Thoughts on the dawn of a New Year

As the New Year begins Alan Woods comments on the state of world affairs, highlighting the impasse facing humanity, a direct consequence of capitalism in its phase of senile decay. At the root of the present world turmoil is private property of the means of production, a system based on greed for profit. In the next period the workers of the world are faced with the task of removing the system.

Lenin once said: capitalism is horror without end. It is sufficient to take a quick look at the state of our planet in the dawn of a new year to see the correctness of this assertion. The economic crises, wars, terrorism, political convulsions, hunger, disease and poverty, are not separate and unrelated phenomena. They are only the external symptoms of a global crisis of capitalism.

The year 2007 ended with the murder of Benazir Bhutto, which sparked off mass demonstrations, riots and strikes all over Pakistan. In Kenya, which was supposed to be one of Africa's main economic success stories and a shining beacon of democracy, rigged elections led to an unprecedented explosion of communal strife, bloodshed and massacres. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have both turned into bloody quagmires with no end in sight.

These are not isolated facts but only symptoms of the general crisis of capitalism, which, as explained by Marx, is rooted in the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the private ownership of the means of production and the national state.

The capitalist system long ago ceased to play a progressive role. It is unable to develop production forces as it did in the past (which does not mean that there is no development at all). The present world crisis is an expression of the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the narrow limits of private property and the nation state.

Capitalism fulfilled its historic function, the development of the national state and the creation of the world market in the decades prior to the First World War. The whole history of the world since that time is a reflection of the revolt of the productive forces against the narrow limits imposed upon them by private ownership and the nation state.

In the past, as Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism played a revolutionary role in developing the productive forces. From the time of the Industrial Revolution, the capitalist world has been totally transformed by economic rates of growth that were entirely unprecedented in human history. The fireworks of economic expansion in the post World War Two period, the last real surge forward of capitalism, saw the transformation of the globe and the complete domination of the world market. To put things into perspective, the world economy grew in percentage terms in the twenty years between 1950 and 1970 as much as in the 1,000 years between 500AD and 1500.

The development of the US economy in the last economic cycle seemed to many to provide irrefutable proof of the vitality of capitalism. The breathtaking pace of technological innovation, the dizzy heights reached by the stock market that seemed to know no limits, the high and rising profits, the increasing number of millionaires and billionaires. Surely this was the final answer to all those who questioned the market economy - America's gift to the world of the 21st century?

The exploitation of the world market ("globalization") provided the moribund capitalist system with a temporary respite by drawing millions of people in Russia, Eastern Europe and China into its orbit, opening up new markets and sources of cheap labour and raw materials. This has not abolished the central contradictions of capitalism, but only reproduced them on a far greater scale than in the past. It is preparing the conditions for a worldwide slump of unparalleled severity in the future.

Now we see the other side of the coin. The US economy is slowing down and the world economy stands on the brink of recession. Economic malaise affects the entire planet. Terrible human suffering, hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy and disease torment Latin America, despite its almost unlimited resources. The gap that separates rich from poor has widened into an unbridgeable abyss. This produces an explosive mixture that undermines stability and causes frequent social and political convulsions.

The instability in world stock markets indicates the nervousness of the bourgeois. A single event - the assassination of Benazir Bhutto - was sufficient to cause a sharp drop in share prices not just in Asia but all over the world and send oil prices soaring. This triggered a classic capital flight to assets considered as safe havens in times of global instability. On international financial markets, gold and government bonds rose while U.S. stock futures fell after news of the assassination got out.

The prospects for the world economy in 2008 are sombre indeed. However, Lenin explained long ago that there is no such thing as a "final crisis of capitalism". Marxism understands history as a struggle of living forces, not an abstract schema with a preordained result. If the working class does not overthrow it, the capitalist system will always find a way out. But the working class is faced with enormous obstacles, not the least of which are the reformist leaderships of the mass organizations in every country.

Is there a historical analogy?

