The London CWO comrades will be holding a public meeting at 2.00 p.m. on April 26. It will be in the Lucas Arms, Grays Inn Road. Topic: Over Our Dead Bodies - Austerity and the Working Class Today
The collapse of the USSR brought an end to the Cold War. It did not bring an end to capitalist exploitation nor to imperialism and the threat of global war.
On the contrary, the demise of the USSR was due to factors fundamental to the operation of the capitalist system itself. First, the global crisis of the world economy. Since the early 1970s all capitalisms, whether state (posing as “socialist” or “command” economies) or the so-called “mixed” economies in the self-styled “free world”, have faced an increasing crisis of stagnation. This is due to the fact that capitalism has reached the downward trough in another cycle of accumulation. One of the first signs of this was the US devaluation of the dollar in 1971and the accompanying collapse of the Bretton Woods Agreement which had shaped imperialism's post-war economic order. This was an attempt to make the rest of the world pay for the slowdown in US growth.
Second, the stagnation of the USSR economy itself. This was not "really existing socialism" as its supporters maintained but a particular form of capitalism where the state had taken on the role of the classical bourgeoisie. By virtue of its monopoly hold on state power the CPSU had become the vehicle of the new ruling class, passing on their privileges from one generation to another.
In addition there was the relative weakness of the USSR. Economic stagnation coupled with increasing technological backwardness vis-a-vis the US and the West meant that the economic basis for supporting militarism was weaker. In the unprecedented arms race of the 1970s and 1980s the USSR's economy was in no position to match the spending of the US state. Gorbachev's attempts to end the arms race and restructure the economy came up against sabotage from inside the ruling class and the limited room for manoeuvre imposed by the very economic crisis he was trying to resolve.
Together, all these factors contributed to the USSR's eventual collapse in 1991.
The history of the present period therefore confirms two things:
Despite all the attempts to manage the economic crisis; despite agreements by the leading Group of 7 economic powers and international debt postponements; despite the micro-chip revolution and despite capitalist restructuring cushioned by welfare benefits and redundancy payments, the fundamental problem of capitalist accumulation remains. This is the chronic shortage of surplus value, a shortage which is driving capital to find ever more means of increasing the exploitation of the working class both relatively and absolutely.
Let us examine class relations today. There is an enormous disproportion between the severity of the economic crisis and the consequent threat of imperialist war on the one hand, and the low level of the proletariat's response to this crisis on the other. Capital's real domination over production and distribution has become more and more a total domination over social and political relations as a whole. Bourgeois ideology has deeply penetrated the working class via the social democratic parties and trades unions. As such they suffocate at birth working class attempts to resist the effects of the crisis.
Strikes which have occurred, sometimes even in an entire branch of the national production, have not been extended because any sense of solidarity and class unity has been strangled by nationalism, by the idea of changing things in one firm at a time, by individualism: in fact, by those forms of capitalist ideology that the left of the bourgeoisie has instilled amongst workers. The domination of capitalism over the working class by means of the unions and left capitalist parties is the concrete manifestation of what Marx called the "reification of social relations". Whatever their historical origins, today they are the material instruments of capital's totalitarianism. They must be faced as such, both politically and organisationally and not by mere denunciation.
Despite capitalism's undoubted success at containing the class struggle its contradictions persist. As Marxists we know they cannot be contained for eternity. The explosion of these contradictions will not necessarily result in victorious revolution. In the imperialist era global war is capital's way of “controlling”, of temporarily resolving, its contradictions.
However, before this happens the possibility remains that the bourgeoisie's political and ideological grip on the working class may be broken. In other words, sudden waves of mass class struggle may occur and revolutionaries have to be prepared for these. When the class once again takes the initiative and begins to use its collective strength against capital's attacks, revolutionary political organisations need to be in a position to lead the necessary political and organisational battles against the forces of the left bourgeoisie.
Each successive wave of struggle will be a preparation for the revolution only if the programme and organisation of revolutionaries emerge strengthened from them; only when the revolutionary programme (and the organisation upholding it) is able, through the struggle itself, to sink deeper roots into the working class. This is demonstrated by the historical experience of the working class.
The 1905 Russian Revolution was a preparation for 1917, in the sense that the revolutionary programme which led to 1917 emerged strengthened from the earlier battles. There is no guarantee today that there will be such an episode of generalised, insurrectionary conflict which, although resulting in the immediate defeat of the class, also strengthens revolutionary forces. One thing is certain though: should such a mass movement occur without revolutionary ideas taking on substantial political and organisational form inside the working class as a whole then any defeat would assume general historical proportions. It is the task of the proletarian political organisation to return to the working class the lessons of its own historical experience so that they become a material force in the emancipation of our class.
