The molecular process of revolution
The collapse of Stalinism was not the end of history, but only the first act in a drama which must end in a general crisis of world capitalism. It did not take long to prick the bubble of euphoria that grew after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ten years later, the bourgeoisie finds itself in an impasse on a world scale. Its plans are unravelling on all fronts. In place of the former euphoria we have a general sense of foreboding and uncertainty. In retrospect, the fall of Stalinism will be seen to have been only the prelude to a far greater drama - the general crisis of world capitalism.
The long period of relative stability that characterised the world situation since 1945 has definitely ended. In retrospect, it will be seen to have been an historical exception, which in all likelihood will never be repeated. A new and convulsive period now opens up, which will be far more similar to the period of the 1920s and '30s: a period of slumps and wars, of revolution and counter-revolution on an international scale.
The period of boom lasted longer than we had expected, but has ended in collapse as we predicted. Now they will have to face the consequences on a world scale. All the factors that made for the upswing will now propel the downswing. Everything will be turned into its opposite. One blow will follow another. As Bush correctly remarked on September 12, the world will never be the same again.
The main feature of the situation is a growing volatility at every level. The general instability is expressed in an increasing volatility in public opinion, shown by the result of the last US Presidential election. The Democrat candidate should have won easily after a long period of boom, but was defeated (although the election was rigged, as later figures have shown). This already showed the existence of a strong subterranean current of discontent even in the richest country on earth.
True, the process is as yet in its early beginnings. In many of the industrialised capitalist countries, the heavy battalions of labour have not yet begun to move. This has had an effect inside the labour movement and in society. However, there are indications that this is already beginning to change. Following the general strikes in Greece, we saw the magnificent general strikes and mass demonstrations in Italy and Spain. This represents the beginnings of a turn in the situation in Europe. In France, there is a ferment in the working class, with teachers, train drivers, customs officers, prison guards and even gendarmes all threatening to strike. Significantly, in France, Greece, Britain and Germany, the strike movement has developed under “Socialist” governments. The workers are growing impatient with the failure of the governments they voted into power to carry out policies in their interest and are beginning to move from below.
In Britain there have been big strikes in the public sector, and a sharp turn to the left in the unions, reflected in the defeat of the right wing general secretaries and the election of left candidates in every one of the main unions. In Germany, there was the clash between the Schroeder government and the powerful metal workers’ union. IG Metal. It is clear that the pressure from below is building up. After years of boom, full order books and fat profits, the workers will demand their share. Such outbreaks of strikes normally take place just before a slump. This reflects the lag in consciousness. Only slowly do the workers adapt to new conditions. But now, any attempt to make them pay for the crisis will meet with fierce resistance.
The delay in the movement of the proletariat has been the decisive element in the equation. After a long period, in which there has been nothing but defeats, the active layer of the working class has its head down. But that will change. Of course, this process is still in its early beginnings. But once the fresh winds of class struggle begin to blow, there will be a change in the psychology of the working class. New layers are being involved in struggle, like the workers in call centres - a particularly oppressed layer of mainly young workers. These fresh young layers will be militant and open to revolutionary ideas. Marxists should take steps to establish links with them and win the best of them to the revolutionary tendency.
In many ways, the situation resembles the eve of May 1968. The working class in France seemed to many to be completely inert, or, in the words of Ernest Mandel, "bourgeoisified and Americanised". But beneath the surface there was a seething discontent. The bosses were applying heavy pressure on the workers, with all kinds of speed-ups, productivity deals etc. The movement, which initially began with student demonstrations, exploded without warning in the biggest revolutionary general strike in history. This occurred when it was least expected, after a long period of economic boom.
Now too, sudden and sharp changes - like September 11 - are rooted in the situation. The economic, political and military situation are all characterised by extreme instability. This must reflect itself at a certain stage in sudden changes in consciousness. Once they start to move, the new generation of young workers will be more militant than the old generation. It is a priority for Marxists to reach this layer. We must be prepared for this, both politically and organisationally. There is no room for complacency or routinism. The biggest danger is in looking backwards and dwelling in the past when conditions have changed completely. In all countries an absolute abysm will open up between the classes. Yet precisely at this time, the labour and trade union leaders have gone far to the right.
The contradictory nature of the situation is an expression of the fact that this is a transitional stage between one period and another. The main problem is the weakness of the subjective factor and the horrendous degeneration of the workers' leaders everywhere. Trotsky pointed out that the crisis of humanity could be reduced to the crisis of leadership of the proletariat. These lines are more true today than ever before.
