Chris Harman

A people’s history of the world

Illusion of the epoch

The 20th century began with a great fanfare about the inevitability of progress, exemplified in Bernstein’s predictions of growing democratisation, growing equality and growing all-round prosperity. The theme dominated again in the mid-1950s and early 1960s in the writings of politicians like Anthony Crosland, political theorists like Daniel Bell and economists like Paul Samuelson. It re-emerged again in 1990, when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed ‘the end of history’, and persisted into the late 1990s, with Anthony Giddens’s insistence that the categories of left and right belonged to the past. If everything was not for the best in the best of all possible worlds, a few little changes and it would be.

Yet the reality of life for vast sections of humanity was at various points in the century as horrific as any known in history The forward march of progress gave rise to the bloodletting of the First World War; the mass impoverishment of the early 1930s; the spread of Nazism and fascism over most of Europe; the Stalinist gulag; the Japanese onslaught on Shanghai and Nanking; the devastation of much of Europe between 1940s and 1945; the Bengal famine; the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the 30 year war against Vietnam and the nine year war against Algeria; the million dead in one Gulf War and the 200,000 dead in another; tens of thousands killed by death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala and Argentina; and hundreds of thousands dead in the bloody civil wars of Croatia, Bosnia, Tajikistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Industrial progress all too often translated itself into the mechanisation of war – or most horrifically with the Holocaust, into the mechanisation of mass murder. Nor was the picture any more hopeful at the end of the century than halfway through. Whole countries outside Western Europe and North America which had hoped at various points in the century to ‘catch up’ with the living standards of the ‘First World’ saw the dream fade away – Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Russia. The whole continent of Africa found itself once again being written out of history as income per head fell steadily over a 30 year period. Civil war continued to devastate Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Congo-Zaire. To the word ‘genocide’, born of the Nazism that arose in the 1930s, was added the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’, coined in the civil wars of the 1990s

Even in the advanced industrial countries the promises of endless wealth, endless leisure and the withering away of class division that were so fashionable in the 1890s, and again in the 1950s, proved to be a chimera. Measured economic output continued to rise in most years for most economies, but at only about half the rate during the long boom of the 1950s and early 1960s. And the rises did not translate into improvements in most people’s quality of life.

In the US there was a more or less continual fall in real hourly wages through the last quarter of the century. In Europe the statistics continued to show rising real wages, but there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the increases were eaten up by rising indirect costs associated with the changing pattern of work (longer journeys from home to work, rising transport costs, increased reliance on fast food and frozen food, increased childcare costs), with one ‘index of sustainable welfare’ suggesting that it rose more or less continually from 1950 until the mid-1970s and then started to decline thereafter. [1] There has certainly been no qualitative improvement in people’s lives, as was experienced in the 1950s and early 1960s. At the same time, there has been increased pressure on those with jobs to work longer and harder. The average American worked 164 hours longer in 1996 than they did in 1976 – the equivalent of one full month a year longer [2], with survey after survey reporting people feeling under increasing stress at work. Recurrent recessions and repeated ‘down-sizing’ of workforces, even during periods of ‘recovery’, created levels of insecurity among people about their futures not known since the 1930s. Mainstream political parties that had said insecurity was a thing of the past in the 1970s insisted in the 1990s that there was nothing they could do about it because it was part of the ‘new global economy’ (an unacknowledged revamping of the old left wing phrase ‘international capitalism’).

There was another side to the growing poverty of wide parts of the Third and former Communist worlds and the growing insecurity in the West. It was the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the ruling classes. By the late 1990s some 348 billionaires enjoyed a total wealth equal to the income of half of humanity. In 1999 the United Nations Human Development Report could tell that the world’s richest 200 people had doubled their wealth in four years. [3] At the end of the 1960s, the gap between the richest and poorest fifths of the world’s population stood at 30 to one, in 1990 at 60 to one, and in 1998 at 74 to one. Most of the very rich were concentrated in advanced countries. In 1980 the top managers of the 300 biggest US corporations had incomes 29 times larger than the average manufacturing worker – by 1990 their incomes were 93 times greater. But the same phenomenon was visible elsewhere in the world, where even in the poorest countries a thin ruling stratum expected to live the lifestyles of the world’s very rich, and to keep multi-million dollar deposits in Western banks as an insurance against social unrest at home. Everywhere their reaction to social crisis was to accumulate wealth in order to insulate themselves against its effects, not worrying overmuch if, in the process, the basis fabric of society was undermined. The contracting out of state tax raising to wealthy individuals (tax farming) had been a recurrent feature accompanying the crises of pre-capitalist class societies, a feature which only served to intensify the long-term trend to crisis. The contracting out of state services became a growing feature of capitalist class society in the last decade of the 20th century with equally inevitable long term effects.

