THE FUTURE INTERNATIONAL Socialists and the movement against capitalism
by Roger Silverman
This discussion document is an attempt to suggest how socialists should best approach the current worldwide movement against capitalism. It was written as an introduction to an earlier document called Preparing for revolution.
Preparing for revolution was first circulated in May 2009, but the ideas within it had been germinating over several years. It was a collective enterprise produced by socialists based in different countries who had been exchanging ideas on our online discussion list
and at occasional get-togethers over the years. At one such international meeting, held towards the end of 2008, it was agreed to prepare a document putting forward the consensus that had been arrived at by those comrades who had been corresponding and meeting over the years. All list members had been invited to these meetings, and in the course of the discussions those who had attended had arrived at a certain political approach. This document is an attempt to present this common outlook.
No claim is made here that it reflects the views of the socialist discussion list as a whole; it expresses the ideas of those comrades who have evolved a certain set of ideas over a long period of mutual discussion, and who for purposes of identification have adopted the name Workers’ International Network.
At a meeting in Dublin in 2009, it was agreed that the draft document presented there would be extended and revised and then sent out to the whole list as a political statement. It represents the views and approach of one group among several that are already represented on this list. In that sense it is a distinct political tendency.
In the past, the word “tendency” was sometimes used as a deliberate euphemism for a disciplined organisation, with internal finances, fulltimers, a headquarters, a constitution, a conference, a central committee, an executive committee, a general secretary, etc. It often meant an organisation claiming to be a vanguard of cadres of the future revolutionary leadership.
This publication has its origin in an online socialist discussion list –
It does not claim to represent the views of all participants on the list, which is a broad forum for the exchange of ideas between unaffiliated socialists and individual members of existing socialist groups. It is offered as a basis for discussion by the organisers of the list, known as the
Workers’ International Network.
We say we have plenty of those already. Our document spells out – uniquely among all other such documents – that establishing such a vanguard is not the immediate task of the day. We have no such pretensions. We are simply making a modest contribution towards the development of ideas which we hope will help to clarify the next steps forward. We are a tendency in the sense of its original definition: a group of like-minded people with a common outlook who wish to identify themselves as such and argue for their point of view. WIN is not a revolutionary party, even in embryo. It is a network. And this document is not intended as a blueprint, it is offered as a basis for discussion.
We hope to reach active committed workers engaged creatively in real struggles. Any hint of the old instant-answer I-told-you-so attitudes which were the negative side of the old left groups’ tradition will alienate them, and rightly so. There is understandably a scepticism on the part of even the most experienced and committed activists at any hint of the old exclusivist messianic postures. This is a healthy attitude on their part.
Theory is distilled experience, and Marxism is the concentrated experience of revolution. We are keen to place at the disposal of the new generation of fighters for a new world whatever theoretical lessons we think might be learned from history.
And yet hundreds of thousands have found themselves packed together for weeks on end of protest – on Tahrir Square in Cairo, on Syntagma Square in Athens, on Puerta del Sol in Madrid, in Occupy Wall Street and Oakland, in tent cities in Israel…. Literally millions have been marching, mobilising, striking and above all talking non-stop about the prospects and lessons of what is happening. We can be sure that the heated debates they have had will have at least as much to teach us as whatever abstract lessons we may have gleaned from our study of the textbooks. We need to learn from their experience and their ideas, and to find ways to engage in mutual discussion of the way forward for workers throughout the world.
We have a case to argue – the need for an international working-class party – but in a language and tone which will not alienate potential allies or tarnish us with misleading associations. Our case is that the movement will come and go in waves, that the current wave of occupations can’t last forever, and that it should not be allowed to ebb without leaving a permanent presence behind it.
Certainly, historical precedents are crucial as a key to understanding events as they unfold. However, we should guard against the temptation to artificially graft preconceived templates on to living processes. The most important quality – something almost uncannily possessed by Lenin and other great revolutionaries – is an ability to listen.
The Russian revolution is especially rich in lessons for understanding the processes in subsequent revolutions, but it too had its own particular characteristics which gave it its own special character and tempo. One of these was the existence – although by no means without its own disputes, hesitations, adventures and splits – of a revolutionary party which was able to win mass confidence and authority and equipped with a clear programme for a new society. But who is to say that there are not being created right now, in the debates that must be raging in workplaces, street corners and shanty towns across southern Europe, north Africa or Latin America, the first nuclei of such forces there too?
We are circulating our document, and launching a new journal, to invite workers and campaigners for a new society to read it, discuss it, challenge it, defend it, modify it; consider whether or not they
wish to subscribe to it; decide whether to identify themselves with it. It is one contribution among many to a worldwide discussion.
There is no more important task than to pass on the torch to a new generation – to link the collective experience of the working class in its old heartlands, as embodied in the memory of its veterans, to the new generation now rising to its feet, largely in areas of the world which have newly and rapidly industrialised over the past thirty years. To reach the youth, the veteran old-timers must be prepared to cut themselves loose from old ingrained habits; to resist old habits of thought and ways of working which are out of step with the times. We don’t claim to know all the answers; we hope we are asking the right questions. Our document is not the last word; perhaps at best a foreword.
A REPLY TO CRITICS
We have no claim of infallibility. Nevertheless, the 2009 document has proved quite accurate and even prophetic in identifying the main features of events and the coming movement to change society. It seriously addresses the new situation and the new tasks facing socialists: the changed physiognomy of the working class, the effects of globalisation, the different nature of the tasks ahead compared with those of the twentieth century, etc.
When our document first appeared in 2009, some people expressed doubts about the title: what revolution? Today – with mass uprisings, occupations, general strikes in every continent and almost every country – it hardly seems so overblown after all. The criticism of the title itself reflected a misunderstanding. Our purpose was to draw attention to the depth of the crisis and the inevitable social clashes that lay ahead. And sure enough, they have not taken long to arrive.
We were reproached for glossing over “the current ideologically low base”. On the contrary, the gap between the acute objective needs of the situation and the political understanding of the working class – something which is now being rapidly narrowed in daily struggle – is a central strand in the document. However, it doesn’t put the blame for this on mere subjective mistakes, but examines the objective reasons for it, including the process of deindustrialisation in the old strongholds of the proletariat; the effects of the boom; the collapse of Stalinism; the weakening of the trade unions; and other factors.
In any case, revolutionary situations arise objectively, and irrespective of “the ideological base”. They are the consequence of real material conflict, not of ideology. Political understanding may be a factor in deciding the outcome of a revolution, but not the fact of their occurrence: hence, in fact, precisely, the need to prepare for them… and the very title of our document.
Most surprisingly, we were accused of “catastrophism”. We were reminded of the habit of the left groups “to begin every international meeting by announcing that things were at a turning point”, and admonished that “the document sounds a bit like that”.
To that, we could only reply: when the boy in the fable cried “Wolf!” it sounded just the same when it was true as when it was not. The fact that others wrongly interpreted every significant event as the decisive turning point in world history does not mean that there are no historic turning points. The punch line of the fable is that eventually a wolf did come. Only months previously, the entire world financial system had trembled on the brink of collapse. We doubt if many people today would
share the view of our critics that the current economic crisis, let alone the looming environmental crisis, are not catastrophic, in every sense of the word.
Any reader who wishes to follow this debate is welcome to consult the list archives on http://groups.yahoo.com/group/socialistdiscussion/messages
One group of people who have no hesitation in describing the current situation as catastrophic is the capitalist class. Catastrophes are predicted every day, nowadays not just in the financial columns but on the front pages too.