The International Bureau was formed in 1983, as a result of a joint initiative by the Internationalist Communist Party (PCInt.) in Italy and the Communist Workers Organisation (CWO) in Britain. There were two main reasons for this initiative. The first was to give organisational form to an already-existing tendency within the proletarian political camp.
This had emerged from the International Conferences called by Battaglia Comunista between 1977-81.
The basis for adherence to the last of these conferences was the seven points for which the CWO and PCInt. had voted at the Third Conference. These were:
The second was to act as a focus for organisations and individuals newly-emerging onto the international scene as capitalism's deepening crisis provoked a political response. In the event, the first decade of the Bureau's existence has hardly been one of a massive revival in the class struggle. On the contrary, as we have said, workers' response to increasing attacks by capital have in the main been limited to sectional conflicts, even if militant (such as the British miners' strike of 1984-5 or the on-running struggle of Spanish shipyard workers) and have as a result been defeated. International capital has thus been given a breathing space in which to restructure at the cost of millions of workers' livelihoods, increasing austerity measures, worsening conditions of work and the terms for the sale of labour power.
In this context, it is not surprising that there were relatively few newcomers to proletarian politics during the Eighties. Many who did make an appearance later disappeared as political isolation overwhelmed them. Nevertheless, despite the unfavourable objective situation and our own modest forces, the organisational existence of the Bureau has been consolidated. As well as sharing responsibility for world-wide correspondence and where possible organising face-to-face meetings and discussions with the political elements we come into contact with, the IBRP has issued several international statements and distributed them in various languages at crucial points over recent years.
Finally, we have said that the Bureau exists as a specific and identifiable tendency within the broad proletarian camp. Briefly this latter can be defined as those who stand for working class independence from capital; who have no truck with nationalism in any form; who saw nothing socialist in Stalinism and the former USSR at the same time as recognising that October 1917 was the starting point for what could have become a wider world revolution. Amongst the organisations which fall within this broad framework there remain significant political differences, not least over the vexed question of the nature and function of the revolutionary organisation. The IBRP's framework is as follows:
As in every class society the capitalist mode of production suffers from the contradiction between the relations and the forces of production. Under capitalism labour power exists as a commodity which is sold by its owners (the proletariat) in return for a wage equal to the value of the goods required to maintain the existence and ensure the reproduction of labour power itself. In class terms this is expressed in the contradiction between the bourgeoisie (those who own and control the means of production) and the proletariat (those who expend their labour power on those means of production). Labour is the source of all value. Only labour power can turn raw materials into commodities. All commodities have both a use value and an exchange value. Capitalists are only interested in the former insofar as it enables them to be sold to acquire the latter for the buyer. It is the capitalised exchange value, as represented by the surplus value produced by workers' labour power, which is the source of capitalism's profits. The attempt by capital to acquire more and more surplus value from the labour force is the basis for the class struggle between bourgeois and proletarian, between capitalism and the working class. This is no less true today, in the so-called post-industrial society when capitalist spokesmen are telling us that the working class has disappeared, than it was last century when a new breed of capitalist economists denied that labour power was the source of wealth. The fundamental class contradictions remain, irrespective of the technological changes which have taken place under capitalism.
The basic antagonism between the social nature of work and the restricted ownership of property remains, irrespective of the precise legal form of bourgeois ownership of the means of production on the one hand and the changing form of the social character of wage labour on the other. State ownership of the most important means of production has not altered their capitalist nature as the property of finance capital, which is the real form of capital in the imperialist era. Nor does the predominance of national and multi-national monopolies in the form of joint-stock companies (acting as 'social' capital) mean the end of capitalism's basic contradictions but rather exacerbates and extends them by giving them an international dimension. Engels recognised this long ago when he explained that:
... the transformation, either into joint-stock companies (and trusts), or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies (and trusts) this is obvious. And the modern state, again, is only the organisation that bourgeois society takes in order to support the general external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to take over the productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers -- proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with.Anti-Duhring
Thus, those countries which not so long ago we were told were socialist were in fact nothing more than a particular form of state capitalism: where the state directly controlled the material means of production and held a monopoly over the market. The miserable end of the USSR only confirms this analysis developed by the Communist Left (and based on the critique of political economy, or Marxism) during the long years which separated the October Revolution from the collapse of the Russian bloc. The tragic identification of state ownership with socialism has been brought to an end now that so-called soviet society [has returned] to the organisational and legal set-up of classical (i.e. Western) capitalism.
