1. In 1916, in the opening chapter of the Junius pamphlet, Rosa Luxemburg formulated the historical meaning of the First World War:
"Friedrich Engels once said: ‘Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.’ What does ‘regression into barbarism’ mean to our lofty European civilisation? Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilisation. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilisation as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration - a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilisation and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales".
2. Almost 90 years later, the report from the laboratory of social history confirms the clarity and precision of Luxemburg's diagnosis. Rosa argued that the conflict that began in 1914 had opened up a "period of unlimited wars" which, if permitted to go on unchecked, would lead to the destruction of civilisation. Only 20 years after the hoped-for rebellion of the proletariat had halted the war, but failed to put an end to capitalism, a second imperialist world war had far surpassed the first in the depth and extent of its barbarism, which now featured not only the industrialised extermination of men on the battlefields, but first and foremost the genocide of whole peoples, the wholesale massacre of civilians, whether in the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka or the firestorms that liquidated Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The record of the period 1914-45 alone is enough to confirm that capitalist society had irreversibly entered its epoch of decline, that it had become a fundamental barrier to the needs of humanity.
3. Contrary to the propaganda of the ruling class, the 60 years since 1945 have in no way invalidated this conclusion - as if capitalism could be in historic decline in one decade and miraculously snap out of it the next. Even before the second imperialist slaughter had ended, new military blocs began to jockey for control of the globe. The US even deliberately postponed the end of the war against Japan, not to spare the lives of its troops, but to make a spectacular display of its awesome military might by obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki - a display aimed first and foremost not at defeated Japan but at the new Russian enemy. But within a short lapse of time, both of the new blocs had equipped themselves with weapons capable not only of destroying civilisation, but of annihilating all life on the planet. For the next five decades, humanity lived under the shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction. In the world's “underdeveloped” regions, millions went hungry but the war machine of the great imperialist powers was fed with all the resources of human labour and ingenuity its insatiable maws demanded; millions more died in the “wars of national liberation” through which the superpowers conducted their murderous rivalries in Korea, Vietnam, the Indian sub-continent, Africa and the Middle East.
4. MAD was the principal reason advanced by the bourgeoisie for the fact that the world was spared a third and probably final imperialist holocaust: thus, we should learn to love the bomb. In reality, a third world war was staved off:
in an initial period, because it was necessary for the newly formed imperialist blocs to organise themselves and to introduce new ideological themes to mobilise the populations against a new enemy. Furthermore, the economic boom linked to the reconstruction of the countries destroyed by the second world war - a reconstruction financed by the Marshall Plan - allowed for a certain calming of imperialist tensions;
in a second period, because when the boom brought about by the process of reconstruction came to an end in the late 1960s, capitalism no longer faced a defeated proletariat as it had done in the crisis of the 1930s, but a new generation of workers fully prepared to defend their own class interests against the demands of their exploiters. In the period of decadent capitalism, world war requires a total and active mobilisation of the proletariat: the international waves of workers' struggles that began with the general strike in France in May 1968 showed that the conditions for such a mobilisation were lacking throughout the 70s and 80s.
5. The final outcome of the long rivalry between the US and Russian blocs was thus not world war but the collapse of the latter. Unable to compete economically with the far more advanced US power, incapable of reforming its rigid political institutions, militarily encircled by its rival, and - as the mass strikes in Poland in 1980 demonstrated - unable to pull the proletariat behind its war-drive, the Russian imperialist bloc imploded in 1989. This Triumph of the West was immediately hailed as the dawn of a new period of world peace and prosperity; no less immediately, global imperialist conflicts merely took on a new form as the unity of the western bloc gave way to fierce rivalries between its former components, and a reunified Germany posed its candidature as a major world power to rival the US. In this new phase of imperialist conflicts, however, world war was even lower down the agenda of history because:
the formation of new military blocs has been retarded by the internal divisions between the powers that would be the logical members of a new bloc facing the USA, in particular, between the most important European powers, Germany, France and Britain. Britain has not abandoned its traditional policy of working to ensure that no major power asserts its domination over Europe, while France has very strong historical reasons for putting limits on any possible subordination to Germany. With the break-down of the old two-bloc discipline, the prevailing trend in international relations is therefore towards “every man for himself”;
the overwhelming military superiority of the USA, especially compared to Germany, makes it impossible for America's rivals to square up to it directly;
the proletariat remains undefeated. Although the period that opened up with the collapse of the eastern bloc has thrown the proletariat into considerable disarray (in particular, the campaigns about the “death of communism” and the “end of the class struggle”), the working class of the major capitalist powers is still not ready to sacrifice itself for a new world carnage.
