The Spark

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

To Put an End to Capitalist Chaos, We Need a Revolution to Overthrow the Failing Bourgeoisie

Oct 13, 2023

The current article is translated from an article appearing in the Dec-2023–Jan-2024 Lutte de Classe #236, the journal of our comrades in France, Lutte Ouvrière.

The current situation is no longer or not only one of the capitalist economy’s more or less regular crises, which constitute the system’s only internal regulation.

Capitalism is in deep crisis, indicative of how rotten the system is and, by the same token, to what extent the ruling class is incapable of controlling the society it dominates.

After 20 months of war in Ukraine and other wars from the Caucasus to Africa, war is now breaking out again in the Middle East, where its embers have been smoldering under the ashes for some eight decades. The region is a battleground for the imperialist powers due to its oil resources and strategic importance on one of the major international trade routes. But it’s also a veritable social powder keg. The immense wealth of some people is side-by-side with the poverty of the overwhelming majority of the population. All the contradictions of imperialism are concentrated in the region, which is a perfect example of its policy: to set peoples against one another with the complicity of local privileged classes and their nationalist leaders.

The current period has many similarities to the period that inspired Trotsky to write The Transitional Program, in which he affirmed: “The bourgeoisie itself sees no way out” and “…traditional parties are in a state of perplexity bordering on a paralysis of will.”

Today, the most cynical or most lucid spokespersons for the bourgeoisie express the same helplessness. Yeo Han-Koo, a former South Korean trade minister, after noting that “A new economic order is being formulated,” asserts that this “will cause uncertainty and unpredictability.”

Elon Musk, when appealing to Tesla investors, proposed his own answer to uncertainty: “The best thing we can do is have plants all over the world.” This observation about the uncertainties of the global situation comes with the profligate cynicism of a man who is so ultra-rich that he hasn’t stopped to think whether it’s feasible for his fellow capitalists who are not quite as rich as he is.

The bourgeoisie cashes in on the profits extracted through exploitation but controls nothing, “sees no way out.” It’s driving blind. Capitalist society in its senility is already riddled with profound contradictions but the longer the current crisis continues and deepens, the more these contradictions grow, including between the economic and military aspects of imperialism. It’s remarkable how the imperialist powers, particularly the United States, are up to their necks in contradiction in their relations with China. At the very time that American warships are sailing along the Chinese coast and a war between the world’s two greatest military powers is on everyone’s mind, the American secretary of commerce is in Beijing declaring that it is “very important” that the United States and China’s relations be “peaceful.”

The contradictory nature of capitalist development is really not new. It was pointed out, 150 years ago, in Kautsky’s Socialist Program: “The capitalist system of production, however, develops the most remarkable contradictions …. Commerce demands peace, but competition leads to war. If, in each country, the different capitalists and classes are in a state of war, so are the capitalist classes of the various countries. Each nation tries to extend the markets for its own goods by crowding out: the goods of other nations. The more complex becomes international commerce, the more essential international peace, the fiercer grows the competitive struggle and the greater the danger of conflicts between nations.

The closer the international relations which are developed, the louder swells the demand for attention to separate national interests. The more urgent the need of peace, the greater the danger of war. These apparently impossible antitheses correspond exactly to the character of capitalist production. They lie hidden in the simple production of commodities, but only capitalist production develops them till they become intolerable. That it develops at the same time the necessity of peace and the tendency toward war is only one of the contradictions which will bring about the destruction of the capitalist system.”

These contradictions have been multiplied and magnified by the imperialist phase of capitalist development. And the growing financialization of the world economy has, for the last few decades, made them permanently unstable.

In this context of an aggravated crisis and multiple wars, it is important for our organization to put the fundamental objective of the revolutionary communist current of the labor movement at the heart of our interventions. That objective is the overthrow of the capitalist organization of society by means of a proletarian revolution. It’s only when looked at from this standpoint that The Transitional Program and its various demands concerning unemployment, the rise of the cost of living, and the threat of war, have a revolutionary meaning. If not, it’s nothing more than reformist unionism or vulgar pacifism.