Along with the reborn insecurity and the recurrent slumps, another spirit emerged from the nether world where it had been apparently banished after the Second World War – various forms of fascism and Nazism. It became quite normal, even during periods of ‘economic recovery’, for far right figures like Le Pen in France and Haider in Austria to get 15 percent of the vote – and quite realistic for them to hope to do much better with the onset of the next great recession. It became equally normal for mainstream conservative political parties to trade in the language of racism and ethnic division in order to pick up votes, and for social democratic parties to concede to that language in a desperate attempt to hold their own electorally.

Socialism, barbarism and the 21st century

Rosa Luxemburg writing in the midst of world war in 1915, recalled a phrase from Engels ‘Capitalist society is faced with a choice, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism.’ We have read and repeated these phrases repeatedly,’ she notes

... without a conception of their terrible import ... We stand before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a cast cemetery; or the victory of socialism, that is the conscious struggle of the proletariat against imperialism ... This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice whose scales are trembling the balance ... Upon it depends the future of humanity and culture. [4]

In this passage she was challenging in the most forceful way the illusion of inevitable progress under capitalism. She was making the same point made by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto when they pointed out that the historical alternative to the transformation of society by a newly emerged class was the ‘common destruction of the contending classes’. This, as we have seen, happened not only with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, but also with the first ‘Dark Ages’, the early Bronze Age civilisations of Eurasia, the collapse of the Teotihuacan and Mayan civilisations of Meso-America, and the crisis of Abbasid Mesopotamia in the 11th century. It came close to happening in second millennium BC Egypt, in 12th century AD China and in 14th century AD Europe. Rosa Luxemburg sawthe world war as threatening a re-enactment of such disasters: ‘In this war, imperialism has been victorious. Its brutal sword of murder has dashed the scales, with overbearing brutality, down into the abyss of shame and misery’. [5]

Leon Trotsky made the same point in 1921:

Humanity has not always risen along an ascending curve. No, there have existed prolonged periods of stagnation and relapses into barbarism. Societies raise themselves, attain a certain level, and cannot maintain it. Humanity cannot sustain its position, its equilibrium is unstable; a society which cannot advance falls back, and if there is not a class to lead it higher, it ends up by breaking down, opening the way to barbarism. [6]

The founding document of Trotsky’s Fourth International, written on the eve of renewed world war, posed the alternative grimly ‘Without socialist revolution, in the next historical period a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of humanity’. [7]

Both Luxemburg and Trotsky located, as few other thinkers did, the insane logic of capitalist society in the 20th century – the way in which forces of production had turned into forces of destruction, and human creativity been distorted into inhuman horror. The century was a century of barbarity on a scale unknown, in Europe at least, since the 17th or even the 14th century. If the century did not fulfil the worst prophesies of Luxemburg and Trotsky, in terms of a complete collapse of culture and civilisation, there were also repeated lurches towards barbarism in the strict sense of the word as used by Engels and Luxemburg of rulers prepared to pull society down around them rather than concede their power – the behaviour of the White armies during the Russian civil war, the drive to complete the Holocaust by the retreating Nazi forces in the Second World War, and the willingness of both sides in the Cold War to deploy nuclear devices which would have reduced the whole world to a radioactive desert. In the last decade of the century whole areas of Africa, the Caucasus and central Asia seemed caught in the same logic, with armies led by rival warlords massacring each other and ravaging civilian populations as they fought for scraps of wealth amid general economic and social decay. That decade also exposed terrible new threats alongside the old ones of war and economic slump.

