The collapse of the stock exchange, a new aggravation of the economic crisis; the mobilization of the armed forces in the main western industrial countries for the war in the Persian Gulf. History is accelerating. The contradictory forces undermining capitalist society are exacerbating. The system is, with increasing rapidity, plunging mankind into poverty, barbarism and war.
But the economic crisis isn't just that. The crisis which has been ravaging the world economy for 20 years has also developed the contradictions between the classes. It is creating the conditions for the unification of the only social force that can offer a way out: the world working class.
The stock market crash has announced that the world economy is sinking deeper into recession, ie. into unemployment, low wages, super-exploitation, poverty, repression, insecurity and military tensions. Everyone knows it, or at least feels it in a more or less confused way. But the ruling class is exerting an enormous presure -through repression, through the media, through its omnipresent propaganda - aimed at sustaining feelings of powerlessness in the face of the existing order.
However, for the exploited class, this is no time for lamentation, for resignation, for the ‘ostrich' policies recommended by the ruling class. More than ever, its struggle against capitalism is on the agenda. More than ever it is faced with the necessity to unify its scattered struggles of immediate resistance and to take them to their logical conclusion, to the battle not just against the consequences of exploitation but against exploitation itself. The world economic crisis develops the conditions for such a process. And this above all is what the working class must have in mind when faced with the calls for resignation from all the defenders of the national economy.
The economic crisis weakens the power of the world bourgeoisie
The economic crisis inevitably results in ferocious attacks against workers' living conditions. But this doesn't mean that the world bourgeoisie is getting stronger. Faced with the crisis of its system, the ruling class has nothing more to offer but the war of each against all. Competition becomes more acute, both on the commercial and military levels. Those who gain from these struggles don't create new wealth; they simply enrich themselves on the corpses of their vanquished rivals. The bourgeoisie is no longer able to carry out the only social function which allows it to base its power on anything more than brute force: the function of organizing the social production of the means of existence. The bourgeoisie can no longer produce; it only survives through destruction. Economic destruction: massive unemployment, factory closures, the destruction of harvests and ‘unsaleable surpluses.' Military destruction: arms production, wars. Thus its power is based more and more on repression and ideological lies. And history shows that for a ruling class, this is a situation of weakness. "You can do everything with bayonets except sit on them," said Talleyrand in the days when the bourgeoisie still had a revolutionary role and was sure of its ‘social usefulness.'
What the proletarians have to see in the present aggravation of the economic crisis is that at the same time as this erodes the foundations of the bourgeoisie's power, it also develops the objective conditions for the unification of the world working class, for a development of its revolutionary class consciousness and of its combat against capitalism.
The crisis creates the conditions for proletarian unification
The crisis tends to unify the international proletariat because the crisis unifies the conditions of existence of the exploited class, because the attacks of capitalism tend to be more and more simultaneous on all sectors of the working class, in all countries. It's no longer mainly the least developed countries which are going through this austerity. West Germany, Japan, like all the little ‘miracles' of the Far East (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan) or Latin America (Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela), just like the oil producing countries -all those countries which, at one moment or another, have in recent years appeared to have been spared from the crisis, are now experiencing the same kind of unemployment and misery as the countries which were hit earlier on.
When the development of the crisis is relatively slow, the bourgeoisie is able to disperse its attacks, in time and geographically, with the conscious aim of avoiding sudden and, above all, united reactions. The famous ‘Davignon Plan' put into place by the governments of the EEC with the goal of laying off thousands of steel workers all over the continent, and which was very careful to disperse the attacks over a number of years and going from one country to another, was an illustration of this kind of tactic. The aggravation of the economic crisis makes it more and more difficult to plan this kind of dispersed attack. Pushed forward by its own imperatives of capitalist competition and profitability, the bourgeoisie is compelled to hit the whole working class more and more simultaneously, rapidly and violently. The massive attacks by the bourgeoisie create the conditions for a massive response by the proletariat. The Polish bourgeoisie has learned to its cost, in 1980 and in 1970, how violent measures like the overnight doubling of milk and meat prices can constitute such a threat to the maintenance of its order. The policies of ‘privatization' and ‘deregulation', like Gorbachev's ‘perestroika' or Teng Shiao Ping's ‘liberalism', all have the aim of avoiding such disorders. Unfortunately for the bourgeoisie, it's too late - the world economic crisis is too deep to allow it to hide the massive nature of its attacks.