According to the OECD, unemployment in the advanced capitalist economies will rise in 2012 to nearly 50m – a rise of almost 50% since 2007. Youth unemployment throughout Europe varies between 20% plus to almost 50% in Greece and Spain. World sovereign debts now total around $8 trillion. The US debt alone accounts for around $3 trillion of that.
Many of the Euro countries’ government bonds have already been downgraded to hardly more than junk status. The funds of the EU’s emergency fund the EFSF, and of its planned replacement the ESM, will not run to any more than the already agreed bailouts. There is a real risk of a collapse of the Euro.
Let us take some quotations from the more sober and respectable commentators:
- The bank Morgan Stanley comments: “The Great Recession that followed the Lehmann bankruptcy would probably pale in comparison to a scenario involving a euro break-up and widespread bank and government failures.”
- Will Hutton, an advisor to the British government on cutting public sector pay, declares: “The future of Europe is in the balance. The potential disintegration of the euro will be a first-order economic and political disaster. Economically, it will plunge Europe into competitive devaluations, debt defaults, bank bailouts, frozen credit flows, trade protection and prolonged stagnation. Politically, whatever resolve there is to hold our disparate continent together, where the old enmities and suspicions are never far from the surface, will evaporate…. What will emerge will be a Europe closer to the 1930s. Fearful, stagnant and prey to vicious racist and nationalist ideologies.”
- Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, warns that predictions of social unrest are “closer today than at any other time since this current financial crisis – the worst since 1929 – began… Nations all around the world are concerned about rising social discontent. There is a feeling among experts that the deep anger brewing in these countries is fermenting worldwide against the same institutions, the same people, and the failure of global capitalism.”
- Dennis C. Blair, US director of national intelligence, states that the continued economic crisis is “increasing the risk of regime-threatening instability” from which “the United States would not be immune”.
- Gerald Celente, financial and political trends forecaster and publisher of the journal Trends, writes: “What’s happening in Greece will spread worldwide as economies decline…. We
will see social unrest growing in all nations which are facing sovereign debt crisis, the most obvious being Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Iceland, the Ukraine, Hungary, followed by the United Kingdom and the United States.”
- Marie-Hélène Caillol, president of the European Laboratory of Political Anticipation think- tank, adds: “This crisis is directly connected to the end of the world order as we know it since 1945…. The whole global fabric centred on the US for 60 years is slowly collapsing, generating turmoil of all sorts.” Asked where social unrest will end, she replies: “War. It’s as simple and as horrifying as that.”
- The historian Simon Schama predicts: “You can’t smell the sulphur in the air right now and not think we might be on the threshold of an age of rage….” He noted that there is often a “time-lag between the onset of economic disaster and the accumulation of social fury,” but that after an initial period of “fearful disorientation” there comes the danger of the “organised mobilisation of outrage”. We are seeing just the beginning of an organised outrage directed against the super-rich 1% scooping up astronomical earnings while millions of the 99% are thrown into homelessness and hunger.
- Both Calliol and Celente reject claims that agitators are behind this wave of social unrest. “There are no organisations behind this response – it’s a public response…. This is a 21st- century rendition of ‘workers of the world unite.’”
So, if we are guilty of “catastrophism”, then we are in good company. Preparing for revolution? The ruling class certainly are.
THE REVOLUTION HAS BEGUN!
On 15th October 2011, demonstrations were held in more than 950 cities in 82 countries. They were inspired by the “Arab spring”, the Spanish “indignados”, the Greek general strikes and the worldwide Occupy movement. In Spain, a million people demonstrated: 500,000 in Madrid, 350,000 in Barcelona, and 150,000 in Zaragoza. In Rome 300,000 marched under the banner “People of Europe: Rise Up!”. In Germany, a total of 30,000 people were on the streets. In the USA there were demonstrations in hundreds of cities, including 10,000 people in New York.
Around the same time there were simultaneous mass occupations in over a hundred countries; mass street protests in Russia; local strikes and uprisings in China; general strikes or the near-equivalent by millions of workers in Greece, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, France, Hungary, Romania, Britain, and beyond Europe in every continent, from Israel to Nigeria to Chile. It would almost be quicker to list countries where there have not been mass protest movements unprecedented for decades.
More than a hundred years ago, French society was rocked to its foundations by a single case of racist victimisation. (What an innocent age that was, compared to ours!). Lenin often used this example (known as the Dreyfus affair) to show how a single everyday scandal could sometimes shine a sudden spotlight on the corruption of the ruling class and revolutionise society:
“In a situation which – from both the international and the national viewpoints – was a hundred times less revolutionary than it is today, such an ‘unexpected’ and ‘petty’ case as one of the many thousands of fraudulent machinations of the reactionary military caste was enough to bring the people to the brink of civil war.”
Today throughout most of the Western world, capitalism and all its trappings are held in universal contempt. The bankers drunkenly gambled away their customers’ savings and were promptly rewarded by their political puppets with trillion-pound bailouts and personal million-pound bonuses; the millions were doomed to a future of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and hunger.
In Britain, there is public disgust at the multi-million pound personal salaries and bonuses awarded themselves by bankers and business executives; at the greed of MPs with their snouts in the expenses trough; at the criminal antics of the tabloid press vultures; at the trail of police bribery and collusion. These have combined to create a whole stack of super-Dreyfus-scale scandals. Institutions that were previously hallmarks of respectability – the banks, parliament, the press and the police (the monarchy had already long beforehand been discredited) – are now despised. In Ireland and other countries where it was previously the object of awe and reverence, we can add to this list the disgrace of the Catholic church, particularly over the history of child abuse by the clergy.
Everywhere capitalism and its totems are hated. The evidence has even found its way into the opinion polls. In Greece, 33% of the population want “revolution”. In France, no more than 6% “strongly support the free market”, and in Japan, only 2%! In the USA – where in 2002, 80% of Americans “supported the free-market system” – today 40% “no longer feel positive about capitalism”. 37% of all Americans think “socialism is superior to capitalism”; two thirds think there is “a strong conflict between rich and poor”; and among young people, ethnic minorities and the poor, there is already a majority who are “against capitalism”. According to other polls, 77% of Americans think “too much power is held by the rich and the corporations”, and 49% of Americans aged 18-29 “view socialism in a favorable light”.
Since the beginning of the financial crisis less than five years ago, governments in most of the countries of Europe have fallen. Some of these have been incumbent governments voted out of office in due elections, but many more have been swept from power mid-term by intractable crises or popular upheavals: in Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Iceland, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy… Only last month, the Romanian government was overthrown after weeks of mass street protests, in a virtual replica of the events in Egypt last year. And yet revolutions have become so commonplace nowadays that they are hardly reported any more.
Never before has there been such a widespread and generalised hatred of capitalism throughout society. At a time when not a single significant political party in the world questions the capitalist system, millions of people worldwide have been taking to the streets to protest against it. From the “Arab spring”, to the Greek general strikes, to the Spanish tent cities, to the public sector strike in Britain, to Occupy Wall Street and the wave of similar occupations that have swept at least ninety countries, to the Oakland general strike…
Yet where is the party that dares to challenge capitalism? Once again “a spectre is haunting Europe”.
As in 1848, it is time that all the hatred for the existing order and all the implicit momentum for change found its political voice. All the lingering illusions of capitalism’s shaky last fling in the ’80s and ’90s are gone with the wind. Just as the collapse of the rotting police dictatorships in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989 spelled the downfall of Stalinism as a system, so now capitalism is facing its own 1989 moment. Briefly, apologists for capitalism had been able to delude themselves that their system was triumphant. The end of history has come, they crowed. Today their system too is imploding. And the more capitalism has become patently irrational, the more the movement to overthrow it has become real.
