On Thursday 24 October 1929, “Black Thursday”, the American stock market collapsed. It was the signal for the greatest economic crises in the history of capitalism so far. “After the great (Wall Street) crash came the great depression. In 1933, the US gross national product (total production of the economy) was nearly a third less than in 1929. Not until 1937 did the physical volume of production recover to the levels of 1929, and then it promptly slipped back again.
“Until 1941 the dollar value of production remained below 1929. Between 1930 and 1940 only once, in 1937, did the average number unemployed during the year drop below eight million. In 1933 nearly 13 million were out of work, or about one in every four of the labour force. In 1938 one person in five was still out of work.” In Britain, in Germany, in every developed monopoly capitalist country the situation was similar. Marx’s prediction that capitalist crises would become more and more severe seemed to have been proved in practice. The “revisionist” and liberal arguments that “organised”, i.e. monopoly, capitalism would eliminate crises were shattered. The result could have been socialist revolutions in the developed capitalist countries.
In fact, due mainly to the tragic degeneration of the Communist Parties, at that time the only possible source of revolutionary leadership, it was defeat and demoralisation for the working classes, fascism and finally another world war. Most marxists believed that, after that war, a post war boom would be followed by an even bigger and more terrible slump. It has not yet happened. Instead there has been a tremendous expansion of capitalist production, checked only by one or two mild recessions. True, this has gone hand in hand with the continuing and perhaps growing impoverishment of the “Third World”.
The fact remains that in the areas of working class concentration, the advanced capitalist countries, the system was stabilised. That this stabilisation was temporary and is now beginning to crumble away is the crux of marxist analysis of contemporary capitalism. To understand why we have to grasp the real causes of the “long boom”.
Several supposed causes can be disposed of quickly. First, the argument that the tremendous destruction of the Second World War and the need to rebuild the productive forces are mainly responsible. It seems incredible that anyone should believe this in 1970 but some, apparently, still do. Now the war has been over for 25 years. Actually there was a post-war boom, due mainly to this cause, between 1945 and 1949. Then a recession began, most clearly marked in the USA. It was short-lived.
In 1950 the Korean war began and with it a new boom. And it is the years since 1950 that have seen the really sensational economic growth. The extent of the growth is often underestimated. It was, in fact, unprecedented. “The system has never grown so fast for so long as since the war – twice as fast between 1950 and 1964 as between 1913 and, and 1950 and nearly half as fast again as during the generation before that.”
A popular idea is that it is new inventions, technological. progress that cause this economic expansion. The rate of technological change is now greater than at any time in the whole course of human history. So naturally growth is faster and slumps virtually disappear. This argument misses the, fundamental point that under capitalism production is not for use but for profit. Capital is invested if there is a good expectation of profit and not otherwise, no matter how useful a new product might be to people. There was, after all, no lack of useful inventions awaiting development in 1930. Television is a good example. As the scientist J.D. Bernal pointed out, “the development of television was slow not because its principles were not grasped at an early date (Campbell Swinton’s proposals on essentially the same lines as are now used were made in 1911) and not because of the technical difficulties ... It lagged essentially because the key electrical firms ... were too intent on immediate profits to indulge in expensive development.” In fact the connection between the boom and technological progress is the opposite of that usually supposed. It is the existence of the boom that makes it profitable to invest in new products rather than the other way round.
Another popular misconception is that the state planning and management that are a feature of every modern capitalist economy are the explanation. This is, of course, the reformist view. Now state intervention in the economy is important, state expenditure is enormously important but planning and management only work so long as they go with the grain of the system. Look at the Labour Government’s famous “National Plan”. When the economic climate changed it sank without a trace. There have been many other examples of the same kind. Perhaps the most important Was the American “New Deal” of the 1930s. This was state intervention on a really massive scale. It had a number of effects but one effect it did not have was the one it was intended to achieve. It did not end the slump.
What did end the slump, in Europe as well as in the USA was armament production. There can be absolutely no doubt about this. John Strachey wrote in A Programme for Progress: “The seven years from 1930 to 1937 included (1931-32) two of extreme depression and five of recovery. But that recovery ended in the first half of 1937. In the autumn of that year a new slump occurred. Unemployment rose by three-quarters of a million in Britain. In America it rose by four million in nine months. All the indices show that the new slump was not merely as severe as, but much more severe than, the great slump of 1929 ... The slump was stopped in mid-career ... Nor was there the slightest doubt ... as to the cause of this unprecedented even t... It was the direct consequence of the fact that the British government was spending £700 million a year on armaments.” And similarly, a little later, in the USA.
It is state expenditure then, and not planning as such that overcomes crisis. And, as will be shown, not just any expenditure but, crucially, armament expenditure. The importance of this Department III output is the key. It is this that has sustained the long boom. The reasons why it cannot go on doing so indefinitely can now be examined.
In 1962 the united nations published a survey which showed that about £43,000 million a year was being spent on arms. This was nearly a tenth of the total world output of all goods and services and was roughly equal to the value of all exports from all countries.
Still more important “arms expenditure corresponded to about one half of gross capital formation throughout the world” (M. Kidron: Western Capitalism since the War, Penguin). This huge expenditure is largely concentrated in the capital goods industries – Marx’s “Department I”, the very sector of the economy most sensitive to economic fluctuations. A US government report issued in 1965 summarised the effect: “The greatly enlarged public sector since World War II, resulting from heavy defence expenditures, has provided additional protection against depressions, since this sector is not responsive to contraction in the private sector and provides a sort of buffer or balance wheel in the economy” (my italics).
