The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Economic Recovery or Collapse:
Raise the Banner of the Class Struggle of the Proletariat

Sep 30, 2013

For weeks, even months, government officials in the U.S. and elsewhere have been repeating suggestions that a global economic revival is under way and that there are obvious signs of a genuine recovery.

The signs that are supposed to indicate that a recovery is underway – like the increase of U.S. business activity, in particular in real estate, or the end of the drop in China’s growth rate – are inconsequential compared to the relentless growth of unemployment, the stagnating industrial output and the drop in international trade. The most enthusiastic proponents of this supposed “economic recovery” are forced to admit that the figures they cite to justify their analysis are weak and uncertain. The economy today is more than ever plagued by the erratic behavior of international finance and by speculative ventures which threaten the global economy with new catastrophes.

The Financial Threat

During the last two decades, the capitalist economy has been struck by a series of more or less generalized, more or less serious financial shocks. The last one, launched by the subprime crisis of 20072008, ultimately did not end in a total collapse of the global banking system, which would have had immeasurable consequences for economic life. As the result of massive intervention by the different national states and monetary policies of the central banks, the world’s economy avoided a general collapse like that of the 1929 crash and all that followed.

But the means used to ward off catastrophe still further amplified the financialization of the economy, the consequences of which increased the threat to the system as a whole. The parasitic nature of big capital has reached new heights, and the conditions of the working class continue to worsen.

The crisis has favored an increasing concentration of capital, and that reinforces the stranglehold of a small number of super-wealthy individuals over the whole economy. The weakest capitalists may have been eliminated. But the rate of profit overall has increased, as have the dividends distributed to shareholders. For the time being, the big bourgeoisie has no reason to complain about the crisis. In fact, their optimism might even be reasonable if they were ready to quietly wait for the recovery and better days. But that would require the main owners of capital to be preoccupied with the interests of their class as a whole and not just by the size of their own bank accounts.

The increase in stock markets is a clear indication of their individualistic preoccupations. The Dow Jones Index, which plunged to 6547 at its low point in March 2009, after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers threw the whole financial system into a kind of desperate turmoil, has rebounded, hitting above 15,400 in October 2013.

This considerable increase in the value of shares gives only a distorted picture of the actual economic situation. And the image is further deformed by speculation, fueled by the liquid assets permanently being injected into the economy by all of the national states.

But this rebound in the stock market no doubt reflects the belief by the owners of big capital that there will be a recovery. In fact, Wall Street’s current recovery is just another speculative gamble. One of the major problems of this economy, marked by growing financialization, is that the system cannot forever tolerate too big a gap between the productive economy and anticipated profits in the stock market. There is a famous Wall Street adage known by everyone who dabbles in the stock exchange: “no tree grows to the sky.” In other words, profits in the financial sphere come, in the last resort, from exploitation in the productive sphere. And sooner or later, the productive sphere finds a way of reminding all capital owners where profits come from.

The Bourgeoisie’s Anxious Optimism about Profits

Today, the bourgeoisie is broadly optimistic about its profits, since the increased exploitation of the working class has made it possible to maintain the current rate of profit during the crisis. The rich see no reason why this shouldn’t go on and on. The profits of today help them hope for higher profits tomorrow ... and never mind what the longterm future has in store.

Nonetheless, there are warnings aimed at this too rosy optimism.

Former President of the European Central Bank (ECB) JeanClaude Trichet, who praised himself and other central bank officials for salvaging the economy by injecting hundreds of billions into the system in 2008 and after, felt compelled to add: “The situation is still dangerous.” Calling on the states and banks to straighten things out, he finished by saying, “Otherwise, the situation we’re in today would inevitably lead to the next crisis.”

Looking at the Federal Reserve’s decision in September not to begin winding down its “asset purchase” program from the banks, the Wall Street Journal commented: “Why such caution? Because the U.S. remains stuck in what we dubbed back in January a ‘yes, but...’economy.... In other words, the economy is getting better, but it remains weak.”

The fact is, that since its bailout by the national states in 2008, the banking system has remained on life support. Eighty-five billion dollars are poured out each month by the U.S. Federal Reserve alone to buy back Treasury bills and bonds, other government bonds and mortgage loans. The money printing presses are running at full speed, but those billions have not been able to restore a healthy system. They almost automatically end up in the hands of speculators. This year, speculation on currencies alone, with their differing rates of exchange, was up 35% over last year.

