Chris Harman


Movie with an open ending

(May 2000)

From Socialist Review, No.241, May 2000, pp.21-2.
Copyright © 2000 Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from REDS – Die Roten.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

How can we understand the world system at the moment? Chris Harman shows how Tony Cliff made sense of the contradictions and crises of the 1990s.

Tony Cliff, who died last month, had a wonderful facility for using simple concrete phrases to put across complex abstract ideas. So, about ten years ago, he came out with the expression, “The 1990s are like the 1930s in slow motion.” Like any metaphor it emphasised certain important features of the phenomenon it described rather than providing an exact scientific description. It summed up very succinctly the effect of successive economic crises at the base of society. This was creating political polarisation such as Europe had not known since the war.

On the one hand, fascist and racist movements were managing to grow and have an impact on the mainstream of political life – with the rise of Le Pen in France and the wave of racist attacks by Nazi organisations in Germany. On the other, there were signs of a swing to the left politically in the consciousness of many young people and workers, sometimes accompanied by sudden revivals of working class industrial struggle. To this extent it was very like the 1930s. There was, however, an important difference in the speed of events.

Whereas in the 1930s the process lasted one decade, this time it would stretch over a longer period. The economic crises would initially not be as deep as the great slump of 1929-34, because the US still maintained a level of arms spending which provided a floor beneath which the economy does not drop even in the deepest recessions. The middle class was not yet being driven to the edge of starvation, as in the early 1930s in Germany and central Europe, and so the radicalisation to the right was not yet on the same scale as that which brought Hitler to power in 1933. The fascists were not yet able to translate piles of voting papers into Stormtroopers fighting for control of the streets.

The radicalisation on the left was not yet on the scale as that in the 1930s either, with the Spanish revolutions of 1931 and 1936, the French factory occupations of June 1936, and the mushrooming of mass unionism in the US in 1936-37.

None of this, however, did away with the elements of similarity in the way in which the bitterness among millions of people was finding expression in contradictory ways, to the right and to the left. Nor did it do away with the need to learn the lesson from the 1930s: unless revolutionaries built organisations capable of giving leadership to much wider layers of people the new Nazis would seek to be the beneficiaries of the bitterness.

The formulation was immensely important. It cut through the facile optimism of people like the old Marxism Today crowd who substituted faith in the latest fashions of capitalism, with the strange belief that designer labels meant instant prosperity all round, for their former faith in the ageing bureaucrats of the USSR. But it also cut through the mirror-image pessimism of large numbers of those who stuck with the left – the belief that capitalism in general and US imperialism in particular had seen off all possible opposition. It is a pessimism that dies hard.

It is carried to its logical extreme in an editorial statement by Perry Anderson in the latest New Left Review: “Socialism has ceased to be a widespread ideal. Marxism is no longer dominant on the culture of the left. Even Labourism is largely dissolved ... The principal aspect of the past decade ... is the virtually uncontested consolidation, and universal diffusion, of neo-liberalism ... For the first time since the Reformation, there are no longer any significant oppositions within the thought-world of the west, and scarcely any on a world scale either.”

New voices of opposition

Cliff’s analysis was very different. He recognised the decline in the anti-capitalist movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s long before most other people. He never concealed the seriousness of the defeats workers’ organisations suffered in the 1980s, especially in Britain after the miners’ strike and Wapping. But he also saw we were entering a new period of turmoil which was creating new oppositions to the system. Spells of apparent stability for the system would suddenly give way to economic and political crises. There would be despair at the base of society, but there would also be repeated ideological and political splits at the top.

Neo-liberalism, with its pretence that the capitalist state no longer matters, might be a fine ideology for capitalists trying to cut welfare provision to the bone and divert funds into their own pockets. But big capitalists would ignore their own ideology and turn to states to bail them out if major bankruptcies threatened. This would lead to bitter rows with other capitalists and their political representatives. At the same time the drive by nationally based multinational capitals to control the world would lead to more, not fewer, clashes between their states than in the past. The result would be global instability and unexpected wars.

