Workers' Liberty #59


The working class at the turn of the twenty-first century

In the year 2000, humanity has greater resources and possibilities to change the world for the better than ever before. What holds us back are the ideas that progress is impossible and meaningless, or alternatively that it has already reached its highest point.

By Colin Foster

Looking forward from 2000

In the 40,000 or so years' evolution of homo sapiens, or even in the 10,000 or so years since humans developed cities, agriculture and tools, social progress is a new idea. The idea that we can and will improve our conditions and our society by understanding the world, working out plans, and then putting them into practice dates back, really, only as far as the rise of science, technology, and the capitalist mode of production.

The great German philosopher Hegel, from whom Marx learned much, explained:

"Freedom does not exist as original and natural. Rather must it be first sought out and won; and that by an incalculable medial discipline of the intellectual and moral powers." In the French Revolution of 1789-99: "Not until now had man advanced to the recognition of the principle that Thought ought to govern spiritual reality. This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn. All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch." The younger Hegel, in 1793, had put it more forthrightly: "The halo which has surrounded the leading oppressors and gods of the earth has disappeared. Philosophers demonstrate the dignity of man; the people will learn to feel and will not merely demand their rights... but will themselves take them - make them their own."

Dictionaries tell us "progress" used to mean just walking forward, or, more specifically, an official tour by a dignitary. It started to mean "improvement" or "development" only from the early 17th century.

Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, explained: "Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was... the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones."

ln Marx's day, orthodox social theorists acclaimed progress. They also acclaimed capitalism as the highest point of progress. For them, "there has been history, but there is no longer any." This notion of capitalist market society as "the end of history" has been revived in recent years. It has been fed by euphoria about the supposed "New Economy" in the USA.

But the bourgeois optimists of today sound flaky and unconvinced compared to those of Marx's time. Yes, the New York stock-exchange index has risen higher and longer than anyone expected. Yes, the US economy has expanded more or less continuously for a longer span than usual - though it has done it painfully, and, on broad historical comparisons, slowly.

Is this really the high uplands of human improvement? Wal-Mart, cable TV, e-commerce, McDonalds, "lean and mean" production, and the Prozac nation - do these define the ideal society, to be filled out only by gradual amelioration here and there?

The idea of capitalism as the height of progress was shattered first by World War One and the great slump of the 1930s, and is repeatedly discredited again and again in our days. The Asian-centred world economic crisis of 1997-9; the rapid increase in global economic inequality; the vast numbers of people still malnourished (800 million, and more every day); the fact that one child in three worldwide grows up in absolute poverty; the homeless and wretched in the oh-so-booming USA itself - all these mock pro-capitalist optimism.

Pro-capitalist triumphalism has had any revival at all only because of the ruin of its mainstream rivals - the Stalinist and social-democratic ideas of progress. But, among that majority who cannot accept the claims of capital, the common alternative conclusion is that all progress is a deceptive myth. The idea of reconstructing the world according to reason was just an illusion, pushed along by the intoxication of the first great spurt of science and technology in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In fact, they say, try to reconstruct the world according to reason, and you end up with Stalinism - or, at best, with a stultifying, stagnating "nanny state".

This thinking draws nourishment not only from obvious political facts but also from developments in science. David Hilbert, maybe the greatest mathematician of the 20th century, has his motto inscribed on his grave:

"We must know. We will know." Since then some of the problems so confidently lined up for solution by Hilbert have been proved insoluble by other mathematicians. We will never know! We have to learn how to cope with not knowing! Quantum theory, chaos theory - some of the most talked-about developments of 20th century science are ones which indicate that in some fields we can only ever get broad, approximate understanding.

As we know more, the sphere of what we do not know does not get smaller. It expands, because the new knowledge reveals problems, uncertainties, complications previously unthought-of. This fact certainly does undermine Fabian, Stalinist, technocratic notions that the world can be made paradise if only the proper experts are allowed to plan everything.