What U.S. leaders fear the most is that a financial collapse, like the one they avoided only by going through so much trouble in 2008, would follow necessarily if they cut the banks’ lifeline at the Fed when a recovery picks up.

The more discerning defenders of the system, like Trichet, are not blissfully optimistic, and they say it. But their warning to the bourgeoisie is also a way of reminding the laboring classes that more sacrifices will be needed.

Is there a recovery, or will there be one? Marxists can’t answer those questions any better than anyone else. In fact, it is the spokespersons for the bourgeoisie themselves who point up the economy’s fragility, the threats linked to its financialization. They are the ones who give all the reasons needed to doubt that there will truly be a recovery, despite the professional optimism of the politicians.

Commenting on the 19201921 crisis, Trotsky wrote: “So long as capitalism is not overthrown by the proletarian revolution, it will continue to live in cycles, swinging up and down. Crises and booms were inherent in capitalism at its very birth; they will accompany it to its grave.”

Marxists, looking at the cyclical pulsations of the capitalist economy, never concluded that one crisis would inevitably lead to the collapse of capitalism and that this collapse could open up the perspective of a social revolution.

Today’s domination by the bourgeoisie over society will not be eliminated except through the conscious action of the proletariat, the revolutionary class that bears the future.

An Economic Upturn Would Not Stop the Attacks of the Bourgeoisie Against the Exploited

It is important to keep in mind that if the present crisis lingers on, or worse, if a new financial crisis brings about a severe drop in production, this will have catastrophic consequences for the working class and for society as a whole.

But it is also important to remember that, even if an economic recovery were to develop, that would not at all mean the end of the offensive carried out by the bourgeoisie against the working class.

Big capital, facing the working class, has taken advantage of the crisis to increase the relationship of forces in its favor.

This is obvious on the material level. The conditions of the working class have worsened with the crisis. The most catastrophic element of this deterioration is certainly unemployment, which has thrown a growing part of the working class aside from productive activity, depriving it of a regular income. The generalized insecurity and the decline of social benefits, added to unemployment, pushes the whole of the working class onto the road leading to pauperization.

The weight of the impoverished part of the proletariat weighs to a certain extent physically on the working class as a whole. The character of this crisis, which has taken the form of a long and continual deterioration, has transformed a sizeable number of workers into longterm unemployed who have lost any hope of ever finding another job.

The change in the relationship of forces between the workers and the bosses is reflected in the fact that the bourgeoisie has managed in the crisis to considerably increase its share of the nation’s income to the detriment of the working class. That change in the relationship of forces is reflected still more in the workers’ morale and consciousness. Today, the wealthy swagger in spite of the crisis, while the working class is demoralized and has no hopes for the future.

This is an essential feature of the present relationship of forces. Facing the domination of capital under its most parasitic and abject form, where money is king, the working class feels itself disarmed.

Big capital has succeeded in turning the crisis of its own economy into an effective weapon of war aimed at the working class. Big capital has taken back everything it was forced to give up to the working class in the past, responding to the workers’ fights, or attempting to prevent their struggles.

Even if it turns out that recovery is on the agenda, the bourgeoisie has no reason to step back from the relationship of forces it has been able to establish at the expense of the working class. It has no interest politically to do so. The bourgeoisie has a very keen awareness of the relationship of forces with the working class, because the continuation of exploitation and the size of its profits depend on it. And that is particularly so in this period of crisis. While the financialization of the economy redistributes profits between the different forms of big capital – and first of all to financial placements, which are much more profitable and more immediately profitable than productive investment – the capitalist class succeeded in coming through the crisis alright up to now, because it succeeded in increasing the total surplus value that it extorted from the working class. To put it otherwise, the capitalists increased their exploitation of the working class. And this increased exploitation is linked to the relationship of forces.

Class Consciousness and the Relationship of Forces

The overall relationship of forces between the bourgeois class and the proletariat is nonetheless dependent on subjective factors, like the workers’ level of consciousness and the state of the working class movement, which embodies that consciousness. It is here that the damage caused by the current crisis of the capitalist economy, with all its consequences, is the worst.

Unfortunately, the decline of the class consciousness of the proletariat dates back decades. The present crisis has simply pushed much further back a long-lasting degeneration. For decades, the reformism of the Social Democrats, reinforced and made worse by Stalinism, adulterated and transformed the revolutionary ideas that the working class had carried, watering them down, obliterating, either gradually or brutally, the very idea of the proletarian class struggle and its historic perspectives.