It’s an activity of propaganda and not of agitation. Its aim is not to call for an immediate struggle necessary to change the balance of power with the bosses and their government. And it is even less a tactical recipe for the struggles that are on the horizon. We need to be permanently engaged carrying on propaganda activity, especially when capitalism is going through a crisis that is as acute and perceptible as this current one.

The massive and explosive fights won’t depend on us, but on the energy, the fighting spirit of the working class itself. We must be aware of the state of mind of the workers; our comrades must be sufficiently well-informed and linked to our class to know that a revolution can be set off by such minor things as maggots in the meat served to sailors on the battleship Potemkin. But our speeches won’t produce the maggots!

Speeches about struggles are no substitute for the revolutionary propaganda that does depend on us. And everything that this entails: recruitment, convincing those around us, winning over sympathizers, etc. Put simply: building a revolutionary communist party. Without this, the rest is nothing but empty words.

What about the War in Ukraine?

After 20 months of fighting in Ukraine, neither Russia nor Ukraine appears likely to win in the foreseeable future, even if the latter has the support of NATO for arms, finance and diplomacy, etc.

Under pressure from the imperialists, Putin took the initiative to set off the war. He was the first to delude himself into thinking that Kiev would fall quickly. Look at how that turned out!

Then the media in all NATO countries took up the baton of triumphalism, talking about the Ukrainian counter-offensive. That too was pure propaganda! In reality, the front line has been blocked since the end of winter; i.e, it hasn’t moved and, when news comes of the Ukrainians conquering a small town, the news bounces back that the Russian army has taken back that small town, or another.

After several months, the front line is obviously stabilized in Ukraine and the imperialist coalition doesn’t appear willing to use the resources that could transform the current war into the first act of an imminent Third World War. A Korean-style “solution,” currently being discussed in the ruling circles in the U.S., might mean that the war could be stopped by signing an armistice but without signing a peace treaty. This would have the advantage for NATO of keeping a hotbed of tension and continuing its “containment” of Russia while allowing Putin to cry victory.

We obviously don’t know what weight those who are proposing this type of solution carry but, in the case of Korea, this solution has worked since July 27, 1953, i.e., 70 years!

Let’s not forget that this “solution” was the legal form under which Germany remained divided into two blocs from October 1949 to November 1989, i.e., 40 years (Germany was divided in two by the Berlin wall, minefields and other such charms and presented as a consequence of the cold war).

In fact, imperialism doesn’t need a cold war to reinvent the same solutions.

Aggravation of the Crisis of the Capitalist Economy

The war itself and economic sanctions have not improved the general economic situation.

But what do we mean by that? Even if economic and military chaos adds numerous disruptions to the economic circuits, things are extremely simple seen from a class point of view: the exploited classes get poorer, with all the variations depending on the situation in the different countries (war or not, famine-stricken or not, institutional anarchy or not); but for the imperialist bourgeoisie, everything is fine! Fortunes are being built up, and not just by arms dealers.

Even the statistics from the CEPII (France’s main institute for research into international economics) taken from official IMF documents note that “Between 2020 and 2022, we witnessed a sharp and unprecedented drop of real wages by 3.2 % in Euro Zone and by 1.4 % in the United States.” They also note that inflation racing out of control is not a consequence of wages but of dividends (a statement also underlined by Les Échos).

The number of victims of the war in Ukraine are in the hundreds of thousands, entire towns are being razed to the ground, there are growing floods of refugees from countries that are poor and/or at war. But for capitalism, it’s “business as usual.”

New fortunes are being built before our very eyes, like that of Czech newcomer, Kretinsky. According to Forbes magazine, he has a fortune of nine billion dollars, to which France’s satirical weekly, Le Canard enchaîné adds “an island in the Maldives, two yachts, a castle and French headquarters facing the Élysée Palace.”

Concentration of Capital

In several economic sectors, the cards are being reshuffled among big firms.

