The 20th century began with the entry of the capitalist system into its phase of decadence: with the First World War, and with the first world wide revolutionary storm of the proletariat which brought that war to a halt and opened the combat for a communist society. Already at that time, revolutionary marxism announced the alternative facing humanity - socialism or barbarism - and predicted that in the event of the failure of the revolution, the First World War would be followed by a second one, and by the greatest and most dangerous regression of human culture in the history of humanity. With the isolation and strangulation of the October revolution in Russia - the result of the defeat of the world revolution - the most profound counter-revolution in history triumphed for half a century. In 1968 a new undefeated generation of proletarians brought this counter-revolution to an end, and barred the road to the inherent culmination of capitalism’s descent into a third world war and the probable destruction of humanity. Twenty years later, Stalinism was toppled - not however by the proletariat, but as the result of the entry of the decadent capitalism into its final phase of decomposition.
Ten years on, the century is ending as it begun: with economic convulsions, imperialist conflicts and developing class struggles. The year 1999 especially is already marked by a considerable aggravation in imperialist conflicts, clearly shown by the NATO military offensive unleashed against Serbia at the end of March.
Today, a capitalism in its death throes is facing one of the most difficult and dangerous moments in modern history, comparable in gravity to that of the two world wars, to the outbreak of proletarian revolution in 1917-19, or to the Great Depression which began in 1929. But today, neither world war nor world revolution are pending in the foreseeable future. Rather, the gravity of the situation is conditioned by a sharpening of contradictions at all levels:
- imperialist tensions and the development of world disorder;
- a very advanced and dangerous moment in the crisis of capitalism;
- attacks against the world proletariat unprecedented since the last world war;
- and an accelerating decomposition of bourgeois society.
In this situation, so full of danger, the bourgeoisie has placed the reins of government in the hands of that political current best able to take care of its interests: Social Democracy, the current mainly responsible for crushing the world revolution after 1917-18. The current which saved capitalism at that time, and is now returning to the controls in order to defend the threatened interests of the capitalist class.
The responsibility weighing on the proletariat today is enormous. Only by developing its militancy and consciousness can it bring forth the revolutionary alternative which alone can secure the survival and the further ascent of human society. But the most important responsibility weighs on the shoulders of the communist left, the existing organisations of the proletarian camp. They alone can furnish the theoretical and historical lessons and the political method without which the revolutionary minorities emerging today cannot attach themselves to the preparation of the class party of the future. In some ways, the communist left finds itself in a similar situation today to that of Bilan in the 1930s, in the sense that it is obliged to understand a new and unprecedented historical situation. Such a situation requires both a profound attachment to the theoretical and historical approach of marxism, and revolutionary audacity in understanding situations which are not really covered by the schemas of the past. In order to fulfil this task, open debates between the existing organisations of the proletarian milieu are indispensable. In this sense, the discussion, clarification and regroupment, the propaganda and intervention of the small revolutionary minorities is an essential part of the proletarian response to the gravity of the world situation on the threshold of the next millennium.
Furthermore, faced with the unprecedented intensification of capitalist military barbarity, the working class demands of its communist vanguard the full assumption of its responsibilities in defence of proletarian internationalism. Today, the groups of the communist left are alone in defending the classic positions of the workers’ movement against imperialist war. Only the groups which belong to this current - the only one which did not betray during World War II - can give a class response to the questioning which is bound to appear within the working class.
The revolutionary groups must give as united a response as possible, thereby giving expression to the indispensable unity of the proletariat against the unleashing of chauvinism and conflicts between nations. In doing so, the revolutionaries will adopt the tradition of the workers’ movement which figured especially in the conferences of Zimmerwald and Kienthal, and in the policies of the left within these conferences.
1) The new war which has just broken out in ex-Yugoslavia with NATO’s bombardment of Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro, is the most important event on the imperialist scene since the collapse of the Eastern bloc at the end of the 1980s. This is because:
- this war does not just concern a peripheral country, as was the case with the Gulf War in 1991, but a European one;
- this is the first time since World War II that a European country and its capital has been massively bombarded;
- this is the also first time since World War II that the main defeated country of World War II - Germany - has intervened by committing combat troops directly in battle;
- this war is an additional major step forward in the process of the destabilisation of Europe, with an immense impact on the exacerbation of worldwide chaos.
Thus, after the breakup of Yugoslavia from 1991 onwards, its main component, Serbia, is now itself threatened with disintegration, while at the same time the eventual disappearance of the remains of the old Yugoslav federation (Montenegro and Serbia) is looming on the horizon. More generally, the present war, notably through the massive arrival of refugees in Macedonia, is bringing with it a destabilisation of this country and threatens to involve Bulgaria and Greece which both have their own pretensions to be considered as its “godfathers”. The involvement of Greece also threatens to draw in Turkey, and thus to provoke a conflagration throughout the Balkans and much of the Mediterranean.
Moreover, the war which has just broken out is likely to create serious difficulties within a whole series of European bourgeoisies.
In the first place, the intervention of NATO against a traditional ally of Russia is for the bourgeoisie of this country a veritable provocation which threatens to destabilise it still further. On the one hand, it is clear that Russia no longer has the means to weigh on the world situation as soon as the great powers, and especially the USA, are involved. At the same time, a whole series of sectors within the Russia bourgeoisie are protesting at Russia’s present impotence, especially the ex-Stalinist and ultra-nationalist sectors, which will destabilise the country’s government even more. Moreover, the paralysis of the Moscow government’s authority can only incite the different republics of the Russian Federation to contest the central government.
Furthermore, although a real homogeneity exists within the German bourgeoisie in favour of intervention, other bourgeoisies such as the French may be affected by the contradiction between their traditional alliance with Serbia, and their participation in the NATO action. Similarly, bourgeoisies like the Italian bourgeoisie have reason to fear the repercussions of the present situation in the shape of a new influx of refugees from this part of the world.
2) One aspect which most emphasises the extreme gravity of the war taking place today is precisely the fact that it is happening at the heart of the Balkans, which since the beginning of the century has been seen as the powder-keg of Europe.
