A century ago we heard much the same message. In 1898 Ivan Bloch published The War of the Future in St Petersburg. He said that war was bound to become obsolete, as it was too costly, too murderous and so complicated that it was impossible to win. However, such views did not stand uncorrected. In 1901, in exile in Siberia, the revolutionary Leon Trotsky had a more accurate view of what capitalism was, and what it had in store.
"Hatred and murder, famine and blood... It seems as if the new century, this gigantic newcomer, were bent at thetic newcomer, were bent at the very moment of its appearance to drive the optimist into absolute pessimism [...]
- Death to Utopia! Death to faith! Death to love! Death to hope! thunders the twentieth century in salvoes of fire and in the rumbling of guns." (from an article on 'Optimism and pessimism', cited in Deutscher's The prophet armed)
Trotsky was right. Starting with war in South Africa and finishing with the bombardments of Iraq, Serbia and Chechnya, by any standard the twentieth century has been the most disastrous in history. Its imagery is dominated by the gulag and the concentration camp, by warfare from the trenches to the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion.
In fact, war has become the very means of survival for capitalist states in the twentieth century, despite the fact that it is so costly, murderous and so often results in military stalemates. The First World War, the 'war to end all wars' was seen as an unparalleled catastrophe with the death of 20 million. Yet twenty years later more than 60 million died in the Second World War, 1 in 40 of the world's population were victims of the bourgeoisie's massacre. As for the times of 'peace' tens of millions more have been sacrificed by capitalism in its imperialist conflicts. Just to take the period of the Just to take the period of the 'Cold War' one calculation has given a figure of some 160 armed conflicts throughout the world between 1945 and 89. Korea, Nigeria, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iran/Iraq head the long list that condemns the capitalist system. The period since the end of the Cold War has been even more rife with genocide and butchery: Iraq, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Congo, Algeria, East Timor...
The decadence of capitalism
While capitalism in its period of expansion was always marked by its brutality, its characteristics since the First World War are those of a mode of production in its period of decadence - a decadence much more calamitous than that of previous systems. As we wrote in the ICC Manifesto of 1975:
"In the past, humanity has known periods of decadence in which there were many calamities and unspeakable suffering. But these were nothing compared to what humanity has suffered these past sixty years. The decadence of other societies was the development of shortages and famines but in a totally different context than today, when so much human misery exists alongside such enormous squandering of wealth. At a time when man has made himself the master of marvellous technologies that make it possible for him to subdue nature, he remains subject tdue nature, he remains subject to its whims. In today's conditions 'natural' climatic or agricultural catastrophes are even more tragic than they were in the past. Worse still, capitalist society is the first society in history whose very survival in the period of decline depends upon a massive cyclical destruction of an ever growing part of itself. To be sure, other periods of decadence saw confrontations between factions of the dominant class, but the period of decadence in which we are living today is locked in an unabating and devilish cycle of crisis - world war - reconstruction - crisis; making the human race pay a terrible tribute in death and suffering."
The continuation of capitalism is a disaster for humanity. And the most tragic thing about this is that all the horrors of the 20th century, the wars, the death camps, the obliteration of culture, are all the direct result of the defeat of the first attempt by the international working class to do away with this system and replace it with a higher form of production.
The first revolutionary wave and its defeat
The First World War did not come to an end because of a clear victory for one of the protagonists. It was the struggle of the working class that put an end to the conflict. This was not just in Russia, where the Keret just in Russia, where the Kerensky regime had been overthrown, not just in Germany where the bourgeoisie called for an armistice as an insurrectionary movement reached Berlin, but as part of a growing international wave of workers' struggles.
"At the highest point of its struggle between 1917 and 1923, the proletariat took power in Russia, engaged in mass insurrections in Germany, and shook Italy, Hungary, and Austria to their foundations. Although less strongly, the revolutionary wave also manifested itself in bitter struggles in, for example, Spain, Great Britain, North and South America. The tragic failure of the revolutionary wave was finally marked in 1927 by the crushing of the proletarian insurrection in Shanghai and Canton in China after a long series of defeats for the working class internationally" (ICC Platform).