As a result, the principal military conflicts of the period since 1989 have largely taken the form of “deflected” wars. The dominant characteristic of these wars is that the leading world power has tried to stem the growing challenge to its global authority by engaging in spectacular displays of force against fourth-rate powers; this was the case with the first Gulf war in 1991, the bombing of Serbia in 1999, and the “wars against terrorism” in Afghanistan and Iraq which followed the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. At the same time, these wars have more and more revealed a precise global strategy on the part of the USA: to achieve total domination of the Middle East and Central Asia, and thus to militarily encircle all its major rivals (Europe and Russia), depriving them of naval outlets and making it possible to shut off their energy supplies.
Alongside this grand design - sometimes subordinated to it, sometimes obstructing it - the post-1989 world has also seen an explosion of local and regional conflicts which have spread death and destruction across whole continents. These conflicts have left millions dead, crippled and homeless in a whole series of African countries like the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, or Sierra Leone; and they now threaten to plunge a number of countries in the Middle East and Central Asia into a kind of permanent civil war. Within this process, the growing phenomenon of terrorism, often expressing the intrigues of bourgeois factions no longer controlled by any particular state regime, adds a further element of instability and has already brought these murderous conflicts back to the heartlands of capitalism (September 11, Madrid bombings…).
6. Thus, even if world war is not the concrete threat to mankind that it was for the greater part of the 20th century, the dilemma between socialism and barbarism remains just as urgent as ever. In some ways it is more urgent because while world war demands the active mobilisation of the working class, the latter now faces the danger that it will be progressively and insidiously swamped by a kind of creeping barbarism:
the proliferation of local and regional wars could devastate entire areas of the planet, thus rendering the proletariat of those regions incapable of making any further contribution to the class war. This applies very clearly to the extremely dangerous rivalry between the two nuclear powers on the Indian subcontinent; but is no less the case with the spiral of military adventures led by the USA. Despite their intention of creating a New World Order under the benevolent auspices of Uncle Sam, each one has added to an accumulating legacy of chaos and division, and the historic crisis of US leadership has only increased in depth and gravity. Iraq today provides clear proof of this, and yet without even making a show of rebuilding Iraq, the US is being driven towards new threats against Syria and Iran. This perspective is not invalidated by the recent attempts of US diplomacy to “build bridges” with Europe over Syria, Iran or Iraq. On the contrary, the current crisis in the Lebanon is clear evidence that the USA cannot delay in its efforts to attain complete mastery in the Middle East, an ambition which can only greatly accelerate imperialist tensions overall, since none of the USA’s major rivals can afford to allow the US free rein in this strategically vital zone. This perspective is also confirmed by the USA’s increasingly brazen intervention against Russian influence in the countries of the former USSR (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgystan), and by the serious disagreements which have arisen over the question of arms to China. At the very time that China is underlining its growing imperialist ambitions by shaking a mailed fist at Taiwan stoking up tensions with Japan, France and Germany have been at the forefront of trying to revoke the embargo on arms sales to China introduced after the massacre of Tien An Man Square;
the present period is marked by the philosophy of “every man for himself” not only at the level of imperialist rivalries, but also at the very heart of society. The acceleration of social atomisation and all the ideological filth that arrives with it (gangsterisation, the flight into suicide, irrationality and despair) bears with it the threat of permanently undermining the capacity of the working class to recapture its class identity and thus its unique class perspective of a different world, based not on social disintegration but on real community and solidarity;
to the threat of imperialist war the maintenance of the capitalist mode of production so far past its sell-by date has uncovered a new menace, one equally capable of destroying the possibility of a new and human social formation: the increasing threat to the planetary environment. As successive scientific conferences warn of the mounting danger posed in particular by global warming, the bourgeoisie shows itself utterly incapable of taking even the minimum measures required to reduce greenhouse emissions. The south east Asian Tsunami exposed the unwillingness of the bourgeoisie to lift a finger to spare the human race from the devastating power of uncontrolled nature; the predicted consequences of global warming would be vastly more destructive and extensive. Furthermore, because the worst of these consequences still appear remote, it is extremely difficult for the majority of the proletariat to see them as a motive for struggling against the capitalist system today.
