Decadence of capitalism (i): Revolution has been necessary and possible for a century

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In 1915, as the hideous reality of the European war became ever more apparent, Rosa Luxemburg wrote "The crisis of social democracy", a text better known as the "Junius pamphlet" from the pseudonym under which Luxemburg published it. The pamphlet was written in prison and was distributed illegally by the Internationale group which had been formed immediately after the outbreak of the war. It was a savage indictment of the positions adopted by the leadership of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. The day hostilities began, on 4 August 1914, the SPD had abandoned its internationalist principles and rallied to the "Fatherland in danger", calling for the suspension of the class struggle and for participation in the war. This was a shattering blow to the international socialist movement, because the SPD had been the pride and joy of the whole Second International; instead of acting as a beacon of international working class solidarity, its capitulation to the war effort was seized on as a justification for similar acts of betrayal in other countries. The result was the ignominious collapse of the International.

World War One: a turning point in history

The SPD had been formed as a marxist party in the 1870s, symbolising the growing influence of the current of "scientific socialism" within the workers' movement. In appearance, the SPD of 1914 retained its commitment to the letter of marxism even as it trampled on its spirit. Had not Marx, in his day, consistently warned against the threat posed by Tsarist absolutism, the main bulwark of reaction throughout Europe? Had not the First International been formed at a rally to support the struggle for Polish independence from the Tsarist yoke? Had not Engels, even while warning of the danger of war in Europe, still expressed the view that German socialists would have to adopt a "revolutionary defencist" position in the event of a Franco-Russian aggression against Germany? And now the SPD was calling for national unity at all costs in the face of the main danger facing Germany - the might of Tsarist despotism, whose victory, it said, would undo all the political and economic gains won by the working class through years of patient and tenacious struggle. It thus presented itself as the legitimate heir of Marx and Engels and their resolute defence of all that was progressive in European civilisation.

But in the words of Lenin, another revolutionary who had no hesitation in denouncing the shameful treason of the "Social-Chauvinists": "Whoever refers to Marx's attitude towards the wars of the epoch of the progressive bourgeoisie and forgets Marx's statement that ‘the workers have no fatherland', a statement that applies precisely to the epoch of reactionary, obsolete bourgeoisie, to the epoch of the socialist revolution, shamelessly distorts Marx and substitutes the bourgeois for the socialist point of view".[1] Luxemburg argued along exactly the same lines. The war was not the same kind of war that had been seen in Europe in the middle part of the previous century. Such wars had been short, limited in space and limited in their goals, and mainly fought between professional armies; and, what's more, for the greater part of the century since 1815 and the end of the Napoleonic wars, the continent of Europe had experienced an unprecedented era of peace, economic expansion, and steadily rising living standards. Furthermore, such wars, far from ruining their antagonists, had more often served to accelerate the overall process of capitalist expansion, by clearing away feudal obstacles to national unification and enabling new nation states to establish themselves as a framework suited to the development of capitalism (the French revolutionary wars and the wars fought around the issue of Italian unity being clear cases in point).

Such wars - national wars which could still play a progressive function for capital itself - were a thing of the past. In its murderous destructiveness - 10 million men perished on the battlegrounds of Europe, almost all of them in the confines of a bloody and futile stalemate, while millions of civilians also perished, largely as a result of the misery and famine imposed by the war; in its global implications as a war between world-spanning empires, and hence with its virtually unlimited goals of conquest and of utter defeat of the enemy; in its character as a "total" war which mobilised not only millions of conscripted proletarians at the fronts, but also the sweat and sacrifice of millions more workers in the industries at the rear, this was a war of a new type, dumbfounding all the predictions of the ruling class that "it would all be over by Christmas". The monstrous carnage of the war was of course greatly intensified by the vastly developed technological means at the disposal of the antagonists, and the fact that the latter had already far outpaced the tactics and strategies evolved in the traditional schools of war further increased the rate of slaughter. But the barbarity of the war expressed something far deeper than the simple technical development of the bourgeois system. It was an expression of a mode of production that had entered a fundamental and historical crisis, revealing the obsolescent nature of capitalist social relations and posing the human species with the stark alternative: socialist revolution or a relapse into barbarism. Hence one of the most oft-quoted passages from the Junius pamphlet:

"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 civilization? 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 civilization. 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 civilization 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 civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales. In this war imperialism has won. Its bloody sword of genocide has brutally tilted the scale toward the abyss of misery. The only compensation for all the misery and all the shame would be if we learn from the war how the proletariat can seize mastery of its own destiny and escape the role of the lackey to the ruling classes".

This epochal change had rendered obsolete Marx's arguments in favour of support for national independence (which, in any case, he had already declared to be a dead letter in the advanced countries of Europe after the Paris Commune). There could no longer be a question of looking for the most progressive national cause in this conflict, because national struggles had themselves lost all progressive function, had become mere instruments of imperialist conquest and of capitalism's career towards catastrophe:

"The national program could play a historic role only so long as it represented the ideological expression of a growing bourgeoisie, lusting for power, until it had fastened its class rule, in some way or other, upon the great nations of central Europe and had created within them the necessary tools and conditions of its growth. Since then, imperialism has buried the old bourgeois democratic program completely by substituting expansionist activity irrespective of national relationships for the original program of the bourgeoisie in all nations.  The national phase, to be sure, has been preserved, but its real content, its function, has been perverted into its very opposite. Today the nation is but a cloak that covers imperialistic desires, a battle cry for imperialistic rivalries, the last ideological measure with which the masses can be persuaded to play the role of cannon fodder in imperialistic wars".