On the political level, this movement found its highest expression in the foundation of the Communist international in 1919.
The repression of the bourgeoisie took many forms, from the invasion of Russia by the armies of the Entente, to the butchery of the Freikorps unleashed by German Social Democracy. The working class had long been in a position to appreciate the counter-attack that the ruling class would mount when it was threatened - most cnt when it was threatened - most clearly from the repression of the Paris Commune some fifty years previously. What was new in the 20s and 30s was that the working class was also subjected to the counter-revolutionary actions of those who called themselves 'socialists' or even 'communists'.
To take a typical example: in Italy the militancy of the working class was wasted in massive factory occupations which diverted the movement from frontally attacking the capitalist state. In 1924 Trotsky wrote that:
"In Italy there was a sabotaged revolution. The proletariat hurled itself with all its weight against the bourgeoisie, seizing factories, mines, and mills, but the Socialist Party, frightened by the proletariat's pressure on the bourgeoisie, stabbed it in the back, disorganised it, paralysed its efforts, and handed it over to fascism" ('On the Road to European Revolution').
In a sense this was the experience of the whole working class. The revolutionary wave had been met with force of arms, but it had also been sabotaged by the unions and Social Democracy. The coming to power of Hitler in 1933 was the final demonstration of the defeat of the working class. The balance of forces had changed and the path was open to war. The Communist International had become an instrument of the Russiacome an instrument of the Russian state, and the acceptance of Russia into the League of Nations in 1934 was further confirmation of the defeat of the working class and the international preparations for war.
Communism remains humanity's only hope
The counter-revolution that descended on the working class in the 20s could not last forever. At the end of the 1960s the proletarian giant began to awaken from its long sleep. In 1968-74 there was an international wave of struggles which swept through France, Italy, Spain, Britain and many other countries, exposing the lie that the working class had disappeared or been bought off by the system. From 1978-81 there was a second wave that had its highest expression with the mass strike in Poland. From 1983-89 there was a movement with a greater extent than any in the history of the working class. These movements also gave new life to the political expressions of the working class, the communist minorities which had been so decimated by the years of counter-revolution.
But despite the intensity of struggles from 1968-89, the working class did not go on the offensive against the capitalist system. At the same time, despite the economic crisis demanding that capitalism should come up with the 'solution' of world war, it has not been able to do so. Th not been able to do so. The bourgeoisie has not been able to mobilise the workers of the main capitalist countries behind the ideology of national defence. There has been a social stalemate which led to the disintegration of the blocs set up to wage a third world war. Decadent capitalism entered a new and final phase - the phase of decomposition, of an accelerating slide into barbarism and chaos. While the course toward world war is not open, the worsening of decomposition leads humanity towards the same fate.
"In the end, it is all the same whether we are wiped out in a rain of thermonuclear bombs, or by pollution, epidemics and the massacres of small wars (where nuclear weapons might also be used). The only difference between these two forms of annihilation lies in that one is quick, while the other will be slower, and would consequently provoke still more suffering" ('Decomposition, final phase of the decadence of capitalism', in the ICC pamphlet The decadence of capitalism).
We have not yet reached the point of no return; but capitalism certainly doesn't have a whole millennium in front of it, and it's far more probable that the fate of humanity will be decided well inside the 21st century. The decomposition of society bears with it the growing threat of the destruction of all social the destruction of all social ties, the liquidation of rational thought, the irreparable poisoning of the natural environment, the devastation of war. And yet the fact remains that capitalism itself has created the technical, material means to put an end to poverty and hunger, to the drudgery of wage labour and the waste of unemployment, to the irrational divisions and competition that lead to war. It is only the perpetuation of capitalist social relations which prevent this vast productive potential being placed in the service of humanity. And the fact also remains that capitalism's gravedigger - the international class of wage labourers, the proletariat - has neither disappeared nor been finally defeated. Here lies the only hope for humanity's survival, and for the emergence of a truly human society. The proletarians must reject with contempt the phony optimism of the bourgeoisie's millennium celebrations - a fraud which barely masks the nihilism of a class which has been condemned by history. It is we, the exploited, the communist class, which holds the key to the coming century and the coming millennium.