It is possible and instructive to make use of historical analogies in general, but only if one recognizes the limits of such analogies. Are there parallels between the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the present day? Is it possible to draw a historical analogy with the global crisis of senile capitalism? Yes, there are many parallels, just as there are parallels with the period of the decline of feudalism. In all three cases we see the same symptoms: economic crises, wars and internal conflicts, moral decay and a crisis of ideas, reflected in a falling off of faith in the old religion and morality, accompanied by a rise in mystical and irrational tendencies, a general sense of pessimism and lack of confidence in the future, the decay of art and culture.

Several non-Marxist commentators have noticed this uncomfortable parallel. Julian Fenner, of the University of Manchester writes:

"The modern industrialised west seems to share several of the characteristics which predominated during the ‘golden era' of the Roman Empire. The growing sense of negativity exists now and then, as does the obsession with violence (blood-sports in Rome, Hollywood films and video games now), sex, and indulgences. Another interesting parallel is the growth of oriental religions which appeared in Rome in an attempt to fill the spiritual vacuum and the growth of new-ageism now. The increasing popularity of mystical religions is also a sign of the influence which the lower classes were increasingly having on the upper classes and therefore represented a sort of ‘barbarisation' of culture." (To what extent were economic factors to blame for the deterioration of the Roman Empire in the Third Century A.D? Julian Fenner).

These are the features one would expect to find in a society that has exhausted its progressive role and is unable to develop the productive forces as it did in the past. In every case, there is a feeling that "the end of the world is approaching". In ancient Rome this belief found its reflection in the Christian religion that taught that the world was about to end in flames from one day to the next. In the period of the decline of feudalism, the flagellant sects marched through the towns and villages predicting the end of the world. In both case, what was approaching was not the end of the world but the demise of a definite socio-economic system (slavery, feudalism).

In his celebrated book The Waning of the Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga writes:

"A general feeling of impending calamity hangs over all. Perpetual danger prevails everywhere [...] The feeling of general insecurity which was caused by the chronic forms wars were apt to take, by the constant menace of the dangerous classes, by the mistrust of justice, was further aggravated by the obsession of the coming end of the world, and by the fear of hell, of sorcerers and of devils [...] Everywhere the flames of hatred arise and injustice reigns. Satan covers a gloomy earth with his sombre wings."

But there is one important difference. The unprecedented development of science and technology, which on the one hand provides humanity with the material basis for creating a new civilization, has also created an unprecedented potential for destruction. The greed of the capitalists for profit threatens the future not only of culture and civilization but of the future of the human race itself. The destruction of the environment, the poisoning of the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, poses a terrible threat to future generations.

Revolutionary conclusions

Capitalism is not an eternal, God-given socio-economic system-as it appears to most people to be. It is in fact a very recent phenomenon with a turbulent past, a shaky present, and no future at all. It has long outlived its turbulent infancy and its confident and optimistic maturity likewise lies in the past. It has entered into a phase of terminal decline and decay, which may last for some time-as the decline of Rome lasted a long time. And the negative consequences of this will bear down hard on the shoulders of humanity.

The comforting illusions of the past, the notion that the free market economy held the key that could unlock all doors barring the way to progress and universal happiness, have all been shattered. In a vague way, the ideologues of the bourgeoisie sense that the system they defend is reaching its end. Naturally, they cannot accept this. A man on the edge of a precipice is not capable of rational thought. The spread of irrational tendencies, mysticism and religious fanaticism reflect the same thing.

In this phase of capitalism, the periods of growth will not ameliorate the contradictions on a world scale, but only exacerbate them to the nth degree. And the downswings will threaten the world with the most terrible catastrophes.

In the period of the decline of the Roman Empire people believed that the end of the world was approaching. This idea had its clearest expression in the Christian religion and the Book of Revelations. In the period of the decline of feudalism the same idea was revived by the Flagellants and other millenarian sects who confidently awaited the Day of Judgement when the earth and all its inhabitants would be consumed with fire. But in reality what was approaching was not the end of the world but only the end of a particular socio-economic system that had exhausted its potential for progress.

The crisis of capitalism has produced an opposite reaction. There is now a growing interest in Marxist ideas. The so-called anti-globalization movement and the wave of "anti-capitalist" demonstrations show the existence of a ferment among the petit bourgeois youth. The student and middle class youth reflect the contradictions that are maturing in the bowels of society. Even before the crisis has properly matured, there is a general questioning of the kind of society that could generate such horrors.

