The first effect of the crisis was one of shock, not only for the bourgeois but also for the workers. There was a tendency to cling to jobs and accept cuts in the short term, especially as the union leaders offer no alternative. But this will be replaced by a general mood of anger and bitterness, which will sooner or later begin to affect the mass organisations of the working class.
The attempts to generate confidence clash head-on with the prevailing mood of the public in Europe and America. According to the Pew Research Centre, only 31% of Britons, 30% of Americans and 26% of the French have confidence that their countries are going in the right direction. This indicates a malaise at all levels of society. People no longer have any trust in the pronouncements of the politicians. There is a growing feeling that none of the existing parties and leaders represents the ordinary people.
Changing reality impinges upon consciousness only gradually. However, at a certain stage quantity becomes transformed into quality, producing a sudden leap in consciousness. Already we see the beginnings of revolt. This naturally begins with the youth, which on the one side are the first victims of the crisis and in the second place are highly sensitive barometers for the moods of discontent that are maturing silently in society. The revolt of the students in Britain is the most striking indication that this is beginning. This phenomenon is not confined to Europe. Even before the New Year there was an uprising of the youth of Tunisia against unemployment, which has now spread to Algeria.
In the USA the inflated globe of false hope lifted by Obama has been punctured like a tire passing over a nail. The Republicans have no alternative programme at all and if they returned to office we can expect them to fuel the fires of anger and resentment of an embittered middle class. For a long time every generation of Americans could look forward to living better than their parents. Now less than half of Americans think their children’s living standards will be better than theirs. This conclusion is the result of experience: the average real income of workers in the USA has not improved since the mid-1970s. Social mobility in America is now among the lowest in the industrialized world.
Everywhere there is ferment in society. Even in China, where the economy is still going forward at a rapid pace, the bad conditions and merciless exploitation of the workers has led to a wave of protest suicides and strikes. In Europe increasingly militant and violent mass protests are taking over on the streets of Athens, Dublin, London, Madrid, Paris and Rome.
In Spain there was a general strike in September. In Italy there have been big protest demonstrations. France has been shaken by a series of mass strikes and demonstrations. In Italy, the metalworkers’ union (FIOM) organized a mass demonstration of up to half a million in Rome. In Portugal the recent general strike, followed by 65 percent of workers, was the biggest since the Revolution. In Greece, where the movement has acquired an explosive character, one general strike has followed another.
In Venezuela the Bolivarian Revolution has reached a decisive turning-point. The counterrevolutionary opposition accuses Hugo Chávez of launching a coup against other branches of government, after the outgoing national assembly approved new powers for 18 months. The measures, taken days before a new legislature with a large opposition minority is due to be sworn in, prepare the way for an open showdown between left and right. In Ecuador an attempted counterrevolutionary coup by the police was defeated by the masses and troops loyal to the government of Rafael Correa.
All these facts indicate that we have entered a new period, a period of enormous turbulence and instability – a period of revolution and counterrevolution that can last for years, with ebbs and flows. The world situation is full of dangers for the bourgeoisie. Let us remember that in England in the 17th century and in France in the 18th century, the great bourgeois revolutions were sparked off by the question of huge state deficits and who would pay for them.
What is missing is leadership. This is the central contradiction. The objective conditions for socialist revolution are maturing rapidly everywhere, but everywhere consciousness is lagging behind the objective situation. Many workers have not yet understood the seriousness of the crisis. Above all, the mass organizations and their leaderships – both in the trade union and political sphere – are lagging behind events. They reflect the past, not the present or the future.
It is an irony of history that precisely at this moment they have renounced all claims to stand for a revolutionary change of society. Now history is taking revenge on them. The degeneration of the mass organizations has reached unheard-of depths in the last period. The Social Democrats have abandoned all pretence to standing for socialism and the former “Communists” have abandoned all pretence to standing for communism.
The crying contradiction between the needs of the objective situation and consciousness will have to be resolved. This can only be done by the masses passing through a series of experiences. All the existing parties and leaderships will be put to the test. There is growing discontent in all the mass organizations. It will grow as the crisis unfolds and the policies of the leadership are exposed in practice.
On the basis of painful experience, the workers and youth will come to understand the need for a fundamental change in society. The ideas of Marxism will find an increasing echo among the new layers who are being awakened to political action. The old organizations will be shaken from top to bottom. There will be a whole series of crises and splits, in which the old right-wing leaders will be vomited out. Gradually, a mass left wing will crystallize, which will be open to Marxism.
Those sceptics who moan about the alleged “low level of consciousness” of the masses merely show that their knowledge of Marxism consists only of undigested scraps. Their pedantic approach to the class struggle is a toxic mixture of ignorance and intellectual snobbery. All the impotent jeremiads of the sceptics will be confounded on the basis of the titanic events that are being prepared. Unlike the eunuchs, the masses can only learn through struggle. There will, of course, be many defeats, mistakes and setbacks, but through all these experiences, the movement will learn and grow. There is no other way.
Step by step, the disintegration of capitalism is preparing the way for revolutionary developments. The road to great social transformations is prepared by a whole series of partial struggles. This is the necessary preparatory stage in which we find ourselves. In the first decade of the 19th century, Hegel, whose dialectical method so brilliantly anticipated Marx, wrote the following inspiring words, which capture the spirit of his age, and of ours also:
“For the rest it is not difficult to see that our epoch is a birth-time, and a period of transition. The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things hitherto prevailing, and with the old ways of thinking, and is in the mind to let them all sink into the depths of the past and to set about its own transformation. It is indeed never at rest, but carried along the stream of progress ever onward. But it is here as in the case of the birth of a child; after a long period of nutrition in silence, the continuity of the gradual growth in size, of quantitative change, is suddenly cut short by the first breath drawn – there is a break in the process, a qualitative change and the child is born. In like manner the spirit of the time, growing slowly and quietly ripe for the new form it is to assume, disintegrates one fragment after another of the structure of its previous world. That it is tottering to its fall is indicated only by symptoms here and there. Frivolity and again ennui, which are spreading in the established order of things, the undefined foreboding of something unknown – all these betoken that there is something else approaching. This gradual crumbling to pieces, which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a single stroke, brings to view the form and structure of the new world.” (Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, Introduction.)
Old Hegel, through his idealist spectacles, could see the future only in a dim outline. Using the method of materialism, Marx and Engels transformed the Hegelian dialectic into a powerful tool of analysis. Two centuries later, this scientific method enables us to see beyond the surface of events, eliminate what is secondary and transient, and lay bare the fundamental processes. Only the Marxists, standing on the basis of dialectical materialism, can look forward to the future with real optimism.
London, 12 January, 2011