Writing during the great depression of the 1930s, the economist Keynes ironically proposed a cure: “If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on the well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for the leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also; would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.”
This is what has actually happened. Military expenditure corresponds exactly, from the economic point of view, to the mining of buried banknotes. The permanent arms economy is practically applied Keynesianism. But why military expenditure? Keynes himself remarked: “It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like.” What prevents the replacement of the irrational and dangerous production of armaments by socially useful expenditure? Why not abolish poverty?
There are a number of reasons. The famous Report from Iron Mountain emphasised one: “As an economic substitute for war it is inadequate because it would be far too cheap ... the maximum programme that could be physically effected ... could approach the established level of military spending only for a limited time – in our opinion ... less than 10 years. In this short period, at any rate, the major goals of the programme would have been achieved. Its capital investment phase would have been completed ...” There is a more fundamental difficulty. Production under capitalism is production for profit by competing enterprises. If some are more heavily burdened with “social expenditure” than others, they will, other things being equal, be at a competitive disadvantage.
The great advantage of arms spending from a capitalist point of view is that equivalent spending is forced on competitors. A rough “equality of sacrifice” is imposed by the arms race itself. It was never more than a rough equality. “In the countries of western capitalism military expenditure ... has ranged ... as a proportion of gross domestic fixed capital formation from nearly 60 per cent in the US to 12 per cent in Norway (Britain 42 per cent).”
The real difference is rather less than the figures suggest because the use of the dollar as the international currency has enabled the US to maintain a near permanent balance of payments deficit: that is to say the rest of the world has been giving the US a near permanent subsidy. Still, the inequality of the arms burden is a growing problem. Japanese industry, for example, has expanded enormously during the arms boom – much more proportionately than US or British industry – because it enjoys the benefits of the boom without having, to bear more than a small fraction of its cost. This is one of the factors that is now undermining the long stabilisation.
Another is the increasingly capital-intensive nature of military production. Tank production requires a lot of capital plus a large amount of skilled and semi-skilled labour. Inter-Continental Ballistic missile production requires an enormous mass of capital plus a relatively small amount of highly skilled labour. Hence the creeping rise in unemployment that is occurring throughout the West. the balance wheel is beginning to wobble.
Yet this rising unemployment goes hand in hand wit an accelerating inflation. Some degree of inflation is inevitable under monopoly capitalism in the absence of big slumps. From the late 1940s to the late 1960s prices have been rising everywhere in the West by an average of 2 per cent to 3 per cent a year. A high demand for labour-power is bound to drive up prices and wages and the increases are passed on – or more than passed on.
What is happening now is quite new. Prices are increasing at an unprecedented rate at the same time as the demand for labour-power is slowly declining. Part of the explanation is the US Anti-Ballistic Missile Programme, the most expensive arms programme in history, which is spreading inflationary pressure throughout the system by creating a huge demand for certain kinds of scarce resources without making the corresponding demand for labour.
Another source of instability is the growth of huge international firms which can and do shift vast resources from one country to another. The tendency is to concentrate capital accumulation in a rather small number of highly developed areas – giving a further upward twist to inflation, while running down development elsewhere – giving an upward twist to unemployment. The development of an uncontrolled credit system – the Euro-currency market – is yet another force sapping the foundations of Western capitalist stabilisation.
History never repeats itself exactly. There will never be another 1929. Yet the instability of the capitalist system i; reasserting itself. The long stabilisation is ending. [1*]
A famous nineteenth century hymn, All things bright and beautiful, which is still sung in schools contains the verse, “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God gave each his station and ordered his estate.”
Not too many people believe in that kind of divine providence nowadays, at any rate not in the industrialised countries. And yet, in Britain in 1970, millions of working people voted for the Conservative Party.
Nor was this a freak result. In a country with universal suffrage, where 80 per cent of the working population consists of manual and routine white collar workers (1961 census), the Conservatives have been in power for 34 years out of the last 50. The Conservative Party exists to protect and extend the interests of that 10 per cent of the population that owns 80 per cent of all private property. How is it possible for a such a party to win elections. The answer is clear enough at one level. Millions of people do not understand their own interests. They have a false picture of the society they live in.
What has to be explained is why this is so. The puzzle of the Tory working man is only a fraction of the problem. A larger section of the working class more or less regularly votes Labour and votes for a party that has proved, in practice, that it too is committed to the preservation of the capitalist system, to privilege and inequality. And though most people might not put it in those terms, they understand well enough that there is no fundamental difference between the parties on this score.
This is not a new problem. Throughout history, societies have been run in the interests of the rich and the mass has been persuaded, in one way or another, to put up with this state of affairs for most of the time. Persuaded is the operative word. Riling classes have always. had soldiers and policemen, or their equivalent, at their disposal. Without them, that is without actual or potential violence, they could not rule at all. But, except at times of great crisis, violence is less important than persuasion.
For a class society to exist, both rulers and ruled have to have fairly coherent world outlooks that justify the existing set-up or make it seem the only possible sort of arrangement. They have to have what Marx called ideologies. An ideology is not just a wrong belief. It is a whole system of ideas which takes into account a good many facts but which shows the connection between those facts in a false light. Marx described ideology as “false consciousness”.
