the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Oct 25, 2019
The following article is a translation of a text adopted by Lutte Ouvrière’s Congress; it was published in the monthly journal of the French Trotskyist organization, Lutte de Classe, issue #204, December 2019–January 2020.
The predominant factors in the international situation are the capitalist crisis and the aggravation of the social war waged by the bourgeoisie against the working class and—more generally—against the popular classes.
Lacking a revolutionary leadership, the proletariat, the only class which could oppose the power of the capitalist bourgeoisie with a struggle for the leadership over society, is absent from the political stage.
The war of the bourgeoisie against the exploited classes assumes diverse forms in different countries. However, it dominates social relations within each country, just as it shapes international relations.
On a world scale, what is lacking is not combativeness, revolts, or even uprisings! It takes some combativeness for the popular classes of Algeria to stay mobilized over 36 weeks (as of October 25, 2019). It took some combativeness for the Sudanese masses to get rid of the dictator Omar al-Bashir.
The desire to be done with a hateful dictator or regime is a powerful mobilizing factor. The problem of society, however, is not merely to find the right substitute for a fallen dictator. In the worst case, another dictator succeeds him, as in Egypt; at best, it results in a more parliamentary regime, as in Tunisia, while the situation doesn’t change for the great majority of the poor classes.
It takes more than toppling a dictator to end the dictatorship of money—more precisely, of big capital—over society. Dictators are like the politicians in the so-called democratic countries: they are interchangeable.
Fundamental differences exist between imperialist countries and poor countries, between countries whose bourgeoisie plunders and oppresses, and their victims. But all have one thing in common: while the economic life of humanity is stuck in a dead alley, instead of resuming the fight against the bourgeoisie, the proletariat is in disarray, without a political compass.
The gangrene of capitalism is spreading to society as a whole, including into its laws and morals, infecting the proletariat, the only social class capable of offering society another perspective other than the survival of capitalism.
Faced with the decay of capitalism, workers, the working class, can see no political perspectives—not real ones, not even false ones, like the perspective of voting the Left back into power in France in the 1970s.
The perspective of overthrowing the power of the bourgeoisie and of radically upending society, which led several generations of the workers’ movement to act, has virtually disappeared from the collective consciousness of the working class.
That situation is not new. But during the two decades between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s—when the capitalist economy in the rich imperialist countries ensured decent living conditions, as long as you could find a job with a living wage—the objective situation itself seemed to corroborate reformist perspectives.
That era is over. But unlike the 1929 crisis, its end didn’t happen brutally. Reformist illusions, the idea that some improvement in the workers’ lot was possible within the capitalist system, have survived long after the economic crisis pushed the bourgeoisie to intensify its onslaught against the working class.
How could it have been otherwise, when the traditional workers’ parties and the trade union apparatuses kept rolling on the same reformist tracks? In the face of the crisis, and big capital’s offensive to make workers bear its consequences, they keep peddling the illusion that the economic crisis can be overcome with another policy within the framework of the capitalist system.
The working class has let the bourgeoisie take the upper hand. The intensification of the class struggle in workplaces, as well as the anti-working-class measures of the governments, have found a working class disarmed politically.
The weight of the reformist apparatuses and the abandonment of the fight to overthrow capitalism make the crisis—with all its consequences—appear to the masses as objective facts, virtually like natural disasters, where the best you can do is protect yourself, your family, your community.
The reactionary evolution of political and social life, the rise of so-called “populism” throughout the country, cannot be understood if we fail to grasp that this dynamic results from the absence of the working class on the political field. It results from the lack of a party implanted in the working class, defending the perspective of overthrowing bourgeois society.
The lack of that perspective means that the workers—even those who are the most conscious of the damage wrought by the capitalist economy, even the most combative—can find only demagogues when they set about looking for answers.
The damage wrought by capitalism, so far, has mostly aroused concern, disgust, and helplessness at how harmful the system is. “There is a consensus about the evils of capitalism,” (Joseph Stiglitz). That is undeniable, but it is significant that one of today’s most prominent intellectuals finds nothing more to say about it than what millions of workers, poor people, and even the least politicized gilets jaunes [yellow vests] feel in their lives and in their flesh.
For the class of the exploited to be able to turn itself into a social force capable of smashing the power of the bourgeoisie and to transform the organization of society to its roots, it needs consciousness, organizations, revolutionary parties. The whole history of social relations for the last two centuries illustrates that necessity, as well as the huge difficulty of the task.
In relationship to the process of capital formation and accumulation, “the bourgeoisie produces its own grave-diggers,” (Communist Manifesto): the proletariat, the social class able to overthrow it, in order to create a new form of social organization.
The development of the proletariat went together with that of the workers’ movement, which grew by carrying out a series of struggles that drove it from the instinctive reaction of machine-breaking to the consciousness of its own specific material interests (cooperative societies, trade unions, etc.), to the consciousness of its political interests. Chartism was the most powerful expression of this political consciousness in its time.
But the idea that the proletariat was irreplaceable in order to transform the social organization based on private property, exploitation, and competition, into another, superior one, was largely brought to it by generations of militants and intellectuals from the ranks of the bourgeoisie. After the fumbling of “utopian socialism,” Marxism gave the working class “the science of its plight,” (F. Pelloutier).
From the start, however, capitalism exerted a powerful dissolving pressure against which the efforts to organize the workers’ movement clashed. The Communist Manifesto, after stating that “the condition of existence for capital is wage work,” added: “Wage-labor rests exclusively on competition between the laborers.... The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, through association.”
