direction. We also explained that these contradictions would come to the surface during a recession, which is exactly what has happened.
Greece is one of the weak links of European capitalism. The world crisis is bringing enormous pressure to bear on Greek society. Here we see the outlines of what will happen at some stage in all European countries. The public debt has reached such proportions – a result of past policies and the recent urgent need to back up the banking system – that now the Greek workers are being asked to pay.
In the past, countries like Italy were able to avoid a crisis by devaluing the currency and increasing the state deficit. Now this door is closed. They cannot devalue because they have the euro instead of the lira. The case of Greece is even more serious. Greek capitalism is, along with Italy, Portugal and Ireland, the weakest link in the chain of the European Union. Its economy is in a deep crisis, with the collapse of shipping (due to worldwide overproduction) and tourism. Some economists are predicting that Greece will have to default on its foreign debts.
The Greek bourgeoisie will be obliged to inflict savage cuts on the living standards of the workers and the middle class. But the right wing government of New Democracy was not strong enough to implement such cuts. Therefore the bourgeoisie has handed the poisoned chalice to PASOK. This new correlation of forces favours the working class, giving workers and youth power and confidence. It is the first huge victory after years of ND government and of course after years of defeats.
However, the leadership of PASOK has proven that it does not want to come into conflict with the ruling class. On the contrary, it has already given its promise to the ruling class on major issues, such as the privatization of social security. The ruling class and the EU are exerting heavy pressure on the leadership of the PASOK, which, using the excuse of the huge public deficit, is attempting to impose a harsh programme of cuts.
The Greek workers did not vote PASOK in order to have severe austerity measures imposed on them. Now we see their reaction. There have already been strikes by some sections of the working class and the union leaders have been compelled to call a general strike for February 24. The working class is being forced to enter into struggle to defend their living conditions. This will also have an impact on the political situation. As the PASOK is in government it will take all the blame for the present policies. This explains why to its left the Communist Party (KKE) is able to attract a significant layer of youth. The youth of the KKE, the KNE is in fact the largest left youth organisation in Greece.
The Party leadership has managed to maintain the tight Stalinist apparatus of the past. In its recent congress the party actually reaffirmed its adherence to Stalin’s policies. This is combined with a kind of “third period” ultra-leftism, whereby the party promotes strikes and rallies separate from the bulk of the workers in the trade unions who still support the PASOK. This in fact is an attempt by the KKE leadership to build a wall around its rank and file in an attempt to isolate them from the pressures of the general situation.
However, even in this apparently monolithic party cracks are appearing. At this stage this is reflected in expulsions of anyone who dares oppose the leadership, but opposition points of view have been aired in the KKE publications, something that would have been impossible in the past.
The objective situation is also having an impact on the Synaspismos, a party that has its roots in a split from the KKE in the past. This has significant support among the youth and is going through a left-right conflict inside the party. The fact that the leader of this party has openly invited left groups to join its ranks with the right to form tendencies is indicative of the process taking place within this party. In the next period the impact of the crisis will have an important effect inside both the KKE and the Synaspismos, which at present stand to the left of the PASOK and therefore stand to gain from the present situation.
However, the PASOK remains the main party of the Greek working class and at some stage the pressures the capitalists on the one hand and the pressures of the working class on the other will be reflected in an increasing differentiation in the party, with an openly right-wing, pro-bourgeois section pushing for full compliance with the demands of the bourgeois and another section coming under pressure from the workers. This will prepare the ground for the development of a mass left wing at a later stage.
What has held back this process so far has been the upturn in the economy and the apparent feeling of well-being that this created among a significant layer of the working class. That has now gone but Greece also was affected by the effect of the deep recession that emerged on a world level, with many jobs being destroyed. This has a temporary paralysing effect on the workers, who first turned to the PASOK on the electoral front, hoping that “their” party in government would save them from the worst effects of the crisis. They are now about to go through the bitter school of Papandreu’s programme of deep cuts and counter-reforms.
Radicalization is not only expressed in strike statistics. It can be expressed in political terms. This is seen in electoral shifts in some countries, in particular the vote for Die Linke in Germany and the two left blocs in Portugal. The violent swings of public opinion were demonstrated in the September 2009 general election in Germany, when the SPD lost 11.2 per cent and was thrown back to the level it had in 1893.
German capitalism has been especially hard hit by the economic crisis. Its heavy dependence on exports makes the German economy vulnerable to a fall in demand. The elections of September 2009 reveal an enormous shift in the political life of Germany. On the one hand, we saw the massive decline of the SPD vote and the victory of the right-wing parties.
This means the German capitalists are preparing for an offensive against the biggest and most powerful working class in Europe. In the past the Conservatives would be in government during a boom, and they would hand power to the Social Democrats in a slump to do all the dirty work. Now the process is reversed. The bourgeois parties have come to power in the most serious slump since the War. They will have to cut social spending and take on the unions. This is a recipe for class war in Germany.
The most striking feature was the fact that the Left Party won 5,153,884 votes (11.9%) an increase of 3.2 percent. In the East, the former DDR [German Democratic Republic], the Left Party has decisively eclipsed the SPD which was down from 30.4% to 17.9% of the votes cast. In the East there is in fact no majority for the bourgeois parties. In the West, Die Linke has increased its share from 4.9% to 8.3%.
This result is of historical significance for Germany, as there has not been any serious workers´ party to the left of the SPD since the 1930s. This is an anticipation of processes that will take place in one country after another in the next period. We should remember that the Left Party was formed out of the split of Oskar Lafontaine and the Left Reformists from the SPD. Lafontaine joined with the former Stalinists to form die Linke. In the next period we will see all kinds of similar developments, with crises and splits in the mass reformist organizations and the creation of big left reformist and centrist currents. We must be prepared for this and adopt flexible tactics so as not to be taken by surprise by events.
In Austria too, the situation is changing. The economy is vulnerable to external factors, especially the crisis in Eastern Europe. About 270,000 people, or around 7.5 %, were unemployed in March 2009. In a year-on-year comparison, that is an increase of 28.8%. Among the youth (15-24 year-olds) the figure rose by 39.3% to 44.085. About 40,000 workers are on short time work. Industrial output has fallen by 10%. The car sector has been massively affected due to the international crisis of overproduction in this industry.
The early sign of radicalization is the movement of the youth. In April 2009, there was the biggest school student movement in the history of Austria. All over Austria more than 60,000 school students protested against the cancelling of five holidays and demanded an increase in spending on the public education system. There have also been protests and occupations in the universities. In October 2009, there was a student demonstration of tens of thousands in Vienna. This movement enjoyed the active solidarity of the trade unions and broad sympathy amongst the Austrian population. It eventually failed because of the prevalence of postmodernist ideas and methods, which could not provide the mass of students with the prospect of a successful struggle, whereupon the movement died of a slow death.