Before 1989, in every discussion on world perspectives, Marxists reviewing the growing crises of the dying Stalinist system on the one hand, and of capitalism on the other, used to speak of the race between the political revolution in the East and the social revolution in the West. It predicted the inevitable doom of both systems. However, the timing – the question of who would win the race between these two revolutionary processes – became for a time crucial in determining events. The twenty-year time-lapse between them created a historical anomaly. The fact that Stalinism collapsed at a time when capitalism seemed apparently still viable gave history a strange and unforeseen twist, which was politically disorientating to the working class. This effect was amplified by the new technological advances which for the first time created a truly globalised system of world production, stripping bare many of the old industrial heartlands, destroying many former strongholds of the old proletariat and cultivating a new working class on virgin territory who were not yet blooded in class struggle. In the longer term, however, this same process has enormously welded the class together worldwide, and for the first time in history made the proletariat a majority of the world population – a living dynamic presence in every continent.
Just imagine if the current capitalist crisis had coincided with the downfall of the Stalinist regimes; or that Stalinism had staggered on until now. The workers could almost have joined hands in a simultaneous worldwide uprising. Now the knot of history is becoming once again re-tied.
Throughout most of the last century, in Europe and beyond, there was a general awareness that capitalism was doomed and that humankind was on the brink of a new era. That idea became largely eclipsed in the last three decades. Socialists seemed to be swimming against the stream. But it is coming back today with renewed force – still only a mood maybe, a mute feeling, but growing and every day beginning just a little louder to find its voice.
Long before the economic crisis had demolished capitalism’s last fling of self-justification, a general revulsion against it had already taken root among the youth. This was made most manifest at the turn of the millennium in a series of international protest demonstrations. The current protest against capitalism was foreshadowed in wave after wave of sudden, spontaneous, almost miraculous ad-hoc international youth demonstrations. A new generation with a new technology suddenly confronted the rulers of the world face to face. Wherever the political agents of the corporations gathered – in Seattle, Prague, Gothenburg, Genoa – they found themselves trapped by mass sieges. Youth protest came like a sudden storm as if from nowhere, expressing a general revolt against the existing order.
These events were cut across for a few years by the shock of 9/11 and imperialism’s “war on terror” – although in 2003 the biggest anti-war movement ever seen in history took place, culminating in a simultaneous worldwide demonstration of 30 million people, linking the world in a living chain of protest and worldwide solidarity, from San Francisco to London to Tokyo, Oslo to Melbourne.
These uprisings of urban youth have become an international phenomenon which has begun to define the epoch. From the Chinese youth revolt at Tienanmen Square to those more recently in Iran, Burma and Tibet, and now Greece, Spain and Chile, these universal mass democratic youth protests have leaped across the continents.
Now the economic downturn, and soaring world food and fuel prices, have ignited riots and uprisings throughout the world. Young people are improvising networks of protest with their new technology of instant mass communication. A new era has opened with the revolution in Egypt: the beginning of a new wave of revolutions like those of 1848, 1917-21, 1968 and 1989.
WE ARE THE 99%!
Britain has already experienced a wave of student protests, a trade-union march of half a million workers, and two massive public sector strikes (one numbering up to two million). Even the youth riots represented in a crude form the uprising of the most oppressed and hopeless strata, people who can see no future, no hope and no way out. Unlike the youth of Egypt, Spain, Greece or Israel who occupied their town squares or set up tent cities in their hundreds of thousands, these bitter and demoralised youth had no slogans, no demands, no aspirations, no self-respect: it was a blind and futile eruption of despair.
In the USA – formerly the citadel of capitalism – after decades of falling wages and capitalist triumphalism, the workers, the poor and the youth are beginning to fight back, with workers’ revolts in Wisconsin, Ohio, Maine, Michigan and the Longview docks on the west coast; the upsurge of youth in the Occupy movement, and the campaign against foreclosures.
Despite covert attempts to foment communal discord, in most of the countries of the “Arab spring” there is a working-class population still largely united and defiant; a divided ruling clique; a disaffected middle class; a crumbling state machine, with soldiers openly fraternising with
the protest movement – all the classic objective features of a revolutionary situation. We cannot expect a rapid outcome to these events, but a protracted period of flux, with limited victories and temporary defeats, pauses, upsurges, setbacks, periods of demoralisation followed by renewed flare-ups, and meanwhile a constant exchange of ideas, debate and political education.
The “99% versus the 1%” slogan is a brilliant idea that has sprung up spontaneously and spread throughout the world. It has caught the public imagination precisely because it corresponds so well to reality. It reflects both the diminishing specific weight of the industrial proletariat in many of the former predominantly manufacturing countries, but also the dispossession of the former middle class, the proletarianisation of the clerical workforce, and the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of the tiny dominant billionaire clique.
The aspiration for a worldwide movement of the 99% expresses perfectly the tasks which a new International could really fulfil. It wouldn’t be by any means the final product of the revolutionary movement, but a significant early step.
The response to this slogan reflects exactly the current mood of the movement in society everywhere – both its strength and its weakness. There is a generalised hatred of capitalism, a revulsion at its misery, greed, injustice. At the same time, there is at this stage not even a hint of an alternative programme, no clear vision of an alternative society, no organisation and not much confidence in changing things. That explains both the instant appeal of the “occupy” movement, leaping from city to city, jumping across national borders and continents, but also its shapelessness and naivety: the idea that no demands are needed, and that “the movement is the message”.
POWER IN THE STREETS
In situations where the old regime can no longer function, a real alternative order can spring into existence and develop a growing authority from the self-organisation of the oppressed classes, side- by-side with a fast weakening remnant of the old established state machine. In our document, we suggested one such possible scenario. In the event of a collapse of the currency (something which came perilously close in the last financial crisis), we wrote:
“Quickly and naturally, for a time, some kind of rough-and-ready barter system would start to operate; an improvised quasi-monetary system based on tokens would develop; there would be an occupation of workplaces, a network of co-operatives, a refusal to vacate homes. And it is hard to tell where initially the forces could be found to repress such spontaneous mass action.”
Such developments would have been not just possible, but surely inevitable – not just in the throes of economic crises but also of the increasingly common environmental disasters. In terms of politics, the economy, the environment, war and peace, the world outlook is full of latent explosive force. Such crises are endemic in the volatile situation now opening up the world over. Whether in emergencies caused by environmental catastrophes, or through an entire spectrum of political and economic shocks, revolutionary opportunities can suddenly arise. The ingenuity of the working class is put to the test.
After the earthquake in Haiti, for a couple of days there was no power at all: no government, and also not yet any alternative authority. The vacuum had to be filled immediately. Out of the compulsion of sheer survival, the people had to improvise their own network of self-
administration. In New Orleans after the hurricane, too, local people were beginning to set about practical measures of self administration. In both cases they were soon to be suppressed by the brutal intervention of the US state (disguised as “humanitarian aid”), which had come not to provide relief and charity, but to turn their guns on a starving homeless population (otherwise known as “looters”) who were determined against all the odds to find a means of staying alive.
Above all in Europe, the people are paying the price for the parasitic greed of the ruling class. The Greek workers are in the front line today, many of them facing literal starvation – giving away their children because they are unable to feed them. They are returning to the hunger and despair of the occupation, the civil war and the dictatorship. But they are not alone. Along with the workers and youth of Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal, they are victims of what is only the first wave of attacks on the rights of workers throughout Europe.
It was the uprising of the Greek working class that directly challenged a crucial policy of the European ruling class. When the beleaguered elected prime minister raised the question of a referendum, he was summarily deposed, and direct rule imposed by a member of the European Central Bank – a tactic soon afterwards repeated in Italy, and then in effect extended to the entire Euro-zone under a new treaty imposing draconic austerity laws.
