Issue 199 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article: On top of the world?

Chris Bambery

The 1990s began with the false promise of a New World Order. For the ruling class the collapse of the USSR and its associated Stalinist regimes was celebrated as the definitive triumph of liberal capitalism. Thus the US state department adviser Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the 'end of history' and that there was no longer any alternative to the free market. But as the 1990s unfolded, the harsh reality saw the US and its Nato allies unable to impose order in the Balkans, the global economy entered its third major recession since the mid-1970s, and recession spread from American and British capitalism to embrace both Germany and, even more importantly, Japan.

Coming after the collapse in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the recession in the West and Japan has meant that at the top of society neither the old state interventionist ideas, which dominated ruling class thinking from the 1940s to the 1970s, nor the Thatcherite-Reaganite deregulationist ideas of the 1980s offer a clear way forward for capital. This has created splits over trade blocs and, even more importantly led to the threat of wars which can emerge suddenly as did the second Gulf War in 1991. This creates a situation where there is political fragmentation at the top of society at the same time as there is rising discontent from below. The result is the high level of volatility which has marked the 1990s thus far.

So in Europe the ruling classes have been uncertain how to deal with the political and economic after effects of German unification. The splits over the Maastricht Treaty of 1991 (itself an attempt to contain German capitalism) and European Economic and Monetary Union have dovetailed with a series of mass strikes and protests which have swept France, Italy, Belgium and now Germany in the last three years.

The economic crisis fed into a political crisis which most spectacularly saw the collapse of the two parties which had ruled Italy since 1945, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists. Another example was the deep unpopularity of the Major government in Britain following Britain's forced withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. That economic and political crisis fed into a process of class polarisation as economic and political discontent threw vast numbers of people towards 'extreme' solutions. So in France and Italy we have seen the rise of the fascists then being punctuated by mass strikes in which the far right are sidelined for a while. Meanwhile in Germany, the very model of socialstability in the postwar period, huge strikes and protests have been sweeping the country. Of course, the crisis is not at the same intensity as in the 1930s. But the same ingredients are present as economic crisis puts pressure on political structures, driving masses of people towards either collective working class struggle or fascist barbarism. It is like the 1930s in slow motion.

Volatility is a feature throughout the advanced capitalist world. In the US George Bush, fresh from his triumph over Iraq, was confronted with the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992 and then unceremoniously kicked out of office in the following November. Bill Clinton was then humbled by Newt Gingrich's 'Republican Revolution' in the mid-term Congressional elections of November 1994, only for Gingrich himself to be eclipsed by strong support for Clinton at the outset of the 1996 presidential elections.

But it is above all the French mass strikes of December 1995 which demonstrated beyond any doubt the potential the present period has to generalise class polarisation. The country where 15 years of right wing social democratic rule had produced an electoral landslide for the conservative parties, and had helped entrench a mass fascist movement, saw strikes which, though smaller in size than the mass strikes and factory occupations of May-June 1968, represented greater active involvement by rank and file workers. Moreover, the Juppé plan which sparked the strikes was a product of the pressures that governments throughout Western capitalism are under to reduce their budget deficits by slashing social spending. Intensified throughout the European Union by the convergence criteria laid down by the Maastricht Treaty for Economic and Monetary Union, these pressures are giving rise to mass strikes elsewhere in Europe.

Nor should this class polarisation be seen as a purely European phenomenon. Thus the offensive mounted by a right wing Tory provincial government in Ontario, Canada, has provoked a series of city wide general strikes. And there has been a series of important strikes in the United States, some long drawn out and defeated (for example, those in Decatur, Illinois), others representing significant victories by powerful groups of workers (General Motors, Boeing).

Emerging from the 1980s, socialists have had to rise to a situation where suddenly enormous opportunities can open up for them. Everywhere there is a new audience for revolutionary ideas. The immediate audience is largely among younger workers and students but there is a wider layer inside the working class who are prepared to enter into a dialogue with revolutionaries, in particular by reading our press. In the 1980s we usually found ourselves making general Marxist propaganda directed at individuals against a background where the ruling class was on the offensive and major workers' struggles tended to go down to defeat. Revolutionaries were isolated and often restricted to propaganda.