On the political level the crisis of Austrian capitalism expresses itself in a crisis of the Socialdemocracy whose leadership is trying to administrate this crisis in the interest of the bourgeoisie. Already now we see the first signs of important processes of differentiation within the labour movement. When the government will attempt to make the working class pay for the crisis this will increase the conflict between the trade unions and the government and will lay the basis for the development of an organised left wing within the SP with important sectors of the unions being involved. This would also give sectors of the working class the vehicle to defend their interests
Portugal is one of the sickest of the sick men of Europe. It was in economic crisis even before the outbreak of the latest global economic downturn that has further aggravated the already precarious conditions of the Portuguese economy. Unemployment is at the highest rate in Europe. The Socialist Party, like all the socialist parties in Europe who have been in government in recent years, pursued a policy of counter reforms, with attacks on the welfare state and workers' rights.
In the legislative elections of 27 September 2009, the Socialist Party lost the absolute majority which it had over the past four years. In an election marked by a significant increase of abstentions – which rose from 35% to 40% – the Socialist Party lost half a million votes and 24 deputies, falling from 2,588,312 votes and 121 deputies in 2005 to 2,077,695 votes and 97 Members of 2009.
The right wing Social Democratic Party and the Popular Party, a classic conservative, liberal and right wing party, both increased their votes. But the left parties also grew: the Bloco de Esquerda (BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). The Bloco de Esquerda went from 364,971 votes and 8 members in 2005 to 558,062 votes and 16 deputies in 2009. The growth of the Left parties reflects clearly the fact that the BE and PCP occupy room to the left of the Socialist Party.
The world position of French capitalism has declined over the last few decades. Its share of world trade is shrinking. From a trade surplus of 24 billion euros in 1997, it now has a deficit of 55 billion euros. The state deficit stands at 1500 billion euros, which is equivalent to 80% of GDP. This colossal debt will be paid for by the further destruction of public services and of the concessions won in past struggles, such as pensions and social welfare. Over the last 5 years, the number of people living below the official poverty line has increased from 6 to 8 million. In 2009, 480 000 jobs have been destroyed.
Initially, the onset of the recession took the workers by surprise. The sharp rise in unemployment had an intimidating effect upon the workers. However, as indicated by the numerous strikes or threatened strikes in various branches of the economy, such as railways, road haulage and oil refineries, the mood of the workers is beginning to change.. The policy of the trade unions, including the most decisive union – the CGT – amounts to seeking a “dialogue” with the Sarkozy government and organising a succession of “days of action” with no specific aims. These events mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers, but he trade union leadership used them as a safety valve, as a means of “letting off steam”. This policy has served to exhaust the most active and militant workers. At the same time, opposition to the national leadership of the unions is growing within the CGT and within the trade union movement in general.
A similar process of differentiation is underway in the PCF. With tens of thousands of active militants, the party still represents a powerful force. In the context of a sharpening of the class struggle, it could grow rapidly in size and strength. This explains the blatantly discriminatory policy of the media with regard to the PCF. The party leadership is in the hands of officials who hold parliamentary positions at local and national level, and who are prepared to make whatever concessions are necessary in order to conserve these positions. The political authority of the leadership, in the eyes of the ranks, has fallen. While the leadership is manoeuvring towards the dissolution of the party, the base of the party is generally moving towards the left. 40% of the membership voted for left oppositional texts at the last congress. The overwhelming majority of the militants are opposed to the dissolution of the party. The contradiction between the interests and policies pursued by the leadership and the aspirations of the ranks will lead to sharper clashes within the party in the period that lies ahead.
Italy has seen a whole series of strikes, general strikes and mass demonstrations in the last period. The movement of workers and students in Autumn 2008 culminated in the December 12, 2008, general strike. Up to 200,000 people marched in Bologna and other large demonstrations with tens of thousands of workers and students took place in Milan, Turin, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples Cagliari and another 100 cities. Metalworkers went on strike with participation rates over 50% in all important workplaces, and over 90% in most key factories. 45% of school workers also came out on strike.
However, this was cut across by the economic crisis, which has had severe effects in Italy. According to a CGIL survey, at least 10,000 Italian companies entered into crisis as a consequence of the world recession. FIAT closed all its plants for one month, leaving its workforce on lay-off pay. (December 2008) Between December 12 and January 12 industrial production came to a virtual standstill. This was an unprecedented situation in recent times, with 900,000 jobs being lost (especially among casual labour) and millions of workers laid off for ten to fifteen weeks on wages of less than 600-700 euros per month.
A whole period of austerity
The post-War upswing lasted for about thirty years (until 1974). But such a perspective is no longer on the agenda. It was the product of a special concatenation of circumstances which in all probability will never be repeated. And because they cannot go to war, all of the contradictions must eventually be reflected internally in a ferocious class struggle. That is the real perspective for the next period. 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.
According to the IMF, in 2010, the gross public debt of the ten richest nations will be 106% of the gross domestic product. In 2007 it was 78%. That means an increase of extra debt, in three years, of more than nine trillion dollars. This is an incredible state of affairs. By pumping such vast sums of money into the economy, the bourgeois are creating levels of indebtedness without precedent in the whole of history. And it cannot be sustained. As everyone knows, sooner or later debts must be repaid – with interest. That in itself is a recipe for another gigantic crisis in the next period.
In the past the US was the world's largest creditor. Now it has been transformed into the world's largest debtor. The hallmarks of the age have been debt-fuelled consumption and an increasingly bloated financial sector. Today, this model stands discredited. The US has been able to run huge deficits largely because of the privilege accorded by the reserve role of the dollar, meaning it can pay foreign countries with its own currency. But the patience of its creditors, most notably China, is starting to wear thin.
These debt figures are unprecedented in peace time. War is a different matter. After the Second World War, the public debt of Britain was 250% of gross domestic product. And America had a debt of over 100% of GDP. That was a result of war spending. But they managed to pay off these debts due to the enormous economic upswing after 1945, the reasons for which have been explained in previous documents (See Ted Grant: Will there be a Slump?).
The collapse of Dubai World in November 2009 exposed the extremely fragile state of the world financial system. It immediately caused fears of a renewed bout of financial turbulence. It has raised the spectre of defaults of governments that have emerged from the crisis burdened by debt. Both Greece and Ireland are carrying heavy public liabilities denominated in a currency (the Euro) that they cannot print. It is very likely that the world financial system will be hit by further panics, which can prepare the way for an even steeper economic collapse, which no amount of state subsidies can prevent.
