Socialism or barbarism

The left must reorganise and reorientate, argues John Bridge. Otherwise the consequences will be dire

Any discussion of the cuts and how to fight them has to be premised on a recognition of how profound the crisis is. For example, are George Osborne and David Cameron just using some minor fluctuation in the global economy as a welcome excuse to attack the working class, to further roll back the social democratic settlement that Thatcher attacked in the 1980s? Is this what our rulers are doing in the core capitalist countries?

No, the capitalist class is not making a fuss about nothing. Indeed there are many mouthpieces of the high bourgeoisie who are asking, rhetorically, is capitalism reaching its end, has Karl Marx been vindicated, etc? The former editor of The Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, says he is “starting to think that the left might actually be right”. Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, has said that this is the “most serious financial crisis we’ve seen since the 1930s, if not ever”. Are they exaggerating simply in order to attack the working class? Of course, that is the central part of their ‘solution’ - but I do not think they are exaggerating.

What is notable, however, is that the bourgeoisie clearly does not have a viable answer. For example, in 2007, when the subprime crisis started to threaten the whole banking system, I found it entirely unsurprising that George W Bush suddenly underwent a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion. From being a militant free marketeer he suddenly became a state interventionist. Private losses were nationalised. It was even said in America that Bush had become a convert to Keynesianism, even some sort of socialist or Marxist. Such was the massive scale of the state’s rescue package. Quite frankly the ruling class looked at the abyss that was in front of them and acted through the power of the state to prevent a meltdown.

No, what amazed me was the stubbornness of the rightwing Republicans, who opposed the proposed measures put before Congress. There were editorials in the Financial Times asking if the Republicans knew what they were doing. Did they not know what happened last time? In an attempt to get them to act they were ominously reminded of the 1929 crash, the rise of Nazism and World War II. This is not hyperbole.

There are those comrades on the left who say, ‘Capitalism is in crisis - that is great news for us. Now we have the opportunity to get a hearing at last.’ However, I think we should take a rather different approach. Capitalism’s crisis underlines the responsibilities of the left. The crisis is not only a crisis for the ruling class: it is a crisis for society, a society in which the working class forms a clear majority. Take Zimbabwe: does it offer a great opportunity for the left? No, people are desperate. People have to expend all their time and all their energy just to feed themselves and their families, just to keep a roof over their heads.

In other words, a capitalist crisis contains not only the possibility of the left organising the working class so it can act in a decisive way and make the transition to communism. It also carries with it the inherent danger that if the left does not actually take its responsibilities seriously then we face what Rosa Luxemburg famously called ‘socialism or barbarism’. I am not a pessimist. No genuine revolutionary, no genuine Marxist is. But there are more features of barbarism inherent in this present crisis than there are of immanent socialism. I doubt that many comrades actually anticipate that in 2012 or 2013 we will find ourselves basking in a socialist Britain in a socialist world. In 1929 many millions did believe in a socialism of some kind or another. While many of those socialisms might have been entirely illusory, substantial sections of the working class had an idea about an alternative society. So there was a shared class language, a shared class outlook. More than that, workers were organised to achieve their ends in powerful trade unions, co-ops, political parties, etc.

We all know the twofold tragedy. Through the trade union, parliamentary and party apparatus social democracy became incorporated into the state: in effect it served to deliver palliatives so as to maintain capitalism. As for the ‘official communist’ parties, because of Stalin’s counterrevolution within the revolution they were rendered pliant instruments of Soviet foreign policy. In Germany the most powerful working class on the face of the planet was destroyed as a result of the failures of social democracy on the one side and ‘official communism’ on the other. Barbarism spread like a cancer over the face of Europe.

When we hear about of the potential collapse of the Greek, Irish, Portuguese or Italian economies and the break-up of the euro zone, we need to soberly recognise that this is no cause for celebration. Economic collapse brings not only unemployment, increased migration, pay cuts and speed-ups, but the real danger that what remains of working class self-organisation could disintegrate. A possibility added to by authoritarian government attacks and the utterly pusillanimous nature of so many of today’s trade union leadership.

So capitalism’s crisis provides opportunities for the left - that is indisputable. But it also demands - in Britain, in Europe and across the world - a break with sect-building, constitutionalism, movementism, left nationalism, economism and all forms of mechanical thinking.


Some bourgeois commentators, some on the left too, say, ‘This is a crisis for western capitalism, but not Brazil, Russia, India and crucially China.’ We have all read the articles and editorials about the Brics and global power inexorably shifting from the west over to the east. Hence the argument that, while we in Britain might have to suffer under austerity for the next five, 10, 15 or 20 years, China, given its impressive growth rates, given the enormous surpluses it has accumulated, will go from strength to strength and take other countries, such as those in Africa and Latin America, with it in an ongoing and unstoppable boom.