The last period was characterised by a mild reaction in the advanced capitalist countries. But this is now approaching its limits. All the plans of the bourgeoisie and the reformists will be reduced to ashes. Even in this period we saw explosions of the class struggle, such as the mass strikes in France in November and December 1995, which will pale into insignificance when compared to what is going to happen in the future. The main thing to see is the complete impasse of capitalism on a world scale. Above all it is necessary to grasp the inevitability of sharp turns and sudden changes. Events like September 11 are rooted in the situation. Events, events, events, are necessary to transform the outlook of the working class.
Degeneration of Social Democracy and Stalinism
The last twenty, and especially the last ten years, have set the seal on the final degeneration of all the socialist and communist parties. They have abandoned any pretence to stand for socialism and revolution. The union leaders, as Trotsky predicted, have become increasingly enmeshed in the bourgeois state. Now all these dreams have been dissipated in the air. The capitalists face the deepest crisis on a world scale since 1945. The secret lies in the world economy and world trade itself. The integration of the world economy (globalisation) has developed the productive forces to an unprecedented degree. But, as we predicted, at a certain point it has come up against the fundamental contradictions of capitalism. Globalisation manifests itself as a global crisis of capitalism.
A world slump will undoubtedly shake things up. But for Marxists, a slump is not a panacea. We have explained repeatedly that the continuation of the boom, far from being negative, will lay the basis for an explosion of militancy on the industrial front. The whole situation is characterised by extreme volatility.
It is a dialectical contradiction that precisely in this period, the Social Democrats and Stalinists have reached the nadir of their degeneration. So long as the boom lasted, elements like Blair could maintain themselves. Under conditions of crisis, however, they will stand exposed. Reformism is only attractive to the masses when it gives reforms. But reformism without reforms, or reformism with counter-reforms makes no sense to anyone.
Capitalism can no longer afford to grant concessions as it did in the past. The bourgeoisie will put pressure on the Social Democratic leaders to make deep cuts in living standards and public spending. But the working class will press for more reforms. This contradiction must express itself at a certain stage in crises and splits within the mass organisations. The crisis of capitalism therefore signifies the crisis of reformism.
In the last period, there was a certain softness in the working class of the advanced capitalist countries. They forgot the lessons of the past. But now capitalism is returning to its more classical model - that of raw class oppression. The rolling back of the state, privatisation and the constant attacks on public spending, are all expressions of this. A gulf of bitterness will open up between the classes. The mood of the working class will harden. This is the objective basis for a growth of the Left in the mass organisations and a recovery of Marxism.
The working class did not move in a decisive way for a whole period. That is the decisive question. This explains the apparent victory of the right wing and pro-bourgeois elements in the labour leadership. But it is not the only explanation. The left reformists have revealed themselves to be utterly incapable of offering any alternative to the right wing. They are completely spineless. This is a reflection of their absolute lack of perspectives. They have no vision and no faith in the working class, and therefore continually capitulate to the right wing.
In the past they tail-ended the Stalinists. After the fall of Stalinism, they are all at sea. Many have abandoned politics altogether, while others have capitulated to the right wing in order to secure a career. Thus, the working class has no point of reference in the labour movement. This is a big part of the reason why there has been little or no opposition to the right wing and why the latter could go so far to the right.
However, this does not mean that left reformism has disappeared. On the contrary. It will inevitably regain its former strength in the next period, as opposition grows. The next period will see the emergence of mass left reformist or even centrist currents in the mass organisations. Our attitude to this phenomenon will assume a decisive importance if we are to gain the ear of leftward moving workers and youth. We must combine a friendly attitude to the Lefts with an implacable criticism of their political and organisational shortcomings.
The reformists - both the right and especially the lefts - have no understanding of the situation. They are living in the past. They do not understand that this crisis is different to the relatively minor crises we have seen since the Second World War. The bourgeoisie is faced with war and slump at the same time. The governments will attempt to make deep cuts in public spending to balance the budget. Despite this, the reformists of all kinds imagine that it is possible to solve the problems of the working class on the basis of capitalism. But the crisis of capitalism is cutting the ground from under their feet. The conditions are being prepared for an explosion of the class struggle.
The left reformists fear the Marxists, because they rightly understand the danger our ideas pose to their position. They see us as rivals - which is just what we are. In the final analysis they are closer to the right reformists than they will ever be to us. In addition, a muddlehead always hates a person with clear ideas. In the end, matters will be resolved by a struggle of Marxism and left reformism for control of the labour organisations.