In the 1990s we suddenly find our ideas have a real ideological cutting edge. They no longer seem abstract when millions across the world can see the realities of the market with their own eyes. The period of mass mobilisations in Britain from the pit closures in 1992 to the massive demonstrations against the Nazis and the Criminal Justice Bill in 1993 and 1994, allowed the British SWP to grow rapidly. Similarly, during the struggles first against the conservative New Democracy government in Greece and then during the political crisis that continued following its replacement by a Pasok social democratic government in 1993, OSE, the fraternal organisation of the SWP, grew very rapidly.

But this growth has not been attributable to a simple agitational approach. The high level of political and economic uncertainty has meant we have always had to address wider political questions.

So for instance the best selling issue of the SWP's theoretical International Socialism journal was the one on Euro-fascism which sold well on the October 1993 march to the BNP Nazi HQ in Welling. The campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill also involved a sharp debate on the politics of lifestyle and individual protest where we had to fight for the central role of the working class in achieving real change.

While the level of general discontent, and indeed political radicalisation, may be higher than in 1968 (reflecting the much deeper crisis) it finds little organised expression. In 1968 the Vietnam war, which reflected the reality of US imperialism, the black movement in the United States, and even the attraction of Cuba and China which seemed to offer an alternative to Russian style Stalinism, meant that political discontent was funnelled leftwards. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the reformists and Stalinists were a political pole of attraction. Today we have seen the collapse of Stalinism. The reformists remain, but offer little in the way of reform. In Britain workers will vote for Tony Blair's New Labour with gritted teeth rather than enthusiasm.

More specifically, the 1990s have not seen a generalised upturn in class struggle comparable to the period 1968-76. There have been big strikes but these have tended to be bureaucratic mass strikes, in which the trade union leaders rather than the rank and file are in control. Thus even in the French strikes, despite a very high level of rank and file involvement, the bureaucracy was ultimately able to wind the struggle down, with the CGT union leadership and its Communist Party allies emerging with increased credibility. Rank and file workers have still to recover the self confidence and traditions of independent organisation that suffered such a battering during the downturn of the 1980s.

The reformist left has tailed along behind a continued shift to the right in 'official' bourgeois politics. Social democratic electoral advance, where it occurs, seems to be dominated by modernisers such as Blair in Britain and Simitis in Greece, who are intent on dumping anything with even a whiff of genuine reform. While the US Democrats are not a reformist working class party, we can see a similar effect where Clinton has moved to steal the Republicans' thunder by breaking from the Democrats' tradition of the 'great society', which dates back to Roosevelt's 'New Deal' formed in the 1930s Depression.

This ideological capitulation to market capitalism does not correspond to the consciousness of working class people. Disillusionment with official politics is at record levels. The French film La Haine brilliantly captured the mood of alienation, apathy and anger with which many people, especially the young, react to a society which offers them nothing. This mood can be exploited by the fascists but it represents a potentially vast audience for revolutionary socialist politics. As yet, however, this audience is largely still potential, rather than real.

One feature of the present situation is volatility. But the other is the need to win an acute battle of ideas among those looking for an alternative. In Britain we went through a period of intense mobilisation on the streets in 1992-94, overlapping with a limited but significant revival of industrial struggle in 1994-95. This has been succeeded by a situation where, since the beginning of 1996, the struggle has been largely becalmed as the trade union bureaucracy seeks to kill off any signs of struggle which embarrass Tony Blair in the lead up to a general election. The SWP has now found itself in a situation of heightened political debate in the working class because, despite the lack of struggle, a significant minority of Labour voters have been alienated by Blair's rightward push even before he has taken office.