But until capitalism is destroyed, antagonism will persist between the collectivism—understood as collective interests—of the working class, and the individualism of the bourgeoisie. It is not a fight between ideas or values; it is an actual fight between two opposed social classes. But at the same time ideas, values, and programs have a fundamental importance in the struggle between social classes.
In any case, as far as the proletariat is concerned, its social strength depends on its being conscious of it, while the bourgeoisie’s rests on its monopoly of big capital and of the State apparatuses at its service.
The dissolving effect of capitalism on the organizations of the workers’ movement has assumed many forms over the course of capitalism’s history. For the workers’ movement, it has manifested itself as a variety of ways to integrate its own organizations into the capitalist system, punctuated by collapses and betrayals.
The betrayal by the Social-Democracy during and after the First World War was one of its gravest expressions. Even worse was the betrayal of Stalinism, which turned the only lasting workers’ state, born out of a proletarian revolution, into a mainstay of capitalist order around the world.
Decaying capitalism has sharpened the contradiction between the evolution of society, with its ever more centralized and globalized economy, and its individualism pushed to the extreme.
Scientific and technical progress, and its uses, illustrate that contradiction. Computer science, for instance, which is able to connect people and far away places around the globe, could afford extraordinary means of information and management for a human society, conscious of its collective interests. But the most powerful computers, including those of the biggest asset management company in the world, BlackRock, are used to advise their customers and shareholders on the most profitable market opportunities thanks to the huge amount of data they are able to collect. That is to say, how to speculate.
Even smartphones, which make it possible to communicate across the whole planet, isolate their users in individual bubbles. Everyone has their eyes—not on the prize, but on their screens!
The alternative formulated over a century ago by Rosa Luxemburg, “Socialism or barbarism,” takes on a supplementary meaning, on top of the concretization of barbarism in the last century (two world wars, fascism, etc).
Scientific and technical progress afford the bourgeoisie and its political servants additional means. Today it is possible to speculate with a precision of a millionth of a second, to collect data on a world scale for the benefit of marketing, to use social networks and facial recognition for repression, etc.
Even the Vatican has consecrated a “smart rosary” which, as the Jesuit who presented it put it, combines “the best of Church tradition with the best of technology.” Modern technology has helped reinvent the Buddhist monk’s ancient prayer beads!
So the fundamental alternative for the future of human society remains “socialism or barbarism”: a social organization that functions in the collective interests of all people, or the perpetuation of social relations based on exploitation and oppression, based on “the best of technology.”
There are other effects of capitalist decay: before the bourgeoisie seized power thanks to the revolutionary violence of the popular masses, or by making compromises with the former privileged classes, and during the rising period of its history, it was able to champion progressive ideas. A tiny minority among the bourgeoisie, particularly its intelligentsia, by preoccupying itself with social issues, was able to embrace the interests of the proletariat. The utopian socialists did so in a paternalistic manner. The generation whose best representatives were Marx and Engels did it in a revolutionary way.
The bourgeoisie, its intellectual caste, is no longer capable of that. The intelligentsia has been turned into mercenaries of the big bourgeoisie, destined to serve in the state apparatus, but also in the media and in the culture industry.
This is nothing new: the bourgeois intelligentsia played a revolutionary role, especially in France, only at a time when the bourgeoisie was still waging its combat against the former social order. But over a century ago already, Lafargue, a representative of the emerging socialist current, denounced the cowardice of the intellectuals of his time.
In Russia, where the evolution of the bourgeoisie was late compared to that of the bourgeoisie in western Europe, a fraction of the intelligentsia, from Plekhanov to Lenin and Trotsky, made possible the development of Russian Social-Democracy, then of Bolshevism.
From imperialist countries to poor countries, not only has no fraction of the intellectual petty bourgeoisie played that role, but it has contributed to wrecking the revolutionary current of the workers’ movement, before force-feeding it with values that go toward preserving the bourgeois order.
In imperialist countries, the most prominent intellectuals put the finishing touch to what reformist apparatuses born out of the labor aristocracy had done, presenting reformism as the only possible politics for the workers’ movement. They played the part of an intermediary between Stalinist reformism and the working class....
In poor countries, which were explosive after the Second World War, it was the same category that played a decisive part in the organization of the oppressed masses to channel their revolt toward nationalism, progressive or not. The powerful upheavals that after the war shook the world—from China to Indonesia and many other countries—resulted in the regimes we know, which are all integrated into the imperialist world system.
The peculiar situation of the former Peoples Democracies spawned a generation of activists from an intellectual background, like Kuron and Modzelewski in Poland, who were able to connect with the working class, and paid the price for their political activities. But their role, ultimately, came down to leading the most powerful succession of working class flare-ups in post-war Europe toward the Catholic Church and the bourgeoisie in 1981 through 1989.
In 2013, Modzelewski titled his autobiography: We Ran History at a Gallop, Confessions of a Jaded Rider. When he died (in April 2019), he did not identify with the reactionary regime in Poland today, but he did not ask himself why things evolved that way in his country, and above all he did not face his own responsibility.
It is impossible to imagine a rebirth of revolutionary currents without at least a fraction of the working class becoming conscious. But only intellectuals who have not only broken off with the petty bourgeoisie from which they came, but who can also appropriate and assimilate Marxism and revolutionary communist ideas, will be able to contribute toward that rebirth.