Greece has the most unstable history in Europe, having been plunged into revolutionary upheavals again and again: in the 1940s, the 1960s, the 1970s and most of all today. The general strikes and the Syntagma Square street protests will take their place in history beside the heroic traditions of the Greek resistance to Nazi occupation, the long years of civil war and the youth uprising at the Polytechnic in 1973 which brought down the colonels’ dictatorship.
For now, the Greek ruling class hesitates to resort to its traditional solution: a military coup. That option is not being openly canvassed, as it certainly was, for instance, in the period before the Greek coup of 1967 or the Chilean coup in 1973. Already there are tens of thousands of people out on the streets ready to lay down their lives if necessary. The workers have shown exemplary solidarity and ingenuity. For instance, when on top of slashing wages and pensions, the state imposed a crippling
new flat-rate household tax, threatening to cut off defaulters’ power supplies, the electricity workers promptly occupied the offices administering the tax to stop the bills going out.
However, in 1966, too, workers were marching through Athens against the open threat of a military coup, shouting the very explicit slogan: “Give us arms!” It was not until this movement had died down in 1967 that the military then seized its opportunity. To stage a coup now would mean a Syrian-style bloodbath. Syntagma Square would go down in history along with Tienanmen Square, scene of the 1989 massacre in Beijing in which thousands of young demonstrators were mown down by tanks. A bloodbath on this scale in Europe would electrify the entire continent and utterly transform the mood everywhere.
But the masses are not going to stay on the streets forever. Unless the opportunity is taken now to assert their latent power and move their resistance to a new level, then eventually the balance of forces will change. When eventually demoralisation begins to set in and the street protests dissipate, then the time might well be ripe for counter-revolution.
But that too would not be the end of the story. The colonels’ dictatorship (1967-74) was utterly unstable. It was rocked by youth protests – notably the heroic 1973 uprising at the Athens Polytechnic – and there was even a “coup within a coup” as the bickering colonels tried desperately to stave off their impending overthrow. Soon afterwards, the regime collapsed in disgrace, with ministers literally packing their bags and fleeing the country, muttering (this is an actual quotation): “We are a ridiculous government… a laughing stock”. The adventurism of the colonels, even in that relatively stable period, had led directly to the end of the monarchy and the birth of what was at the time (how soon it was to betray its heritage) a new mass left socialist party: PASOK.
Today, the ruling class will hesitate and think very hard before resorting once again to military rule. The international strategists of capitalism will be fearful of the political consequences throughout Europe.
THE THREAT AHEAD
Already a bankers’ coup has been imposed on Italy and Greece, where elected governments were displaced – in spite of their eagerness to implement slavishly all the cuts demanded by the bankers – because they were considered too incompetent to deliver: in one case, too corrupt, and in the other, too helpless against the mass storm of strikes, street protests and civil disobedience. Meanwhile, while a form of parliamentary democracy still lingers on as a democratic facade, the new Euro treaty amounts to imposition of direct rule by the European Central Bank, in effect virtually dispensing with the inconvenient intermediary of political parties.
But for how long will the banks be able to impose their cuts in living standards with no more than the trappings of a popular political base, and in some cases not even that? To impose military rule in the short term would be unthinkable, a red rag to a bull. But once mass resistance begins to exhaust itself in a constant cycle of futile street protests and general strikes, wouldn’t a move after a couple of years towards more overt repression be likely?
It is significant that the Metropolitan Police in London have announced that they are urgently extending training to officers in the use of plastic bullets, water cannon and even live ammunition. They are also demanding the routine provision of tasers – instruments of instant torture – in every police car.
The coming war on human rights and living standards will beyond doubt provoke mass resistance such as hasn’t been seen for decades. In this situation, the ruling class will have no alternative but to use all means necessary to impose these cuts and crush popular resistance.
In the epoch that is now coming to an end, the capitalists were reluctant to give more than qualified encouragement to the chauvinistic anti-EU cranks or the outright racists. This was at a time when the EU still offered them some economic benefits; when there was still full employment and they were eager to exploit the cheap labour provided by successive waves of immigration.
In the period ahead, however, given the general contempt throughout society at revelations of parliamentary corruption, the growing mass resentment at foreign immigration, and the risk of a break-up of the EU, things will look very different. Conditions could quickly develop in which the capitalists might make a strategic turn towards authoritarian rule, involving among other ugly features, a demagogic campaign to whip up racist prejudice, including incitement of violent attacks on ethnic minorities, and even an official programme of mass deportation, which could be falsely presented as a “cure” for unemployment.
Such a regime could not be imposed quickly or easily. There will be bitter resistance. This could pose the danger of terrorist moods developing among the youth and the ethnic minorities – through a genuine though misguided outburst of desperation, assisted by secretly staged provocations by the state. This would play further into the hands of reaction, providing a pretext for still more intensified repression – a process which is already well under way, with a massive increase in police surveillance, violent police repression at street demonstrations, extension of detention in police custody, etc.
We could well be approaching a social confrontation on a worldwide scale the likes of which has never been seen before. Capitalism can only weather this storm at the cost of economic crisis more devastating than the 1930s, repression as bloody as anything seen even in that decade, and a rush to war more terrible than 1939-45. But first it will have to defeat a worldwide movement of the 99% who are only just beginning to rise to their feet.
In the old world – Europe, North America and Japan – this is the scenario we all need to prepare for. But in the age of globalisation, it is the “new” working class – five-sixths of them based outside the traditional industrial countries – who have yet to put their stamp on history and show the world a new way forward. They have yet to speak.
THE NEW PROLETARIAT
There is one gaping hole in this article. Even more than in Cairo or Athens or Oakland, the future of the world rests on events further afield.
The relocation of industry through globalisation has transformed the world’s working class. Of the world’s three billion wage workers, for every one worker in the West, there are now five
based in China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, South-East Asia, etc. The proletariat is now for the first time a majority of the world population.
There has been a haemorrhage of manufacturing jobs from their traditional location. In the USA, the percentage of workers engaged in manufacture has dropped from 38% in 1940 to less than 9%
today. One third of US manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2001. And the number of manufacturing jobs in Britain has fallen below three million for the first time since 1841!
Meanwhile, there are well over 100 million industrial workers in China – more than twice as many as in all the G7 countries put together (the USA, Germany, Japan, France, Britain, Italy and Canada). China has this year crossed the line to become a predominantly urban society. Since the beginning of the current recession in the West in 2008, during which production has been stagnant or declining, China’s economy has grown by 42%!
It is not just idle sentimentality which favours manufacturing industry as the seedbed of socialism and the industrial worker as the foremost gravedigger of capitalism, but its very material conditions. The industrial proletariat has its hands on the vital levers of society; it produces collectively and struggles collectively; it is conscious of its power. It feels intuitively the justice of its aspirations, because the evidence is there to see all around it that “we the workers create the wealth”.
While it is true that there has also been a proletarianisation and a growth of trade-union militancy in the service sector, the old intuitive socialist consciousness has dimmed in the West in the same measure as the specific weight of the industrial proletariat in society has been eroded.
Meanwhile, in China and other formerly agricultural countries, a gigantic modern proletariat is now attaining consciousness of its class identity and a culture of solidarity in a huge wave of strikes. In the context of a fast booming economy, these strikes have often led to real material concessions, which have further strengthened the workers’ morale and organisation. In the light of the consequent modest rise in workers’ living standards, it would hardly be surprising if China were the one major country where there were still material grounds for reformist illusions. After all, revolutions are rare in societies where the productivity of labour is still growing. And so it has proved. Paradoxically, China really is one of the very few countries left today (Germany is another) where opinion polls show a majority of the population supporting capitalism.