Not only had the "national tactic" changed - everything else had also been profoundly altered by the war. There was no going back to the previous era in which social democracy had patiently and systematically struggled to establish itself, and the proletariat as a whole, as an organised force within bourgeois society:

"One thing is certain. The world war is a turning point. It is foolish and mad to imagine that we need only survive the war, like a rabbit waiting out the storm under a bush, in order to fall happily back into the old routine once it is over. The world war has altered the conditions of our struggle and, most of all, it has changed us. Not that the basic law of capitalist development, the life-and-death war between capital and labour, will experience any amelioration. But now, in the midst of the war, the masks are falling and the old familiar visages smirk at us. The tempo of development has received a mighty jolt from the eruption of the volcano of imperialism. The violence of the conflicts in the bosom of society, the enormousness of the tasks that tower up before the socialist proletariat - these make everything that has transpired in the history of the workers' movement seem a pleasant idyll".

These tasks were enormous because they demanded more than a stubborn defensive struggle against exploitation - they called for an offensive, revolutionary  struggle to do away with exploitation once and for all, to "establish in the social life of man a conscious thought, a definite plan, the free will of mankind". Rosa's. insistence on  the opening of a radically new epoch in the struggle of the working class was soon to become the commonly-agreed guideline of the international revolutionary movement which reconstituted itself from the ruins of social democracy and which, in 1919, founded the world party of the proletarian revolution - the Communist International. At its First Congress in Moscow, the CI famously proclaimed in its platform: "A new epoch is born! The epoch of the break-up of capitalism, of its internal collapse. The epoch of the communist revolution of the proletariat". And it likewise agreed with Rosa that if the proletarian revolution - which at that point was reaching its zenith throughout the globe, following the October insurrection in Russia and the revolutionary tide that was sweeping through Germany, Hungary and many other countries - was not able to overthrow capitalism, humanity would be plunged into another war, indeed into an epoch of unending war that would put the whole future of human culture into question.

Nearly 100 years later, capitalism is still here and, according to the official propaganda, it is the only possible form of social organisation. What has become of Luxemburg's dilemma between socialism and barbarism? Again, sticking to the ideological mainstream, socialism has been tried and found wanting in the 20th century. The bright hopes raised by the Russian revolution on 1917 have been dashed on the rocks of Stalinism and buried alongside the latter's corpse when the eastern bloc collapsed at the end of the 1980s. Not only has socialism turned out to be at best a utopia and at worse a nightmare; even the struggle of the working class, which the marxists said was its essential foundation, has disappeared in the amorphous fog of a "new" form of capitalism sustained not by an exploited producer class but by an infinite mass of consumers and an economy which is often more virtual than material. 

Or so we are told. No doubt Luxemburg, if she could return from the dead, would be somewhat surprised to find that capitalist civilisation still rules the planet; in another article we will look more closely at the ways in which the system has managed to keep itself alive despite all the difficulties it has endured this past century. But if we abandon the distorting spectacles of the dominant ideology and look with a minimum of seriousness at the course that century has taken, we will see that the prognosis offered by Luxemburg, together with the majority of revolutionary socialists at the time, has been validated. This epoch - in the absence of the victory of the proletarian revolution - has already been the most barbaric in human history and brings with it the threat of an even deeper descent into barbarism, whose ultimate consequence could be not only the "collapse of civilisation" but the extinction of human life on the planet. 

The epoch of wars and revolutions

In 1915, only a minority of socialists stood clearly against the war. Trotsky joked that the internationalists who gathered that year at Zimmerwald could all fit into one taxi. But Zimmerwald itself was a sign of something stirring in the ranks of the international working class. By 1916 disaffection with the war, both at the battlefronts and at the rear, was becoming increasingly overt, as exemplified by strikes in Germany and Britain and the workers' demonstrations in Germany that greeted the release from jail of Luxemburg's comrade Karl Liebknecht, whose name had become synonymous with the slogan "the main enemy is at home". In February 1917 revolution broke out in Russia, bringing an end to the reign of the Tsars; but far from being a Russian 1789, a new if belated bourgeois revolution, February merely paved the way to October: the seizure of power by the working class organised in soviets, and proclaiming that this insurrection was merely the first blow struck for the world revolution that would not only end the war but end capitalism itself.

The Russian revolution, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks insisted over and over again, would stand or fall with the world revolution. And at first, its call to arms seemed to have been answered: mutiny in the French army in 1917; revolution in Germany in 1918, sending the bourgeois governments of the world scurrying to conclude a hasty peace lest the spectre of Bolshevism spread any further; soviet republics in Bavaria and Hungary in 1919; general strikes in Seattle and Winnipeg, tanks to answer workers' unrest on the Clyde in the same year; occupation of the factories in Italy in 1920. This was a striking confirmation of the CI's notion that the new era was the era of wars and revolutions. Capitalism, by dragging humanity into the path of the military juggernaut, was also calling forth the necessity for the proletarian revolution.

But the consciousness reached by the most dynamic and far-sighted elements of the working class, the communists, rarely coincides with the levels reached within the class as a whole. The majority of the working class did not yet understand that there was no going back to the old era of peaceful and piecemeal reforms, They wanted above all an end to the war and although they had to force this demand on the bourgeoisie, the latter was able to profit from the idea that it would be possible to go back to the status quo ante bellum, albeit with a number of changes presented as gains by the workers: in Britain, "homes fit for heroes", votes for women, and Clause Four in the Labour programme, promising the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. In Germany, where revolution had already assumed material form, the promises were more radical, using terms like socialisation and workers' councils alongside the abdication of the Kaiser and the granting of a republic based on universal suffrage.