With the “overproduction” crisis hitting manufacturing, it’s not surprising that the most spectacular concentrations occur in logistics. An oligopoly of three mainly container shipping companies—CMA CGM, MSC and MAERSK—is currently taking over not only maritime transport (ports, dockyards, ships, containers) but also land transport in Africa.

The Italian Swiss trust MSC, the world’s leading shipping company, has just allocated 5.7 billion euros to the buyout of the African logistic activities of the Bolloré group, thus getting rid of a well-implanted rival in Africa at the same time.

The bosses and shareholders of this trust must have based their thinking on the following observation in Le Monde (August 29, 2023) : “In the flashy shopping malls in Abidjan and Nairobi, superstores with impeccable displays offer dozens of references stamped with Western or Emirati origins.” A representative of one of those three trusts confided they made it their goal to be capable of moving a product from Amsterdam to Ouagadougou.

No matter how poor the majority of the African population, with the help of corruption and nepotism, there is a small minority that can pay, and not just the Bongo family!

The process of using logistics to take hold of a whole economic sector is nothing new in the history of major capitalist companies. It was used at the beginning of the imperialist era by Rockefeller, who didn’t waste time buying up the numerous oil wells that were scattered across Texas and Pennsylvania at the start of the 20th century. In order to get his hands on crude oil production, he did it by transporting oil by rail tanker and then by pipeline, and built the first and the most powerful oil trust, from which the Exxon company emerged.

But what is new in what Le Monde calls “shipowners conquering Africa,” is that what Rockefeller did at the start of the imperialist era and on American soil, the oligopoly MSC-MAERSK-CMA CGM is reproducing on the poorest continent with everything that this implies, a mix of the most modern techniques with the backwardness of African infrastructures.

On the one hand, CMA CGM, for example, took a share in the Eutelsat operator so that Eutelsat satellites could optimize the path of 580 container ships of the trust from a one-stop center in Marseilles. On the other, for the segment of the route between the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro (both on the Ivory Coast and run by MSC) and Ouagadougou, the trust will use the intermediary of myriad small road transporters, who are the only ones capable of driving on the badly damaged roads and of changing their route to avoid obstacles and weather conditions: ruts, rain, dust, etc.

It is yet another contradiction in the economic functioning in the age of decadent imperialism.

Upheaval in the Balance of Power between Nationalist and Imperialist Groups

The war in Ukraine, American sanctions against Russia and the resulting disturbances in production circuits have exacerbated competition and the rivalry between capitalist companies, as well as between capitalist nations.

Russia, NATO’s declared enemy, has suffered the effects of the latter’s sanctions. These effects are difficult to measure because oil and especially natural gas sales circuits, which essentially constituted Russia’s export revenues, have found other ways of reaching old clients and new.

The economic press examined how India has become an important gas exporter, by buying it from Russia, despite Western sanctions. And Les Echos explains that this is how Indian business magnate Gautam Adani has acquired “the world’s third largest fortune.”

We don’t really know exactly how far and how much Russia has recovered of its export revenues from gas and crude oil. We do know however that the war and political sanctions have seriously weakened the German economy, due to its rivalry with the other imperialist powers, particularly the United States.

For a long time, the basis of Germany’s economic success was the trifecta: profiting from Russian gas at privileged conditions; being well-placed on the vast Chinese market where German capitalists had a lead over their competitors; drawing on the workforce from their traditional hinterland in the Eastern countries. A winning combination that was shot down by the war in Ukraine and above all by American sanctions!

The change in the economic balance of power between the U.S. and Germany hurt Germany as much, and perhaps more than it did Russia.

On August 24, Le Monde devoted a whole page to “the great German economic doubt.” To this title, it added “probably in recession in 2023; Germany is demoralized to discover just how fragile Made in Germany is.”

In the body of the article, the German weekly Die Zeit (August 3) was quoted: “Made in Germany is over.”