It is impossible for a privileged class to hold down the mass of a population for long unless the various sections of that population have a false consciousness. Moreover, the rulers themselves need an ideology. Once they have lost their belief in their own unique fitness to rule they become mere gangsters – like the Batista clique in Cuba – and then they are well on the way to destruction.
Until recently most ideologies have taken the form of religions. The various kinds of Christianity are most familiar to us and it is convenient to look at Christianity in order to get an idea of the main features of ideology in general. First of all the facts and their interconnection. According to Genesis, “God created man in his own image”. Man and God (in men’s consciousness) were facts. The relationship between them however is inverted. Man created God in his own image and naturally the conception of the deity changed as social conditions changed. In our Bibles he progresses from Jahweh, the bloodthirsty tribal superchief to Our Father, the omnipotent and benevolent ruler of Heaven and Earth – the idealised counterpart of the omnipotent and not-so-benevolent Roman Emperor.
The Emperor is remote and unapproachable. It is his local agents that have to be bribed or persuaded in matters of everyday concern. And so the Christian God is soon surrounded by a host of saints and martyrs who become the actual objects of prayer and devotion.
The whole conception is wrong of course, but it is not simply a fantasy. It corresponds, in a distorted way, to the real world that the religious lived in. It is also, like every long-lived ideology, a complicated and partly contradictory system accommodating many different strands of thought. Marx is often quoted as saying “Religion is the opium of the people”. What he actually said is rather more complex. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of unspiritual conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
So we have, on the one hand, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” but, on the other hand “lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt ... Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
We are told that “my kingdom is not of this world” and at the same time “And again, I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” The poor are urged to submit to the tribulations of this world but are promised – “Blessed be ye poor” – ample compensation in the world to come.
It is easy today, in a scientific world, to underestimate the power and resilience of religious ideology in the past. It provided an explanation of the workings of the universe, consolation for the masses of the people, justification for their rulers, entertainment, codes of conduct and an ultimate purpose in life. It has been slowly dying in the industrialised centres for a century and a half but is still far from extinct.
Secular ideologies have largely replaced religion as the effective “world view” in industrialised areas, even amongst many people with church affiliations. The most important of these – patriotism and “democracy” – are promoted by the mass media and the education system. Yet they are not simply systems of ideas produced by ruling class intellectuals for mass consumption. They create a real echo in the consciousness of working people because they incorporate some facts of everyday experience.
Mr Anthony Barber said recently that “We cannot allow the trade unions to hold the nation up to ransom”. Just what is this “nation”? Car workers, dustmen, miners, power workers and postmen together with their families are presumably part of it. As a matter of fact they, with their fellow workers in other industries and trades and their families, make up a big majority of the people living in Britain. Are they holding themselves up to ransom?
Of course, Mr Barber, whose concern for the old, the sick and the poor was reflected in his recent Budget, means to give the impression that groups of greedy workers are exploiting their strength to get exorbitant wages at the expense of old-age pensioners, the chronically sick, widows, orphans and other unfortunates.
The reality is very different. It was the Tory politician Disraeli who coined the phrase “The Two Nations” to describe the rich and the rest of us. Today’s Tories are less candid but the two nations are still a fact. Around 10 per cent of the population own about 80 per cent of all private property. Some of the 10 per cent are only moderately well off. The really rich dominate property ownership in Britain.
Professor J.E. Meade showed, in a book published in 1964, that the richest 5 per cent of the population owned 75 per cent of all personal wealth in 1960. If we take shareholding, the most important source of unearned income, we find that just over 1 per cent of the population owns 80 per cent of all share capital and the great bulk of the remainder is owned by another 9 per cent.
As with property ownership, so with income. Marxists distinguish between personal property – a suit of clothes, a car – which does not produce income and property in the means of production (nowadays mostly in the form of shares) which does. All wealth is produced by work. Shares are a legal title to a portion of the wealth produced by others – by workers. The interests of the class that produces the wealth, working people, and the class that controls the surplus value, the capitalists, are directly opposed to each other. If the workers collectively get a larger share, in real terms, of what is produced then the capitalists, get less and vice versa. It is as simple as that.
The “national” interest, then is a fake. There are only class interests. The real interests of working people in Britain are the same as those of working people in Germany, Japan or the USA. The slogan “Working people of all countries unite” expresses both the reality of common interests and the necessity for workers to recognise and act on those common interests to free themselves and the rest of humanity.
Nationalism is an ideology, a false consciousness which enables the ruling classes to control the people they exploit. But like all influential ideologies it incorporates some facts. National differences, in language, in history, in customs, are a fact. So too are differences in the standard of living in various countries. It is these indisputable facts that make it possible for the “head-fixing industries” controlled by the various ruling classes – education, TV, radio, the press and so on – to play on the differences so that the bosses can divide and rule.
Nevertheless socialists cannot regard all nationalisms as equally reactionary. There is all the difference in the world between the nationalism of a colonial or semi-colonial country, whose workers are doubly exploited, and that of an imperialist power like Britain. The right of every people to self-determination has to be recognised. “No nation,” wrote Marx, “that oppresses another can itself be free.” The poison of imperialist ideas, of which racialism is the most extreme form, helps to paralyse the workers of the imperialist countries in their own struggles.
