Tony Cliff

Marxism at the Millennium

Chapter 15
The millennium: between hope and fear

The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 states:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

The slave rebellion, led by Spartacus, and all other slave rebel lions, were defeated. This did not lead to a continuation of the slave system in the Roman Empire. The slaves were replaced by colons (serfs). Feudalism replaced slavery. This process was accelerated by the invasion of the German tribes into the Roman Empire.

Again, when we speak about the transition from feudalism to capitalism, quite often it sounds like a very smooth process. One can spend half an hour reading a chapter on feudalism, and then move on to a chapter on capitalism. But the process was much less smooth, much more contradictory. Feudalism survived for over a millennium in Europe. When it was in decline and capitalism was rising in the cracks of feudal society, it was not a one-way street leading upwards. As a matter of fact, Arab Spain in the 11th century was much more advanced than Spain three centuries later. In the 17th century, during the Thirty Years War (1618-48), the population of Germany was cut by nearly a half.

Again, the horrors of feudalism went on unabated. To give one example: for 1,000 years the lord of the manor had the right to deflower any young maid in the villages under his control. The oppression of the serfs, above all their female section, continued for a very long time.

Capitalism is far more dynamic than any previous system of economy and society. Hence the extremes appear on a far more dramatic scale than ever before. Capitalism developed the productive forces to a massive extent, so that plenty for all is possible. At the same time capitalism is torn by competition between different capitalists and different capitalist states. The competition between General Motors and Ford forced them to increase the exploitation of both their work- forces. The anarchic competition between the capitalists imposes tyranny over the workers in every capitalist enterprise. Extreme wealth coexists with dreadful poverty. Famines are not new phenomena for humanity; we have had them for thousands of years. But they were the result of the scarcity of food. Today, under capitalism, we have mil lions starving while there is surplus grain in the world. The extremities can be shown by one simple example. It is estimated that 20 million children die every year for lack of clean water. The profit of Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, in one year, would be enough to create water pipes and dig wells that guarantee that no child be deprived of clean water. One year’s profit!

Competition between the capitalists, of course, takes not only economic forms, but also military forms,

With the outbreak of the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg, the great Polish-German revolutionary, wrote that the alternatives before humanity were “socialism or barbarism”.

We know far more about barbarism than she could know. She was murdered in January 1919, before the gas chambers, before the atomic bombs falling on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were invented.

At the beginning of the 1990s I stated that observing the 1990s in Europe was like watching a film of the 1930s in slow motion.

In the last 20 years the world has gone through three world recessions. But they were pale imitations of the dreadful crash of 1929-33. It is true, an extreme right wing movement-fascism-rose in Europe. But Le Pen is only a pale imitation of Hitler. It is true that the National Front of Le Pen did get the support of 5 million voters as against Hitler’s 13 million. But the difference in the quality of sup port for the two was radical. Hitler’s support was frenzied petty bourgeois which lost everything in the crash. Le Pen’s mass support was not as angry. Hitler had armed Stormtroops even before he came to office in January 1933. Le Pen’s supporters were involved here and there in physical attacks on immigrants.

The other side of the coin – workers’ struggles – are also a pale imitation of the 1930s. It is true that the level of industrial struggle in France rose during the 1990s. But even the mass strikes of November-December 1995 cannot be compared with the mass occupation of factories in France in June 1936.

The fact that the story of the 1990s is like a film of the 1930s in slow motion means, first of all, that it is much more open to stop the film than if it was speedy.

Even more significant is the political situation in the working class, that is far more favourable for revolutionaries than it was in the 1930s. In the 1930s Stalinist parties dominated the left throughout the whole of Europe. Of course the victory of Hitler was not inevitable. Trotsky argued brilliantly for the need for a united front of the Communist and Social Democratic parties in Germany to stop Hitler. Hitler could have been stopped. First of all, the vote for the Social Democratic Party of 8 million and the Communist Party of 6 million was larger than the vote for the Nazis. Even more significant was the quality of the support for the workers’ parties. Trotsky wrote of the Nazi support as being “human dust” – isolated individuals – while the workers’ parties had massive power, in the factories, on the railways, etc. Hitler was not stopped because the Stalinist policy was against the united front; Stalin characterised the Social Democrats as “social fascists”.

Again, the occupation of the factories in France in 1936 could have been the springboard for proletarian revolution, not only in France, but in kindling the revolution elsewhere, e.g. in Germany. Alas, the Stalinists argued for coalition with the liberal party, all in the interests of the foreign policy of Stalin. The result was that in 1940 the parliament that was elected in May 1936 under the banner of the Popular Front voted its support for Marshal Pétain, head of the French government, now co-operating with Nazi Germany.

Today the power of the Stalinist parties in Europe has collapsed following the disintegration of the state capitalist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. Now there is a very wide space for revolutionaries to build.

The millennium both gives us hope and alerts us to the dangers. We live in an epoch of extremes, of extreme possibilities and extreme dangers. We should follow the wise advice of the philosopher Spinoza, who wrote, “One should not laugh, neither cry, but understand.” We live in a period of extreme possibilities.

The Communist Manifesto described the working class as the gravediggers of capitalism. At present the international working class is incomparably stronger than at the time the Manifesto was written. The number of industrial workers in South Korea alone is larger than the total industrial working class of the world when Marx died in 1883. We have a world to win.

The Battle of Seattle demonstrated massive anger against the capitalist corporations. The German mass circulation paper Der Spiegel, commenting about the demonstration in Seattle, said that it shows that the next millennium will begin with a war against capitalism. For many years the word anti-capitalism was part of the vocabulary of small revolutionary organisations. Now it is part of the language of millions.


Last updated on 12.12.2002