Almost universally, it was the social democrats, the German "labour party", those tried and trusted specialists of the struggle for reforms, who sold these illusions to the workers, illusions that enabled them to declare that they were on the side of the revolution even while calling on proto-fascist gangs to massacre the truly revolutionary workers of Berlin and Munich, along with Liebknecht and Luxemburg themselves; and at the same time, they supported the economic strangulation and military offensive against the Soviet power in Russia with the specious justification that the Bolsheviks had forced the hand of history by leading a revolution in a backward country where the working class was only a minority, thus offending the sacred principles of democracy.

In short, through a mixture of guile and brutal repression, the revolutionary wave was beaten back in a series of separate defeats. Cut off from the oxygen of world revolution, the revolution in Russia began to suffocate and devour itself, a process symbolised by the disaster of Kronstadt, where discontented workers and sailors demanding new soviet elections were crushed by the Bolshevik government. The "victor" thrown up by this process of internal degeneration was Stalin, and its first victim was the Bolshevik party itself, finally and irrevocably transformed into an instrument of a new state bourgeoisie which had abandoned all pretence of internationalism in favour of the fraudulent notion of "socialism in one country".

Capitalism thus survived the scare of the revolutionary wave, despite aftershocks like the general strike in Britain in 1926 and the Shanghai workers' uprising in 1927. It proclaimed its firm intention to go back to normal. During the war, the principles of profit and loss had been temporarily (and partially) suspended as virtually all production was geared towards the war effort, and the central state machine took direct control over whole sectors of the economy. In a report to the Third Congress of the Communist International, Trotsky noted how the war had introduced a new mode of functioning for the capitalist system, based essentially on state manipulation of the economy and the generation of vast mountains of debt, of fictitious capital:

"Capitalism as an economic system is, you know, full of contradictions. During the war years these contradictions have reached monstrous proportions. To obtain the resources required for war, the state resorted primarily to two measures: first, issuance of paper money; second, flotation of loans. Thus an ever-increasing amount of the so-called ‘valuable paper' (securities) entered into circulation, as the means whereby the state pumped real material values out of the country in order to destroy them in the war. The greater the sums expended by the state, i.e., the more real values it destroyed, the larger the amount of pseudo-wealth, of fictitious values accumulated in the country. State-loan paper has piled up mountain-high. Superficially it might seem that a country had grown extremely rich, but in reality the ground was being cut under the economic foundation, shaking it apart, bringing it to the verge of collapse. State debts have climbed to approximately 1,000 billion gold marks, which adds up to 62 percent of the present national wealth of the belligerent countries. Before the war, the world total of paper and credit money approximated 28 billion gold marks, today the amount is between 220 and 280 billion, i.e., ten times as much. And this, of course, does not include Russia, for we are discussing only the capitalist world. All this applies primarily, if not exclusively, to European countries, mainly continental Europe and particularly Central Europe. On the whole, as Europe kept growing poorer and poorer - as she has to this very day - she became and is still becoming encased in ever-thicker layers of paper values, or what is known as fictitious capital. This fictitious capital-paper currency, treasury notes, war bonds, bank notes, and so on - represent either mementos of deceased capital or expectations of capital yet to come. But at the present time they are in no way commensurate to genuine existing capital. However, they function as capital and as money and this tends to give an incredibly distorted picture of society and modern economy as a whole. The poorer this economy becomes, all the richer is the image reflected by this mirror of fictitious capital. At the same time, the creation of this fictitious capital signifies, as we shall see, that the classes share in different ways in the distribution of the gradually constricting national income and wealth. National income, too, has become constricted, but not to the same extent as the national wealth. The explanation for this is quite simple: The candle of capitalist economy was being burned at both ends".

Such methods were a sign that capitalism could only operate through flouting its own laws. The new methods were described as "war socialism", but in fact they were a means for preserving the capitalist system in an era when it had become obsolete, and were thus a desperate rampart against socialism, against the rise of a higher mode of social production. But while "war socialism" was seen as essential for winning the war, it was effectively dismantled afterwards.

The post war period confirmed another fundamentally new characteristic of the imperialist war. Whereas the wars of the 19th century had usually "made sense" economically, resulting in an important surge of development for the winning side, the gigantic material costs of the world war led to the decline and in some cases even the economic ruin of both victors and vanquished. A fitful period of reconstruction began in war-ravaged Europe in the early 20s, but the economies of the Old World remained sluggish: the spectacular rates of growth that had been achieved by the first capitalist countries in the period before the war were not seen again. Unemployment became a permanent fixture in countries like Britain, while Germany's economy, bled white by vicious reparations, broke all previous records for inflation, and was kept afloat almost entirely by credit.