And yet there are countless strikes and local revolts against the ruling clique’s corruption and mismanagement, which are bound to end in political explosions. We refer in our document to the 90,000 officially designated ‘public order disturbances’ that erupted in China in 2005. This figure has now doubled to 180,000 a year.
While for the moment the growth of the Chinese economy may have reinforced workers’ illusions in the capitalist “market system”, this can change very fast. The crisis in the world economy cannot but stunt the development of the Chinese economy, despite the current growth of its home
market, provoking confrontations between the regime and the working class. In these circumstances, the Chinese proletariat could well come to play a role similar to the German proletariat in the late nineteenth century in preparing the ground for a new international.
To quote the document: “In a sense, it is in the factories of China, and their nascent underground trade unions, that the future salvation of humankind is being forged right now….”
The class struggle in the countries of the new proletariat is very much alive. It constantly simmers and every now and then erupts; but the news is suppressed, so that each working class fights in isolation, knowing as little about its counterparts’ contemporary victories and defeats as it does about the rich heritage of past class struggles, from the campaign for the 8-hour day to the Russian revolution, the American sit-in strikes, the Spanish civil war, France 1968, etc. Chinese workers, many of whom may know little or nothing of the workers’ uprising in Shanghai in 1925-7, are busy building new trade unions there today. The recent book Live Working Or Die Fighting, by Paul Mason gives inspiring descriptions of recent strikes, occupations and uprisings in Argentina, Bolivia, China, India, Nigeria, South Africa, Peru, etc., and draws graphic parallels with earlier chapters of
workers’ revolt from the labour history of Europe and the USA in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Socialist traditions in what were considered in the past the “metropolitan” countries have diminished for both theoretical and “demographic” reasons. The rich heroic heritage of labour history becomes largely forgotten, as old industrial communities disappear and generations steeped in their traditions die out. As the old archives close, however, inspiring new struggles are breaking out daily on new terrain.
This new working class is beginning the long haul all over again: in scattered isolation, it is asserting its identity and its needs, learning afresh the hard lessons learned again and again by previous generations.
A WORLD PARTY
Workers everywhere are beginning to rise to their feet again. They have unprecedented latent power. But the gap between their objective power and their subjective consciousness has never been wider. At no time in their history have they been so silent politically. Their struggles are diffuse and unco-ordinated. There is no world party, no International, no mass movement for socialism, no organised programme to change society.
What is necessary is to help to link them and organise them into a coherent force. Now more than ever we need a single party of the working class. Civilised life, war and peace, and environmental survival all depend upon it. Never have national programmes been less relevant.
In the absence of such a party, the alternative is a nightmare. Mass protest will inevitably be diverted along national and racist lines. Dark forces stalk the world: nationalism, racism, bigotry, fundamentalism, nihilistic terror . . . That is the face of reaction today. The choice is: socialism or barbarism. Marx’ aphorism once seemed little more than a rhetorical flourish, but it is quite literally and imminently the issue facing humanity in the period ahead, and this will become clearer to ever wider strata of the world.
Even the crumbled ruins of the old internationals that remained at least to mock the living generations have been obliterated. The old mass movements of organised labour in their previous strongholds have been eroded by the collapse of Stalinism; by capitalist triumphalism and political disorientation; by organic changes in the composition of the working class, which have demolished entire communities and partly eroded their militant traditions; by major trade-union defeats, the strangulation of the ex-colonial countries, and the long credit boom.
But a new, stronger, more cohesive international class is being built, bestriding every continent, and rapidly learning anew the strategy and tactics of the class struggle.
Socialists have always understood that without international unity – in theory and practice, programme and organisation – the working class can never build a new society. The creation of a worldwide party of the working class is not at all an abstract or unreal idea. Every day, in every continent, we see new evidence that such a party is straining right now at every nerve to materialise.
Mass communications and the ‘information revolution’ have made the present generation incomparably better informed than their grandparents. Facebook is fast approaching a billion members. The world has drawn together and a new global consciousness has arisen. Youth boycott third-world sweatshop products. Super-oppressed strata of the population – women, ethnic
minorities and native indigenous peoples – have risen to their feet. The size and specific weight of the proletariat have grown everywhere. Workers remain workers, producing today on a still more collective scale than ever before. They have no alternative but to fight back collectively, and to learn afresh the lessons of solidarity.
When tens of millions of workers and young people protest, on the same issues, with the same slogans, often on the same day, sometimes in internationally synchronised action, that means that the world party of the future is almost a reality now.
In 1890, tens of thousands of workers in several countries staged the first internationally co- ordinated strike (for the 8-hour day). This was hailed by Engels himself as the final consummation of his and Marx’ life work: the establishment of a single world party of the working class. What would Engels have said about the events of 15th February 2003, when literally tens of millions staged simultaneous co-ordinated demonstrations against the impending war? Or of 15th October 2011?
What existed in 1890 – and what still remains more than 120 years later to be re-established – is a formal structure. That is of course no small detail; nevertheless, deeds count more than words. All the resolutions by the Second International pledging it to resist the coming world war proved to be worthless shreds of paper when they were put to the test.
The international movement against capitalism needs to be embodied in a permanent thriving organised movement, with a constitution and a formal structure. This is not just an organisational lapse; what remains to be recreated is the political recognition of the need for such a structure. It is the task of socialists to give conscious expression to this process; to bring to light the need for class solidarity, for a worldwide solution and for international day-to-day co-ordination; and finally to formulate this programme in terms of direct practical proposals.
That alone can turn what would otherwise be just a blind historical tendency into an idea which, as Lenin put it, could “grip the minds of the millions”, and thus become “a material force”. The “International-in-itself” which is beginning to take shape today in front of our eyes would become transformed into something conscious, urgent, irresistible: an “International-for-itself”. The practical struggle of the millions for a better life is beginning to turn the age-old dream of generations of socialist pioneers into a real movement.
What form will such an organisation take in its inception? It will necessarily be a broad, all- encompassing forum in which all forces participate which regard themselves as opposed to the dictatorship of the corporations. It will bring the “anti-capitalist” youth and many of the existing single-issue protest lobbies into alliance with mainstream organisations of the working class and new fighting units of struggle. It will provide a point of contact and solidarity between some of the more exotic or primitive “anarchist” youth groups and the deeply rooted but long-buried traditions of Marxism. It will be built, not on words and manifestos, but on practical campaigns. It will not be an ideological monolith but a vibrant arena of democratic debate in which organised platforms contend.
When such a party does arise – as eventually it must – it can take no other form. No single tendency will dominate a resurgent party of the left. It will be a coalition of platforms, very like the original Labour Party, in the days when it was still the political arm of the trade unions, which brought together trade unions, co-operatives, Fabians, the ILP, and various socialist societies. Let all the self- appointed messiahs remember that Marxist sect (the SDF) which flung down an ultimatum at its founding meeting in 1901, and then proudly marched out into oblivion. Lenin urged the fledgling
Communists to affiliate to the Labour Party, reminding them that whether or not the Labour Party recognised the class struggle, the class struggle would certainly recognise the Labour Party.
The best safeguard against such a party degenerating is not adherence to this or that political catechism, but a constitution that will guarantee that all officials and MPs be paid a worker’s wage. First rule out corruption and careerism: then the politics will follow.