The war of 1914 was preceded by two Balkan wars, which already contained some of the premises of World War I. Above all, the first world slaughter began in the Balkans with Austria’s desire to tame Serbia, and Russia’s reaction in favour of its Serbian ally. The formation of the first Yugoslav state after World War I was an expression of the military defeat of Austria and Germany. In this sense it was, like the Versailles Treaty, one of the main points of friction which opened the way to World War II. During the war the different components of Yugoslavia lined up behind their traditional allies (Croatia with Germany, Serbia with the Allies); the reconstitution of the Yugoslav state after World War II, within frontiers very close to those of the first Yugoslav state, was once again a concretisation of the defeat of the German bloc and of the fact that the Allies intended to maintain a barrier to the ambitions of German imperialism in the direction of the Middle East.
In this sense, Germany’s very offensive attitude in the direction of the Balkans immediately after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, once there was no longer any need for solidarity against the USSR (an attitude which stimulated the break-up of Yugoslavia with the formation of the independent states of Slovenia and Croatia), highlighted the fact that this region was becoming once again a major theatre of confrontation between the imperialist powers in Europe.
Today, a further factor in the seriousness of the situation is that, contrary to the First or even the Second World Wars, the USA now has a definite military presence in this part of the world. The world’s greatest power could not remain outside one of the major theatres of imperialist confrontation in Europe and the Mediterranean. It has thus demonstrated its intention to be present in all the crucial zones of confrontation between different imperialist interests.
3) Although the Balkans are an epicentre of imperialist tension, the form of the present war (all the NATO countries against Serbia) does not reflect the real antagonistic interests of the different belligerent countries. Before we put forward the real war aims of the the countries involved, it is necessary to reject the false explanations which have been given for the war.
The official justification by the NATO countries (ie that this is a humanitarian operation in favour of the Kosovo Albanian population) is utterly disproved by the mere fact that this population has never before suffered such repression on the part of the Serbian armed forces, and the fact that both the American and the other NATO bourgeoisies knew perfectly well that this would happen before the operation, as indeed some sectors of the US bourgeoisie are pointing out today. The NATO operation is not the first military intervention to dress itself up as a humanitarian action, but it is one of those where the lie appears most blatantly.
We must also reject any idea that the present NATO action represents a reconstitution of a Western camp against the power of Russia. The fact that the Russian bourgeoisie is seriously affected by the present war does not mean that this was one of the aims of the NATO countries. These countries, and particularly the USA, have no interest in aggravating the chaos reigning in Russia today.
Moreover, those explanations (which we find even amongst the revolutionary groups) which try to interpret the present NATO offensive as an attempt to control the region’s raw materials express an under-estimation of, or even a blindness towards, what is really at stake in the present situation. By trying to give a narrowly materialist explanation based solely on immediate economic interests, they are leaving the terrain of a real marxist understanding of the present situation.
This situation is determined in the first place by the need for the world’s greatest power constantly to assert its military supremacy despite the evaporation of its authority over its ex-allies following the collapse of the Eastern bloc.
Secondly, Germany’s active presence in this conflict, for the first time in half a century, is the expression of a new step in the assertion of its status as a candidate to the leadership of a future imperialist bloc. This status presupposes that Germany is recognised as a first class power, able to play a direct part at the military level. Today, NATO gives Germany the perfect cover for getting around the implicit prohibition on military intervention in imperialist conflicts, imposed on it since its defeat in World War II.
To the extent that it can only weaken Serbia, Germany’s traditional enemy in its ambitions directed towards the Middle East, the present operation corresponds to the interests of German imperialism, especially if this operation leads to the dismemberment of the Yugoslav Federation, and of Serbia itself through the loss of Kosovo.
For the other powers involved in the war, particularly for France and Britain, there is a contradiction between their traditional alliance with Serbia, clearly expressed during the period when these powers were responsible for the command of UNPROFOR, and the present operation against it. But for both these countries, a failure to take part in “Operation Allied Force” would have meant being excluded from the game in a region as important as the Balkans. For these two countries, the role that they could hope to play in the diplomatic resolution of the Yugoslav crisis will be conditioned by the scale of their participation in this military operation.
4) In this sense, the participation of countries like France or Britain in the present Operation Determined Force contains important similarities with the direct military (eg France) or financial (eg Japan) participation of countries in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. However, there remain very important differences between the present war and that in the Gulf.
One of the main characteristics of the Gulf War was the American bourgeoisie’s planning of the entire operation, from the trap set for Iraq in 1990 right up to the cessation of hostilities concretised by Saddam Hussein’s retreat from Kuwait. This expressed the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the Eastern bloc’s collapse, leading to the disappearance of the Western bloc, the USA still maintained a powerful leadership over the world situation, which permitted it to keep a complete grip on both military and diplomatic operations. Although the purpose of the Gulf War was to force the USA’s ex-allies like France and Germany to toe the line and to restrain their desire to contest American hegemony, these ex-allies had still not had the opportunity to develop their own imperialist aims in contradiction with those of the USA.
The war unfolding today does not correspond to a scenario written from first to last by the American power. Since 1991, there have been many expressions of opposition to US authority, on the part both of second-rate powers like Israel, and of the most faithful allies of the Cold War such as Great Britain. It was precisely in Yugoslavia that there occurred the unprecedented divorce between the two best allies of the 20th Century, when Britain decided to play its own hand alongside the French. The difficulties of the USA in asserting their own imperialist interests in Yugoslavia were one of the reasons for the replacement of Bush by Clinton.
The USA’s eventual victory through the Dayton Accords in 1996 was not a definitive victory in this part of the world, nor did it halt the general tendency to lose its position as the world’s dominant power.
Today, although the USA is leading the anti-Milosevic crusade, it is obliged to take into consideration far more than before the specific play of the other powers - especially Germany - which introduces a considerable factor of uncertainty into the outcome of the whole operation.
In particular, the US bourgeoisie did not have a single scenario worked out in advance, but several. The first, which the American bourgeoisie would have preferred, involved a retreat by Milosevic in the face of the threat of military strikes, as had already been the case with the Dayton Accords. This was the scenario which the US envoy Holbrooke tried to play out to the end, even after the failure of the Paris conference.