In place of the former euphoria we have a general sense of foreboding and uncertainty. Petty bourgeois moralists have a superficial view of the situation: "what a terrible world!" they say. Such people are only capable of a superficial and impressionistic view of the world. They have no understanding of broad historical processes. The same horrors we see before us, as we have seen, have accompanied the decay of every earlier socio-economic system: Rome, feudalism, etc. They are symptoms of a society in the throes of terminal decline.

This is the death agony of capitalism. More accurately, it is a rotten system that should be dead already. It is entirely unscientific, anti-dialectical, and un-Marxist to complain about the unpleasant consequences of the decay of capitalism. That is like a doctor who complains about the unpleasant symptoms of a disease but offers neither a diagnosis nor a cure.

It is necessary to say what is: private ownership and production for profit have long ago become obstacles to the free development of the productive forces, and therefore of human culture and civilization. In the coming period humanity will abolish them and institute a rational economic system based on a democratic socialist plan of production. The first step in this direction must necessarily be the nationalization of the land, banks and finance houses and key industries.

The Venezuelan Revolution in danger

The Venezuelan revolution has inspired the workers, peasants and youth of all Latin America and on a world scale. The revolutionary masses have achieved miracles. But the Venezuelan revolution is not completed. It cannot be completed until it expropriates the oligarchy and nationalizes the land, the banks and the key industries that remain in private hands. After almost a decade this task has not been accomplished and this represents a threat to the future of the revolution.

In essence this is a problem of leadership. Hugo Chávez has shown himself to be a fearless anti-imperialist fighter and a consistent democrat. But this is not enough. The Venezuelan oligarchy is bitterly opposed to the Revolution. Behind it stands the might of US imperialism. Sooner or later the Venezuelan revolution will be faced with the alternative: either, or. And just as the Cuban revolution was capable of carrying through the expropriation of landlordism and capitalism, so the Venezuelan revolution will find the necessary resolve to follow the same road. That is really the only way.

A pernicious role in all this is being played by the reformists, Stalinists and bureaucrats who have occupied key posts in the Bolivarian Movement and are striving to put the breaks on the Revolution, to paralyse it from within and to eliminate all elements of genuine socialism. These elements are constantly telling Chávez not to go too fast, to be "more moderate" and not to touch the private property of the oligarchy. Ever since Chávez first raised the question of socialism in Venezuela the reformists and Stalinists have been concentrating all their energies on reversing the socialist direction of the Revolution, alleging that the nationalization of the land, banks and industries would be a disaster, that the masses are not "mature" for socialism, that the expropriation of the oligarchy would alienate the middle class and so on. If he listens to them, the Revolution will be placed in extreme danger.

The defeat of the constitutional referendum was a warning that the masses are becoming weary of a situation where the endless talk about socialism and revolution has not led to a fundamental change in the conditions of their lives. If this disillusionment of the masses continues, it will lead to apathy and despair. This will prepare a counter-offensive of the forces of reaction that can undermine the revolution and prepare for a serious defeat.

An age of apostasy

The alleged superiority of the market economy is a myth, and this can be proven very easily by the following historical example. During the Second World War, when Britain found itself in a very dangerous position after the fall of France in 1940, what did the British bourgeois do? Did they say: "we must decentralize the economy, lift all restrictions and allow the ‘invisible hand of the market' to work its miracles?" No! They centralized production, brought industry under strict government control, introduced rationing and the direction of labour. In a word, they introduced an economy based on the principle of central planning.

It is true that under capitalism real planning is not possible. The war economy in Britain was not socialism but a variant of "state capitalism". But the point is that, when their backs were against the wall, the bourgeois preferred centralized planning to the anarchy of the market because it gave better results.

The avalanche of attacks on the notion of a nationalized planned economy is not based on science but on calculation. The bourgeoisie is not at all confident in the future of its system. It fears revolution and is determined to inoculate the new generation against it. For this task it can count on the assistance of an army of hired prostitutes in the universities and especially on those renegades who have abandoned socialism and communism like the rats who desert a sinking ship.