The worst trap for the working class would be to see only ‘misery in misery', and not to seize hold of the possibilities for unification contained in the collapse of the economic system. The working class can only unite in and for the combat against what divides it: capitalism. This is being confirmed every day by the workers' struggle all over the planet. The fact that in little more than a year the working class has developed massive struggles like those in Belgium ‘86 or in South Korea during the summer of 1987, that it has launched simultaneous struggles in Yugoslavia and Rumania, Italy and Bangladesh, shows this quite unambiguously.
The crisis lays bare the real stakes in the workers struggle
The capitalist economic crisis lucidly illustrates the simple but fundamental truth that society has reached a total impasse not because of any technical problems or a lack of material means, but because of the social organization of production. The bourgeoisie responds to the crisis of its system through destruction and through threatening to launch a new worldwide destruction as it did after the crisis of the ‘30s. Unsatisfied economic needs are developing at a dizzying speed at the same time as society has at its disposal the most powerful technical capacities - capacities that could allow humanity to live like ‘masters without slaves', in a society where the only goal of productive activity would be the unlimited satisfaction of human needs.
The more the crisis deepens, the more clearly will appear the contrast between what is materially possible and what exists in capitalist reality, and the more the proletariat will be able to grasp the historic scope and significance of its struggles.
The triumph of Marxism
The real dynamic of capitalism provides a striking verification of the marxist analysis which affirms the inexorable nature of the capitalist crisis and the fact that this crisis creates the objective material conditions - necessary though not sufficient - for the unification and revolutionary action of the working class.
However, ruling classes never believe in the possibility of their own disappearance...except perhaps in some kind of unnamable chaos. They only see of reality what their class blinkers allow them to see. The bourgeoisie no more understands the underlying reasons for the violent crisis shaking its system than it sees in workers' strikes the possibility of a communist society. More than anything else it fears the generalization of the workers' struggles because it is afraid of losing control of the situation and thus of its privileges, not because it glimpses in them a society without poverty or exploitation.
That the bourgeoisie doesn't see how the crisis can lead to the transformation of the workers' defensive struggles into revolutionary offensive struggles is quite normal. What are more surprising are the objections to these marxist fundamentals raised by currents who claim to be partisans of Marx and of the communist revolution.
Three arguments based on a superficial observation of history are often cited against marxist analyses:
1. During the ‘80s the crisis has been deeper and has hit the working class harder than during the ‘70s. However, there are less strikes.
2. The great economic crisis of 1929 didn't lead to revolutionary struggles but to the mobilization of the workers behind their national bourgeoisie, to the workers slaughtering each other in a world-wide butchery which left 50 million dead.
3. In the past the workers' struggles which have led to a revolutionary challenge to the power of the bourgeoisie weren't produced during a period of ‘pure' economic crisis but during or after wars between nations.
We have often replied to these kinds of arguments in our press, and particularly in this Review. However, at a time when the acceleration of the economic crisis is bringing the deadline of history closer, it seems to us important to recall certain essential elements of the perspective for today's workers' struggles.
‘There are less strikes in the ‘80s'
It's true that in general there have been less strikes, less days lost due to strikes' as the statistics put it, during the last few years than during the wave of struggles at the end of the ‘60s or during the ‘70s. It's also true that the economic crisis, if you measure the effects of it, like unemployment for example, has been much deeper and wider in the ‘80s. But to deduce from this that the economic crisis doesn't create the conditions for the unification of the proletariat is to be completely ignorant of how this process of unification takes place.
This process can't be measured mechanically by looking at the number of strike days in this or that country. You have to use other criteria such as the consciousness behind the struggle or the international scope of the movement.
Strikes in the ‘80s may be less numerous than in the previous decade but they are much more significant. To go on strike today means confronting the threat of unemployment, this insidious repression which is like a gun pointing at every worker's back. This requires a lot more will and determination than taking part in a dozen dead-end union days of action, the kind that was so common in the ‘70s. And this is the case even when less hours of striking are involved.
The consciousness which informs workers' struggles today is much deeper than it was in the period we've often referred to as the years of illusions: illusions in ‘national liberation', in ‘the left in power' or in putting bankrupt firms under workers' self-management. Today, in the main industrial centers of Europe, as in other countries where the ‘democratic' forms of the bourgeoisie's dictatorship have been around for a long time, the proletariat has lost an enormous amount of illusions in union institutions, in the parties which are part of the apparatus of the ruling class (CPs, SPs, Democrats, etc), in the role of elections, in the possibility of getting out of the crisis by making sacrifices for the firm or the nation, and so on. The majority of the important movements of the working class begin outside the unions, and confrontations between the workers and their so-called representative organizations are becoming more and more frequent. After the struggles in Belgium in the Spring of ‘86, which showed how to extend a movement of struggle despite the unions; after the railway workers' strike in France in the Winter of ‘86-87, when there was an attempt to form centralized coordinations outside the unions, the workers' struggle in Italy during the course of 1987 has shown, right from the beginning, with the movement of school-workers, then of other sectors, particularly transport, a ferocious determination to wage the fight outside union control by creating independent forms of organization founded on base assemblies.
