In this final part we look at the effects of changes in the economic environment on the consciousness of the masses and on the mass organisations of the working class. These effects do not take place automatically, but only with a delay. Human consciousness tends to lag behind events. But every day the masses are learning painful lessons, for the new situation does not allow the ruling class the luxury of serious reforms and concessions.
Consciousness of the masses
The bourgeois of all countries, with America at the head, are tobogganing to disaster with their eyes closed. They have no real understanding or perspective, but react empirically to events they do not control. In reality, the capitalist system finds itself in an impasse on a world scale. The bourgeois twist and turn trying to find a way out of the crisis, and by their actions they lend it an even more convulsive character.
It is a commonplace that the crisis does not move in a straight line. There are ebbs and flows. It is necessary to take the process as a whole. Trotsky once wrote: “Reformists only see ups and sectarians only see downs, but Marxists see the whole process.” The main thing is the effect of the boom-slump cycle on the consciousness of the working class and society as a whole. Moreover, the effects of changes in the economic environment do not take place automatically, but only with a delay. Human consciousness, in general, is deeply conservative and lags behind events. The present consciousness of the masses is still rooted in the past. After a long period of relative prosperity, there is a natural reluctance to admit that this avenue is now closed, that there can be no going back.
The reformists base themselves on this psychology, which may be characterised as the triumph of hope over reality. It will take a fairly long period, and many hard knocks, to burn these prejudices and illusions out of the consciousness of the masses. But every day they are acquiring new experiences and learning painful lessons in this respect. The new situation does not allow the ruling class the luxury of serious reforms and concessions. On the contrary, they are striving with might and main to eradicate the reforms of the past.
This is graphically revealed by the assault on pensions in Europe. Having worked hard all their lives the workers are informed that they must now work until they are 70, before which many of them will die: “Work until you drop!” That is the slogan of the bourgeoisie, which does not prevent them from looting the workers’ pension funds to fill their own pockets. This kind of thing is noticed not only by the working class but by the mass of middle class people, who are also receiving some very good lessons on the meaning of capitalism. If the Labour leaders were any use at all they could easily appeal to the middle class on this basis alone to support socialism. But they are more interested in the good opinions of the billionaires than that of the middle class or the workers.
The point is that if capitalism could achieve a rate of growth of even 3 percent or 4 percent there would be no need to reduce pensions. But they can no longer achieve the kind of results they achieved in the past. Many things flow from this, above all the fact that the kind of reforms that they gave in the past are no longer possible. This fact is not yet understood by the masses in the advanced capitalist countries, who have the illusion that the present crisis is only a temporary interruption of normality. This illusion is encouraged by the Labour leaders who are living in the past.
Because of the weakness of the subjective factor, the process will inevitably be drawn out over a long period of time, with the inevitable ebbs and flows. It will resemble the process in Spain between 1930 and 1937. In 1931 the fall of the Monarchy and the proclamation of the Republic opened up a stormy period of revolution. The masses took to the streets in huge demonstrations. The mood was euphoric.
The Republicans and Socialists came to power. But the deep crisis of Spanish capitalism did not permit an “intermediate” solution. This period ended in a colossal increase in the class struggle, an open conflict between Left and Right, ending in the Asturian Commune of 1934 and the victory of the Right in the Two Black Years (el Bienio Negro). This was a period of black reaction, but it did not solve any of the problems of Spanish capitalism. In 1936 the Popular Front swept to power and a new revolutionary period opened up, leading immediately to a fascist rising and Civil War. The working class had many opportunities to take power in this period but were thwarted by every single one of their organizations: Socialist Party, Communist Party, CNT and POUM. The last opportunity was in 1937 in the May Days of Barcelona.
Of course, there are many differences and there can be no question of a mechanical repetition of these events. But the central point to grasp is that the Spanish revolution unfolded over a period of seven years. Within this process there were great revolutionary advances, but there were also periods of tiredness, demoralization, retreat, defeats and even black reaction. But given the impossibility of solving the fundamental problems on the basis of rotten Spanish capitalism, every retreat was only a preparation for a new and even stormier upheaval. That is the main parallel with the period we have now entered on a world scale.
The mass organisations
The present crisis is not just a passing affair, as the apologists of capitalism try to pretend, but a deep organic crisis of world capitalism. The basic contradiction may be simply stated: the bourgeoisie cannot afford serious concessions, and the workers cannot afford any more cuts. Any attempt by the bourgeoisie to find a way out of the crisis can only be at the expense of the working class of the advanced capitalist countries and the impoverished masses in the so-called third world. That is the objective basis for an explosion of the class struggle everywhere. At the present stage consciousness is still lagging far behind the objective conditions. This is the fundamental reason for the weakness of the revolutionary tendency at the present stage. But the consciousness of the masses will catch up with a bang. The basis of reformism will be undermined.
