The reawakening of the world working class and the tasks faced by Marxists - Part Five

In his concluding remarks Alan Woods stresses that we have entered a new period, one in which the working class is moving in all corners of the globe. After the defeats of the past a new generation of working class fighters is coming onto the scene of history, a generation that has no alternative but to fight. We are faced with a new revolutionary perspective, a new period that will unfold over some time. We must grasp the opportunity to build the forces of revolutionary Marxism in all countries.

A new revolutionary wave

We are fortunate to live at this time in history. In the 1970s, there was a major wave of class struggle. Beginning with 1968 in France it swept Europe, affecting one country after another: Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy, Britain. The advanced workers felt that power was within their grasp. They were not mistaken. In Portugal, they had the power. The London Times published an editorial article with the title: Capitalism is dead in Portugal. The workers had the power but they lost it because of the conduct of the leadership of the Socialist Party and Communist Party. The same story was later repeated in Spain and Italy, where power was within the grasp of the working class and it slipped through their fingers.

At that time the ruling class was preparing for civil war, not just in Italy but also in Belgium and even in Britain. There were military conspiracies, like the Gladio conspiracy. This is a warning for the next period. Many workers in the advanced capitalist countries think that democracy is something fixed for all time. But when circumstances demand it, the ruling class can change from democracy to dictatorship with the ease of a man changing compartments on a train. The bourgeoisie can tolerate democracy as long as its rule is not threatened, but not otherwise.

In the coming period, there will be an enormous polarisation of society to the left and to the right. Together with the growth of the revolutionary tendency and the class struggle we will also see the growth of fascist and Bonapartist tendencies. The attacks on democratic rights that are being launched in the name of the so-called “war on terror” is merely an anticipation of this fact. But that does not mean that reaction is an immediate perspective. Long before the ruling class moves to open reaction, the working class will have had the chance to change society many times.

Under these conditions, consciousness can change like lightning. It is a general law that consciousness lags behind events. Human consciousness, contrary to the belief of the idealists, is profoundly conservative and resists change and new ideas. But then at a certain point, it catches up with a bang. That is precisely what a revolution is. The consciousness of the working class has lagged behind events for the last 20 years, especially in Europe and the USA. There is an objective reason for this.

When the workers have the chance to take power and don't take power, it has a profoundly demoralising effect on the class, and especially on its advanced layer. It takes a long time to recover. Part of the problem is that the vanguard of the working class, the people who led the struggle in the decade of the 1970s, the old leadership, has been burnt out and largely destroyed. Even worse, this layer has become an obstacle. They are affected by a mood of depression, pessimism and demoralisation. They have lost hope in the working class and have no perspective.

These reactionary moods were subsequently reinforced by the economic boom in capitalism in the 1980s and 1990s. The workers’ organisations themselves (the unions and the socialist and communist parties) fell even more under the pressure of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois ideology in this period. They become obstacles in the way of changing society. This period set the final seal on the reformist degeneration of the Communist Parties and Social Democrats. Freed from the pressure of the working class, they swung to the right.

For us, these mass parties are not part of the subjective factor but rather part of the objective factor – and a not unimportant part. There was no point of reference for the youth and the most advanced workers. This is a big part of the explanation for the “lag in consciousness”. It has become fashionable in the circles of left intellectual snobs to blame everything on the “low level of consciousness of the workers”. Incredibly, there are even people in Venezuela today who talk like this. But it is entirely wrong to blame the masses for the failures of the leadership.

For the whole of the last period, not one of the leaders was proposing any programme or perspective of socialism, let alone talking of taking power. The unions were doing nothing, while the bosses were destroying hard-won rights and conditions. The left parties were doing nothing, offering no alternative to bourgeois reactionaries like Thatcher. On the contrary, they were imitating the policies of Thatcher, embracing “new realism” (i.e. market economics) and expelling the Left.