The bourgeois economists are all agreed that it will be a long and painful process to struggle out of the mess which they are in. The enormous accumulation of debt means years and decades of deep cuts and a regime of permanent austerity. We can express this as a kind of equation: the ruling class of all countries cannot afford to maintain the concessions that have been given for the last fifty years but the working class cannot afford any further cuts in their living standards. That is a recipe for class conflict everywhere. In the advanced Capitalist countries (including “nice”, civilized countries like Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland and Austria) ferocious class struggles are on the agenda. This perspective is the best perspective from our point of view, opening up big opportunities to connect our ideas, program and methods with the masses.
The smiling, reasonable mask of capitalism, represented by President Obama is going to come off very quickly, and behind the smiling mask the people will see the real, brutal, savage, ugly face. From a capitalist standpoint, they have no choice except to do attack living standards. Pensions will be under attack, beginning in the United States. Already the bourgeois are saying this publicly that they cannot afford to maintain so many old and unproductive people. In an editorial of the 27/6/2009, The Economist writes: “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.
The bourgeois and its strategists are gripped by a mood of despair. The Financial Times has run a series of articles about the future of capitalism. Martin Wolf writes: “The legacy of the crisis will also limit fiscal largesse. The effort to consolidate public finances will dominate politics for years, perhaps decades.” In other words, the capitalists must cut, and cut, and cut again, even when there is a boom. British Airways recently demanded that workers work for nothing, “we can’t afford to pay your wages,” they say. Thousands of state and city workers across the USA are being made to work a certain number of days for free (“unpaid furloughs”) or face layoffs. With no fighting alternative presented by the labour leadership, workers are being forced to bite this bitter bullet. But this will not last forever.
What conclusions do we draw from this? Do we say that there is a low level of consciousness, that the workers are not revolutionary? No! We do not draw such a conclusion! Situations such as these are an inevitable consequence of the present phase through which we are passing – the transition from one period to another.
The lag in consciousness
Trotsky explained many times that the relationship between the economic cycle and consciousness is not an automatic relationship. It is conditioned by many factors, which must be analyzed concretely. He also pointed out that one of the most difficult and complicated tasks that faces Marxist analysis is to answer the question: through what phase are we passing?
At present consciousness is lagging far behind the objective situation in the advanced capitalist countries. The mass organizations of the working class are lagging far behind the real situation. Above all, the leadership of the proletariat is lagging far behind the objective situation. These factors did not drop from the clouds; they have been conditioned by decades and generations of capitalist economic upswing, of full employment and relative improvements of living standards. This process was guaranteed by the counter-revolutionary action of Stalinism and socialdemocracy which through their control of the organizations that the class recognizes as theirs, put a brake on and diverted the masses which despite everything waged tremendous class battles in this period
This has been the position, particularly in the advanced capitalist nations, not for a short time, but for a period of half a century. It is true that even in the last period, there was an enormous intensification of exploitation, based on an increase in relative and absolute surplus value. The hours of work were increased and merciless pressure was applied to increase productivity. However, on the basis of overtime, whole families working, young people working on part-time contracts, credit and debt, many workers were able to increase their living standards in absolute terms, even as the rate of exploitation rose sharply and the bosses increased their share of the surplus value at the expense of the workers.
In the last period, the intensification of the international division of labour led to a cheapening of the price of commodities, which meant that workers were able to buy things that previously were considered luxury items: mobile phones, big-screen televisions, computers, laptops etc. Marx explained long ago the difference between real wages, money wages and nominal wages (See Wage Labour and Capital). In a boom, it is quite possible for wages to decline vis a vis capital, while nominal wages increase, and the worker can purchase a larger amount of commodities than before. This is particularly true in periods when inflation is low, as was the case, for special reasons, in the last boom, where both prices and interest rates were kept down.
In the USA, Britain, Ireland and Spain, rising house prices added to the sensation of a significant layer that “we are better off”. The workers in the advanced countries understood that they were being exploited, but in the absence of any alternative from the trade union and labour leaders, were compelled to seek individual solutions through long hours of overtime, overwork and debt.
That is what conditioned the consciousness of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries, although the conditions in the so-called third world were, and are, completely different. Now, however, everything has changed into its opposite. All the factors that combined to push the world economy up are now propelling the world into a vicious downward spiral. This will have the most profound effects on consciousness. But this process is not linear and automatic, but highly complex and contradictory.
Why the delay?
The consciousness of the masses is conditioned by a whole series of factors, both objective and subjective which are dialectically interrelated, including the economic cycle and previous events, the experience accumulated in the actual class struggle and in its reflection in the workers’ organizations.
The 1990s and the 2000s were marked by a relative stabilization of capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries. To the defeat of the revolutionary upswing of the 1970s, a defeat which, according to each country, can be dated between the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s we must add the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91. This caused a lot of confusion in the labour movement and allowed the ruling class to launch an unprecedented ideological counter-offensive against the ideas of socialism.
On the back of these processes, the ruling class waged a constant campaign to attempt to destroy all the gains of the past – cuts in public services, privatisation of utilities, destruction of acquired rights and conditions, attacks on pension rights, casualisation of labour, intensification of the extraction of relative and absolute surplus value, etc.
On many occasions the workers resisted these attacks, even with general mobilisations. In France, Italy, Spain, Greece and other countries we have seen waves of strikes and even general strikes against the plans of the ruling class. As is always the case many of these movements have ended up in defeats or at best partial victories which have temporarily delayed the attacks. Historically speaking many more strikes are lost than won. In fact, the only time when workers are able to achieve important victories is when the capitalists feel that their system is under threat (for instance in May 68, or in the late 1960s early 1970s in Italy) or in a period of significant economic growth like the post-war upswing.
The economic growth that we have witnessed in the last 20 years has not been enough to allow for the granting of important reforms, but it has allowed many workers to look for individual solutions to their problems: the incorporation of women into the labour market, more members of the family unit going out to work, overtime, the expansion of credit, etc.
However, since the defeats of the early 1980s (British miners’ strike, the Spanish “reconversion industrial”, the Fiat strike of 1980 in Italy, PATCO strike in the US), there have been no significant defeats of the working class in Europe. The ranks of the working class have been replenished by the economic boom, with the incorporation of whole new layers of young workers. It is true to say that these sectors have no traditions, but they are also fresh and do not carry the dead weight of the defeats of the past. In many cases it has been these new layers that have been at the forefront of important and militant struggles (as was the case with the struggle at FIAT Melfi). Total employment in the 16 countries of the euro-zone went up from 125 million in 1995 to 148 million in 2008 at the beginning of the recession. At the same time we have also seen the wholesale proletarianisation of formerly privileged layers, like bank and insurance workers, teachers, civil servants, etc.