The peoples of the British Isles have genuine national traditions: the traditions – to go back no further than the industrial revolution – of the English and Scottish Jacobins, of the Chartists, of the pioneers of free speech and trade unionism, of the heroic fighters for Irish republicanism. The struggle for democracy is central to our tradition. Every single democratic right we enjoy today, free speech, the right to organise, even the right to dissent from the state religion, has been won by working men in the teeth of violent opposition from the ruling class. Immense sacrifices were necessary to achieve them and immense sacrifices will be necessary to defend and extend them. There is no final victory short of socialism. We do not have democracy in Britain today though we do have vitally important democratic rights.
At one time the fight for the right to vote was the central issue and many thought it would, if won, destroy class rule and exploitation. Bronterre O’Brien, the Chartist leader, believed: “Universal suffrage means a complete mastery, by all the people, over all the laws, and institutions in the country ... General suffrage would place the magistracy and parliament and consequently the disposal of the military and police forces in the hands of the entire body of the people.” Universal suffrage was actually won in 1928. It has real, if limited, value. It has not achieved what the Chartists hoped for and the reason takes us to the heart of the problem of ideology. The forms of democratic rule are quite compatible with the reality of rule by a small governing class, on one condition.
The condition is that the mass of the population have a false view of the world and, in particular, that the working class as a whole is not yet what Marx called “a class for itself”. In other words it has not yet come to understand its objective interests and looks at society through the spectacles of ruling Class ideology, of “national interest” and the rest.
This state of affairs cannot be changed simply by education and propaganda, necessary as these are. It can only be changed by activity, by that actual struggle for immediate aims which produces self-education. In Marx’s words, “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”
“The country can’t afford it.” “It” can be anything from free milk for school children to decent pay for postmen. Now “the country” is, strictly speaking, a geographical expression. Of course people who talk like this do not really mean “a collection of islands in the North Sea can’t afford it.” If pressed, they will probably admit that what they mean is that “the people living in these islands can’t afford it.” Put in that way the statement is much less effective because it is obvious that we are talking about how to share out available income among these people. The trick is to give the impression that there is something called “the country” which is somehow different from the actual people who live in it.
Words like “the economy”, “sterling” and “the public interest” are used in the same way. The intention is to throw dust in people’s eyes to prevent them thinking about the real issues. It is often very effective. Words can be weapons and if people can be made to think in terms of these big abstractions it is very much easier to mislead them. Marx called this type of thinking “fetishism”. A fetish, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “an inanimate object worshipped by savages as having magical powers or as being animated by a spirit.” The natives of West Africa used to make wooden models of fantastic animals which they believed had real minds and powers of their own.
Illusions of this sort are by no means confined to primitive people. They are an important part of capitalist ideology. To pay homage to something called “the strength of sterling” is no more and no less rational than to pay homage to monkey-headed crocodile. Fetishism means assuming that things have interests of their own and that society can be seen mainly as a relationship between people and things rather than between people and people. “In the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world ... the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relations both with one another and with the human race,” wrote Marx. “So it is in the world of commodities with the products of man’s hands. This I call Fetishism ...”
The “strength of sterling” is a good example of a modern fetish. What actually does it mean? Ask an economist and you will be told that if sterling is strong people will prefer to hold it rather than, say, dollars. But what people and why? Clearly not the mass of working people in this country. In fact most shops and pubs will not accept dollars anyway, so that whether sterling is weak or strong most of us have to “hold” and use it regardless. The economist will probably brush aside this objection as frivolous. The “people” he has in mind, he will explain, are bankers, brokers and international currency speculators.
Now they are not a very big group. Why do their preferences matter so much? If our economist is very patient he will tell us that if these bankers and speculators think that sterling is not a “sound currency” they will convert their holdings into dollars or Swiss francs and this will “upset our balance of payments”. In short these people have great power. But it is not power over pieces of paper or entries into bank ledgers. It is power over other people specifically over working people. The paper and the entries are only tokens of that power.
Having got so far we are well on the way to asking why on earth the working people of this or any other country should tolerate a state of affairs in which a handful of speculators can exercise such power. It is not a convenient question for the rich, which is why the mass media conjure up fetishes like “the strength of sterling”. Recently a daily newspaper had on the same front page a headline, “Sterling Has Never Been Stronger” and another saying “Wage Claims Threaten Economy”!
An American political scientist described politics as being about “Who gets what, when and how”. It is a good. shorthand way of describing economics too. Every economic problem is really about relations between people, people who work and people who get a lot of the proceeds without working. The job of the mass media, and of much of “education” from infant school onwards, is to prevent people from seeing this obvious fact. In the words of the English revolutionary poet Shelley: “Around your face a web of lies is woven.”
There are limits to the power of the mass media. It is quite easy for them to persuade most of their audience that the rulers of Bongoland are a vicious, anti-British lot, even if it isn’t true. Bongoland is far away. It is very hard for them to persuade people to disregard facts within their own experience. Successful propaganda – “public relations” is the term favoured nowadays – is based on some facts well known to the audience. These are then fitted in the story that the company or the government wishes to have believed. Very large sums of money are spent on “attitude research” for this reason.
Attitudes are not fixed and unalterable. People are heavily influenced by the opinions of the group they work in. The role of the militants is very important in developing resistance to media manipulation. Incidentally this is why women, taken as a whole are more conservative than men. A much larger proportion of them are isolated from working groups and so more vulnerable to the head-fixers. It has nothing to do with sex as such.
Activity is the most important single factor in changing consciousness. In changing the world men change themselves. People are not passive instruments like radio receivers. Their actions and their thinking are aspects of a single process. Thought influences action but action also influences thought. Fetishism and ideology can be overcome by the combination of class activity and socialist ideas.