Ferment in the youth
In the present period, the importance of tactics is even greater than normal. By their very nature tactics must be flexible. The tactical orientation of the tendency at any given moment cannot be determined by general considerations, but only by concrete conditions and possibilities. In the Third World, the situation is ripe for winning large numbers of youth direct to Marxism. There is a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary ferment in one country after another. There is no stability anywhere. But now the situation of the youth in the advanced capitalist countries is changing also. The underlying instability is reflected in the wave of "anti-capitalist" demonstrations that accompany every meeting of the IMF and other institutions.
In the last two years at least one million people have participated in the anti-globalisation demonstrations. This shows the existence of a ferment among the youth - even before the slump. At this stage, it is mainly the petit bourgeois youth that is affected. But it is always the case at the beginning of the movement. The students and similar layers are a sensitive barometer of developing contradictions in society. The present demonstrations are the heat lightening that presages a storm. The prevailing mood is one of extreme volatility. This was expressed even before the onset of recession and September 11 by the so-called anti-globalisation movement. In essence, despite its confused ideas and heterogeneous composition, this was an anti-capitalist movement.
It is true that the majority of these people were students, although there was a significant presence of workers and trade unionists in Seattle, Nice, Genoa and Brussels. It goes without saying that the students and the intelligentsia in general cannot play an independent role in the class struggle, as petty bourgeois sects like the Mandelites imagined in the past. But they are an extremely sensitive barometer of the mood of society, and can express very early on the unbearable contradictions and tensions that are building up beneath the surface of society.
The university students of today are more in contact with social reality than for instance their counterparts in 1968. This is in part the result of a slightly higher percentage of students from working class families, but it also reflects the general impoverishment of the lower strata of the middle classes and the proletarisation of intellectual work, which brings the white collar workers closer to the industrial working class. In France, for instance, 800.000 students have to find jobs - mainly in the most flexibilised and precarious sectors of fast food, shops and call centres - to be able to finance their studies.
The Russian revolution was preceded and heralded one hundred years ago by big demonstrations of students (who at that time were drawn overwhelmingly from the upper layers of society). Then the workers burst onto the scene in the 1905 revolution. A similar process occurred with the Spanish students in 1930, which Trotsky commented on: “During the development of the first Russian revolution , we observed this phenomenon more than once, and we have always appreciated its symptomatic significance. Such revolutionary or semi-revolutionary student activity means that bourgeois society is going through a profound crisis. The petty-bourgeois youth, sensing that an explosive force is building up among the masses, try in their own way to find a way out of the impasse and to push the political developments forward.”
Trotsky stressed that the workers should support the students, but must not make concessions to the latter’s middle class prejudices, but should maintain an independent class position and that the communists must fight for a correct policy: “By backing up the student movement, the Spanish workers have shown an entirely correct revolutionary instinct. Of course, they must act under their own banner and under the leadership of their own proletarian organisation. It is Spanish communism that must guarantee this process and for that a correct policy is indispensable.”
Likewise, the mobilisation of the student youth in the anti-globalisation protests is a symptom of the developing crisis of society which at a certain stage must manifest itself as a mass revolutionary movement of the working class. We must understand its symptomatic significance and revolutionary potential. We must support it and strive to connect it with the workers’ movement. But, while maintaining a friendly approach, we must make no concessions to petty bourgeois, reformist and anarchist ideas, but subject them to an implacable criticism, posing the revolutionary Marxist alternative in order to win the best elements.
The experience of the mass demonstrations is providing an education for many young people who have no knowledge of Marxism as to the real nature of the bourgeois state. The attempts in the main European countries and in the USA to strengthen the repressive arsenal (lately in the name of struggling against international terrorism) against the anti globalisation movement (Genova in July 2001) and the most radical workers action is a sign that the bourgeoisie is preparing for serious class battles which it fears it will not be able to contain or diffuse fully with the usual methods. Those methods consisted essentially in relying on the help of the TU leaders and the tops of the Socialist Parties and Communist parties to save the system from an upsurge of the working class and youth movement.
The confused ideas of the anti-globalisation movement are the result of the collapse of the moral and political authority of Marxism as a consequence of the crimes of Stalinism. Repelled by the opportunism of labour leaders, and lacking a Marxist perspective and understanding, a section of the youth has veered towards the outdated ideas of anarchism and even terrorism. Of course, the movement is still in its early beginning. But the main thing is that it has begun. Marxists must seek out those layers of the youth that are moving in a revolutionary direction wherever they are and win them to the Marxist movement. At the present time the process of radicalisation within the mass organizations is only in its early beginnings.
