Twenty-five years ago after the fall of the Soviet Union the defenders of capitalism were euphoric. They spoke of the death of socialism and even the end of history. But, as Alan Woods explains, today not one stone upon another is left of those confident predictions. History has returned with a vengeance.
The year 2016 ended with two more dramatic and bloody occurrences: the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Istanbul and the brutal murder of people in Berlin who were peacefully enjoying preparations for Christmas. These events were linked to the bloody morass in the Middle East and more specifically to Syria.
The fall of Aleppo represented a decisive turn in the situation. Russia, which was supposed to have been isolated and humbled by the “international community” (read Washington) now controls Syria and decides what happens there. It called a peace conference in Kazakhstan to which neither the Americans nor the Europeans were invited, followed by an agreement for a ceasefire dictated on Russia’s terms.
In different ways these developments expressed the same phenomenon: the old world order is dead and in its place we are faced with a future of instability and conflict, the outcome of which nobody can predict. The year 2016 therefore represented a turning point in history. It was a year marked by crisis and turbulence on a global scale.
Twenty-five years ago after the fall of the Soviet Union the defenders of capitalism were euphoric. They spoke of the death of socialism and communism and even the end of history. They promised us a future of peace and prosperity thanks to the triumph of the free market economy and democracy.
Liberalism had triumphed and therefore history had reached its final expression in capitalism. That was the essential meaning of the now notorious phrase of Francis Fukuyama. But now the wheel of history has turned full circle. Today not one stone upon another is left of those confident predictions of the strategists of capital. History has returned with a vengeance.
Suddenly the world seems to be afflicted by strange and unprecedented phenomena that defy all the attempts of the political experts to explain them. On 23 June the people of Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union – a result that nobody expected, which caused shock waves on an international scale. But these were as nothing compared to the tsunami provoked by the result of the American presidential elections – a result that nobody expected, including the man who won.
Within hours of the election of Donald Trump, the streets of cities all over the United States were filled with demonstrators. These events are the dramatic confirmation of the instability that has afflicted the entire world. Overnight the old certainties have disappeared. There is a general ferment in society and a sense of widespread uncertainty filled the ruling class and its ideologues with deep foreboding.
The apologists of capitalist liberalism complain bitterly about the rise of politicians like Donald Trump who represents the antithesis of what is known as “liberal values.” For such people the year 2016 seems like a nightmare. They are hoping that they will wake up and find that it was all a dream, that yesterday will return and tomorrow will see a better day. But for bourgeois liberalism there will be no reawakening and no tomorrow.
Political commentators speak with dread of the rise of something they call “populism”, a word that is as elastic as it is meaningless. The use of such amorphous terminology merely signifies that those who use it have no idea what they’re talking about. In strict etymological terms populism is merely a Latin translation of the Greek demagogy. The term is applied with the same gusto that a bad painter plasters a wall with a thick coat of paint to cover up his mistakes. It is used to describe such a wide variety of political phenomena that it becomes entirely devoid of any real content.
The leaders of Podemos and Geert Wilders, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Evo Morales, Rodrigo Duterte and Hugo Chavez, Jeremy Corbyn and Marine Le Pen – all are tarred with the same populist brush. It is sufficient to compare the real content of these movements that are not only different but radically antagonistic to realise the utter futility of such language. It is not calculated to clarify but to confuse, or more correctly to cover up the confusion of stupid bourgeois political commentators.
The death of liberalism
In its editorial of 24 December 2016 The Economist chanted a hymn of praise to its beloved liberalism. Liberals, we are told, believe in “open economies and open societies, where the free exchange of goods, capital, people and ideas is encouraged and where universal freedoms are protected from state abuse by the rule of law.” Such a beautiful picture really ought to be set to music.
But then the article sadly concludes that 2016 “has been a year of setbacks. Not just over Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but also the tragedy of Syria, abandoned to its suffering, and widespread support—in Hungary, Poland and beyond—for ‘illiberal democracy’. As globalisation has become a slur, nationalism, and even authoritarianism, have flourished. In Turkey relief at the failure of a coup was overtaken by savage (and popular) reprisals. In the Philippines voters chose a president who not only deployed death squads but bragged about pulling the trigger. All the while Russia, which hacked Western democracy, and China, which just last week set out to taunt America by seizing one of its maritime drones, insist liberalism is merely a cover for Western expansion.”