In the present crisis, the bourgeoisie does not even bother to hide its real preoccupations. It no longer needs people who mislead the working class, pretending to be “socialist” or “communist” – in their speeches, that is. Today, the bourgeoisie openly puts forward its own values and presents them as those of society as a whole. The very expression, “working class” is disappearing from the vocabulary, to be replaced by “middle class.”

In Europe, one of the most visible signs of this evolution is the growth of the extreme right, such as Golden Dawn in Greece or the National Front in France. For the time being, this growth may essentially be in election results. But the growth, for example, of the National Front in petty-bourgeois circles in France seriously threatens the working class and society as a whole because it facilitates the mobilization of the petty bourgeoisie around reactionary, anti-worker ideas. For the time being, this threat is only a possibility, dependent on the evolution of the general situation and of the crisis. The most worrying aspect of the National Front’s growth – like the growth of the Tea Party in the U.S. – is the attraction it exerts on the most demoralized and disoriented fraction of the working class.

There are political imbeciles and senseless activists who think that the electoral influence of the extreme right inside the working class can be fought by shouting slogans like “fascism will not pass” or by exchanging punches with far-right activists. In fact, the fundamental problem is the necessity for the working class to renew itself, to rearm itself with its own class perspectives and with the values of the working class movement.

The rise of religious involvement, the influence of Christian fundamentalism, the growing influence of Islamist political organizations, and workers’ withdrawal inside their own ethnic or religious communities are also signs, albeit of a profoundly different nature, of the same reactionary evolution.

The Responsibility of the Former Workers Parties and Union Bureaucracies

The historic responsibilities of the reformist currents inside the working class movement are enormous. They long ago transformed themselves into leftwing parties of the bourgeoisie. By watering down and debasing the values of the working class movement, they have depreciated those values. By ceasing to combat the bourgeois order and, worse, by serving it openly on the governmental level, they made themselves responsible for all its failings. And, most importantly, they acted for the bourgeoisie within the working class itself.

The growing influence of the extreme right or, in another sphere, of reactionary religious currents, rests on the weakening of the workers’ awareness that they belong to a single working class, whatever their origin, trade or nationality. Individualism and the sentiment, “every man for himself,” have replaced the feeling that workers have a collective interest; individual resourcefulness replaces class actions and class solidarity. The lumpen proletariat and its corroding influence are as old as the proletariat itself, and the conscious working class movement has always had to fight it. The sad truth is that today, the worship of “easy money” and the capitalist law of the jungle are all the more accepted in working class neighborhoods since there is no conscious and solid working class movement, proud of its own values and its own fights, capable of spreading them, particularly among the working class youth.

This type of awareness had its objective roots in the shared interests of workers who have in common that they are all exploited. But it was also the result of decades of activities by the conscious working class movement. It is precisely that conscious and determined activity that first was debased, then abandoned.

The leaders of the big parties that had historical links with the working class and the trade union leaderships picked up the ideas and rationale of the bourgeoisie. They even adopted the very words used by the bosses: competitiveness, the need to repay the debt, the national interest, etc. These parties, like the unions, no longer even feel it necessary to use the old language of the class struggle to hide the fact that they are at the service of the bourgeoisie.

At the beginning of the political working class movement, Marx warned the workers against the idea of allowing competition, a feature of bourgeois society, to pervade the workers’ movement.

Today, the former workers parties and union bureaucrats freely and shamelessly use the word competitiveness and refer to the idea as if it posed no problem.

In the Transitional Program, Trotsky wrote: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” The task he laid out for the communist revolutionaries of his time was to “free the proletariat from the old leadership, whose conservatism is in complete contradiction to the catastrophic eruptions of disintegrating capitalism and represents the chief obstacle to historical progress.”

The Transitional Program was written in 1938, at a time when the 1929 crash and the Great Depression had caused huge social upheavals. The question was objectively raised: would society be led by the bourgeoisie or by the proletariat? At the time, the working class was present on the political scene. It had a great number of organized and disciplined militants. But the leaderships failed to lead the proletariat up to the end, to take its fights as far as they could go. That drove the working class into the political impasse of the Popular Fronts (notably in France and even more in Spain) and the outcome was the Second Imperialist World War.

