History does not obey the dates on a calendar and yet decades often become symbols for specific historical events. The thirties bring to mind the depression which hit capitalism fifty years ago; the forties, the war which destroyed the equivalent of a country life France or Italy. On the threshold of the eighties, how can we characterize the decade just ending and what will be the major phenomena of the new one just beginning?
The crisis? The crisis certainly made its mark on the 1970s but it will mark the 1980s even more. Between the sixties and the seventies there was a real change in the economic situation of the world: the sixties were the last years of the reconstruction period when the dying fires of an artificial ‘prosperity’ still burned; artificial because this ‘prosperity’ was based on the ephemeral mechanisms of the reconstitution of the industrial and commercial potential of Europe and Japan destroyed during the war. Once this potential was realized capitalism found itself once again facing its fatal impasse: the saturation of markets; that is why the sixties ended in ‘prosperity’ and the seventies in paralysis. But there will be no difference of this sort between the seventies and the eighties except that economic stagnation will be even worse.
Slaughter and suffering? The coming years promise to be particularly ‘rich’ in this domain. Never before has there been so much famine, so much genocide in the world. With all the ‘liberation’ of peoples, with all the aid given to them mostly in the form of war machines, the great powers will soon have erased them from the map. This apocalypse is not new, but in the coming decade with the deepening of the crisis, there will be more and more Cambodias despite all the petitions and humanitarian campaigns. Cambodia is simply a more terrifying example of the horrors which have followed in an unbroken line since World War II and which have plunged a large part of humanity into total hell. In this sense the eighties will be ravaged by the same specter of genocide as the seventies.
However recent events show very important changes developing in the very depths of society; these changes are less to do with the economic infrastructure or the degree of misery and poverty than with the behavior of the major classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
In a sense the seventies were the years of illusion. In the major centers of capitalism, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat came up against the stark reality of the crisis, often in a very brutal way. But at the same time, and particularly in the more advanced countries, these two classes which decide the fate of the world have had a tendency to blind themselves to this reality: the bourgeoisie because it finds it unbearable to face the historical bankruptcy of its system and the proletariat partly because it suffers from the illusions of bourgeois ideology and partly because it is not easy for the proletariat to understand and shoulder the crushing historic responsibilities which the crisis and the understanding of its implications place on the shoulders of the revolutionary class. For years now the bourgeoisie has been grasping at straws trying to prove that the crisis can have a solution. And it is true that since 1967 the regularly recurrent recessions (1967, 1970-71, 1974-75) accompanied by chronic inflation have been followed by a ‘recovery’. The recovery of 1972-73 led to the highest expansion rates since the war (particularly in the US). Although there were waves of galloping inflation, certain government deflationary policies were (at least, somewhat) effective in keeping inflation to less than 5 per cent a year. The bourgeoisie had only to keep applying these policies and all would be well. Obviously the bourgeoisie began to realize that these reflationary policies just reflated inflation and that the deflationary policies led to recession. But even if things were not going as well as they used to, the bourgeoisie could not give up the idea that it could just continue to cut away the dead weight of the economy, to impose austerity and unemployment and one day business would be back to normal.
Today the bourgeoisie has abandoned this illusion. After the failure of all the remedies administered to the economy (see the article ‘The Acceleration of the Crisis’ in this issue) which have only managed to poison it, the bourgeoisie has discovered in a muffled but painful way that there is no solution to the crisis. Recognizing the impasse, there is nothing left but a leap in the dark. And for the bourgeoisie a leap in the dark is war.
This march towards war is nothing new; in fact since the end of World War II capitalism has never really disarmed as it at least partially did after the first war. And since the end of the sixties when capitalism experienced once again a decline in its economic situation, inter-imperialist tensions have increased and armaments have grown phenomenally. Today a million dollars a minute are being poured into the production of the means of destruction and death. Up to now the bourgeoisie has been following the path to war in a more or less conscious way. The objective needs of its economy have been pushing it towards war but the bourgeoisie has not really been aware that war is indeed the only perspective its system can offer to humanity. The bourgeoisie is not fully aware of the fact that its inability to mobilize the proletariat for war constitutes the only serious obstacle barring the way.
