The course of history

In the series Historic Course

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IR15, 4th Quarter 1978         

The course of history

how is it that the ICC can talk about the intensification of inter-imperialist antagonisms today, while at the same time asserting that, since the end of the 1960s, bourgeois society has been in a period of rising class struggle? Isn’t there a contradiction between warning against the danger of war in Africa and the Middle East, and the analysis which holds that the economic crisis has opened up a new course towards proletarian struggle, towards a decisive confrontation between the classes? Are we living through re-run of the 1930s, with generalized war looming on the horizon, or is there a revolutionary perspective in front of us?
    This is a question of considerable importance. In contrast to the idle, feckless thought of social spectators, dynamic revolutionary thought can’t be satisfied with a ‘little of this’ and a ‘little of that’, all mixed up in a sociological sauce with no direction. If marxism only provided an analysis of the past for us to be able to say “well, we’ll see...”, it would be of little use.
    Social action, class struggle, demands an understanding of the forces involved, it demands a perspective. The action of the proletariat differs  according to its consciousness of the social reality in front of it, and to the possibilities offered by the balance of forces. The organized intervention of revolutionaries in the development of class consciousness also differs, if not in its basic content, then at least in its expression, according to the response given to the question: “are we going towards war, or towards a revolutionary confrontation!”
Marxist theory is not the dead letter of the Stalinist hangmen or of the academics; but it is the most coherent attempt to theoretically express the experience of the proletariat in bourgeois society. It is within the framework of marxism – not simply reappropriating it, but actualizing it – that revolutionaries can and must respond to the question of today’s balance of forces between bourgeoisie and proletariat, between war and revolution.


