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On the Brink

We republish here a commentary by Roger Silverman in London, Britain:

ON THE BRINK

REVIEWING WORLD PERSPECTIVES: AN INTRODUCTION

 

The world today is in turmoil. The US diplomatic journal Foreign Policy warns that it is entering its “most dangerous chapter in decades“; the US senator John McCain compares the social and political climate to the 1930s; the United Nations has announced the “worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War“. Things have certainly changed since 1991, when a US State Department official celebrated “the end of history: the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government“.

In the relatively stable postwar era which came to an abrupt end at that moment more than 30 years ago, Marxist commentators used to talk of a “race” between the social revolution in the West and the political revolution in the East. Formally speaking, they were right: this metaphor aptly described the process by which both capitalism and Stalinism were hurtling towards disaster. Since then, two cataclysms have shaken the planet: the collapse of Stalinism over one-third of the surface of the earth in 1989-91, and the capitalist crisis that exploded in 2008 and which has plunged the world into mayhem ever since.

It is not accidental that these events unfolded at the tempo and in the sequence that they did. But just imagine if the order had been reversed! Is it conceivable, in the context of a world economic crisis, that the uprisings in Russia and Eastern Europe could possibly have led to a restoration of capitalism? Conversely, would a series of workers’ uprisings in the East to restore socialist democracy not have fanned the embers of socialist traditions within the working class in the West?

That example shows both the value and the limitations of perspectives. Developed over decades, these predictions had warned us of the impending paroxysms of crisis that marked the end of an almost unprecedented four decades of relative stability. And yet they had failed to prepare us for the risk of unparalleled and potentially disorientating historical detours.

Up to that point, for four decades the world had settled into a neat tripartite division. Class relations had generally stabilised in the developed capitalist countries of Western Europe, North America and Japan in the wake of the great postwar economic upswing, though the superficial calm was occasionally torn apart by sudden mass upsurges in France, Spain, Portugal and Greece. In the Stalinist states of Russia, Eastern Europe and China, after initially spectacular growth the bureaucratically planned economy fell victim to a creeping ossified sclerosis. Meanwhile, the former colonial countries resembled a seething cauldron of uprisings, wars of independence, brutal repression, heroic guerrilla struggles, and in many cases victories against impossible odds, in which hundreds of millions of previously mute and passive colonial slaves rose to their feet and stormed the stage of history.

POLARISATION

Today all the advanced capitalist countries are undergoing a sharp political polarisation. This constitutes the eclipse of the postwar liberal settlement in the developed capitalist world, by which the ruling class had conceded reforms and the workers’ parties had in practice abandoned socialist aspirations. This hollowing out of the “centre” marks a terminal decline of the outgoing political establishment in Europe and the USA. There is no traditional party inherited from the preceding postwar liberal era, left or right, which is not today in crisis or terminal decline. Both the Republican and Democrat parties in the USA face mortal challenges to the dying establishment consensus, while throughout Europe we see the eclipse of the traditional bourgeois parties: in France, their replacement by le Pen and Macron; in Germany, a wounding threat to the CDU; the inexorable rise of racist parties from France to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Greece, threatening or even in some cases gaining power; reactionary authoritarian regimes in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland; and separatist surges in Scotland, Catalonia and Italy.

Britain is only apparently and superficially an exception to this process. For a period, it too experienced an initial shrinkage of both the two traditional parties and a brief rise of eccentric alternatives (the LibDems, the SNP, UKIP, and the Greens). Soon, however, that same political polarisation that has swept across Europe now gripped both the two main parties; but, due to the special constraints of its two-party electoral system, it became contained within their ranks, with a virtual takeover by UKIP of the Tory party, championing a peculiarly British version of separatism – Brexit – and a huge left surge in the Labour Party, in which hundreds of thousands of people previously alienated by the betrayals of Blairism and “New Labour” joined or rejoined the party, and three million new voters flocked to its support in the recent general election.

