The working class and the wars of decomposing capitalism

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A century ago, on 1st of May1916, at the Potsdam Platz in Berlin, the revolutionary internationalist Karl Liebknecht pointed to the working class answer to the war that was devastating Europe and massacring a whole generation of proletarians. In front of a crowd of some 10,000 workers who had been demonstrating in silence against the privations that were a necessary consequence of the war, Liebknecht described the anguish of proletarian families facing death at the front and starvation at home, concluding his speech (which was also reproduced and distributed at the demonstration in leaflet form) by raising the slogans “down with the war!” and “down with the government!”, which provoked his immediate arrest despite the efforts of the crowd to defend him. But the trial of Liebknecht the following month was met by a strike of 55,000 workers in the arms industries, led by a new form of workplace organisation, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards. This strike was in turn defeated, with many of its leaders being sent off to the front. But this and other struggles fermenting inside both warring camps were the seeds of the revolutionary wave that was to break out first in Russia in 1917 and then crash back into Germany a year later, forcing the ruling class, terrified of the spread of the “Red” virus, to call a halt to the killing[1].

But only a temporary halt, because the revolutionary wave did not put an end to decaying capitalism and its unavoidable drive towards war.  The predatory “peace” accord imposed on Germany by the victors already set in motion a process that would – under the whip of the world economic crisis of the 1930s – plunge the world into an even more destructive holocaust in 1939-45. And even before that war was over, the battle lines for yet another world war were already being joined, as America on the one hand and the USSR on the other established rival military blocs that for the next four or five decades would jockey for position through a whole litany of local conflicts: Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Angola, the Israeli-Arab wars…

That period – the so-called Cold War that was not so cold to all the millions who died under the banner of “national liberation” or the “defence of the free world against communism” – is history, but war itself is more widespread than ever. The disintegration of the imperialist blocs after 1989 did not, despite the promises of the politicians and their paid philosophers, bring about a “new world order” or the “end of history”, but a growing world disorder, a succession of chaotic conflicts which carries as big a threat to humanity’s survival as the shadow of a nuclear-armed Third World War which hung over the previous period.

We thus find ourselves in 2016 faced with a whole swathe of wars from Africa through the Middle East to Central Asia; with growing tensions in the far east as the Chinese giant pits itself against its Japanese and above all American rivals; with a seething fire in Ukraine as Russia seeks to regain the imperialist glory it lost with the collapse of the USSR. 

Like the war in former Yugoslavia, one of the first major conflicts of the ‘post bloc’ period, the war in Ukraine is taking place at the very gates of Europe, close to the classical heartlands of world capitalism, and thus to the most important fractions of the international working class. The streams of refugees seeking to escape from the war zones in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, or Afghanistan provide further proof that Europe is no island cut off from the military nightmare engulfing a large part of humanity. On the contrary, the ruling classes of the central capitalist countries, of the “great democracies”, have been an active element in the proliferation of war in this period, through a whole series of military adventures in the peripheries of the system, from the first Gulf war in 1991 to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq at the start of the 21st century to the more recent bombing campaigns in Libya, Iraq and Syria. And these adventures have in turn stirred up the hornet’s nest of Islamic terrorism, which has again and again taken bloody revenge in the capitalist centres, from the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 to the Paris killings of 2015.

The working class as a barrier to war

But if the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks are a constant reminder that war is no “foreign” reality,  Europe and the USA still appear as ‘havens’ compared to much of the world. This is shown by the very fact that the victims of wars in Africa and the Middle East – or of the grinding poverty and drug wars of Mexico and Central America – are prepared to risk their lives to get to the shores of Europe or across the US border. And certainly, for all the attacks on working class living standards we have seen over the past few decades, despite the growth of poverty and homelessness in the big cities of Europe and the US, the living conditions of the average proletarian in these regions still seems like an unattainable dream for those who have been directly subjected to the horrors of war. Above all, since 1945 there have been no military conflicts between the major powers of Europe – a striking contrast with the period 1914-45.

