Recorded history is a succession of civilisations which have risen to their peak, fallen into decline, and disappeared. The despotic empires of Sumeria, Egypt, Mexico, China or India; the slave systems of Greece and Rome; the feudal order of mediaeval Europe�each one of these and many others went through periods of flowering when they gave the best of themselves to the world as it then was and to future generations, and through periods of decadence, where their internal contradictions pushed them into a series of catastrophes resulting in their final demise.
Modern day civilisation � the world-wide capitalist mode of production � has long been in its period of decline. The bloody history of the 20th century, with two world wars in its first half and its threat of nuclear annihilation for most of the second, provides proof enough of that.
Those who want us to believe that, despite all this, present-day civilisation is eternal, tell us that 21st century capitalism is different. That it’s no longer a class society facing insurmountable social and economic contradictions, but a post-industrial information economy which � thanks to ‘globalisation’ - has gone beyond the deadly rivalries between nation states.
And yet the catastrophes accumulate, making the future seem ever more menacing.
The Bush-Blair line, that all the principal evils in the world could be eliminated through the quick fix of military intervention, is increasingly exposed by events in the real world. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not brought prosperity, peace and democracy to the region, but famine, chaos, and new guerrilla conflicts. Far from getting rid of terrorism, the ‘war on terror’ has only served to fuel it. The continent of Africa is tormented by horrifying slaughters like the current ones in the Congo and Liberia. Further US military adventures are threatened against North Korea and Iran. The Middle East ‘road map’ to peace lies in ruins. And all these conflicts, far from showing that competition between nations is a thing of the past, are stirred up by the ambitions of imperialist nations large and small. It is no longer possible to hide the fact that America’s main challengers are not Saddam or bin Laden, but great powers like France, Germany, Russia and China. The sharpening of these rivalries is delivering more and more of the planet to the nightmare of imperialist war.
Behind the march towards war, in the last instance, is the system’s crisis of overproduction. The slump of the 30s precipitated the world into six years of carnage; and it was the post-war reconstruction that allowed capitalist production to renew itself, albeit on a diseased foundation. The end of the reconstruction in the late 60s plunged the world economy into a series of recessions which would have culminated in a new devastating slump if the ruling class had not become so adept at getting round the laws of its own system and living on a mountain of debt. This was precisely the basis for the much-touted US growth of the 90s. But capitalism’s laws always get their revenge: the note has to be paid in the end. Today nearly all the major economies are tipping into open recession. All the great hopes of a new economic revolution � above all the ‘e-economy’ and the internet � have proved to be a pathetic delusion. The poverty and bankruptcy of the ‘third world’ is remorselessly advancing towards the main industrial centres.
Ecological disaster, itself the result of capitalism’s frenzied hunt for profit in the face of a glutted world market, must now be set alongside the military and economic cataclysms. Every year brings fresh confirmation that the dire effects of global warming are already with us. Last summer Europe was hit by massive floods; this summer by the heatwave that has ruined crops and wiped out thousands of human lives.
The apologists for the system may try to offer us all kinds of false hopes of a bright tomorrow, but these are all the symptoms of a civilisation in its death agony. The proletariat holds the key
Unlike previous civilisations in decline, capitalism in its death throes will not fall into a Dark Age from which a new form of society will emerge - there is the possibility of the complete destruction of humanity. And yet the very technological capacities which could, in their present capitalist envelope, bring about this ultimate disaster, could also be used to eliminate exploitation and scarcity once and for all. The capitalist class, which lives on the basis of this exploitation, can never do this; but the exploited class, the proletariat, which is the first to suffer from capitalism’s wars and crises, has a material interest in taking charge of the forces of production and using them for human need, not profit.
This would be a utopian hope if the working class had not shown in the past that it can respond to the crisis of the system with revolutionary action, as it did during the first world imperialist war. The defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, which shook world capitalism, led many to abandon hope in the proletariat; during the reconstruction that followed the Second World War, we saw the first blossoming of theories about the disappearance of the working class, about how capitalism had bought it off with televisions and washing machines. The international wave of workers’ struggles sparked off by the events of May-June 68 in France exposed the hollowness of these theories, but they have returned in force over the past decade or so: the collapse of the eastern bloc (really the collapse of a weak link in world capitalism) was supposed to herald the end of the class struggle, and all the theories about the ‘new’ capitalism have taken it for granted that the working class itself is a thing of the past.
The apparent success of these theories was certainly reinforced by the considerable difficulties the working class has been experiencing over the last decade, a decade in which it has to a large extent lost confidence in itself and even lost a sense of identity. But capitalism cannot conjure the class struggle out of existence, and recent events have confirmed it: in France in early summer, for example, where there was a massive response to the brutal attack on pensions by the government; and, on a smaller scale, at Heathrow in the same period, where workers’ strike action had a powerful effect for the very reason that they didn’t abide by the union rule book but walked out as soon as they heard about the latest blow against their working conditions. These struggles, and many more around the globe, are only small signs and the forces arrayed against the workers � from the governments and trade unions to the insidious ideological influences of a society in decomposition � are immense. But a growing minority of proletarians is beginning to pose profound questions about the future capitalism has to offer us, about the possibility of a revival of the class war, about the best methods to use in the defence of our class interests. And this minority is the tip of the iceberg; underneath, a much wider development of consciousness is taking place.
Capitalism cannot offer any hope to humanity. But the struggle of the exploited holds out the prospect of the only realistic alternative: the destruction of capitalism and the creation of world-wide communist society.