In this sense, while in 1991 the USA’s massive military intervention was the only option envisaged for the Gulf crisis (and they made sure that no others were possible by preventing any diplomatic solution), the military option taking place today is the result of the failure of the diplomatic option: the military blackmail represented by the conferences of Paris and Rambouillet.
The present war, with the new destabilisation of the European and world situation that it represents, is another illustration of the inescapable dilemma confronting the USA today. The tendency to “every man for himself” and the more and more explicit assertion of their imperialist pretensions by the ex-allies of the USA increasingly forces the latter to display and use its enormous military superiority. At the same time, this policy can only lead to a still greater aggravation of the chaos that reigns already in the world situation.
One aspect of this dilemma appears in the present case - as it did already before Dayton when the US encouraged Croat ambitions in the Krajina - in the fact that US military intervention is in some sense playing into the hands of its main potential rival. However, the respective imperialist interests of the USA and Germany are expressed on very different timescales. Germany is obliged to envisage its rise to the status of superpower in the long term, whereas America is confronted in the here and now - as it has been for several years - with the loss of its leadership and the rise of world chaos.
5) An essential feature of the present world disorder is thus the absence of imperialist blocs. Indeed, in the struggle for survival of all against all in decadent capitalism, the only form which a more or less stable world order can assume is that of the bi-polar organisation in two rival war camps. This however does not mean that the present absence of imperialist blocs is the cause of contemporary chaos, since capitalism has already undergone a period without imperialist blocs - the 1920s - without this involving any particular chaos in the world situation.
In this sense, the disappearance of the existing blocs in 1989, and the ensuing breakdown of world order, are signs that we have now reached a much more advanced stage in the decadence of capitalism than in 1914 or 1939. This is the stage of decomposition, the final phase of the decadence of capitalism.
In the last analysis, this phase is the result of the permanent burden of the historic crisis, the accumulation of all the contradictions of a declining mode of production over an entire century. But the period of decomposition was inaugurated by a specific factor: the blockage of the road to world war over two decades by an undefeated generation of the proletariat. In particular, the weaker Eastern bloc finally collapsed under the weight of the economic crisis because, in the last analysis, it was unable to fulfil its reason for existence: the march towards generalised warfare.
This confirms a fundamental thesis of marxism about 20th century capitalism: that war has become its mode of existence in its epoch of decline. This does not mean that war is a solution to the crisis of capitalism - quite the contrary. What it means is that the drive towards world war - and thus ultimately the destruction of humanity - has become the means through which imperialist order is maintained. It is the move towards global war which obliges the imperialist states to group together and accept the discipline of bloc leaders. It is this same factor which allows the nation state to maintain a minimum of unity within the bourgeoisie itself, and which, until now, has allowed the system to limit the total atomisation of a bourgeois society in its death throes by imposing on it the discipline of the barracks; which has countered the ideological void of a society without a future by creating the community of the battlefield.
Without the perspective of world war, the way is clear for the fullest development of capitalist decomposition: a development which even without world war has the potential to destroy humanity.
The perspective today is that of a multiplication and omnipresence of local wars and of interventions of the great powers, which the bourgeois states are able to develop to a certain extent even without the adherence of the proletariat.
6) Nothing allows us to exclude the possibility of the formation of new blocs in the future. The bi-polar organisation of imperialist competition, being a “natural” tendency of declining capitalism, appeared already embryonically at the very beginning of the new phase in 1989-90 with the unification of Germany, and has continued to assert itself since then through the latter’s rising power.
While remaining an important factor of the international situation, the tendency towards the formation of blocs cannot however be realised in the foreseeable future: the counter-tendencies working against it are stronger than ever before (the growing instability both of alliances and of the internal situation of most of the capitalist powers). For the moment, the tendency towards new blocs has itself mainly the effect of strengthening the dominant trend of “each for himself”.
In fact, the process of formation of new blocs is not fortuitous, but follows a certain pattern, and requires certain conditions of development, as the blocs of the two world wars and the Cold War clearly demonstrate. In each of these cases, imperialist blocs grouped on the one hand a number of “have not” nations out to contest the existing division of the world, and thus assuming the offensive role of the “trouble-makers”, and on the other hand a bloc of “satiated” powers as the main beneficiaries and defenders of the status quo. To come into existence, the challenger bloc needs a leader militarily strong enough to contest the main powers of the status quo, and behind which the other “have nots” can rally.
At present there is no power even remotely capable of militarily challenging the USA. Germany and Japan, the strongest rivals of Washington, still lack atomic weapons, an essential attribute of a modern great power. As for Germany, the “designated” leader of an eventual future bloc against the USA because of its central position in Europe, it does not at present belong to the “have not” states. In 1933, in particular, Germany was almost a caricature of such a state: cut off from its neighbouring strategic zones of influence in central and south-eastern Europe through the Versailles system; financially bankrupt and cut off from the world market through the Great Depression and the economic autarchy of the colonial empires of its rivals. Today on the contrary the rise of German influence in its former zones of influence is proving irresistible; it is the economic and financial heart of the European economy. This is why Germany, as opposed to its attitude before the two wars, belongs today to the more “patient” powers, able to develop its power in a determined and aggressive, but methodical and - to date - often discreet manner.
In reality, the manner in which the Yalta world order disappeared - an implosion under the pressure of the economic crisis and decomposition, and not through a re-division of the world via war - has given rise to a situation in which there no longer exist clearly defined and recognised zones of influence of the different powers. Even those areas which 10 years ago appeared as the imperialist backyard of certain powers (the USA in Latin America or the Middle East, France in its language zone of Africa) are being engulfed by the ambient “each for himself”. In such a situation, it is still far from decided which powers will belong in the end to the group of the “satiated” countries, and which will end up empty-handed.
7) In reality, it is not so much Germany or any of the other challengers of the world’s remaining super-power, but the United States itself which in the 1990s has assumed the role of the “aggressive” power militarily on the offensive. This in turn is the clearest expression of a new stage in the development of the irrationality of war in decadent capitalism, directly linked to the phase of its decomposition.