In the first place, the perspective for class struggle is not an immediate question of days or years. It presupposes a whole historical development. During the course of its development, the capitalist mode of production, by destroying the economic, material bases of feudalism and other pre-capitalist societies, has extended its relations of production and the capitalist market across the entire planet. Although capitalism aspires to be a universal system, it comes up against the internal economic contradictions of its own way of functioning, which is based on exploitation and competition. Once it had effectively created a world market and developed the productive forces up to a certain point, capitalism was no longer able to surmount its cyclical crises by extending its field of accumulation. It then entered into a period of internal disintegration, a period of decline as a historical system, and ceased to correspond to the needs of social reproduction. In its period of decadence, the most dynamic system history has ever seen has unleashed a state of generalized cannibalism.
    The decadence of capitalism is marked by the aggravation of its inherent contradictions, by a permanent crisis. The crisis finds two antagonistic social forces confronting each other: the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, living from surplus value; and the proletariat, whose interests as an exploited class, by forcing it to oppose exploitation, provide the only historical possibility of going beyond exploitation, competition and commodity production: a society of freely associated producers.
    The crisis acts on these two historically antagonistic forces in a different way: it pushes the bourgeoisie towards war and the proletariat towards the struggle against the degradation of living conditions. As the crisis develops, the bourgeoisie is forced to take refuge behind the concerted force of the nation state, in order to be able to defend itself in the frenzied competition of a world market that has already been divided up between the imperialist powers and can no longer extend itself. World imperialist war is the only possible outcome of this competition at international level. In order to be able to survive, capitalism has had to go through the deformations of its final stage: generalized imperialism. The universal tendency of decadent capitalism towards state capitalism is simply the ‘organizational’ expression of the demands of these imperialist antagonisms. The movement towards the concentration of capital, which at the end of the nineteenth century was already expressing itself in the form of trusts, cartels, and then multi-nationals, has been counteracted and transcended by the tendency towards statification. This tendency doesn’t correspond to a ‘rationalization’ of capital; it is a response to the need to reinforce and mobilize the national capital in a semi-permanent war economy, a state totalitarianism which envelops the whole of society. The decadence of capitalism is war – constant massacre, the war of all against all.
    Unlike last century, when the bourgeoisie strengthened itself by developing its domination over society, the bourgeoisie today is a class in decline, weakened by the crisis of its system whose economic contradictions bring only wars and destruction.
In the absence of a victorious proletarian intervention, a world revolution, the bourgeoisie cannot offer us any ‘stability’: on the contrary, it can only offer a cycle of destruction on an ever-growing scale. The capitalist class has no unity or peace in its own ranks; it has only the antagonism and competition engendered by relations of exchange and exploitation. Even in the ascendant period of capitalist development revolutionaries opposed the reformist ideas of Kautsky and Hilferding, according to which capitalism could evolve into a supra-national unity. The socialist left and Lenin in Imperialism, Highest Stage of Capitalism denounced this chimera of a world-wide unification of capital. Although the productive forces tend towards breaking out of the restricted framework of the nation, they can never do this because they are imprisoned by capitalist relations of production.
    After World War II a new version of this theory of supra-nationality was developed by Socialisme ou Barbarie for whom a ‘new bureaucratic society’ was beginning to create this worldwide unification. But ‘bureaucratic society’ doesn’t exist: the general tendency towards the statification of capital is neither a new mode of production nor a progressive step towards socialism as certain elements of the workers’ movement may have believed at the time of the first world war. As the expression of the exacerbation of rivalries between national factions of capital, state capitalism isn’t the realization of any kind of unity: on the contrary. The national capital is forced to regroup behind the great powers of the imperialist blocs, but not only does this not eliminate rivalries within the bloc, it further accentuates international antagonisms at the level of confrontation and war between the blocs. Only when it has to face up to its mortal enemy, the revolutionary proletariat, is the capitalist class able to realize a provisional international unity.
    Faced with the proletarian menace, unable to respond to the demands of the exploited class with a real amelioration of its living standards, indeed forced to impose an even more ferocious exploitation and a mobilization for economic, then military war, its capacities for mystification more and more used up, the bourgeoisie has to develop a hypertrophied police state, a whole apparatus of repression from the unions to concentration camps, in order to maintain its domination over a society in decomposition. But just as world wars express the decomposition of the economic system, the reinforcement of the repressive apparatus of the state shows the real historical weakness of the bourgeoisie. The crisis of the system undermines the material and ideological bases of the power of the ruling class, leaving it no way out except massacre.
In contrast to the bourgeoisie’s collapse into the bloody barbarism of its decline, the proletariat in the decadent epoch represents the only dynamic force in society. The historical initiative is with the proletariat; it alone has the historical solution which can take society forward. Through its class struggle, it can hold back and ultimately stop the growing barbarism of decadent capitalism. By posing the question of revolution, by ‘transforming the imperialist war into a civil war’, the proletariat forces the bourgeoisie to answer it on the battlefields of the class war.