But those notions are not the actual alternative to capitalism. The working-class socialist alternative is different. We do not base ourselves on any expert's claim to have the ideal blueprint for harmony and prosperity. We base ourselves on the "planning" already accomplished. Co-operative, socialised production is not an ideal scheme invented by socialists. It is a reality developed by capitalism. With immense amounts of trial and error, and with cruel contradictions due to its subordination to capitalist private profit, it has nevertheless already brought great progress. We have a machinery of production which even today - without any planned reorganisation, without any drive to bring into useful jobs the 150 million or so people unemployed worldwide, and the hundreds of millions of others stuck in futile and unproductive jobs - could, just by an equalising redistribution of revenue, give everyone in the world the average living standard of a relatively well-off South European worker. The arithmetic is simple: divide global production by the number of households in the world. Everyone could have the basics - good food, a comfortable home, adequate clothing, education, health care - without having to deprive anyone else.

That is progress. So is the creation of a world working class, steadily larger, more educated, richer in its variety and individuality but also more interlinked between its different segments, with a proven capacity to organise collectively. Our idea is that the collective and democratic organisation of that working class can direct the co-operative, socialised production already created better than can the competition of private profiteers.

In a world where that competition of private profiteers increasingly finds its decisive expression in the roller-coasters of financial markets - the "casino economy" - that socialist proposition is more convincing than ever. The gap between actuality and the progress to be made by a concerted, conscious human redirection of our affairs is larger than ever.

The idea of progress has been discredited not because progress has failed, but because in recent decades both real and illusory progress has been brutally reversed. The advanced capitalist welfare states, the highest achievements of capitalist civilisation, are being systematically trashed.

Mass unemployment has become endemic in every capitalist country. Although income-per-head figures are still rising in most countries, there is some solid evidence that they are increasingly deceptive. When income-per-head figures are a statistical summary of better food, clothing and housing, then increased income-per-head is fairly straightforwardly progress. But when the increased income-per-head also, and increasingly, reflects degradation of the natural and social environment, and "defensive" expenditure due to that degradation, then it is not so simple.

The economists Tim Jackson and Nic Marks have constructed indices of "sustainable economic welfare" for the USA and the UK in place of the standard national income figures. For the UK, their figures show "sustainable economic welfare" reaching its highest point in 1974, and declining ever since; for the US, the index reaches a plateau in 1965-78, and then heads downwards. Even in the model-prosperous USA, most people now expect life to be worse for their children than for their own generation.

Progress has not hit some mysterious natural limit. It has been reversed because the working class has suffered severe defeats. The advances that we had were not handed down by capitalist generosity. They were won by many years of working-class struggle. When the workers are defeated, as we were in Britain in the great watershed of the 1984-5 miners' strike, then we lose those gains.

The collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the USSR, in 1989-91, was not a defeat for the working class. It was progress, inasmuch as it opened up possibilities for the workers in those states to think, debate, and organise more or less freely. It also cleared ground for working-class politics elsewhere in the world, by demolishing and dumping the illusion that police-state planned economies constituted (albeit in an as-yet-unsatisfactory "deformed" way) the actual progressive alternative to capitalism.

In the short term, however, the demolition of illusions was also a demolition of morale. The apparent alternative to capitalism is shown to be a fake? Then maybe no alternative is possible!

Some argue that the working class's defeats and setbacks have been inevitable, either because the working class is in decline or because capitalism has shown itself to have far more scope for further development that socialists previously thought and obviously still has further scope.

The working class is not in decline, but increasing world-wide. The conclusion that it is in decline can be reached only by defining "working-class" only as blue-collar workers in a few traditional industries (mining, metalworking, and so on) and excluding white-collar or service workers. But why should we do that? The working class is the class of those who sell their labour-power to work under the command of capital, whatever they produce.

Marx did write that: "No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed...."

Since, however, Marx knew something about, for example, the history of feudalism, it is more reasonable to suppose that he intended this as a broad, sweeping, dramatic deliberate overstatement, to be qualified later in detail, than as a precise, literal prediction that every social order must come to an absolute economic dead-stop before it is overthrown. If he did intend it in that precise, literal way, then he was wrong. European feudalism went into a general economic and social crisis in the 14th century. There were many bourgeois revolts. All were defeated. Feudalism did not then stand still until other bourgeois revolts brought it down. It mutated, adapted, developed. It was not overthrown until the 16th and 17th centuries in the Netherlands and England, and survived in some countries of Eastern Europe into the 20th century.