The irrationality of war is the result of the fact that modern military conflicts - as opposed to those of capitalist ascendancy (wars of national unification, or of colonial conquest which served the economic and geographic expansion of capitalism) - are aimed solely at the re-division of already existing economic and strategic positions. Under these circumstances, the wars of decadence, through the devastation they cause and their gigantic cost represent not a stimulus, but a dead weight for the capitalist mode of production. Through their permanent, totalitarian and destructive character they threaten the very existence of modern states. As a result, although the cause of capitalist wars remains the same - the competition between nation states - their goal changes. Rather than wars in pursuit of definite economic gains, they increasingly become wars in pursuit of strategic advantages designed to assure the survival of the nation in the case of a global conflagration. Whereas in capitalist ascendancy the military served the interests of the economy, in decadence it is increasingly the economy which serves the needs of the military. Capitalist economy becomes a war economy.
Like the other major expressions of decomposition, the irrationality of war is thus a general tendency unfolding throughout decadent capitalism. Already in 1915, Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet recognised the primacy of global strategic considerations over immediate economic interests for the main protagonists of World War I. By the end of World War II the Communist Left of France could already formulate the thesis of the irrationality of war.
But during these wars, and the ensuing Cold War, a remnant of economic rationality survived in the fact that the offensive role was mainly assumed, not by those powers that drew the main economic advantages from the existing division of the world, but by those largely excluded from these advantages.
Today, the war in ex-Yugoslavia - from which none of its belligerents can expect to draw the slightest economic advantage - only confirms what was already strikingly evident during the Gulf War in 1991: the absolute irrationality of war from the economic viewpoint.
8) The fact that war today has lost even a semblance of economic rationality, and has become simply synonymous with chaos, does not at all mean that the bourgeoisie is confronting the situation in a disorderly or empirical manner. On the contrary: this situation is forcing the ruling class to take a particularly systematic and long-term grip on its military preparations. During the recent period, this has been expressed notably by:
- the development of ever more sophisticated and expensive armaments systems in America, Europe and Japan in particular - armaments which the great powers above all require for eventual future conflicts against each other;
- the rise in “defence” budgets, with the USA taking the lead (an additional $100 billion allocated for the modernisation of the armed forces in the coming six years), reversing a certain trend towards a decline in military budgets at the end of the Cold War (the so-called “peace dividend”);
At the political and ideological level, signs of serious war preparations include:
- the development of a whole ideology to justify military interventions: that of “humanitarianism” and the defence of “human rights”;
- the coming to government, in most of the leading industrialised countries, of left wing parties, those best able to represent this humanitarian war-mongering (this is of particular importance in Germany, where the SPD-Green coalition has the task of overcoming the political obstacles to its military intervention abroad);
- the orchestration of systematic political attacks against the internationalist traditions of the proletariat against imperialist war (slandering of Lenin as an agent of German imperialism in World War I and Bordiga as collaborator of the fascist bloc in World War II, of Rosa Luxemburg - recently in Germany - as a predecessor of Stalinism etc). The more capitalism moves towards war, the more the heritage and present organisations of the communist left will become the favoured target of the bourgeoisie.
In fact, these bourgeois ideological campaigns are not aimed solely at preparing the ground politically for war. The fundamental objective of the ruling class is to turn the proletariat away from its own revolutionary perspective, a perspective which the incessant aggravation of the capitalist crisis will inevitably put more and more on the agenda.
The Economic Crisis
9) If, in the epoch of capitalist decline, the economic crisis takes on a permanent and chronic character, it has mainly been at the end of periods of reconstruction after world wars that this crisis has assumed an openly catastrophic character, with brutal drops in production, profits and workers’ living standards, and a dramatic rise in mass unemployment. This was the case from 1929 until World War II. It is the case today.
Although since the late 1960s the crisis has unfolded in a slower and less spectacular manner than after 1929, the way in which the economic contradictions of a declining mode of production have accumulated over three decades becomes today increasingly difficult to hide. The 1990s in particular - despite all the propaganda about the “economic health” and the “fantastic profits” of capitalism - have been years of tremendous acceleration of the economic crisis, dominated by faltering markets, bankrupt companies, and an unprecedented development of unemployment and pauperisation.
At the beginning of the decade the bourgeoisie hid this fact by presenting the collapse of the Eastern bloc as the final victory of capitalism over communism. In reality the ruin of the east was a key moment in the deepening world capitalist crisis. It revealed the bankruptcy of one bourgeois model of crisis management: Stalinism. Since then, one economic model after another has bit the dust, beginning with the second and third industrial powers of the world, Japan and Germany. They were to be followed by the failure of the Asian tigers and dragons, and of the “emerging” economies of Latin America. The open bankruptcy of Russia confirmed the incapacity of “western liberalism” to rejuvenate the countries of Eastern Europe.
Until now the bourgeoisie, despite decades of chronic crisis, has always been convinced that there can no longer be economic convulsions as profound as those of the Great Depression, which after 1929 shook the very foundations of capitalism. Although bourgeois propaganda still tries to present the economic catastrophe which engulfed east and south-east Asia in 1997, Russia in 1998, and Brazil at the beginning of 1999 as a particularly severe, but temporary and con-junctural recession, what these countries have in reality suffered is a depression every bit as brutal and devastating at that of the 1930s. Such figures as the trebling of unemployment or falls in production of 10% or more in one year speak for themselves. Moreover, such areas as the former USSR or Latin America are today incomparably more affected by the crisis than was the case during the 30s.
It is true that ravages on this scale are still mainly restricted to the peripheries of capitalism. But this “periphery” includes not only agricultural and raw material producers, but industrial countries containing tens of millions of proletarians. It includes the eight and the tenth economies of the world: Brazil and South Korea. It includes the largest country on Earth, Russia. It will soon include the most populous country, China, where after the insolvency of the largest investment house, the Gitic, the confidence of international investors has begun to crumble.