We have posed the question whether in the course of a period of rising class struggle, there can be an expression and even an aggravation of imperialist antagonisms; we can clearly answer in the affirmative. The bourgeoisie contains within itself the tendency towards war, whether it’s conscious of this or not. Even when it’s preparing for a confrontation with the proletariat imperialist antagonisms continue to exist. They depend on the deepening of the crisis and don’t originate in the action of the proletariat. But capitalism can only go all the way to generalized war if it has first mastered the proletariat and dragooned it into its mobilizations. Without this, imperialism cannot reach its logical conclusion.
Between the crisis of 1929 and the second world war, capitalism took ten years, not only to set up a war economy sufficient for its destructive needs, but also to complete the physical crushing and ideological disarmament of the working class, which was dragooned behind the ‘workers’ parties’ (Stalinists and Social Democrats), behind the banners of fascism and anti-fascism, behind the Union Sacree. Similarly, before August 1914, it was the whole process of the degeneration of the 2nd International and of class collaboration which prepared the ground for the treason of the workers’ organizations. World war doesn’t break like lightening in a blue sky; it follows the effective elimination of proletarian resistance.
If the class struggle is strong enough, it’s not possible for generalized war to break out; if the struggle weakens due to the physical or ideological defeat of the proletariat, then the way is open to the inherent tendency of decadent capitalism: world war. After this, it is only during the course of the war, as a response to unbearable living conditions, that the proletariat will be able to return to the path of class struggle. There is no way of getting round this: you cannot ‘make the revolution against the war’, answer the mobilization decrees with a general strike. If war is on the verge of breaking out, it is precisely because the class struggle has been too weak to hold the bourgeoisie in check, and there can be no question of selling the proletariat illusions about this.
    Today, workers cannot ignore the gravity of the expressions of imperialist rivalry, the seriousness of the balance of forces between bourgeoisie and proletariat. If World War II was simply a continuation of World War I, and the third a continuation of the second, if capitalism only goes through period of ‘reconstruction’ as intervals between wars, the present destructive capacity of the system gives us little hope in the possibility of an upsurge of the proletariat during the course of a third holocaust. It is quite probable that the destruction would be so great that the possibility of socialism would be put off indefinitely if not  forever. The stakes are thus being played for today and not tomorrow; the working class will rise up in response to an economic crisis, not a war. Only the proletariat, by struggling on its class terrain against the crisis and the deterioration of its living standards, can hold back the bourgeoisie’s constant tendency towards war. It is in the present period that the balance of forces between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie will decide whether we are going towards socialism or the final collapse into barbarism.
    Thus if we point out the seriousness of the confrontations between the blocs today, it is in order to unmask the hideous reality of the capitalist system, which we have learnt about through sixty years of suffering. But this general, necessary warning in no way signifies that the perspective today is towards world war or that we are living through a period of triumphant counter-revolution. On the contrary, the balance of forces has tilted in
favour of the proletariat. The new generations of workers haven’t suffered the same defeats as the previous ones. The dislocation of the ‘socialist’ bloc as well as the workers’ insurrections in the eastern bloc have considerably weakened the mystifying power of bourgeois Stalinist ideology. Fascism and anti-fascism are too used and the ideology of the ‘rights of man’, which is being given the lie from Nicaragua to Iran, isn’t enough to replace them. The crisis, coming after the deceptive prosperity of the post-war reconstruction, has provoked a general reawakening of the proletariat. The wave of struggles between 1968 and 1974 was a powerful response to the beginnings of the crisis, and the combativity of the workers has left no country untouched. This rebirth of workers’ combativity marks the end of the counter-revolution, and is the touchstone of today’s revolutionary perspective.
    There has never been a simplistic, unilateral social situation. Inter-imperialist antagonisms will never disappear as long as the capitalist system is still alive. But the combativity of the workers is an obstacle, the only one today, to the tendency towards war. When there is a downturn in the class struggle, inter-imperialist antagonisms accelerate and become sharper. This is why revolutionaries insist so much on the development of the autonomous struggle of the working class, on wildcat strikes which break out of the union jail, on the tendency towards the self-organisation of the class, on the workers’ combativity against austerity and the sacrifices demanded by the bourgeoisie.
The crisis in its ever-descending course, leads the decomposing capitalist class to war. On the other hand, it pushes the revolutionary class into sporadic, uneven explosions of struggle. The course of history is the result of these two antagonistic tendencies: war or revolution.
Although socialism is a historical necessity, because of the decadence of bourgeois society, the socialist revolution is not a concrete possibility at every moment. Throughout the long years of the counter-revolution the proletariat was defeated, its consciousness and its organization too weak to be an autonomous force in society.
    Today, on the other hand, the course of history is moving towards a rise in proletarian struggles. But time presses; there is no fatality in history. A historical course is never ‘stable’, fixed for all time. The course towards the proletarian revolution is a possibility which has opened up, a maturation of the conditions leading to a confrontation between the classes. But if the proletariat doesn’t develop its combativity, if it doesn’t arm itself with the consciousness forged in its struggles and in the contributions of the revolutionaries within the class, then it won’t be able to respond to this maturation with its own creative and revolutionary activity. If the proletariat is beaten, if it is crushed and falls back into passivity, then the course will be reversed and the ever-present potential for generalized war will be realized.
    Today, the course is towards the development of the class struggle. Because the working class isn’t defeated, because all over the world it is resisting the degradation of its living conditions, because the international economic crisis is wearing down the dominant ideology and its effects on the class, because the working class is the force of life against the cry of ‘viva la muerte’ of the bloody counter-revolution – for all these reasons, we salute the crisis which, for a second time in the period of capitalist decadence, is opening the door of history.