7. For all these reasons, marxists are justified not only in concluding that the perspective of socialism or barbarism is as valid today as it was in 1916, but also in saying that the spreading intensity of barbarism today could undermine the future bases of socialism. They are justified in concluding not only that capitalism has long been a historically obsolete social formation, but also that the period of decline that definitively began with the First World War has entered into its final phase, the phase of decomposition. This is not the decomposition of an organism that is already dead; capitalism is rotting, turning gangrenous on its feet. It is passing through a long and painful death agony, and in its dying convulsions it threatens to drag the whole of humanity down with it.
8. The capitalist class has no future to offer humanity. It has been condemned by history. And precisely for this reason it must strain all its resources to hide and deny this judgement, to pour scorn on the marxist prediction that capitalism, like previous modes of production, is doomed to become decadent and to disappear. It has thus secreted a succession of ideological antibodies, all aimed at refuting this fundamental conclusion of the historical materialist method:
even before the epoch of decline had definitively opened up, the revisionist wing of social democracy began to contest Marx's “catastrophist” vision and argue that capitalism could continue indefinitely, and that as a result socialism would come about not through revolutionary violence but through a process of peaceful democratic change;
in the 1920s, the staggering rates of industrial growth in the USA led a genius like Calvin Coolidge to proclaim the triumph of capitalism on the very eve of the great crash of ’29;
during the reconstruction period after World War Two, bourgeois leaders like Macmillan told the workers that "you've never had it so good", sociologists theorised about the "consumer society" and the "embourgoisement" of the working class, while radicals like Marcuse looked for "new vanguards" to replace the apathetic proletarians;
since 1989, we have had a real overproduction crisis of new theories aiming to explain how different it all is today and how everything Marx thought has been invalidated: the End of History, the Death of Communism, The Demise of the Working Class, Globalisation, the Microprocessor Revolution, the Internet Economy, the rise of new economic giants in the Far East, the latest being China and India. These ideas are so pervasive that they have deeply infected a whole new generation of those who are asking questions about the future capitalism has in store for the planet, and, even more alarmingly, have been picked up and wrapped in synthetic marxist theory by elements of the communist left itself.
In short, marxism has had to wage a permanent battle against all those who seize on the slightest sign of life in the capitalist system to argue that it has a bright future in front of it. But time and time again, after maintaining a long-term and historical vision against these capitulations to immediate appearance, it has been aided in its battle by the sharp blows of the historical movement:
the blithe “optimism” of the revisionists was shattered by the truly catastrophic events of 1914-1918, and by the revolutionary response of the working class that they provoked;
Calvin Coolidge and Co. were rudely interrupted by the most profound economic crisis in capitalism's history, which resulted in the unmitigated disaster of the second imperialist world war;
those who declared that economic crisis was a thing of the past were refuted by the reappearance of the crisis in the late 60s; and the international resurgence of workers’ struggles in response to this crisis made it difficult to maintain the fiction that the working class had fused with the bourgeoisie.