This kind of boom, based mainly on the increased exploitation of the working class, has created an accumulation of anger which has not yet found a channel of expression. The anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation movement, with all its confusions was a reflection of this, as were the massive mobilisations against the Iraq war, involving millions of people. More recently, the economic crisis has led to a mood of hatred and loathing for the bankers, financial speculators, etc. All these are just symptoms of what is to come, but are also an important part of the experience of the masses in the recent period which will contribute to shaping the events that are impending.
All these factors have influenced the character and development of the mobilisations of the youth, but also of the workers, and must be kept in consideration still today if we want our intervention to be effective.
There is no such thing as a “final crisis” of capitalism. The boom-slump cycle has been a constant feature of capitalism for over two hundred years. The capitalist system will always eventually get out of even the deepest economic crisis until the system is consciously overthrown by the working class. But the concrete question is this: how do the capitalists get out of the crisis and at what cost to the masses? And the second question is: what is the relationship between the economic cycle and the consciousness of the working class?
The IMF is projecting a recovery for 2010 and there are indications that this is the case. However, the real question is, what kind of recovery? Who benefits and who pays? Even the best case scenario is an extremely feeble recovery, which will be accompanied, not by an improvement in living standards, but by ferocious attacks on living standards, cuts in public spending, and increased taxation which will fall on the working class and the middle class.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled his final budget as governor of California, including vicious spending cuts to try to close a $20 billion deficit, he said there was “simply no conceivable way to avoid more cuts and more pain”. This would be an appropriate slogan for the ruling class, not only of the USA, but of the whole world. This is not a scenario for social peace and stability.
A recovery with those characteristics will serve to infuriate the working class at a certain stage and that will be accompanied by waves of strikes and a general revival of the class struggle. Already there are the beginnings of struggles against the crisis and rising costs of living. We have already seen protests in Hungary against the financial crisis, and in Turkey, where 60,000 workers protested against price increases and unemployment, following the call of the unions, and the students joined in. Similar protests and mobilizations have taken place across Europe and even on Wall Street itself.
Although we are passing through the biggest crisis since the 1930s – possibly in the history of capitalism – the crisis has not yet expressed itself in a tidal wave of strikes and general strikes. There is no question that the crisis is producing significant changes on a world scale. But they are not yet being clearly expressed in the labour movement. In Iran there is the beginning of a revolution, and a similar situation is developing in Honduras. But in the key industrial countries, the movement is developing slowly.
Some comrades do not understand why the crisis has not immediately expressed itself in mass mobilizations, strikes and occupations. The delay in the movement can cause perplexity and frustration in the ranks of the revolutionary movement if it is not explained. It is worse than useless to make general statements about the “revolutionary nature of the Epoch” in order to explain to a worker why his workmates in the factory are not willing to strike. Trotsky made this very clear when he wrote the following:
“If one proceeds only on the basis of the overall characterization of the epoch, and nothing more, ignoring its concrete stages, one can easily lapse into schematism, sectarianism, or quixotic fantasy. With every serious turn of events we adjust our basic tasks to the changed concrete conditions of the given stage. Herein lies the art of tactics.” (Trotsky, Writings, 1939-40, p.103)
What is the reason for this delay? The onset of the crisis has caught the workers by surprise, and the initial reaction is one of shock and disorientation. This is hardly surprising. It is a very concrete question. Workers see the factories are being closed, their jobs are at risk, their families are at risk, the trade union leaders do not offer any alternative, but rather, use this situation to discourage strikes. For a time they can succeed in keeping a lid on the movement. But this has a limit.
Temporarily, the onset of mass unemployment has had a restraining effect on strikes. But when there is even a small upturn, and they see that the bosses are no longer sacking people but taking a few people on and the order books are beginning to fill up, this can act as a powerful stimulus to the economic struggle. The car manufacturers are selling off their surplus stocks, closing factories and sacking workers. But once they finish running down the stocks, there will be a certain small improvement, which will serve to embolden the car workers, and in particular those who are not currently unionized, to take action.
Workers are willing to take this for the time being. They want to believe that the worst is indeed over, that they have made it through the storm to relative shelter. They are willing to “wait and see,” and hope for real change from Obama. But this has its limits; the worst is far from over. The immediate shock of last year’s crisis may have subsided, but now the reality is gradually creeping in: Americans are going to be forced to accept a new, lower standard of living, and there will be no rapid bounce back of jobs. Millions of the jobs lost are gone forever, to be replaced by fewer jobs offering lower wages, no benefits, and no union protections.
In the short run, the workers see no alternative but to accept closures and sackings. Because the union leaders offer no alternative, there is a resigned, fatalistic attitude. Their attitude was expressed by one US auto worker who makes Chrysler sedans outside Detroit: “Someone has to go." However, there is a limit to all things. At a certain stage the mood of the workers will change to anger.
In a crisis the workers feel the need for trade union organization even more than in other periods. On the other hand, 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, cosy relationship with the union leaders is no longer possible. The crisis means that the workers must fight for every demand. In Britain there has been a whole series of deals, involving cuts in hours but also cuts in wages. On the other hand, where the workers have faced closure and the loss of everything we have seen factory occupations like Visteon. In our previous perspective documents we underlined the contradictory nature of the situation we were entering, in which a general decline in strike levels is combined with some very militant struggles in some sectors.
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 struggle of 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.
The situation in the Netherlands has dramatically changed from what it was 10 years ago. From the period of “consensus” politics we now have a very polarized situation, with an aggressive ruling class facing an increasingly militant working class. During the post-war boom they could afford to grant concessions to the working class, and at the same time try to control the workers through their links with the Christian trade union federation (CNV). Now even the traditionally relatively right-wing CNV have gone into opposition against the CDA’s plans. In these conditions the Socialist Party has emerged as a sizeable force to the left of the Labour Party.
Consciousness of the working class
It is a very serious mistake for revolutionaries to confuse what we understand with how the masses see things. Most workers do not have the same consciousness as the Marxists. As we have already explained, the first effect of a deep crisis, a deep slump is shock. The workers do not understand what is happening. However, this is not a simple or uniform process. There are some quite bitter strikes taking place, even now. But at this stage one would not expect a generalized increase of strike activity. In a deep crisis: this would be completely unreal. There is a very low level of strikes as a matter of fact: in the USA, Britain, in Italy, Spain, France etc.