Today with the total failure of the economy, the bourgeoisie is slowly realizing its true situation and is acting on it. On the one hand it is arming to the teeth. Everywhere military budgets are skyrocketing. The already terrifying weapons at its disposal are being replaced by even more ‘efficient’ ones (‘Backfires’, Pershing 2s, neutron bombs, etc). But armaments are not the only field of its activity. As we pointed out in the ICC declaration on the Iran/USA crisis, the bourgeoisie has also undertaken a massive campaign to create an atmosphere of war psychosis in order to prepare public opinion for its increasingly war-like projects. Because war is on the cards and because people are not prepared for this perspective, all possible pretexts must be exploited to create ‘national unity’, ‘national pride’ and guide opinion away from sordid struggles of self-interest (meaning class struggle) towards the altruism of patriotism and the defense of civilization against the threatening forces of barbarism like Islamic fanaticism, Arab greed, totalitarianism or imperialism. This is the language the ruling class is using all over the world.
The bourgeoisie’s speeches to the working class are indeed changing. As long as it seemed as though the crisis could have a solution the bourgeoisie lulled the exploited with illusory promises: accept austerity today and everything will be better tomorrow. The left was very successful with these kinds of lies: the crisis is not the result of the insurmountable inner contradictions of the system itself, but simply a question of ‘bad management’ or ‘greedy monopolies’ or ‘multinationals’ -- voting for the left will change all this! But today this language does not work anymore. When the left was in power it did no better than the right and from the workers point of view, often worse. Since the promise of a ‘better tomorrow’ does not fool anyone anymore, the ruling class has changed its tune. The opposite is starting to be trumpeted now: the worst is ahead of us and there is nothing we can do, ‘the others are to blame’, there is no way out. The bourgeoisie is hoping in this way to create the national unity which Churchill obtained in other circumstances by offering the British population “blood, sweat, tears and toil”.
As the bourgeoisie loses its own illusions it is increasingly forced to speak clearly to the working class about the future. If the workers today were resigned and demoralized as they were in the thirties this language could be effective. Since we are going to have war anyway we might as well try to save what we can: ‘democracy’, the ‘land of my forefathers’, my ‘territory’; so we have to accept war and sacrifices. This is the response the ruling class would like us to make. But unhappily for them the new generations of workers do not have the resignation of their forebears. As soon as the crisis began to affect the workers, even before the crisis was recognized as such by anyone except tiny minorities of revolutionaries who had not forgotten the lessons of Marxism, the working class began to struggle. Its struggles at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies showed by their broad scope and militant determination that the terrible counter-revolution which weighed on society since the crushing of the first revolutionary wave after World War I, was now over. It was no longer ‘midnight in the century’ and capitalism had to confront the proletariat once again -- that giant it thought had been safely put to sleep. But although the proletariat was full of vitality it lacked experience and it let itself be taken in by the traps the bourgeoisie set once it had recovered from shock. Relying on the fact that its crisis was developing at a slower pace than in the thirties, the bourgeoisie managed to communicate its own illusions about a ‘solution’ to the crisis to the workers. For several years the working class believed these stories about the ‘left alternative’ -- whether it was called the Labor government, popular power, the Programme Commun, the Social Contract, the Moncloa Pact or the historic compromise. Leaving aside open struggle for a while the workers let themselves be paraded around in electoral dead-ends adjusting themselves, almost without any reaction, to greater and greater doses of unemployment and austerity. But what the first wave of struggles in 1968 already showed is being confirmed again today: bourgeois mystifications do not have the force they used to have. After so much use the speeches on ‘the defense of democracy and civilization’ or on ‘the socialist fatherland’ wear out their impact. And the ‘national interest’, ‘terrorism’ or other ideological gadgets cannot replace them. As we say in our article ‘Our Intervention and its Critics’ (in this issue) the proletariat has once again taken up the path of struggle and obliged the left, if it was in government, to move into the opposition in order to accomplish its capitalist task by radicalizing its verbiage.
With a crisis whose effects weigh more and more heavily on the working class with each passing day, with the experience of a first wave of struggle and an awareness of the traps laid by the bourgeoisie to stop it, and with the very hesitant but real emergence of revolutionary minorities, the working class has returned to assert its force and its enormous reservoir of combativity. If the bourgeoisie has nothing but generalized war to give humanity as its future, the class struggles developing today prove that the proletariat is not ready to give the bourgeoisie free rein. The working class has another future to propose, a future of communism where there will be no wars, no exploitation.
In the decade beginning today, the historical alternative will be decided: either the proletariat will continue its offensive, continue to paralyze the murderous arm of capitalism in its death throes and gather its forces to destroy the system, or else it will let itself be trapped, worn out, demoralized by speeches and repression and then the way will be open for a new holocaust which risks the elimination of all human society.
If the seventies were years of illusion both for the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; because the reality of the world will be revealed in its true colors, because the future of humanity will in large part be decided, the eighties will be the years of truth.