Such a movement could not in and of itself complete the task. It could not overthrow capitalism. But it would be a hothouse of debate, a workshop in which rival theories and strategies could be tested out, selected and sharpened. It would be the duty of those who consider that they have the answers to convince their peers shoulder-to-shoulder in the day-to-day struggle.
That is the natural way in which workers spontaneously organise when left to their own devices. Workers are practical people with vital objectives. What they need are fighting organisations which can struggle and – above all – win. This in turn presupposes a healthy freedom of debate within their ranks, to determine the best common policy.
Unity and democracy depend upon each other. Each is impossible without the other. We all remember the blunders and crimes of those bureaucratic parties in which policies were imposed by decree from above. We likewise understand all too well the bogus liberalism which allows everyone to disregard majority decisions – especially the leadership. The united action needed for victory can only be achieved when all have an equal stake in deciding policy. The long-abused system of democratic centralism originally meant nothing more than that: the elementary morality of the picket line, projected on to the political plane.
These parties will seem refreshing, appealing, very different from the institutionalised parties of the past. These had imposed upon the workers’ natural democratic tendencies alien traditions, through a bloated officialdom insulated against rank-and-file constraints. They had expressed the outlook of distinct social groupings, with interests of their own, whose status was derived respectively from their careers and incomes as MPs, councillors, trade union officials, etc., or from the patronage of the Stalinist elite who fed parasitically off Soviet society. Today the world is changed. Stalinism no longer survives as a challenge or an alternative to capitalism. It has gone forever, except for a few anomalous relics. And what was once called reformism has largely abandoned its earlier role as a brake on the labour movement and become instead a direct alternative agency of the capitalists: moreover, one which is now already largely discarded. In the measure that it is losing its authority over the working class, it is becoming redundant, equally useless to both sides in the class struggle.
The working class is at last beginning the long process of recovery. Where workers have begun to organise afresh, for now at least they no longer carry so crippling a burden as before of a bureaucratic incubus on their shoulders. Their traditions may be dimmed, their consciousness blurred, but they have no choice but to take action.
However, in the absence of a conscious socialist alternative, then some other ideological force will inevitably pour in to fill the vacuum. In Eastern Europe it was the proponents of the market economy. In Iran it was Islamic fundamentalism. It could be nationalism, communalism or racism. All the more need for Socialists to argue, explain and campaign for our own programme.
ARGUING THE CASE FOR SOCIALISM
The most striking feature of a situation in which established political parties are generally despised is the huge unfilled political vacuum. At a time when capitalism itself is so universally hated , why are
there no mass socialist or anti-capitalist parties in existence? Because socialists still need to win the argument all over again that there is a real rational socialist alternative that can bring about a harmonious and viable civilised society.
For much of the twentieth century in Europe, Socialism was a living mass force because it represented the only real way out in the eyes of millions of people. There was a general consciousness throughout society – even among the capitalists themselves – that their system was doomed, their day was past, and that socialism represents the future of humanity. It was understood intuitively that poverty, inequality, and want are not rooted in any scarcity of natural resources. Only the interests of private property stood in the way of harmony and plenty. This was expressed again and again: in the so-called “domino theory” of the US administration at the time of the Vietnam war; in de Gaulle’s famous comment during the revolutionary general strike of 1968, “the game’s up”; in the pronouncement by The Times in 1974 that “capitalism is dead in Portugal”; in the lament of Willi Brandt in 1980 that there would be “communism or fascism within 20 years”; etc. Their system was irrational; it didn’t work.
Today that is no longer so obvious. Due to the very survival of capitalism beyond its natural lifespan, there is a widespread understanding that in the process it has despoiled the planet, that natural resources are finite and civilisation itself is under threat. While it is appreciated perhaps better than ever before that no solution is conceivable under capitalism, a solution is no longer understood to be quite so obviously feasible under any alternative system either.
2011 alone saw some of the biggest recorded natural disasters, in the form of earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and in Japan the resulting nuclear crisis, some of them undoubtedly linked to climate change. Quite apart from environmental disaster, faith in the boundless potential of technology has gone; in its place has come a conviction that society is fast reaching the limit of the world’s finite resources, especially in terms of energy. In the absence of a socialist answer, it is understandable that this helps create feelings of helplessness; of fatalistic resignation to the inevitability of Armageddon.
And yet awareness of the truth about society has never been greater. There are few illusions left about the dictatorship of corporate power. What is lacking is confidence in the power to overthrow it. Why has there been no rush to fill the vacuum left by the rotting of the workers’ parties in Europe? Precisely because of the absence of the old illusions in reformism – in the national programmes of the old social-democratic or “eurocommunist” parties, in a world where national programmes are already manifestly obsolete – and yet equally, there is a lack of any confidence in revolution. No other world seems possible. There is an awareness of the sheer enormity of the task of breaking the stranglehold of the corporations, and a lack of any conception of what could replace it.
It is therefore the prime task of socialists today to re-establish once again theoretically the rationality of socialism. It has to be demonstrated all over again before it can become once again a living force.
For all our defence of the traditions of Lenin and Trotsky, the crucial feature of our approach is our recognition of the fact that the tasks facing revolutionaries today are not quite the same as the ones they had to grapple with in their day.
The left groups all have their origins in a period when there were in most developed industrial societies, and many colonial countries too, mass socialist or communist parties numbering millions. Generations of workers lived, fought and died defending their political heritage. All that was holding them back from victory were the material interests of the bureaucratic cliques at their head. The mission of the left opposition groups was to expose the crimes and betrayals of the leadership of those parties and prove themselves a worthier alternative vanguard. To varying degrees they succeeded in educating their cadres and sharpening their skills as theoreticians, writers, speakers and organisers, achieving in some cases admirable results.
The task facing socialists now is different. Historical, economic and demographic factors have changed the political landscape. Today it is a question of building the movement itself, rather than providing an alternative programme and leadership for it. Today it is manifestly not so much a question of replacing the general staff as of mobilising once again the first foot soldiers.
The loyalty of these activists to those organisations to which they have given their lives is an understandable and praiseworthy quality. However, it carries with it the risk of cliquism and conservatism; of a sectarianism which consists of an unwillingness to put the needs of the wider movement above the petty advantages of their own organisation. Even those who in their day had come closest to building a real international left opposition within the workers’ parties risk shrinking from the tactical audacity that had inspired Trotsky, who was constantly improvising ingenious and flexible ways of reaching worker activists, and retreating instead into the habits of a cult.
In such a situation, they risk losing a sense of proportion. To take one recent example, in one ex- colonial country where in the past the combined vote for parties calling themselves Marxist had at one time reached 20%, their most prominent surviving splinter group today – an organisation of courageous and selfless revolutionaries – recently bragged that it came third in presidential elections with 0.35% of the vote, and that it outpolled its left rivals in parliamentary elections by 0.16% to 0.09% of the votes.
They would indignantly deny it, but in practice many of the old left groups still sincerely believe that the future depends on their winning leadership of the workers’ movement, and this leads them in practice to give priority to the need to build their own organisations before the objective needs of the class. They might agree formally that the tasks have changed; however, their style, structure and persona have not changed accordingly. They often present themselves still as a vanguard, as having all the answers; their internal regime is still insulated from the movement.
Even when we produced our document, some scepticism was aroused. We were asked for proof that any tendency that we helped to create would not repeat the unhealthy practices of the old left groups. Our reply to those who demand such safeguards is: there are no guarantees. There is no constitution in the world that will immunise us against the risk of future abuses. The only protection is eternal vigilance: mass participation, democratic pressure, and the promotion of a culture that will guard against such violations. It was not faulty constitutions or a shortage of pious promises that allowed bureaucratic tyranny to flourish under the Stalinist regime in Russia (which boasted “the most democratic constitution in the world”), but the absence of mass participation and control by the working class – something which was overwhelmingly determined by objective factors.