Why is it that the old loyalties are loosening? Because the social bases of both the ruling capitalist parties and the traditional workers’ parties are also crumbling. Marxists used to talk of an “iron law”: that workers would always and inevitably return in the first instance to their traditional organisations. That was a necessary and healthy corrective to the frivolous sectarianism of various petty-bourgeois fringe elements, who had deluded themselves that all they needed to do to create an alternative “revolutionary party”was simply wave a banner. And yet even in those days, as with all iron laws there were exceptions; after all, it is a principle of dialectics that ultimately there are no “iron laws”. Take the example of PASOK in Greece: a new party which sprang up in 1974 with the collapse of the colonels’ dictatorship, seemingly from nowhere. Forty years later, PASOK in its turn too suddenly imploded, to be replaced out of the blue by yet another new party: SYRIZA.

What is the explanation? Does it invalidate that fundamental political law? No, it is based largely in the physiognomy of the Greek working class, 80% of whom are either unemployed, self-employed, or scattered in small workshops. They lacked the cohesion and organisation of the old “industrial” countries. But so too today in most of those very countries, the traditional industrial base of the working class has been drastically eroded. That largely explains the new element of volatility that has arisen.

Even the best Marxists of the past now find themselves thrown into confusion. The Socialist Party [of England and Wales – the affiliate of the Committee for a Workers International – not the SP of the USA] has been flung into hopeless sectarianism and opportunism, ending up firmly on the wrong side of events: incongruously celebrating the chauvinist orgy of Brexit, and switching policy six times in as many months in relation to the Labour Party, from calling it a bourgeois party and demanding that Corbyn abandon it, to begging to be readmitted to membership of it – albeit with the proviso that it be accorded full autonomy and affiliation rights (“like the Co-op party”!).

Rather than quoting along with some of their number Wordsworth’s ecstatic welcome of the French revolution (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!“), it would be more appropriate in the current context to recall the scenario described by Yeats: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…” This memorable phrase was the preamble to his horrifying vision of the “rough beast” of fascism “slouching” with “a pitiless gaze” through the desert waste. There are no grounds to share his fatalistic despair – the decisive conflict is yet to come; but there is no guarantee of the outcome.

It is natural that we tend to look for parallels and historical templates. Analogies can often be graphic and revealing, though their usefulness is limited. Nevertheless, the depth of today’s crisis brings to mind irresistibly the spectre of the 1930s: economic collapse, a succession of political shocks, deepening poverty and degradation, abortive workers’ strikes and protests, the melting of old political allegiances, splits and spurts of new parties and sudden realignments in the workers’ movement, the shocking reappearance of old ghosts and long-buried reactionary dreams, waves of nationalism, a resurgence of fascist movements…

Yet it is only in retrospect that historical epochs can be neatly classified. The First World War ended in revolutions throughout Europe, retying the knot with the pre-war years of radicalisation. Armies mutinied, monarchies were toppled, and in Russia and even beyond, democratic workers’ councils (Soviets) took power. And yet in August 1917 it was only by the unique will of the Bolsheviks that a bloody defeat was avoided at the hands of General Kornilov; in which case, as Trotsky commented, fascism would have gone down in history as a Russian rather than an Italian invention. And in fact it was not long before Mussolini had already conquered power. Conversely, the 1930s witnessed crushing defeats throughout Europe one after another… and yet the workers of Barcelona in the Spanish Revolution still came within an inch of power, a victory that could have transformed the outlook throughout Europe.

Even at this preliminary stage, in Britain we are witnessing paradoxical swings and lurches to left and right: since the crash in Britain, an unexpected Tory victory, big student demos, a nationwide wave of youth riots, the shock of the Brexit referendum, the completely unpredicted Corbyn surge, the sudden calling of a snap election and the unforeseen loss of the Tory majority. In the USA, Trump’s shock victory in winning the presidency has been greeted by the truly massive women’s march, the occupation of the airports, rising combativity by black communities under the banner of Black Lives Matter and the potentially explosive women’s resistance to sexual predators like Trump himself.