It is pointless to speculate on when the working class will recommence to play a political role again, let alone where that might happen. Capitalism in crisis makes the situation more unstable and more explosive in all countries.
Without a rebirth of revolutionary communism, the most violent outbursts of the working class and, more generally, of the popular classes, cannot produce anything that might push the social organization forward.
The reason we exist is to perpetuate those ideas without toning them down or diluting them, so that they may become again the instrument for struggle that the revolted masses will seize on.
As revolutionary communists, however weak our forces may be today, we are optimistic about the future. Ever since human beings came out of the primitive ages, humanity has always been able to find a way to ensure its increasing mastery over nature. Sooner or later, it will eventually master its own social life.
The Middle East is unlikely to come out of the situation of permanent war in which it has been placed for years. The U.S.’s overt ambition to overthrow the Iranian regime is liable to result in an open conflict. It already means giving the go-ahead to its privileged allies in the region. Saudi Arabia uses it to pursue a murderous war in Yemen, where it makes abundant use of American and French weapons. Israeli leaders order raids in Syria on targets they regard as Iranian outposts. More than ever, in spite of their difficulties in domestic policy, they assert their intransigence against the Palestinians, to the point of threatening to officially annex the West Bank.
The withdrawal of American soldiers backing the Kurds in Syria was also a green light for Turkey to launch a new onslaught against them. As always, the Erdogan government is embarking on a military adventure as a means to overcome its difficulties at home. Erdogan thus tries to recreate national unity around himself and restore his credibility, which has been damaged by the economic crisis, as the spring elections showed, when his party lost the local elections in the main large cities. It matters little to him—and to the American leaders who gave him the green light—that this means more suffering for the Kurdish people, and that it risks resuming the war between militias that have been tearing Syria apart for years, right when it seemed about to end.
The opening of that new front, with the agreement of the U.S. government, probably conceals many calculations and secret negotiations, notably with Russia, to carve out spheres of influence in the region. In any case, it underscores how cynical the great powers’ policies are. The U.S. backed the Kurds of Syria only as long as it needed their fighters to crush the Islamic State. The Turkish intervention is now doing the U.S. a favor, since it doesn’t have to commit itself to Kurdish autonomy—which it never even considered. Imperialist leaders will claim that they support democracy and the rights of peoples, only for as long as it takes to use them for their own aims, before delivering them to their enemies. The history of the Kurds’ struggles for their national existence is a long series of such manipulations by the neighboring powers, invariably followed by betrayals and violent repression. The Kurds are made the hostages of those powers, of the evolution of their alliances and their utilization by imperialism. The very policy of Kurdish nationalist leaders, whose only hope lies in seeking support from this or that state, keeps them stuck in that situation.
The first victims of the situation in the Middle East are the populations who endure the wars, the bombings and the massacres, and who are now compelled to live in countries that are mostly destroyed, where basic needs—such as water supplies, electricity and minimal public services, or even the mere possibility to eat and have a house—are no longer met. In Syria and especially in Iraq, the relative détente which has followed the period of open war inevitably arouses the population’s hopes, which clash with reality. The slow pace of reconstruction, the corruption that goes with it, the authorities’ contempt, lead to movements of revolt in Iraq, which the militias and communitarian parties have more and more trouble controlling. Those revolts are met with bloody repression. But Iran, which is hit by the consequences of American sanctions, just like Turkey, which is going through a violent economic crisis, is also on the cusp of revolts, which have been checked so far only by the existence of dictatorial regimes and their use of nationalist goals.
Eight years after what was called the “Arab Springs,” the reasons which gave birth to those revolts are more present than ever, and made even more pressing by the world crisis. In Tunisia, the only regime which has kept a democratic façade has been unable to address any of the popular masses’ aspirations, beginning with a job and a decent wage. In Egypt, the hardening of the military dictatorship has been the only response to the worsening of the situation of the masses. In Libya, in Yemen, and in Syria, imperialism’s and the regional powers’ interventions have resulted in wars and chaos with catastrophic consequences.
The same causes keep producing the same effects. In Sudan, the protests against military dictatorship had been going on over the past few years, encouraged also by the examples of the other Arab countries. But at the end of 2018, a downright social explosion burst out when the regime announced a threefold increase in the price of bread. Faced with the demonstrations, the dictator Omar al-Bashir had to leave, as the army top brass took over to implement a make-believe democratic transition. That maneuver, which attempted to replicate what occurred in Tunisia or Egypt in 2011, didn’t quite work. The military could bring the demonstrations to an end only with a bloody massacre on June 3rd, which left hundreds dead. It went on to institute a government where some civilians act as a front for the army’s dictatorship. As in Egypt, that army, sponsored and funded by the rich bourgeoisies of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, is the ultimate bulwark for the dictatorship of the local bourgeoisie and imperialism.
In Algeria, we are still witnessing a movement that is unusually wide and lasting. Deep social discontent is directed against the regime and the corruption of the ruling cliques. As in Tunisia and Egypt, the slogan “Down with the system!” sums up the idea that the whole political system has to be overhauled, since it is unable to meet any of the population’s demands. It is a democratic demand, meaning that the masses want a regime that would respect them, in which they would have their say, and which would guarantee their basic rights. That movement, which identifies with no constituted political force, has found within itself enough resources to carry on mobilizing the youth as well as a large part of the popular classes for months. Spreading as it does across all of society, it encourages workers to organize to put forward their own demands in their companies, even though the working class so far has not appeared as an organized class with its own goals. For the moment, maneuvers by the political powers have been unable to put an end to a mobilization whose very depth keeps the regime from resorting to direct, violent repression. However, that remains a possibility to be reckoned with.
