Since the 1980s there has been a period of downturn in struggle, but also an extended period of crisis which has not generated a broad or significant working class response in the heartlands of capital. Does this mean that the concepts of the decline of capitalism and war or revolution and socialism or barbarism are wrong? Does it mean that there needs to be new ways of organising, new activities for revolutionaries? Does it rule out the possibility of a better society? For me the answer must be no! A look at history of the last century confirms their validity. The Russian revolution and the revolutionary wave are key events, crisis of the 30s and the horror of WW2, the emergence of new political thought and class struggle in the late 60s, the evident inability of capitalism in recent years to provide for a improving standard of living for its people, indeed its ability to do only the opposite is proof enough for me that the left communist analysis of capitalism is valid.
So let’s not forget that capitalism has always been in trouble. Even when it could act as a progressive system and expand production and the class system nationally and internationally at the same time as improving living standards, as developing support services such as health and education for its population, as developing new sciences and technologies, it was at the same time destroying old cultures, killing hundreds of thousands in the process, making men women and children work for long hours in brutal working conditions, providing little or no protection from illness accidents and cyclical economic crisis. This is so because it was always an exploitative system, a class society exercising violence, ideological and economic control to achieve its goals.
Marx’s view of historical materialism lays a fundamental framework for viewing crisis in that societies have progressive periods and period of decline, called by the ICC ascendancy and decadence.
This framework applies to capitalism as an exploitative class based society. However it does not mean, as I’ve just suggested, that in one period everything is improving and in the period of decline there is only hardship. There have also been significant technical and social changes over the past 100 years. Education and health systems extend, communication, manufacturing and transport technologies have changed beyond all recognition, consumer goods dominate home markets.
Does this mean all change is progressive? Absolutely not - the reforms of the last century reflecting the needs of capitalism trying to maintain itself. Capitalism today needs reformism to keep ideological control of workers and to hold back prevent class action.
I start here because I want to get away from the idea that we should only describe the past century as a continuous process of deterioration in the economy and social conditions as society comes ever closer to revolution.
Clearly the main point of today’s discussion is the state of class struggle currently So I hope my introduction now will just set a framework and a background to the discussion of today’s situation on the basis of looking at how crises have developed in 20th and 21st centuries. I hope in doing this to stress some useful ideas and to have a go at a few notions that I think are unhelpful and outdated. You’ll be grateful to hear then that I am not going to do this by looking a crisis in terms of economics but from a political point of view.
This current period of low class struggle does question some of the ideas that were developed post WW2 and before. This is a difficult and unexpected period which poses many new problems for analysis of crisis. It’s easy to see that by looking at the lively discussions on the ICC website and how they have generated many problematic issues. Some of the issues remain pose real questions for an understanding of crisis,eg. the size of pre-capitalist markets, role of debt, markets or production as primary issue, and I’d add population growth since 1950s as well as suggestions that we can ignore theory, ignore past events because they were too long ago, make things happen now, find better ways to organise, speak to new militants or searchers (as they seem to have become known).
I see nothing in the current period that questions the idea that capitalism is in terminal decline.
But I do think it means some revisiting of the theories of how we understand crisis and decadence. This extended period of crisis accompanied by a lack of struggle should give us more information with which to improve the analysis of the course of decadence.
I do get the feeling at times that for us old farts it’s too easy to drift back to our youth and pretend things haven’t changed. But since ‘68, 45 years have elapsed and 1917 was 50 years before that. The young comrades of today cannot envisage the struggles of the 60s and 70s any better than the comrades of that period could envisage events in 1917. The period since WW2 have been very long and we’ve only seen one wave of class struggle in that time.
How does this elongated period affect an analysis of the current situation.? This is I think a core question for today.
I want therefore to give an overview of crises from a political point of view
When WW1 started, Luxemburg, Lenin, etc. spoke of the period of imperialism, the period of revolution and appear to have thought of it as the end of capitalism. They saw this as a short term prospect and as a period of continuous class struggle.