What Trotsky proposed in the Transitional Program was not simply meant to expose the treason of the SocialDemocratic and Stalinist leaderships of the working class. It was a way to reaffirm his conviction that the working class would eventually rise up and fight back.

Today, in the present crisis, the crisis of leadership is not limited to the leaders and their apparatuses, but it translates into a weakening of the core of militants which existed inside the working class.

The history of the working class movement has seen many periods, more or less long, when, often after a defeat, the working class found the way to collectively raise its head. One of the aspects of these renewals of the workers’ confidence is the capacity the proletariat has to bring forth new generations of militants from within its ranks.

Explaining the demobilizing, criminal role of Stalinism in Germany, in the years that led to the coming to power of fascism, Trotsky affirmed: “The German working class will rise again, Stalinism never!”

The Working Class Will Rise Again

The working class’s combativeness will inevitably return, whether the crisis lingers on or, even more, if there is some sort of economic recovery. In the past, the working class often launched an all-out offensive precisely when things were improving. And in this revival of combativity, an essential role will be played by new generations, those who have never known the disappointments of the past.

We don’t know what might produce a new break-out of the working class, and around which ideas the best militants will be grouped.

But we do know that even though the reformist apparatuses of yesterday are fossilized, it is to be expected that their ageold presence inside the workers’ movement will give them a head-start. It’s likely that the awakening of the working class will pass, at the beginning, through a renewal of the old reformist organizations. We can count on them to raise a red banner if need be, in order to appeal to the working class and, perhaps, to organize workers behind new “supreme saviors” with a gift for making their outdated ideas seem like fresh novelties.

If these organizations remain the only ones to put forward a policy for the awakening of the working class, that would inevitably lead to new betrayals.

This is why it is vital, especially in a period like today marked by a generalized setback, to stand for revolutionary communist perspectives.

And this is why our task is not to add a touch of red to the reformists’ rhetoric, nor to find new recruiting topics to appeal to those who have qualms about the future of the petty bourgeoisie. No, our task consists first and foremost to stand for, as clearly as possible, the class struggle of the proletariat and of its ultimate perspective, which is to wrench power from the bourgeoisie in order to change fundamentally the organization of the economy and of society.

Only a revival of the workers’ struggles can again give these ideas their force and credibility. Revolutionary communists do not have the power to call up this revival, which can come only when hundreds of thousands, or even millions of proletarians become conscious of their own class interests. But it’s necessary to seize every political situation to raise the banner of the workers’ social emancipation. In the short term and the foreseeable future, elections are one of those occasions to raise that banner.

To claim one’s agreement with revolutionary communist ideas in this day and age is to swim against the tide. The world around us has bought into the values of the bourgeoisie, workers are demoralized, and the level of consciousness of the working class is at a low ebb. To stand for revolutionary communist ideas in these circumstances requires the capacity to confront hostility or, worse perhaps, indifference.

But, need we recall it? The political current that raised the flag of revolutionary communism in the epoch when Nazi barbarism and Stalinist reaction plunged the world into the darkest hours of the 20th century, when it was “Midnight in the Century,” did so in much more adverse conditions.

Objective reality is much more powerful than the activity of revolutionary communists, at least until there is a turnaround in the morale of the working class. Until then, the setback in the level of awareness will pave the way for witch doctors and all those who pretend they have discovered new roads, when they simply obliterated the old ones.

This epoch at least gives us an opportunity: it allows even very small organizations to become known. The environment is markedly apathetic and hostile to those who try to change things. But the militants who are not demoralized, who continue to be active, who stand for their ideas and express their trust in the capacity of the working class to fight back and to play its historic role, are more visible than ever.

Nobody agrees with them? Perhaps. In the beginning. But the day when the working class starts moving and decides to look for solutions to its problems, when men, women and young people arrive at the conclusion that they want to change things for the benefit of all, today’s isolated militants can become fixed points around which tens or hundreds of others will come together.

Nobody can tell when and how such a situation will occur. But as Marxists, we have the profound conviction that revolutionary communism is “the conscious expression of an unconscious process.” (Trotsky) The proletariat is capable of adopting the ideas of the class struggle; it is the only class able to carry them to their ultimate conclusion, the overthrowing of the power of the bourgeoisie. These ideas stem from the development of society itself, from the development of history. Sooner or later, they will triumph.