In Sudan and Algeria, what is happening is a second wave of the movements born in 2011 in the Arab world. However, in the meantime, the Egyptian experience has unfolded, with the army claiming to ensure a democratic transition, and eventually reproducing a military dictatorship worse than Mubarak’s. In Sudan, barely out of years of military dictatorship, the army has responded to the mass movements with massacres by way of transition. Hence in Algeria, the attempts by the army’s chief of staff to appear as the man for a democratic renewal arouse so much defiance.
The fundamentalist political currents, which had enjoyed some success in part of the Muslim world, are quite discredited today. That is the result of their participation in political power not only in Iran, but also in other countries such as Sudan, where the fundamentalist parties were among the supporters of the dictatorship, and made clear demonstrations of their own corruption and their contempt for the masses. Wherever they became radicalized, giving birth to jihadist movements ready to wield their dictatorships over the population, as in Algeria during the “black decade,” and later in Iraq and Syria in the territories controlled by the Islamic State, fundamentalist currents also leave a very bad memory. Nevertheless, in the absence of movements that might challenge them, their return cannot be ruled out.
The masses rising with this second wave of the “Arab Springs” are pushed by a situation made more and more unbearable by the crisis and its local manifestations. At the same time, no political current appears to be able to represent their aspirations. That only makes the necessity of a revolutionary leadership more obvious, and the lack of it more dramatic.
American politics is still dominated by Trump’s personality, his declarations and Tweets—often stupid, sometimes rude, always reactionary—and by the Democrats’ difficulties to exist faced with such a demagogue. In the 2016 election, Trump managed to appeal to part of the white working class. That electorate’s loyalty to him will be one of the main issues in the next presidential election.
In the mid-term elections in November 2018, the Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives, but not in the Senate. In other words, they can be a thorn in Trump’s side, but they cannot prevent him from implementing his policy—assuming their policies are any different. Over the past few months, with their eyes set on the 2020 presidential campaign, they have started an impeachment procedure, which may or may not succeed, but aims to weaken him, or to show their voters that they are not idle. They have also begun to lay the groundwork for the presidential campaign. No one knows who might win the Democratic primaries, and the election itself.... On the one hand, the 2018 electoral gains, after Sanders’s relative success in 2016, illustrate the discontent among a whole fraction of the working population and the youth in the face of an ever more savage, ruthless, and absurd capitalism. On the other hand, the defeat of these candidates gives no prospects. As part of the Democratic Party, they work within the continuity of the American bourgeois state and its role as an imperialist power, which Democratic presidents have upheld in the past no less than Republicans.
The Western media keep going on about the alleged good health of the U.S. economy. The Trump administration claims that unemployment stands at 3.7%, the lowest record since 1969, half as high as the average in the euro zone. Actually, the employment situation is not getting better. First, many workers are only part-time, and in spite of having one or more jobs, they are under the poverty line. While the rate of participation in the labor market—which measures the part of the population with or looking for a job—stood at 66% in 2008, it now stands at 62.7%. In other words, at least 23 million Americans, aged between 25 and 54, are on the sidelines of the labor market. While more and more elderly people, sometimes in their 70s or 80s, have to work to supplement their meager pensions, whole swaths of people in the prime of their lives are marginalized, often after years of casual work. And for those who remain in the labor market, what jobs the new economy creates are reminiscent of the nineteenth century. Reports have exposed the cases of pensioners who wrap up parcels at Amazon to supplement their pensions, or “click workers” who work at home for 30 cents per hour.
In what is still one of the richest countries in the world, life expectancy has been going down for three years—something which had never happened since the First World War and the Spanish flu epidemic. Inequalities rise relentlessly. One percent of Americans own 40% of the national wealth; one tenth of one percent own as much as the poorest 90%. How could it be otherwise? The state—at the federal as well as local level—has relentlessly pandered to the richest. For ten years, the federal minimum wage has not increased, and the taxes paid by the richest have been cut. Much like his predecessors, Trump passed a tax reform, cutting taxes for companies and the richest by hundreds of billions of dollars. In 2018, billionaires were actually taxed on a lower rate (23%) than that of the rest of the population (28%). Those tax gifts result in a record high public debt, at 22 trillion dollars.
Trump has carried on his trade war against China and, to a lesser extent, against the European Union. This year, taxes targeted technological products, particularly in the telecommunications sector, such as Chinese firms ZTE and Huawei. The protectionist measures are adopted with much trumpeting, and their demagogic value for the U.S. popular electorate is obvious. In many cases, there was a discrepancy between the announcements and the measures actually implemented. American multinationals often oppose rising tariffs. For instance, Apple may be in competition with Huawei, but they import massively from China, and they have applied for tariff exemptions. The great U.S. auto companies want to carry on buying cheap steel. Boeing and Airbus may be rivals, but Boeing keeps buying more parts from European component suppliers (for instance, 6.3 billion dollars worth from France in 2017, a 40% rise since 2012). Boeing does not want a trade war with China either, because it sells China a lot of aircraft. However, the trade war is not just about announcements or political calculations. It is also the sign of sharpening competition between capitalist firms. Huawei does not just build smart phones; it also leads in 5G telecommunication networks, and is competing directly against American interests. The U.S. has tried to twist the arms of its Canadian, Mexican, or Chinese counterparts, in order to reach deals more favorable for itself. The specter of the 1930s, with all-out protectionism, is pointed to regularly. And just as military incidents are liable to turn into a real war, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that the trade war might escalate.