One cannot draw an automatic parallel between radicalization and strikes. Radicalization can express itself in many ways. Although the overall figures for strikes is low, there is already a growing ferment in society, a widespread questioning of the capitalist system which was not there before. This is a terrain in which our ideas can make a big impact. This is a change, and it is an important change. It provides favourable conditions for the development of the Marxist tendency. But we must be patient and follow the process of radicalization step by step, advancing concrete transitional slogans that can find an echo in the minds of the masses at each stage. Above all, we must patiently build our own forces, recruiting the ones and twos and training them in the ideas and methods of Marxism. and preparing the conditions to be able to attract and be able to make advance to Marxism groups and currents which will break away from the traditional organizations or which will emerge as a result of the class struggle
The reformist leaders tell the workers that if they are patient and make the necessary concessions and sacrifices, all will be well and the old conditions will be restored. This is a deception and a lie. The bourgeoisie cannot restore the old conditions. They do not know how to get out of the deep hole they have dug. The only thing that occurs to them is to place the full burden of the crisis on the shoulders of the workers and the middle class. A nightmare scenario therefore opens up before the masses everywhere. They all talk about balanced budgets, but this is impossible without deep cuts in living standards. This will still be the case in the event of an economic recovery.
The first signs of a recovery will lead to a wave of economic strikes, which will have a profound effect on all the labour organizations, impelling them to struggle in spite of the current leadership. Even the right wing trade union and the Social Democratic leaders will be affected and forced to the left by the stubborn pressure from below. The mass organizations will be shaken from top to bottom by a tide of radicalization. There will be a wave of defensive strikes and sit-ins to combat sackings and factory closures.
Threat of fascism?
In this transitional situation we will find all kinds of contradictions, not just in South America but in Europe, the USA, and around the world. What we are witnessing are the early stages of political polarization. The situation is characterized by enormous volatility. There will be violent swings of public opinion to the left and the right, reflecting a volatile mood especially in the middle layers of society, which are trying to find a way out of the crisis.
In the absence of a mass workers' alternative, the frustration of the workers in the USA can be expressed in contradictory ways. It is possible that after the failure of Obama to deliver on his promise of "hope" and "change", disillusionment with the Democrats may lead to the return of the Republicans on the basis of large-scale abstentions and protest votes against the incumbents. In a system dominated by two capitalist parties, "the other guy" stands to benefit from the failure of those in power. Already, the Republicans, who were heavily defeated one year ago, have managed to make some gains in the off-year elections. Such violent swings are inherent in the present situation.
No doubt the sectarians, behind whose strident ultra-leftism lies a profound scepticism towards the working class, will say that this is proof of a turn to the right in society. In reality, however, it is an inevitable stage in the political education of the masses, who were obliged to pass through the school of Obama and the Democrats in order finally to lose all hope in salvation at the hands of the Democratic Party. It will be a difficult and protracted process. But sooner or later, American workers will come to see that the only way forward is to break with the Democrats and build a mass party of labour based on the unions. The will transform the entire equation of American politics, opening further opportunities for the Marxists.
We see similar sharp swings in public opinion in Europe. In the 2009 European elections, the Social Democrats in particular suffered a heavy defeat and in some countries the ultra right gained some support. What these results indicate is an angry mood, frustration and discontent with the existing “mainstream” centre of European politics. Naturally, the ultra left sects immediately started shouting: “Fascism!” This is irresponsible nonsense. The correlation of class forces in all countries rules out the possibility of fascism at this stage.
Before the Second World War, in countries like Italy and Spain, the working class was a minority. Even in Germany there was a huge peasantry which could be easily recruited by the demagogic arguments of extreme right wing and fascist parties. In France also, that was the case before the war. Now the peasantry has almost disappeared in most European countries and the working class is a decisive majority in society. In the 1930s, the students in all countries were the sons and daughters of the rich. Most were conservative right wingers and a large number were fascists and Nazis. In Britain in 1926, students were the strike-breakers. In Germany, Italy and Austria, most of the students were fascists. Today, in almost all countries the students are left-wing or even revolutionary.
The ferment in the middle class finds all kinds of expressions, reflecting the heterogeneous nature of that class. The votes for the Greens and similar parties is an indication that the petty bourgeois layers are seeking a way out of the impasse of capitalism. The “anti-capitalist” movements in different countries show the same thing. The anti-war movement that erupted even before against the invasion of Iraq showed the revolutionary potential in society. Similar movements are inevitable as a result of imperialist adventures in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
The crisis of capitalism is reflected in a crisis of the existing bourgeois parties and the rise in a number of countries of new right wing formations like the party of Le Pen in France, Laos in Greece, the BNP in Britain, the Lega Nord in Italy, the Vlaams Blok, the PVV in Holland and the FDP in Austria. But, in the first place, these are very unstable formations. The sharp fluctuations in their electoral support reflect the violent swings of “public opinion”, which is dissatisfied with the existing parties and looking for a way out of the crisis. In the second place, it is incorrect to characterise these formations as fascist parties.
Fascism is not a general term that should be used to describe all forms of reactionary regimes or parties. Marxists distinguish between different forms of reactionary regimes. For example, Trotsky described the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in Spain between 1923 and 1930 as bonapartist, and he criticized the leaders of the Comintern for characterizing it as “fascist”.
Trotsky explained that the bonapartist Primo de Rivera “accomplished his overthrow with the aid of state and military forces.” And added that, “Fascism arises as a mass phenomenon from within the petty bourgeoisie, the lumpenproletariat, and also from among some of the backward layers of the working class. The dictatorships of Spain and Italy are two totally different forms of dictatorship. It is necessary to distinguish between them.”
He explained that, "The genuine basis [for fascism] is the petty bourgeoisie. In Italy it has a very large base - the petty bourgeoisie of the towns and cities, and the peasantry. In Germany, likewise, there is a large base for fascism."
The economic development of the past 60 years has whittled away the mass basis for fascism, i.e. the petty bourgeoisie. The peasantry in the advanced capitalist countries has almost completely disappeared and the bulk of the population has been proletarianised.
This explains why fascism is not in a position to develop a mass base today, as it did in the past. What also has to be taken into consideration is that the very experience of the Hitler and Mussolini regimes has led the ruling class to draw some conclusions. They will use fascist forces as auxiliaries but not as the direct instrument of smashing the working class and its organizations once they draw the conclusion that their power is threatened.
Historically, fascism emerged as a force when capitalism had entered a severe crisis, when it could no longer govern on the basis of granting reforms and thus stabilise society. It emerged when the ruling class needed to smash the organisations of the working class when it had threatened the very power of the bourgeoisie.
The triumph of fascism in the past was possible on the basis of certain historical circumstances, of a particular balance of class forces and because the bourgeoisie felt they had no other way of governing society. Before the rise of fascism we had mass revolutionary movements of the working class, such as in Italy in 1918-20, which culminated in the occupation of the factories, or the several attempts of the German working class to take power after the First World War.
