Apr 9, 2020
The appearance of a new virus and the pandemic it drives raise a new problem for scientists, as well as for all of society and for humanity. But human history is marked by this kind of problem. All living beings have interacted with each other since the beginning of time, and the multiple forms of viruses or bacteria—some beneficial, some noxious for the human body—are part of the world of life. Thus, the human community has experienced a multitude of epidemics, especially since the neolithic revolution.
Since the emergence of homo sapiens, human beings, an integral part of all living matter, have struggled to wrest their subsistence from nature. A simple predator at the time of the hunter-gatherers, humans eventually acquired a growing mastery over nature with the invention of agriculture, then built cities and created an increasingly complex division of social labor. By transforming nature through productive activity, humans transformed themselves. In this process, humanity developed.
Long before scientists pursued research that let them understand and clarify this evolution, the founders of the Marxist vision of the evolution of society had explained that the struggle of humans against nature to survive and gain their subsistence was, in the last resort, the basis of all human evolution.
In an unfinished manuscript entitled Dialectics of Nature (written for the most part in the 1870s), Friedrich Engels explained: “Only humans have managed to imprint their stamp on nature, not only by shifting plants and animals from one place to another, but also by transforming the aspect and the climate of their own habitat, even the plants and animals themselves. This has been done to such an extent that the consequences of their activity can only disappear with the general extinction of the earth.”
In another part of the manuscript, Engels makes this significant comment: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first.”
We should note that at the time Engels wrote this text, science estimated that humans had existed for a few hundred thousand years. Over the last few years, scientific research has made it possible to extend this story from two million to some five, or even seven million years.
But looking only as far back as written history, which coincided with the invention of writing, itself linked to the neolithic revolution and the first great concentrations of humans into cities, we find that people have often been confronted by epidemics, from the plague to cholera, with consequences on the global economy. And this doesn’t take into account the deadly epidemics let loose on indigenous peoples in Africa as well as the Americas by their conquerors, in some cases quite consciously.
The world’s deadliest plague epidemic started in Central Asia, then spread along trade routes to China and India. Passing via Mediterranean shipping, it reached Europe around 1340 and spread across the continent. In the space of four years, it resulted in the death of more than a third of the European population. This weighed on the history of Europe, on its demographics and, consequently, on its productive forces. The Great Plague was so destructive, the population of France, which stood at around 20 million in 1340, did not return to the same level until more than 400 years later, a few decades before the revolution of 1789.
For centuries, humans have been confronted with catastrophes engendered by epidemics without understanding their causes. Frightened and powerless, humanity could only invent supernatural causes, invoking god and devil, descending into mysticism and repentance.
It was not until the end of the 19th century, when Pasteur and Koch began to reveal the role of microbes and the way they were transmitted, that science could begin to provide explanations based on the material world. Humanity’s scientific mastery has increased considerably since then, today understanding, for example, that viruses and the diseases they cause can move from an animal that humans farm or hunt to human beings themselves.
Human beings are social animals, and they carry out the fight against epidemics within the framework of the social organization that exists when an epidemic occurs. The fight against the current epidemic is waged with the means of, and with the limits imposed by the current organization of society, that is to say, capitalism and the reign of the bourgeoisie. This fight—this “war against an invisible enemy,” as Trump calls it—does not overcome the laws of capitalism, the laws of value and profit. It simply reveals them in a stark light. It does not suspend the class struggle, even if politicians try to conceal it.
Our newspaper and the editorials and articles of our workplace bulletins continue to denounce the many ways in which the government’s management of the public health crisis is an attack on working people. We won’t return to that here.
Nor will we speculate about what might happen if society were freed from bourgeois power, exploitation and the law of profit; how it might cope with a pandemic caused by a previously unknown virus.
Here, we want only to discuss the tasks imposed on revolutionary communist militants by the current situation, and the political and social clarification they must try to convey to workers, particularly to those who are the most politically conscious.
We have to start by rejecting the illusion pushed by Trump as well as Cuomo that “we are all in this together.” We have to denounce how the government manages the crisis—and this means both bourgeois parties, at every level, federal, state and local; they all share responsibility for bourgeois policies, past and present, that infuse the current crisis. But it’s not enough to criticize what the government does without fighting against the domination of the class that inspires this policy. People who do that obscure any real understanding of what is happening.
Militants have to express the anger emerging among people who today are making the economy and the society function, at great risk to their own personal and their family’s health and lives—from medical personnel to garbage collectors, from factory workers to supermarket cashiers.
Revolutionary communists should take part in all the fights workers make to defend their lives by demanding sanitary measures and protective equipment. When militants are in a position to do so, they should try to push such struggles forward.
Most workers—even those usually not interested in politics—are appalled that people are forced to continue work without protection against the Coronavirus. They can see the glaring contrast between the promises made by political servants of the bourgeoisie and the reality of dangerous shortages, starting with face masks, gloves and sanitizers. People who work in the medical field see how the medical system has been undermined by years of privatization, budget cuts, the drive for profitability, the stranglehold of finance, and staff reductions.
The words used by government officials who carry out a “war against the virus” are as lying as are the patriotic proclamations used by their predecessors to justify imperialist wars!
The discrepancy between official lies and the reality of the lives of all those who care for the sick, all those who produce and transport, has led to spontaneous reactions. Some demanded to go home; some took sick leave; others protested against being forced to produce and transport goods that aren’t necessary; still others stopped working in areas where someone tested positive for the virus. But whatever workers did, they were expressing a generalized refusal to throw their lives away. Why should workers risk their lives because the government asks everyone to applaud their sacrifice?