On a miniscule scale, the kind of petty abuses that have scarred the left groups would never have been tolerated if they had had an active mass working-class membership. Within the left groups there are many admirable and dedicated workers. At the same time to varying extents they have drawn distorted conclusions from the special circumstances of the Bolshevik party in the Tsarist
underground and of the Russian revolution during the civil war and its aftermath, which have helped foster a culture of lifelong mandates, an implicit tendency towards leadership cults, resulting splits, the discouragement of dissent, even the outright suppression of factions, and other blemishes.
Marx commented on the sectarian groups of his day that “the sect seeks its raison d’etre not in what it has in common with the class movement, but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the other.” He continued: “The development of socialist sectarianism and that of the working class movement always stand in reverse ratio to each other. Sects are justified historically so long as the working classes are not yet ripe for an independent historical movement. As soon as they attain this maturity, all sects become essentially reactionary.”
As the class struggle reawakens from its relative state of hibernation, it is to be hoped that the healthiest elements from within the existing left groups will abandon their obsolete pet shibboleths and join together with the fresh ranks of the new mass movement.
The ideological case for socialism has to be argued all over again, in an entirely new context, to inspire a politically virgin proletariat. The task is not to create a vanguard, as in 1938, but to propagandise the basic ideas, as in 1848 or the years of the first International. This does not mean going through all the traumas and defeats and false starts and betrayals all over again, because history has made the task incomparably simpler.
Many honourable veterans from the past are finding it hard to adjust to the new features of the struggle. ‘Human thought is conservative’, said Trotsky, ‘and the thought of revolutionists is at times especially so’. We more than anyone must beware of rigidity. It is useless to react with the reflexes of a bygone era. To accept new challenges entails new risks, but the worst mistake of all today is conservative orthodoxy.
THE HERITAGE OF THE INTERNATIONALS
When Marx and Engels helped to found the First International, their objective was to unite all the disparate, nascent workers’ organisations around the world – no matter how limited. Even outside the parameters of the working class, they strove to encompass all genuine movements of protest against the existing order.
Their mission was to try to unite all the existing embryonic organisations of resistance to capitalism into a single worldwide movement. That would give them the framework within which to pit what they considered their scientific ideas against those of the assorted sectarians peddling their quack panaceas. That International consisted of “English Owenites and Chartists, French Proudhonists and Blanquists, Irish nationalists, Polish patriots, Italian Mazzinists, and German socialists… The English were against special privilege, the French against Bonapartism, the Irish against Britain, the Poles against Russia, the Italians against Austria, and the Germans against capitalism.” (Introduction to the volume Marx on the First International).
It embraced English craft unions, French workers’ co-operatives, scattered groups of German exiles, even Italian nationalists and Russian bomb-throwing anarchists. Quite apart from all manner of charlatans, heretics, and adventurers, even its most heroic groups of pioneer workers were confused.
The Proudhonists of France, Spain and Belgium were opposed on principle to strikes. The Lassalleans of Germany (who resisted persistent approaches to join the International) were secretly collaborating with the dictator Bismarck. The intrigues of the anarchist Bakunin were eventually to
come near to wrecking the organisation. And the British trade unionists were frankly terrified by all manifestations of what they called ‘continental socialism’. None of them could conceivably have been admitted, let alone invited, into the 3rd or nascent 4th Internationals.
Nevertheless, at its core stood the working class – and above all, at that time, the British working class, which showed solidarity with the victims of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of Napoleon III’s coup in France, and with the Polish uprising against the Russian Tsar. Abraham Lincoln himself praised the nobility of the Lancashire cotton workers, who starved rather than break the blockade on the southern slave-owning cotton states during the American Civil War.
The workers’ parties organised in the only way they could, along the lines of the fraternal self- organisation of workers anywhere when not distorted by bureaucratic interference: in accord with the principles of workers’ democracy, free debate and united action.
Sure, the International was not free of human weaknesses. Along with heroism and solidarity and humour and comradeship, there were manifestations aplenty of vanity, pomposity, opportunism, sectarianism, cowardice, adventurism and petty corruption. However, there was no bureaucracy hell-bent on systematic betrayal of the working class. That was to come later.
Marx and Engels were anything but sectarian. As in 1848, they reaffirmed that ‘the Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties’. What then marked them out? Simply that they were ‘on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section’, and that ‘on the other hand, theoretically, they (had). . . the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march’. So their tasks were entirely different from those of Lenin in 1921 or Trotsky in 1938, whose avowed goal was, necessarily, to set up new parties to challenge the existing failed parties of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals respectively.
Does this imply that there was a principled difference between Marx and Engels on the one hand and Lenin and Trotsky on the other? Not at all. The breadth of the IWMA corresponded to the tasks of the hour. It was not at all a mark of liberalism, but a preliminary stage in a campaigning offensive by the Marxists. The IWMA was to become a worldwide ideological workshop, in which all the rival ideas could be tested out in practice against the experiences of the workers in victory and in defeat. What was needed – then as now – was a forum in which to debate the issues.
A new international will not in its incipient stages mean a monolithic world party with a sharply defined ideological line. Today is not 1920, when delegates to the Communist International congress were warned of ‘the danger of being watered down by elements characterised by vacillation and half-measures, forces which have not yet finally discarded the ideology of the Second International’. No less than 21 conditions were laid down at that time for affiliation, and, to make doubly sure, Lenin even added a list of named individuals who would never under any circumstances be admitted to the new International.
“The Communist International unconditionally and categorically demands the carrying out of this break in the shortest possible time. The Communist International cannot tolerate a situation where notorious opportunists, as represented by Turati, Modigliani, Kautsky, Hilferding, Hillquit, Longuet, MacDonald, etc., have the right to pass as members of the Communist International. This could only lead to the Communist International becoming something very similar to the wreck of the Second International.”
Neither is today 1938, when Trotsky had to denounce in a single breath the Stalinists and social democrats along with bourgeois liberals and fascists, and declare that ‘the Fourth International. . .
uncompromisingly gives battle to all political groupings tied to the apron strings of the bourgeoisie’.
These were not at all expressions of sectarianism. They were a measured response to the reality of such historic betrayals as collusion in the mutual slaughter of the first world war, and the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact. They belong to the era when mighty social armies had been established at enormous sacrifice by the working class, which had then fallen prey to traitors. The task then was to replace these vile traitors with leaders worthy of the rank-and-file. Today the generals no longer betray and collaborate; if only things were so simple. They have openly switched sides, and their armies have largely disbanded.
Of course, in many countries the working class still retains its own mass organisations in the form of strong and growing trade unions with millions of potential new combatants.
Some people have suggested that the foundation of the Communist International was an ultra-left mistake. We disagree. The previous Socialist International had died on the outbreak of the first world war, when its leaders had abandoned their internationalist holiday speechifying and started cheering their members on in slaughtering one another by the millions on the battlefields of Europe. Under the impact of the Russian revolution, there was a huge rush by the newly-revived workers’ parties to flock towards the new revolutionary international.
Nor was the proclamation of a Fourth International – as an anticipation – premature in the circumstances of the time. In the dark days when Fascism had most of Europe and Asia in its grip, and the coming world war cast a long shadow, Trotsky gave a graphic description of the terrible betrayals and counter-revolutions of his time: “The multi-millioned masses again and again enter the road of revolution. But each time they are blocked by their own conservative bureaucratic machines… The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of leadership of the proletariat”. The urgent task of the hour was to offer an alternative leadership worthy of the courage and determination of the ranks of the mass socialist and communist parties. It was a brilliant summary of the essential truth then; but today it can all too easily sound like empty rhetoric.