The beautiful hymn of praise to liberalism and Western values has ended on a sour note. The Economist concludes bitterly: “Faced with this litany, many liberals (of the free-market sort) have lost their nerve. Some have written epitaphs for the liberal order and issued warnings about the threat to democracy. Others argue that, with a timid tweak to immigration law or an extra tariff, life will simply return to normal.”
But life will not simply “return to normal” – or more correctly, we will enter a new stage of what The Economist refers to as a “new normality”: A period of endless cuts, austerity and falling living standards. In reality, we have been living in this new normality for quite some time. And very serious consequences flow from this.
The global crisis of capitalism has created conditions that are completely unlike the conditions that existed (at least for a handful of privileged countries) four decades after the Second World War. That period witnessed the biggest upswing of the productive forces of capitalism since the Industrial Revolution. This was the soil on which the much vaunted “liberal values” could flourish. The economic boom provided the capitalists with sufficient profits to grant concessions to the working class.
That was the golden era of reformism. But the present period is the era, not of reforms but of counter-reforms. This is not the result of ideological prejudice, as some foolish reformists imagine. It is the necessary consequence of the crisis of the capitalist system that has reached its limits. The whole process that unfolded over a period of six decades is now thrown into reverse.
Instead of reforms and rising living standards, the working class everywhere is faced with cuts, austerity, unemployment and impoverishment. The degradation of working conditions, wages, rights and pensions falls most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. The idea of equality for women is being eroded by the remorseless search for increased profitability. A whole generation of young people is being deprived of a future. That is the essence of the present period.
The elite’s Marie Antoinette moment
The ruling class and its strategists find it hard to accept the reality of the present situation and are completely blind to the political consequences that flow from it. The same blindness can be observed in every ruling class that is facing extinction and refuses to accept it. As Lenin correctly observed, a man standing on the edge of a precipice does not reason.
The Financial Times published an interesting article by Wolfgang Münchau entitled “The elite’s Marie Antoinette moment”. It begins as follows:
“Some revolutions could have been avoided if the old guard had only refrained from provocation. There is no proof of a ‘let them eat cake’ incident. But this is the kind of thing Marie Antoinette could have said. It rings true. The Bourbons were hard to beat as the quintessential out-of-touch establishment.
“They have competition now.
“Our global liberal democratic establishment is behaving in much the same way. At a time when Britain has voted to leave the EU, when Donald Trump has been elected US president, and Marine Le Pen is marching towards the Elysée Palace, we — the gatekeepers of the global liberal order — keep on doubling down.”
The comparison with the French Revolution is highly instructive. Everywhere the ruling class and its “experts” have shown themselves to be completely out of touch with the real situation in society. They assumed that the order of things that emerged from the post-war economic boom would continue forever. The market economy and bourgeois “democracy” were the unquestioned paradigms of the epoch.
Their smug complacency precisely resembled that of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France. It is by no means certain that her famous phrase was ever pronounced, but it accurately reflects the mentality of a degenerate ruling class that has no interest in the sufferings of ordinary people or the inevitable consequences that flow from them.
In the end Marie Antoinette lost her head and now the ruling class and its political representatives are losing theirs. The Financial Times article continues:
“Why is this happening? Macroeconomists thought no one would dare challenge their authority. Italian politicians have been playing power games forever. And the job of EU civil servants is to find ingenious ways of spiriting politically tricky legislation and treaties past national legislatures. Even as the likes of Ms Le Pen, Mr Grillo and Geert Wilders of the far-right Dutch Freedom party head towards power, the establishment keeps acting this way. A Bourbon regent, in an uncharacteristic moment of reflection, would have backed off. Our liberal capitalist order, with its competing institutions, is constitutionally incapable of doing that. Doubling down is what it is programmed to do.
“The correct course of action would be to stop insulting voters and, more importantly, to solve the problems of an out-of-control financial sector, uncontrolled flows of people and capital, and unequal income distribution. In the eurozone, political leaders found it expedient to muddle through the banking crisis and then a sovereign debt crisis — only to find Greek debt is unsustainable and the Italian banking system is in serious trouble. Eight years on, there are still investors out there betting on a collapse of the eurozone as we know it.”
In 1938 Trotsky wrote that the ruling class was tobogganing to disaster with its eyes closed. The above lines are a graphic illustration of this fact. And Mr Münchau draws the following conclusion quote:
“But it is not happening for the same reason it did not happen in revolutionary France. The gatekeepers of western capitalism, like the Bourbons before them, have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.”