A politically conscious worker must take part in these spontaneous actions expressing refusal and, if possible, encourage them. But he or she must also try to explain the social causes that produced the situation to their class sisters and brothers. A politically conscious worker cannot separate the daily fight to defend workers’ immediate interests from the propaganda against and agitation for the overthrow of capitalism.
It is, for example, necessary to oppose the production of non-essential goods, with the attendant risk on workers’ health and sometimes their lives. We should denounce GM, Ford and FCA, which stopped their production, only to look for pretexts to restart it, simply to resume their revenue stream before their competitors do. We should denounce the continued production of luxury goods, or of consumer goods we can do without for a while, or, even worse, of military goods, the engines of war.
Those who believe capitalism is the only possible economy use the most blatant pretexts to defend the capitalists. They claim, for example, that continued production of spare truck parts is justified because they can be used for ambulances or for trucks transporting essential food products! They argue that factories producing cardboard boxes should stay open because the boxes can be used for packaging pharmaceutical products as well as socially useless articles. They claim a chemical factory is manufacturing packaging for plastic intubation tubes essential for resuscitation, ignoring that its packaging is used for many more “non-essential” products. They claim that an auto parts factory is being put back into service to produce face shields for hospital workers—which may well be stored for when the industry tries to force its own workers back on the job to produce “non-essential” vehicles.
All these people look for ways to justify what is basically only the pursuit of profit. It is artificial to separate out the different aspects of the economy’s functioning. The economy is a whole.
While denouncing all this, we must not remain preoccupied by the difference between what is necessary, what is not really necessary, and what is harmful. In the end, this distinction depends on who decides what is necessary. So long as the bourgeoisie and its political servants are the ones who decide, stockholder profit will be considered economically necessary, while a decent income for the wage-earners who produce these profits will be unnecessary!
The problem is to know who controls the economy. Will it be the exploiting minority, the bourgeoisie, which dominates the economy as a whole and makes these decisions, or the exploited majority? In a period of a revolutionary upsurge, this idea can be summed up by the transitional objective of workers’ control over production.
It is possible to force the bourgeoisie to take measures beneficial for the workers when there is a favorable balance of forces. But if we demand that the bourgeoisie run the economy to serve the interests of the exploited majority—worse, if we complain when it doesn’t—we might as well demand that a billy goat should produce milk.
The distinction between what is necessary and what is superfluous or harmful makes sense only on the basis of class interests. The capitalist economy, which even in ordinary times is unable to feed and adequately house the majority of the population of this planet, wastes a colossal part of the productive forces, manufacturing planes and bombs to prevent starving people from revolting.
If we want to put an end to all this, political power must be taken away from the bourgeoisie and class relations transformed from top to bottom. The current “war” is being waged not only against the Coronavirus. The ruling class is waging it above all against the working class and more generally against everyone who contests the domination of private interests over the collective interest, which is to say, the domination of capitalism.
“Them or us”—this is the fundamental question in this time of epidemic, just as it was before and will be afterwards.
In a period when a large part of the population is asking questions, our primary task is to give them answers as Marxists, as revolutionaries.
Today, our lives are constrained by public stay-at-home orders and by the risk of contracting the Coronavirus. Confinement obviously has drawbacks for militant activity on the ground, but it doesn’t suppress it, although it may force us to change some of the ways we carry it out. There are a multitude of ways, including today’s technical ones, to remain in touch, to help each other and to tighten collective ties.
Confinement also has an advantage: it offers time for cultivation, education, and becoming more familiar with revolutionary communist ideas. In the past, exile or prison has often been an opportunity for worker activists to read and complete their culture and training. And the conditions of confinement due to the Coronavirus are certainly more bearable than banishment. The desire to gain culture has always been a way for worker militants to free themselves from the consequences of daily exploitation. Confinement is an opportunity to do this, including collectively.
During confinement militants can acquire additional weapons to continue the fight, and we can reinforce our human links, letting us make our work more effective once the epidemic has been brought under control. When that happens, the economic crisis that engulfs the capitalist system will remain. This crisis threatens to be as serious for the exploited as the Coronavirus, even much worse. The capitalist class will seek to make the exploited pay for the means it will use to try to overcome its crisis. The age-old struggle for social revolution continues.
In the text quoted above, Engels sums up, in the light of historical materialism, his vision of evolution that led from earlier species to human beings. He also discusses his vision of future necessity:
“In the most advanced industrial countries, we have tamed the forces of nature and pressed them to serve humans; we have thereby multiplied production endlessly, so that today a child produces more than a hundred adults did before. And what is the consequence? Ever-growing overwork and increasing poverty of the masses, and a great collapse every ten years. Darwin did not know what a bitter satire of humanity he wrote—and especially of his countrymen—when he demonstrated that free competition, the struggle for existence, celebrated by economists as the highest conquest in history, is the normal state of the animal kingdom. Only a conscious organization of social production, in which production and distribution are carried out in a planned way, can raise humans above the rest of the animal world, from the social point of view, in the same way as production in general has raised them as a species. Historical evolution makes such an organization day by day more essential, but also day by day more feasible. From its establishment will date a new epoch of history, in which humans themselves, and with them, all the branches of their activity, in particular the natural sciences, will know a progress which will throw in the deepest shadow all that will have preceded it.”
Engels’ text bears the mark of the time period when it was written. But the future it evokes is still the ultimate goal of those who take their stand on the basis of revolutionary communism.