The most dramatic is that of ecological catastrophe. Class societies have always shown a tendency to place excessive demands on the environment which sustains their populations. The history of pre-capitalist class societies was a history, beyond a certain point, of famines and demographic collapse produced by the sheer burden of maintaining greedy ruling classes and expensive superstructures. The very economic dynamism that characterises capitalism has vastly increased the speed at which negative ecological consequences make themselves felt. Nineteenth century accounts of what capitalism does to working class communities, from Dickens and Engels onwards, are also accounts of polluted atmosphere, endemic diseases, overcrowding and adulterated food in slum life. But at a time when a maximum of ten million people worldwide were involved in industrial capitalist production, ecological devastation was a localised problem – Manchester’s smoke did not affect most of England, let alone the rest of the world. The spread of capitalism to the whole world in the 20th century, encompassing six billion or more people by the end of the century, transformed ecological devastation into a global problem. The year 1998, one authoritative report tells, was ‘the worst on record and caused more damage then ever before’, forcing 25 million people to flee as refugees, ‘outnumbering those displaced by war for the first time’. [8] With one billion people living in unplanned shanty towns, and 40 of the world’s 50 fastest growing cities located in earthquake zones, the worst horrors are still to come. But that is not the end of it. The production of ever-escalating amounts of carbon dioxide is causing the ‘greenhouse effect’ to heat up the globe, producing unpredictable weather patterns that are expected to produce freak storms and rising ocean levels that will flood huge coastal areas. The CFCs used in refrigerators are eating up the ozone layer, causing a proliferation of skin cancers. The use of antibiotics in animal feed is undermining the effectiveness of antibiotics in dealing with human diseases. The unrestricted use of genetically modified crops could create havoc for the whole of the food chain. Such ecological disasters, actual and threatened, are no more natural disasters than were those which destroyed the food supply of Mesopotamia in the 12th century, or which led to mass starvation across Europe in the 14th century. They are a result of the specific way in which human interaction with the environment is occurring on a world scale.

Under capitalism, that interaction is organised through the competition of rival capitals – of small scale firms in the early 19th century, and of giant multinational and state-owned firms at the end of the 20th century. Competition leads to an incessant search for new, more productive and more profitable forms of interaction, without regard to their other consequences. States sometimes try to regulate the whole process. But they are themselves drawn into it by their desire to advance the interests of nationally based firms. Regulation, they all too often say, is impossible because it will undermine the competitiveness of locally-based firms to the advantage of foreign competitors. And even when they do intervene it is after the damage is already done, for there is no way state officials can second guess every industrial innovation and foresee its wider impact.

So dangerous were the consequences by the end of the 20th century that there was a tendency for people to turn their back on all science and all technology. Yet without the technologies of the last century there would be no way to feed the world’s population, let alone free them from the ravages of hunger and overwork that have been most people’s lot since the rise of class society. There was a parallel tendency for people to adopt one argument of that old reactionary Malthus, and to insist the re were simply too many people – or, at least, that there would be by the time the world’s population had doubled in 30 or 40 years. Yet the eightfold growth in humanity’s numbers since Malthus’s time was matched by a more than eightfold increase in its food supply. If people went hungry in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, it was a result not of an absolute shortage of food, but of its distribution along class lines.

The problem for humanity is not technology or human numbers as such, but how existing society determines people’s use of the technology. Crudely the world can easily sustain twice its present population. It cannot, however, sustain ever greater numbers of internal combustion engines, each pumping out kilograms of carbon dioxide a day in the interests of the profitability requirements of giant oil and motor firms. Once humanity covers the globe in such numbers the precondition of its continuing survival is the planned employment of technology to meet real human needs, rather than its subordination to the blind accumulation of competing capitals.

The use of technology for competitive accumulation also finds expression in its use for wars. In the 1990s the military technology which gave us the carnage of the Western Front in the First World War, and the barbarity of the Eastern Front and of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Second World War, looked incredibly primitive.

On the one hand, there was the development of mega-billion dollar military hardware systems. The US, by spending even more in absolute terms (although not as a proportion of national output) than at the height of the Cold War in the early 1950s, and by utilising half a century of advances in computer technology was able to wage wars against Iraq and Serbia which cost it not a single soldier, while killing thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of the other side. It also began to embark down the path of waging its wars by remote control from its own continent, and looking once more to the deployment of ‘Star Wars’ anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems to protect itself against any retaliation.