The collapse of the centre
Contrary to the old prejudice of the liberals, human consciousness is not progressive but profoundly conservative. Most people do not like change. They cling obstinately to the old ideas, prejudices, religion and morality because they are familiar and what is familiar is always more comforting than what is not. The idea of change is frightening because it is unknown. These fears are deeply rooted in the human psyche and have existed from time immemorial.
Yet change is as necessary to the survival of the human race as it is to the survival of the individual. The absence of change is death. The human body constantly changes from the moment of birth; all cells break down, die and are replaced with new cells. The child must disappear in order for the adult to be born.
Yet it is not difficult to understand people’s aversion to change. Habit, routine, tradition – all these things are necessary for the maintenance of social norms that underpin the functioning of society. Over a long period they become ingrained, conditioning the daily activities of millions of men and women. They are universally accepted, as are respect for the laws and customs, the rules of political life and the existing institutions: in a word, the status quo.
Something similar exists in science. In his profound and penetrating study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas S. Kuhn explains how every period in the development of science is based on an existing paradigm that is generally accepted, providing a necessary framework for scientific work. For a long time this paradigm serves a useful purpose. But eventually small, apparently insignificant contradictions appear that eventually lead to the downfall of the old paradigm and its replacement with a new one. This, according to Kuhn, constitutes the essence of a scientific revolution.
Exactly the same dialectical process occurs in society. Ideas that have existed for so long that they have hardened into prejudices eventually enter into conflict with existing reality. At that point, a revolution in consciousness begins to take place. People begin to question what seemed to be unquestionable. Ideas that were comfortable because they provided certainty are shattered on the rock of hard reality. For the first time people begin to shake off the old comfortable illusions and look reality in the face.
The real cause of the fears of the ruling class is the collapse of the political centre. What we are seeing in Britain, the United States, Spain and many other countries is a sharp and increasing polarisation between left and right in politics, which in turn is merely a reflection of an increasing polarisation between the classes. This in turn is a reflection of the deepest crisis in the history of capitalism.
For the last hundred years the political system in the USA was based on two parties – the Democrats and Republicans – that both stood for the maintenance of capitalism and both represented the interests of the banks and big business. This was very well expressed by Gore Vidal who wrote “our Republic has one party, the property party, with two right wings.”
This was the solid foundation for the stability and longevity of what Americans regarded as “democracy”. In reality, this bourgeois democracy was merely a fig leaf to conceal the reality of the dictatorship of the bankers and capitalists. Now this convenient setup is being challenged and shaken to the core. Millions of people are waking up to the rottenness of the political establishment and the fact that they are being deceived by those who claim to represent them. This is the prior condition for a social revolution.
Crisis of reformism
We see a similar situation in Britain, where for 100 years Labour and Conservatives alternated in power, providing the same kind of stability for the ruling class. The Labour Party and Conservative party were run by solid, respectable men and women who could be relied upon to run society in the interests of the bankers and capitalists of the city of London. But the election of Jeremy Corbyn has upset the apple cart.
The ruling class fears that the massive influx of new members into the Labour Party may break the stranglehold of the right wing over Labour. That explains the panic of the ruling class and the vitriolic nature of the campaign against Corbyn.
The crisis of capitalism is also the crisis of reformism. The strategists of capital resemble the Bourbons, but the reformist leaders are only a poor imitation of the former. They are the blindest of the blind. The reformists, both of the right and left varieties, have no understanding of the real situation. Though they pride themselves on being great realists, they are the worst kind of utopians.
Like the liberals of whom they are merely a pale reflection, they are pining after the past that has vanished beyond return. They complain bitterly about the unfairness of capitalism, not realising that the policies of the bourgeoisie are dictated by the economic necessity of capitalism itself.
It is a supreme irony of history that the reformists have fully embraced the market economy precisely at a time when it is breaking down before our very eyes. They had accepted capitalism as something that is given once and for all, that cannot be questioned and certainly not overthrown. The alleged realism of the reformists is the realism of a man who tries to persuade a tiger to eat salads instead of human flesh. Naturally, the realist who attempted to perform this laudable feat did not succeed in convincing the Tiger and ended up inside its belly.