Is this because the rulers have learned the lessons of 1914-18 or 1939-45, and have formed powerful international organisations that make war between the major powers unthinkable?

There have indeed been important changes in the balance of forces between the major powers since 1945. The USA emerged as the real winner of the Second World War and was able to impose its terms on the prostrated powers of Europe: no more wars between western European powers, but economic and military cohesion as part of a US-led imperialist bloc to counter the threat from the USSR. And even though the western bloc lost this crucial reason for its existence after the downfall of the USSR and its bloc, the alliance between the former bitter rivals at the heart of Europe – France and Germany – has held relatively firm.

All these and other elements enter into the equation and can be read about in the work of academic historians and political analysts. But there is one key element that bourgeois commentators never talk about. This is the truth contained in the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto: that history is the history of class struggle, and that any ruling class worthy of its name cannot afford to ignore the potential threat coming from the vast mass of humanity that it exploits and oppresses. This is particularly relevant when it comes to waging war, because capitalist war more than anything else demands the subjugation and sacrifice of the proletariat.

In the period before and after 1914, the ruling classes of Europe were always concerned that a major war would provoke a revolutionary response from the working class. They only felt confident enough to take the fateful last steps towards war when they were assured that the organisations the working class had built up over decades, the trade unions and the Socialist parties, would no longer adhere to their official internationalist declarations and would in fact help them march the workers off to the battle fronts. And as we have already pointed out, the same ruling class (even if it had in some cases to assume a new shape, as in Germany where the “Socialists” replaced the Kaiser) was obliged to end the war in order to block the danger of world revolution.

In the 1930s, a new war was prepared by a far more brutal and systematic defeat of the working class – not only through the corruption of the former revolutionary organisations that had opposed the betrayal of the Socialists, not only through the ideological mobilisation of the working class around the “defence of democracy” and “anti-fascism”, but also through the naked terror of fascism and Stalinism. And the imposition of this terror was also taken in hand by the democracies at the end of the war: where the possibilities of working class revolt were seen in Italy and Germany, the British in particular made sure it would never rise to the heights of a new 1917, through massive aerial bombardments of working class concentrations or by allowing the fascist executioners time to suppress the danger on the ground. 

The economic boom that followed the Second World War and the displacement of imperialist conflicts to the margins of the system meant that a direct clash between the two blocs in the period from 1945 to 1965 could be avoided, even if it came perilously close at times. In this period the working class had not yet recovered from its historic defeat and was not a major factor in blocking the war-drive.

The situation changed however after 1968. The end of the post-war boom was met by a new and undefeated generation of the working class, which engaged in a series of important struggles announced by the general strike in France in 1968 and the ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969 in Italy. The return of the open economic crisis sharpened imperialist tensions and thus the danger of a direct conflict between the blocs, but on neither side of the imperialist divide could the ruling class be confident that it would be able to persuade the workers to stop fighting for their own material interests and give up everything for a new world war. This was demonstrated most forcefully by the mass strike in Poland in 1980. Although it was eventually defeated, it made it clear to the most intelligent factions of the Russian ruling class that they could never rely on the workers of eastern Europe (and probably not of the USSR itself, who had also begun to struggle against the effects of the crisis) to take part in a desperate military offensive against the west.

This inability to win the working class to its project of war was thus a central element in the break-up of the two imperialist blocs and the postponing of any prospect of a classic Third World War.

If the working class, even when it has not yet become conscious of a real historical project of its own, can have such an important weight in the world situation, surely this must also be taken into account when we consider the reasons why the tide of war  has not yet broken over the central countries of capitalism? And we must also consider the question from the other side of the coin: if there is so much barbarity and irrational destruction sweeping through Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, is this not because the working class there is weak, because it has little tradition of struggle and independent class politics, because it is dominated by nationalism, by religious fundamentalism – and also by illusions that achieving “democracy” would be a step forward?