The main exception was America, which had flourished during the war by acting as what Trotsky in the same report termed Europe's quartermaster. It now definitively emerged as the world's most powerful economy and flourished precisely because its rivals had been laid low by the gigantic cost of the war, the post-war social turmoil, and the effective disappearance of the Russian market. For America above all this was the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties: the images of the Flapper and the Model T mass produced in Henry Ford's factories reflected the reality of dizzying rates of growth. Having reached the end of its internal expansion, and greatly benefiting from the stagnation of the old European powers, American capital and commodities now began to invade the globe, sweeping both into Europe and into the underdeveloped and often still pre-capitalist regions. From being a net debtor in the 19th century, the US became the world's leading creditor - it was mainly American loans which kept Germany afloat during the 1920s. Although US agriculture was to a great extent left behind by the boom, there was a discernable rise in the consuming power of the urban and proletarian population. All this was apparently the proof that you could go back to the world of laisser-faire capitalism which had brought such extraordinary expansion in the 19th century. The re-assuring philosophy of Calvin Coolidge had triumphed. Thus the president addressed Congress in December 1928:

"No Congress of the United States ever assembled, on surveying the state of the Union, has met with a more pleasing prospect than that which appears at the present time. In the domestic field there is tranquillity and contentment, harmonious relations between management and wage earner, freedom from industrial strife, and the highest record of years of prosperity. In the foreign field there is peace, the good will which comes from mutual understanding, and the knowledge that the problems which a short time ago appeared so ominous are yielding to the touch of manifest friendship. The great wealth created by our enterprise and industry, and saved by our economy, has had the widest distribution among our own people, and has gone out in a steady stream to serve the charity and the business of the world. The requirements of existence have passed beyond the standard of necessity into the region of luxury. Enlarging production is consumed by an increasing demand at home, and an expanding commerce abroad. The country can regard the present with satisfaction and anticipate the future with optimism".

Famous last words! In 1929 came the crash. The feverish growth of the US economy came up against the inherent limits of the market, and many of those who had believed in unlimited growth, in capitalism creating its own markets forever, and had invested their savings on the basis of this mythology, were now jumping from high buildings. Furthermore, this was not a crisis the like of which had punctuated the 19th century, crises so regular during the first half of that century that it was possible to talk about a "decennial cycle". In those days, after a brief period of slump, new markets were found across the world, and a new and even more vigorous phase of growth set in; furthermore in the period from the 1870s to 1914, characterised by an accelerated imperialist thrust to conquer the remaining non-capitalist regions, the crises that struck the centres of the system were far less violent than they had been in capitalism's youth, despite the talk of a "Long Depression" between the 70s and the 90s, which to some extent reflected the beginning of the end of Britain's world economic supremacy .   

But in any case there was no comparison whatever between the commercial problems of the 19th century and the world slump that set in during the 1930s. It was on a qualitatively different level: something fundamental in the conditions of capitalist accumulation had changed. The depression was world wide - from its nub in the USA it then hit Germany, which had become almost totally dependent on the US, and the rest of Europe. The crisis was equally devastating in the colonial or semi-dependent regions, which had been largely compelled by their major imperialist "owners" to produce primary products needed in the metropoles. The sudden plunge in world prices spelt ruin for the majority of these regions.

A measure of the scale of this crisis can be seen in the fact that while world production had declined by around 10% as a result of the First World War, it fell by no less than 36.2% as a result of the Crash.[2] In the US, which had greatly benefited from the war, the fall in industrial production was as much as 53.8%. Estimates for the resulting unemployment figures vary but Sternberg's source puts it at 40 million in the main capitalist countries. The fall in world trade was equally catastrophic, dropping to as much as a third of its pre-1929 levels. But the most important difference of all between the slump of the 1930s and the crises of the 19th century was that there was no longer any "automatic" process leading to a new cycle of growth and expansion towards what remained of the non-capitalist areas of the globe. The bourgeoisie soon realised that the "hidden hand" of the market would not be picking up the economy from the floor in the near future. It thus had to jettison the naïve liberalism of Coolidge and his successor Hoover and recognise that from now on the state had to intervene despotically in the economy to preserve the capitalist system. This recognition was theorised above all by Keynes, who understood that the state had to prop up failing industries and generate an artificial market to make up for the inability of the system to develop new ones: this was the meaning of the massive "public works" undertaken in Roosevelt's New Deal, the support given to the new CIO trade unions in order to facilitate the boosting of consumer demand, and so on. In France the new policies took the form of the Popular Front. In Germany and Italy, they appeared as fascism and in Russia as Stalinism. The underlying meaning was the same. The new epoch of capitalism was the epoch of state capitalism.

But state capitalism does not exist in each country in isolation from the rest. On the contrary, it is determined to a large extent by the necessity to centralise and defend the national economy as a whole against other competing nations. In the 30s, this had an economic side - protectionism was seen as a means of defending your own industries and markets from the encroachments of other country's industries and markets; but it had a much more significant military side because economic competition was aggravating a slide towards another world war. State capitalism is in essence a war economy. Fascism, which boasted loudly about the benefits of war, was the most overt expressions of this tendency. Under the Hitler regime, German capital responded to its dire economic situation by embarking on a frenzied course of rearmament. This had the "benefit" of rapidly reabsorbing unemployment, but this was not the aim of the war economy in itself; rather it was to prepare for a new violent division of markets. Similarly, the Stalinist regime in Russia, with its ruthless subordination of proletarian living standards to the development of heavy industry, was also geared towards making Russia a world military power to be reckoned with, and as with Nazi Germany and militarist Japan (which had already embarked on a campaign of armed conquest through its invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the rest of China in 1937), the "success" of these regimes in resisting the effect of the slump was directly linked to their willingness to subordinate all production to the needs of war. But the development of a war economy was also the real secret of the massive programme of public works in the countries of the New Deal and Popular Front, even when these countries were much slower to directly re-adapt their factories towards the massive production of weapons and war-materiel.