The trade unions
The most important area of work for us at the present time is the youth. However, the trade union work also assumes a burning importance.
The weakness of the ruling class is shown by the fact that everywhere it is obliged to rule through the labour and trade union leaders. Without the support of the workers' leaders, the rule of the capitalists would not last for a single day. But under conditions of deep crisis, the bourgeois will not be able to maintain the policy of class peace. We see in Germany how the old policy of Mittbestimmung is breaking down. Everywhere the bosses will be forced to go onto the offensive. This will have profound consequences for the trade union and labour movement.
In his article, Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, Trotsky explains that there is an organic tendency of the tops of the unions to fuse with the bourgeois state. This tendency still exists, but now it will be difficult for the bureaucracy to continue along this road.
The objective conditions are not at all favourable for class collaboration, which presupposes that the bosses are able to buy off the workers with concessions. On the contrary, under conditions of crisis, the employers will move to take back even those concessions they have made in the past.
In the past, it was easy to go on strike, and win concessions. Now it will be very difficult. Strikes will be increasingly hard, bitter and protracted. The relations between the classes will also become more antagonistic, the contradictions far sharper than they have been in the period since 1945. This will lead to a ferment of discontent and opposition inside the unions - even the most right wing and bureaucratised ones where change appears impossible.
Sooner or later the process will be reflected inside the mass organisations of the working class. The leadership will find itself under increasing pressure of the workers. They will either begin to reflect this pressure and give a lead, or be swept aside and replaced with younger, more determined elements. The swing to the left in the trade union elections in Britain is an early indication of a process that will take place at all levels of the movement in the next period.
In the period of the long economic upswing that followed the Second World War, the mere threat of a strike was often sufficient to avoid a strike in the advanced capitalist countries. At that time it was easy to be a shop steward. But now all that has changed. This was rooted in the objective conditions. In times of boom the capitalists do not want any interruption of production, and therefore can make concessions to the workers, sacrificing a part of the surplus value to avoid strikes. This is the economic basis of class collaboration and "social partnership". But, as we have explained, the last boom has been based to a large extent on the super-exploitation of the working class. The results are entirely different. Even at the height of the boom there have been counter-reforms and attacks. Things will be even worse in the coming slump.
In the next period it will be difficult to be a shop steward. Only the most militant and courageous elements will be prepared to stand for election. Strikes will be bitter and it will not be easy to obtain concessions. In these changed objective conditions we can find the basis for a transformation of the trade unions. In the heat of events, the labour organisations will be transformed from top to bottom. The unions are a crucial field for genuine Marxists in this period.
The unions are the embryo of the new society within the old. Lenin described them as a "school of Communism". This is the school where hundreds of thousands - even millions - of proletarians will get the necessary training and experience that will enable them to take the running of society into their hands in the future.
The aim of the Marxists is to win new members, spread our ideas, sell the paper, and extend and deepen our influence. Under the changed conditions, this will be a most fruitful area of work. The crisis will express itself first in the trade unions. There are limits to the policy of class collaboration pursued by the leaders of the unions. At this stage, trade union work is an uphill struggle, with a lot of work and only modest results. But it is a necessary investment and a preparation for the future.
At a certain stage, the unions will be pushed into semi-opposition, or even outright opposition, to the regime. There is nothing more pernicious as the idea peddled by ultra lefts that we must not work in the unions. Even when the bureaucratic apparatus is holding back the movement and playing a reactionary role, and the workers resort to unofficial action, they will always return to the unions. Ad hoc rank-and-file organisations can play a role but can never substitute themselves for the permanent organisations of the unions.
The Stalinists have collapsed everywhere and are a shadow of their former selves. They have lost any connection they might have had with the ideas of Marxism Leninism and become ordinary reformist politicians. This also affects their organisational capabilities. They do not have the same grip on the unions as they did in the past. At the same time the sects have no idea of how to conduct real union work. The road is therefore open to our tendency to establish a serious base in the unions, provided we do the work.
The advanced workers are looking for serious explanations and analysis, not just slogans and agitation. Our books have had considerable success among this layer, especially Reason in Revolt. This shows that there is a growing thirst for theory, not just among the youth, but among the workers. It is a serious mistake to underestimate this or reduce our public written material to the lowest common denominator. Our aim is to raise the level of the workers, beginning with the advanced layer.