The absurdity of capitalist rule has been illustrated recently. In California, in November 2018, giant fires ravaged nearly 250,000 acres, destroyed the city of Paradise (20,000 inhabitants), and caused 85 deaths. Those fires were sparked by the poor maintenance of the electric grid. Recently, due to dry weather and violent winds, the main electricity supplier of the region, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) quickly adopted a drastic measure: it cut power for over two million inhabitants in California. Many shopkeepers had to close, inhabitants used candle light, and the health of patients on dialysis or breathing assistance was threatened, while the TV showed scenes of car accidents at crossroads with the traffic lights turned off. PG&E has made a lot of money, but prefers to line its shareholders’ pockets than to invest in the safety of its infrastructure—with consequences plain to see. California is home to the leading sectors of the U.S. economy; it boasts the most advanced technical innovations. That state, which is sometimes referred to as the world’s fifth largest economy, is a sort of capitalist El Dorado. That is, it’s a shopfront, but in the back room the lighting is done by candle!
In the context of a ferocious onslaught by the American bourgeoisie, workers have taken more punches than they gave back. What resistance they put up is therefore all the more noteworthy. Thus, 48,000 GM workers were on strike for 41 days for better wages, better healthcare coverage, and to lessen temporary and part-time employment. After six weeks of strike, a majority of GM workers accepted management’s offer, while some 40% voted to continue the strike. They may not have won as far as putting an end to factory closures, but they wrested concessions from the bosses on issues of contracts and wages. At any rate, it was the first time since 1976 that, in one of the country’s three big auto companies, tens of thousands of workers had struck nationwide. That struggle which, for once, is not led by the capitalist class but by the working class, is in the eyes of millions of workers a down payment on the future.
Addressing the 90 million members of the Chinese Communist Party, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, who is now, after having eliminated his main rivals over the years, the unchallenged leader of the country, glorified this “miracle of economic development without precedent in the history of humanity,” (quoted in Le Monde), adding that “China has managed to do what the developed countries took hundreds of years to achieve.”
China’s development is undeniable. That immense country—which had been carved up for a century, between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries, by the main imperialist powers, targeted by successive military interventions, or even invasions: notably British, French, then Japanese, strangled, humiliated—has managed to shake off the direct hold of imperialism and to get rid of the warlords and parasitic classes that maintained the overwhelming majority of its population in conditions reminiscent of the Middle Ages.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was brought to power by the most powerful peasant uprising Asia experienced during and after the Second World War.
That peasant uprising is what rid Chinese society of some of the most archaic aspects so complacently accepted by the imperialist democracies when they held China in their grip—for example, the unchecked oppression of the peasants by landlords, the abject oppression of women, and so on. Availing themselves of that uprising, a nationalist team branding themselves communists managed to build a strong, centralized state, such as the country had not known for a century.
That state apparatus has enabled China to hold its own in the face of all imperialist attempts to recapture it—to hold its own in military terms, but also to resist economic boycott by the imperialist countries.
We have always regarded the Chinese state apparatus—which, unlike the Soviet state, did not emerge from a proletarian revolution—as an instrument of China’s bourgeois development, even at the time when it was allied to the USSR and was on the so-called “socialist” side; or a little later, when China appeared to embody hard-line communism as opposed to a revisionist USSR.
Today, even though the ruling party still carries the “communist” label, the country has become home to a “savage” capitalism, where a numerous bourgeoisie has emerged, partly from the former bourgeois class, which for a long time found shelter outside the country, and partly from the state bureaucracy.
The fundamental reason for this “miracle of economic development” Xi Jinping talked about, was this statism, which laid the groundwork for today’s economy directly on the backs, first of the peasantry, then, as the peasants evicted from the countryside became proletarianized, on the exploitation of the working class.
Statism and centralization are what has allowed China to protect itself against the direct domination of imperialism, and to develop its economy. It has been able to do this thanks to a numerous population, at the expense of which the central power has been able to achieve some sort of primitive accumulation, as opposed to so many underdeveloped countries, including India, where the accumulation—while it may benefit the local privileged class—benefits the imperialist bourgeoisie a lot more.
As soon as it came into existence, the state apparatus had an ambivalent role. While it served as an instrument to oppress the popular classes, especially the working class, it was also an instrument to resist imperialism.
This latter dimension—“protection against the imperialist threat”—was decisive at the very beginning of Mao’s regime, when imperialism, particularly U.S. imperialism, imposed an economic blockade and military threat. The threat turned into a real clash in Korea, and was nearly that in some stages of the Vietnam war.
But over time, while maintaining its dictatorial form, the regime allowed and encouraged the accumulation of private capital. It is economic development, achieved precisely thanks to statism, which turned the state—which remained an instrument of defense against imperialism—simultaneously into a factor of integration into the world economy dominated by imperialism.
The state apparatus itself has served as an intermediary between the imperialist bourgeoisie and China, but on the basis of another relationship of forces, more favorable to the development of the Chinese bourgeoisie than what was possible—or even desirable—to the compradore bourgeoisie at the time of Chiang Kai-shek.