On the other hand, there was the resort to deadly destructive microsystems. Small states like Israel and impoverished ones like Pakistan found themselves with enough engineering graduates and enough access to modem computing technology to manufacture their own nuclear weapons – pygmy weapons by US standards, but sufficient if the occasion arises to fry alive hundreds of thousands of people in the capital cities of neighbouring countries. For some, at least, the lesson of the US’s deployment of firepower in the Gulf and the Balkans was drawn by the Russian ex-premier Viktor Chernomyrdin: ‘Even the smallest independent states will seek nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles to defend themselves’. [9] For those without the ability to develop those technologies, there were the cruder and cheaper technologies of chemical and biological warfare developed by the Great Powers through the first three quarters of the century

In the second half of the 20th century the apologists for Great Power nuclear programmes argued they would ensure peace through the logic of MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. Neither power, they said, would use its nuclear weapons first because of the certainty of retaliatory destruction if it did so. The Cuban crisis of 1963 showed how close this logic could come to breaking down, and in the 1980s the US threatened to undermine it completely by establishing a ‘first strike capacity’, with the deployment of cruise missiles in Europe and its first abortive attempt to build an ABM system. If the threat was not realised it was because the escalating military costs broke the back of the Soviet economy just as the US found that it did not yet have the technology for a functioning ABM system – and mass protests increased the political costs of European governments keeping cruise missiles on their soil. But the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the renewed building of ABM systems brought the threat back with a vengeance. The world’s greatest power and many of its smaller ones were once again attracted by the logic of ‘first strike’ – responding to a sudden escalation of international tension by using nuclear weapons in the expectation of avoiding retaliation. This in turn increased the likelihood of pre-emptive military strikes, both conventional and nuclear, in a desperate attempt to keep rival powers and lesser powers under control. The barbarism that did not quite materialise in the latter half of the 20th century becomes a real possibility in the 21st. Any perspective on the future which looks at it in terms of several decades rather than just a couple of years must rate the chances of nuclear conflict on some scale as likely, and with it the throwing of whole parts of the world into barbarism proper.

These chances are increased by growing economic instability A slump on the scale of the 1930s would wreak political havoc in country after country creating conditions, as in the inter-war years, in which parties could easily rise to power which resorted to military adventures as a way of dealing with domestic problems. The omens are already there with the rise of the far right vote in important countries. Again, once the perspective is one of decades, the possibility of such parties getting access to nuclear weapons becomes a likelihood, unless a class alternative emerges to the present system which sets out to reorganise the whole of society on a different basis The alternatives of socialism or barbarism are posed more starkly than ever.

A universal class?

The 20th century was not just a century of horrors. It was also, as we have seen, a century of great upsurges of struggle from below, of working class led rebellions against the forces responsible for the horrors the syndicalist strikes prior to the First World War; the Russian Revolution and the revolts across Europe and the colonial world after that war; the waves of insurgency in Austria, France and Spain in 1934-36, and in France, Italy and Greece in 1943-45; the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; the events of 1968 and after; and the great Polish strikes and occupations of 1980. Only one of those great revolts turned into successful revolution, that in Russia, and that was soon isolated until the life was strangled from it. But the struggles were one of the great determining factors in the history of the century And, here again, the close of the century did not see an end to the struggles Deflected class struggle lay behind the collapse of the Eastern bloc. In Western Europe the 1990s sawa collapse of the right wing Berlusconi government in Italy after a wave of strikes; the sudden revival of working class struggle in France with a month of public strikes and demonstrations in November-December 1995 leadingto the eventual collapse of the right wing Juppé government; a wave of strikes and protests in Germany; a general strike in Denmark; successive strike waves in South Korea; general strikes in Colombia and Ecuador; and the fall of the 32 year-old dictatorship of General Suharto in Indonesia after massive spontaneous demonstrations and riots.

These great social and political upheavals did not prevent superficial and fashionable commentators speaking of an end of class politics Even Eric Hobsbawm, long regarded as one of Britain’s best-known Marxists, could claim that, while Marx was right when he wrote of the instability of capitalism, he was wrong to see the working class as driven into historic opposition to the system The proponents of such arguments relied on two sets of evidence – the decline in the proportion of the populations of advanced industrial countries involved in manufacturing, and the relatively small number of people looking to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society in these countries. Neither sort of evidence justified their conclusions.

Certainly, the old bastions of the working class – the miners, the steel workers and the shipyard workers – were much reduced in numbers in countries like Britain, where even the number of car workers at the end of the 1990s was only a half or a third of what it was 30 years previously. But other changes more than compensated for this. In the advanced countries their places were taken by growing numbers of jobs in white collar employment and the ‘service’ sector, and many jobs which used to be thought of as ‘middle class’ increasingly resembled those in old-style manufacturing industry Everywhere line managers’ played the same role as the traditional foremen; everywhere the pressure was on people to work harder and show ‘commitment’ by doing unpaid overtime. Assessment procedures became near-universal, with attempts to introduce payment by results even in areas like schoolteaching.