What all of these bankruptcies show is that the state of health of the world economy is much worse than in the 1930s. As opposed to 1929, the bourgeoisie in the last 30 years has not been surprised or inactive in the face of the crisis, but has constantly acted to control its course. This is what gives the unfolding of the crisis today its protracted, remorselessly deepening nature. It deepens despite all the efforts of the ruling class. The sudden, brutal and uncontrolled character of the crisis in 1929 is also explained by the fact that the bourgeoisie had dismantled its state capitalist control of the economy (which it was forced to introduce during World War I), and only reintroduced and enforced this regime from the early 30s on. In other words: the crisis struck so brutally because such instruments as the war economy of the 30s and the international co-ordination of the western economies after 1945 had not yet been developed. In 1929 there did not yet exist a permanent state supervision of the economy, of the stock markets and international trade agreements, no lender of last resort, no international fire brigade to bail out those in difficulties. Between 1997-99 on the contrary whole economies with considerable economic and political significance for the capitalist world have gone down the drain despite the existence of all of these state capitalist instruments. The International Monetary Fund, for instance, supported Brazil with massive funding already before the recent crisis, in pursuit of its new strategy of crisis prevention. It promised to defend the Brazilian currency “at all costs” - and failed.
10) Although the central countries of capitalism have escaped this fate until now, they are certainly facing their worst recession since the war - in Japan it has already begun.
Today the bourgeoisie tries to blame the increasing difficulties of the central economies on the “Asian”, “Russian” and “Brazilian” crises. In fact the opposite is the case: it is the growing impasse of the central economies of capitalism, due to the exhaustion of solvent markets, which has produced the successive collapse of the “Tigers” and “Dragons”, of Russia, Brazil, etc.
The recession in Japan reveals the considerable reduction of the central countries’ economic room for manoeuvre. A series of massive “Keynesian” conjunctural programmes of the government (the recipe discovered by the bourgeoisie in the 30s) have failed to refloat the economy and avoid recession;
- the latest rescue operation - $520 billion to bail out insolvent banks - has failed to restore confidence in the financial system;
- the traditional aggressive policy of maintaining employment at home through export offensives on the world market has reached its limit: unemployment is rising fast, the policy of negative interest rates to supply sufficient liquidity and maintain a weak yen favourable to exports has run out of steam; it is now clear that these goals, as well as a reduction in the public debt, can only be achieved through a return to the inflationist policy of the 70s. This trend, which other industrial countries will follow, spells the beginning of the end of the famous “victory over inflation”, and new dangers to world trade.
In America, the alleged “boom” of the past years has been achieved at the expense of the rest of the world through a veritable explosion of its balance of trade and payments deficits, and through the soaring debts of private households (household savings in the US are now virtually non-existent). The limits of such a policy are now being reached, with or without the “Asian flu”.
The situation is no better in “Euroland”, along with America the sole remaining capitalist model: in the main western European countries, the shortest and weakest post-war recovery is already coming to a close, with falling growth rates and rising unemployment in Germany in particular.
It is the recession in the central countries which at the beginning of the new century is destined to reveal the full extent of the agony of the capitalist mode of production.
11) But if historically the impasse of capitalism is much more flagrant than in the 30s, and if the present phase represents the most important acceleration in the past three decades, this does not mean we can expect an abrupt and catastrophic collapse in the heartlands of capitalism as in the 30s. This is what happened in Germany between 1929-32, when (according to the statistics of the day) industrial production dropped 50%, prices 30%, wages 60%, and unemployment increased from two to eight million within three years.
Today on the contrary, while considerably deepening and accelerating, the crisis retains its more or less controlled, protracted character. The bourgeoisie has proven its capacity to avoid a repetition of the 1929 crash. It has achieved this not only through the erection of a permanent state capitalist regime from the 30s on, but above all through an internationally co-ordinated crisis management in favour of the strongest powers. It learnt to do this after 1945 in the framework of the Western bloc, which brought together North America, western Europe and eastern Asia under US leadership. After 1989 it proved its capacity to maintain this crisis management even without imperialist blocs. Thus, whereas at the imperialist level 1989 was the beginning of the rule of world chaos and “each for himself”, at the economic level this is not as yet the case.
The two most dramatic consequences of the crisis of 1929 were:
- the collapse of world trade under an avalanche of competitive devaluations and protectionist measures leading to the autarchy of the pre-war years;
- the fact that the two strongest capitalist nations, the United States and Germany, were the first and the worst affected by industrial depression and mass unemployment.
The national state capitalist programmes which were then adopted in the different countries - the Five Year Plans in the USSR, the Four Year Plans in Germany, the New Deal in the USA etc. - in no way altered this fragmentation of the world market: they accepted this framework as their point of departure. As opposed to this, in face of the crisis of the 70s and 80s the western bourgeoisie acted rigorously to prevent a return to the extreme protectionism of the 30s, since this was the precondition for assuring that the central countries would not be the first victims like in 29, but the last to suffer the most brutal consequences of the crisis. The result of this system has been that whole portions of the world economy such as Africa, most of eastern Europe, the greater part of Asia and Latin America have been or are being for all intents and purposes eliminated as actors on the world stage and plunged into the most unspeakable barbarism.
In his struggle against Stalin in the mid 1920s, Trotsky demonstrated that not only socialism, but even a highly developed capitalism is impossible in one country. In this sense the autarchy of the 1930s was a gigantic step backwards for the capitalist system. In fact, it was only possible because the road to world war was open - something which is not the case today.
12)The present international state capitalist crisis management imposes certain rules for the commercial war between national capitals - trade, financial, currency or investment agreements and treaties, rules without which world trade under present conditions would be impossible.
That this capacity of the main powers (underestimated by the ICC at the beginning of the 1990s) has not yet reached its limits is demonstrated by the project of a common European currency, showing how the bourgeoisie is obliged by the advance of the crisis to take increasingly complicated and audacious measures to protect itself. The Euro is first and foremost a gigantic state capitalist measure to counteract one of the most dangerous weak points in the defence lines of the system: that fact that of the two centres of world capitalism, North America and western Europe, the latter is divided into a series of national capitals, each with their own currency. Dramatic monetary fluctuations between them, such as that which smashed the European Monetary System in the early 90s, or competitive devaluations like in the 30s, threaten to paralyse trade within Europe. Thus, far from representing a step towards a European imperialist bloc, the Euro project is supported by the United States, which would be one of the main victims of such a collapse of the European market.