A third publication, Die Welt, followed suit a few days later: “The success of America is the decline of Germany.” The article goes into detail: “Industrial production is down and construction is in free fall due to rising interest rates and the high cost of raw materials. As for the car industry, it is suffering from much more aggressive competition on electric cars than it anticipated.”

The British magazine The Economist asked, “Is Germany once again the sick man of Europe?”

The IMF ranks Germany bottom of the list of the major economies, behind the U.S., Italy and France.

Until recently, Germany was the major imperialist power in Europe. A country whose economy led the way for the European Union and served as its model. As things stand, the change in the balance of power between American imperialism and German imperialism has had a more serious change in the balance of power between the United States and the EU. Especially since the E.U. is not really a unified body but a conglomerate of 27 states, in which the interests of some states coincide with those of their neighbors whereas others don’t and can even be completely opposed.

The weakening of Germany’s industry will inevitably translate into greater difficulties for its East European subcontractors, many of them from the former “popular democracies.”

In the recent past, imperialist Germany owed much of its prosperity to the cheap but skilled workforce that it found in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, etc. and even, indirectly, in Ukraine.

It wasn’t the only imperialist power to benefit from this advantage, as witnessed by the fact that, alongside the Audi, Volkswagen, BMW, etc. plants to be found in Eastern Europe are plants belonging to or working for Peugeot and Renault. The self-serving investments of Western and Japanese multinationals did nevertheless create additional jobs in those countries. Even Ukraine, despite not being in the European Union, reaped the benefits. For example, Polish plants that were financed by German capital employed Ukrainian workers who were more badly paid than even the Polish workers.

Let’s bear in mind that the integration of the Eastern European countries in the E.U. didn’t put an end to the subordinate relationship between the imperialist countries and those of the East that were less powerful or semi-developed.

Rivalry between imperialisms never stops and never can stop because the balance of power at a given moment is always being called into question. War is ultimately inevitable because only war can replace an old balance of power with a new one.

For Trotsky, counting on “national sovereignty” as protection against imperialism is “in the full sense of the word a reactionary task.” He added, “A ‘socialist’ who preaches national defense is a petty-bourgeois reactionary at the service of decaying capitalism.”

In The Fourth International and the War, written in 1934, Trotsky asserted: “Not to bind itself to the national state in time of war, to follow not the war map but the map of the class struggle, is possible only for that party that has already declared irreconcilable war on the national state in time of peace. Only by realizing fully the objectively reactionary role of the imperialist state can the proletarian vanguard become invulnerable to all types of social patriotism. This means that a real break with the ideology and policy of ‘national defense’ is possible only from the standpoint of the international proletarian revolution.”

“Of the Slow Fragmentation of the World Economy”

The WTO wonders “Is it the beginning of de-globalization” but observes that it is not the case, even if the trade share of global GDP has stagnated for about 15 years. There is some evolution however: the manufacturing share of global GDP is shrinking while the service industry share is growing.

Above all, conflicts, and more generally geopolitics, interfere with the economy.

To be clear, what the economists call “value chains” tend to prefer to move between countries that have political and military links rather than risk being broken, even temporarily, during times of conflict.

On September 14, Le Monde summarized the most recent forms of protectionism that have been added to ancient forms: customs duties, import and export quotas. In response to protectionist measures applied by adversaries, different retaliatory measures have been added to the new technical standards. But the preferred form of protectionism of the major imperialist powers, or those that have the means, is state subsidies.

The United States has given us a very recent illustration of this: the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

The IRA, in other words the billions promised to all capitalist multinationals, American or otherwise, who agree to open factories on U.S. soil, had the almost immediate effect of relaunching global competition between imperialist powers, directing unprecedented amounts of public money into private companies.

German , French and British governments threw themselves into the competition.