Victor Serge once described the period of the 30s as "midnight in the century".  No less than the 1914-18 war, the economic crisis of 1929 had confirmed the senility of the capitalist mode of production. Here, on a scale far greater than anything seen in the 19th century, we had that "epidemic which in all previous epochs would have seemed absurd - the epidemic of overproduction".[3] Millions went hungry and were thrown into enforced idleness in the most industrialised nations of the world not because the factories and fields could not produce enough, but because they were producing "too much" for the market to absorb. It was a new confirmation of the necessity for the socialist revolution.

But the proletariat's first attempt at carrying out the verdict of history had been definitively defeated by the late 20s and everywhere the counter-revolution was triumphant. It plunged the most terrifying depths precisely in those countries where the revolution had risen the highest. In Russia it took the form of the labour camps and mass executions; the deportation of entire populations, the deliberate starvation of millions of peasants; Stakhanovite super-exploitation in the factories. At the level of culture it took the form of the repudiation of all the social and artistic experimentation of the revolution's early years and the return to the most philistine bourgeois habits and officially imposed Socialist Realist "taste".

In Germany and Italy the proletariat had been closer to revolution than in any other western European countries, and the consequence of their defeat was the imposition of a brutal police regime. Fascism was a vast bureaucracy of informers, the savage persecution of dissidents and social and ethnic minorities, most classically of the Jews in Germany. The Nazi regime trampled on hundreds of years of culture and wallowed in occultist and pseudo-scientific theories about the civilising mission of the Aryan race, burning books containing un-German ideas and exalting the virtues of blood, soil and conquest. Trotsky saw the destruction of culture in Nazi Germany as a particularly eloquent proof of the decadence of bourgeois culture:

"Fascism has opened up the depth of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man's genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing up from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the psychology of National Socialism" ("What is National Socialism?", 1933).

But precisely because fascism was a concentrated expression of the decline of capitalism as a system, it was a pure mystification to think that it could be fought without fighting capitalism as a whole, as the various brands of "anti-fascism" argued. This was demonstrated very clearly in Spain in 1936: the workers of Barcelona responded to the initial coup d'Etat led by the rightist general Franco with their own methods of class struggle - general strike, fraternisation with the troops, arming of the workers - and paralysed the fascist offensive in the space of days. The moment they handed their struggle over to the democratic bourgeoisie incarnated in the Popular Front, they were lost, dragged into an inter-imperialist contest which proved to be the general rehearsal for an even greater massacre. As the Italian left soberly concluded, the war in Spain was a terrible confirmation of its prognosis that the world proletariat had been defeated; and since the proletariat was the only obstacle to capitalism's drive to war, the course was now open to a new world war.

A new stage of barbarism

Picasso's painting of Guernica is rightly celebrated as a ground-breaking depiction of the horrors of modern war. The indiscriminate bombing of the civilian population of this Spanish town by German planes supporting Franco's armies still had the power to shock because it was a relatively new phenomenon. Aerial bombing of civilian targets during the First World War had been minimal and largely ineffective. The vast majority of those killed during that war were soldiers on the battlefronts. The second world war showed that capitalism in decline was increasing in its capacity for barbarism because this time the majority of those killed were civilians: "The total estimated human loss of life caused by World War II, irrespective of political alignment, was roughly 72 million people. The civilian toll was around 47 million, including about 20 million due to war related famine and disease. The military toll was about 25 million, including about 5 million prisoners of war".[4] The most terrifying and concentrated expression of this horror was the industrialised murder of millions of Jews and other minorities by the Nazi regime, shot in batch after batch in the ghettos and forests of eastern Europe, starved and worked to death as slave labourers, gassed in hundreds of thousands at Auschwitz, Belsen or Treblinka. But the civilian death tolls from the bombing of the cities by both sides were proof that this Holocaust, this systematic murder of the innocent, was a generalised feature of this war. Indeed at this level the democracies certainly outdid the fascist powers, as the "carpet bombing" and "firebombing" of German and Japanese cities made the German Blitz seem amateurish in comparison. The symbolic culminating point in this new method of mass slaughter was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but in terms of civilian deaths, the "conventional" bombing of cities like Tokyo, Hamburg and Dresden were even more deadly. 

The dropping of the atomic bomb by the US opened up a new era in two ways. First, it confirmed that capitalism had become a system of permanent war. Because if the atomic bomb signalled the final collapse of the Axis powers, it also opened up a new war front. The real target of Hiroshima was not Japan, already on its knees and suing for peace terms, but the USSR. It was a warning to the latter to moderate its imperialist ambitions in the Far East and Europe. Indeed, "the US joint chiefs of staff produced a plan to atom-bomb the twenty chief Soviet cities within ten weeks of the end of the war".[5] In other words the use of the atomic bomb ended the Second World War only to draw the battle lines for the third. And it also brought a new and frightful significance to Luxemburg's warning about the "inevitable consequences" of the period of unlimited wars. The atomic bomb demonstrated that the capitalist system now had the capacity to end human life on earth.

The years 1914-1945 - which Hobsbawm describes as "the Age of Catastrophe" - thus provide clear confirmation of the diagnosis that capitalism had become a decadent social system, just like ancient Rome or feudalism before it. The revolutionaries who had survived the persecution and demoralisation of the 30s and 40s, and who had stood up for internationalist principles against both imperialist camps before and during the war, were few in number; but for most of them this was a given. Two world wars and the immediate threat of a third, and a world economic crisis of unprecedented scale had seemed to confirm it once and for all.