I think this analysis is badly flawed. China is a big country with a huge population. It is investing in many countries and purchasing raw materials on a staggering scale. China is now ranked as the world’s second largest economy, having sped past both Germany and Japan. However, while there is clearly big-power rivalry between China and the US, there is also Chinese dependence on US markets. If America imposes sanctions on China because it has set the renminbi exchange rate ‘intentionally low’ against the dollar, this could have devastating consequences. Even without such an occurrence there are growing concerns in business and political circles that China faces a so-called ‘hard landing’ in the near future.

China, it ought to be emphasised, is no monolith either. The strong state is a sure sign of weakness. China is vulnerable. National, regional and class wars could easily break out. We saw this in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe - where the US was fostering all sorts of dissident parties and groups. Of course, when it comes to China the US today is doing no such thing. The Obama administration wants a stable China in its own interests. Anyway, there is no serious prospect of China overtaking the US and the renminbi replacing the dollar as the global reserve currency.

I remember having a short conversation a few years ago with Paul Mason of Newsnight. He had just returned from China. He said it reminded him of 1960s Britain in terms of workers going on strike. They are less and less afraid of the secret police and more and more assertive when it comes to local action. Living standards are miserable, but going up. But because of the growing gulf between rich and poor, because of corruption, because of systemic oppression, because of the growing confidence, expectations and organised power of the workers, China is a social powderkeg. The chances of a revolutionary explosion are much more likely in China than it in Germany, Japan or the US.


Karl Marx, of course, wrote about capitalism going through periodic crises. But here he was saying nothing original. Adam Smith and David Ricardo were well aware that capitalism had upturns and downturns. It took a real fool like Gordon Brown to claim that the system had overcome boom and bust. And there were equally stupid bourgeois economists who insisted that dot-com companies could carry on growing without ever making a profit.

It was like the madness over house prices - some people believed that they could only go up. Hence borrow all you can from the mortgage company and you could not possibly fail. So it is obvious what do: buy, buy, buy. After all, there is always going to be a shortage of houses. However, capitalism does not work on the basis of demand: it works on the basis of effective demand. In effect the housing boom was merely an extension of the credit system. The credit system can in theory expand indefinitely. But in the real world expansion always comes to an end; often the rot begins with a little bankruptcy here, or a little political overturn there.

Anyhow, the real profundity of what Marx had to say lies not in the obvious truth that capitalism goes through a series of upturns and downturns. Marx knew from writers such as Edward Gibbon that social systems go through their birth and maturity and then into their period of decline. But he was able to apply this insight to capitalism and scientifically reveal the secrets of its birth, the workings of its mature forms and the beginnings of the malfunctioning that come with decline. For Marx, amongst the symptoms of decline were the separation of capitalist ownership and management, monopolisation and the growth of the countervailing power of the working class.

Though I am only repeating Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, over many years I have been met with incredulity by various comrades on the left when I say that capitalism is in decline. Quite clearly capitalism is still growing, they say. Look at how many workers there are now around the globe. Look at Brazil, Germany, Iran, the Asian tigers ... or whatever the latest ‘miracle economy’ is. Capitalism in decline? What a joke.

But it is necessary to go deeper, beyond superficial appearances. Since the late 19th century capitalism has shown a distinct turn away from market competition and towards monopoly and the state. Capitalist imperialism went hand in hand with the incorporation of the labour bureaucracy, massive arms spending and world war. True, Keynesian economics became the accepted common sense of the bourgeoisie in the late 1940s, 50s and 60s and is often, lazily, linked with peace, rationality and the good times. In reality Keynesianism, with its government manipulation of the money supply, heavy taxation of profits, demand management, nationalisations and full employment, was the continuation of the organised capitalism which began in earnest during World War I and was taken to new heights in World War II.

Keynesianism is not an example of mature capitalism: it is capitalism that is overcoming barriers to the expansion of production, while piling up one new contradiction after the other. In his polemic with Eugen Dühring Engels talks about socialism staring in at us from every window: while Keynesianism is not socialism, it is certainly not classic capitalism. For the left it should be absolutely clear that Keynesianism was a manifestation of decline, not because GDP was decreasing, obviously, but because capitalist forms such as the market, money, the reserve army of labour and the law of value itself played an ever decreasing role.

Keynesianism is notorious in capitalist circles for the number of strikes it produced. In reality most of them were not recorded; they were of such short duration. Because there was relative full employment the workers could exert their collective strength with relative ease; leading to what might be called elements of dual power in workplaces and eventually a profits squeeze. Management protested, whenever the need or opportunity arose, that it had lost the right to manage. We know their answer. After trying arbitration boards, turning trade union convenors into full-time, isolated, officials and taking away the collection of union dues from shop stewards by docking pay, they abandoned Keynesianism, allowed unemployment to rocket and turned to financialisation. So while 1950-60s Keynesianism can be viewed as a relatively civilised form of managing the decline of capitalism, there can be no doubt that it proved unsustainable from a capitalist viewpoint.