Cliff also grasped something which most of the left internationally could not see. Right wing social democratic politicians might be the first to be raised up by this wave of political radicalisation. But it would sweep on to create powerful ripples to the left of them. There would emerge new anti-capitalist oppositions, despite the pessimism of people like Anderson. Because the whole process was taking place much slower than in the 1930s there would be times and places when the system seemed to have stabilised. This proved to be the case in east Asia in the mid-1990s, leading to euphoric journalists and politicians claiming this showed the future for the world system. It happened again with the US boom of the late 1990s, with the same people claiming a “new paradigm” spelt endless prosperity. Such claims, as always, confused some on the left.

The path for socialists was not one of simple, smooth advance. It involved detours and setbacks. There was always the risk of alternate spells of mania as things advanced, and of depression as the setbacks took place. The temptation was to fall into the slough of despond, to decide that the 1990s was not different to the 1980s, and to abandon activist politics for socialist propagandism. Yet by the end of the 1990s the new voices of opposition were to be heard alongside the old, even if not always singing the tunes the old left learnt 30 years before. They made a world-wide impact with the demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation.

In fact, the 1990s were more unstable in many ways than had been predicted. The world’s rising economic power of the 1980s, Japan, got stuck in the sand, finding no way of escaping from an eight year recession. Post-reunification Germany was only in marginally better shape, leading to unemployment levels across Europe as a whole of 10 percent and more. The economy of the former USSR – the world’s second superpower only a dozen years ago – went through a worse slump even than that which hit the US and Germany in the early 1930s. The 1990s became known as “the lost decade” in Latin America. The east Asian “miracle” came to a sudden end in 1997. And most of Africa experienced a continuation of three decades of declining output per head and, with it, malnutrition, recurrent famines and, in some key countries, massive falls in life expectancy.

If mainstream economic commentators were making so much of the US boom as the decade ended, it is largely because it is the only bright spot on their world maps – and most of them expect it to start flickering the moment reality catches up with share prices.

The economic instability was more than matched by political instability across wide areas of the globe. The decade began with a war of the western powers against Iraq and ended with one against Serbia. Civil wars swept much of Africa, the Balkans and the southern belt of the former USSR. Russia twice fought barbarous wars against Chechnya, and two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, came close to all-out war in the summer of 1999.

If there had only been economic and political instability, however, Cliff’s metaphor for the early 1990s would have been proved incorrect. For what characterised the 1930s was not just the horror, but the rise of working class resistance to that horror in countries like France and Spain, even if it was eventually defeated. Fortunately the 1990s did witness a rebirth of resistance in some important countries.

Recovery of the workers’ movement

The early and mid-1990s saw new strike movements in Germany, much larger than any seen in the late 1960s or early 1970s. A general strike and demonstrations led to the fall of the Berlusconi government in Italy. One-day general strikes swept through one Canadian city after another. There were recurrent strike waves in Greece and South Korea. A spontaneous near-uprising brought down the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. And there were the enormous November-December 1995 strikes and demonstrations in France against the neo-liberal agenda of the Juppé government.

The last, in particular, was not just an economic phenomenon. It has created a climate in which all sorts of left wing political movements are taking off: huge teachers’ and students’ struggles in the schools; demonstrations in support of “sans papiers” immigrants; mass confrontations with the National Front; protests over ecological degradation; lorry drivers’ blockades over the working week; 60,000 demonstrators in support of the Seattle protest; nearly a million votes for Trotskyist candidates in the European elections; and 60,000 supporters for a movement like Attac, anti-neoliberal if not yet anti-capitalist.

You can see a process at work we’ve seen so often before in the history of capitalism. The sudden recovery of the workers’ movement produces new, more radical ways of thinking among some layers of intellectuals and students, and this in turn has the potential to feed back into the workers’ movement. This was what happened in the 1840s, 1860s, 1880s, after 1917, in the 1930s and in the late 1960s. Academic Marxists like Anderson are blind to this process because they have never understood that social forces give rise to new ideas, not new ideas to social forces.

There are similarities with France itself in 1934-36 but, as Cliff’s formula suggested, in slow motion. Four years after the winter of 1995, the wave of struggles in France have still not peaked and there is still nothing comparable to the occupation of the factories in June 1936. By contrast, four years after 1934, the movement was already on the downward slope that saw Petain in power in the spring of 1940.

As Cliff stressed with his metaphor, although the forces at work are similar to those of seven decades ago we are fortunate in having more time to cope with them and to ensure a different outcome. But the price if we fail to rise to the challenge can be even higher.

Last updated on 22 December 2009