The current spate of theories about “New Capitalism”, “Post-Industrial Society” and the rest are similarly doomed. Already a number of key elements of this ideology have been exposed by the remorseless development of the crisis: the hopes put in the Tiger and Dragon economies were crushed by the sudden slide which hit these countries in 1997; the dot.com revolution proved to be a mirage almost as soon as it had been proclaimed; the “new industries” constructed around computing and communications have shown themselves to be no less vulnerable to recession than the “old industries” like steel and shipbuilding. And despite being pronounced dead on numerous occasions, the working class continues to raise its head, as for example in the movements in Austria and France in 2003, or the struggles in Spain, Britain and Germany in 2004.
9. It would nevertheless be a mistake to underestimate the power of these ideologies in the present period, because, like all mystifications, they are based on a series of partial truths, for example:
faced with the crisis of overproduction and the ruthless demands of competition, capitalism in the main centres of its system has in the last few decades created huge industrial wastelands and pushed millions of workers either into permanent unemployment or into unproductive, low paid jobs in the “service” sectors; for the same reason it has relocated huge amounts of industrial jobs to the low-wage areas of the “third world”. Many traditional sectors of the industrial working class have been decimated through this process, which has aggravated the difficulties of the proletariat to maintain its class identity;
the development of new technologies has made it possible to increase both rates of exploitation and the speed of circulation of capital and commodities on a world scale;
the reflux in the class struggle over the last two decades has made it hard for a new generation to see the working class as the unique agent of social change;
the capitalist class has shown a remarkable ability to “manage” the crisis of its system by manipulating and even deforming its own laws of operation.
Other examples could be given. But none of them put into question the fundamental senility of the capitalist system.
10. The decadence of capitalism has never meant a final and sudden collapse of the system, as certain elements of the German left argued in the 1920s, or a total halt in the productive forces, as Trotsky mistakenly thought in the 1930s. As Marx observed, the bourgeoisie becomes intelligent in times of crisis and it has learned from its mistakes. The 1920s were the last moment that the bourgeoisie really believed it could go back to the laissez-faire liberalism of the 19th century; this for the simple reason that the world war, while ultimately a product of the system's economic contradictions, had broken out before these contradictions could reach their full import at a “purely” economic level. The crisis of 1929 was thus the first global economic crisis of the decadent period. But having experienced it, the bourgeoisie recognised the need for fundamental change. Despite ideological pretensions to the contrary, no serious faction of the bourgeoisie would ever again question the necessity for the state to retain overall control over the economy; the need to abandon any notion of “balancing the books” in favour of deficit spending and financial trickery of all kinds; the necessity to maintain a huge arms sector at the centre of all economic activity. By the same token, capitalism has gone to considerable lengths to avoid the out and out economic autarky of the 1930s. Despite growing pressures towards commercial war and the break-down of international bodies inherited from the period of the blocs, the majority of these bodies have survived as the major capitalist powers have understood the necessity to put some limits on unrestrained economic competition between national capitals.
Thus capitalism has kept itself alive through the conscious intervention of the bourgeoisie, which can no longer afford to trust the invisible hand of the market. It is true that the solutions also become part of the problem - the recourse to debt clearly piles up enormous problems for the future, the bloating of the state and the arms sector generate tremendous inflationary pressures. These problems have since the 1970s given rise to different economic policies, to alternating emphases on “Keynsianism” or “neo-Liberalism”, but since neither policy can get to the real causes of the crisis, neither approach will ever achieve final victory. What is noteworthy is the bourgeoisie's determination to keep its economy going at all costs, its ability to hold off the inherent tendency towards collapse by maintaining a gigantic facade of economic activity fuelled by debt. Throughout the 1990s the US economy led the way in this regard; and now that even this artificial “growth” is beginning to falter, it is the turn of the Chinese bourgeoisie to surprise the world: considering the inability of the USSR and the Stalinist states of eastern Europe to politically adapt to the necessity for economic “reform”, the Chinese bureaucracy has pulled off an amazing feat merely by surviving, let alone by presiding over the current “boom”. Critics of the notion of capitalist decadence have even pointed to this phenomenon as proof that the system still has the capacity for real growth and development
In reality, the present Chinese “boom” in no way calls into question the overall decline in the world capitalist economy. In contrast to the ascendant period of capitalism:
China’s current industrial growth is not part of a global process of expansion; on the contrary, it has as its direct corollary the de-industrialisation and stagnation of the most advanced economies who have re-located to China in search of cheap labour costs;
the Chinese working class does not have the perspective of a steady rise in living standards, but is predicated upon increasingly savage attacks on living and working conditions and on the continued impoverishment of huge sectors of the proletariat and peasantry outside the main areas of growth;
China’s frenzied growth will contribute not to a global expansion of the world market but to a deepening of the world crisis of overproduction: given the restricted consumption of the Chinese masses, the bulk of China’s products are geared towards export to the more developed capitalisms;
the fundamental irrationality of China’s swelling economy is highlighted by the terrible levels of pollution which it has generated – a sure sign that the planetary environment can only be harmed by the pressure on each nation to exploit its natural resources to the absolute limit in order to compete on the world market;
like the system as a whole, the entirety of China’s growth is founded on debts that can never be reabsorbed through a real expansion of the world market.
