From 11 to 13 October in the FAO building in Rome the Fourth Gathering of Intellectuals and Artists in Defence of Humanity took place. We publish today the text of a paper presented by Alan Woods to that conference.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the human race stands at the crossroads. On the one hand, the achievements of modern science and technology have provided us with the means of solving all the problems that have plagued us for all of history. We can eradicate diseases, abolish illiteracy and homelessness and make deserts bloom.
On the other hand, reality seems to mock these dreams. The discoveries of science are used to produce ever more monstrous weapons of mass destruction. Everywhere there is poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease. There is human suffering on a massive scale. Obscene riches flourish side by side with misery.
We can put a man on the moon, but every year eight million people die simply because they do not have enough money to live. 100 million children are born, live and die on the streets, and they do not know what it is like to have a roof over their head.
The most striking aspect of the present situation is the chaos and turbulence that has gripped the entire planet. There is instability at all levels: economic, social, political, diplomatic and military. Everywhere there is war or the threat of war: the invasion of Afghanistan was followed by the even bloodier and more criminal occupation of Iraq. Then there was the recent war between Israel and Lebanon and the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the wars in Darfur, in Somalia, in Uganda. In the Congo some 4,000,000 have been slaughtered in the past few years and the UN and the so-called international community do not lift a finger.
Most people turn away from these barbarities in disgust. It seems that the world has suddenly gone mad. However, such a response is useless and counterproductive. As a Marxist, I do not accept that history is meaningless, nor that the present situation that confronts the human race is merely an expression of madness or the inherent wickedness of men and women. The great philosopher Spinoza once said: "neither weep nor laugh, but understand!" That is very sound advice. For if we are not able to understand the world we live in, we will never be able to change it.
A global crisis of the system
Most people believe that society is fixed for all time, and that its moral, religious and ideological values are immutable, along with what we call "human nature". But the slightest acquaintance with history shows that this is false. History manifests itself as the rise and fall of different socio-economic systems. Like individual men and women, societies are born, develop, then reach their limits, enter into decline and finally are replaced by a new social formation.
In the last analysis, the viability of a given socio-economic system is determined by its ability to develop the productive forces, since everything else depends on this. This is not to say, as the critics of Marxism often allege, that Marx "reduced everything to economics". Many other factors enter into the complex equation: religion, politics, philosophy, morality, the psychology of different classes and the individual qualities of leaders. But these things do not drop from the clouds, and a careful analysis will show that they are determined - albeit in a contradictory and dialectical way - by the real historical environment, and by tendencies and processes that are independent of the will of men and women.
The outlook of a society that is in a phase of ascent, which is developing the means of production and pushing forward the horizons of culture and civilization is very different to the psychology of a society in a state of stagnation and decline. The general historical context determines everything. It affects the prevailing moral climate, the attitude of men and women towards the existing political and religious institutions. It even affects the quality of individual political leaders. It is sufficient to compare Abraham Lincoln with George W Bush to illustrate the point.
Capitalism in its youth was capable of colossal feats. It developed the productive forces to an unparalleled degree, and therefore was able to push back the frontiers of human civilization. People felt that society was advancing, despite all the injustices and exploitation that have always characterized this system. This feeling gave rise to a general spirit of optimism and progress that was the hall mark of the old liberalism, with its firm conviction that today was better than yesterday and tomorrow would be better than today.
That is no longer the case. In the first decade of the 21st century, there is a universal feeling of fear and insecurity. The old optimism and blind faith in "progress" has been replaced by a profound sense of discontent with the present and of pessimism with regard to the future. This is only a psychological reflection of the fact that capitalism is no longer capable of playing any progressive role anywhere.
In the 19th century, Liberalism, the main ideology of the bourgeoisie, stood (in theory) for progress and democracy. But neo-Liberalism in the modern sense is only a mask that covers the ugly reality of the most rapacious exploitation, the rape of the planet, the destruction of the environment without the slightest concern about the fate of future generations. The sole concern of the boards of the big companies who are the real rulers of the USA and the entire world is to enrich themselves through plunder: asset-stripping, corruption, the theft of public assets through privatization, parasitism: these are the main features of the bourgeoisie in the phase of its senile decay.
‘Politics by other means'
It is pointless to approach war from a sentimental point of view. Clausewitz pointed out long ago that war is the continuation of politics by other means. The USA, which is now the world's only superpower, every year spends approximately 500 billion dollars on arms. It accounts for almost 40 percent of total world military expenditure. By contrast, Britain, France and Germany represent about five percent each, while Russia, incredibly, only accounts for about six percent.
Conscious of its enormous power, Washington replaces "normal" diplomacy with the most shameless bullying. Its message is brutally clear: "do as we say or we will bomb you and invade you". In a recent interview the President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, revealed that soon after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 the United States threatened to bomb his country "back into the Stone Age" if he did not offer its co-operation in fighting terrorism and the Taliban.
This bloody mess reflects something. It is a reflection of the insoluble contradictions that face imperialism on a world scale. They are the convulsions of a socio-economic system that has exhausted its historical potential and finds itself in an impasse. We have seen similar situations before in world history, as in the long decline of the Roman Empire or the period of the waning of feudalism.
Senile capitalism, besieged with insoluble contradictions on all sides, finds its counterpart in the most brutal imperialism the world has ever seen. US imperialism invaded Iraq under the false pretext that it possessed weapons of mass destruction. They argued that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who murdered and tortured his own people. Now the UN now is forced to admit that in occupied Iraq mass murder and torture are endemic. According to a recent opinion poll, 70 percent of Iraqis think life is worse than under Saddam.