On 4 August 19114 the long predicted war between the imperialist powers broke out. It was a war for colonies, for “spheres of influence”, for markets, in short for profits. That war shattered the international socialist movement. The leaders of the big social democratic parties forgot about marxism and internationalism and capitulated to “their own” governments.
Four years earlier, at the International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen, they had reaffirmed a resolution which said that it was the duty of socialists to prevent the outbreak of war by all possible means but “should war nevertheless break out, their duty is to intervene to bring it promptly to an end, arid with all their energies to use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the populace from its slumbers, and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination.” Instead they entered coalition governments to help the war effort.
In fact the betrayal was not as sudden as it seemed. For a good many years the social democratic leaderships had been adapting themselves to imperialism and parliamentary politics. They continued to talk about the class war at May Day rallies but their day-to-day political practice was purely reformist. The possibility of peaceful, constitutional roads to socialism seemed to open up. They led to the unprecedented slaughter of 1914-18.
In every country the movement split between the renegades and the internationalists and, as the war dragged on, revolutionary opposition began to grow. It was in Russia that the break came. In February 1917 mass strikes and demonstrations by the workers of Petrograd overthrew the Tsar. Eight months later a revolutionary working class party was able to brush aside the pro-war “Provisional government” and seize power.
The Russian revolution was the most important event in the history of the workers’ movement. Everything that has happened since has been influenced by it, often decisively. No one can understand the world today without an understanding of that revolution and its outcome.
Russia at the time of the revolution was a backward country, a country with a weak industrial base and a relatively small working class – some five million workers out of a population of 160 million in 1914. The material basis for socialism – a well developed industry and a high productivity of labour – did not then exist in Russia. Still less did it exist after the years of war, civil war, blockade and foreign intervention. The armies of 14 capitalist countries – including Britain – fought alongside the western armed and financed Tsarist generals to overthrow the revolution. They were defeated. The revolution won but at a terrible cost.
The already weak industry of the country was practically destroyed and the working class dispersed. By 1921 the number of industrial workers in Russia had fallen to 1¼ million. Petrograd had lost 57.5 per cent of its total population. The communist leaders had never supposed that it was possible to build socialism in an isolated Russia. Lenin said in 1918: “The complete victory of socialism in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active co-operation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia.” The Russian revolution was seen as part of an international revolutionary movement that would establish working-class rule in some, at least, of the advanced countries.
There was such a movement. Revolutionary Soviet regimes were actually established in Hungary, in Bavaria, in Finland and in Latvia. The German Kaiser, the Austrian Emperor were overthrown. Germany was the key centre. In November 1918 the “bodies of armed men”, which as Engels had pointed out are the essential core of a state machine, began to turn on their masters. “By 4 November revolutionary feeling in Kiel was at fever heat,” wrote the historian of the German revolution. “The High Command and the officers of the navy surrendered, while some on the battleship Koenig and other vessels were killed. The sailors had become masters of the situation and the army units in the area joined them.
“In Kiel there was only one authority – the Council of workers, sailors and soldiers deputies ... From Kiel the rebellion spread to Hamburg and on the night of 8 November it was learned in Berlin that it had triumphed, with little or no resistance, in Hanover, Mageburg, Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt-am-Main, Brunswick, Oldenburg, Wittenburg and other cities ... At eight o’clock on the morning of 9 November the general strike broke out in Berlin itself.” The Kaiser fled. The German workers, through their councils of deputies, found themselves in power.
The task now was to consolidate a revolutionary, democratic, workers’ republic. This the right wing social democrats, who controlled the largest block of delegates in the workers’ councils, were determined to prevent at all costs. They had become the junior partners of the German ruling class during the war. They now showed their true colours. They set out deliberately to save German capitalism. Ebert, the future social democratic President of the Weimar Republic even opposed the abolition of the monarchy! Every ounce of influence the party could exert was used to persuade the workers to accept a “democratic” capitalist regime.
It could hardly have succeeded but for the confusion, weakness and cowardice of the left wing “independent” social democrats who had split from the party in 1916. Though in a minority in the country as a whole, the independents had three out of the six men in the Provisional government and a decisive influence over the workers of Berlin. The independents allowed themselves to be pulled along by the right. They protested but they gave the right wing the indispensable “left” cover that made it possible to dismantle the workers’ power that actually existed and to set up a parliamentary Republic.
Only the small Spartakus League defended the Soviets. They were first isolated, then provoked into a premature armed rising and finally crushed by a newly-created right wing military force directed by the social democrat Noske. This defeat isolated the Russian Soviet Republic. The long term consequences of that isolation were tremendous.
The defeat of the German revolution early in 1919 emphasised the need for an effective revolutionary international and a decisive break with the unreliable “independent” and “centrist” leaders. The Communist International held its founding conference in Moscow in March 1919. Within three years it had gained the support of mass Communist parties in Germany, France, Czechoslovakia and some smaller European countries, on the basis of an uncompromising internationalist and revolutionary programme.
Unfortunately by that time the crisis had passed, European capitalism had been temporarily stabilised and the Soviets outside Russia destroyed. But the next crisis would, it was hoped, find well-established revolutionary parties with a strong working-class base. Yet the Communist International was inevitably critically influenced by what happened in Russia. And by 1921 the Russian Soviet regime was facing a desperate situation. The long term outcome of that crisis was to demoralise and ultimately destroy the International and to paralyse the working-class movement for half a century.