Indeed, the fragility of all such spurts of growth is recognised by the ruling class itself, which is increasingly alarmed by the Chinese bubble. This is not because it is worried about the terrifying levels of exploitation upon which it is based - far from it, these ferocious levels are precisely what makes China such an attractive proposition for investment - but because the global economy is becoming too dependent on the Chinese market and the consequences of a Chinese collapse are becoming too horrible to contemplate, not just for China, which would be plunged back into the violent anarchy of the 1930s, but for the world economy as a whole.
11. Far from refuting the reality of decadence, capitalism's economic growth today confirms it. This growth has nothing in common with the cycles of accumulation in the 19th century, based on a real expansion into outlying fields of production, on the conquest of new extra-capitalist markets. It is true that the onset of decadence occurred well before the total exhaustion of such markets, and that capitalism has continued to make the best possible use of such remaining economic areas as an outlet for its production: the growth of Russia during the 1930s and the integration of the remaining peasant economies in Europe during the period of post-war reconstruction are examples of this. But the dominant trend by far in the epoch of decadence is the use of an artificial market, based on debt. It is now openly admitted that the frenzied “consumerism” of the past two decades has been based entirely on household debt of staggering proportions: a trillion pounds in Britain, 25% of the GNP in America, while governments not only encourage such indebtedness but practice the same policy on an even vaster scale.
12. There is another sense in which capitalist economic growth today is what Marx called “growth in decay” (Grundrisse): it is the principal factor in the destruction of the global environment. The runaway levels of pollution in China, the vast contribution made by the USA to the sum total of greenhouse gases, the frenzied exploitation of the remaining rainforests...the more capitalism is committed to growth the more it must admit that it has no solution whatever to the ecological crisis, which can only be solved by placing global production on a new basis, "a plan for living for the human species" (Bordiga) in harmony with its natural environment.
13. Whether in boom or “recession” the underlying reality is the same: capitalism can no longer spontaneously regenerate itself. There is no longer a natural cycle of accumulation. In the first phase of decadence from 1914-1968, the cycle of crisis-war-reconstruction replaced the old cycle of boom and bust; but the GCF were right in 1945 to argue that there was no automatic drive towards reconstruction after the ruin of the world war. In the final analysis, what convinced the US bourgeoisie to revive the European and Japanese economies with the Marshall Plan was the need to annex these zones to its imperialist sphere of influence and to prevent them falling into the hands of the rival bloc. Thus the greatest economic “boom” of the 20th century was fundamentally the result of inter-imperialist competition.
14. In decadence, economic contradictions drive capitalism towards war, but war does not resolve these contradictions. On the contrary, it deepens them. In any case the cycle of crisis war and reconstruction is over and the crisis today, unable to debauch on world war, is the prime factor in accelerating the decomposition of the system. It thus continues to push the system towards its own self-destruction.