The Euro, like the European Union itself, also illustrates the way in which this co-ordination between states, far from abolishing the trade war between them, is a method of organising it in favour of the strongest. If the common currency is a stability anchor for the European economy, it is at the same time a system designed to assure the survival of the strongest powers (above all the country which dictated the conditions of its construction, Germany) at the expense of the weaker participants (which is why Britain, due to its traditional strength as a world financial power, still affords itself the luxury of remaining outside).
We are confronted with an infinitely more developed state capitalist system than that of Stalin, Hitler or Roosevelt in the 1930s, in which not only the competition within each nation state, but to a certain extent that of national capitals on the world market assume a less spontaneous, more regulated - in fact more political character. Thus, after the debacle of the “Asian crisis” the leaders of the main industrial countries insisted that in future the IMF should adopt more political criteria in deciding which countries to bail out and at what price (and conversely which ones can be eliminated from the world market).
13) With the acceleration of the crisis, the bourgeoisie today finds itself obliged to revise its economic policy: this is one of the meanings of the establishment of left governments in Europe and the United States. In Britain, France or Germany the new left governments have developed a critique of the previous policy of “globalisation” and “liberalisation” launched in the 80s under Reagan and Thatcher, calling for more state intervention in the economy, and for a regulation of the international flow of capital. The bourgeoisie realises today that this policy has reached its limit.
“Globalisation”, by lowering trade and investment barriers in favour of the circulation of capital, was the response of the leading powers to the danger of a return to the protectionism and autarchy of the 1930s: a state capitalist measure protecting the strongest competitors at the expense of the weaker ones. But today, this measure is in turn in need of stronger state regulation, aimed not at revoking, but controlling the global movement of capital.
“Globalisation” is not the cause of the insane international speculation of the past years - but it has opened the door wide to its development. As a result, from being a refuge for capital menaced by the absence of real profitable investment outlets, speculation has itself become an enormous danger to capital. If the bourgeoisie is reacting to this danger today, this is not only because this development is capable of bringing entire, more peripheral national economies to their knees almost overnight (Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil etc) but above all because leading capitalist groupings in the main countries are likely to go bankrupt in the process. In fact, the principal goal of the IMF programmes for these different countries in the past two years was to save not the countries directly affected, but the speculative investments of western capitalists, whose bankruptcy would have destabilised the international finance structures themselves.
Just as “globalisation” never replaced the competition of the nation state by that of the multinationals, as bourgeois ideology pretended, but was a policy of certain national capitals, in the same way the policy of “liberalisation” was never a weakening of state capitalism, but a means of making it more efficient, and of justifying enormous cuts in social budgets in particular. Today’s situation of sharpened crisis, however, demands a much more direct and obvious state intervention (such as the recent nationalisation of failing Japanese banks, a measure which was publicly called for by the G7 states). Such circumstances are no longer compatible with a credible “liberal” ideology.
At this level also, the left of capital is better equipped to implement the new “corrective measures” (something the resolution of the 10th congress of the ICC 1993 already pointed out regarding the replacement of Bush by Clinton in the USA). Politically, because the left is historically less tied to the clientele of private capitalist interests than the right, and thus better able to adopt measures that go against the will of particular groupings, but which defend the national capital as a whole. Ideologically, because it was the right which invented and mainly implemented the previous policy now being revised.
This modification does not mean that the so-called “neo-liberal” economic policy will be completely abandoned. In fact, a sign of the gravity of the situation is that the bourgeoisie is compelled to combine the two policies, both of which have increasingly serious effects on the world economy. Such a combination, balancing on a tight rope between the two policies, can only further aggravate the situation.
This does not however imply that there is an economic “point of no return” beyond which the system is irretrievably doomed to disappear. Nor is there any theoretically fixed limit to the amount of debt (the main drug of dying capitalism) which the system can administer to itself without making its own existence impossible. In fact, capitalism passed its economic limits with the entry into its phase of decadence. Since then, capitalism has only been able to survive by an increasing manipulation of its own laws, a task which only the state can perform.
In this sense the limits to the existence of capitalism are political and not economic. The denouement of the historic crisis of capitalism depends on the evolution of the balance of forces between the classes:
- either the proletariat will develop its struggle until it imposes its worldwide revolutionary dictatorship;
- or capitalism, through its tendency towards war, will plunge humanity into barbarism and definitive destruction
The Class Struggle
14) In response to the first signs of the new open crisis at the end of the 60s, the return of the class struggle in 1968, ending four decades of counter-revolution, barred the road to world war, and began to open up a renewed perspective for humanity. During the first great struggles of the late sixties and early seventies a new generation of revolutionaries began to be secreted by the class, and the necessity of proletarian revolution was debated in the general assemblies of the class. During the different waves of workers’ struggles between 1968 and 1989, a difficult but important experience of struggle was acquired, and consciousness within the class developed in confrontation with the left of capital, particularly the unions, despite a series of obstacles placed in the path of the proletariat. The high point of this whole period was the mass strike of 1980 in Poland, demonstrating that in the Russian bloc also - historically condemned by its weakened position, to be the “aggressor” in any war - the proletariat was not prepared to die for the bourgeois state.
However, if the proletariat barred the road to war, it was unable to take significant steps towards its answer to the crisis of capitalism: the proletarian revolution. It was this stalemate in the balance of class forces, with neither of the two main classes of modern society able to enforce its own solution, which opened up the period of the decomposition of capitalism.
By contrast, it was the first truly world historical event of this period of decomposition - the collapse of the Stalinist (so-called Communist) regimes in 1989 - which brought the period of developing struggles and consciousness since 1968 to a close. The result of this historical earthquake was the most profound retreat in combativity and above all in consciousness since the end of the counter-revolution.