In 30s and 40s, revolutionaries struggled to understand the decline of that revolutionary wave and to see it in context of political changes that were taking place in society.
In the 40s and 50s comrades had to develop an understanding of defeat of the class and identified war and revolution as opposing class responses to crisis.
In the 60s and 70s, the comrades coming out of GCF and later Solidarity, Workers’ Voice etc. had to develop an understanding of the emergence of new struggles against capitalism as it returned to open crisis out of a period of growth. Everybody at that stage however again saw the collapse of capitalism and emergence of revolutionary period as imminent if not immediate.
Since the 1980s comrades have struggled to maintain their existence in the context of a lack of class struggle and it is this context that poses the questions today.
This is why an understanding of crisis is important to us all and I would argue that the most important task of revolutionaries is this discussion of the current situation. So despite some of the arguments in the ICC webpages, the discussion of what Luxemburg, Bukharin and Mattick said about crises, of what Lenin said about organisation, of what went on in 1917, of Marxist ideas from the past, of science and evolution, of subterranean consciousness, of anarchism and of environment, etc., etc. are essential contributions (of more or less significance) to this ultimate task. These issues facilitate the discussion of today’s situation. Because this is a skill that one day must enable future comrades to analyse the heat of a revolutionary situation and make decisions about whether it is time to call on the class to wait, to retreat and to attack. So please don’t denigrate economic theory or the events of the Russian revolution etc. as old hat and not worth your time.
We would in truth not be having this discussion if there was open class struggle in Europe. Why there isn’t, is a problem but it’s also the opportunity to review and improve understanding of the past and of today.
For me the period of say 1914 to 1924 is really significant. It proves to me beyond all doubt that a working class revolution can happen and if it can happen once it can happen again. But it was almost 100 years ago and perhaps it is all too easy to look back and say this was only a highpoint in struggle and things were easy for comrades.
Comrades had difficulties then too.Capitalism was at its highpoint politically and economically. Yes crises existed, but the economy was not in that bad a shape prior to WW1, national bourgeoisies saw only the example of the UK in terms of what they could achieve for themselves. The working class suffered awful working and living conditions, streets were dirty unhealthy places where homeless adults and kids scrabbled to survive, little education or health systems were available, society was only just finding out how to provide sewers and power supplies. Transport to work was not available, sick pay, holiday pay was non-existent.
Common was still the belief was that women and workers had no understanding of society and politics, and were born to their station in life. The divide between probably rich and poor was far greater than now. Nationalism was strong because few people outside the army know what foreigners were really like. The Church, particularly Catholicism still had a strong hold on people’s behaviour.
Revolutionaries had no computers and no internet to communicate, letter post was still a novelty, just as was the motor car, telephones, duplicators, typewriters. Leafleting must have been hard going! Comrades were still organised on a national basis (Russian SDLP members were émigrés abroad, rather than members of UK, Austrian German SDLP). National meetings however must have taken days to get to. The norm must have been to organise through local indeed very local meetings. Communication within organisation no matter how structured or well organised must have been so slow and problematic. What is called now centralisation was scarcely possible then. Worse still, revolutionaries had to contend in every meeting with the reality that they were members of SD or the LP alongside all the reformist and liberal tendencies and they all needed to be brought together. How do you discuss and organise anything when in the rooms are the equivalents of modern day Tony Blairs or Tony Cliffs or Vanessa Redgraves?? Horrible idea
What’s my point?Adverse conditions are not new! The revolutionary wave was enormous and worldwide the evidence is there to see.
We have not yet experienced that again but from the 60s to the 80s we did see the emergence of a wave of worldwide class struggle. Reactions at that time were similar in some ways to Marxists at the end of WW1, ie.that the period of revolution is here, class conflict is growing and the end is nigh. But it did not come and still has not.
Economic crisis has intensified and attacks on working class living standards continue. Capitalism tries to control the working class and society in general in ever more desperate - and maybe obvious - ways as it extends its structures and mechanisms globally and intensifies them locally.
This period can easily be understood by our schema recognising waves of struggle. It does raise questions about some formulations however.