Only after a failed revolutionary movement, and when the bourgeoisie felt threatened did they revert to fascism, whose role was to completely atomise the working class. Nowhere today in Europe is the bourgeoisie threatened with losing power. Today, on the contrary, the bourgeoisie leans on the leaders of the labour movement. That will change once the trade unions will be forced into opposition.
The perspective ahead of us today is one of increased class struggle. Revolutionary developments are ahead of us, not behind us. That means that the ruling class everywhere is preparing for such developments.
In the USA, the ultra right has been stirred up with the so-called tea parties in preparation for the battles of the future. In Italy, the Lega Nord, has got support in the North mainly as a result of disillusionment with the former “communists”. It is a reactionary, chauvinist and anti-immigrant party. Bossi is an extreme right-wing demagogue, but the Lega it is not a fascist party and by its very nature is incapable of becoming an all-Italian party.
What is noticeable is that the remnants of the old fascist parties, like the MSI in Italy, to the degree that they acquire a base and enter parliament, become “respectable” and move away from their old methods and programmes for the sake of electoral success. Significantly, the old Italian fascist party (the MSI) was first transformed into an ordinary bourgeois Conservative Party, and later actually fused with Berlusconi’s party into one single bourgeois formation, with Fini demanding cuts in public spending (the opposite of what a genuine fascist party would stand for). In the past the MSI was involved in attacking and murdering trade unionists and communists.
Naturally, these reactionary parties are demagogically using anti-immigrant propaganda to get an echo from the most backward layers of society. To some extent this suits the purposes of the ruling class, which is always interested in dividing the workers on national lines. But the bourgeoisie cannot do without the immigrants, who provide them with a cheap source of labour, and they cannot allow the right-wing gangs to go too far for fear of provoking a serious mass movement.
While we must take note of these phenomena, and intervene in the fight against fascism and racism with correct transitional demands that link these questions to the class issues and the fight for socialism, we must maintain a sense of proportion. None of these right-wing parties and movements can be compared to Mussolini’s forces in the early 1920s, or even to the CEDA, the mass clerical-fascist movement of Gil Robles in Spain in 1933-4. In the recent elections in Britain, for example, the BNP suffered a crushing defeat and lost its seats to the Labour Party. In Denmark also the right wing anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party has been losing support.
It is true that the ruling class is making preparations for the future, when the “normal” mechanisms of parliamentary democracy will no longer be able to control the movement of the masses. Everywhere we see a tendency to restrict and curtail the democratic freedoms that were conquered by the working class in the past. Using 9/11 as an excuse, the Bush administration rushed through anti-democratic legislation camouflaged as “anti-terror laws”. This has been imitated by all other capitalist governments. These laws will be used in the future against the labour movement.
In Britain and other countries the ruling class has passed anti-trade union laws that restrict the right to strike. There are moves to restrict the rights of people who are arrested and can be held without trial under the anti-terrorist laws. The police forces are perfecting the techniques for repressing demonstrations, which today are used against the anti-globalization people, anarchists and so on, but tomorrow will be used against workers’ demonstrations. All this is a warning to the working class.
However, at this stage the bourgeoisie prefers to rule through the medium of formal parliamentary democracy, which is more economical and less risky than unstable dictatorships. They can lean on the trade union and Social Democratic leaders, who, at this stage, are their most reliable support. At this point in time they need the mass reformist organizations. In fact, they could not last long if these props were withdrawn.
The ruling class therefore does not need to destroy the workers’ organizations, even if they were able to do so. However, that can change. As the crisis deepens, pressure on the reformist leaders will increase to break with the bourgeoisie. Trotsky pointed out that there is an organic tendency of the tops of the unions to fuse with the bourgeois state, and we see this tendency manifested repeatedly. But in order to maintain their alliance with the union leaders, the bourgeois must give them some concessions to offer to the workers. This is now virtually impossible.
At a certain stage the union leaders will be compelled to go over, first to semi-opposition, and then to open opposition. They will be forced to put themselves at the head of the workers in struggle, or else lose their positions and be replaced by others. When the ruling class sees that it can no longer use the unions as guard dogs, they will turn against the unions and their leaders. Under conditions of crisis the bourgeois will eventually draw the conclusion: there is too much disorder, too much chaos, too many strikes and demonstrations. They will attempt to move in the direction of reaction. But that is not an immediate perspective.
There is no question of fascist or Bonapartist reaction in any advanced capitalist country at this stage. But in the long run, if the workers do not take power, the situation can change.
Recently, the head of the European Commission, President Jose Manuel Barroso explained that democracy could collapse in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal unless something is done to tackle the debt crisis. He explained that countries in southern Europe could fall victim to military coups, explaining that “if they do not carry out these austerity packages, these countries could virtually disappear in the way that we know them as democracies. They’ve got no choice, this is it.”
It is also true, however, that the European bourgeois have had considerable experience of fascism in the past, and will not easily hand power to fascist adventurers again. It is far more likely that, when the conditions for reaction arise in the future, it will be in the form of a military dictatorship (Bonapartism). This possibility was being discussed in Italy and other countries in the 1970s (“Gladio” and the P2 Conspiracy).
“Gladio” was part of wider NATO contingency plans that were in place for all European countries. These plans envisaged military take-overs should the necessity arise in any European country. The Greek colonels’ coup of 1967 was based on these very plans. This indicates that long ago the bourgeoisie had drawn the conclusion that it is much better to rely on the top military apparatus, than to hand over power to demagogic, populist elements that they may not be able to control.
Thus, insofar as they exist, the fascists are small organizations, in the main. They can be particularly vicious, violent and engage in provocations, but there is no question of them taking power.
Bourgeois democracy is a very fragile plant that can grow only on the fertile soil of economic prosperity. The deepening of the crisis will inevitably lead to a sharp polarization between the classes that cannot be contained within the normal channels of democracy. However, the ruling class would only resort to open reaction after the working class has suffered a series of very heavy defeats. Long before the question of fascist or Bonapartist reaction is posed, the workers would have tried time and time again to take power. And there will be many opportunities to build a strong Marxist tendency on the basis of events.
The mass organizations
In this period the question of the mass organizations will occupy a central position for the Marxists. The crisis of capitalism is also the crisis of reformism. The reformists have the illusion that it is possible to go back to the situation that existed before. But this is ruled out. The class struggle under capitalism is the struggle for the division of the surplus value created by the labour of the working class. As long as the capitalists are extracting surplus value in sufficient quantities, they can buy social peace. But that is not the case now.
In the 1970s the left reformist tendency was dominant and even began to take on a centrist colouring in some cases. But in the 1980s this trend was reversed. There has been a general swing to the right of all the Social Democratic parties, and also the CPs. The left reformist tendency everywhere is very weak or has collapsed altogether. This is the result of almost three decades of boom, which has set the seal on the degeneration of all these parties, which has gone much further than even the Marxists could have foreseen.