This set-back did not represent an historic defeat of the class, as the ICC already pointed out at the time. By 1992, with the important struggles in Italy, the working class had already returned to the path of struggle. But in the course of the 1990s, this path was to prove much slower and more difficult then in the previous two decades. Despite such struggles, the bourgeoisie, in 1995 in France, and soon afterwards in Belgium, Germany, and the USA, was still able to profit from the hesitant combativity and political disorientation of the class in order to organise spectacular movements aimed specifically at restoring the credibility of the unions, and which further weakened the class consciousness of the workers. Through such actions, the unions attained their highest level of popularity since more than a decade. After the massive union manoeuvres in November-December 1995 in France, the resolution on the international situation of the 12th congress of the ICC’s section in France (1996) noted: that “in the main capitalist countries, the working class has been brought back to a situation which is comparable to that of the 1970s as far as its relations to unions and unionism is concerned (...) the bourgeoisie has temporarily succeeded in wiping out from working class consciousness the lessons learnt during the 80s, following repeated experience of confrontations with the unions”.
This whole development confirmed that after 1989 the path towards decisive class confrontations had become longer and more difficult.
15) Despite these enormous difficulties the 90s has been a decade of the re-development of class struggles. This was already confirmed, in the mid-90s, through the strategy of the bourgeoisie itself:
- the highly publicised union manoeuvres aimed at strengthening the unions before an important build-up of workers’ combativity rendered such large scale mobilisations too dangerous;
- the subsequent equally artificially orchestrated “unemployed movements” in France, Germany and other countries during 1997-98, designed to divide employed from unemployed workers — making the former feel guilty, creating unionist structures for the future containment of the latter - revealed the concern of the ruling class about the long term radicalising potential of unemployment and the unemployed;
- enormous and incessant ideological campaigns - often using themes linked to decomposition such as the Dutroux affair in Belgium, ETA terrorism in Spain, the extreme right in France, Austria or Germany - calling for the defence of bourgeois democracy, were multiplied to sabotage the reflection of the workers. All this showed that the ruling class itself was convinced that the worsening of the crisis and of attacks would give rise to new expressions of working class militancy. Furthermore, all of these preventative actions were co-ordinated and publicised at the international level.
The correctness of the class instinct of the bourgeoisie was soon demonstrated by a significant increase in workers’ struggles towards the end of the decade.
Not for the first time, the first important sign of a serious development of combativity came from the Benelux countries, with strikes in different sectors during 1997 in the Netherlands, notably in the world’s largest port, Rotterdam. This important signal was soon to be confirmed in another small, but highly developed western European country, Denmark, when almost half a million employees of the private sector (a quarter of all wage labourers of that country) went on strike for almost two weeks in May 1998. This movement revealed:
- a tendency towards massive struggles;
- the necessity for the unions to revert to their task of controlling, isolating and defeating movements, so that the workers at the end were not euphoric (as in France in 1995), but had lost their first illusions;
- the necessity for the bourgeoisie to return to the policy of internationally playing down or, where possible blacking-out, news of struggles, in order not to spread the “bad example” of workers’ resistance.
Since then, this strike wave has continued in two directions:
- large scale actions organised by the unions (Norway, Greece, United States, South Korea) under the pressure of growing workers’ discontent;
- a multiplication of smaller, unofficial, sometimes even spontaneous struggles in the central capitalist nations of Europe - France, Britain, Belgium, Germany - where the unions take the lead in order to contain and isolate them.
Also noteworthy are:
- the growing national and international simultaneity of struggles, especially in western Europe;
- the outbreak of combat in response to the different aspects of the capitalist attacks: lays-offs and unemployment, falling real wages and cuts in the social wage, intolerable conditions of exploitation, reduction in holiday benefits etc;
- the embryonic beginnings of a reflection within the class about which demands to raise and how to struggle, and even about the present state of society;
- the obligation for the bourgeoisie - although the official unions have not yet been seriously discredited in the recent movements - to develop the card of “fighting unionism” and “base unionism” with the heavy involvement of leftism.
16) Despite these steps forward, the evolution of the class struggle since 1989 has remained painful and not without set-backs, above all because of:
- the weight of decomposition, a growing factor against the development of collective solidarity and of an historical and coherent theoretical reflection within the class;
- the very extent of the set-back which began in 1989, which at the level of consciousness will weigh negatively for a long time to come, since it is the perspective of communism itself which has been attacked.
Underlying this set-back - which threw the proletarian struggle back more than a decade - is the fact that in the epoch of decomposition, time is no longer on the side of the proletariat. Although an undefeated class can prevent the slide towards world war, it cannot prevent the proliferation of all the manifestations of the rotting of the social order.
In fact, this set-back was itself the expression of the fact that the proletarian struggle lagged behind the general acceleration of the decline of capitalism. In particular: despite the whole significance of Poland 1980 for the world situation, nine years later it was not the international class struggle which toppled the Stalinist regimes in eastern Europe - the working class was completely absent at the moment of their collapse.
Nevertheless, the proletariat’s central weakness between 1968 and 1989 lay not in a general backwardness (contrary to the rapid development of the revolutionary situation which emerged from World War I, the slow evolution of struggle post-1968 in response to the crisis has many advantages), but above all in a difficulty in politicising its fight.
This difficulty is the result of the fact that the generation which in 68 ended the longest counter-revolution in history was cut off from the experience of past generations of its class, and reacted to the trauma inflicted on it by Social Democracy and Stalinism with a general tendency to reject “politics”.
Thus the development of a “political culture” becomes the central question of the coming struggles. This question in fact contains the answer to a second one: how to compensate the lost ground of the past years, to overcome the present amnesia of the class concerning the lessons of its struggles before 1989?
It is clear that this cannot be done through repeating the combats of the two preceding decades: history does not permit such repetitions, least of all today when time is running out for humanity. But above all, the proletariat is an historical class, even if the lessons of twenty years are presently absent from its consciousness. In reality the process of politicisation is nothing other than that of rediscovering the lessons of the past and so developing a perspective for future struggles.