What the reformists to not understand is that if you accept capitalism you must also accept the laws of capitalism. And under modern conditions that means accepting cuts and austerity. Nowhere is the bankruptcy of reformism more clearly expressed than in the fact that they no longer talk about socialism. Nor do they talk about capitalism. Instead they complain of the evils of “neoliberalism”, that is to say, they do not object to capitalism per se but only a particular model of capitalism. But the so-called neoliberalism is merely a euphemism for capitalism in the period of crisis.
The reformists who imagine that they are great realists are dreaming of a return to the conditions of the past when that past has already receded into history. The period that now opens up will be entirely different. In the decades that followed 1945, the class struggle in the advanced capitalist countries was attenuated to some extent as a result of the reforms won by the working class through struggle.
Trotsky explained long ago that betrayal is implicit in reformism in all its varieties. By this he did not mean that reformists consciously betray the working class. There are many honest reformists, as well as a fair number of corrupt careerists. But the way to hell is paved with good intentions. If you accept the capitalist system – as all reformists do, whether right or left – then you must obey the laws of the capitalist system. In a period of capitalist crisis, this means the inevitability of cuts and attacks on living standards.
This lesson had to be learnt by Tsipras and Varoufakis in Greece. They came to power with huge popular support on an anti-austerity programme, but were very quickly made to understand by Merkel and Schäuble that this was not on the agenda. In the end they capitulated and meekly carried out the austerity programme dictated by Berlin and Brussels. We saw a similar situation in France where Hollande won a massive victory promising an anti-austerity programme, then did 180° turn and carried out even deeper cuts than the previous right-wing government. The inevitable result has been the rise of Marine Le Pen and the Front National.
Capitalism in a blind alley
In countries like the United States every generation since the Second World War could look forward to a better standard of living than that enjoyed by their parents. In the decades of economic boom workers became accustomed to relatively easy victories. The trade union leaders did not have to struggle much to obtain wage increases. Reforms were considered to be the norm. Today was better than yesterday and tomorrow would be better than today.
In the long period of capitalist upswing, the class consciousness of the workers was somewhat blunted. Instead of clear-cut class socialist policies, the workers’ movement has been infected with alien ideas through the transmission belt of the petty bourgeoisie which has elbowed the workers to one side and drowned out their voice with the shrill declamations of middle-class radicalism.
The so-called political correctness with its mishmash of half-baked ideas fished out of the rubbish bin of bourgeois liberalism has gradually become accepted even in the trade unions where the right-wing reformist leaders eagerly seize upon it as a substitute for class policies and socialist ideas. The left reformists in particular have played a pernicious role in this respect. It will take the hammer blows of events to demolish these prejudices that have a corrosive effect on consciousness.
But the crisis of capitalism does not permit such luxuries. Today’s generation of young people for the first time will face worse conditions of life than their parents enjoyed. Gradually this new reality is forcing itself on the consciousness of the masses. That is the reason for the present ferment of discontent that exists in all countries and is acquiring an explosive character. It is the explanation for the political earthquakes that have taken place in Britain, Spain, Greece, Italy, the United States and many other countries. It is a warning that revolutionary developments are being prepared.
It is true that at this stage the movement is characterised by a tremendous confusion. How could it be otherwise, when those organisations and parties that should be placing themselves at the head of a movement to transform society instead have been transformed into monstrous obstacles in the path of the working class? The masses are seeking a way out of the crisis, putting political parties, leaders and programs to the test. Those who fail the test are mercilessly cast to one side. There are violent swings on the electoral front, both to the left and to the right. All this is a harbinger of revolutionary change.
In retrospect the period of half a century that followed the Second World War will be seen as an historical exception. The peculiar concatenation of circumstances that produced this situation in all likelihood will never be repeated. What we face now is precisely a return to normal capitalism. The smiling face of liberalism, reformism and democracy will be cast aside to reveal the ugly physiognomy of capitalism as it really is.
Towards a new October!
A new period opens up before us – a period of storm and stress that will be far more similar to the 1930s than the period after 1945. All the illusions of the past will be burned out of the consciousness of the masses with a hot iron. In such a period as this the working class will have to fight hard to defend the gains of the past, and in the course of bitter struggle will come to understand the need for a thoroughgoing revolutionary programme. Either capitalism is overthrown, or a terrible fate awaits humanity. That is the only alternative. Any other course of action is a lie and a deceit. It is time to look truth in the face.