Far from the assembly line disappearing with the relative decline of manufacturing, it spread into new areas. Indeed, in many sectors the distinction between ‘services’ and ‘manufacturing’ no longer made much sense: someone who worked a machine making a computer was categorised as ‘manufacturing’, while someone who performed routine operations in processing its software was categorised as ‘services’; someone who put hamburgers in a can was ‘manufacturing’, someone who put them in a fast food bun, ‘services’. Both sorts of work produced commodities that were sold for a profit, and both were shaped by the continual pressure to create the largest possible profits.

The picture on a world scale was even clearer. The second half of the 20th century witnessed an enormous spread of wage labour internationally. Textile plants, steel works, oil refineries and car assembly plants were set up in virtually every major country in every continent. Along with them went docks, airports, trucking and rail terminals, modem banking systems, and skyscraper offices. Cities expanded massively as a result. In 1945 there were arguments over whether London or New York was the world’s biggest city. By the end of the century the argument was between Mexico City, Bombay and Tokyo. The new industries and cities meant new working classes. By the 1980s, South Korea alone contained more industrial workers than the whole world had when Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto – and it contained millions of non-industrial wage earners as well.

Of course, the world’s workforce was not made up only of wage-workers There remained many hundreds of millions of peasants owning small plots of land in Asia, Africa, parts of Latin America and even parts of Eastern Europe. The cities of the Third World contained massive impoverished petty bourgeoisies whose survival depended on the selling of whatever goods and services, however meagre, they could find a market for, and who merged into the even vaster mass of casual labour to be found in the sprawling slums around the cities. The psychology of these groups could be very different from that of the industrial workers. Yet like them, and unlike the middle classes and peasantry of a century ago, their lives were completely tied to the market and dependent on the logic of capital.

Karl Marx once made the distinction between a ‘class in itself’ that has a certain objective position within a society and a ‘class for itself’ that fights consciously for goals of its own. The working class existed as never before as a class in itself at the end of the 20th century, with a core of perhaps two billion people, around which there were another two billion or so people whose lives were subject in important ways to the same logic as the core. The real argument about the role of the working class is about if and how it can become a class for itself.

The whole point about Marx’s distinction is that no class that has arisen historically has been able to start off as a class for itself. It grows up within an old order of society and its members have no experience of any other. They necessarily begin by taking the values of that society for granted. The prejudices of the old society are also, initially at least, the prejudices of the members of the new class. This changes only when they are forced, often by circumstances beyond their own control, to fight for their interests within the old society. Such struggles lead to ties growing up between them, creating loyalties and values different to those of the society. On the terrain created by this, new notions take root about how society can be run, which in turn form part of the framework for subsequent generations’ understanding of the world.

The change in ideas does not occur according to a simple upward linear movement. Just as the struggle of the new class is characterised by small successes and partial defeats, by dramatic advances and sudden, sometimes devastating setbacks, so there are ebbs and flows in the spread of the transformation of people’s ideas. The history of the rise of the capitalist class provides example after example of such ebbs and flows. At each stage, groups begin to define themselves in ways different to those of the old feudal order, but then try to conciliate with it, making their peace with the pre-capitalist ruling classes, accepting their values and helping to perpetuate their society leaving it to subsequent generations to have to start afresh the fight for a different sort of society. There must have been many people who felt, during the wars in northern Italy at the end of the 15th century, during the religious wars in France a century later, or during the horrors of the Thirty Years War in Bohemia and Germany, that the bourgeoisie would never be able to transform the whole of society in its own image. Yet, by the 19th century, economic development had given it such a weight as a class that even the setbacks of 1848 could not halt a seemingly inexorable advance to power.

There is nothing magical about workers under capitalism which enables them to follow some royal road to class consciousness. The society around them is permeated by capitalist values, and they take these values for granted. Even their exploitation is organised through a labour market, where they compete with each other for jobs. As well as the pressure which again and again causes them to combine together against the subordination of their lives to the inhuman logic of capital accumulation, there are also the factors which can all too easily break apart that unity – unemployment, which makes each individual despair of any way of making a livelihood except at the expense of others, or defeats for their organisations which break their sense of solidarity and make them feel that no amount of unity and struggle will ever change things for the better. The growth of new values that are thrown up in periods of successful struggle – embodied in notions of solidarity across national, ethnic and gender divisions – can suddenly be disrupted, distorted or even destroyed They can also come under considerable pressure during periods of capitalist ‘prosperity’, when sections of workers find they gain from identification with the system: this happens to those who experience upward mobility to become foremen, supervisors or managers; to those who manage to carve out a niche for themselves as small business people; and to those who become, as trade union officials and Labour or social democratic politicians, the professional mediators of capitalist democracy Such people can be the most outspoken and dynamic personalities in their localities or workplaces, and their adaptation to the system has the effect of blunting the consciousness of class among other workers.