Capitalism, too, has seen potentially mortal crises, recoveries, reorganisations, mutations. In 1921, when European capitalism was in utter chaos and the working-class revolutionaries confidently expected opportunities for its overthrow within a few months or at most a few years, Leon Trotsky said: "If we grant - and let us grant it for the moment - that the working class fails to rise in revolutionary struggle, but allows the bourgeoisie the opportunity to rule the world's destiny for a long number of years, say two or three decades, then assuredly some sort of new equilibrium will be established.

"Europe will be thrown violently into reverse gear. Millions of European workers will die from unemployment and malnutrition. The United States will be compelled to reorient itself on the world market, reconvert its industry, and suffer curtailment for a considerable period. Afterwards, after a new world division of labour is thus established in agony for 15 or 20 or 25 years, a new epoch of capitalist upswing might perhaps ensue." And so it happened - principally with the rivalry-cum-aid of Stalinism, a development which Trotsky did not foresee.

It disorients socialists if we believe (as some do) that world capitalism has been "stuck" in its "final crisis" of around 1921 continuously for the last 80 years, and all its development and expansion since then has been mere illusion and secondary detail. But the proper conclusion is not that the crisis of European capitalism in 1917-23 was not potentially final - it is very hard to give an explanation of the defeats of the revolutionary workers' movements of those years in Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary and other countries based on some intangible extra strength that the bourgeoisie derived from the fact their system would be able to have a new and unprecedented "golden age" 25 years later, but easy enough to explain it from the mishaps and mistakes of the working-class left. We can explain, also, how the monstrous historical detour of Stalinism - though it was scarcely a manifestation of the vitality of capitalism! - disabled the working-class left for decades after that crisis.

Nor should we think that our task now is to wait for the real final crisis. Despite some rhetorical flourishes in his earlier years, in his more considered writings, such as Capital, Marx pointedly avoided the idea of an economic "final crisis of capitalism". That idea was introduced into Marxist debate primarily by the "Revisionist" Eduard Bernstein, who at the end of the 19th century set it up as a "straw man" for his polemics. Marx and Engels had predicted that capitalism would reach an economic dead-end or a "breakdown", wrote Bernstein, and, behold! there was no such breakdown.

The proper reply to Bernstein was given at the time by Karl Kautsky. "No special 'breakdown theory' was expounded by Marx and Engels. The expression derives from Bernstein, just as the expression 'immiseration theory' comes from opponents of Marxism... [The authentic Marxist theory] sees in the capitalist mode of production the factor that drives the proletariat into class struggle against the capitalist class; that makes it increase more and more in numbers, in collectivism, in intelligence, in self-awareness, and political maturity; that increases its economic significance more and more and makes its organisation as a political party, and its victory, unavoidable, just as the establishment of socialist production will be an unavoidable result of that victory..."

Unfortunately, others, including the great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, felt obliged to respond to Bernstein by hotly insisting that capitalism would indeed reach an economic dead-end. In the socialist movement before World War One, that idea was taken up by others much less revolutionary than Luxemburg, including the older Kautsky, to paint a scenario in which the task of socialists was not so much to struggle as to bide their time and conserve their strength until the "final crisis" of capitalism put the future in their lap.

And the same ideology was later taken up by the Stalinist movement. Its utility for them is obvious. So the USSR looks abhorrent? they could tell workers. Too bad. Capitalism is in a final crisis. You have little choice. Capitalism does not work, and Stalinism, whatever its faults, does. So support Stalinism. The mirror-image argument is now being used by capitalist apologists who say that, whatever its faults, capitalism works and its actual alternative, Stalinism, does not.

There will be no definitive final crisis. Capitalism will not break down of its accord. It will have to be broken down. But it creates - is still creating and augmenting - the force that will break it down, the working class.

