Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 9 crises and contradictions iii

economic crisisCapitalism’s crises are the expression of its contradictions, among which must be those that provide grounds for resolution through working class creation of a socialist society.  While the absence of crisis at any time does not mean that the system’s contradictions have been removed, it signals that they must at least have been temporarily contained or limited while continuing to develop, without erupting into violent disruptions of the system. Marx reacted to the return to some sort of prosperity following a crisis as a signal that socialist revolution was for the time being off the agenda.

For capitalism the eruption of economic crisis is also the means by which the contradictions of capitalist accumulation are (temporarily) resolved, by reducing the costs of raw materials and machinery etc.; destroying competitors by making the least efficient firms go bust; increasing unemployment, so putting pressure on workers to increase the pace of work and reducing wages; and by prompting the state to lower legal protections for workers or lower corporate taxes etc.

Only in a crisis does it seem obvious that capitalism is unable to cater for the needs of the majority, and to a degree that stimulates mass resistance and opposition, so what then may result is a political crisis of its rule.  There is less reason to expect the working class and other oppressed parts of society to seek an alternative to the system if it is not in some sort of difficulty.

On the other hand if workers are not prepared to react to crises by defending gains and can’t be radicalised sufficiently to achieve overthrow of the system, or have the social and economic power to do so, then socialists must accept that the limits placed on the scope of working class action at such times do not yet include the system’s overthrow.

While economic and political crises signal the possibility of an alternative and a possible opportunity to create one there is no longer a view that they point to the inevitable triumph of socialism.  Crises can awaken workers to politics, can propel them to political organisation, push them to fight and make them seek out alternatives but if this is true of the vast majority and such development only takes place on the eve of revolution then it is only a minority who enter the fight with some idea of what that fight is, about how it might be won and what constitutes victory.  These are rather weak grounds on which to expect success.

As I noted in the last post – what attitude workers take to crises, how they understand them, who they blame and what solutions they seek are strongly conditioned by their previous experience prior to and outside capitalism’s difficulties.  This strongly determines the outcome of crises

“There are no permanent crises” Marx said, which means that such crises in themselves cannot be the grounds for socialism since these grounds must be continuous and persistent conditions within the capitalist system.  Crises therefore cannot be confused with the contradictions of capitalism that provide the source for anticipating its replacement.

So if not permanent crises, is it the nature of the stage of capitalism that warrants the claim that the possibility of socialism exists, as Marx claimed.  It would appear that for the majority of Marxists the answer is yes: we have been living within the highest stage of capitalism for the last one hundred or more years, set out most famously by Lenin in his short book – ‘Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism’.

Further to this, the other Marxist leader of the Russian revolution wrote a political programme for his supporters in 1938 in which he clearly characterised the nature of the epoch during which he lived:

“The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth. Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses. Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems. Democratic regimes, as well as fascist, stagger on from one bankruptcy to another.”

“All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”

This political programme, The Transitional Programme, became the guiding strategy for those Marxists who rejected the distortion of socialism by Stalinism in the Soviet Union and who stood in the revolutionary tradition of Marx.

The view that socialism was retarded not so much by capitalism itself, or the political forces that defended it, but by other factors can easily be appreciated in a world in which the most powerful forces claiming to be Marxist ruled over vast parts of the globe. In these countries workers held no political power except through a bureaucracy that ruled in its name and unilaterally claimed to be its leadership.  As long as this was the case the struggle for genuine socialism had to counter the claims of Stalinism that the degenerate bureaucratic dictatorships in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were the future socialist society which Marx foresaw.  In this sense, the view that the crisis facing socialists boiled down to who was able to claim the mantle of leadership might seem to have not a little currency; if only because if Stalinism was socialism then the majority of workers and many Marxists weren’t interested.

Trotsky’s predictions of catastrophe should also be viewed in light of the headlong march towards world war, a war that would exceed the death and destruction of the Great War that had ended only twenty years before.  In fact this second world war had already begun with already catastrophic results for the Chinese people.  When we consider that the possible number of deaths due to World War II is as high as 80 million people it is no exaggeration to have stated in 1938 that “a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.”

What matters today is whether the context in which this happened now prevails, or has prevailed ever since it was written in 1938; in other words that “the economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism.”

If this were so then the series of posts of which this one is a part, dealing with Marx’s alternative to capitalism growing out of capitalism itself, would have little need to go beyond a political analysis of the class struggle and specifically how and why the working class still allows itself to be politically led by political forces opposed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

to be continued

Back to part 8

Forward to part 10

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