Finally, the process of transformation from the class in itself to the class for itself is continually interrupted by the restructuring and enlargement of the working class as capitalism itself develops. New groups of workers emerge and have to undergo a learning process afresh at each stage of the system. In Britain, for instance, the core of the working class in the 1840s at the time of Chartism was made up of textile workers; in the years before the First World War it consisted of workers in heavy industry like shipyard workers, miners and steel workers; in the early years after the Second World War it was made up of engineering workers. Each had to go through the process again of developing notions already embodied, to some degree, in the consciousness of preceding groups. The differences between old and new workers can be even more pronounced when there is massive and rapid industrialisation, as happened through much of the 20th century in many countries: the working class which made the revolution of 1917 in Russia was drowned in a vast sea of new workers by the late 1930s; the Italian workers who shook the Mussolini regime in 1943 were diluted by very much larger numbers of workers fresh from the countryside by the 1960s; very few of the tens of millions of China’s workers in the late 1980s were direct descendants of those who waged the great strikes of the 1920s. Yet in each case, after a longer or shorter time lag new traditions emerged with similarities to the old the Italian strikes of 1969 and after; the Chinese workers’ support for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989; the Russian miners’ strikes of 1989 and 1991. In none of these cases did workers show full revolutionary consciousness. But they did, in each case, begin to break with the values and assumptions of the old society. They began to move towards becoming a class for itself, even if they did not complete the journey.

What we witnessed in the last quarter of the 20th century was not the extinction of the working class or of the development of its consciousness as a class. Instead, we saw the fruits of its massive expansion – an expansion which simultaneously gave it more power to shape society than ever before, but which also forced large sections to have to learn anew what smaller sections had already known three quarters of a century before. The learning process involved precisely the deflection of the struggle that characterised these years. It left behind a mass of confused and contradictory notions in the minds of tens of millions of people. This was far from the class in itself fully becoming a class for itself. But it was also very far indeed from the disappearance of workers’ struggles as an active shaping force in history.

Writing at the beginning of the century the future leader of the Russian Revolution, Lenin, commented that, far from the economic struggle of workers automatically leading to revolutionary consciousness, ‘the spontaneous development of the working class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology’. This was because ‘that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, is far more fully developed and ... has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination’. [10] His famous conclusion was, ‘Class political consciousness can be brought to the waters only from without’. [11] It was a conclusion criticised by Rosa Luxemburg among others, and Lenin himself admitted later that he had underrated the role of workers in developing socialist ideas. [12] But he rightly focused on a point taken up and developed a quarter of a century later by the often misunderstood Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci.

Gramsci pointed out that the members of a class are usually exposed to conflicting views of the world – those that arise out of the everyday practice of existing society and those that arise in so far as the class (or a section of it) has experience of fighting to transform that society. As a result, anyone’s personality ‘is made up in a queer way. It contains elements of the caveman and principles of the most modern advanced learning shabby prejudices of all past historical phases and intuitions of a future philosophy of the human race united all over the world’. [13] These contradictory elements are combined in different ways among different individuals and groups. Some are trapped almost completely within the views characteristic of existing society and some have gone a very long way into breaking from these, but most are stuck somewhere in the middle, pulled first one way then another under the impact of those with more homogenous views at either extreme. The concrete action of a class at any point in history depends on which of the ‘extremes’ is most successful in attracting the middle group as social upheavals (wars, economic crises, strikes and civil wars) open it up to new ideas. The degree to which a class in itself becomes a class for itself depends not only on material changes in the world around it, but also on the formation of rival parties within it.