In the ensuing decades, however, doubts began to creep in. Certainly the survival of capitalism meant that mankind now lived under the permanent threat of annihilation. Throughout the next 40 years, even if the two new imperialist blocs did not pull mankind into another world war, they remained in a state of unending conflict and hostility, fighting a series of proxy wars in the Far East, Middle East and Africa; and, on several occasions, especially during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, they brought the planet close to the brink of catastrophe.  It has been officially estimated that up to 20 million people were killed during these wars and some estimates put it much higher.

These wars ravaged the underdeveloped parts of the world, and throughout the post war period these regions faced dire problems of poverty and malnutrition. However, in the main capitalist countries, there was a spectacular boom, which in retrospect bourgeois experts have named the "thirty glorious years". Growth rates matching or even surpassing those seen during the 19th century, steady rises in wages, the institution of welfare and health services under the benevolent guidance of the state.... By the 1960s in Britain, the working class was being told by British PM Harold Macmillan that "you've never had it so good", and among the sociologists, new theories flourished about capitalism transmuting into a "consumer society" which had "embourgeoisified" the working class with a never ending conveyor belt of televisions, washing machines, cars and package holidays. For many, including some in the revolutionary movement, this period invalidated the notion that capitalism had entered its decadent phase and proved its capacity for almost unlimited growth. "Radical" theorists like Marcuse began to look elsewhere than the working class for a subject of revolutionary change - to the peasants of the third world or the rebellious students of the capitalist centres.

A society in decomposition

We will return to a closer examination of the real bases for the post-war boom, in particular, looking at the means that capitalism in decline has adopted to stave off the immediate consequences of its contradictions. However, those who declared that capitalism had finally abolished these contradictions were to be revealed as superficial empiricists by the end of the 1960s, when the first symptoms of a new economic crisis appeared in the main western countries. By the mid 70s, the illness was explicit: inflation began to ravage the main economies, prompting a flight away from the Keynesian methods of using the state power to directly shore up the economy that had worked so well during the previous decades. The 80s were thus the decade of Thatcherism and Reaganism - which basically meant letting the crisis find its real level and allowing the sicker industries to go to the wall. Inflation was cured by recession. Since then we have been through a series of mini-booms and mini-recessions, and ideologically Thatcherism lives on in the project of neo-liberalism and privatisations, but behind all the rhetoric about a return to Victorian economic values of free enterprise, the role of the capitalist state remains as crucial as ever, manipulating economic growth through all kinds of financial manoeuvres, all which are predicated on a growing mountain of debt, symbolised above all by the fact that the USA, whose rise to global ascendancy was marked by the transition from being a debtor to a creditor nation, now staggers under a debt of over $36 trillion.[6] "This mountain of debts which are accumulating not only in Japan but also in the other developed countries constitutes a real powder keg that could have major destabilising effects in the long term. Thus, a rough estimate of the world debt for the entirety of economic agencies (states, companies, households and banks) oscillates between 200% and 300% of world production. Concretely, that signifies two things. On the one hand, that the system has advanced the monetary equivalent of two to three times the value of world production in order to mitigate its crisis of overproduction; and on the other hand, that it would be necessary to work two to three years for nothing to repay this debt. While such massive debt can still be borne by the more developed economies, it is by contrast about to strangle the "emerging" countries one by one. This phenomenal debt on a world level is historically without precedent and shows what a dead-end the capitalist system has reached - but also reveals its capacity to manipulate the law of value in order to ensure its survival."[7]

And while the bourgeoisie asks us to place our confidence in all kinds of snake-oil remedies such as the information economy and various "technological revolutions", the dependence of the entire world economy on debt is building up underground pressures that are bound to have volcanic consequences in the future. Occasionally we get a glimpse: the sudden stalling of the eastern Tigers and Dragons in 97 was perhaps the most significant. Again, we are at this moment told that the spectacular growth rates being experienced in India and China are the way of the future. But in the next breath they can hardly conceal their fears that all this will end badly. China's growth, after all, is based on cheap imports to the west, and the west's capacity to consume them is based on massive debt.... so what happens when the debts are called in? And underneath the debt-fuelled growth of the last two or more decades the fragility of the whole enterprise is revealed by some of its more evidently negative features: the virtual deindustrialisation of whole swaths of the western economy, creating a multitude of unproductive, and very often precarious jobs, increasingly linked to the most parasitic areas of the economy; the growing poverty gap, not only between the central capitalist countries and the world's poorest regions, but also within the most advanced economies; the evident inability to really absorb mass, permanent unemployment, whose real scale is hidden by a very large box of tricks (training schemes that lead nowhere, constant reclassifying of the meaning of unemployment, etc).