It’s remarkable that most of these subsidies are given to capitalist multinationals in the name of ecology or of the need for climate transition. And yet daily life with its succession of wildfires and floods bears witness to the worsening ecological catastrophe. The titles of these subsidies paint the world green. Even when the claim is blatantly cynical. To such an extent that Les Echos on June 16 and 17 wrote: “The World Bank proposes to dip into the subsidies that have been awarded by governments around the world and that are environmentally harmful: fossil energy, agriculture and fishing. [It] urges governments to redirect subsidies for fossil energy, agriculture and fishing that are often harmful to the environment. Explicit and implicit subsidies would total more than several trillion dollars per year.” Acutely euphemistic, the Senior Managing Director of the World Bank said: “If we could re-use the trillions of dollars spent on useless subsidies and put them to better, greener use, we could take up many of the most urgent challenges on this planet.”

The Growing Fusion between State and Big Capital Works Well for the Latter

The numerous protectionist initiatives in various imperialist countries are the result of a more general evolution that appears to be one of the characteristics of imperialism in our era. States play an ever-growing role in financing the companies of the imperialist economy. To such an extent that certain industries wouldn’t even exist if the state hadn’t participated when they started.

Strictly speaking, this phenomenon isn’t new. The state played a big, even essential role in the early days of many big industrial companies of the past. But the proportions of this “capitalist statism” are growing. So much so that, in a manner of speaking, private capital and state capital are merging to make investment projects real. Only the resulting profits remain private, as do the fortunes of the owners of big capital.

This doesn’t stop the spokespersons of the big Western bourgeoisie or its economists from blaming China for starting a subsidy race and distorting international competition through extensive state intervention.

But there is in this criticism an unintended convergence with Marx’s observation that the very laws of capitalist economy drive centralization, interdependence, globalization and the need for planning. Ultimately, the same economic laws, which are fundamental to capitalism, push capitalism toward increasingly parasitic forms but also toward the need for a socialist reorganization of the economy.

Over a century ago, Lenin, in “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” observed that the prototype for the big bourgeoisie in the time of imperialism is represented by rentiers, “coupon-clippers,” and not at all by the captains of industry from the phase of rising capitalism.

Marxist literature often compared this to the decadence of feudalism, when feudal lords having lost their political and military power were locked up in the golden ghetto of Versailles.

The financialization of the global capitalist economy makes the movement of capital both easier and more unpredictable. In the same way, it makes the speculation that this induces both easier and more brutal. Capital can move in search of more profitable investments, but can as well move to take advantage of speculative opportunities such as real estate and exchange rates.

Beyond the change in the balance of power between the different imperialist powers, speculation is a permanent threat to the global financial system.

Today’s remedy starts tomorrow’s sickness. This was true during previous stock-market collapses and financial crises that happened year after year after 1971 and the end to the convertibility of the dollar: the Latin American debt crisis (1982), the collapse of Japan’s speculative bubble (1989), the Mexican economic crisis (1994), the Asian financial crisis (1997), the Argentina crisis (2001), etc. and especially the major one in 2008–2009. Because the current crisis is being fought with injections of cash, stocks, etc. into the monetary mass, that mass is growing and is opening the door to more and more speculation.

To Dethrone the Dollar?

The October 2023 issue of Le Monde diplomatique opens with the headline: “From the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa] summit to the G20. When the South asserts itself.” The publication sees the expansion of BRICS—it now includes half a dozen extra states—as “the willingness of emerging countries to work toward a reorganization of the international system. A major step in the rebalancing of the planet that will require many more.” This regularly brings up another issue: “Will BRICS be able to set up an international monetary system capable of competing with the one based around the dollar?”

Even today, though several national currencies are already used in international trade (G.B. pound, Swiss franc, yen, yuan), though the war in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the United States have led to the use of currencies other than the dollar for international trade, the American currency remains preponderant.

Le Figaro of September 6 points out that BRICS, which started as four countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and reached eleven this year, “accounts for 45% of the world’s population and 30% of the planet’s GDP.” But the paper adds: “The dollar is not going to be replaced by another international currency any time soon.” And while the daily notes, “One figure seems to lend credence to de-dollarization: the greenback now accounts for just 58% of the world’s central bank reserves, down from 70% at the turn of the century,” it also notes, “If the greenback has lost ground as a reserve currency, no other currency can claim to have replaced it” because its dominance “is founded on the breadth of the U.S. currency and bond market, which remains an unrivaled haven for global savings.... It still accounts for 40% of the world’s debt issuance and trade.”