On the basis of diseased capitalism there can be no way forward for the working class and the youth. The liberals and reformists are striving with might and main to prop it up. They whimper about the threat to democracy, hiding the fact that so-called bourgeois democracy is merely a fig leaf behind which hides the crude reality of the dictatorship of the banks and big business. They will try to lure the working class into alliances to “defend democracy”, but this is a hypocritical farce.
The only force that has a real interest in democracy is the working class itself. The so-called liberal bourgeoisie is incapable of fighting reaction, which flows directly from the capitalist system upon which its wealth and privileges are based. It was Obama who paved the way for the victory of Trump, just as it was Hollande who has paved the way for the rise of Le Pen.
In reality, the old system is already breaking down before our very eyes. The symptoms of its decay are evident to all. Everywhere we see economic crises, social breakdown, disorder, wars, destruction and chaos. It is a terrible picture, but it flows from the fact that capitalism has led humanity into a blind alley.
It is not the first time that we have seen such things. The same symptoms can be seen in the period of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the period of decay of feudal society. It is no accident that men and women in those days imagined that the end of the world was approaching. But what was approaching was not the end of the world but only the end of a particular social economic system that had exhausted its potential and become a monstrous obstacle in the path of human progress.
Lenin once said that capitalism is horror without end. We now see the literal truth of this assertion. But alongside the horrors produced by a decadent and reactionary system there is another side to the picture. Our epoch is a birth-time, and a period of transition from one historical period to another. Such periods are always characterised by pains, which are the pains of a new society that is struggling to be born, while the old society struggles to preserve itself by strangling the child in the womb.
The old world is dying on its feet. That it is tottering to its fall is indicated by unmistakable symptoms. The rot is spreading in the established order of things, its institutions are collapsing. The defenders of the old order are seized by an undefined foreboding of something unknown. All these things betoken that there is something else approaching.
This gradual crumbling to pieces will be speeded up by the eruption of the working class on the scene of history. Those sceptics who wrote off the working class will be forced to eat their words. Volcanic forces are building up beneath the surface of society. The contradictions are building up to the point where they cannot be endured any further.
Our task is to shorten this painful process and ensure that the birth takes place with the least possible suffering. In order to do this it is necessary to accomplish the overthrow of the present system that has become a terrible barrier to the development of the human race and a threat to its future.
All those who are trying to preserve the old order, to patch it up, to reform it, to provide it with crutches that will enable it to hobble along for a few years or decades more are playing the most reactionary role. They are preventing the birth of a new society which alone can offer a future to humanity and put an end to the existing nightmare of capitalism.
The New World that is struggling to be born is called socialism. It is our job to ensure that this birth takes place as soon as possible and with the least possible pain and suffering. The way to achieve this end is to build a powerful worldwide Marxist tendency with educated cadres and strong links with the working class.
One hundred years ago an event took place that the changed the course of world history. In a backward semi feudal country on the edge of Europe, the working class moved to change society. Nobody expected this, on the contrary. The objective conditions for a socialist revolution in Russia seemed to be non-existent.
Europe was in the grip of a terrible war. The workers of Britain, France, Germany and Russia were slaughtering each other in the name of imperialism. In such a context the slogan “workers of the world unite” must have seemed like an expression of bitter sarcasm. Russia itself was ruled by a powerful autocratic regime with a huge army and police force and secret police whose tentacles extended to every political party – including the Bolsheviks.
And yet, in this seemingly impossible situation the workers of Russia moved to take power into their own hands. They overthrew the tsar and established democratic organs of power, the Soviets. Only nine months later the Bolshevik Party, which at the beginning of the revolution was a tiny force of no more than 8000 members, came to power.
One hundred years later Marxists are facing the same task that Lenin and Trotsky faced in 1917. Our forces are small and our resources are meagre, but we are armed with the most powerful weapon: the weapon of ideas. Marx said that ideas become a material force when they grip the mind of the masses. For a long time we were fighting against a powerful current. But the tide of history is now flowing strongly in our direction.
Ideas which are listened to by ones and twos today will be eagerly received by millions in the period that now opens up. Great events can take place with extreme rapidity, transforming the whole situation. The consciousness of the working class can change in a matter of days or hours. Our task is to prepare the cadres for the great events that impend. Our banner is the banner of October. Our ideas are the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. That is the ultimate guarantee of our success.