15. The argument that capitalism is a decadent system has often been criticised on the grounds that it leads to fatalism - the idea of automatic collapse and spontaneous overthrow by the working class, thus removing any need for the intervention of a revolutionary party. In fact, the bourgeoisie has shown that it will not permit its system to collapse economically. Nevertheless, left to its own dynamic, capitalism will destroy itself through wars and other disasters. In this sense, it is indeed “fated” to disappear. But what is anything but fatal is the response of the proletariat. As Luxemburg put it in the same pages as the previously-cited passage on socialism or barbarism:
“Socialism is the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of mankind. For this reason, Friedrich Engels designated the final victory of the socialist proletariat a leap of humanity from the animal world into the realm of freedom. This ‘leap’ is also an iron law of history bound to the thousands of seeds of a prior torment-filled and all-too-slow development. But this can never be realised until the development of complex material conditions strikes the incendiary spark of conscious will in the great masses. The victory of socialism will not descend from heaven. It can only be won by a long chain of violent tests of strength between the old and the new powers. The international proletariat under the leadership of the Social Democrats will thereby learn to try to take its history into its own hands; instead of remaining a will-less football, it will take the tiller of social life and become the pilot to the goal of its own history”.
Communism is thus the first society in which mankind will have conscious mastery of its own productive powers. And since in the proletarian struggle there can be no separation between ends and means, the movement towards communism can only be “the self-conscious movement of the immense majority” (Communist Manifesto): the deepening and extension of class consciousness is the indispensable measure of progress towards the revolution and the ultimate supercession of capitalism. This process is necessarily an extremely difficult, uneven and heterogeneous one because it is the emanation of an exploited class which has no economic power in the old society and is constantly subjected to the ideological domination and manipulation of the ruling class. In no sense can it be guaranteed in advance: on the contrary, there exists the real possibility that the proletariat, faced with the unprecedented immensity of the task, will fail to live up to its historic responsibility, with all the terrible consequences for humanity that would flow from it.
16. The highest point hitherto reached by class consciousness was the October insurrection in 1917. This has been strenuously denied by bourgeois historiography and all its pale reflections in anarchism and related ideologies, for whom October was merely a putsch by the power-hungry Bolsheviks; but October represented a fundamental recognition within the proletariat that there was no way forward for mankind as a whole but to make the revolution in all countries. Nevertheless, this understanding did not grip the proletariat in sufficient depth and extent; the revolutionary wave failed because the workers of the world, and principally of Europe, were unable to develop the overall political understanding that would have enabled them to respond adequately to the tasks of the new epoch of wars and revolutions that opened in 1914. The result of this, by the end of the 1920s, was the longest and deepest retreat by the working class in its history: not so much at the level of combativity, since the 1930s and 40s were punctuated with major outbreaks of class militancy, but above all at the level of consciousness, since politically speaking the working class rallied actively to the anti-fascist programmes of the bourgeoisie, as in Spain 1936-39 or France in 1936, or to the defence of democracy and the Stalinist “fatherland” during the Second World War. This profound reflux in consciousness was reflected in the near-disappearance of revolutionary political minorities by the 1950s.
17. The historic resurgence of struggles in 1968 once again posed the long-term perspective of the proletarian revolution, but this was only explicit and conscious in a small minority of the class, as reflected in the rebirth of the revolutionary movement internationally. The waves of struggle between 1968 and 1989 did see important advances at the level of consciousness, but they tended to be at the level of the immediate combat (questions of extension, organisation, etc). Their weakest point was their lack of political depth, partly the reflection of the hostility to politics that was a result of the Stalinist counter-revolution. On the political level, the bourgeoisie was largely able to impose its own agendas, first by offering the prospect of change through installing the left in power (1970s) and by giving the left in opposition the task of sabotaging struggles from the inside (1980s). Although they were capable of preventing the development of a course towards war, the inability of the waves of struggle from 1968 to 1989 to take on a historic, political dimension determined the passage to the phase of decomposition, The historic event marking this passage – the collapse of the eastern bloc – was both the result of decomposition and a factor in its aggravation. Thus the dramatic changes at the end of the 80s were at the same time a product of the proletariat’s political difficulties; and, as they gave rise to the propaganda barrage about the end of communism and the class struggle, a key element in bringing about a serious retreat in class consciousness - to the point where the proletariat even lost sight of its basic class identity. Thus the bourgeoisie has been able to declare a final victory over the working class and the working class has so far not been able to respond with sufficient strength to refute this claim.