Far from reacting with a fighting programme to mobilize the rank and file, the crisis has pushed the reformist leaders in the opposite direction. They cling to the bourgeois and support the lavish state handouts to the bankers and capitalists. They will support cuts and austerity, allegedly to “solve unemployment”.
The right reformist leaders imagine that it was their “clever” and “realistic” policies that enabled them to win elections. In reality, wherever they have won elections it has been in spite of their policies, not because of them. They were helped by the boom of capitalism and the lack of an alternative to their left. But now here is a deep crisis, their policies stand exposed as bankrupt. These right wing leaders will in time be vomited out and replaced by others, standing further to the left, who reflect the discontent of the masses, in however a confused, partial or inconsistent way. This is an inevitable stage.
The crisis will find its first expression in the trade unions. In his article Perspectives for the Economic Upturn (August 18 1932) Trotsky writes that a revolutionary must be patient. He also writes that every Party member must be obliged to join the trade unions. He stresses the need for the revolutionaries to establish closer links to the mass organizations, above all the unions. That is no accident. In a crisis, the workers feel the need for the mass organizations to defend their interests, and these organizations will be affected by the crisis.
In some cases, with a bold approach, it will be possible to put ourselves at the head of mass movements. But it is ruled out that small revolutionary organizations can substitute themselves for the traditional mass organizations. The masses do not understand things in the same way as the Marxists. It would be a fatal mistake to confuse the two things.
We have returned to the situation that Trotsky described in 1938 in the Transitional Programme: an organic crisis of capitalism with no way out except further cuts and falling living standards. However, when Trotsky wrote of an organic crisis, he did not mean that there could not be a temporary recovery of the economy. The boom-slump cycle will not disappear until capitalism has been overthrown. But the character of the cycle is not the same in the period of capitalist decay as it was in the period of its youthful expansion.
The collapse of Stalinism has reinforced the complete reformist and nationalist degeneration of the former Stalinists, just as Trotsky predicted in 1928. In the case of Italy, the former “Communist” party, after the split of the RC, changed itself into the Democratic Party – something that Blair attempted to do with the Labour Party in Britain, and failed. However, the argument of the sects that the Communist Parties are finished is not new and is contradicted by historical experience.
In 1931 the French CP was reduced to only 5,000 members as a result of the ultra left policies of the Third Period. But it soon recovered and became a mass force. In 1968 the French SP got only about 4% of votes in elections and was written off by the sects, but became the main mass party of the working class. In Britain the Labour Party in the 1980s got only 28% of the vote and it was widely assumed that “Labour could never win another election”. Yet in 1998 Labour won a landslide victory. There have been many other examples.
The explanation is simple. The workers have no alternative to the mass organizations. Although the votes may rise and fall, both the reformist and ex-Stalinist parties have huge reserves of support in the masses. The workers do not understand small organizations. When they move into action they inevitably express themselves through the traditional mass organizations. Ted Grant developed and always stressed this law which has been confirmed by historical experience. All the attempts of the sects to build revolutionary parties outside the mass organizations have ended in farce. They have not understood how the class moves.
It is said that consciousness has been thrown back. But historical materialism teaches us that conditions determine consciousness. The problem is that consciousness is lagging behind the objective situation, the mass organizations are lagging behind that, and above all, the leadership of the working class is lagging even further behind. This is the main contradiction of the present period. It must be resolved, and it will be resolved. Dialectically, consciousness will be brought into line with reality in an explosive manner.
The new layers who will enter into struggle will be far more militant than the older generation, whose psychology has been shaped in the boom years, but they have no direct experience of the past and they do not read the party programmes or the speeches of the leaders. They are guided by a vague idea that it is necessary to change society. In the next period the mass parties will be filled by thousands of workers and young people who want to change society.
This will have an effect on the leadership, which will also be changed many times. The process will begin in the unions, where the old leaders formed in the period of boom will come under intense pressure: either they will respond to the pressure and begin to give a lead, or they will be pushed to one side and replaced by newer and fresher elements more in touch with the mood of the rank and file. Crises and splits are inevitable, with the emergence at a certain stage of left reformist and centrist tendencies.
Danger of ultraleftism
The long delay in the realization of our perspectives for the mass organizations has produced a certain perplexity and confusion even in the ranks of the Marxists, reflected in opportunist and ultra left moods. Impatience is the mother of opportunism as well as ultraleftism. They are head and tail of the same coin. Both trends attempt to find a short cut to success. They seek to reap where they have not sown. That is not possible. The IMT cannot make any concessions to these tendencies. The Marxist tendency was created in an implacable struggle to free itself of ultraleftism and opportunism.
The Marxist tendency is not immune to the pressures of capitalism. The sudden change in the situation, and its contradictory character, necessarily reflects itself in differences, and even sharp internal conflicts. This is not an accident. Differences that seemed minor during the previous period, are now coming to the fore as the situation changes. Small mistakes in method in some sections, which, under “normal” circumstances may have been corrected over time on the basis of events and discussion, can develop into more serious problems.
Impatience with the pace of development of events is affecting an entire layer of activists who do not have the benefit of a scientific Marxist perspective. Many activists on our periphery are demoralized and dejected and these moods can rub off onto some of our own comrades as well. Past defeats have left a pile of political corpses, some of which are not yet prepared to lie down but wander around like the zombies in a cheap horror movie, preying on the living, who they wish to convert into zombies like themselves.
Some comrades, under the influence of a layer of activists who have become burnt out and demoralized, blame the masses, and fall into the trap of what Trotsky called gangrenous scepticism. Others, without necessarily admitting it, begin to question our perspectives for the traditional workers' organizations, the mass workers' parties and trade unions. They regard them as unsalvageable, and embark on adventurous and doomed efforts to found new “mass workers’ parties”.
The main problem is the crisis in the leadership of the working class, the role played by the leaders of the mass workers' parties and unions, compounded by the complex and contradictory nature of the stage we are passing through. We are a small organization of a few thousand cadres on a world scale. Our forces are too small to have a major effect on the movement of the masses. We are still at the stage of recruiting the ones and twos, although, as the experience of Brazil shows, we can win whole groups of workers if we work correctly.
We must have a sense of proportion. Above all at this time we are building an organization of cadres. We must not commit the cardinal error of exaggerating our own forces. But the current situation is more favourable than it has been since we founded the IMT. We have made some mistakes; but the balance of the work of the International over the past decade is extremely favourable. The political authority of the IMT has never been higher.
