The year 2014 will see the official ‘commemorations’ of the first world war.
The mouthpieces of the ruling class - the politicians and the professors, the TV and the newspapers - will have their explanations for the conflict and why it ended, their declarations of sorrow for the dead, their own expressions of hope that such a tragedy will never be repeated. But all this is the rankest hypocrisy from a class which presides over the same system which brought us the horrors of the war and of all the wars that have ravaged the world ever since.
Revolutionaries have their own method of explaining the tragedies of the past century.
In 1914, humanity faced a dilemma: revolution or war, socialism or barbarism. It faces the same dilemma today.
1914: the great powers recruit the masses. The propaganda of all the warring states proclaims: your country needs you. Fight for king and country. Defend civilisation against the barbarism of the other side. But as the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg put it in The Junius Pamphlet, written from prison in 1915: this war is barbarism. It’s not the war to end wars, but it does mark the definite end of capitalism’s usefulness for humanity. If the exploited and the oppressed of all countries do not unite against the exploiters and war-mongers in all countries, this war will only be the prelude to even more terrible massacres.
1917-19: sick of futile slaughter in the trenches, of hunger and increased exploitation at home, workers in both camps rebel against the war. Soldiers and sailors mutiny and fraternise, workers organise mass strikes and demonstrations. Revolution in Russia as the soviets – revolutionary councils of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ delegates - take power. Revolution in Germany as the sailors of Kiel refuse to sacrifice themselves for the war effort and workers’ and soldiers’ councils spread throughout the country. The ruling classes, yesterday at each others’ throats, unite to bring a hasty end to the war. But the tide of revolution continues in the face of post-war misery, giving rise to further massive strikes and uprisings, from Clydeside to Seattle, from Hungary to Brazil.
1920-27: defeat and counter-revolution. The Russian revolutionaries knew that they were doomed if the revolution did not spread across the world. And despite the world-wide surge of class struggle, despite the formation of the Communist International, nowhere else do the workers succeed in taking power. Exhausted by a civil war in which the anti-revolutionary forces were backed by the great powers, the working class in Russia loses its grip on power and a new bureaucracy emerges on the ashes of the revolution. Stalin proclaims ‘socialism in one country’ in 1924: a programme not for world revolution but for Russian state capitalism. In 1927 in China, communists who had taken part in the Shanghai uprising are beheaded in the streets by their so-called ‘allies’, the nationalists. In Germany, the social democratic party, now a party of order, had used the forces of the extreme right as shock-troops against the revolution. Now the extreme right personified by Hitler prepares to finish the job.
1929: the Great Depression. The absurdity and obsolescence of capitalism is proved once again as factories close and millions are thrown out of work. It’s a crisis of overproduction, a crisis of want amidst potential plenty. But the working class has been defeated and cannot respond to the crisis with revolution.
1936: Hitler and Stalin preside over prison camp regimes, over economies geared for war. The ‘democracies’ follow suit. The course towards a new world war is open, in essence a re-run of the first. In Spain the working class has not lost its fighting spirit. But having blocked Franco’s coup in July 1936 with its own methods of struggle – strikes and fraternisations with the troops - it is pulled into the anti-fascist front which subordinates class interests to national interests. Spain becomes a battle ground between imperialist blocs, a dress rehearsal for the Second World War.
1939-45: despite all the new ideological rallying cries – anti-fascism, defending democracy or the ‘socialist fatherland’ – the Second World War far outdoes the first in barbarity. The pinnacle on the fascist side is the industrial mass murder in the concentration camps. But the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows that the ‘democratic allies’ are no less willing to liquidate millions of innocent lives.
1945-68: A handful of internationalists condemn the war as a new carve-up of the globe, and as it nears its end, there are sporadic revolts by the working class. But the shadow of defeat is still too powerful, and even before this second global war is over, the outlines of the third take shape. The USSR, yesterday an anti-fascist ally, becomes the new totalitarian enemy. Two huge imperialist blocs are formed and confront each other through proxy wars: Korea, the Middle East, India-Pakistan, Cuba, Vietnam...
1968-89: the re-organisation of the world economy during and after the war enables capitalism to come out of the depression, and despite the persistence of poverty in the ‘underdeveloped’ world, there is a period of growth and prosperity in the central countries. But this is a temporary respite and by the end of the 60s the signs of a new economic crisis are emerging in the form of run-away inflation and in 1973 a new global recession. This time, however, there is a new generation of the working class which begins to respond to the crisis: the 10-million strong strike in France in 1968, the ‘hot Autumn’ in Italy in 1969, the miners’ strikes in Britain in 1972 and 1974 – these and other outbreaks of revolt refute the ideologues who had proclaimed that the working class has been swallowed up by the consumer society. The working class is not only alive, but its refusal to obey the diktats of the national economy also means that capitalism does not have a free hand to step up its imperialist confrontations to the level of a new world war.
1989-2014: this problem for the ruling class is demonstrated most clearly with the collapse of the USSR and the entire Russian bloc. The Polish mass strikes of 1980 indicate that the rulers of this bloc could not count on the support of the working class if it tried to respond to its profound economic difficulties by launching a new imperialist offensive. With the disappearance of the ‘Evil Empire’ of the east, George Bush the first declares the advent of a New World Order of peace and prosperity. Almost immediately the wars in the Gulf and ex-Yugoslavia show that imperialist conflicts have not gone away, merely that they have taken a new and more chaotic form without the discipline of the old blocs. The African continent and the Middle East are the focus for a whole series of murderous battles. As for prosperity, the ‘debt crisis’ of 2008 exposes the artificial nature of the previous phase of ‘growth’. Since the 1930s, capitalism has responded to the disease of overproduction with the drug of debt, but now the cure is showing itself to be as bad as the illness. And meanwhile, capitalism’s frenzied need to grow whatever the cost and whatever the method brings with it a new expression of its historic dead-end: the ecological crisis. Pollution and destruction of the natural environment, the disturbance of the climate begin to give rise to a series of catastrophes which are only a foretaste of what may come if capitalist accumulation is allowed to continue.
Capitalism is decomposing before our eyes. The working class was not able to develop the struggles of the 1968-89 period towards a conscious challenge to the capitalist mode of production, and it faces the danger of being dragged into the mire of a social order in a very advanced state of decay – into its gang warfare, its hopelessness, its irrationality and its drive towards self-destruction. But the voice of the proletariat has not been silenced. A growing feeling of indignation against a system which offers them no future has pushed millions of young people onto the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Spain, Britain, the USA, Turkey and Brazil. There have been huge strikes by workers in Bangladesh and China against the ruthless exploitation demanded by globalised’ capitalism. In South Africa, the repression handed out by the government to the Marikana miners gives the lie to all the speeches about the ‘New South Africa’ that followed the apartheid regime. The working class is more global than ever, and even though it does not find it easy to find its sense of identity and its confidence in its own capacities, the dynamic of its struggles still contains the possibility that it will once again be able to answer the barbarism of capitalism with the perspective of socialism, of the communist revolution that will replace the rule of capital and its state with a new human community on a world-wide scale.