This was also shown in the rise of capitalism. The ‘great transition’ was not just a result of objective economic factors. It also depended upon successive attempts by sections of the new burgher or bourgeois classes to organise themselves around views of the world very different to those of the old order – and of other sections to work with representatives of the old order to subvert such organisation. It is the history of movements of revolt or reform in the 8th century Islamic Empire and the 11th century Chinese Empire, and of the suppression of those movements; of the movements of the Renaissance and Reformation, and of the succumbing in Italy, Germany and France of those movements to the old order; of the victories of the Dutch and English revolutions, and of the horrific impasse of the Thirty Years War; of the Enlightenment, and of the obscurantist reaction against the Enlightenment; of the struggle of the French Assembly against its king and of the Jacobins against the Girondins. The transition was not achieved in one great leap, and nor was it a result of slow, piecemeal change. It depended on the formation, defeat and reformation of parties built around a new developing worldview over several hundred years.

The conquest of the world by capitalism has speeded up the historical process enormously. There was more change to the lives of the great majority of the world’s population in the 20th century than in the whole preceding 5,000 years. Such sheer speed of change meant that again and again people were trying to cope with new situations using ideas that reflected recent experience of very different ones. They had decades to undergo a transformation in their ideas comparable to that which took the bourgeoisie in Europe 600 years. The fact that at the end of the century the process was not complete cannot be interpreted as proving it was not still underway. The history of the 20th century was the history of successive generations of people, ever larger in number, resisting the logic of subjection to the world of competitive capital accumulation. Once, in Russia, they were briefly successful. Sometimes – as in Germany in 1918-19, in France in 1936 or in Poland in 1980s – they settled for half-success, only then to be defeated. Sometimes they were defeated terribly, as in Germany in January 1933, without even joining the battle. But none of this provides the slightest excuse for claiming the class struggle is over. The sort of struggles carried out by a small working class in the 19th century, a bigger one in the first half of the 20th century, and a much larger one in the last quarter of the century will be repeated by sections of the billions-strong working class of the new millennium.

Out of these struggles will emerge new attempts to remould society around the values of solidarity, mutual support, egalitarianism, collective cooperation and a democratically planned use of resources. The ruling classes of the world, like their predecessors for 5,000 years, will do their utmost to thwart these attempts and will, if necessary, unleash endless barbarities so as to hang on to what they regard as their sacred right to power and property. They will defend the existing capitalist order to the end – even if it is the end of organised human life.

There is no way to tell in advance what the outcome of such great conflicts will be. That depends not only on the clash of objective class forces – of the growth of classes in themselves – but also on the extent to which there emerges within the expanded ‘universal’ working class a core of people who understand how to fight and know how to win their fellows to this understanding. There will be no shortage of groups and movements in bitter opposition to one or other aspect of the system Its very barbarity and irrationality will ensure this in the future, as in the past. But the history of the 20th century shows that these elements can only be truly effective when they crystallise into revolutionary organisations dedicated to challenging the system in all its aspects. The bourgeoisie needed such a crystallisation with the New Model Army in the 17th century and the Jacobin Club in the 18th century. The Russian working class needed it with the Bolshevik Party in 1917. The massively expanded world working class is going to need it again and again in the 21st century if humanity as a whole is not going to face destruction. The need can only be met if there are people who apply themselves to the task. The Irish revolutionary socialist James Connolly once pointed out, The only true prophets are those who carve out the future’.

Understanding the past helps. That is why I wrote this book.


1. T. Jackson and N. Marks, Measuring Sustainable Economic Welfare: A Pilot Index 1950-1990 (Stockholm Economic Institute, 1994).

2. The figure is given in J. Schor, The Overworked American.

3. UN, Human Development Report 1999 (Oxford 1999).

4. R. Luxemburg, The Crisis of Social Democracy, in R. Luxemburg, Selected Political Writings (London 1972), pp.195-196.

5. R. Luxemburg, The Crisis of Social Democracy, p.196.

6. Speech given in Moscow July 1921, reported in Pravda, 12 July 1921, quoted in P. Broué, Trotsky (Paris 1988), p.349.

7. L. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (London no date), p.8.

8. Red Cross, 1999 World Disasters Report, summarised in the Guardian, 24 June 1999.

9. Quoted by Mark Almond, Independent on Sunday, 6 June 1999.

10. V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.5 (Moscow 1961), pp.385-386.

11. V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, in Collected Works, vol.5, p.422.

12. For a fuller discussion on this, see my article, Party and Class, reprinted in T. Cliff, D. Hallas, C. Harman and L. Trotsky, Party and Class (London 1996).

13. A. Gramsci, The Modern Prince and Other Essays (London 1957), p.59.

Last updated on 27 January 2010