[Book] The Classics of Marxism: Volume One

Introduction to the UK edition

Alan Woods

The publication by the US Workers’ International League (WIL) in 2007 of the book Four Marxist Classics was an excellent initiative, and its republication for a British audience is very welcome, especially at this moment. At no time in history have the ideas of Marxism been more relevant and necessary than now.

The crisis of world capitalism, which began just over a year later with the financial crash of 2008 and is still continuing, has set in motion a revolutionary wave that is affecting one country after another. The dramatic events in Tunisia and Egypt were followed by the mass movement of the workers of Wisconsin in the USA, who chanted slogans like: “fight like an Egyptian” on their demonstrations.

The crisis of European capitalism has been reflected in the last twelve months by a wave of general strikes and mass demonstrations in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. The mass movement that has broken out in cities and towns all over Spain, and led to the occupation of the central squares in Madrid and Barcelona, found an echo in Greece. In every major town the workers and youth have occupied the city centres, defying the police and the government. The revolutionary implications of these movements are obvious.

Britain has also been caught up in the general ferment, first with the sudden eruption of the youth towards the end of 2010, followed by the biggest demonstration called by the TUC in history. On June 30 the public sector unions will stage mass co-ordinated industrial action on a national scale. The class struggle is entering a new and higher stage.

“Concentrated economics”

Lenin once wrote that politics is concentrated economics. It took an economic slump to upset the equilibrium of capitalism. Every government in the world has been striving ever since to restore the old equilibrium, with no sign of success. By bailing out the banks with vast sums of public money, the bourgeoisie has merely replaced bank defaults with defaults of whole countries: first Iceland, then Greece, then Ireland and Portugal have found themselves floundering like a man drowning on the high seas. Spain will be next, followed by Italy and Belgium. And Britain will not be far behind.

None of this was predicted by the bourgeois strategists. The economists obstinately denied that any such thing was possible. But the Marxists predicted it. In the preface to the US edition of Four Marxist Classics I wrote the following:

“Like every other boom in history the present unstable boom will end in a slump. The only question is whether a crisis in China will topple the US economy into recession or whether a crisis in the USA will have the same effect in China. Either way the dominance of the world economy will assert itself. The illusion of the bourgeois that participation on the world market will solve all their problems will be exposed. All the factors that boosted the economic upswing in the last decade will turn into their opposite. Globalization will manifest itself as a global crisis of capitalism.”

These lines were written in June 2007. One year later this prediction was confirmed by the biggest slump since the 1930s, the very thing that was not supposed to happen. All the “experts” of the bourgeoisie – the economists, politicians, bankers and university lecturers repeatedly stated that such a crisis was no longer possible because they had learned the lessons of history. This confident assertion was answered long ago by Hegel who wrote in his Introduction to The Philosophy of History: “What experience and history teach is this — that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

Now the bourgeois “experts” present a picture of perplexity. The bourgeois economists publicly proclaim the bankruptcy of their models and theories. Robert Solow, who won a Nobel Prize in 1987 for his work on economic growth, told The Washington Post: "I'm as puzzled as anyone else. I don't have any particular wisdom to sell."

The Economist1 (6 July, 2009) complained that Robert Lucas, hailed as “one of the greatest macroeconomists of his generation”, and his followers are “making ancient and basic analytical errors all over the place”. Harvard’s Robert Barro, another towering figure in the discipline, is “making truly boneheaded arguments”. And The Economist concludes that “the past 30 years of macroeconomics training at American and British universities were a “costly waste of time”.

Speaking at a conference in the London School of Economics, Paul Krugman of Princeton and the New York Times; and Willem Buiter of the London School of Economics (LSE), respectively indicated that the world economic crisis is also a crisis of bourgeois economics. In the last of his Lionel Robbins lectures at the LSE on June 10th 2009, Krugman stated that most macroeconomics of the past 30 years was “spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst”. And three years later they are no nearer to finding a solution.

Tobogganing towards disaster

These prominent bourgeois economists admitted publicly in a kind of mea culpa that the economists did not grasp the origins of the crisis; failed to appreciate its worst symptoms; and cannot now agree about the cure. “In other words,” wrote The Economist, “economists misread the economy on the way up, misread it on the way down and now mistake the right way out.”

These words adequately express the current psychology of the bourgeoisie and its ideologists, who are unable to explain anything. To use a graphic expression in one of the works reproduced here, Trotsky's Transitional Programme, they are all "tobogganing towards disaster with their eyes closed."

Even worse was the plight of the leaders of New Labour, who had ditched any pretence of standing for socialism and swallowed the propaganda of the “free market economy” hook line and sinker. Gordon Brown was the first to propose a giant handout to the banks, and actually boasted that he had set the agenda for the policy that was later followed by the EU and the USA.

