When we consider the role of capitalist economic crises in the creation of a new society we are not short of guidance. Capitalism has had so many crises that there have been innumerable opportunities to investigate just how such crises prompt or accelerate the socialist alternative. In Ireland, the economic crash of 2008 destroyed the credibility of the main capitalist Party, Fianna Fail, whose Finance minister had hailed “the cheapest bail-out in the world” before it bankrupted the state and brought in the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission to determine the state’s response to the crisis.
Yet this enormous crisis and exposure of the credibility of the economic and political system did not lead to any qualitative increase in the power of the Irish working class or of those political forces seeking to replace capitalism with socialism. Indeed there appears to be a greater chance of more or less the same economic and political crises happening again, with an overheated property market, massive debt, and the working class responding only to the rhythms of the capitalist boom and bust, currently by attempting to make wage gains during the boom but without any perspective for the bust.
In this its short-sightedness is understandable and so is that of the left that claims to be far more far-seeing and which would claim that, like Marx, “in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”
But only if the left learns that it must properly prepare for such crises and not simply await them, hoping that they push workers into its arms, will it have learnt something. The experience of previous generations of socialists should be drawn upon to see what lessons must be learned. It is clear that Marx himself learnt from crises and from the role they could play in ushering in or assisting workers’ revolution.
Even as a young man Marx understood the need for patience and preparation – “we must expose the old world to the full light of day and shape the new one in a positive way. The longer the time that events allow to thinking humanity for taking stock of its position, and to suffering mankind for mobilising its forces, the more perfect on entering the world will be the product that the present time bears in its womb.”
A few years later Engels made a similar observation:
Question 15: Do you intend to replace the existing social order by community of Property at one stroke?
Answer: We have no such intention. The development of the masses cannot he ordered by decree. It is determined by the development of the conditions in which these masses live, and therefore proceeds gradually.
The point is not that both Marx and Engels sought to delay revolution but that they understood its prerequisites. At this time they believed that not all countries were ripe for social revolution, which would depend mainly on the fate of Britain.
Even in the democratic revolution in Germany in 1848 Marx was clear that revolution could not be decreed, even if certain lines of march could be advanced:
“We do not make the utopian demand that at the outset a united indivisible German republic should be proclaimed, but we ask the so-called Radical-Democratic Party not to confuse the starting-point of the struggle and of the revolutionary movement with the goal. Both German unity and the German constitution can result only from a movement in which the internal conflicts and the war with the East will play an equally decisive role. The final act of constitution cannot be decreed, it coincides with the movement we have to go through. It is therefore not a question of putting into practice this or that view, this or that political idea, but of understanding the course of development. The National Assembly has to take only such steps as are practicable in the first instance.”
Marx also believed that capitalist prosperity could rule out revolution, which could only come from crisis:
“Given this general prosperity, wherein the productive forces of bourgeois society are developing as luxuriantly as it is possible for them to do within bourgeois relationships, a real revolution is out of the question. Such a revolution is possible only in periods when both of these factors – the modern forces of production and the bourgeois forms of production – come into opposition with each other. . . . A new revolution is only a consequence of a new crisis. The one, however, is as sure to come as the other.”
But this does not mean that out of each and every crisis would come revolution and it is apparent that as he got older Marx became less sanguine about the impact of crisis itself as the harbinger of workers’ revolution. The recent biographer Jonathan Sperber notes that “after the disappointment of his hopes of revolution to follow in the wake of the global recession of 1857, Marx rather downplayed the importance of crises for the end of capitalism.” (Karl Marx, a Nineteenth Century Life)
Marx was aware that revolution was not merely an exercise of will and might need decades for the working class to train itself for the exercise of power. His attitude to the situation facing French workers in 1870 when the Prussian army had defeated France is instructive of his serious attitude to revolution and his understanding of the conditions for success. He noted that in relation to the new French republican Government that “any attempt at upsetting the new Government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be desperate folly. . . . Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty, for the work of their own class organisation.”
Nevertheless, when French workers rose up and created the Paris Commune Marx leapt to its defence, explaining the attitude that all sincere socialists take when workers enter struggle: “World history,” he wrote, “would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances.” As Engels noted of the events in the 1848 revolutions:
“A well-contested defeat is a fact of as much revolutionary importance as an easily-won victory. The defeats of Paris in June, 1848, and of Vienna in October, certainly did far more in revolutionizing the minds of the people of these two cities than the victories of February and March. The Assembly and the people of Berlin would, probably have shared the fate of the two towns above-named; but they would have fallen gloriously, and would have left behind themselves, in the minds of the survivors, a wish of revenge which in revolutionary times is one of the highest incentives to energetic and passionate action. It is a matter of course that, in every struggle, he who takes up the gauntlet risks being beaten; but is that a reason why he should confess himself beaten, and submit to the yoke without drawing the sword?”
We cannot always pick our battles, but if we can we should, and it is on the basis of what we want that we should plan and prepare, what we should build for and base our politics on. As Marx said of the First International:
“The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.”
“On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. . . . On the other hand the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.”
“Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes.”
In speaking of the results of the Paris Commune Marx noted that:
“The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistably tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.”
It would be wrong to see this prognosis as out of date, made archaic and obsolete by almost 150 years of intervening history. This is obviously not the case. The working class of today is very different from that of the late 19th century, with the many struggles the latter gained consciousness from a matter of history and not lived experience. In many ways it has to painfully learn lessons previously acquired through bitter and desperate struggle. It has also to “pass through long struggles” and “through a series of historic processes” through which it will be transformed and be transforming.
In terms of economic and social development the objective grounds are today much more favourable across the world. In terms of the social and political power of the working class, in many countries it is no more stronger now than it was 100 years ago or 50 years ago. This is a glaring contradiction and it is one that requires explanation, although not only that.
As Marx famously said “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” So it is not so much explanation as practical solution that is required, which necessitates increased organisation and heightened political consciousness. Crises throw up the need for this and do not offer solutions but simply opportunities to face the challenges that either success or failure in developing this organisation and consciousness make workers more or less ready for.
In the next post I will look at a couple of Marxist contributions to this problem written in the late 1960s and mid-1970s.
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