Capitalist civilisation – this world system based on wage labour and production for profit – is dying. Like ancient Roman slavery or feudal serfdom, it is doomed to disappear. But unlike previous systems, it threatens to take the whole of humanity with it.
For over a hundred years the symptoms of its decline have become more and more evident. Two world wars of unprecedented levels of destruction, followed by decades of proxy conflicts between two imperialist blocs (USA and USSR), conflicts which always contained the menace of a third and final world war. Since the eastern bloc collapsed in 1989, we have not seen peace but increasingly chaotic local and regional wars, like the ones currently ravaging the Middle East. We have been through global economic convulsions, like those in the 1930s, the 70s, or 2008, which have plunged millions into unemployment and poverty and which accelerate the drive towards open warfare. And when capitalism has succeeded in restoring accumulation – whether in the wake of massive destruction, as after 1945, or by doping itself with debt – we now understand that the very growth and expansion of capital adds a new menace to the planet through the destruction of nature itself.
Rosa Luxemburg in 1916, responding to the horrors of the first world war, pointed to the choice facing humanity: “either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat” (The Junius Pamphlet).
Unlike the slave system, which eventually made way for feudalism, or feudalism in turn, which allowed capitalism to grow inside it, this present system in its death throes will not automatically give rise to new social relations. A new society can only be built through the “conscious active struggle of the international proletariat” – through the coming together of all the world’s exploited, recognising themselves as a single class with the same interests in every part of the world.
This is an immense task, made more difficult by the loss of a sense of class identity over the past few decades, so that even many of those who feel that there is something profoundly wrong with the present system find it hard to accept that the working class exists at all, let alone that it has the unique capacity to change the world.
And yet proletarian revolution remains the only hope for the planet because it signifies the end of all systems where humanity is dominated by blind economic forces, the first society where all production is consciously planned to meet the needs of humanity in its interaction with nature. It is based on the possibility and the necessity for human beings to take social life into their own hands.
It is for this reason that we must oppose the slogans and methods of those organising the current climate protests, calling on us to exercise our democratic rights to demonstrate or vote with the aim of putting pressure on governments and political parties to react to the ecological crisis. This is a deception because the role of all these governments and parties – whether of the right or the left – is to manage and defend the very system which is at the root of the multiple dangers facing the planet.
The choices we are offered by the politicians of all stripes are false choices. A Brexit Britain or a Britain that remains in the EU will not shield the working class from the storms brewing in the world economy. A USA run according to Trump’s “America First” vandalism, or the more traditional “multilateral” policies of other factions, will still be an imperialist power compelled to defend its status against all the other imperialist powers. Governments that deny climate change or governments that chatter about investing in a “New Green Deal” will still be obliged to maintain a profitable national economy and thus carry out incessant attacks on working class living conditions. They will still be caught up in the same drive to accumulate which is turning the Earth into a desert.
But, we are told, at least we can vote for a different team, and in countries where even this “right” is denied, we can demand that it is granted to us.
In fact, the illusion that we can have some control over the juggernaut of capitalism by casting our votes every few years is integral to the whole fraud of capitalist democracy. The vote, the polling booth, not only keeps us trapped in the false choices on offer, but is itself an expression of our powerlessness, reducing us to the atomised individual “citizens” of this or that state.
The class struggle of the proletariat has shown a real alternative to this institutionalised impotence. In 1917-19, the working class rebelled against the slaughter of war and formed workers’ councils in Russia, Germany, Hungary and other countries, councils of elected and recallable delegates from workplace and other assemblies that for the first time contained the potential for a conscious control of political and social life. This massive international uprising brought the war to an end as the rulers of the warring camps needed to unite their forces to crush the menace of revolution.
Humanity has paid a heavy cost for this defeat: all the barbarism of the last hundred years has its roots in the failure of the first attempt to overthrow world capital. It will pay an even heavier cost if the working class does not recover its forces and make a second assault on the heavens.
This may seem a distant prospect but as long as capitalism exists there will be class struggle. And because capitalism in its agony has no choice but to increase the exploitation and repression of its wage slaves, the potential remains for the resistance of the latter to move from the defensive to the offensive, from the economic to the directly political, from instinctive revolt to the organised overthrow of capitalism. ICC, 16.11.19