Nowadays we no longer hear the argument repeated that the British government's bank bailout would solve the credit crunch. Instead, its purpose was said to be "to avoid the collapse of the banking system." Yes, that is indeed the case. Without the massive injection of state aid the banks would have collapsed under the weight of colossal debts. But this argument leaves two things unsaid:

  • On a world scale the banking system only continues to exist as a result of public money.
  • This has not solved the crisis but only transforms a vast and unsustainable private debt into a vast and unsustainable public debt.

Three years and a general election later, this has been shown to be correct. Instead of banking insolvency we have state bankruptcy. We are entitled to ask what the politicians never ask:

  • If the banks are only able to survive by leaning on the crutches of the state, what is left of the “free market economy”?
  • If the state underwrites the losses incurred by reckless speculation and bad investments, what is left of the argument that the bankers and capitalist deserve to be rewarded for risk taking?
  • If the bankers accept huge quantities of public money, by what right do they pay themselves huge bonuses, which are clearly rewarding incompetence and outright thievery?
  • If the public is compelled to subsidise the bankers, does the public not have the right to take possession of the banks and run them according to the public interest?

In Britain, the prophets of New Labour, Brown and Darling, poured billions of pounds of public money into the pockets of the bankers in the form of loans and other guarantees. But there is a little problem here. The state does not have any money. It produces nothing but only takes a slice of the surplus value produced by the working class in the form of taxes. As I wrote in the Socialist Appeal on 14 October 2008:

“This sum is far too large to come from taxes, so it will be borrowed. This increases the already high level of indebtedness of the British economy. It will impose a heavy burden on the taxpayer and impose severe restrictions on public spending for the foreseeable future.”

The collapse of the finances of Iceland, Greece, Ireland and Portugal has forced one bail out after another on the more powerful economies of Europe, with Germany in first place. A collapse of Spain would be a far worse scenario. Germany would not be able to bail out an economy that is bigger than Greece, Ireland and Portugal put together. The implications for the European Union, and for Britain, are severe.

Intensification of class struggle

Over a year before the slump I wrote in the 2007 Introduction to Four Marxist Classics:

“Everywhere the mood of the masses is changing. In Latin America there is a revolutionary ferment, which will intensify and spread to other continents. In Britain, the USA and other industrialized nations many people who previously did not question the existing social order are now asking questions. Ideas that previously were listened to by small numbers will find an echo among a far broader public. The ground is being prepared for an unprecedented upsurge of the class struggle on a world scale.”

The outbreak of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the mass upheavals in Spain and Greece are the clearest expression of this. The revolutionary awakening of the great Arab Nation is a development of world-historical significance. But it is only the most dramatic expression of a process that is beginning to unfold on a world scale, reflecting the fact that the crisis of capitalism is beginning to find its reflection in the consciousness of the masses.

Every attempt by the bourgeois and reformists to restore the economic equilibrium has the effect of destroying the social and political equilibrium. We see this very clearly in Greece and Spain. Now that the initial shock of mass unemployment has worn off, the workers of Europe are beginning to fight back. This poses a direct threat to the continued existence of capitalism.

These facts are a devastating answer to all those sceptics who argued that the workers would never fight. The working class will fight because it has no other alternative. But in order to fight effectively, courage and militancy are insufficient. It is necessary that the advanced guard of the class is armed with a clear perspective, a scientific method and a coherent programme and policy. This can only be provided by Marxism.

The necessity of Marxism

Some have attempted to argue that the movements in Spain and Greece are proof that the revolution can succeed without any party, organization and leadership. But such a line of argument is completely hollow. Many times in the history of warfare a big army composed of brave but untrained soldiers has been defeated by a smaller but disciplined and well trained army of professional troops led by skilled and experienced officers. To occupy the squares is a means of mobilizing the masses in action. But in itself it is not enough. The ruling class may not be able to evict the protesters initially by force, but they can afford to wait until the movement begins to die down, and then act decisively to put an end to the “disturbances”.

There are certain circumstances in which strikes and mass demonstrations can force the ruling class to make concessions. But this is not one of them. It goes without saying that the Marxists will always be in the first line of any battle to improve the conditions of the working class. We will fight for any conquest, no matter how small, because the fight for socialism would be unthinkable without the day to day struggle for advance under capitalism. Only through a series of partial struggles, of a defensive and offensive character, can the masses discover their own strength and acquire the confidence necessary to fight to the end.

These movements are said to be purely spontaneous, like a stampede of startled antelopes on the plains of East Africa. To the degree that these movements may be said to be spontaneous, it is because the leaders of the existing mass organizations of the working class have provided no lead. On the contrary, the very organizations that were created by the working class to change society have become monstrous obstacles in the path of revolution. The bureaucratic apparatuses do not reflect the real angry mood that has been building up in society over a long period. It is no wonder, then, that the movement has come from below, outside these organizations and even directed against them.

The millions of people who have come out onto the streets and squares of Spain and Greece to oppose the policy of cuts and austerity do not trust the politicians and trade union leaders. And who can blame them? In both Greece and Spain the governments that are carrying out these attacks are supposed to be “socialist”. The masses deposited their confidence in them, and find themselves betrayed. They conclude that in order to defend their interests they must not leave things to the politicians but take action themselves.