Even in Greece, the European country which has seen the most consistent mobilisation of workers in struggle since the mid-1980s, Pasok's return to office in 1993 has led OSE to place much greater emphasis on waging a battle of ideas among the minority of workers who have been pushed to the left by the government's betrayals. In both countries a political vacuum is opening up to the left of the reformists which we must seek to fill. In the medium term we can expect struggles like those in France last December to erupt in the major capitalist countries. The question then will be whether revolutionaries have the size, the roots and the clarity to influence those events. The French strikes showed the crying need for a genuine revolutionary alternative which could provide a counter-pole of attraction to the bureaucrats and the reformists. Yet the French strikes, and the sheer scale of the 400,000 strong June demonstration in Bonn, show that we still have a long way to go to reach a size which can influence such events.

In these circumstances there are a number of pitfalls to avoid. Even where there is mass struggle we will not rise to the demands of the situation if we simply stress activity and agitate around immediate grievances. Those people involved in struggle will have far wider political questions and will not be open to revolutionary ideas if we don't address them.

Syndicalism is another related pitfall. Thus in Britain it is all too easy to conclude that in a period of relative quiet on the industrial front we are simply awaiting the next big strike. That would blind us to the political opportunities provoked by Blair. This approach is a recipe for stagnation and decline. Moreover, it does nothing to prepare us for something like the French strikes and the need politically to counter the equivalents of the CGT leadership.

We also need to resist the wider pessimism among the remnants of the old post-1968 far left who refuse to recognise the changes which have taken place since the 1980s. Many had illusions that the Stalinist states were somehow 'progressive' in relation to Western capitalism and have been profoundly disorientated by their collapse. Their reaction has been to draw the conclusion that we are somehow living in hard times for socialists.

What can we learn from the experience of the 1990s? The recession of the early 1990s coming as it did immediately after the collapse in Eastern Europe has shaped the period we are in. It showed the failure of state capitalism and of regulated market capitalism. The result is a climate of uncertainty, instability and volatility which affects everyone from the ruling class down. Bourgeois ideologists provide a distorted reflection of this atmosphere in their theories of 'globalisation' and even in some post-modernist reveries. Out of this situation will come financial crashes, economic recessions, political upheavals, wars and, above all, mass working class struggles. Revolutionaries who fail to recognise this condemn themselves to irrelevance.

Taking advantage of the opportunities offered is not exclusively a matter of agitation and activity. Intervening in the battle of ideas provoked, say, by Blair in Britain and Simitis in Greece, is just as much a way of pulling people to revolutionary ideas as handing out agitational placards on big demonstrations. Neither should there be a separation between agitation, when it is possible, and the need to crystallise out a wider revolutionary current by winning individuals to revolutionary ideas.

Even when mobilising tens of thousands, it doesn't mean neglecting theoretical ideas and political discussion. We have had to learn to put across Marxist ideas in a relatively simple way which cuts with the new audience. That has also entailed polemics­as for instance round 'lifestylism' and the politics of single issue campaigns which were thrown up by the campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill.

Today we face an extended pre-election period which has heightened political debate in the working class. The relentless drive rightwards of the Labour leadership has created an ideological vacuum on their left. Our perspective centres on winning a substantial number of workers to revolutionary ideas in opposition to Blair prior to his election. That requires us to deploy the theoretical resources of the Marxist tradition to relate to arguments going on in sections of the working class.

In the medium term we have a perspective of a revival of struggle. Building the nucleus of a socialist alternative to Labour assumes, then, added urgency. Similarly the need to engage in such ideological arguments won't disappear in the face of renewed struggle. Rather working class battles under a Labour government will heighten political debate in the class as wider numbers of workers question the politics of right wing social democracy. In addition we are likely to face a growth of left Labour ideas once again with which we will have to engage.

But recent experience has confirmed our analysis that the 1990s have been marked by the development of the capitalist crisis to a new level of instability. This has required a sharp change in our methods of working as revolutionaries in order to push outwards. The result has, in general, been a significant advance for the organisations of the International Socialist tendency. But pushing outwards involves a variety of different methods. Running through them all is the centrality of Marxist politics. Provided we understand this, we can continue to expand in numbers, to lay down roots in the workplaces and colleges and to grow also in political maturity.


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