We can understand this better by looking at the fate of the revolts which swept the Arab world (and Israel…) in 2011. In the movements which, even though involving different layers of the population, had the strongest imprint of the working class – Tunisia, Egypt and Israel – there were important gains in the struggle: tendencies toward self-organisation in street assemblies, towards breaking out of religious, ethnic and national divisions. It was these elements which were to inspire struggles in Europe and the US that same year, above all the Indignados movement in Spain. But the weight of ruling class ideology in the form of nationalism, religion, and illusions in bourgeois democracy was still very strong in all three of these revolts in the Middle East and North Africa, driving them into false solutions, as in Egypt where, following the fall of Mubarak, a repressive Islamist government was replaced by an even more repressive military one. In Libya and Syria, where the working class is much weaker and had little influence on the initial revolts, the situation rapidly degenerated into multi-sided military conflicts, fuelled by regional and global powers who sought to advance their chosen pawns (as described here and here). In these countries society itself has disintegrated, demonstrating very graphically what can happen if a senile capitalism’s tendencies towards self-destruction are not held back. In such a situation, all hope of a proletarian answer to war has been lost, and this is why the only solution for so many has been to try to get out, to flee the war zones at whatever risk.

The necessity for a revolutionary perspective

In period between 1968 and 1989, class struggle was a barrier to world war. But today the threat of war takes a different and more insidious form. To dragoon the working class into two great organised blocs, the ruling class would have needed  both to break all resistance at the economic level and to pull the majority of the working class behind ideological themes justifying a new world conflict. In short it would have required the physical and ideological defeat of the working class, similar to what capitalism achieved in the 1930s.  Today, however, in the absence of blocs, the spread of war can take the form of a gradual, if accelerating, slide into a myriad of local and regional conflicts which draw in more and more local, regional and, behind them, global powers, ravaging more and more parts of the planet and  which - combined with the creeping destruction of the natural environment and of the very fabric of social life – could signify an irreversible descent into barbarism, eliminating once and for all the possibility of taking human society onto a higher level.

This process, which we describe as the decomposition of capitalism, is already far advanced in places like Libya and Syria. To prevent this level of barbarism spreading to the centres of capitalism, the working class needs more than just a passive strength – and more than just economic resistance. It needs a positive political perspective. It needs to affirm the necessity for a new society for the authentic communism advocated by Marx and all the revolutionaries who followed in his wake. 

Today there seems little sign of such a perspective emerging. The working class has been through a long and difficult experience since the end of the 1980s: intensive campaigns by the bourgeoisie about the death of communism and the end of the class struggle have been directed against any idea that the working class can have its own project for the transformation of society. At the same time the remorseless advance of decomposition gnaws away at the entrails of the class, undermining confidence in the future, engendering despair, nihilism, and all kinds of desperate reactions, from drug addiction to religious fundamentalism and xenophobia. The loss of illusions in the traditional ‘workers’ parties, in the absence of any clear alternative, has intensified the flight away from politics or has given an impetus to new populist parties of left and right. Despite a certain revival of struggles between 2003 and 2013, the retreat in class struggle and class consciousness, which was palpable in the 90s, now seems to be even more entrenched.

And these are not the only difficulties facing the working class. Today the proletariat, in contrast to 1916, confronts not a situation of world war where every form of resistance is obliged to take on a political character from the start, but with a slowly deepening economic crisis managed by a very sophisticated bourgeoisie which has up till now succeeded in sparing the workers in the centres of the system from the worst effects of the crisis and above all from any large-scale involvement in military conflict. Indeed when it comes to military intervention in the peripheral regions, the ruling class in the centres has been very prudent, using only professional forces and even then preferring air strikes and drones to minimise the loss of soldiers’ lives which can lead to dissent in the army and at home. 

Another important difference between 1916 and today: in 1916, tens of thousands of workers struck in solidarity with Liebknecht. He was known to workers because the proletariat, despite the betrayal of the opportunist wing of the workers’ movement in 1914, had not lost touch with all its political traditions. Today revolutionary organisations are a miniscule minority virtually unknown within the working class. This is yet another factor inhibiting the development of a revolutionary political perspective.