The growing crisis has shaken things up and compelled people to think more deeply about things. There is a general tendency to question the existing order of society, and to inquire about the causes of the present world situation. That tendency that can provide the answers to these questions will win the ear of the workers and youth. Here we have an immeasurable advantage over all our rivals!
A section of the advanced guard have been influenced by the long period of lull in the class struggle and the unprecedented degeneration of the union leadership in this period and have drawn entirely false conclusions from it. They do not see the process dialectically and therefore have become pessimistic, reflecting the prevailing scepticism of a layer of union activists who have lost confidence in the class.
We must base ourselves, not on ephemeral moods among the activists, but on the deep crisis of capitalism - the deepest crisis for half a century. We must see the fundamental processes in society and understand the inevitability of a confrontation between the classes. Everywhere the ruling class is demanding deep cuts and "sacrifices" - from the workers. This is a finished recipe for the class struggle. The union leaders are blind to this. They are living in the past. They think that by making concessions they can return to the earlier cosy relations with the bosses and the government. They do not understand that weakness invites aggression. After every step backwards, the bosses will demand two more.
This process has its limits. Sooner or later the workers will say: "Enough!" This was clearly shown by the magnificent general strikes and demonstrations in Italy and Spain, and earlier in Greece. At a certain stage, the slogan of action committees will become appropriate, as a means of generalising the struggle, as in May 1968 in France. This slogan is not counterposed to the mass organisations of the class, as the sectarians imagine. Under certain conditions, the trade unions themselves can act as soviets, as in the British general strike of 1926. In Germany, at one stage, Trotsky advanced the slogan of all power to the shop stewards committees.
Fascism and Bonapartism
Of course, the movement will not take place in a straight line. There will inevitably be ups and downs. Periods of stormy advance will be followed by periods of tiredness, lulls, defeats, even periods of reaction. There will be violent swings to the left and right. But every move towards reaction will only prepare even bigger swings to the left. At the present time there is no danger of fascism or even bonapartist reaction in any developed capitalist country. But that can change in the period that opens up.
There are nascent bonapartist tendencies within every one of the right wing bourgeois parties: in the British Conservatives, in Forza Italia, even in the US Republicans. But they are an insignificant minority at present. The bourgeois in Europe burnt their fingers badly with fascism in the past, and are not likely to hand power again to fascist madmen like Hitler and Mussolini. Moreover, the class balance of forces is in no way comparable to the situation before the War, when there was a very large peasantry in Italy and Germany. Now everywhere the working class is in a big majority.
The spread of racism is one of the signs of the sickness of capitalism in the present period. In Europe and other advanced capitalist countries, the growth of unemployment produces a mood of fear and insecurity that can be played upon by reactionary right wing demagogues. The reformist leaders of the Social Democracy have no answer to this phenomenon. In fact, they are partly responsible for it. The right wing policies pursued by “socialist” governments that accept capitalism, the market, privatisation etc., only serve to sow disillusionment and despair in the masses, and inevitably lead to a reactionary backlash, as we saw in France with the increase in support for Le Pen.
In the absence of the subjective factor, it is inevitable that some backward layers of the working class can be infected by reactionary moods and tendencies. This was the case in Russia even in the course of the revolution. It is the result of the contradictions of capitalism, and the general mood of insecurity and fear produced by the lack of jobs, houses, schools etc.
While it is necessary to fight against racism and fascism, it is necessary to maintain a sense of proportion and also to understand how this is to be done. The hysterical reaction of the sects and the petty bourgeois “lefts”, who are always shouting about the alleged danger of fascism only serve to confuse and disorient all who come into contact with them.
It is also necessary to put the blame for the recent turn to the right in France, the Netherlands and Denmark firmly where it belongs: with the false policies of the Social Democracy, which led the movement to defeat. These leaders, who have completely capitulated to capitalism, now try to hide their responsibility by joining in the noisy chorus about “fascism”. In fact, it is the capitalist system itself that has created the conditions for the growth of racist and reactionary moods among a layer of the population, and this can only be eliminated by the adoption of a real socialist policy and an all-out fight against capitalism. All the rest is just empty demagogy aimed at throwing dust in the eyes of the masses.
Racism cannot be eradicated on the basis of pious appeals to morality, “brotherly love” and so on. It can only be fought on a class basis and the fight for socialist policies that would guarantee jobs, homes and decent wages and conditions for all. It is necessary to conduct a campaign of agitation and propaganda in the mass organisations of the workers, especially the unions, explaining the need to combat racism and fascism - but with the methods of the working class, not the mindless petty bourgeois.
