The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 unleashed a huge campaign about the collapse of communism and the triumph of capitalism. The real development of the world situation, above all the present economic crisis, is showing that what happened in 1989 was actually a moment in the collapse of the world capitalist system.
Twenty years ago one of the most important events of the second half of the twentieth century occurred: the collapse of the imperialist bloc of the East and of the European Stalinist regimes, including the principal one: the USSR.
This event was used by the ruling class to unleash one of the most pernicious and massive ideological campaigns against the working class. By once again fraudulently identifying Stalinism with communism, by making the economic bankruptcy and barbarity of the Stalinist regimes the inevitable consequence of the proletarian revolution, the bourgeoisie aimed to turn the working class away from any revolutionary perspective and deal a decisive blow to the struggles of the working class.
At the same time, the bourgeoisie tried to profit from a second big lie: with the disappearance of Stalinism, capitalism was going to enter a period of peace and prosperity and would finally really blossom out. The future, the promise went, would be radiant.
March 6, 1991, George Bush Senior, President of the United States of America, buoyed up from his recent victory over the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein, announced the arrival of a "New World Order" and the advent of a "world of united nations, freed from the impasse of the Cold War, about to realise the historic vision of their founders: a world in which liberty and the rights of man are respected by all nations."
Twenty years later, you could almost laugh, if the world disorder and the proliferation of conflicts to the four corners of the globe hadn't spread so much death and misery. And in this respect, the balance sheet gets heavier year after year.
As to prosperity, forget it! In fact, since the summer 2007 and above all 2008, "All of a sudden, words and phrases like ‘prosperity', ‘growth', ‘triumph of liberalism' were discretely dropped. At the grand banqueting table of the capitalist economy there now sat a guest that they thought they had banished forever: the crisis, the spectre of a new great depression comparable to the one in the 1930s." Yesterday the collapse of Stalinism signified the triumph of liberal capitalism. Today it's the same liberalism that is accused of all evils by all the politicians and specialists, even among its most desperate defenders, such as President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Gordon Brown!
One obviously can't choose anniversary dates and the least that one can say is that this one falls badly for the bourgeoisie. If, on this occasion, it is deliberately avoiding its campaign on ‘the death of communism' and ‘the end of the class struggle', it is not that it lacks the desire to do so but that, the calamitous situation of capitalism being what it is, such a campaign would run the risk of revealing the true nature of these ideological themes. That is why the bourgeoisie is sparing us from big celebrations of the collapse of the ‘last world tyranny' and of the great victory of ‘freedom'. Instead of that, apart from some perfunctory historic references, there's neither euphoria nor exaltation.
If history has settled the reality of the peace and prosperity that capitalism was supposed to offer us, this doesn't mean that the poverty and barbarity we are seeing today is appearing clearly in the eyes of the exploited as ineluctable consequences of the insurmountable contradictions of capitalism. In fact, the propaganda of the bourgeoisie today is oriented towards the necessity to ‘humanise' and to ‘reform' capitalism, and this has the objective of putting off for as long as possible the development of consciousness of this reality by the exploited. So, since reality only reveals part of the lie, the other part, the identification of Stalinism with communism, still continues today to weigh on the minds of the living, even if it is evidently in a less massive and brutal fashion that during the 90s. Faced with this, it's necessary to recall some historical elements.
The same crisis of capitalism at the origins of the collapse of Stalinism and the present recession
"All the countries under Stalinist regimes are in the same dead-end. Their economies have been particularly brutally hit by the world capitalist crisis, not only because of their backwardness, but because they are totally incapable of adapting to an exacerbation of inter-capitalist competition. The attempts to improve their competitiveness by introducing some of the ‘classical' norms of capitalist management have only succeeded in provoking a still greater shambles, as can be seen from the utter failure of ‘Perestroika' in the USSR. (...) What's in store for the Stalinist regimes though is not a ‘peaceful', still less an economic ‘recovery'. With the deepening of the worldwide crisis of capitalism, these countries have entered a period of convulsions to an extent unheard of in the past which is nonetheless rich in violent upheavals."
This catastrophic situation of the eastern countries didn't prevent the bourgeoisie presenting them as new, immense markets to be exploited once they had been completely liberated from the yoke of ‘communism'. To achieve this it was necessary for them to develop a modern economy, which would have the added virtue of filling the order books of western businesses for decades to come. Reality was somewhere else: there was certainly much to construct, but no one to pay for it.