18. In spite of all its difficulties, the period of retreat has by no means seen the “end of the class struggle”. The 1990s was interspersed with a number of movements which showed that the proletariat still had untapped reserves of combativity (for example in 1992 and 1997). However, none of these movements represented a real shift at the level of consciousness. Hence the importance of the more recent movements which, though lacking the spectacular and overnight impact of a movement like that of 1968 in France, nevertheless constitute a turning point in the balance of class forces. The struggles of 2003-2005 have the following characteristics:
they have involved significant sectors of the working class in countries at the heart of world capitalism (as in France 2003);
they have been preoccupied with more explicitly political questions; in particular the question of pensions raised in the struggles in France and elsewhere poses the problem of the future that capitalist society holds in store for all of us;
they have seen the re-emergence of Germany as a focal point for workers’ struggles, for the first time since the revolutionary wave;
the question of class solidarity has been raised in a wider and more explicit way than at any time since the struggles of the 80s, most notably in the recent movements in Germany;
they have been accompanied by the emergence of a new generation of elements looking for political clarity. This new generation has manifested itself both in the new influx of overtly politicised elements and in the new layers of workers entering the struggle for the first time. As evidenced in certain important demonstrations, the basis is being forged for the unity between the new generation and the “generation of ‘68” – both the political minority which rebuilt the communist movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the wider strata of workers who have been through the rich experience of class struggles between ‘68 and ‘89.
19. The subterranean maturation of consciousness, denied by the empiricist distortion of marxism which sees only the surface of reality and not its deepest underlying tendencies, has not been obliterated by the general reflux in consciousness since ‘89. It is a characteristic of this process that it becomes manifest only in a minority, but the growth of this minority is the expression of the advance and development of a wider phenomenon within the class. Already after ‘89 we saw a small minority of politicised elements questioning the bourgeois campaigns about the “death of communism”. This minority has now been reinforced by a new generation preoccupied with the whole direction of bourgeois society. At the most general level this is the expression of the undefeated nature of the proletariat, of the maintenance of the historic course towards massive class confrontations which opened up in 1968. But at a more specific level the “turning point” of 2003 and the emergence of a new generation of searching elements are evidence that the proletariat is at the beginning of a second attempt to launch an assault on the capitalist system, following the failure of the attempt of 68-89. Although at the day-to-day level the proletariat is faced with the apparently basic task of reaffirming its class identity, behind this problem lies the prospect of a far closer intertwining of the immediate struggle with the political struggle. The questions posed by struggles in the phase of decomposition will more and more be around seemingly “abstract” but in fact more global issues like the necessity for class solidarity against the ambient atomisation, the attacks on the social wage, the omnipresence of war, the threat to the planetary environment – in short, the question of what future this society holds in store, and thus, the question of a different kind of society.
20. Within this process of politicisation, two elements, which up till now have tended to have an inhibiting effect on the class struggle, are destined to become increasingly important as stimuli to the movements of the future: the question of mass unemployment, and the question of war.