Not content with the rape of Iraq, Washington threatens Syria and Iran. It has brought about the destabilization of Central Asia. It constantly attempts to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela and assassinate President Chavez. It is plotting to reduce Cuba once more to the status of a semi-colony and organizes terrorist acts against it.
The ‘war on terrorism' has led to more terrorism on a world scale than ever before. Everywhere they set foot, the US imperialists cause the most terrible destruction and suffering. The appalling scenes of death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan recall the words of the Roman historian Tacitus: "And when they have created a wilderness they call it Peace". But compared to the might of US imperialism, the power of the Roman Empire was child's play.
A new awakening
The fundamental problem is the system itself. The economic pundits who argued that Marx was wrong and capitalist crises were things of the past (the "new economic paradigm") have themselves been proved wrong. The present boom has all the features of the economic cycle Marx described long ago. The process of the concentration of capital has reached staggering proportions. There is an orgy of takeovers and ever increasing monopolization. This does not lead to the development of the productive forces as in the past. On the contrary factories are closed as if they were matchboxes and thousands of people are thrown out of work.
The economic theories of monetarism - the Bible of neo-Liberalism were summed up by John Kenneth Galbraith in the following way: "the poor have too much money, and the rich do not have enough." Record profit levels are accompanied by record inequality. The Economist recently pointed out that "the one truly continuous trend over the past 25 years has been towards greater concentration of income at the very top". A tiny minority are obscenely rich, while the share of the workers in the national income is constantly reduced and the poorest sections sink into ever deeper poverty. Hurricane Katrina revealed to the whole world the existence of a subclass of deprived US citizens living in third world conditions.
In the USA the workers produce 30 percent more now than ten years ago. Yet wages have hardly increased. The social fabric is increasingly strained. There is an enormous increase in tensions in society, even in the richest country in the world. This is preparing the ground for an even greater explosion of the class struggle. This is not only the case in the USA. Around the world, the boom is accompanied by high unemployment. Reforms and concessions are being taken back. The Economist recently stated that in order to become competitive in world markets, Italy would need to sack 500,000 workers and the remainder would have to accept a wage reduction of thirty percent.
For a time, capitalism succeeded in overcoming its contradictions by increasing world trade (globalization). For the first time in history, the entire world has been drawn into the world market. The capitalists found new markets and avenues of investment in China and other countries. But this has now reached its limits. The American and European capitalists are no longer so enthusiastic about globalization and free trade, when mountains of cheap Chinese goods are piling up on their doorstep. In the US Senate protectionist voices are raised and are becoming increasingly insistent. The Doha round of world trade have been suspended and so great are the contradictions that there is no agreement possible.
The current unstable economic boom is already running out of steam. The consumer boom in the USA is based on relatively low interest rates and a vast extension of credit and debt. These factors will turn into their opposite. A new crisis is being prepared on a world scale. Thus, globalization reveals itself as a global crisis of capitalism.
Another world is possible - socialism
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the defenders of the old order were jubilant. They spoke of the end of socialism, and even the end of history. They promised us a new era of peace, prosperity and democracy, thanks to the miracles of the free market economy. Now, only fifteen years later, these dreams are reduced to a heap of smoking rubble. Not one stone upon another remains of these illusions.
What is the meaning of all of this? We are witnessing the painful death agonies of a social system that does not deserve to live, but which refuses to die. That is not surprising. All history shows us that no ruling class ever surrenders its power and privileges without a fight. That is the real explanation of the wars, terrorism, violence and death that are the main features of the epoch in which we live.
But we are also witnessing the birth-pangs of a new society - a new and just society, a world fit for men and women to live in. Out of these bloody events, in one country after another, a new force is being born - the revolutionary force of the workers, peasants, and youth. In his recent speech at the UN President Chavez warned that "the world is waking up. And people are standing up".
These words express a profound truth. Millions of people are beginning to react. The massive demonstrations against the Iraq war brought millions onto the streets. That was an indication of the beginnings of an awakening. But the movement lacked a coherent programme to change society. That was its great weakness.
George Bush is drunk with power and imagines that this power is limitless. Unfortunately, there are some on the Left who believe the same thing. But they are wrong. There are very definite limits to the power of the US. Nearly half a century ago the Cuban Revolution challenged the power of US imperialism. All the attempts to defeat the Cuban Revolution failed. But Cuba was isolated and subject to the merciless pressures of the USA. These pressures increased a thousandfold after the fall of the USSR.
But now the situation is changing. A revolutionary wave is sweeping Latin America. The Venezuelan Revolution was an earthquake that has caused aftershocks throughout the continent: Bolivia followed, and now it is bursting against the very frontiers of the USA. The magnificent movement of the masses in Mexico is the final answer to all those who argued that revolution was no longer possible. It is not only possible, it is absolutely necessary, if the world is to be saved from impending disaster.
The cynics and skeptics have had their day. It is time to push them out of our road and carry the fight forward. The new generation is willing to fight for their emancipation. They are looking for a banner, an idea and a programme that can inspire them and lead them to victory. That can only be the struggle for socialism on a world scale. The choice before the human race is socialism or barbarism.
London, 24th September, 2006
- Alan Woods speaks to HoV meeting in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Caserta (October 20, 2006)
- Alan Woods’ speaking tour in Italy concludes in Milan (October 20, 2006)
- Some remarks on the International Gathering of Intellectuals and Artists In Defence of Humanity by Alan Woods (October 16, 2006)
- Picture gallery of Alan Woods' speaking tour in Italy
- Extraordinary beginning of Alan Woods’ tour in Italy (October 11, 2006)