The end of the civil war left the Soviet government isolated in a hostile world and isolated also from the mass of the Russian people – the peasants. So long as there was a real danger that the Tsarist landowners might be restored, large sections of the peasantry supported the Bolsheviks. Once this danger had passed they became actively hostile to a government that had been driven to rely on forced requisitioning of grain to feed the cities. “The entire system rests on the discipline of the party, on organised famine in the cities, on requisitions in the country,” wrote the communist Victor Serge. The rising of the sailors in Kronstadt and, even more ominous, the strikes in support of it showed that the regime Was losing working class support too. It was becoming a dictatorship not of but over the peasantry and the remnants of the working class.
Reactionaries argue that this was the inevitable consequence of the “original sin” of revolution. Some people on the left, who ought to know better, argue that it was due to the ruthlessness of Lenin and the existence of a disciplined party. This is rubbish. The essence of the matter has been stated by Marx 60 years earlier. “If the working class destroy the political rule of the capitalist, that will only be a temporary victory ... so long as ...the material conditions are not yet created which make necessary the abolition of the capitalist made of production.”
On an all European scale these conditions had been created. In Russia by itself they had not. This was well understood by the founders of the Communist movement. Since there has been so much misrepresentation of this basic truth, it is necessary to emphasise it. Speaking at the third Congress of the Communist International, Lenin stated: “It was clear to us that without the aid from the international world revolution, a victory of the proletarian revolution is impossible. Even prior to the revolution, as well as after it, we thought that the revolution would occur either immediately or at least very soon in other backward countries and in the more highly developed capitalist countries, otherwise we would perish. Notwithstanding this conviction, we did our utmost to preserve the Soviet system, under any circumstances and at all costs, because we know we are working not only for ourselves, but also for the international revolution.”
In the event the renegade leaders of the social democratic parties succeeded, in the critical year 1919, in sabotaging what would otherwise have been successful revolutions in several European countries. The Soviet regime – the rule of the working class through democratically controlled workers’ councils- did indeed perish. But there was no restoration of the Tsarist landlords and capitalists. Instead a system still calling itself a “Soviet Socialist Republic”, but in fact a totalitarian dictatorship, developed in Russia. It is not possible here to trace the struggles that led to the rise of Stalinism. A good short summary is given in the IS pamphlet How the Revolution Was Lost by Chris Harman (see Reading List). But the effect of this development on the Communist International changed the whole course of events outside Russia.
The parties of the Communist International contained the cream of the working class. In their early years these parties were far from being subservient to Moscow. In 1923 – the French and Polish parties had protested vigorously against the attacks of the Russian bureaucracy – the Stalin faction – on the Communist opposition in the USSR. But with the receding of the revolutionary mood in Europe the parties became more attached to the one surviving “Soviet” regime and more dependent on it. Advice from Moscow became the most important source of their political ideas.
Increasingly the Russian bureaucracy, which dominated the executive of the International, began to interfere with the internal life of the parties. Telegrams from the executive became more frequent. A wit described the CP of the USA in the mid-twenties as “suspended by wires from Moscow”. The Stalinists used genuine political disputes within the movement to promote leaders for whom the decision of Moscow was final. Gradually the more independent leaders and the more serious marxists were eliminated.
The policies that Stalin and his colleagues pressed on the CI were partly determined by the factional struggles inside the Russian party – until 1929 when Stalin became the supreme boss – and partly by the requirements of Russian foreign policy.
In the middle-twenties semi-reformist tactics were adopted and they led to a number of avoidable defeats. Most spectacular was the defeat of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. Stalin urged the Chinese CP to “unite” with the Kuomintang – the party of Chinese capitalism. The Kuomintang was to be pushed into power and the Communists were to curb the violent risings of workers and peasants in the interest of “national unity”. Chiang Kai-shek was actually made an “honorary member” of the executive of the International!
The results of this adventure were the smashing of the Chinese revolution and the creation of a right-wing military dictatorship under “Comrade” Chiang. Worse was to come. The German party, the strongest in the International, and with it the whole German working class movement, was to be led to catastrophic defeat. The consequence was the victory of fascism in Germany.
Marxism is not a theory that can exist cut off from the workers’ movement. It is based on the unity of theory and practice. There can only be a marxist movement when there is a significant body of working class militants conscious of their real position in society and active in the class struggle.
This is why the fate of the Communist International is so important. Virtually all the best elements in the movement came into the CI. A whole layer of advanced workers, especially in Europe, joined it. They were the living force that carried the marxist tradition. The gradual conversion of the CI from a revolutionary international into an instrument of Russian foreign policy destroyed this layer and paralysed the revolutionary movement for decades. It is impossible to follow the decline of the CI in detail. Three examples, each from a different phase of the evolution, are enough to illustrate it.
Germany 1930. The great depression was undermining the parliamentary capitalist republic. Unemployment reached six million. The Nazi Party was growing by leaps and bounds. At. the election in 1930 Hitler got nearly 6½ million votes.
They were the votes of the middle classes, the rural population and some unorganised workers. The organised workers held fast for the traditional workers’ parties. Six million odd votes went to the social democrats and over 4½ million to the communists. The growing menace of fascism was obvious. So was the need for the working class movement to unite and smash it. Unfortunately the leadership of the International, by this time completely subservient to Stalin, thought otherwise. Following his victory over the remaining opposition in the Russian Communist Party in 1928-29, Stalin swung the CI round to a policy of insane ultra-leftism.