However, despite financialisation and neoliberalism and the claims that you can’t buck the market, the fact of the matter is that capitalism is still in decline. Anybody who thinks that there is a real competitive market for, say, electricity is a fool. Chris Huhne recently lectured the six big energy companies about their monopolistic prices and told them they must make sure their customers know they can switch to a different monopolist. It is the same with the railways, gas and so on - there is no free market. There is the pseudo-market of an organised capitalism which shows clear signs of entering an extended period of stagnation and perhaps worse.

So a Marxist analysis does not begin with essentially superficial questions such as GDP or the number of workers on the planet. What needs to be discovered, what needs to be grasped are fundamentals such as the law of value. Is this law, which lies at the heart of capitalism, extending its reach? Is it penetrating deeper and deeper into society, or is it in retreat? The only honest answer is that it is in retreat. It is quite clearly still giving way to an organised capitalism, and what that means is that capitalism tends to anticipate the new, higher system, albeit in negative ways.

Anybody who has read anything about the last Labour government will know that it spent a fortune on the NHS, school buildings, etc. But what did it get in return? Something like an extra 3% in performance, however weirdly such things are statistically assessed. People who work in the NHS will tell you that these institutions are run like the old Soviet Union. Well, at least in the sense that they are constantly having to hit targets and file reports. The unintended results exactly replicate how bureaucrats and workers alike behaved in the old Soviet Union - connive, falsify and cheat. In the Soviet Union, if a plant was told to double the amount of steel cable it produced without extra inputs, managers and workers would connive together to ‘meet the target’: the cable might be twice as long, but it was also twice as thin - often being unusable for its intended purposes.

There is a similarity here with the way the NHS and education are run. And that tells an increasing truth about this society as a whole. In other words, organised capitalism is a malfunctioning capitalism. ‘Solutions’ devised to manage decline actually speed up decline.

Challenge for left

Let me return to the left’s responsibilities. Is it rising to the challenge? Unfortunately the answer is no. In fact the left is failing on almost every count. I will use the example of the Socialist Workers Party because it is the largest left group outside the Labour Party and its approach is typical.

Take its approach in the Irish Republic, one of the weak links of capitalism. Everyone knows that the sovereign debt crisis hit that country in the first wave. There were huge demonstrations in Dublin. The left was almost handed TDs as a result of the profound political crisis the economic situation generated. The Socialist Party and SWP in Ireland got together to stand as the United Left Alliance - not a marriage of love, but a marriage of convenience. What politics did they stand on? Something eerily reminiscent of the ‘official communist’ Alternative Economic Strategy from the 1970s and 80s. The idea is that Ireland should borrow money on a massive scale to stimulate the economy. However - what a wheeze - if the ULA managed to form a government in the Dáil it would immediately repudiate the resulting debt mountain - that is, assuming anyone would actually lend to Ireland in the first place. Basically the ULA government would put two fingers up to the international capitalist system and embark on a socialist adventure in splendid isolation. Comrades, you cannot be serious.

That the SWP in Ireland put forward this programme is shocking. That someone with the talent and experience of Alex Callinicos attempted to justify it on the basis of, well, ‘this is not the 1970s’ is doubly shocking. Yes, we know that this is 2011, but the SWP used to direct well aimed polemics against the Alternative Economic Strategy showing that it was based on a nationalist fallacy. Keynesianism, even left Keynesianism, could not succeed in isolation and would certainly not lead to socialism. Either there would be flight of capital, imperialist sanctions or internal rebellion by the desperate, starving people. As for socialism, it is by definition international. So is comrade Callinicos seriously arguing that an Ireland or even a Britain could extricate itself from the global economy without absolutely dire consequences? Of course, if you are an ‘official communist’ and your model is the Soviet Union, eastern Europe or China in the 1970s or 80s, you would say ‘yes’. But to revamp, to relaunch this national socialism now strikes me as plain crazy. What do they want - an Irish version of Albania?

History has definitively shown us that socialism in one country does not lead to communism. The Soviet Union collapsed into chaos, most of eastern Europe is now in the EU or awaiting membership. As for China, it has taken a long and hugely costly road, not least in terms of human suffering, from an extremely backward capitalism to being a kind of colonising semi-colony which supplies the United States with cheap goods. Wherever the Chinese regime is going, it is not to communism, that is for sure.

All out, stay out?

Alex Callinicos comes out with the excuse you might expect - a sneaky version of Trotsky’s Transitional programme. Now I understand why Trotsky put forward such a programme in 1938. He had less than 10,000 comrades globally and World War II was looming. He saw the tasks in front of him and in these circumstances fell back on spontaneity in the hope that a general strike strategy would produce the social revolution.