During the struggles of the 1980s when mass unemployment was becoming an increasingly obvious fact, neither the struggle of the employed workers against impending lay-offs, nor the resistance of the unemployed in the streets, reached significant levels. There was no movement of the unemployed on anything like the scale reached during the 1930s, even though the latter was a period of profound defeat for the working class. In the recessions of the 80s, the unemployed faced a terrible atomisation, especially the younger generation of proletarians who had never had any experience of collective labour and combat. Even when employed workers did launch wide-scale struggles against redundancies, as in the British mining industry, the negative outcome of these movements has been used by the ruling class to reinforce feelings of passivity and hopelessness, demonstrated recently by the response to the bankruptcy of Rover cars in Britain, where workers’ only “choice” is presented as being between one or other set of new bosses to keep the company running. Nevertheless, given the narrowing of the bourgeoisie’s margin of manoeuvre and its increasing inability to offer even the minimum of benefits to the unemployed, the question of unemployment is set to develop a far more subversive side, facilitating solidarity between employed and unemployed, and pushing the class as a whole to reflect more deeply and actively on the bankruptcy of the system.
The same dynamic can be observed with the question of war. In the early 90s, the first major wars of the phase of decomposition (Gulf, Balkans) tended to reinforce the feelings of powerlessness which had been induced by the campaigns around the collapse of the eastern bloc, while the pretext of “humanitarian intervention” in Africa and the Balkans could still have a semblance of credibility. Since 2001 and the “war on terrorism”, however, the mendacity and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie’s justification for war has become increasingly evident, even if the growth of huge pacifist movements has largely soaked up the political questioning this has provoked. Furthermore, the current wars are having a much more direct impact on the working class, even if this is still mainly limited to countries directly involved in these conflicts. In the USA, this has manifested itself through the number of families affected by death and injury to proletarians in uniform, but even more significantly by the awesome economic costs of military adventures, which have risen in direct proportion to cuts in the social wage. And as it becomes apparent that capitalism’s militarist tendencies are not only an ever-growing spiral, but one over which the ruling class has less and less control, the problem of war and its connection to the crisis is also going to lead to a far deeper and wider reflection about the stakes of history.
21. In a paradoxical sense, the immensity of these questions is one of the main reasons why the present revival of struggles seems so limited and unspectacular in comparison to the movements which marked the resurgence of the proletariat the end of the 1960s. Faced with vast problems like the world economic crisis, the destruction of the global environment, or the spiral of militarism, the daily defensive struggle can seem irrelevant and impotent. And in a sense this reflects a real understanding that there is no solution to the contradictions assailing capitalism today. But while in the 1970s the bourgeoisie had before it a whole panoply of mystifications about the possible ways of ensuring a better life, the present attempts of the bourgeoisie to pretend that we are living in an epoch of unprecedented growth and prosperity more and more resemble the desperate denials of a dying man unable to admit his impending demise. The decadence of capitalism is the epoch of social revolution because the struggles of the exploited can no longer lead to any real amelioration in their condition; and however difficult it may be to move from the defensive to the offensive levels of the struggle, the class will have no choice but to make this difficult and daunting leap. And like all such qualitative leaps, it is being preceded by all kinds of small preparatory steps, from strikes around bread and butter issues to the formation of tiny discussion groups all around the globe.
22. Faced with the perspective of the politicisation of the struggle, revolutionary political organisations have a unique and irreplaceable role. However, the conjunction of the growing effects of decomposition with long-standing theoretical and organisational weaknesses and opportunism in the majority of proletarian political organisations have exposed the incapacity of the majority of these groups to respond to the challenge posed by history. This is illustrated most clearly by the negative dynamic in which the IBRP has been caught up for some time: not only in its total inability to understand the significance of the new phase of decomposition, compounded by an abandonment of a key theoretical concept like that of the decadence of capitalism, but even more disastrously in its flouting of the basic norms of proletarian solidarity and behaviour, via its flirtation with parasitism and adventurism. This regression is all the more serious in that the premises are now being laid for the construction of the world communist party. At the same time, the fact that the groups of the proletarian milieu are more and more disqualifying themselves from the process which leads to the formation of the class party only highlights the crucial role which the ICC has been called upon to play within this process. It is increasingly clear that the party of the future will not be the result of the “democratic” addition of the different groups of the milieu, but that the ICC already constitutes the skeleton of the future party. But for the party to become flesh, the ICC must prove itself equal to the tasks imposed by the development of the class struggle and the emergence of the new generation of searching elements.