The centre-piece of this “Third Period” policy was the theory of “social fascism”. The social democratic party – and by extension the unions it controlled – were described as “fascist” organisations. According to Stalin himself, “Fascism is the military organisation of the bourgeoisie which leans upon the social democracy for active support. Then social democracy objectively speaking, is the moderate wing of fascism.” So there could be no question of using the discontent of the social democratic rank and file to force the party to join a united front against fascism. Nor was the victory of Hitler itself to be feared. “We are not afraid of the fascist gentlemen,” said the communist leader Remmele in the Reichstag. “They will shoot their bolt quicker than any other government.”
In 1932 Hitler’s vote rose to nearly 14 million. Still the main enemy for the CP was social democracy. In January 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Even then the CP clung to its absurd line. “The talk about the German Communists being defeated and politically dead,” said the official CI journal in April, “is the gossip of philistines, of idiotic and ignorant people.” By this time most of the party’s activists were in concentration camps or in hiding! But times were changing. The rulers of the Kremlin began to understand that Hilter’s victory was in fact a decisive turning point. The CI, accordingly, was swung over to the far right. Alliances were sought not only with the “social-fascists” of yesterday but with liberal and conservative “anti-fascist” parties. The “popular front” was the order of the day. Revolution was definitely out.
Spain 1936. A coalition of liberal, moderate conservative social democratic and communist parties won a general election. The army, supported by the extreme right, revolted. On 17 June General Franco announced his mission to “save the nation”. On 19 June working class risings, led mainly by anarchists and left socialists, broke out in the cities. In Barcelona, in Madrid, in many other towns, the army was defeated and workers’ militias took control. Within a week it was clear that there were only two real forces in Spain, the troops loyal to Franco and the organised workers.
In these circumstances the Spanish CP, following the line of the CI, set out to create a coalition government with the representatives of the “liberal” capitalists! The last thing Moscow wanted in 1936 was a revolution that would upset the governments of France and Britain. The French CP’s daily published this reassuring statement “The CP of Spain requests us to inform the public that the Spanish people are not striving for the dictatorship of the proletariat but know only one aim:
the defence of republican order while respecting property.” Under pressure from Russia, the Spanish republican government was pushed further and further to the right. The left wing social democrats were pushed out as being too radical. The anarchists and independent left wingers were persecuted.
Stalin did not want a pro-Hitler Spain and so arms and volunteers were sent to the republican government but on conditions that strengthened the conservatives. Eventually the “loyal republican” Colonel Casado – last war minister of the republic – organised a coup, threw out the CP and opened negotiations with Franco.
Moscow 1943. To please his US and British allies Stalin formally disbanded the Communist International. The carve-up of Europe between East and West was being planned. Part of the deal was the assurance that the western CPs would loyally support the re-establishment of capitalist parliamentary regimes. They did. In many countries they entered coalition governments of “national unity”. In France, where the CP and Socialist Party together got more than 50 per cent of the votes in 1945, the party insisted that de Gaulle remain head of the government and that the Gaullist conservatives enter the coalition! It was a far cry from 1919.
The militants who followed the Communist parties were for the most part sincere, devoted people. They were misled by the myth of the “Soviet Fatherland”. Stalinism paralysed the marxist movement for a long time. Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and, in a different way, Yugoslavia and China, have begun its break-up as a system of ideology. Out of that break-up the movement will be reborn.
“For the creation on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, as well as for the success of the cause itself, it is necessary for men themselves to be changed on a large scale, and this change can only occur in a practical movement, in a revolution. Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because only in a revolution can the c/ass which overthrows it rid itself of the accumulated rubbish of the past and become capable of reconstructing society.” – Marx.
This is the essential reason why “parliamentary roads to socialism” have always proved to be blind alleys. In a capitalist society most of the power is in the hands of the big business bosses. They can’t be talked or tricked into giving it up. It has to be taken from them. This can be done only by working people organised and conscious of their position in society and determined to free themselves, and the rest of society, by taking power – the power to decide about everything that affects their lives – into their own hands. And they can only become capable of self-government in the course of fighting for it. Participation in parliament may be a useful tactic. It can never be a substitute for direct action.
We have had quite a lot of experience of “parliamentary roadism”. Social democratic parties have been in office, at one time or another, in most of the developed capitalist countries except Japan and the USA. In Britain we have had four Labour governments. The result is that the rich are richer than ever and all the evils of capitalism – intensified competition, meaningless work, head-fixing and manipulation of people, unemployment and increased productivity going hand in hand, growing wealth, growing waste, pollution and growing poverty – are increasing evils. Racialism is rampant. Women are still super-exploited – in April 1974 the average wage of women manual workers was £23.60 per week as compared to £41.90 for men.
We “cannot afford” – or so the bosses and their tame mass media tell us – a decent health service, decent housing or a decent educational service. In fact the greater the amount of output the less, apparently, can be afforded for basic social services. A trivial but significant example. From 1940 till 1969 free milk for all school pupils was the rule. Now, with a vastly greater output than in 1940, it has to be cut out. First by Harold Wilson’s “Labour” government for secondary children, then by Heath’s Tories for junior children too.