The former USSR and the states aligned with it comprised an imperialist bloc. The collapse of that bloc has opened up a new chapter in the history of world capitalism but it is a chapter which is part of the story of capitalist imperialism. The 1st World War, the product of competition between the capitalist states, marked a definitive turning point in capitalism's development. It showed that the process of capital concentration and centralisation had reached such proportions that henceforward the cyclical crises which had always been an intrinsic part of the process of capital accumulation would be global crises, resolvable only by world war. In short, it confirmed that capitalism had entered a new historical era, the era of imperialism where every state is part of a global capitalist economy and cannot escape the laws which govern that economy. Imperialism is therefore not merely a policy of the stronger capitalist powers applied against the weak, it is the inescapable process by which the financial and industrial tentacles of the highly developed capitalist centres absorb surplus value from the peripheral areas. This process recognises no state frontiers and commands no national loyalties from the indigenous bourgeoisie of the peripheral zones. These latter are part of an international capitalist class and are just as enmeshed in the machinations of international finance capital as the bourgeoisie of the traditional capitalist metropoles.
The opening of capitalism's imperialist epoch, with its infernal cycle of global war -- reconstruction -- crisis, also put the possibility of a higher form of civilisation (communism) on the historical agenda. This was dramatically confirmed in October 1917 when the Russian proletariat seized power as the first part of the European and world-wide revolutionary wave which emerged from the blood-letting and devastation of the 1st World War. However, the experience of this period no less dramatically confirmed the bankruptcy of the majority of the old parties of the Second International who not only condoned the mutual massacre of proletarians when they supported their 'own' nation states in the imperialist war but also did their utmost to suppress revolution in the name of socialism during the insurrectionary outbreaks following the War. Thus, today we can see there is a marked difference between proletarian political organisations of the period before October and those in the period following it. During capitalism's rise and consolidation as the dominant mode of production bourgeois nationalist or anti-despotic movements provided the framework for the mobilisation of masses of European proletarians which in turn facilitated the formation of vast trade union and party organisations. Within these organs the working class was able to express its separate class identity by putting forward its own demands, albeit within the framework of existing bourgeois social and political relations. At the same time the revolutionary theories of Marx and Engels achieved recognition and became an established part of proletarian political life, even though the mainstream social democratic forces never acted according to the political precepts of Marxism. For the socialist parties the revolution Marx had foreseen remained a distant goal which would be achieved some day in the future by unspecified means. Socialism remained the 'glorious future' for which they were theoretically struggling but in practice the strategic objective which defined their tactics became, not the assault on power, but increasingly parliamentary elections, the eight hour day, freedom of organisation, etc.
With social democracy's identification with imperialism in 1914 the working class movement reached a decisive turning point. This resulted in the complete separation of communists from the bogus forces of reformism which, through the Second International (1889-1914), had dominated the mass movement. The foundation of the Third International, proclaiming the opening of the era of world proletarian revolution, signalled the victory of the original principles of Marxism. Communist activity was now aimed solely at the overthrow of the capitalist state in order to create the conditions for the construction of a new society.
The defeat of the European revolutionary movement and the nature of the counter-revolution in Russia posed problems for revolutionary Marxists as they tried to understand the lessons of the whole experience. The counter-revolutionary process was reflected in the Third International with the imposition of the necessity to defend the Russian state on its constituent parties and at the same time the retreat of those parties back towards social democratic strategy and tactics. This process of degeneration was followed by Trotsky and his followers during the Thirties Trotsky's policy of entryism into social democratic and labour parties (the so-called "French turn"), and Trotskyism’s support for the USSR's imperialist ambitions wiped out Trotskyism as a potentially revolutionary current. It remained for others to draw the lessons of the defeat. Despite the pro-Russian stance of the Stalinised Communist Parties, and the withering away of the great Bolshevik experience in the soil of state capitalism, the lessons drawn by the Communist Left about the imperialist and state capitalist nature of Russia prevented the communist programme from withering entirely with that experience. This meant that even during the second imperialist war an independent party of the working class could emerge. (The Internationalist Communist Party was formed in Italy in 1943.)