A NEW ERA

All we can say with certainty is that a new era has started, although its character and outcome are not yet clear. After decades of relative stagnation, history is catching up with a vengeance. Marx once quoted a reference from Shakespeare, to liken history to the mole of revolution which burrows deep for decades before unexpectedly poking its nose through and breaking the surface of the earth (“well burrowed, old mole!“). Subterranean processes develop over decades before unexpectedly erupting in sudden crisis. What are the underlying historic tensions that have now blasted to the surface?

1) The end of the tripartite division of the world into a stable equilibrium of separate mutually balanced sectors, such as evolved in the post-war period between the poles of the US and USSR. The world is sucked ever more rapidly into a common vortex of crisis and horror.

2) The end of the “American century”. Despite the premature jubilation of 1991, when their ideologues were crowing triumphantly about “the end of history”, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the postwar ascendancy of US capitalism, its unremitting relative decline. The supremacy of the dollar, which had enjoyed a booming recovery from the Vietnam war and the shocks of the 1970s, is now once again in question. World capitalism is thrown into crisis by the falling rate of profit, a malaise from which there has been no remission in the decade after the Great Recession of 2008. There is a massive surplus of capital, a huge fluid ballast swilling around in search of a profitable niche. Following the end of the 25-year postwar upswing in 1974, it found temporary expedients in a grotesque rise in arms expenditure, then the dot.com bubble, a flood of economically senseless privatisations stripping the state bare, then finally a further descent into an orgy of rampant and increasingly complex speculative gambling, ending in a gigantic crash prompting massive redistribution of wealth to the super-rich and ushering in a prolonged recession. Now outlets are becoming exhausted. This has always in the past heralded slumps and wars. The decline of US imperialism has aggravated tensions and brought to imminent crisis long-running pressure points throughout the world, from Syria and the Middle East to the Korean peninsula.

3) The collapse of the USSR and its satellites. The downfall of these states, for all their monstrous brutality, corruption and stagnation, still dealt yet another mortal blow to the morale of the labour movement; while the removal of an alternative power bloc to imperialism, which had allowed a certain scope to play off rival power blocs, meant a material defeat for resistance movements against imperialism and a closure of radical populist options to governments in the former colonial world. All that is left is the wreckage of the Soviet legacy and the survival of a few historically anomalous bizarre relics.

4) The world is threatened as never before by environmental catastrophe. The consequences of climate change and the depletion of natural resources constitute an existential threat to human society; a threat which can be resolved only under a socialist plan which can alone safeguard the environment and protect human survival. Capitalism doesn’t just pose a looming threat of imminent human annihilation; its legacy of environmental despoliation has already precipitated unprecedented turmoil: a succession of environmental disasters, local wars and civil wars, natural devastation, mass migration, an unprecedented refugee crisis, and major wars for the control of diminishing oil and water reserves. According to a report by the UNHCR, there are currently 65.3 million people who have been forced from their homes, including nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

The threat of environmental collapse has also tended to undermine the appeal of socialist ideas. Among the challenges we face is a mission to restore confidence in the ability of the working class to harness science, industry and technology to the cause of saving humanity. And yet with the development of 3D printing, robots, renewable energy, synthetic meat, electric cars, energy efficiency, etc., society today has within its reach unlimited scientific potential to create a world of peace and plenty.

5) Albeit a secondary and minor complication*, mention should also be made of the rise of terrorism and religious fundamentalism. For all the hysteria whipped up against it, the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism and similar manifestations actually represent little more than a symbolic gesture of impotent defiance against decades of murderous imperialist plunder. And yet this phenomenon suits the ruling class perfectly, enabling it to promote chauvinism, xenophobia and racism and divert attention from the real causes of the crisis in society.

6) The decline of industry in the old metropolitan countries. Europe and the USA represent a dying power, increasingly peripheral to historical progress. The new technology created the conditions for an era of globalisation, in which the old industrial proletariat was fragmented if not decimated in most of the former strongholds of industry. This led to an erosion of the material gains of the postwar era: deep cuts in wages, welfare and the “social wage”. Trade union cohesion was weakened, and along with it the socialist traditions that had taken root in the labour movement. In Britain especially, the old concentrations of the proletariat have been liquidated in the new era of insecurity, deindustrialisation, the gig economy and zero-hour contracts.