So it is with all the social services. They are even trying to abolish free admission to museums and galleries, something even the Gradgrind capitalists of Victorian Britain managed to afford! The truth is that we are going backwards in one field after another. Nor can this be simply blamed on the 1970-74 Tory government. In every field, from the decline in public housing to anti-trade union legislation, the 1964-70 Labour government led the way and the Tories have followed in their footsteps.
It is no use blaming this on the “betrayals” of Wilson and co. Of course they are traitors but this is not the problem. There are rotten apples in every barrel. When practically the whole social democratic barrel turns out to be rotten there are deeper causes. Reformist policies could never at any time lead to socialism. They could, while the arms boom was flourishing, lead to some reforms. Not anymore. All the modest gains of the last 30 years are now threatened and they are threatened because the fundamental tendencies of state monopoly capitalism are reasserting themselves. Any government that tries to keep the system going and at the same time introduce real reforms is doomed. Either it goes out of office or the reforms are junked.
Of course reformism was always based on sectional, purely “national” policies. They were never realistic but they are less realistic today than ever. We don’t live in an island anymore. We live in a world in which the techniques and resources to give everyone a decent life already exist and in Which half the people are on the borderline of starvation. It is a violent world in which the two super-powers, Russia and America, have between them enough thermonuclear weapons to wipe out the whole population a several times over.
It is a militaristic world in which the military coup leading to dictatorship is now the commonest way of changing a government. It is a polluted world which national economic and military competition threaten to make less and less habitable. Capitalism is international. The giant firms have investments throughout the world and owe no allegiances except to themselves and the system that allows them to plunder the world’s resources. There can be no real socialist organisation that is not based on an international and therefore a revolutionary strategy. Ordinary people everywhere want peace, security, freedom from drudgery, human dignity, a decent life. Yet these things can only be had by the organisation of working people into a decisive force on an international scale.
There are no short cuts. Years ago Marx wrote “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.” Today we can add that the whole future of humanity depends on its success.
On the Materialist Conception of History
Engels, Historical Materialism, Pluto Press. This little pamphlet of twenty odd pages is about the development of ideas and their connection with the class struggle. Not easy reading but worth the effort.
Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. Another short pamphlet, actually an excerpt from the much longer Anti-Dühring. It contains the classic statement of the elements of Marxism. Essential reading.
Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto. The first and second sections are the important ones.
Plekhanov, The Materialist Conception of History, The Role of the Individual in History, Fundamental Problems of Marxism. All fairly short but not particularly easy – available in one volume by Lawrence & Wishart.
Carr, What is History? Penguin. Near Marxist outline of problems of interpretation. Well worth careful reading.
Some Useful Histories
Childe, What Happened in History, Penguin. From the stone age to the Roman Empire. Good Marxist account.
Huberman, Man’s Worldly Goods, Monthly Review. From the middle ages to the twentieth century. Best popular economic history ever written. Beware of Stalinist conclusion.. Very easy to read.
Kuczynski, The Rise of the Working Class, World University Library. Liberal rather than Marxist but useful. Good illustrations.
Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin. Massive but readable. Excellent account of the early struggles.
Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, Merlin Press. The lowdown on the Labour Party.
Cole, The British Working Class Movement 1787-1947 (out of print but available from most libraries). Dull but full. Least reliable for twentieth century. Liberal tinted.
Marx, Value, Price and Profit. Very clear and simple. Argument assumes effective competition.
Marx, Wage Labour and Capital. All about surplus value.
Sweezy, Theory of Capitalist Development, Monthly Review. There is no satisfactory overall account of Marxian economics. This one is the best of those available. Not for bedtime reading.
Mandel, An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory, Pathfinder. Short, useful and readable introduction. Probably the best thing to start with.
Kidron, Western Capitalism Since the War, Penguin. Essential. Up to date description and analysis.
Socialism, the State and the Party
Marx, The Civil War in France. If you never read anything else by Marx read this.
Lenin, State and Revolution. The perfect antidote to “parliamentary roadism”.
Gramsci, The Modern Prince, International Publishers. Difficult but rewarding discussion of class and party.
Trotsky, Cliff, Harman, Hallas, Party and Class, Pluto Press. Four contributions on the problems of building a revolutionary party.
Russia and Stalinism
Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Written in middle thirties. Indispensable.
Cliff, Russia – A Marxist Analysis, IS. Takes Trotsky as read, brings up to date and modifies conclusions. Difficult but invaluable.
Trotsky, Fascism, Stalinism and the United Front 1930-1934, IS Special. The rise of Hitler and the crucial role of the Communist International.
Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, New Park Publications. How the Spanish revolution was strangled (1936-38).
Harris, Beliefs in Society, Watts. An excellent survey. Not too easy to read but repays effort.
The Essential Left, Allen and Unwin. Contains Communist Manifesto, Value, Price and Profit, Socialism Utopian and Scientific and State and Revolution. Good value.
Essential Writings of Karl Marx, Ed. Caute, Panther. Handy collection of excerpts with unhelpful commentary.
Karl Marx, Ed. Rubel and Bottomore, Penguin. Another useful collection of excerpts with anti-Marxist introduction.
World Crisis, Ed. Harris and Palmer, Hutchinson. The method applied. A revolutionary survey of the world today.
1*. Since this was written there has been a short-lived inflationary boom (1972-73) followed by the deepest recession since the war, both occurring on a world scale. The growing instability of world capitalism is now obvious even to “orthodox” opinion.
Last updated on 23.4.2007