The expected boom came to nothing. Quite the contrary, the economic difficulties that appeared in the west were, without the slightest scruple, put down to the cost of assimilating the backward countries of the east. It was the same thing with the inflation that was becoming a difficult problem for Europe. From 1993, the situation wasn't long in turning into an open recession on the Old Continent. Thus, the new configuration of the world market, with the complete integration of these countries, changed absolutely nothing about the fundamental laws that govern capitalism. In particular, debt continued to occupy an even more important place in financing the economy, rendering it increasingly vulnerable even to minor cases of destabilisation. The bourgeoisie's illusions disappeared in front of the hard economic reality of its system. Then, in December 1994, Mexico cracked, a result of an influx of speculators fleeing the crisis in Europe: the Peso collapsed and risked bringing a good part of the economies of the American continent down with it. The threat was real and well understood. The United States mobilised $50 billion in order to underwrite the Mexican currency. At the time it seemed a fantastic amount of money... Twenty years later, the United States has used forty times that amount for its economy alone!
From 1997, crisis in Asia: this time it's the currencies of South East Asia that brutally collapse. These famous Dragons and Tigers, model countries for economic development, show-case of the ‘new world order' where even the smallest countries have access to prosperity, also submitted to the severity of capitalism's laws.
The allure of these economies had attracted a speculative bubble, which burst at the beginning of 1997. In less than a year, every country of the region was hit. Twenty-four million people were made unemployed within a year. Revolts and lootings multiplied, causing the deaths of 1,200 people. The number of suicides exploded. In the year following, the risk of international contagion was constant, with the appearance of serious difficulties in Russia.
The Asian model, the famous ‘third way', was dead and buried alongside the model of ‘communism'. It was necessary to find something else in order to prove that capitalism was the sole creator of wealth on the Earth. This something else was the economic miracle of the Internet. Since everything in the real world was collapsing, then let's invest in the virtual world! Since lending to the rich was no longer sufficient, let's lend to those that promise us they will become rich! Capitalism has a horror of the void, above all in its wallet, and when the world economy seems incapable of the greater profits corresponding to the insatiable needs of capital, when nothing more profitable exists, they invent a new market out of thin air. The system worked for a while, stocks rose on share dealings that bore no reasonable link to reality. Companies lost billions of dollars on the market. The bubble had been inflated, and then it burst. The madness gripped a bourgeoisie totally deluded about the everlasting life of the ‘new economy', to the point of dragging down the old one. The traditional sectors of the economy were also involved here, hoping to find the profitability lost in their traditional forms of activity. The ‘new economy' overran the old, and then took it down the pan.
The fall was hard. The collapse of such a contrivance, based on nothing other than mutual confidence between actors hoping that no one would flinch, could only be brutal. The bursting of the bubble provoked losses of $148 billion in the companies of the sector. Bankruptcies multiplied, the survivors' assets depreciating at a stroke by hundreds of billions of dollars. At least half a million jobs were lost in the telecommunications sector. The ‘new economy' was shown to be no more fruitful than the old and the funds that got out of the mire in time had to find another sector in which to invest.
And it went into bricks and mortar. Finally, after lending to countries living beyond their means, after lending to companies built up on thin air, who was there left to lend to? The bourgeoisie has no limit to its thirst for profits. Henceforth, the old adage ‘you can only lend to the rich' would be definitely ditched, since there are not enough rich people to go round. The bourgeoisie thus went on to attack a new market... the poor. Beyond the evident cynicism of this approach, there is also the total contempt for the lives of people who became the prey of these vultures. The loans arranged were underwritten by the value of the property. But when these properties rose in value with the rise of the market, it provided the opportunity for families to increase their debt even more, placing them in a potentially disastrous situation. Because when the model collapsed, which it did in 2008, the bourgeoisie cried for its own dead, the merchant banks and other financial houses, but it forgot the millions of families who had everything that they possessed - although that was hardly worth very much at all - taken from them, and who were then thrown out onto the street or into improvised shanty-towns.
What followed is sufficiently well known for us not to return to it here in detail, but it can be summed up perfectly in a few words: an open world recession, the most serious since the Second World War, throwing millions of workers onto the street in every country, a considerable increase in poverty.