Faith in a mission to assume power and reorganise society comes more naturally to steel workers, miners and manufacturing workers, housed in industrial communities and concentrated on assembly lines with their hands gripping the levers of production, than to temporary packagers, couriers or sales clerks. For the moment, the working class remains relatively dislocated and its combativity accordingly weakened. However, these super-exploited workers too are painfully learning the lessons of organisation and struggle.

7) For the first time in history, the working class constitutes an overall majority of the world population. On a global scale there has been a colossal and unprecedented growth of the proletariat. It has spread with meteoric speed to every corner of formerly peripheral outlying continents. Within the old metropolitan societies too, the working class now encompasses strata considered in previous decades privileged members of the middle-class. Exploited and unionised, teachers and hospital doctors for instance are now among the most combative of organised workers.

8) Above all, women have taken their places in the forefront of industry and now constitute a majority of the working class worldwide. Still condemned to continuing dual exploitation as domestic slaves and child-minders, women throughout the world are now also among the most highly organised and militant of production-line workers.

9) The meteoric rise of China on the basis of a bureaucratically managed economy. China’s unprecedented growth was made possible by a unique combination of factors: a revolution that had swept aside landlordism and released almost inexhaustible labour reserves; globalisation, which created the material basis through exports and the new technology to facilitate enormous industrial investment; and strictly administered state planning. The result is a society resembling a projection of Russia’s New Economic Policy on to a massively higher plane: “state capitalism” in its original sense. Ultimately the contradiction of Stalinist bureaucratic state control and a rapidly growing capitalist class must eventually be resolved one way or the other in future explosive upheavals. The impressive growth of the proletariat and the consequent rise in labour combativity (a crucial new element that has been hardly even noticed by the traditional left) represent potentially the most historically decisive factor in the world situation. Now a predominantly urban society, China now has nearly 200 million industrial workers – more than all the G7 countries put together. On a much grander scale, China today resembles Russia in the period from the 1890s to 1905. A generation of peasants find themselves uprooted from the level of the feudal wooden plough and transplanted into the most sophisticated super-technological centres of industry, with correspondingly revolutionary effects on their consciousness and combativity.

Just as the English proletariat created the conditions for the First International, the German the Second, and the Russian the Third, so the Chinese today are busily and silently creating the foundations for the new international – a global force organising and mobilising a working class which has for the first time in history become a majority of the world population.

TOWARDS A NEW SOCIETY

10) The most important element of all in any discussion of perspectives is the abiding and growing aspiration towards a new society, especially among the youth. Despite the industrial decline in “the West” and the return of mass unemployment, nevertheless the working class there has not suffered a definitive defeat in three quarters of a century. While the prevalent widespread mood of protest is soft and disorganised, reflecting the deproletarianisation of Western society and the naivete and inexperience of youth, there is nevertheless a broader understanding throughout society than ever before of the brutal realities of capitalism. At the same time, the new technology has made for an unprecedented awareness of events. Instant and spontaneous social communication have made politics more volatile than ever before, with mass mobilisations conjured up almost from nowhere: the anti-globalisation rallies, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, SYRIZA, PODEMOS, the Corbyn surge, etc. There is a new universal moral outrage at the grotesque polarisation of wealth and power.

In his exploitation of the thirst among the youth for change during the presidential primary elections in the USA, Bernie Sanders toyed with radical slogans, talking of the need for a revolution against the rule of the billionaires. He had no intention of taking real action to that end, but his campaign articulated the underlying mood of radicalisation and captured their imagination; for the millennial generation, socialism entered into conversation as a term of praise. 13 million people voted for that programme. Last year in the USA, 54% of respondents to a recent survey voted yes to the idea of a “political revolution to redistribute money from the wealthiest Americans”. That included 68% of Afro-Americans, 65% of Hispanics, and 68% of 18-29 year-olds.