In the last period the Social Democracy has been in government in 11 of the 15 EU countries. Yet the masses saw no fundamental change in their conditions. It is this that has produced the present backlash. Even so, it is entirely incorect to present this as a general “turn to the right” in society, still less a danger of “fascism”. To begin with, le Pen is no more a fascist than Fini in Italy. He is rabid reactionary and racist demagogue and a pace-maker for a more extreme form of reaction in the future. But the reality of the situation was shown in the second round of the election, where he suffered a severe defeat. More importantly, the Socialist and Communist Party were also heavily defeated, and power passed to the right wing bourgeois coalition. This was a vote of no-confidence in the pro-bourgeois policies of Jospin and co., and their “Communist” allies.
What the French elections showed was not the danger of fascism, but a polarisation of French society to the right and the left. The fall of the Jospin government opens up a new period of social and political instability in France, which will be characterised by violent swings to the left and right. Blocked on the parliamentary front, the French workers will take to the streets as they did at the time of the Juppe government in 1992-5.
This extremely volatile mood exists not just in France , but all over Europe at the present time. The victory of right wing governments in Spain and Italy did not prevent the massive general strikes and demonstrations organised by the union leaders under pressure from below. Tomorrow we will see similar developments in Britain, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Denmark. The pendulum will swing far to the left, preparing the way for a process of ferment and radicalisation in the mass organisations of the working class. The perspective is therefore not one of reaction but of revolutionary developments in one country after another.
The sects and petty bourgeois lefts and radicals understand nothing of all this. They shout “fascism” at the slightest pretext and imagine that this makes them great revolutionaries. They have not understood the elementary truth that the bourgeoisie will only resort to dictatorship when all other means are exhausted and they are threatened with overthrow. This means precisely that, given the present class balance of forces in Europe, long before the question of reaction would be posed, the working class will have had many opportunities to take power.
Only after the proletariat has suffered a series of defeats would the conditions emerge for some kind of Bonapartist dictatorship in France, Spain, Italy or Britain. But at the present time that is by no means the case. The organisations of the working class are intact. We are not in a period of great defeats of the working class. On the contrary, the European workers are only just beginning to move into action after a long period of relative “class peace”. On the other hand, is it correct to say that the bourgeois of France, Holland and Denmark are so terrified of revolution that they are contemplating abolishing parliamentary rule and placing themselves under the protection of fascist adventurers? It is sufficient to pose the question concretely to see how ridiculous it is.
The ruling class of France was not at all pleased by the electoral advance of Le Pen. In common with the capitalist classes of every other European country at the present time, they are perfectly happy with the regime of formal bourgeois democracy, which creates the illusion that “the majority decides”, while leaving all the real levers of power in their hands. From a capitalist point of view, such a regime is by far the most economical, effective and reliable of all. “Power” alternates every five years or so between their direct parliamentary representatives (Chirac, Aznar...) and those most respectable defenders of private property and the existing order, the right wing Social Democrats (the “Left”). Where is the problem?
The problem is that people like Le Pen can stir things up and cause unnecessary problems, provoking the workers and youth - which is what actually occurred. What all this showed was the colossal underlying volatility and instability that now affects the whole of Europe. In the absence of a strong revolutionary party, this will inevitably express itself in all kinds of peculiar ways - including reactionary phenomena, as in France and the Netherlands. But these are unstable and ephemeral phenomena, the importance of which is more symptomatic than anything else.
It is therefore entirely incorrect to exaggerate the significance of such developments at this stage. In the future, however, the situation will be different. If the working class fails to carry out the socialist transformation of society, then over a period, the conditions for reaction will develop. The ruling class in even the most developed and “democratic” countries will decide that the right to strike, demonstrate and vote, are all unnecessary and harmful luxuries. When that stage is reached (and it is still some way off), they will not hesitate to use the fascist gangs to assault and murder people, in order to intimidate the working class.
However, having burnt their fingers in the past with Hitler and Mussolini, it is highly unlikely that the bourgeoisie of any European country will hand over power to the fascist madmen. More likely, they will resort to the army generals, to whom they are linked by family and other ties and over whom they can hope to exercise some degree of control. The fascist gangs would operate as the auxiliaries of the regime, but not given power. Such a regime, however, would be a ferocious dictatorship - like the regime of Pinochet in Chile or the monstrous dictatorship of the Turkish generals after 1980.