Wars before and after 1990, the product of the same contradictions of capitalism
The global imperialist configuration was evidently overturned by the collapse of the eastern bloc. Before this event, the world was divided into two rival blocs constituted around their leading powers. The whole period after World War II, up to the collapse of the eastern bloc, was marked by very strong tensions between the blocs, taking the form of open conflicts through their pawns in the Third World. To cite just some of them: war in Korea at the beginning of the 1950s, the Vietnam War throughout the 60s and into the middle of the 70s, war in Afghanistan from1979, etc. The collapse of the Stalinist edifice in 1989 was in fact the product of its economic and military inferiority faced with the opposing bloc.
Through western propaganda, the ‘Evil Empire' of the Russian bloc had always been presented as the ‘aggressor', the warlike bloc against the ‘peaceful' west. So, with the collapse of the Russian bloc, shouldn't that mean the end to aggression and war? This, however, was the analysis of the ICC defended in January 1990: "The disappearance of the Russian imperialist gendarme, and the resulting effects on the American gendarme vis-à-vis its main ‘partners' of yesterday, opens the door to unleashing a whole series of more local rivalries. These rivalries and confrontations cannot, at this present time, degenerate into a world conflict (...) On the other hand, from the fact of the disappearance of the discipline imposed by the presence of the blocs, these conflicts risk becoming more violent and more numerous, particularly in the zones where the proletariat is weakest." It wasn't long before world events confirmed this analysis, notably with the first Gulf War in January 1991 and the war in ex-Yugoslavia from the autumn of the same year. Since then bloody and barbaric confrontations have not ceased. There are too many to enumerate here but we can underline some in particular: the pursuit of the war in ex-Yugoslavia, which saw the direct engagement, under the aegis of NATO, of the United States and the principal European powers in 1999; the two wars in Chechnya; the numerous wars ravaging the African continent (Rwanda, Somalia, Congo, Sudan, etc); the military operations of Israel against Lebanon and, quite recently, against the Gaza Strip; the war in Afghanistan of 2001 which is still going on today; the war in Iraq of 2003 whose consequences continue to weigh dramatically on this country, but also on the initiator of this war, American imperialism.
The destruction of capitalism or the destruction of humanity
The world more and more resembles a desert with billions of human beings just about surviving. Each day, close to 20,000 children die of hunger in the world, thousands of jobs are lost, leaving whole families in distress; wages are cut for those who still have a job.
Here's the ‘new world order' promised nearly twenty years ago by George Bush Senior. It's closer to absolute chaos! This terrifying spectacle totally invalidates any idea that the collapse of the eastern bloc marked the ‘end of history' (with the sub-plot that it was the beginning of the eternal history of capitalism) as the ‘philosopher' Francis Fukuyama claimed at the time. It was rather an important stage in the decadence of capitalism: as the system more and more came up against its historic limits, its most fragile parts definitively collapsed. There is nothing healthy for the system of capitalism in the collapse of the eastern bloc. The limits are still there and they still threaten the very heart of capitalism. Each new crisis is more serious than the last.
That's why the sole lesson concerning the last twenty years is this: there can be no hope of peace and prosperity within capitalism. The stakes are, and will remain, the destruction of capitalism or the destruction of humanity.
If the campaigns on the ‘death of communism' dealt a severe blow to the consciousness of the working class, the latter is far from beaten, and it can still regain lost ground and renew the development of class struggle at the international level. And indeed, since the beginning of the 2000s, with the campaign on the death of communism and the end of class struggle getting used up, and in the face of growing attacks on its conditions of life, the working class has rediscovered the road to the class struggle. This recovery of class struggle, which here and now is expressing itself in the development of politicised minorities on an international scale, is preparing the ground for massive struggles which, in the future, will once again pose the real perspective for the proletariat and humanity: the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of communism.
A longer version of this article can be found at www.internationalism.org and International Review 139.
. Resolution on the International Situation of the 18th Congress of the ICC published in International Review 138.
. See for example "La récession de 1993 réexaminée", Persée, journal of the OECD, 1994, volume 49, no 1.
. They even bought up parts of it: the acquisition of Time Warner by the Internet company AOL remains a symbol of the irrationality that gripped the bourgeoisie at this time.
. ‘After the collapse of the eastern bloc, destabilisation and chaos', International Review 61.