Trotsky’s perspective of an impending collapse of the existing socialist and communist parties following the Second World War, equivalent to the collapse of the old Socialist International following the First World War, was perfectly rational. If subsequent events had not unexpectedly cut across this perspective, then the sectarian vices of the pre-war Trotskyist groups, of which Trotsky was of course all too aware, would have been naturally overwhelmed by the upsurge of the labour movement. Trotsky was not wrong, at a moment of catastrophe for the world working class – defeated throughout Europe and on the eve of the most bloodthirsty conflict in world history – to raise high the banner of the Fourth International as a rallying point for the coming new generation of revolutionary workers.
It would have been a far greater mistake for Trotsky to have abstained from holding the founding conference of the future International (which was so called for very clear and explicit reasons, rather than the “congress” of an existing mass world party), merely out of dissatisfaction with the level of the existing cadres.
There is a very exact precedent – one which Trotsky no doubt had in mind. The Zimmerwald Left which met in 1915 comprised just eight socialists opposed to the word war. It was even weaker than the Founding Conference of the Fourth International, which was attended by thirty delegates. And
yet it was around the tradition established by the Zimmerwald Left that the Communist International was founded four years later, comprising mass parties in all the major countries of Europe.
If history had taken a similar course following the Second World War, as Trotsky had predicted, and if both reformism and Stalinism had not emerged temporarily strengthened by intervening
events, then the role of the founding conference of the Fourth International in rallying millions of newly revolutionised workers would have been indisputable. It was unforeseen objective events which determined that fulfilment of the objectives of the founding conference instead were to be postponed for two generations. Its document (The Transitional Programme) is nevertheless still rich in lessons for revolutionaries. Its principles need urgently to be applied in today’s changed but equally momentous circumstances.
This example demonstrates the difference between the First International, on the one hand, and on the other, both the Third (Communist) International created by Lenin in 1919, and the Fourth International conceived by Trotsky in 1938. The Communist International was founded on explicit revolutionary principles – and rightly so, in the circumstances of the great betrayal in 1914 that had plunged into catastrophe the by then existing powerful mass workers’ organisations. The First was an amalgamation of disparate pioneering campaigning radical groups, with all their confusions and misconceptions – incipient workers’ parties groping towards a common outlook. Marx and Engels used the crucial few years of the International’s meteoric growth as a political workshop in which to forge a coherent world programme and ideology. In this they succeeded: when the Second International was founded in 1889, bringing together truly mass organisations in several countries, it was on the basis of their ideas.
A WORLD TO GAIN
There has been as fundamental a change in the world situation since the 1980s as there was in 1945 or in 1914. It takes theoretical courage to acknowledge the extent of this change.
The task ahead of revolutionaries today is far closer to those facing Marx and Engels in their day. The future International will not arise from mass splits in long-established traditional parties, in revolt against their ruling bureaucracies.
A new international will look initially much more like the First than the Third. It will necessarily encompass a broad range of opinion. It will be an international projection of the confusions and conflicts within each country’s nascent parties. We will find ourselves working alongside all kinds of disparate and quite probably naive forces. The simple but strict proviso for uniting our forces will be our common sincerity in fighting capitalism, and our common recognition of the key role of the working class. In the furnace of struggle, all the rival ideologies will be tested, and the best will win out. The new international will be alive with debate.
To avoid sectarianism does not mean blunting our theoretical sharpness. We share the resolve of genuine activists today to drop the habits of sectarian abuse practised so destructively in the past. That does not mean accepting the kind of bogus tolerance in vogue today, which in the name of unity glosses over difficult but vital issues. Those who seek to avoid honest debate end up in practice just as undemocratic as those who repress it outright. We need free and open discussion. Like Marx, we must be ‘bold in matter, but mild in manner’.
As Engels explained, the aim of the IWMA was ‘to weld together into one huge army the whole militant working class of Europe and America. Therefore it could not set out from the principles laid down in the (Communist) Manifesto.’
Yet it is a stunning tribute to Marx and Engels that within seven short years they had already won the argument. It took the defeat of the Paris Commune, but their brilliant analysis of its lessons was written in the name of the General Council. And, although the IWMA itself was dashed against the rocks of reaction, once the tide had turned and the newly emergent mass parties and trade unions had established the Socialist International in 1889, it was under the banner of the ideas of the Communist Manifesto.
On the day of the first worldwide general strike on May Day 1890, Engels celebrated what he considered the triumphant consummation of their historic life work.
“True, the International itself lived only nine years. But that the eternal union of the proletarians of all countries created by it is still alive and lives stronger than ever, there is no better witness than this day. Because today, as I write these lines, the European and American proletariat is reviewing its fighting forces, mobilised for the first time, mobilised as one army, under one flag, for one immediate aim… And today’s spectacle will open the eyes of the capitalists and landlords of all countries to the fact that today the working men of all countries are united indeed. If only Marx were still by my side to see this with his own eyes!”
The Internationals of the past reflected the working class of their times. The First International was actually called an association of working men. Even the Third International was almost entirely concentrated in Europe. The International that can emerge from the coming struggles will encompass tens of millions of men, women and youth from all the continents. A new international will be built by uniting together all the movements of real struggle today, irrespective of ideology, on the basis of clear and free debate. That way, we too can hope to see our ideas become a material force.
The relentless march of the super-corporations towards absolute global rule is putting a brutal end to the historic anomalies of the past. Capitalism has developed to its utmost extremes. All the trends outlined in the Communist Manifesto have extended to grotesque lengths, and in the process many of the fiendish complications that bedevilled the movement in the past have been cleared away. In their brave new world, there is less and less room for privileged labour aristocracies or bribed labour bureaucracies, for secondary concessions to colonial populism or toleration of ‘rogue states’, least of all for rival systems that stand outside the orbit of the ‘free market’.
The gigantic political obstacles of the past no longer pose the same dangers as before. The long movement towards a new world will not be a simple repetition of the past. Capitalism has enormously simplified the issues and the tasks. The confusions, traps and pitfalls which created fatal dangers to the working class in the past – reformism, nationalism, populism, bonapartism, Stalinism, etc. – will no longer pose the same threat that they did then. The foundations for reformism, and the pernicious influence of Stalinism – which depended not merely on political illusions but on the hostile material interests of alien social castes; on conscious and systematic betrayal – have now been largely eroded.
This does not mean an end to the workers’ quite legitimate wish to seek reforms (something that we all, incidentally, share), but a weakening of reformism by its classic Marxist definition: the existence of a labour bureaucracy – an “alien social caste” – able for a period to justify its existence by the
The thousands of campaigns for social justice fought by women, the disabled, the elderly, lgtb communities (and those who chose neither gender), and other socially excluded groups are an intrinsic and essential part of our struggle for a different world.
winning of occasional reforms, but with an entrenched stake in defeating revolution by conscious and systematic betrayal.
This does not at all mean that there will be no false illusions – and worse – within the workers’ movement. It does not mean that there will be no risk to the workers’ movement of personal treachery, weakness, adventurism, cowardice, irresponsibility, corruption. It doesn’t need a bureaucracy to make disastrous blunders.
Of course workers will hope at first to cure the worst excesses of capitalism by reforms. But there are fewer illusions in capitalism today than at any time before. The general attitude of workers today to capitalism is not, as was the case a generation ago: “let us gradually reform capitalism until we have achieved socialism”, but a sense of awe and inadequacy at the enormity of the challenge ahead.
We have not only ‘a world to gain’ but a world to save from annihilation.