The dollar is here to stay. For one good reason: who could arbitrate between the dozen more or less developed states forming the BRICS group, with their different and often contradictory interests? In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king! The dollar has been on the same footing as all other paper currencies since August 15, 1971, when the President of the United States announced the end of the dollar’s convertibility to gold, putting an end to the Bretton Woods international monetary system. Except that the dollar is based on the economic weight, on the military and political power of the most powerful imperialism, which inspires the confidence needed to attract capital in the most unstable periods of capitalism.

The only promise of the few currencies capable of competing with the dollar is the multiplication and amplification of speculation over currencies.

Contradictory Relations between Imperialist America and China

It is in the relationship between imperialist America and China that the economic and military aspects are clearly the most contradictory.

American imperialism has had China on its radar since Mao Zedong came to power in 1948–1949. Despite the many links forged over the years between the economies of the two countries, military and diplomatic tension is escalating, particularly over Taiwan. So much so, in fact, that it’s hard to predict whether the threat of a full-scale war will pit the United States primarily against Russia or China.

But at the same time, the U.S. and Chinese economies are intertwined, and a decoupling would be catastrophic.

An article in the American publication Foreign Affairs headlined in May: “U.S.–China economic relationship evolving but not disappearing.” The purpose of the article was to express the concern of the American big bourgeoisie and to describe the efforts of the Biden administration to allay that concern. It quotes a U.S. national security advisor to assert that the U.S. is “in favor of risk reduction, but not decoupling,” and to insist “U.S. export controls would remain narrowly focused on technologies likely to tip the military balance.”

The same magazine quotes U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen who, a week earlier, asserted that the U.S. is not seeking to decouple from China, an outcome she said would be “disastrous” and “destabilizing for the world.”

The magazine claims, with supporting evidence: “No decoupling has taken place so far. Thus, although direct investment in both directions has declined, merchandise trade between the U.S. and China reached a record $690 billion last year.... China remains the United States’ third-largest trading partner, after Canada and Mexico.... The reality is that, for many companies, the Chinese market is too vast and too valuable to abandon, despite the geopolitical risks. China accounts for a fifth of global GDP and has 900 million consumers. Its unique combination of infrastructure investment, human capital and supplier ecosystem has made it a manufacturing powerhouse.”

So, we’re mainly talking about one-time measures concerning a number of strategic products (certain types of microchips, for example). But the American magazine adds: “Many analysts doubt that a targeted approach to risk reduction can succeed” and gives a predictable reason: “Where chips are produced in the future will depend more on the demands of large private buyers than on government policy.”

It’s this very reason—that private capitalists decide—that has led to today’s aberrant situation, in which a Taiwanese company manufactures almost two-thirds of the world’s high-end chips.

Pursuing the Class Struggle of the Proletariat to Victory

The threat of a generalized war is becoming tangible even beyond the ranks of revolutionary communists. Common to all the bourgeois political parties is the implicit or explicit defense of the idea that war suspends or puts an end to class struggle.

We have to oppose this idea in our propaganda. We’ll be motivated by the same principle should war become generalized to the point where it directly concerns countries where our movement is active.

We’ll leave it to the anarchists to theorize individual reactions or advocate desertion.

If our class, having been unable to prevent a war, is mobilized, our militants will take part, as will all our class. Even in uniform, we will not only continue to defend our ideas, those of class struggle, but we will also have to win over other servicewomen and men, our comrades. When it’s impossible to do it any other way, we’ll do it individually and clandestinely. When revolutionary uprising makes it possible, we’ll win them over in whole groups of conscripts. We will have to refuse to run away and desert. Demanding peace will not be enough. We’ll have to bring class struggle into the army. The program of Lenin and the Bolshevik party was “turn imperialist war into civil war” and it led the working class to the conquest of power.