For the last fifty years, the European and American workers have been taught to believe that “democracy” is a normal and even inevitable condition of existence. As a matter of fact, it is a relatively recent innovation that has been adopted in those wealthy capitalist countries that were able to give certain concessions to the working class in order to keep the class struggle within certain limits. To the degree that this regime of “class peace” begins to break down, the bourgeois will change from democracy to dictatorship with the ease of a man moving to a non-smoking to a smoking compartment on a train.
It must never be forgotten that the democratic rights that exist today were all conquered by the working class against the fierce resistance of the capitalists. The roots of democracy are very shallow and can easily be uprooted, once the bourgeois decides that it is impossible to control the working class by “normal” means. In any case, what is called “democracy” is really only a fig-leaf that conceals the dictatorship of big business. What is necessary is to overthrow the dictatorship of the banks and big monopolies and introduce a regime of workers’ democracy as the first step in the movement towards socialism, and the Socialist United States of Europe.
In the long run, there will be splits in all the bourgeois parties, resulting in the formation of openly bonapartist parties, and a polarisation of society to the right and left, preparing the way for all kinds of right wing conspiracies like the Gladio conspiracy of the 1970s. But given the strength of the working class and its organisations, this can pave the way for an explosion of the class struggle and even open civil war.
But the bourgeoisie will not resort to open reaction until all other possibilities have been exhausted. Long before we reach this stage, the workers will have had many possibilities of taking power in one country after another. Only after a series of serious defeats of the working class would the danger of bonapartist dictatorship be posed.
The present situation is similar to the period 1912-14, at the end of the long period of class peace that preceded the outbreak of the First World War. That opened up a new period of wars and revolutions, which lasted until 1923. Then there was a period of relative stabilisation, based on the boom of the 1920s - a period very similar to the last ten years. That ended with the collapse of 1929-33, which opened up a new period of instability, revolution and counter-revolution, which only ended with the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-45)
For peculiar reasons which we have explained in previous documents, the period after 1945 was characterised by a long period of capitalist upswing, based mainly on the expansion of world trade. This period came to an end with the first world recession since the War in 1973-5. This opened the way to a new period which was different to that of the post-war upswing. This was a period characterised by low growth rates, high unemployment, reduction of state expenditure and counter-reforms.
Although the boom of the last period lasted longer than we anticipated, it was in no way similar to the post-war upswing. In fact, none of the basic economic indicators of that period have been matched since. In retrospect, the boom of the 1990s will be seen as more similar to the shaky boom of the 1920s, which paved the way for a period of decline. Of course, history never repeats itself exactly in the same way. There are always cross-currents and variants. The revolutionary process does not proceed in a straight line. Periods of upswing will be followed by periods of calm. But in every period, it is necessary to build and consolidate the organisation.
In the long period of capitalist upswing after 1945, there was a relative stability in the relations between the classes - and also between nations. Now all that has dissolved. Instead of stability, there is universal instability. This can be seen even in the USA - indeed, particularly in the USA. With the events of September 11 the myth of American invulnerability has been shattered forever. America has joined the rest of the world in the present chaotic, explosive, bloody mess that capitalism has prepared so thoroughly.
Trotsky explained in The History of the Russian Revolution that the first indication of a revolution is that the masses begin to participate in politics. This is now the case in the USA and all other countries. People who took no interest in politics have suddenly become interested. People who never read a newspaper, except to study the sports pages, now avidly devour the latest news from Afghanistan, and strive to understand the complexities of world politics and the conduct of military affairs.
The immediate effects of September 11 have a reactionary character, as we predicted. President Bush gets a high rate of approval in the polls. But this is a very superficial mood and can easily change into its opposite. Let us not forget that the father of the present President also got a high rate of approval during the Gulf War, which did not prevent him being beaten in the Presidential elections the following year. The mood in America is far more unstable now than ten years ago. George W Bush will end up as the most hated and despised politician in American history. And his faithful ally Tony Blair will face a similar fate in Britain.
The main thing to understand is the impasse of capitalism on a world scale. Contradictions are being piled upon contradictions, to prepare a most explosive situation. The mood of the masses can change rapidly, swinging violently to the left at a given moment, as the crisis unfolds. The contradictory mood of the American masses was shown by the movement of the New York fire fighters in the aftermath of September 11, when the mayor ordered them to halt their search for the bodies of their comrades. They marched on City Hall and fought a pitched battle with the police in riot gear. And in all this, they carried the American flag. This is a dialectical contradiction! The actions of the American workers are more advanced than their understanding. In all probability, they will still carry the flag when they carry out the final storming of power. That will make no difference to the outcome!