Thus on the economic level capitalism has by no means overcome its tendency towards catastrophe. The same remains true at the imperialist level. When the eastern bloc suddenly collapsed at the end of the 80s, dramatically ending four decades of "Cold War", the US president George Bush Senior famously announced the beginning of a New World Order of peace and prosperity. But because decadent capitalism is permanent war, imperialist conflicts can change their line-up but they do not go away. We saw that in 1945 and we have seen it since 1991. Instead of the relatively "disciplined" conflict between the two blocs, we have a much more chaotic war of each against all, with the sole remaining super-power, the US, more and more resorting to military action to try to impose its declining authority. And yet each display of its undoubted military superiority has only succeeded in accelerating opposition to its hegemony. We saw this after the first Gulf war in 91: although it temporarily compelled its former allies Germany and France to support its crusade against Saddam, within a couple of years it became evident that the old discipline of the western bloc had disappeared forever: in the Balkans wars first Germany (through its support for Croatia and Slovenia) then France (through its continued support for Serbia while the US switched its support to Bosnia) found themselves effectively fighting a proxy war against the US. Even America's "lieutenant", the UK, was also on the opposite side on this occasion, backing Serbia until it was able to forestall the US bombing offensive no longer. The recent "war against terror" - prepared by the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11 2001 by a suicide commando that had very likely been manipulated by the US state, another striking expression of the barbarism of today - has further exacerbated these divergences, with France, Germany and Russia forming a coalition of the unwilling to oppose the US invasion in Iraq. And the consequences of the 2003 invasion have been even more disastrous. Far from consolidating US control over the Middle East and thus securing the USA "Full Spectrum Dominance" as dreamed about by the Neo-Conservatives in and around the Bush administration, the invasion has plunged the entire region into chaos, with instability growing in Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile the imperialist equilibrium has been further undermined by the emergence of India and Pakistan as nuclear powers, possibly soon to be joined by Iran, which in any case has vastly increased its imperialist ambitions following the downfall of its great rival Iraq; by the increasingly hostile stance assumed by Putin's Russia towards the west; by the growing weight of Chinese imperialism in world affairs; by the proliferation of "failed states" and "rogue states" in the Middle East, the Far East and Africa; by the spread of Islamic terrorism on a world scale, sometimes at the service of this or that imperialist power, but often acting as an unpredictable power in its own right... The world is thus not a less dangerous place since the end of the Cold War, but a more dangerous one. 

And if throughout the 20th century we have been increasingly aware of the dangers posed to human civilisation by economic crisis and imperialist war, it is only in the last few decades that we have really become conscious of a third dimension of the disaster that capitalism has in store for mankind: the ecological crisis. This mode of production, spurred on by increasingly feverish competition for every last market opportunity, must continue to spread into every corner of the globe, to plunder the resources of the entire planet at whatever cost. But this frenzied "growth" is more and more and more revealed as a cancer on the body of the planet Earth. In the last two decades, the scale of this threat has gradually seeped into public awareness, because even if what we are seeing now is the culmination of a much longer process, the problem is beginning to move onto a much higher level. The pollution of the air, the rivers and the seas by industrial and transport emissions, the destruction of the rainforests and numerous other wild habitats, the extinction or threatened extinction of countless animal species, are reaching alarming levels, and are now coming together around the problem of climate change, which threatens to inundate human civilisation in a succession of floods, droughts, famines and plagues. And climate change itself could set off a self-expanding spiral of disaster, as recognised by, among others, the distinguished physicist Stephen Hawking. In an ABC News interview in August 2006, Hawking explained, "The danger is that global warming may become self-sustaining, if it has not done so already. The melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps reduces the fraction of solar energy reflected back into space, and so increases the temperature further. Climate change may kill off the Amazon and other rain forests, and so eliminate one of the main ways in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. The rise in sea temperature may trigger the release of large quantities of methane, trapped as hydrates on the ocean floor. Both these phenomena would increase the greenhouse effect, and so further global warming. We have to reverse global warming urgently, if we still can."

The threats of economic, military and ecological collapse are not separate either - they are intimately linked. Above all, it is evident that capitalist nations facing economic ruin and severe ecological pressures will not peacefully suffer their own disintegration, but will be pushed towards military solutions at the expense of other nations.

More than ever, the alternative between socialism or barbarism stands before us. And just as the first world war, in Luxemburg's words, was already barbarism, the danger facing humanity, and in particular its only source of salvation, the proletariat, is that it will be engulfed in the growing barbarism spreading across the planet before it can react and develop its own solution.

The ecological crisis poses this danger very clearly: the proletarian class struggle can hardly influence it until the working class has seized power and is in a position to reorganise production and consumption on a world scale. And yet the longer the revolution is delayed the greater the danger that the destruction of the environment will undermine the material basis for the communist transformation. But the same can be said for the social effects of the current phase of decadence. In the cities there is a growing tendency for the working class to lose its class identity, for a generation of young proletarians to fall victim to the mentality of the gang, to irrational ideologies and nihilistic despair. The consequence is again that it could become too late for the proletariat to reconstitute itself as a revolutionary social force.

And yet the proletariat must never forget its real potential. The bourgeoisie has certainly always been aware of it. In the period leading up to the First World War, the ruling class anxiously awaited the response of social democracy, knowing that it would have been impossible to dragoon the workers into the war without its active support. This ideological defeat denounced by Rosa was the precondition for unleashing the war; and the proletarian recovery after 1916 was what brought the war to an end. Inversely, it was the defeat and demoralisation after the retreat of the revolutionary wave which opened the course towards the Second World War, even though it took a long period of repression and ideological intoxication before the working class could be mobilised for this second round of slaughter. And the bourgeoisie was well aware of the need to take preventative action to snuff out the danger of a repetition of 1917 at the end of the war. This "class consciousness" was above all displayed by that "Greatest Ever Briton", Winston Churchill, who had learned well from his role of helping to smother threat of Bolshevism in 1917-20. Following the mass strikes of the workers of Northern Italy in 1943, it was Churchill who formulated the policy of letting the Italians "stew in their own juice", delaying the Allied advance from the south to allow the Nazis to crush the Italian workers; it was also Churchill who understood best the sinister meaning of the terror bombing of Germany in the last phase of the war: it was aimed at strangling any possibility of revolution in the place where the bourgeoisie feared it the most.