Periods of great social upheavals inevitably affect the mass organizations of the working class in a fundamental way. In the past period the mass organizations have been dominated everywhere by right reformism. This was a reflection partly of the objective conditions, partly of the lag in consciousness of the working class. But the present crisis is pulling the rug from beneath the feet of the reformists. The basis of reformism was reforms. But reformism without reforms – reformism with counter-reforms – makes no sense to anybody. It is a recipe for crises and big splits in the reformist organizations. At a certain stage the right wing reformists (Blair etc.) will be driven out of the mass organisations. This will prepare the way for a period of left wing reformism or even centrism. Under such conditions the Marxist tendency can grow by leaps and bounds.
The experience of the Spanish revolution of 1931-7 is an object lesson in how the mass organizations reflect the general movement of the working class. The leaders of the Spanish Socialist Party had collaborated with the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. Largo Caballero, the leader of the Socialist trade union, the UGT, was even a minister in it for a short time. In the period 1931-3, Socialist ministers sat in a government that brutally repressed uprisings of the anarchist workers and peasants. Yet in 1934, the Socialists under Largo Caballero organized the Asturian Commune.
One year later the Young Socialists, an organization of 100,000 members, came out against the Second and Third Internationals and in favour of the Fourth International. They even asked the Spanish Trotskyists to join them and educate them in the ideas of Bolshevism. But Andres Nin refused to do this, on the grounds that it was impossible to join the Social Democracy. Because of this, a golden opportunity was lost and the Young Socialists were won over by the Stalinists. This settled the fate of the Spanish revolution. Trotsky broke off all relations with Nin, whose actions he considered a betrayal.
The role of the mass organizations in the present epoch is a decisive question. Because of the whole history of the last fifty years, the reformists and Stalinist organizations have colossal reserves of support in the population, while the forces of genuine Marxism have been thrown back. It will take time and the experience of great events to change this situation. But one thing is crystal clear: the crisis of capitalism will cause convulsions and splits in all the mass organizations. The polarization of society to the Left and Right will inevitably signify a polarization to the Left and Right within the mass organizations – not just the trade unions but also the reformist parties.
The strength of reformism is not an accident, but is rooted in objective conditions – to be more accurate, it is rooted in the conditions of the past period. The present consciousness of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries has been shaped by decades of relative improvement in living standards and reforms. The class contradictions were, of course, not abolished, but they were partially ameliorated. The edge of the class struggle was blunted and the mass organisations of the working class came under the pressure of the bourgeoisie, especially through the leading layer. All kinds of alien petty bourgeois and bourgeois ideas penetrated the movement.
This reflected a certain softness in the consciousness even of sections of the workers activists, who had forgotten the harsh lessons of the past. This situation seemed normal to them, whereas in reality it was an historical exception. But now capitalism is striving towards its historical norm. The smiling reformist-democratic mask will be thrown aside to reveal the real ugly and rapacious face of the bourgeoisie. The present attacks on the welfare state and the aggressive militarism of US imperialism are only an anticipation of what we can expect.
In the past period, reformism in all its guises, Keynesianism, feminism, pacifism, black nationalism etc have blunted the class consciousness of the activists and diverted them away from the struggle for socialism and revolutionary politics. But once the fresh winds of the class struggle begin to blow once again, all this will be swept away. In the harsh class battles that impend, all the softness, servile and conciliatory tendencies will be burnt out of the consciousness of the working class. The workers will come to understand the seriousness of the situation and that only a revolutionary change in society can solve their problems.
The wave of strikes, general strikes and mass demonstrations that have swept across Europe in the last three years was no accident. They are a symptom of the beginning of a reawakening of the working class. Trotsky pointed out in his writings on Spain in 1930, that this is an absolutely unavoidable stage. But he also pointed out that even the stormiest strikes do not solve anything fundamental, let alone those that are defeated. Without a fundamental change in society, strikes and demonstrations cannot solve the problems faced by the working class. The crisis of capitalism has reached such a point that the bourgeois cannot make serious concessions. Through the experience of many struggles, the working class, beginning with its vanguard, will begin to realise that more serious, political measures are necessary. Over a period, they will begin to draw revolutionary conclusions.
Great events are needed to change the psychology of the working class and sweep away the cobwebs. After a prolonged period of inactivity, the class needs to stretch its muscles, the new generation needs to learn some hard lessons to realise the seriousness of the tasks before it. This will take time. It is like the process that athletes call limbering-up. The general strikes and mass demonstrations of the recent period correspond more or less to this kind of preparatory exercise. They are a dress rehearsal for more serious movements that are being prepared.
The main problem is the extreme weakness of the subjective factor – the party and the leadership. If there existed an authoritative Marxist party or tendency, the workers, beginning with the active layer in the unions and mass parties, would learn far more quickly. But the authority of Marxism has been damaged by decades of Stalinism and now by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The whole movement has been temporarily thrown back. For several decades the forces of genuine Marxism have been reduced to a small minority and largely isolated from the class. This is the main thing that is making the process so slow and long drawn-out. But the tempo of events is already beginning to accelerate. This will be even more the case in the next period. The combination of events and the persistent, patient work of the Marxist tendency will enable us to bridge the gap between the workers and the Marxists and penetrate the mass movement at all levels. This is the only secret of success in the building of the revolutionary movement.