Workers are realists. Under these conditions, when they got no lead from their organisations, they began to look for individual solutions to their problems. The boom in the economy permitted them to increase their living standards, albeit on the basis of an enormous increase in absolute and relative surplus value: longer hours of work, speed-ups, greater intensity of labour, increased productivity, etc.

For a temporary period, they were prepared to accept the tyranny of the bosses, to accept impositions of the bosses. Seeing no alternative, they put their heads down and proceeded to kill themselves working, with reduced holidays, work at weekends, and long hours of overtime. The longer working hours and the consequent exhaustion after a hard day’s labour ruled out participation in the unions or workers’ parties. This in turn reinforced the stranglehold of the right wing, which in turn further alienated the workers.

But this search for individual solutions could not last. It has led to the most negative consequences: nervous breakdowns, physical and mental illness, a huge increase in work accidents, etc. The massive increase in absolute and relative surplus value has reached its limits. The capitalists can't squeeze forever. Sooner or later a point is reached when the workers say: enough is enough! Now we see the beginnings of a reaction on the part of the working class, reflected in a wave of strikes internationally.

If you read the letters of Trotsky you frequently come across phrases like: “I am patiently waiting for a change in the situation.” It has now been about 30 years since the last great revolutionary wave. It has been difficult but now the tide is beginning to turn. All this is happening even before there is a deep slump. At the moment there is a feeble boom with slow rates of growth accompanied by decreasing living standards during the boom.

For years and decades, contradiction upon contradiction has been piling up. In the USA, the so-called American Dream – work hard, get rich – has been exposed as nonsense. American capitalism is horror without end. The real face of capitalism was shown by Hurricane Katrina. The existence of an underclass of poverty-stricken people in the richest country in the world was carefully concealed from the world. It took an accident like Katrina to expose the rotten heart of US capitalism. The rest of the world was shocked, but in reality we have a similar situation developing everywhere, as we saw in the French youth riots.

A revolutionary perspective

Lenin once wrote an article entitled Inflammable Material in World Politics. There is now plenty of inflammable material around the world. There is not a sector of the world that isn’t affected. There are constant shocks and instability: war, terrorism, violence, crises. What does this reflect? It expresses a fundamental impasse of a socio-economic system that is reaching its historical limits.

Capitalism has reached an impasse. Everywhere we see the symptoms of a terrible decline. Many people see the negative symptoms: the appalling violence and loss of life, the waste and corruption, the injustice and inequality, the cultural bankruptcy and spiritual emptiness. They see all this and despair. But Marxists have a broad view of history. We approach history not sentimentally or moralistically, but scientifically and dialectically.

We understand the other side. We see that all the horrors that afflict the world are merely the symptoms of a system that has lost its reason for existence and is in conflict with the demands of the human race. Moreover, these manifestations are producing their opposite. Resistance against the system grows stronger by the day. Everywhere there is a new awakening, a movement in the direction of the change of society.

A boom that destroys employment and is not accompanied by increased living standards but rather with cuts and merciless pressure on the workers has led to a revival of the class struggle everywhere. This is the stage we are passing through: a general reawakening of the working class and an increase in class struggle. From the point of view of the class struggle a deep slump accompanied by high unemployment may cause a reduction in strike levels, but there could be a wave of factory occupations, and people will draw political conclusions – revolutionary conclusions.

There are the beginnings of a change in the international situation. For a long time we've been fighting against the stream. This was not easy. The opposing current was very strong. Not everyone was able to resist it. At last we are beginning to swim with the current. And this is only the beginning. Titanic events are being prepared in every single country. We need to be prepared. Our task is not to tell the workers what to think, but to make conscious the unconscious or semi-conscious desire of the working class to change society. But the ideas of our tendency – the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, ideas that were added to and developed by comrade Ted Grant – have been entirely vindicated by history.