This shows a correct revolutionary instinct. Those who sneer at the movement as “merely spontaneous” display their ignorance of the essence of a revolution, which is precisely the direct intervention of the masses in politics. This spontaneity is an enormous strength – but at the same time it will become a fatal weakness of the movement.

The movement must be raised to a higher level

Of course, the mass movement will necessarily suffer from confusion in its initial stages. The masses can only overcome these shortcomings through their direct experience of the struggle. But it is absolutely necessary for the masses to pass beyond the initial confusion and naïveté, to grow and mature and to draw the correct conclusions.

Those “anarchist” leaders (yes, the anarchists also have leaders, or people who aspire to lead) who believe that confusion, organizational amorphousness and the absence of ideological definition are both positive and necessary play a pernicious role. It is like trying to maintain a child in a state of childishness, so that it is forever unable to talk, walk and think for itself.

In order to succeed it is necessary to take the movement to a higher level. This can only be done by linking it firmly to the movement of the workers in the factories and the trade unions. The slogan of the general strike comes to the fore. But even a general strike cannot solve the problems of society. It leads directly to the question of state power.

Confused and vacillating leaders are capable of producing only defeats and demoralization. The struggle of the workers and youth would be infinitely easier if they were led by courageous and far-sighted people. In the course of struggle, the masses will put to the test every tendency and leader. They have weighed the leaders of the Pasok in the balance and found them wanting. They will soon discover the deficiencies of those accidental figures who appear in the early stages of the revolutionary movement like the foam that appears on the crest of the wave, and who will vanish just like the foam.

Through their experience, an increasing number of activists will come to see the need for a consistent revolutionary programme. This can only be provided by Marxism. Ideas which for decades were listened to by small groups will be eagerly sought out, first by hundreds, then by thousands and hundreds of thousands. What is required is, on the one hand, the patient preparatory work of the Marxist cadres, on the other hand, the concrete experience of the masses themselves.

Marxism in Britain

Lenin once remarked that, for the masses, an ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory. That is quite true. Whether in Britain or in Greece, Egypt or the United States, the masses can only learn by experience. Yet Lenin and Trotsky, like Marx and Engels, devoted their lives to a careful study of theory and their works are a treasury of ideas that today are a vital part of the armoury of working class struggle. Here we have the accumulated wisdom of over 150 years of the class struggle, together with the most profound contributions to political economy, philosophy and sociology.

Historically, Britain has played a most important role in the development of socialism and the working class movement. My Welsh compatriot, that mighty thinker Robert Owen, was one of the founding fathers of socialism. Together with the French utopian socialists, Saint Simon and Fourier, he exercised a powerful influence on the thinking of the youthful Marx and Engels. He not only proved that it was possible for the workers to run society without the aid of bankers and capitalists, but put forward the idea of a general strike (the Grand National Holiday). His writings on the future socialist society contain many brilliant insights.

The Chartists were the first workers’ political party, and they succeeded in mobilizing the working class independently of the bourgeoisie. The left wing Chartists (the “Physical Force Men”) advocated revolutionary tactics and policies that led to an armed uprising of the Welsh Chartists in Newport. Left wing Chartists like Ernest Jones were in contact with Marx and Engels, who worked in the British workers’ movement for the better part of their lives.

Marx and Engels always paid tribute to the positive traits of the British workers: their organizational strength, their stubborn determination and deep-seated class instinct. But they were always aware of the weak side of British Labour: the tendency towards compromise and reformism, and above all the lack of theory, a narrow “practical” mentality and an aversion to abstract thinking and broad generalizations. The one man born in these islands with a serious claim to theoretical originality was James Connolly, the celebrated Irish Labour leader, revolutionary and martyr, who was in fact born in Edinburgh.

Historically, the British considered themselves superior to other Europeans in all things. They had bigger factories, better roads and trains, more inventions. And just as British exports proved the superiority of British manufacturing over cheap German imitations, what did British politics and philosophy have to learn from the Continent?

How times have changed! Though Britain emerged victorious from Two World Wars, the last hundred years have been a history of one defeat after another on the world stage. The days of British glory are only a distant memory. The “Empire on which the sun never sets” has long vanished off the face of the earth. Britain’s industry lies in ruins. Her exports have collapsed. Germany dominates Europe and the USA dominates the world. Britannia, who used to rule the waves, is now reduced to a second-rate island off the coast of Europe.

Despite the absurd illusions of Cameron and Clegg, Britain cannot remain aloof from the crisis that is sweeping through Europe. The future of Britain is one of heightened class struggle. An entirely new perspective opens up, one in which the old ideas will no longer be applicable. The changed situation demands new thinking. Today the marvellously profound ideas of Marxism are more relevant and necessary than ever. The new generation has rebelled against the old discredited formulas and is open to the revolutionary ideas of Marxism. It is to this generation that we dedicate this volume.

London, June, 2011