1. Decadence of Capitalism
Well, only to the extent that decadence is clearly not just a permanent nonstop crisis or a continuous revolutionary wave. It’s not either a simple cycle of war-revolution-crisis-war-reconstruction, crisis-war- revolution or even crisis- class struggle-war, reconstruction crisis. The course of events up to the 1950s is not necessarily the model for the events from 1980s onwards. Hence it may be more appropriate to consider decadence as a separate element to crisis theory. Clearly the theory of saturated markets and need for pre-capitalist markets is no longer a satisfactory explanation for ongoing crises and TROPF [tendency for the rate of profit to fall] theory actually implies falls and rises in the rate of profit in both periods.
Previous assumptions that decadence means permanent crisis and permanent class struggle appear now obsolete. Decadence may put revolution on the historical agenda but it does not give guarantees and it may mean intensified crisis for capitalism but it does not eliminate capitalism’s dynamic strong capacity to adapt and grow.
It is now also much harder to say that reforms are not possible than it was in the 30s or 40s. because clearly there have been economic, technical and social changes in the last 100 years., I know that reform implies improvements for the working class not just changes but it seems more accurate now to emphasise that it is reformism that is not possible. Capitalism is fighting to keep control of its system and reforms/changes are used because the ruling class needs them for its own purposes even if that is keeping the working class in its place.
2 War OR revolution
As capitalism persists, localised conflicts emerge and destroy areas of the globe. Lebanon, N Ireland, Afghanistan, Ruanda, Palestine, Somalia and latterly Syria have all been turned into models of barbarism. Maybe not yet permanently but not easy to reverse out of either. These local wars in peripheral countries have not however developed into global wars between major powers in the way conflicts in Poland and Serbia have done in the past. However this does that mean it is impossible. The start of the WW2is not the model for what is happening now, just as the revolution emerging from WW1 isn’t either. All it should suggest is that greater clarity does not come automatically from a tendency to make more predictions!!!!!
3 Formulaic theories of the current period
The ideas that theYears of Truth in the1980s have determined the remainder of history, that crisis leads directly to class struggle, are inappropriate.
Significant deepening of economic crisis has not led to significantworking class action in Europe or America. Were the Years of Truth decisive and the class beaten then? There is nothing now to suggest such a negative outcome. WW3 has not happened and the ruling class still fear the emergence of working class struggle and organises to confront the working class in this crisis. Rather the Years of Truth had a more significant impact on the organisation of the ruling class.
I have struggled to understand the concept of Decomposition as it seems like a justification of the Years of Truth idea. However the rather excellent description of ideological and social decomposition that appeared in 1R151, provides a valid overview of capitalism throughout decadence but holds nothing specific about the current period since 1990.
4 Socialism or Barbarism – and Decomposition
We discuss later what is socialism and how to get there but what is barbarism? We throw this formula around very lightly but I suspect everybody means different things by it.Fair enough, but ongoing decadence ought to inform a discussion here. I don’t believe Marx meant the apocalypse a la Mad Max or Defiance or whatever - even if you can’t exclude that notion. Ongoing developments in capitalist decadence imply surely a slow decline into incessant economic social and military conflicts, warlordism, a loss of centralised social control, loss of capitalist law and order. There’s strong section in IR151 mentioned above that seems more appropriate here.
5 Europe is where it’s at?
In fact, just as low tech manufacturing has been exported to developing countries in Asia where labour and resources are cheap, so has class struggle. The mass factories and production lines which dominated in Europe at the start of the 20th century are now in Asian countries, which just like Russia at that time, are weak and underdeveloped capitalist economies. Levels of class struggle and the intensity of struggles have been high in China India Bangladesh, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines and recently Turkey and Brazil. Clearly what happens in Europe, America and Japan will be critical in the long term but in the short term I do wonder if eurocentrism is too dominant in today’s thinking and that more value should be given to struggles in what used to be called the Third World.
How do crises in decadence affect underdeveloped and even developing countries? Is this different to the impact on what used to be called the 1st world?