There are no panaceas or shortcuts. Impatience is our worst enemy. We must have patience and confidence in the working class. We must not get too far ahead of the class, but rather, accompany them through their experiences. Lenin was fond of the Russian proverb: “life teaches.” The workers are learning, drawing conclusions from their experiences. We must participate in the struggles of the workers and youth, and at each stage patiently explain to our periphery and to our own comrades the meaning of events as they unfold.
Above all, we are building a cadre organization. This is the prior condition for our future success. Engels pointed out (and Lenin emphasized this) that in addition to the economic struggle (strikes) and the political struggle, we must also pay great attention to the ideological struggle. This is particularly important at the present historical juncture. The IMT represents Marxism and Trotskyism. We have consistently defended and developed Marxist theory. Contempt for theory is always a guarantee of political and organizational bankruptcy, as the fate of the old International proves
The future of the IMT depends on our ability to train cadres. We must resist pressures and conduct a struggle against both opportunist and ultra left tendencies in our ranks. We will inevitably have some losses. Not everybody is able to swim against the stream. Many others are unable to adapt to the new conditions when the current begins to change. It is no accident that precisely at this time the Left is in crisis. The pressures of the objective situation will be expressed in our own ranks, and they will harshly reveal weaknesses that were previously hidden. This is inevitable. The revolutionary tendency is not immune to the pressures in society and within the workers’ movement.
For the ultralefts the situation is always revolutionary, and the proletariat is always ready to stage general strikes and build barricades. These people live in a world that is far removed from the real life of the workers. For them, it is as if the Transitional Programme never existed. They are doomed to impotence.
You cannot reap where you have not sown. That is what all the ultra lefts try to do. Work in the mass organizations is patient, long-term work, conquering one position after another, winning and training cadres in ones and twos. There is no substitute for this. The working class does not understand small “revolutionary” organizations but must always attempt to express themselves through the traditional organizations of the class. In the words of Ted Grant: “Outside the labour movement there is nothing.”
Perspectives and tasks
Perspectives are a science, but it is not a precise science. Certain branches of physics can make predictions of astonishing accuracy, but there are other sciences, such as geology, which do not have this privileged position. To this day, despite all the advances of seismology, it is impossible to predict the timing of an earthquake. All that can be said is that such-and-such a place lies on a geological fault line and that sooner or later an earthquake will occur.
The situation is even more complicated in the so-called social sciences. It is sufficient to note the despairing comments of the bourgeois economists in recent months. The same ladies and gentlemen who imagined that their elaborate models could predict the behaviour of the capitalist world economy, and who confidently predicted the impossibility of a slump, are now beating their breasts in public. Barry Eichengreen, a prominent economic historian, writes: “The crisis has cast into doubt much of what we thought about economics.” Paul Krugman, who was given the Nobel Prize for economics in 2008, has said: “For the last thirty years macroeconomic theory has been spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst.” (Our emphasis)
The bourgeois understand nothing. They do not know what is happening and are in a state of panic. That is why they are taking measures that are completely irresponsible from the standpoint of orthodox economics. This is a sign of desperation. The complete inability of the bourgeois economists to explain anything is clear. Marxists were able to predict the inevitability of a slump, and in that sense were vastly superior to the bourgeois economists. But we were no more able to predict its timing than the seismologists were able to predict the gigantic earthquake that has devastated Haiti.
It is wrong to demand more of a perspectives document than what it can give. It is not a finished plan for what will happen (that is called a crystal ball), but a working hypothesis. And like all hypotheses, it must be constantly checked against the real march of events, filled out with new data, modified, or even rejected. In other words, it is a process of successive approximations.
Let us express the same idea differently. Before a general goes into battle, he must first work out a plan of battle, which attempts to envisage how it will unfold. He will take into consideration all the available information, such as the number of his troops and that of the enemy, the state of their training and morale, the relative firepower of both sides, the geography of the terrain, the weather and so on. He will also try to anticipate the likely movements of the enemy, tactics and so on.
This, as Napoleon said, is a very complex equation with an almost infinite number of variables. Nevertheless, it would be a very poor general who sent his troops into battle without a battle plan. On the other hand, it would be an even worse general who insisted on adhering rigidly to his initial battle plan, ignoring all the changes that take place in the course of the struggle that he did not originally anticipate.
By constantly revising and adjusting our perspectives on the basis of changing circumstances, we help to raise our level of understanding. Our purpose is to determine as best we can the political, economic, and social stage we are passing through, in order to intervene in the movement, establish roots in the working class, and build our organization more effectively.
A deep slump is not the best perspective for our work. The most favourable perspective is the one that is most likely: a long period of feeble growth accompanied by constant attacks on living standards. Such a perspective is a finished recipe for class struggle. One thing is certain: they cannot go back to the days of the post-1945 boom. Even a return to the kind of artificial consumer boom of the 1990s is beyond their present capabilities.
Lenin once wrote an article with the title Combustible Material in World Politics. There is combustible material now everywhere, and the conditions for revolution are maturing.
We are entering into a most convulsive period which will last for some years, similar to the period in Spain from 1930 to 1937. There will be defeats and setbacks, but under these conditions the masses will learn very fast.
Of course, we must not exaggerate: we are still in the early days. It is not a simple process. We need to be patient. But two things are clear here: we can see at least the beginning of a change of consciousness of the masses. Millions of people are open to the ideas of Marxism in a way that was not the case before.
In this situation, pure agitation is of limited value. The serious workers want explanations, not slogans. But through both victories and defeats the working class will learn, and our ideas will begin to get an echo. We will have time to build the forces of Marxism. We have some time, but the time we will be allowed is not unlimited. We must have a sense of urgency in building the tendency.
This International is destined to play an important role, provided we keep our heads and do not make too many mistakes. Our forces are still very small, we are struggling to build the first nuclei of the IMT in many countries, but we are beginning to develop. We are no longer just observers, but an active part of the movement in some very important countries. We have the correct ideas, the marvellously profound ideas of Marxism. We have the correct tactics and methods, and above all we are determined to link these ideas to the mass organizations of the working class. Therefore, we can be supremely confident of the future.
Our International has its finger on the pulse of history. We must follow events closely, especially the internal life of the workers’ organizations. In The First Five Years of the Comintern Trotsky speaks of “that tendency which is growing up together with the revolution, which is able to foresee its own tomorrow and its day after tomorrow, which is setting itself clear goals and knows how to achieve them.” (Vol. 1, p.72)
That is what we need if we are to succeed in creating the instrument that the proletariat requires to carry through the socialist transformation of society. We can go forward with absolute confidence in the ideas of Marxism, absolute confidence in the revolutionary role of the working class, absolute confidence in ourselves and in the future of the International Marxist Tendency.