Over the last period, since Deng Xiaoping rose to power in 1978, China has become more and more integrated into the world market. Economically, then diplomatically, it has imposed itself at the center of the international stage.
It remains an underdeveloped country in many respects in terms of its economy. That is visible in the fact that while the country’s GDP comes second, behind that of the U.S., the country’s GDP per capita is still behind that of Mexico, Azerbaijan, or the Dominican Republic, (IMF data, 2017). Far ahead of India, nonetheless!
Although China’s relative economic development owes to the voluntary—and, still more often, forced—efforts of the working class and peasant masses, today Xi Jinping can boast that China dominates the world industry of manufactured goods. China today is the biggest producer of ships, steel, aluminum, furniture, clothing, and even mobile phones and computers (see Graham Allison, Destined for War).
The emergence of a large local bourgeoisie, since the country itself is vast, has made that country one of the main markets in the world for cars and mobile phones; it has more internet users than any other country. The latest figures identify 475 Chinese billionaires in the world, against 16 in 2008 (Les Echos). There was good reason for the imperialist countries’ multinationals to be enthused by the Chinese market over the past few years.
Another side of that same reality is the fusion of capital from the imperialist powers with Chinese capital, whether state-owned or private. As China becomes integrated into the capitalist world economy, a whole portion of the accumulation made possible by industrial development accrues to Western or Japanese capital.
But that increasing integration, which enhances China’s dependence on the world economy dominated by imperialism, is happening in an age of capitalist crisis, with increasing financialization. To illustrate what form that integration assumes, an issue of Les Echos was headlined: “China, the Far West for hedge-funds” (July 31, 2019). It went on to explain: “Almost 9,000 alternative managers compete in China. Fortunes are made and unmade from year to year, on the Chinese stock market roller coaster. Faced with the risk of abuse, the authorities are beginning to react.” If they go at it as efficiently as the imperialist powers, from the U.S. to Europe, they’re not out of the woods…
For several years, economists have called China the “workshop of the world.” But that workshop worked mostly for joint ventures, combining the Chinese shareholder-state and private shareholders from imperialist countries, or as a subcontractor for big multinationals lured by the growth of the Chinese market, but also by the fact that this growth was protected by a dictatorial regime.
As such, for a few years, China spurred the world economy forward, particularly the productive sector. To supply the Chinese subcontractors of international trusts, iron mines were reopened in Australia, copper mines in Bolivia, and so forth.
But the capitalist world crisis could not but reverberate in China. That has already begun; even though manufacturing has not gone down yet, it is progressing at a slower pace.
The social consequences of even a relative economic downturn in China are liable to be catastrophic for the exploited classes. However dictatorial, the regime cannot afford to send those millions of underpaid workers back to the countryside. The situation is likely to be incomparably more explosive than in imperialist countries, which enjoy a “social safety net.”
The Chinese proletariat is numerically the largest in the world today. Chinese leaders—and not just they—rightly dread it.
In his speech quoted by Le Monde (see above), Xi Jinping reminds the imperialist powers that if the Chinese boat sinks, the imperialist world may well go down with it…. Which is a way to remind those Western leaders that in the face of the Chinese working class, their and the regime’s interests are fundamentally the same. He asserts: “Over the last seventy years, China’s success amounts to that of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Due to its wide territory and its complex national conditions, Chinese governance is a matchless challenge. Without a centralized, unified, and firm leadership, China would have tended to become divided and disintegrated, causing generalized chaos beyond its own borders.”
China’s economic progress, and some of its manifestations (notably the so-called Belt and Road Initiative), fuel the fantasies of a number of economists and political scientists. Graham Allison (quoted above, professor emeritus at Harvard, adviser to several Secretaries of State or Defense under Reagan, Clinton, and Obama), whose concern is contained in the title of his book Destined for War (war between America and China), argues that between a rising power and a power already established, conflict is inevitable. He rests his claims not only on China’s progress in many productive sectors, but also on its improving skills in technology (lunar probe), not to mention its military reinforcement, of which the military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the creation of the Chinese Republic was a spectacular illustration.
It is worth pointing out, however, that its military power is far behind that of the U.S.: in 2016, China allocated 216 billion dollars to armament spending, while the U.S. spent 600 billion. The U.S. has eleven aircraft carriers, China has ... two. The U.S. deploys 200,000 men in 800 military bases around the world, outside its territory. China has only one base abroad (Djibouti).
Zones of friction between China and the U.S., or their allies—Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea—are already there. And there is no shortage of sparks to trigger an explosion—or not.
It would be preposterous to try and predict what chain of events could draw the two powers into a conflict. It is nonetheless undeniable that imperialism carries that threat.
The origin of the Second World War did not lie with the USSR; it stemmed from the rivalries between imperialist great powers. A war between the U.S. and China would be the Third World War.
