Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Making connections

(October 1991)

From Socialist Review, No.146, October, p.9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What’s the connection between the civil war in Yugoslavia, the failed Soviet coup and last month’s riots in Cardiff, Oxford and Tyneside?

On the face of it there isn’t one. Certainly those who purvey conventional wisdom through newspaper columns and television interviews don’t think so. The Yugoslav civil war is blamed on ‘age old Balkan barbarism’, the Soviet coup on ‘hardline Communists trying to defend Leninism’, and the British riots on ‘trouble makers’ and ‘yobs’.

Yet all are a product of a single cause – the economic crisis which is hitting most Western and Eastern countries.

What resurrected the 46 years’ dead animosities between Ustashe and Chetniks in Yugoslavia? The fall in the country’s indutrial ouptut by about half in 18 months, leaving the one-time Titoist banker Slobadan Milosevic and the one-time Titoist general Franjo Tudjman with only one means of dominating their respective republics – stirring up bitter inter-communal hatred.

What prompted all the key figures Gorbachev had appointed to front line positions in the Soviet government and military to embark on their fumbling coup? The recognition that the old methods of bureaucratic rule were falling apart in the face of a collapsing economy, working class discontent and a revolt of the minority nationalities.

What led mainly white youths in the suburbs of British provincial cities to take on the police with petrol bombs? The way in which the third recession in 15 years has suddenly forced up unemployment rates in much of suburbia as well as in inner city and old industrial areas.

The other side of economic crisis is the growth, everywhere, of subterranean pools of bitter discontent.

Much of the time these are not visible. People can find no focus for their discontent and choke on their anger until it turns into hopelessness and despair. But this does not stop pressure building up. Eventually, some relatively minor incident fuses the bitternesses into a single upward current that gushes through to the surface of political life.

That is not, however, the end of the matter. The anger does not automatically find a rational focus. There has never been a mechanical formula guaranteeing that economic crisis leads people to accept a clear political alternative to it.

The focus is especially difficult for people to find today. For the old banner bearers of the left, social democracy and Stalinism have themselves been devastated by the crisis.

Social democracy has presided over the crisis in a good half of the advanced industrial states, and in most of the others has dropped much of the reformist rhetoric with which it used to seek out votes.

The situation with the old Communist Parties – and for the huge chunk of the social democratic left who relied on them for their intellectual understanding – is even worse. The star in their firmament has suddenly gone out with the collapse of the CPSU and the disintegration of the USSR. Some, like those around Marxism Today in Britain, have so much lost their sense of direction that they can no longer tell left from right. Others are reduced to hoping that the flickering speck of light from Cuba does not die out.

The overall result is a vacuum on the left whose importance must not be underestimated.

A few abstract slogans cannot give conscious direction to a sudden, spontaneous upsurge of anger. Even when people take up certain of the slogans, their heads are still clouded by a vast mass of old ideas and prejudices. Only a wide network of socialists in each workplace and each locality, capable of taking up each argument and hammering into each prejudice, can turn spontaneity into a consciousness of the way forward.

Without such networks, anger can often be diverted by demagogues acting at the behest of ruling classes into destructive and reactionary directions. This is what Mussolini and Hitler did when crisis hit sections of the middle classes in the inter-war years.

In most of the advanced capitalist and Third World countries the social democrat and Stalinist parties used to provide such networks. It is wrong to be nostalgic about their demise, since they always had an important negative side, using talk of reforms, popular fronts or national unity to hold people back from decisive confrontation with the existing system. But it would also be wrong to be triumphalist about their disappearance, since they did represent a ballast within the mass of the population, reducing the chances of anger moving in a reactionary, racist direction.

The point is not to mourn or to rejoice, but to organise.

Socialists can win over many of those who used to look to the Communist Party or the left social democrats if we make clear we stand for what was positive in their programme – their resistance to the demands of a decaying world system – while rejecting as completely negative their allegiance to Stalinism in the East and reform in the West.

We are able to raise the banner of the defence of Marxism because we are clear that is not a defence of Stalinism. But raising the banner is not in itself enough. We have to actively seek out every opportunity to fill the vacuum on the left, to rebuild the networks of committed individuals who alone can raise bitterness to the level of consciousness. And we have to remember that if we don’t fill the vacuum, there are dangerous forces around which will try to.

Last updated on 11 June 2010