In the short term, there is no doubt that the effect of the war is to paralyse or at least postpone the class struggle in many countries, not just the USA. But this will be temporary. All the contradictions remain and are growing in intensity. By holding back the flood waters, the leadership will only make it more uncontrollable when it finally breaks through - which it will do eventually.
Even during the boom of the past ten years, there have been constant cuts in state expenditure. In a slump this will continue, causing even greater hardship. The fall in production and employment will mean a corresponding fall in the revenues of the state, rendering serious reforms and concessions to the working class and the unemployed impossible. We will support the demands for increased public spending on schools and hospitals put forward by the trade union leaders, but we will point out that on the basis of capitalism this is impossible. What is required is the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy and a socialist plan of production, under democratic workers' control and management, as the only way out of the crisis.
A recent study by the International Labour Office in Geneva revealed how the degree of pressure on working people has been increased during the boom. It shows that in countries like Britain, the USA, Finland, Germany and Poland, the incidence of mental health problems is increasing, with as many as one in ten workers suffering from depression, anxiety, stress or burnout, leading, in many cases, to unemployment and hospitalisation. The report estimates that anywhere from 3-4 percent of GDP is spent on mental health problems in the EU, while in the USA the national spending associated with the treatment of depression ranges from US $30 billion to US $44 billion. In the USA, clinical depression has now become one of the most common illnesses, affecting one in ten working age adults every year, resulting in a loss of approximately 200 million working days each year.
These figures, which probably understate the gravity of the situation, show how even in the advanced countries, capitalism has become an unbearable system for the mass of the population. The inhuman pressures, the authoritarianism in the workplace, the long hours of drudgery which have taken all the pleasure away from work - have created a nightmare situation for millions. This finds its expression in the breakdown of the family, the abuse of women and children, mindless crime and violence, drugs and alcoholism. If this is the situation during a boom, what will be the position in a slump?
Already at the present time there is a growing questioning of the market economy, even among the middle classes. The burden of overwork, performance targets, just-in-time production, the pressure, the anxiety, the insecurity, the inequality - all these things are creating an increasingly critical mood, especially among the youth, but not only.
The events after September 11 have not fundamentally changed the situation in this respect. The mood of patriotism and flag-waving in the USA was superficial and will soon wear off as the crisis develops. There was never any real enthusiasm for war even in the USA, where the mood of the majority could be described as reluctant acquiescence. The idea of Bush and the right wing that they could base themselves on this mood was a serious mistake, as they will soon discover when they get involved in an adventure in Iraq.
The polarisation of society to the right and the left will be replicated at a certain point within the labour and trade union organisations. At the moment there seems little evidence of this. The workers' organisations are largely empty, and the leadership has swung far to the right - so far that some people have even written them off altogether. This is foolish in the extreme. The reason that the leadership has gone far to the right is that the class has not yet begun to move in a decisive way.
To the degree that the leaders are not under the direct pressure of the working class, the pressure of the ruling class is redoubled. But once the class begins to move they will inevitably move through the mass organisations, BECAUSE THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE. It is essential that we do not lose sight of this fact.
At the present, the pressures of capitalism on the labour organisations are particularly intense because of the war. There is heavy pressure to fall into line, to accept "national unity" on the war question, to put aside "divisive issues" and so on. However, as time goes on, there will be pressure from below to address the burning problems of the masses. The mood of the masses can be held down for a time by the dead weight of the labour and trade union apparatus. But there are limits to this. The longer that the process is held back, the more violent will the explosion be when it comes. Big surprises are in store for the ruling class and the reformist and trade union leaders.
In the developed capitalist countries the influence of Marxism is just inching forward. This is a dialectical contradiction. The objective situation is contradictory. For a whole historical period, the forces of genuine Marxism have been isolated from the masses in the advanced countries. We have been fighting against the stream. Our ideas did not correspond to the experience of the workers. But now this is already beginning to change. The working class in general does not learn from books but from its own experience.
The developing crisis of world capitalism, which will unfold over the next decade or more, with ups and downs, is preparing a series of violent tremors which will shake the masses out of their inertia and apathy and propel them on the road to struggle. Under these conditions, ideas which have had an echo in small circles will gain an audience of thousands and tens of thousands. We will no longer have to fight against the stream, but will be moving together with the flow of history. Revolutionary Marxism will occupy its rightful place, at the head of the working class in its struggle for the socialist reconstruction of society.
September 16, 2002