17) We have a number of good reasons for assuming that the coming period, in the long term, will in many ways be particularly favourable for such a politicisation. These favourable factors include:
- the advanced state of the crisis itself, pushing forward proletarian reflection on the need to confront and overcome the system;
- the increasingly massive, simultaneous, and generalised character of the attacks, posing the need for a generalised class response. This includes the enormous question of unemployment, the embodiment of the bankruptcy of capitalism, and a question around which struggles of the future will develop. It will also tend to include the question of inflation, a prime means of capitalism to put pressure on the working class and other layers of society;
- the increase in state repression as the bourgeoisie is more and more compelled to outlaw all real expressions of the proletarian struggle;
- the omnipresence of war, destroying the illusions in the possibility of a peaceful capitalism. The present war in the Balkans, a war at the very heart of the capitalist system, will in itself have an important impact on the workers’ consciousness. For all its humanitarian disguises, and whatever immediate effect it may have on the class struggle, this and future wars will tend to expose the catastrophic perspective that this system offers humanity. In addition to which, the accelerating slide towards war will demand increasing military budgets and thus growing sacrifices from the working class, forcing the latter to defend its own interests against the imperialist interests of the national capital.
Other favorable factors include:
- the strengthening of the combativity of an undefeated class. It is only by entering the combat that the workers can regain the experience of being part of a collective class, recover their lost self-confidence, begin to pose class issues on a class terrain, and once more cross swords with unionism and leftism;
- the entry into struggle of a second undefeated generation of workers. The combativity of this generation is still fully intact. Already born into a capitalism in crisis, it is free of some of the illusions of the generation after 68. Above all, as opposed to the workers after 68, the young workers of today can learn from a generation before them which already has a considerable experience of struggle to pass on. In this way the “lost” lessons of the past can be reconquered in struggle by the combined efforts of two generations of proletarians. This is the normal process of accumulation of historical experience which the counter-revolution brutally interrupted;
* this experience of common reflection on the past, in face of the need for generalised combat against a dying system, will give rise to proletarian discussion circles, to nuclei of advanced workers who will in particular try to reappropriate the lessons of the whole history of the workers’ movement. In such a perspective, the responsibility of the communist left will be much greater than in the past 30 years.
This potential is not wishful thinking. It is already confirmed by the bourgeoisie, which is fully aware of this potential danger, and is already taking preventive action with incessant denigrations against the revolutionary past and present of its class enemy.
Above all: in view of the degradation of the world situation the bourgeoisie is afraid that the class will discover those episodes which demonstrate the power of the proletariat, which show that it is the class which holds the future of humanity in its hands: the revolutionary wave of 1917-23; the overthrow of the bourgeoisie in Russia, the ending of World War I through the revolutionary movement in Germany.
18) This concern of the ruling class with the proletarian danger is reflected not least in the coming to government of the left in 13 of the 15 countries of the European Union.
The return of the left to government in so many important countries, beginning with the USA after the Gulf War, is made possible by the blow to proletarian consciousness inflicted by the events of 1989, as the ICC already pointed out in 1990:
“This is why, in particular, we have to update the ICC’s analysis of the ‘left in opposition’. This was a necessary card for the bourgeoisie at the end of the 70s and throughout the 80s due to the class’ general dynamic towards increasingly determined and conscious combats, and its growing rejection of democratic, electoral, and trade union mystifications. (...) By contrast, the class’ present reflux means that for a while this strategy will no longer be a priority for the bourgeoisie. This does not necessarily mean that these countries will see the left return to government: as we have said on several occasions (...) this is only absolutely necessary in periods of war or revolution. By contrast, we should not be surprised if it does happen, nor should we put t down to ‘accident’ or to a ‘specific weakness’ of the bourgeoisie in these countries” (International Review no61).
The 12th ICC congress resolution, of spring 1997, after correctly predicting the victory of Labour at the May 1997 general elections in Britain, added:
“it is important to underline the fact that the ruling class is not going to return to the themes of the 70s when the ‘left alternative’ with its programme of ‘social’ measures, even of nationalisations, was put forward in order to break the elan of the wave of struggles which had begun in 1968, by derailing discontent and militancy onto the election dead-end”.
The autumn 98 electoral victory of Schröder-Fischer over Kohl in Germany confirmed:
- that the return of left governments is in no way a return to the 70s: the SPD did not come to power in the midst of big struggles, as had once been the case under Brandt. It made no unrealistic electoral promises beforehand, and is pursuing a very “moderate” and “responsible” course in government;
- that in the present phase of the class struggle it is normally not a problem for the bourgeoisie to put the left, in particular the Social Democrats, in government. In Germany it would have been easier than other countries to leave the right in government. As opposed to most other western powers, where the right wing parties are either is a state of disarray (France, Sweden), divided on foreign policy (Italy, Britain) or weighed down by backward, irresponsible tendencies (USA), in Germany the right, although somewhat worn down by 16 years in government, is in an orderly state, and is quite capable to dealing with the affairs of the German state.
However, the fact that Germany, the country today possessing the most ordered and cohesive political apparatus (reflecting its status as potential imperialist bloc leader) brought back the SPD, reveals that the card of the left in government is not only possible today, but has become a relative necessity (just as the left in power in the 80s was a relative necessity). In other words it would be a mistake for the bourgeoisie not to play this card now.
We have already shown which necessities at the level of imperialist policy and crisis management have paved the way for left governments. But on the social front also there are above all two important reasons for such a government today:
- after long years of right wing governments in key countries like Britain and Germany, the reinforcement of the electoral mystification demands the democratic alternation now - all the more so since in the future it will become much more difficult to have the left in government. Already at the time of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, and even more so since the fall of Stalinism, bourgeois democracy is the most important anti-proletarian mystification of the ruling class, which must permanently be cultivated;
- although the left is not necessarily the most suitable for attacking the working class today, it has the advantage over the right of attacking in a more prudent and above all less provocative manner than the right. This is a very important quality at present, where it is vital for the bourgeoisie, wherever possible, to avoid important and massive struggles of its mortal enemy, since such struggles possess today an important potential for the development of the self-confidence and political consciousness of the proletariat as a whole.
International Communist Current,
April 5 1999