Twenty years ago, as Putin succeeded Yeltsin, he pledged to “liquidate the oligarch class,” mimicking Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks. The population saw that class as the rotten fruit of the collapse of the USSR, of a decade of political chaos, of weakened central power, frantic plunder of the economy by the bureaucracy’s clans and mafias, resulting in the pauperization of tens of millions of workers. Once Putin brought to heel those super nouveaux riches who made themselves too comfortable at the expense of the state, the state managed to get stronger, and a relative economic recovery allowed the regime’s grandees and wheeler-dealers to make it into the ranking of the world’s biggest fortunes. According to Forbes’s ranking, Russia had no one worth a billion dollars in 2000; eight years later, it had 82. There are said to be 98 of them in 2019, in spite of an increasingly noticeable economic stagnation since the 2008 crisis, made worse by the Western sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
One consequence of the worsening economic situation is that a number of wheeler-dealers, big and small, are leaving the country in search of more favorable conditions to get rich. Thus, the prototypical oligarch Arkadi Rotenberg, a building-sector tycoon and Putin’s friend, has just had Gazprom, a semi-public giant, buy out the company that made him rich. Whatever he makes out of it, he can invest—probably in speculation—but in a place safer than Russia, even for one who enjoys the president’s protection.
While the Kremlin at first bragged that, far from weakening it, the West’s retaliatory measures would stimulate the economy by forcing those who can afford it to invest, the result—except in the food industry—is quite different. At any rate, it falls short of offsetting the damage suffered by the Russian economy, with both a degree of enforced autarky and an increasing dependence on the world market, its convulsions and slowdowns, as Russia mostly exports raw materials.
As the world crisis gets worse, the economies of the imperialist powers and their subcontractors, the so-called emerging countries, are increasingly turning away from the development of production, which means that Russia has more and more trouble selling its gas and oil, and therefore has less cash to buy what it lacks elsewhere. In Russia itself, conglomerates bought out by Western trusts (Volkswagen, Renault, Skoda) or factories built by Ford, PSA, Mitsubishi, to produce vehicles with an educated workforce paid much less than in the West, are scaling down their production (GAZ in Nizhni-Novgorod) and cutting wages, downsizing personnel (5,000 laid off in three years at AvtoVaz), or even shutting down.
The solvency of the petty bourgeoisie and labor aristocracy has dropped in Russia, as has the capacity of foreign markets to absorb Russian production, for the same reasons. And the auto industry is not the only one to be hit.
This results in soaring levels of public-private indebtedness. Between 2006 and 2014 alone, it almost trebled; and if Putin recently boasted of reducing the debt of the central State, that does not apply to regions, private individuals, and above all companies, whose dependence on credit and on foreign suppliers has increased significantly. What has kept the debt from getting too heavy is Russia’s low participation in the international division of labor, while the crisis restricts its insertion in the world economy even more.
The repercussions and consequences of the world crisis in Russia hit the population in the form of rising costs for goods, whether imported or not, the resumption of wages going unpaid, and massive cuts in social budgets and in funds centrally allocated to public services.
Hence a pickup in working-class reactions. Such reactions may still be isolated, but what is new is that they do not concern just the most exploited—as in the building sector—or the most precarious parts of the proletariat—such as migrants—or those where the State’s decisive support has virtually disappeared with the end of the Soviet era (steel, machine-tool production, mining extraction, even urban transports). Skilled workers in strategic factories (in the military-industrial complex) struck this year, but also hospital workers, accidents and emergency personnel, teachers, etc. For the first time in over two decades, workers came to “the official” demonstrations on May 1st with their own concrete economic and social demands, some of which denounced the consequences of the local or central authorities’ policies.
The central power, which had attacked the population frontally in 2018 by drastically pushing back the retirement age, earning three months of protests in the streets and, most importantly, a visible discredit among large social layers—chiefly among workers—is preparing for a new onslaught against the working class.
The pretext is that, as Prime Minister Medvedev alleged, “We have been living in new conditions for almost three decades (since the end of the USSR) and laws dating from the Soviet era remain in force and very often mean that the business world is simply bound hand and foot,” the government is preparing to “guillotine,” as they say, close to 20,000 economic regulations, while drastically undercutting any possibilities of official inspection of labor and business. Because all of that “harms the country’s development and hampers the economy.”
These measures, like those on retirement, are the responses of a power that is faced with the aggravation of the crisis in the world and in Russia, and which can no longer count on the—very relative—upturn of the 2000s to afford an equally relative social peace.
The power’s response is as brutal as are the methods employed again for a few months in the power’s own ranks to ensure discipline, with a series of officials arrested at all levels, including generals and ministers. The alleged aim is to fight corruption, and the potential victims are innumerable, as that generalized practice is congenial to what the ruling class, the bureaucracy, was and remains: a body that ensures its own privileges only by acting as a parasite on society as a whole. Replicating a strategy applied by his distant Stalinist forebears with the bureaucrats of their time, Putin tries to ensure the loyalty of today’s bureaucrats by keeping them in a state of permanent fear, hoping that this will afford the regime a stability that has been damaged over the last few years
Indeed, as the crisis gets worse, with consequences felt by the petty and middle bourgeoisie too, those classes no longer support the Kremlin and its chief as much as they did when Putin seemed to guarantee the development of their “business.” On the contrary, as business gets more and more difficult, the petty bourgeoisie is less willing to endure the incessant extortion wrought by the millions of bureaucrats, whose chief Putin claims to be. His relentless campaigns against corruption no longer delude people—especially among the well-off layers of the population.
That is the reason why during this year’s municipal elections, unlike the previous time, those in power did not let the candidates of the “liberal” opposition (the most overtly pro-bourgeois, championed by Alexeï Navalny) express themselves—not even just a little. The Kremlin repressed or banned the demonstrations of those who demanded the right to choose their own candidates in the elections.
The power was all the more repressive. Although the protest of the urban petty bourgeoisie is confined to that class’s economic demands, within the framework imposed by its leaders, it could be seen by other social classes and layers as a chink in Putin’s authoritarian regime, as an encouragement for the working class to challenge the regime when it multiplies its attacks against the workers (jobs, work conditions, wages…).