Despite all the horrors of Stalinism, the October Revolution in Russia proved in practice the superiority of a nationalized planned economy. It proved that it was possible to run the economy of a vast country without landlords, bankers and private capitalists. In the words of Leon Trotsky, it proved the superiority of socialism, not in the language of Marx's Capital but in the language of cement, iron, steel, coal and electricity.

Thanks to the colossal advantages of a nationalized planned economy, the USSR made notable strides forward in education, science, art and culture. A land where large sections of the population had been illiterate before October experienced a cultural revolution like no other in previous history. That is something the ruling class wishes to obliterate from the consciousness of the new generation. It wants to persuade them that there is no viable alternative to capitalism - that this is the "end of history". In reality, real human history - the history of the free development of men and women - has not yet begun.

Those sorry ex-Lefts, ex-Communists and ex-Marxists have entered into a competition to see who can outperform the others in slandering socialism. In this, they are motivated mainly by mercenary motives, but there is also a moral element involved. In order to renounce the beliefs they held in the past, and maybe to salve a guilty conscience, they must spit on their own past, convincing themselves that these were (to quote Heinz Dieterich) the "sins of youth".

The fight for Marxist theory

In historical retrospect, the fall of Stalinism will be seen as just an episode: the anticipation of a far more earth shattering fall-that of capitalism itself. Even in the course of the present boom, a new period in the history of capitalism is being prepared. A period of unprecedented and convulsive crisis on a global scale which will sound the death-knell of a foul and decaying system of oppression and exploitation and place on the order of the day the socialist transformation of society and the creation of a New Socialist World Order.

Capitalism has revealed its reactionary nature everywhere. This global crisis has given rise to a widespread questioning of capitalism in one country after another. People who lack a scientific understanding only see the horrors of capitalism, the starvation, injustice, constant convulsions, wars, etc. But we must understand the other side of the picture. Alongside the reactionary elements revolutionary elements are maturing. Out of this chaos a new force is emerging.

The way forward would be immeasurably easier if the advanced workers and youth were armed with the scientific doctrines of Marxism: dialectical and historical materialism and Marxist economics (the labour theory of value). This is the most modern philosophy of all-a philosophy that perfectly corresponds to the needs of the 21st century. It provides one with all the basic tools needed to analyse and understand living reality, understood, not as a series of dry, unconnected, senseless events or "facts", but as a dynamic process, impelled by its internal contradictions, ever changing and with an infinitely rich content.

Those who break with Marxism must necessarily reject its most basic theoretical postulates. This means above all a rejection of dialectical materialism - the philosophical foundation upon which Marxism was built and which provides it with its scientific methodology. It is no accident that all the enemies of Marxism (Popper, Hook, Burnham and others) always concentrate their attacks on this point.

It is no accident that the tendency that has steadfastly defended Marxism against the attacks of the bourgeois has come under attack from people who have been completely unable to answer the arguments of the ideologists of capitalism and who have completely capitulated to bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideology. These vociferous enemies of the Marxist Tendency are former Stalinists and former Trotskyists. But they are completely united in their hatred of the genuine Marxists.

The reason for this hatred is quite clear. It is the remarkable success of the IMT on a world scale, and the knowledge that a large part of this success flows from the political authority we have conquered through the publication of books like Reason in Revolt, Russia from Revolution to Counterrevolution, Bolshevism - the Road to Revolution, The Venezuelan Revolution and many other works that have gained an important echo in the ranks of the organized workers and revolutionary youth.

Incapable themselves of producing works of Marxist theory, they fiddle and fuss like hens in a barnyard over this or that detail. We shall take a broom to give these noisy hens a swipe in due time. But we shall not be deflected from our central task, which is to defend Marxist theory - above all dialectical materialism - and to answer the arguments of the bourgeois and the reformists.