The experience of the counter-revolution also obliges revolutionaries to deepen their understanding of the problems of the relationship between state, party and class. Whilst the role played by the former revolutionary Party in the Russian counter-revolution has led many would-be revolutionaries to reject the idea of a class party altogether the question is not so simple. The class party is indispensable to the proletariat's revolutionary struggle for the very reason that it is the political expression of class consciousness. It contains the most politically advanced part of the working class organised in defence of the programme of emancipation of the entire proletariat. By definition the revolutionary party will always be a minority of the proletariat and yet the communist programme it defends can only be implemented by the working class as a whole. During the revolution the party will aim to take the political lead by putting forward its programme in the mass organs of the working class. Just as revolutionary consciousness without a party is unthinkable, the lesson of the Russian experience is that even the most class conscious party cannot maintain a revolution in isolation from the soviets (or similar mass organs of the working class). The soviets are the expression of working class political power (the dictatorship of the proletariat) and their decline and marginalisation from political life in Russia symbolised the strangling of the infant soviet state by the capitalist counter-revolution. The power that remained in the hands of the Bolshevik commissars as they became isolated from an exhausted and decimated working class was the power of a capitalist state. In the future world revolution the international party must aim to lead the class movement exclusively through the mass class organs which it encourages to come into being. However, there are no formal guarantees of victory and the revolutionary party cannot tie its hands in advance by erecting mechanistic barriers based on the fear of defeat. Neither the party nor the soviets are in themselves insurance against counter-revolution. The only guarantee of victory is the class consciousness of the working masses themselves.
The class party - or the political organisations which precede it - comprises the most conscious part of the proletariat who are organised to defend the programme for the emancipation of the entire working class. Using the tools of Marxism, it draws on the political lessons of the historical experience of the class in order to elaborate this programme and define a strategy and tactics consistent with it. The world party of the future will have the task of wrenching away the masses from the reactionary influence of the various divisive counter-revolutionary and nationalist tendencies which hold sway over the working class. When the working masses - under pressure from the material contradictions of capitalism's global crisis - appear once more on the historical scene in collision with their exploiters, the party will find the conditions to fully carry out its principal task. This is to win over the masses to the communist programme and gain political leadership of the struggle in order to lead it forward to the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state. The revolution, therefore, will only succeed if the revolutionary organisation - the communist party standing at the head of the class - is adequately developed and prepared for its own frontal assault against the political enemies of the revolutionary programme. We therefore reject schemes which relegate the birth of the party to the very moment of the revolution itself or which limit its tasks to propaganda and simply “preaching” of revolution.
Despite the onus on proletarian political forces to organise now, the circumstances in which they find themselves impose severe limitations on their capacity to influence the broad masses. Throughout the imperialist epoch bourgeois domination over society has been refined and extended until it has encompassed almost every aspect of life. Alongside the most extreme forms of concentration of the means of production in the hands of imperialist finance capital, the political and ideological domination of the bourgeoisie is unparalleled. What Marx stated over a century ago is more true than ever today:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every age the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that in consequence the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are, in general, subject to it. The dominant ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas, and thus of the relationships which make one class the ruling one; they are consequently the ideas of its dominance.The German Ideology
Under conditions of social peace, and especially in the imperialist heartlands where the bourgeoisie's domination is most extensive and advanced, this means the proletariat is subjected to the full weight of bourgeois ideology and organisations. This, in turn, imposes a marked separation between the proletariat as a whole and the political expression of its historical struggle: the communist party. It is periods of economic and social crisis which can lead to a break in the ideological and political hold of the bourgeoisie. Until then the revolutionary programme and the political organisations represented by it will exist under conditions of forced separation from the class. It is a separation which cannot be overcome simply by an act of will or by simple organisational means.
Nevertheless, the cycle of accumulation which began after the 2nd World War is nearing its end. The post-war boom has long since given way to global economic crisis. Once again the question of imperialist war or the proletarian revolution is being placed on the historical agenda and imposes on revolutionaries throughout the world the need to close ranks. In the epoch of global monopoly capitalism no country can escape the forces which drive capitalism to war. Capitalism's ineluctable drive towards war is expressed today in the universal attack on the working and living conditions of the proletariat. The material conditions for an international proletarian struggle against their exploiters therefore exist. The necessity and possibility of a communist revolution also exist.
What is absent is the revolutionary political party to prepare for such a struggle.
The London CWO comrades will be holding a public meeting at 2.00 p.m. on April 26. It will be in the Lucas Arms, Grays Inn Road. Topic: Over Our Dead Bodies - Austerity and the Working Class Today
The NE Section of the CWO's next meeting open to all will be in Durham on Wednesday May 21. It will be in Alington House, 4 North Bailey starting at 7.00 p.m. Open meetings are open to all as is the agenda.
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