That is where the SWP comrades are today too. What the working class needs is not consciousness. We cannot actually convince the majority of the population that we are right, that our programme is needed and socialism is a good idea. So instead get people involved in action. And, as one action leads to another, higher form of action, a one-day strike to a general strike, people will be led, step by step, to confront the state and the overthrow of capitalism. That is what the SWP seems to believe.

Nobody should deny that involvement in strikes, occupations and demonstrations teaches. I have no quarrel with that. But the idea that you will arrive at socialist consciousness primarily through such struggles is quite illusory. The general strike strategy rests in essence on tricking the working class into taking power. So after November 30 the SWP will be saying, ‘A 24-hour strike was all well and good, but what we really need is: all out, stay out.’ This grandstanding slogan is mainly designed to show the anarchists and other leftists just how revolutionary the SWP is. When you ask them how long we should stay out, they do not actually say indefinitely, because even they realise that is not practical at the moment. They might say ‘for a week’ if you pin them down.

Well, the Chartists in the 19th century had a similar slogan: it was called the ‘holy month’. This was then taken up by Mikhail Bakunin and the anarchists. Basically the idea was that, once sufficient funds had been accumulated, a general strike would be called and capitalism would be brought to its knees. Engels argued strongly against this perspective. Rhetorically, he asked if the bourgeois state was really going to allow the workers to steadily accumulate sufficient funds to keep themselves going indefinitely without wages? But, if they could manage such a feat of organisation why go to the bother of staging a general strike? If you are that strong, why not just take power?

The reality is that if you attempt to use a general strike for revolutionary purposes you have to be armed and ready for insurrection. The SWP knows this perfectly well, so if it is serious about ‘All out, stay out’, it should be preparing for confrontation not so much with the police, but the army - maybe sections will come over to our side, but we would still have to be equipped to take on the state’s armed forces.

However, I do not think ‘All out, stay out’ is serious. On the contrary, the slogan is a classic case of leftist posturing, designed to showcase the SWP’s militancy at rallies and demonstrations. It is not about the SWP soberly shouldering its responsibilities. The comrades view the present situation merely as an opportunity for the sect to grow. Last year’s perspectives document produced by the SWP central committee did not envisage the working class coming to power. It did not envisage resolving the crisis in a positive fashion. It did envisage carding up 2,000 recruits. Pathetic.

European unity

So what is the way forward? First of all, we should wholeheartedly welcome November 30. There will be more workers out than since the 1926 General Strike (the paradox of the General Strike is, of course, that more workers came out after it had been called off by the TUC than were actually on strike during it).

Anyway, November 30 will be, in terms of at least the public sector, a class-wide action. And it will be supported by many people who are not in work but who are still members of the working class - pensioners, the unemployed, students and so on. Do we want to be going to demonstrations and rallies on that day and competing over how long the next coordinated strike should be? A one-day general strike, a two-day general strike? An indefinite general strike? Actually we need to be more ambitious.

A European-wide one-day general strike is a logical next step. Not because that in itself will cause the bourgeoisie to surrender. No, the significance of such a call is that it fits in with a grand strategy that can realistically see the working class coming to power and staying in power by spreading the flame of socialism from Europe to the rest of the world, not least to the US. November 30, and repeating such action on a European-wide level, is, of course, symbolic. Life as the bourgeoisie knows it will not come to an end. But symbolism can be profoundly important. An all-Europe protest strike against austerity and against rule by the bankers symbolises not just our opposition to the EU of bureaucrats and bosses, but our conviction that it is necessary for the working class to unite into a single Communist Party of the European Union. Fighting for this perspective is to take our responsibility seriously.

Let me stress that we are not talking about some larger version of the left-nationalist Communist Party of Greece or some social democratic copy of the French Communist Party or Die Linke in Germany. We need a mass party, a party where there is unity in action, but freedom of criticism, a party which operates democratically, where factions can be formed. In other words a Marxist party that has nothing to do with Stalinism, popular-front class-collaborationism or the narrow-minded, bureaucratic control-freakery of the confessional sects.

The threat of barbarism is real - and not only through prolonged stagnation, hyperinflation or a spectacular collapse of the euro zone. The offloading of economic crisis from one power to another brings with it the possibility of war. We already have had Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Next year, or the year after that, could see Iran blitzed by Israel, yet more ‘humanitarian interventions’ in the Middle East, maybe even a US-China clash over Taiwan. Then there is the ecological crisis and global warming. Everything tells us that the working class must come to power.

And, as I have already argued, the place where the working class can consolidate that power is Europe. Here it would be able to demonstrate to the rest of the planet that socialism marks a far higher level of civilisation than capitalism. So Europe is key.