Production is increasingly socialised and cooperative. Claims that the giant capitalist enterprise is being made obsolete by a great flowering of small-scale capitalist enterprises and pure market mechanisms are false. As the US economist Bennet Harrison shows in his detailed study Lean and Mean, "The emerging global economy remains dominated by concentrated, powerful business enterprises. Indeed, the more the economy is globalised, the more it is accessible only to companies with a global reach... Rather than dwindling away, concentrated economic power is changing its shape, as the big firms create all manner of networks, alliance, short and long-term financial and technology deals - with one another, with governments at all levels, and with legions of generally smaller firms who act as their suppliers and subcontractors."

The consolidation of the world working class into a political force is, of course, far from automatic. It is a huge and difficult job. One chief difficulty is nationalism. Many writers argue that Marxist socialism has failed because it could only understand class conflicts, and thus was bewildered by the scope and size of national conflicts in the 20th century.

But even in the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels explained the gathering-together of clans and provinces into "one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interests, one frontier and one customs tariff", as a normal part of bourgeois class development. And one of the main distinctive points of Marxist socialism, historically, as against the many socialist schools of thought prior to it, was its close combination of the idea of socialism with that of democracy. Democracy, to Marx and Engels and the radical democrats of their day, obviously included the democratic rights of nations. As Engels put it:

"When [in the 1830s] the extreme politicians of the greater part of civilised Europe came into contact with each other, and attemped to mark out a kind of common programme, the liberation and unification of the oppressed and subdivided nations became a watchword common to all of them... There could, indeed, be no two opinions as to the right of every one of the great national subdivisions of Europe to dispose of itself, independently of its neighbours, in all internal matters, so long as it did not encroach upon the liberty of others. This right was, in fact, one of the fundamental conditions of the internal liberty of all."

What has disarmed much of the socialist movement in the 20th century, when faced with nationalism, is not some doctrinally-inspired reluctance to recognise national facts, but the wholesale and opportunist submergence of socialism into nationalism practised by Stalinism, which has also infected the anti-Stalinist left. The USSR's bureaucracy saw that nationalist movements might be made allies if the bureaucracy could present itself as a reliable and potent counterweight to the Western states against which those movements rebelled. So, without scruple or conscience, again and again the bureaucrats directed Communist Parties to embrace not merely national rights, but nationalism, and not to recoil or complain at any chauvinist or revanchist excesses.

In place of a program of consistent democracy was erected a picture of the world divided into "good nations", oppressed and freedom-seeking, and "bad nations". Who was good, and who bad, varied of course with the shifts of USSR foreign policy.

On the national question, as on the question of "final crisis", the socialist movement needs to reconstruct itself intellectually and purge the legacies of Stalinism.

And on democracy, too. The Stalinist movement spoke much of democracy. Stalin's 1936 constitution was "the most democratic in the world". The states he conquered in Eastern Europe were "people's democracies". The word "democracy" was levered away from any definite content, and became a makeweight phrase for agitation.

The great capitalist classes are doing much the same thing today, in a different way. As with progress, democracy seems like the mayfly. After a long semi-existence, constrained in a larva, it finally emerges into full life, able to fly - and dies almost immediately. There are more of the forms of representative democracy in the world today than ever before. Not only the ex-Stalinist states of Eastern Europe, but also the ex-military dictatorships of Latin America, have multi-party elections and parliaments.

Yet in the most advanced capitalist country, the USA, which also has more voting than anywhere else, democracy is rotting apace. Fewer and fewer people bother to vote. Politics becomes more and more a game played by rich people with the media, with the mass of the people as bemused spectators of a raucous parade of trivialities, scandals, personality-projections and image-creating exercises which drive out real political information and debate.

Those same mass-media could be channels for spreading information and debate much wider than ever before. What makes them the opposite is the media monopolies' greed for safe, secure profits - made by cultivating the crassest, and thus most reliable, desires of their public - by disinformation and dumbing-down.

Democracy, progress, science - all these words carry a bitter taste with them as the century ends, because of the misuse of the words, and of the realities, by Stalinism and by capitalism. In their hands of their proper owners, the organised working class, those same words will be the keynotes for the future.

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