It goes without saying that the majority of the working class are not Marxists. Even the advanced layers in the shop stewards committees do not have the advantage of a worked-out scientific perspective. Therefore they easily become prey to moods of disillusionment, scepticism and despair. It is necessary to stand firm in the face of such moods, which sometimes even affect the Marxists. It is necessary to wage an unremitting ideological struggle to safeguard the movement from alien ideas and strengthen the theoretical foundations of the revolutionary tendency. This is the prior condition upon which everything else depends.
It is scarcely necessary to point out that ebbs and flows in the class struggle are inevitable. The workers cannot always be on strike! The movement cannot be kept in a state of white heat indefinitely. Only the ultra left sects could imagine such a thing. There will inevitably be some pauses, as workers try to make a balance sheet of their actions and work out the next step forward. But the belligerence of the bosses means that such pauses will only be the prelude to new and even stormier movements.
Everywhere the bosses are adopting a belligerent attitude. This is not for subjective reasons, but a reflection of the crisis of capitalism, which does not allow meaningful reforms. This will be a period of harsh class struggle, in which the only way the workers can get concessions is by militant action. In the past, the workers of the advanced capitalist countries could obtain important concessions with relative ease. Often they did not even need to strike: the mere threat of strike action would be sufficient to get the bosses to retreat. But those days are long gone.
Of course, it will not be easy and straightforward. The movement never proceeds in a straight line. Ebbs and flows are inevitable. There will be many defeats, as well as victories. There will be periods of tiredness and apathy, despair, even reaction. But every “lull” will only be the prelude to new upheavals and shocks, and even sharper class struggles. The pendulum will swing sharply to the left for a whole period. That is the main tendency, and we must stress this, not the temporary lulls that are an inevitable part of the process.
The main point to understand is that on a world scale the bourgeoisie has not been able to restore a new state of equilibrium. Any attempt to establish a new economic equilibrium will destroy the social and political equilibrium. This is the central dilemma. It will provide the Marxists with many opportunities, provided we remain firm on ideas and programme and adopt correct tactics and methods. Moreover, if we train our cadres in the fundamental ideas of Marxism, the ephemeral ups and downs of the movement should have little or no effect on them. We must learn to look beyond the immediate and see the broader historical processes that are unfolding, unseen and unsuspected by the majority.
If we educate our cadres in a correct manner, concentrating on theory and the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, there is no reason why we should be affected by temporary ebbs and flows of the movement. We must learn to be patient with the workers. “Patiently explain!” – that was Lenin’s slogan in 1917, and ours today. The kind of shrill denunciations and hysteria practiced by the sectarians is futile and counterproductive. It only serves to repel the workers and discredit the ideas of Marxism. They are all busy building “revolutionary parties” in the clouds, consisting of three men and a dog. But they are organically incapable of connecting with the real movement of the working class.
The great advantage of our tendency over all others is our serious attitude to theory. Together with flexible tactics and a firm orientation to the mass organizations of the working class, this is the guarantee of our success. Theory is our guide to action and our magnetic north that will lead us unerringly through every twist and turn. Naturally, there will be all kinds of cross currents and ups and downs, but for a whole period the pendulum will swing to the left. It is therefore not correct to attach too much importance to temporary and ephemeral moods in the class. We must at all times concentrate our attention on the fundamental processes.
Just over a decade ago, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the bourgeoisie was euphoric. They dreamed of a future of peace, prosperity and democracy everywhere. Now all these dreams have been reduced to ashes. The old order is crumbling before our eyes. Crises and shocks succeed one another with breathtaking speed. In retrospect, the collapse of Stalinism will be seen as only the prelude to a far greater historical drama. The tremendous scenes in Eastern Europe, when masses of people came out onto the streets demanding a fundamental change of regime will be repeated on a far higher level in London, Paris and New York. The stage will be set for the victory of the socialist revolution in one country or another. Given the degree of interpenetration of the world economy, that would be the signal for revolutionary movements on a global scale.
The present epoch is unique in human history. The revolutions of 1848-9 only affected Europe. The revolutionary wave that followed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 affected the whole of Europe, and had important echoes in Persia, India, Egypt, Turkey and China. But now the entire world has been linked together in a way that has never been seen before. The defenders of capitalism boasted about globalisation. But globalisation now manifests itself as a global crisis of capitalism. This is creating the objective conditions for a worldwide revolutionary movement of the proletariat.
It is the task of the Marxist tendency to give this international movement a conscious and organised expression, to arm it with a programme and a perspective. That is the prior condition for victory.
The present epoch is the epoch of the world revolution.