Long ago Engels explained the vital importance of theory for the proletarian vanguard: "Without German philosophy, which preceded it, particularly that of Hegel, German scientific socialism - the only scientific socialism that has ever existed - would never have come into being. Without a sense of theory among the workers, this scientific socialism would never have entered their flesh and blood as much as is the case. What an immeasurable advantage this is may be seen, on the one hand, from the indifference towards all theory, which is one of the main reasons why the English working-class movement crawls along so slowly in spite of the splendid organisation of the individual unions; on the other hand, from the mischief and confusion wrought by Proudhonism, in its original form, among the French and Belgians, and, in the form further caricatured by Bakunin, among the Spaniards and Italians." (Engels, Preface to The Peasant War in Germany)

Without the struggle for revolutionary theory it is impossible to build the revolutionary tendency. The great ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are a compass that directs us unerringly in the right direction. In this or that detail, it may be necessary to introduce some amendments. But what is truly astonishing is the degree to which these ideas have preserved all their freshness, truthfulness and vitality. Through the pages of Marxist.com we are able to transmit these ideas to a worldwide audience that covers every continent and is growing rapidly.

The speed with which our articles on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto were translated into Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Indonesian, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Urdu, Sindhi, Portuguese, German, Dutch and other languages, was an indication of this. The first article was reproduced in The Lahore Post, together with long extracts from the PPP's socialist programme of 1970. It was also published in the main daily paper in Sindh.

Others who claim to be Marxists have thrown theory overboard as so much useless ballast. That is why they are hopelessly adrift, unable to analyse the mass movement in Pakistan, Mexico, Venezuela, Australia - or anywhere else and therefore utterly incapable of intervening effectively in it.

The ultra-left sects are "like unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell." But the International Marxist Tendency founded by comrade Ted Grant is strong, and is growing stronger every day, because it was founded upon a rock: the rock of Marxist theory, and in the first place, dialectical materialism.

Revolutionary optimism

Capitalism is not eternal or fixed. In fact, it is less fixed than any other socio-economic system in history. Like any other living organism it changes, evolves and therefore passes through a number of more or less clearly discernible stages. It does not take any special intelligence to see that the present society is sick unto death.

The question of socialism has never been posed with so much urgency as at the present time. Marx said that the choice before humanity is socialism or barbarism. In the period of the senile decay of capitalism the question must now be posed even more sharply: the choice before humanity is socialism or the eventual extinction of life on earth.

We have no right to abandon the fight for a better world. We have no right to abandon humanity to its fate. To the cowards and sceptics we answer with the words that the 22-year old Leon Trotsky wrote in 1901:

"Dum spiro spero! [While there's life, there's hope!]

"...If I were one of the celestial bodies, I would look with complete detachment upon this miserable ball of dust and dirt... I would shine upon the good and the evil alike... But I am a man. World history which to you, dispassionate gobbler of science, to you, book-keeper of eternity, seems only a negligible moment in the balance of time, is to me everything! As long as I breathe, I shall fight for the future, that radiant future in which man, strong and beautiful, will become master of the drifting stream of his history and will direct it towards the boundless horizon of beauty, joy and happiness! ...

"The nineteenth century has in many ways satisfied and has in even more ways deceived the hopes of the optimist... It has compelled him to transfer most of his hopes to the twentieth century. Whenever the optimist was confronted by an atrocious fact, he exclaimed: What, and this can happen on the threshold of the twentieth century! When he drew wonderful pictures of the harmonious future, he placed them in the twentieth century.

"And now that century has come! What has it brought with it at the outset?

"In France ‑ the poisonous foam of racial hatred [The reference here is to the Dreyfus affair]; in Austria ‑ nationalist strife...; in South Africa ‑ the agony of a tiny people, which is being murdered by a colossus [The Boer War]; on the ‘free' island itself ‑ triumphant hymns to the victorious greed of jingoist jobbers; dramatic "complications" in the east; rebellions of starving popular masses in Italy, Bulgaria, Rumania... Hatred and murder, famine and blood...

"It seems as if the new century, this gigantic newcomer, were bent at the very moment of its appearance to drive the optimist into absolute pessimism and civic nirvana.

"- Death to Utopia! Death to faith! Death to love! Death to hope! thunders the twentieth century in salvos of fire and in the rumbling of guns.

"- Surrender, you pathetic dreamer. Here I am, your long awaited twentieth century, your "future".

"- No, replies the unhumbled optimist: You ‑ you are only the present."

Others may abandon the revolutionary struggle for socialism. We remain firm in our convictions, firm in the scientific ideas of Marxism, and in our unshakable faith in the working class and in the socialist future of humankind. Join us in the struggle!

London, 7th January, 2008.