We have entered a most convulsive period in world history. The perspective facing us is a period of wars, revolutions and counterrevolutions on a world scale. Of course, it is impossible to be precise about timing, except to say that it will be relatively prolonged. The reason for the protracted nature of the period is, on the one hand, the profound crisis of the system and the weakness of the forces of reaction, on the other hand, the absence of the subjective factor: the crisis of leadership of the proletariat. This means that the situation can drag on for years, with ebbs and flows.

In every country the rhythm of the class struggle is increasing. It will not unfold in a straight line. Periods of advance will be followed by periods of tiredness, apathy, defeats, and even reaction. Every defeat will be only the prelude to new struggles, until there is a final decision one way or another. Time and again the working class will move to change society. This will lead to the emergence of revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations in one country after another. Inevitably the question of power will be posed. In Latin America we do not need to speak in the future tense. This is a fact already, as we see clearly in Bolivia and Venezuela.

The positive side of the situation is that we will have some time to build the forces of the International. We are entering into contact with the best elements among the revolutionary forces throughout Latin America. This is a tremendously exciting period in history – a period in which it is our privilege to live and fight. But it is an even greater privilege to be members of a Marxist international tendency that is theoretically armed and organisationally prepared to understand the tasks and intervene in the movement of the masses.

Marxist theory is an extraordinarily powerful tool. It alone enables us to create the cadres who can connect with the advanced guard of the workers and youth, who in turn will link us indissolubly to the masses. In this way we are building the forces necessary to carry through the world revolution.

It is the nature of such a period that events unfold with breathtaking speed. In the 18 months or so since our last world congress, we have witnessed a whole series of important events. But as Marxists we have to learn to look at these events, not separately, but as parts of an indissoluble whole: the developing world socialist revolution.

Many workers understand things instinctively, based on their own experience and class-consciousness. Though they have not read a single line of Marx, they have a better grasp of the situation than the ultra-left sects. The workers internationally instinctively sympathise with the Bolivarian Revolution. They see Morales’ victory as a shift to the left, and a blow against imperialism. That is quite correct. The fact that neither in Bolivia nor in Venezuela has the revolution been carried out to the end, the fact that in both cases there are deficiencies, mistakes, confusion and lack of a clear programme and strategy does not change this in the slightest.

It is the duty of the Marxists to provide this clarity, to explain to the workers what is necessary, to correct the mistakes and defend the correct programme and strategy. But this cannot be done by sectarian pontificating from the sidelines. A correct programme is absolutely necessary, but this by no means exhausts the problem. It is necessary to find a road to the masses, to establish links with them, to create the conditions for a fruitful dialogue between the Marxists and the workers, beginning with the most active and conscious elements (the proletarian vanguard). Our method is that of Lenin: “patiently explain”. And it should not be necessary to point out that in order to reach the masses, it is necessary to go wherever the masses are.

We must have the will to succeed in the battle we have before us: the main task is to build the International Marxist Tendency. We must create a dynamic of growth – and this starts from the top. A bold attitude is needed. In a revolutionary tendency there is no room for scepticism. The leadership must set the correct tone; educate the ranks in a revolutionary spirit.

Trotsky once pointed out that there are moments in history when big tasks can loom before even the smallest revolutionary organisation. It is true that the consciousness of the masses always lags behind events, but when it catches up, it leads to revolutionary explosions. In the current period, small events can have an impact far beyond the immediate effects. You can be faced with enormous decisions before you expect it. And it is not the same to confront the new situation with a small group or with a large one. Every comrade must be conscious of the fact that our future success depends on our ability to build and grow now.

Sometimes we see only problems. But if there are problems, there are also solutions. Even in the most unfavourable situation there are always opportunities. The art of leadership is to identify every opportunity, great or small, and exploit it to the full. We must seize every opportunity. The Bible says: “Seek and ye shall find – knock and it shall be opened unto you”. It is not just a question of luck. You must make your own luck under any conditions. We know what we need to do: go to it!

London, February 1, 2006

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