With all these factors seemingly stacked against the working class, does it still make sense to think that such a development is at all possible today?

We have described the present phase of decomposition as the final phase of capitalist decadence. In 1916, the system had only just entered its epoch of decline and the war had intervened well before capitalism had exhausted all its economic possibilities. Within the working class there were still profound illusions in the idea that if only the war could be brought to an end, it would be possible to return to the era of the fight for gradual reforms within the system – illusions that were played upon by the ruling class by ending the war and installing the social democratic party in a key country like Germany.

Today the decadence of capitalism is much more advanced and the lack of any future felt by so many is a real reflection of the impasse of the system. The bourgeoisie patently has no solution to the economic crisis that has dragged on for over four decades, no alternative to the slide into military barbarism and to the destruction of the environment. In short, the stakes are even higher than they were 100 years ago. The working class faces an immense challenge – the necessity to provide its own answers to the economic crisis, to war and the refugee problem, to provide a new vision of man’s relationship with nature. The proletariat needs more than just a series of struggles at the workplace – it needs to make a total critique of all aspects of capitalist society, both theoretically and practically.

No wonder that the working class, faced with the perspective offered by capitalism and the immense difficulty of finding its own alternative, falls back into despair. And yet we have seen glimpses of a movement that begins to look for this alternative, above all in the Indignados movement of 2011 which opened the door not only to the idea of a new form of social organisation – encapsulated in the slogan “all power to the assemblies” – but also to educating itself about the system it was calling into question and needs to replace.

No doubt the new generation of proletarians which led this revolt is still extremely inexperienced, lacks political formation, and does not even clearly see itself as working class. And yet the forms and methods of struggle that emerged in such movements – such as the assemblies – were often deeply rooted in the traditions of working class struggle. And even more importantly, the movement in 2011 saw the emergence of a genuine internationalism, expressing the fact that the working class of today is more global than it was in 1916; that it is part of an immense network of production, distribution and communication which links the whole planet; and that it shares many of the same fundamental problems in all countries in spite of the divisions that the exploiting class always tries to impose and manipulate. The Indignados were very conscious that they were carrying on from where the revolts in the Middle East left off, and some of them even saw themselves as part of a “world revolution” of all those who are excluded, exploited and oppressed by this society.

This embryonic internationalism is extremely important. In 1916-17 internationalism was something very concrete and immediate. It took the form of fraternisation between the soldiers of opposing armies, of mass desertions and mutinies, of strikes and anti-war demonstrations on the home front. These actions were the practical realisations of the theoretical slogans raised by the revolutionary minorities when the war broke out: “the main enemy is at home”, and “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”

Today internationalism often begins in more negative and seemingly abstract forms: in the critique of the bourgeois framework of the nation state to solve the problem of war, terrorism and the refugees; in the recognition of the necessity to go beyond competing nation states to overcome the economic and ecological crises. But, at certain moments, it can take on more practical forms: in the international links, both digital and physical, between participants in the revolts of 2011; in spontaneous acts of solidarity towards refugees by workers in the central countries, often in defiance of the bourgeoisie’s xenophobic propaganda. In some parts of the world, of course, direct struggle against war is a necessity, and where a significant working class exists, as in Ukraine, we have seen signs of resistance to conscription and protests against shortages caused by the war, although here again the lack of a coherent proletarian opposition to militarism and nationalism has seriously weakened resistance to the war drive.

For the working class in the central countries, direct implication in war is not on the immediate agenda and the question of war can still seem remote from everyday concerns. But as the “refugee crisis” and the terrorist attacks in these countries already show, war will more and more become an everyday concern for the workers in the heartlands of capital, who are best placed, on the one hand, to deepen their understanding of the underlying causes of war and its connection to the overall, historic crisis of capitalism; and on the other hand to strike at the belly of the beast, the central headquarters of the imperialist system.

Amos  16.1.16

[1]. For a more in-depth treatment of these events see International Review 133: ‘Germany 1918-19. Faced with the war, the revolutionary proletariat renews its internationalist principles’