In Ukraine, the election to the presidency of Vladimir Zelensky, who appeared as an outsider—compared with the political-mafioso clique in power since the end of the USSR—or even as a new man, expresses chiefly the disgust of the country’s population with all those who have ruled and plundered it without limit up till now.
But that has not weakened the positions and the greed of the mafiosi, bureaucratic clans—Zelensky is actually connected to one of them, if not their protégé.
For a while, the new presidency seemed to be in a better situation to bring Ukraine out of the bloody gridlock of the war in eastern Ukraine. But almost as soon as Zelensky had sketched out what might have served to initiate talks with the pro-Russian political-military clans which control most of the Donbass—the industrial and mining core of the country—ultranationalist Ukrainians, the oligarchs’ armed gangs waging war in the East and making money out of it, took to the streets to denounce a president about to betray the country and sell it out to Moscow.
It would be laughable—if we could forget the 13,000 dead caused by the war, the hundreds of thousands of displaced people and the destruction. At the same time, Zelensky, whether voluntarily or under constraint, was about to sell his services to the U.S., in fact to Trump, in exchange for new arms deliveries to fight the pro-Russian Ukrainians in the Donbass.
Powerless against its oligarchs, weak against the Moscow-armed separatists, submissive to Washington—only against its population will the Ukrainian power display its strength. Like its predecessors. And for the same reason: to defend the interests of the privileged and wealthy in Ukraine, and even more those of the great powers.
The effects of the capitalist crisis are particularly devastating in the poor parts of the world. Beyond their great diversity, those countries have in common the fact that they are under the world domination of imperialism. “That is why their development has a combined character,” to quote Trotsky, “it combines the most primitive economic forms with the last word of capitalist technique and culture,” (Transitional Program).
There are obviously very different situations within the so called “emerging” countries, such as a number of countries in Latin America or Asia, which are semi-developed, but precisely are all the more integrated into the world economy dominated by imperialism, and therefore more dependent on it than the poorer countries. The latter are mostly in Africa, some in the Asia-Pacific region, but also like Haiti, in the American hemisphere.
But the upheavals that are happening in so many countries all around the world, from Chile to Bolivia, to Lebanon, all have a common backdrop of worsening conditions for the poor classes.
Going through all those explosions—besides those in Sudan or Algeria, of which we already spoke—is out of the question. Due to the lack of militants in those countries, which reflects the absence of a revolutionary International, we can merely take stock of those upheavals, as well as their chaotic and essentially desperate character, due to a lack of perspectives.
Behind the variety of political demands—or even the absence of political demands other than ousting corrupt governments—everywhere is the anger of the poor social classes.
What is happening in Haiti is one of the demonstrations that, as long as the proletariat is not organized enough to intervene on the political stage, even anger turns in a circle and becomes exhausted in sterile clashes between political cliques, with armed gangs as proxies.
In countries like the Ivory Coast, the program of the permanent revolution concretely manifests itself in the conditions of that country and how, in the daily activities of even an embryo of organization, revolutionary communist perspectives are combined with aspects of a democratic revolutionary program (against ethnicism, against the many instances of survival of the past, in social reality as well as in people’s minds, resuscitated by colonialism).
The capitalist crisis may take an even more violent turn in the coming period. The October 4, 2019 issue of Le Monde headlined: “Debt trap closing in on poor countries.” It added that the indebtedness of poor countries “has grown by 5.3%, to reach 7.81 trillion dollars. The situation is particularly worrying in the poorest 76 countries in the world. Their levels of external indebtedness has doubled since 2009 (…) and even skyrocketed by 885% in Ethiopia, by 395% in Ghana, and by 521% in Zambia over the same period.” Still according to Le Monde: “As a consequence, the poor countries’ economies have become more dependent on the rich countries’ monetary policies, over which they have no control. Therefore, they are more vulnerable to shocks from without.” Le Monde then quotes a spokesperson for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD): “Debt is no longer a long-term financial instrument for the growth of developing countries, but a risky financial asset liable to the creditors’ short-term financial interests.”
Decaying capitalism affords those countries’ poor masses no other foreseeable future than to literally starve, so that the minority of giant capitalists who speculate on their countries’ debts may get even richer.
Just as those backward countries are diverse in terms of development, so are their proletariats. In some of those countries, the working class has had a long tradition of struggles. In others, the working class is recent, without any traditions, and sometimes submerged in a vast sub-proletariat.
The responsibility of Stalinism for the degeneration, and eventual dissolution, of the Communist International is overwhelming. When the proletariat emerged and began to fight, ideas and policies were transmitted, from one country to the next, with the proletariat in each country learning from the experiences, good or bad, in the neighboring countries. Stalinism represented a brutal break. In many ways, it adulterated communist ideas in backward countries where the proletariat was somewhat developed (China, Vietnam, etc). In others, it stopped transmitting anything, except some nonsense which nipped in the bud the possibility of class consciousness.
In many countries where the situation is explosive, the proletariat will have to start again on the road to emancipation. But it will rise again!
What we can wish for is the appearance of militants from the working class or intellectuals who resume the revolutionary tradition and put themselves to work on the basis of Marxism. As limited as our forces are, we have the duty to help them in the only possible way: by doing our utmost to transmit the ideas of revolutionary communism.