The world-wide defeat and counter-revolution lasted for four decades. But it did not mean the final end of the class struggle as some had begun to argue. With the reappearance of the crisis at the end of the 60s, a new generation of proletarians struggling for their own demands made its inconvenient appearance: the "events" of May 68 in France, officially remembered as a "student uprising", were only able to bring the French state to edge of the abyss because the revolt in the universities had been accompanied by the biggest general strike in history. Over the next few years, Italy, Argentina, Poland, Spain, Britain and many other countries saw further massive movements of the working class, frequently leaving the official representatives of "Labour", the unions and parties of the left, trailing in their wake. The "wildcat" strike became the norm as against the "disciplined" union mobilisation, and workers began to develop new forms of struggle to escape the numbing grip of the trade unions: general assemblies, elected strike committees, massive delegations to other workplaces. In the gigantic strikes of 1980 in Poland, the workers used such forms to coordinate their struggle across the level of an entire country.

The struggles of the period 1968-1989 very often ended in defeat as far as their immediate demands are concerned. But there is no question that if they had not taken place, the bourgeoisie would have had a free hand to impose a far greater attack on the living standards of the working class, above all in the advanced centres of the system. And above all, the refusal of the proletariat to pay for the effects of the capitalist crisis also meant that it would not be willing to march tamely off to another war, even though the re-emergence of the crisis also led to a noticeable sharpening of tensions between the two great imperialist blocs from the 1970s onwards, and particularly in the 1980s. Imperialist war is implicit in the economic crisis of the system, even if it represents not a "solution" to the crisis but an even greater plunge into ruin. But to go to war, the bourgeoisie must have a pliant, ideologically loyal proletariat, and this it did not have. Perhaps this was demonstrated most plainly in the eastern bloc: the Russian bourgeoisie, most pushed towards a military solution by economic collapse and growing military encirclement, came to realise that it could not rely on its own proletariat to serve as cannon fodder in war against the West, especially after the mass strikes in Poland in 1980. It was this impasse which led to the implosion of the Eastern bloc in 89-91.

The proletariat, however, was unable to develop its own, and genuine solution to the contradictions of the system: the perspective of a new society. Certainly May 68 raised this question on a massive scale and gave rise to a new generation of revolutionaries, but these remained in a tiny minority. As the impact of the economic crisis became more and more overt, the vast majority of the workers' struggles of the 70s and 80s remained on the defensive, economic level, and decades of disillusionment with the "traditional" parties of the left had implanted within the ranks of the working class a deep suspicion towards any kind of politics.

We thus reached a kind of stalemate in the battle between the classes: the bourgeoisie had no future to offer mankind, and the proletariat had not rediscovered its own future. But the crisis of the system does not stand still and the result of the stalemate is a growing decomposition of society at all levels. At the imperialist level, this resulted in the disintegration of the two imperialist blocs, and so the perspective of world war came off the historical agenda for an indefinite period. But as we have seen, this now exposed the proletariat and humanity to a new danger, a kind of creeping barbarism which in many ways is even more pernicious.

Humanity is indeed at the crossroads. The years and decades ahead of us could be the most crucial in its entire history, because they will determine whether human society is going to be plunged into an unprecedented regression or even total extinction, or whether it will take a leap onto a new level of organisation, where mankind is at last in control of its own social powers, and is able to create a world in harmony with its needs. 

It is our conviction as communists that it is not too late for the latter alternative - that the working class, despite all the material and ideological blows it has suffered in the last few decades, is still capable of resisting, and is still the only force that stands in the way of a final descent into the abyss. Indeed since 2003, there has been a discernable development of workers' struggles all over the world; and at the same time we are witnessing the emergence of a whole new generation of groups and elements who are questioning the essential bases of the present social system and who are seriously looking at the prospects for a fundamental social change. In other words, we are seeing signs of a real maturation of class-consciousness.

Faced with a world in chaos, there is no shortage of false explanations for the present crisis.   Religious fundamentalism, whether of the Muslim or Christian variety, as well as a whole host of occultist and conspiratorial explanations of history, are flourishing today precisely because the signs of an apocalyptic end to the present world civilisation are increasingly hard to deny. But these regressions to mythology serve only to reinforce passivity and despair, because they invariably subordinate man's capacity for self-activity to the fateful decrees of powers reigning over man. The most characteristic expression of these cults is therefore the Islamic suicide bomber whose actions are the epitome of despair, or the American evangelists glorying in war and ecological destruction as so many harbingers of a coming Rapture. And while "common-sense" bourgeois rationalism laughs at the absurdities of the fanatics, it includes in its mockery all those who, for the most rational and scientific reasons, are becoming increasingly convinced that the present social system cannot and will not go on forever. Against the ranting of the religious cults, and the blank denials of facile bourgeois optimism, it is more than ever vital to develop a coherent and consistent understanding of what Rosa called the "dilemma of world history". And, like Rosa, we are convinced that such an understanding can only be grounded in the revolutionary theory of the proletariat - in marxism, and the materialist conception of history. It is to this general theoretical framework that we now turn .              


[1] "Socialism and War", chapter 1, 1915.

[2] This figure excludes the USSR. Figures from Sternberg, Capitalism and Socialism on Trial, 1951, p 277-281

[3] Communist Manifesto.


[5] Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, p 233, citing Walker, The Cold War, 1993, p 26-7.

[6] Sum estimated for the third trimester of 2003 by the council of governors of the Federal Reserve and other government agencies. According to the same course, the debt has risen by 23 times since 1970 when it stood at 1.630 thousand billion dollars.

[7] "The reality of ‘economic prosperity' laid bare by the crisis", International Review n°114.

Historic events: 


Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: