Dialectics of History
Lars Ulrik Thomsen*
The world economic crisis in 2008 completely changed the political future for capitalism. It raised the questions of whether this was an existential crisis and how the ruling classes could manage it. To understand the new conditions for the Communist and labour movement, it is necessary to look at the dialectics of history over a longer period, and the class roots of the various movements.
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx describes the difference between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions:
“On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticise themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses, and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, and recoil again and again from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! Here is the rose, here dance!”
These characteristics of the proletarian revolution can be extended to the 20th century and the first attempts at building socialism. But these changes in history are not accidental; they are the result of the laws of development of society.
The Class Roots of the “New Left”
The class roots of the “New Left” are to be found in the great changes which state-monopoly capitalism underwent in the 1960s and 70s. The scientific and technical revolution meant a shift in the composition of the working class, especially in the layer of technicians, managers, teachers, social workers and other groups, which grew substantially in those years. People in these groups did not have the same sense of organisation as those in manual trade unions, and thought of themselves more as individuals than as a collective. Consequently, the growth of these layers, and the conscious cultivation of specific perceptions and views by the big monopolies, became crucial to the outcome of the political battles of those years.
What were the ideas and trends that characterised this community? Their ideological influence ranged from bourgeois attitudes to socialist; but, in terms of the latter, it was not the version of Marxism which is associated with the labour movement. On the contrary, the socialist attitudes of this community, particularly those of the young leftists in this period, reflected the various schools within “academic Marxism”, in particular the so-called Frankfurt School around Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin.
In addition, during this period there was a substantial growth in the environmental and peace movements, currents which to some extent were associated with “Utopian socialism”. The dominant philosophy in these movements was that it was not necessary to overthrow capitalism in order to reverse the enormous damage caused to people and the environment.
This intermediate layer clearly had a very complex ideological foundation and a philosophy which was not homogeneous, but rather eclectic and often contradictory. These ideas were widely promoted by the bourgeois media, publishers and others, who thus created a completely new situation for the labour movement and its parties. At the same time the various sectarian tendencies all claimed their particular version of Marxism as the correct one.
To understand the growth of these currents, we must put things into a wider context. In those years capitalism underwent some fundamental changes. The new technological and scientific opportunities had outstripped the framework of national governments and demanded supranational control in the interest of the monopolies.
There is a model for this development in the description and analysis that Karl Marx gives in The Eighteenth Brumaire. He describes how the essence of contemporary class struggles focused on perfecting state power in the interests of the bourgeoisie, and how all other classes fell short. Something similar can be seen in the 1970s when the European Union consolidated itself and created a host of new institutions and other bodies.
The monopoly ruling classes knew very well who the real opponents of these changes were – namely the working classes and the Communist parties. Therefore it was important for them to undermine the influence of the Communists and to prevent that opposition to the EU from developing into a force for changing society. As part of their strategy they consciously utilised the pseudo-revolutionaries. With great skill and finesse they supported anarchists, sectarians and other rebels against capital. The working class was said to have become “bourgeois” and to have lost its revolutionary potential, while the new currents had taken on this role.
The effect was two-fold. On the one hand, the old social institutions were shaken, and formed the basis for the creation of new ones. This applies to research and education, as well as other government agencies. On the other hand, the representatives of monopoly capital also fostered an alliance with elements of the radical left, the latter being offered well-paid positions in a number of public or private institutions.
The monopoly ruling classes have unlimited resources to buy just that expertise that in the most subtle and refined way can affect the public mood. This policy can broadly be described as successful until the economic crisis in 2008, which changed the whole economic, social and political conditions in the capitalist world.
The Recent Economic Crises in Capitalism
An understanding of the current economic crisis requires examination of the development of capitalism over a longer period than just the last decade. The formation of the EU in the mid-1950s, and its expansion in stages, signified a major change in the manifestations of imperialism in the 20th century. The aim of the EU was to resolve, in favour of the big monopolies, the fundamental contradictions that had accumulated in the individual nation states, between the interests of the people and the monopolies, and internationally, in terms of competition for markets and resources with other imperialist centres. By the early 1970s those contradictions had become particularly clear. However, rather than resolve them, the EU, together with the whole finance capital-driven globalisation process, accentuated these contradictions many-fold.
Thus we also saw, with still shorter intervals, many crises of capitalism in the latter part of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. In particular, the IT-bubble that burst in 2000 was a serious setback for the apologists of capitalism, who had seen this new technology as a means to overcome these crises. In 2008 came the most serious world economic crisis of recent times. This was one of overproduction, but postponed by the massive expansion of credit, and including the creation of fictitious financial instruments. It was not the much-vaunted “free market forces” that resolved the crisis by themselves, but massive government purchases of notes and bonds that initially saved capitalism from a total collapse.
The new crisis is not one of the regularly recurring cyclical crises that characterise capitalism, but a much deeper and more serious one. It is a manifestation of what Marxists describe as the general crisis of capitalism, a crisis which is not only economic but extends to the political, social, cultural and environmental fields as well.