During the decades of the postwar upswing in the West, with their temporarily raised living standards and marginally mitigated inequality, Marxists were regularly taunted with the sneer that Marx’s law of polarisation of wealth had been “proved wrong”. Today, on the contrary, we see the grossest inequality in history. Six individuals have amassed as much wealth as half the world’s population put together. In the last year 1,542 dollar billionaires increased their combined wealth to six trillion dollars.

When society is going forward, people can tolerate the most acute poverty – so long as they can see some prospect of future relief, of a better life for their children and grandchildren. When it becomes clear that all their suffering and sacrifice is futile, when their last hope is gone, that is when revolution is put on the agenda.

Who is most alarmed at the consequences? In the words of Joseph Stadler, UBS’ head of Global Ultra High Net Worth, the shocking polarisation of wealth today “is something billionaires are concerned about… The question is to what extent is that sustainable and at what point will society intervene and strike back?” Here, for instance, is a recent message circulated by one of these plutocrats among his peers…

 

Memo: From Nick Hanauer

To: My Fellow Zillionaires

 

You probably don’t know me, but like you I am one of those .01%ers, a proud and unapologetic capitalist… Like you, I have been rewarded obscenely for my success, with a life that the other 99.99 percent of Americans can’t even imagine… But let’s speak frankly to each other … Seeing where things are headed is the essence of entrepreneurship. And what do I see in our future now? I see pitchforks. At the same time that people like you and me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest of the country—the 99.99 percent—is lagging far behind. The divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast… The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France.

Before the revolution.

For all his historical muddle, Mr Hanauer’s conclusion is right: revolution is on the order of the day. In the sections of our document which follow, we examine the implications in further detail, and consider our strategy for ultimate victory.

 

* – Oaklandsocialist comments: We are not sure that it is correct to label the rise of terrorism and religious fundamentalism “a secondary and minor complication.” On the one hand, for example, the Christian religious fundamentalists were absolutely central to the election of Donald Trump and they remain as his core base. His recent decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem was made to please that base. In Russia, the arch reactionary Putin regime rests to a large degree on the reactionary Russian Orthodox Church. This church may not be “fundamentalist” in the strict sense of the word, but it plays a similar role. In Israel, many of the most racist forces are based on Jewish Orthodoxy, which is similar to Jewish fundamentalism. In India, the most militant wing of the ruling BJP – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – is, in effect, a Hindu fundamentalist group. Religious fundamentalism has been the main factor in driving back the movement in the mainly Muslim world and is a huge threat from Pakistan to Iraq. Islamic fundamentalism is also a main selling point for the racist, chauvinist right wing parties in Europe. In general, throughout the world, the forces of male chauvinism hide behind religious fundamentalism to attack women’s rights and to attack women, themselves. Religious fundamentalism and terrorism have played an important role in the period of reaction, sectarianism and division which we have been experiencing recently but which may now be coming to a close.

1 reply »

  1. I accept that the paragraph in this document on fundamentalism needs further amplification. My intention had been to refute the exaggerated xenophobic claims of imperialist politicians that Islamic terrorism constitutes a mortal threat to “democracy” and “Western values”. However, religious fundamentalism does certainly pose a grave danger, threatening to split the working class and poison the minds of youth in revolt. In its most virulent guise, it constitutes a variant of fascism.

    Fascism always drapes itself in the costume of its national myths: Mussolini’s Fascists in Caesarism and the Roman Empire; Hitler’s Nazis in Aryan Nordic sagas; Franco’s clerical fascists in the Catholic Church and the Inquisition; the Indian Shiv Sena in Hindu epics, gods and princes; and the various Islamic fascist groups (ISIS/ISIL, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Jamaat-e-Islam) in seventh-century Mecca, Medina and the early caliphates. Successive British fascist groups have cloaked themselves in the paraphernalia of the British Empire, and their American counterparts in the folklore of the American revolution, the frontier pioneers, and the civil war Confederate states.

    What all fascist groups have in common is their active mobilisation of militant supporters, their violent bigotry against vulnerable minorities, and their common prime target: the labour movement.

    Roger Silverman

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