There are less strikes in the ‘80s, but they express a much greater depth and maturity. A maturity which has been acquired not in spite of the economic crisis, but under its direct pressure.
And yet ...
‘The crisis of 1929 didn't lead to the unification of the working class but to its most violent negation: imperialist war'
Marxism has never seen social reality as a simplistic and unconscious mechanism. Without class consciousness, the capitalist crisis in itself can't lead to the unification of the proletariat's struggles. This is why, as we've already said, the economic crisis is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The historic al experience of the ‘30s doesn't show that the economic crisis doesn't contribute to the process of proletarian unification, but that, in itself, the crisis alone isn't enough.
In 1929, when the Wall Street Crash took place the European proletariat was still reeling under the blows of the repression meted out to the international revolutionary wave which shook Europe at the end of the first world war. The Russian revolution, an event which had raised so many hopes, which had been a beacon for all workers' struggles, had died from suffocation after the bloody defeat of the revolution in Germany between 1919 and 1923.
In these conditions, having been through such a defeat, the proletariat wasn't up to the challenge thrown to it by capitalism in crisis.
To this must be added another difference at the level of consciousness in the class, one directly related to the unfolding of the crisis itself: in the 30s, the policies of rearmament and public works, which were a preparation for war, made it possible to reabsorb unemployment to a large extent, to limit the effects of the crisis (see the article in this issue on the economic crisis and its differences with that of ‘29).
The present generation of workers hasn't been through defeats on this scale in its biggest concentrations. 50 years of capitalist decadence have gone by, with their tally of barbarism, but also with their sum of slowly digested experiences, with their power to destroy illusions.
Capitalism in crisis is today facing a proletariat whose consciousness is being freed from the worst of the myths which tied it down 50 years ago.
And yet ...
‘All the important revolutionary struggles of the proletariat in the past were produced by wars and not by pure economic crises'
It's true that the greatest workers struggles up to now have been provoked by situations of war: the Paris Commune of 1871 by the Franco-Prussian war; the 1905 revolution in Russia by the Russo-Japanese war; the international revolutionary wave of 1923 by the First World War.
But it doesn't follow from this that war creates the best conditions for the proletarian revolution. Much less than the ‘pure' economic crisis - because imperialist war is simply a manifestation of the economic crisis - does war favor the unification of the working class. Because of the extremes of suffering they impose on the exploited classes in so short a time, wars do tend to create revolutionary situations. But this only takes place in countries which have been defeated (France in 1871 defeated by Prussia, Russia in 1905 defeated by Japan, Russia in 1917 defeated by Germany, Germany in 1918 defeated by the Allies). In the victorious countries war doesn't have the same consequences.
The economic crisis has a much slower effect on the living conditions of the working class. But this effect is also deeper and geographically wider. In the world economic crisis of capital, there are no ‘neutral' or victorious countries. It's the whole capitalist machine which is vanquished by its own contradictory laws. Impoverishment knows no frontiers. Furthermore, movements of struggle unleashed by the resistance against war come to a stopping point or at least tend to slow down significantly, when the bourgeoisie is compelled to make peace. The economic crisis, on the other hand, if it doesn't have a revolutionary outcome can only result in war. Here war plays a role in the development of consciousness, but as a threat.
Recognizing the role war has played in past revolutions in no way calls into question the unifying role that the economic crisis can have for today's workers' struggles. On the contrary.
The unification of the world working class will be a conscious affair or it won't happen. But this consciousness can only develop and be victorious in the objective conditions created by the economic crisis of the capitalist mode of production. What is shown by the evolution of workers' struggles in the ‘80s, by the experience of the ‘30s, and by the role played by war in previous proletarian revolutions isn't that the crisis prevents the unification of workers' struggles but that never before in history have the objective conditions for the proletarian revolution been so ripe.
It's up to the world proletariat to rise to the challenge which is being thrown to it by history.
 See among others the articles ‘The Proletariat in Decadent Capitalism' (IR 23), ‘The 80s are not the 30s' (IR 36) and ‘On the Historic Course' (IR 50).