It was this development that Marx foresaw in his works. He considered overproduction crises as being inherent in capitalism, and he warned about the rise of monopoly and finance capital. But many saw his theories as outdated and out of touch with reality. This also applies to the “New Left”, who rejected the leading role of the working class, and therefore Marxism, in practice, though not in theory.
Capitalism would not be capitalism if it did not understood how to exploit the crisis for its own purposes. The big monopolies are gaining new momentum in mergers and acquisitions of weaker competitors. At the same time, however, there is an explosive growth in unemployment, especially in southern Europe, due to austerity budgets within the Eurozone rules, the inability of weaker economies to devalue, and the failure of finance capital to invest.
There are many economists who draw a parallel with the crisis of the 1930s, but the opportunities that capitalism had in those days to stimulate the economy (Keynesianism) are no longer available. It is significant that, despite record low interest rates, the capitalist economies have not been able to generate significant growth seven years after the crisis began. Furthermore, Japan shows some worrying signs of prolonged stagnation, the so-called stagflation which has been going on for decades. This development also seems to be spreading to the EU and other countries.
New Features in State Monopoly Capitalism
The development of capitalism in recent times can be mainly summarised in nine points:
- As described earlier, the superseding of the nation-state framework. This means that state-monopoly capitalism controls a wide range of economic policies in the interest of imperialism.
- The expansion of the big monopolies into giant conglomerates, whose turnover even exceeds the budget of a medium-sized nation.
- The role of the new sciences in production as a direct productive force. The scientific-technical revolution, which was particularly marked in the latter part of the 20th century, completely changed production conditions and the class issues. This was made possible by an extensive use of computers and the Internet.
- Very importantly, the increased pressures on the state and municipal budgets in each country. This development is particularly evident after the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008, when the representatives of finance capital succeeded in driving through harsh austerity policies, in the interests of boosting capital accumulation.
- A separation between the direct value of production and speculative capitals. This creates tremendous pressure on taxpayers, when they are asked to cover the failure of speculation through an increased tax burden.
- An intensified scramble for resources, and with it the direct use of military force or of threats to use it, as for example in the USA’s ‘pivot to Asia’.
- Globalisation as a process of free movement of capital.
- Continued reduction in the share of wages and salaries in Gross Domestic Product.
- The worldwide drive to privatise public services as new sources of profit for finance capital.
Together, these changes in capitalism are a threat to people’s living standards and social and democratic rights. Capitalism with its supranational governance brings its internal contradictions to the breaking point, as Marx foresaw it. These contradictions can only be overcome through the transition to a higher type of society.
Tasks for Communists
The growing aggressiveness of capitalism arises because it has no other way out of the crisis than to trigger new wars. The biggest challenge for the labour movement and the Communist parties in this century is to find new ways to strengthen internationalism and the peace movements as a counterweight to the build-up imperialism.
Here it is essential to draw on the experience of the Communist movement from, among other things, the First World War, by virtue of Lenin’s analysis of imperialism. Large parts of the labour movement and the left forces have taken over Kautsky’s theories of ultra-imperialism and the policy of reconciliation towards capital. They form the very basis of the social-democratic parties’ policies. Therefore, a further development of Lenin’s work is an imperative if we are to succeed in stemming reformism in the labour movement.
The difficulties of the labour movement and its parties were fully exposed after the victory of the counter-revolution in 1989. One of the most important tasks of Marxists is to regain the initiative and bring the labour movement into accordance with the developments in society.
The “New Left” has been targeting the new middle layers and has rejected the application of the principle of unity, which is central to Marxism. They no longer view the working class as a force for changing society. Thus, they have made themselves vulnerable in the new political and economic situation, where their Utopian socialism no longer has the same public impact. They are also unable to form and unite anti-monopoly alliances, which could provide a counterweight to austerity.
The Communist movement has a wealth of experience from decades of work in building unity. We must re-analyse these experiences and learn from the pages of particular importance for today’s political struggles. United Front and Popular Front politics were created in a complicated period of world history, with as big a challenge as those we face today.
The experience of the VII World Congress of the Comintern is an example of what the Communist movement can accomplish. Its lessons are summarised in congressional reports and debates, and they can be a great help in the tasks we face today. The deep insights into class characteristics represent a model for similar studies today. Only through a true picture of class relations in each country is it possible to establish a proper policy that ensures that Communists will come back onto the offensive.
Given the development of atomic and nuclear weapons, it is of particular interest to study Palmiro Togliatti’s report on prevention of world war. At that time, of course, the struggle was unsuccessful, but that does not diminish the importance of the work that was done. And, as everyone knows, a new and 3rd world war would irretrievably be the last.
Although history at first glance appears accidental and incoherent, the opposite is in fact the case. History does not fulfil its task in a steady and evolutionary way, but through leaps that are often catastrophic, and in a shift between revolution and counter-revolution. The advantage of Marxist theory is the ability to study the events scientifically, in order to predict coming changes in society and to devise a suitable strategy for the transition to a higher, socialist, form.