by Dan Armstrong
Let us return to the question of the broad phase which we have entered. We are facing a combination of factors and circumstances which must impinge on the perspectives of the left. For the moment, let us look at Europe.
We have repeatedly stated that the old workers' parties have become unlinked from most of the class and that there is little movement towards creating new parties in spite of the objective need for them. And it is also clear that globalisation has accelerated the destruction of local manufacture, the mass import of finished products from low-wage economies and the simultaneous migration of millions of workers who fill mostly unskilled occupations for lower wages.
As we know, during economic growth, all these factors could be more or less tolerated. As soon as recession hit, however, each of these factors could be seen as foreign attacks on previously prosperous or tolerably acceptable social organisation. In addition, welfare systems were already being straitened by budget restrictions.
We have discussed how, furthermore, the old workers' parties had been stripped of most of their militants and become career vehicles for opportunists and how the workers' states had collapsed as possible alternative models to capitalism. The situation could be seen as collecting dry sticks and paper, logs and branches and heaping them in ready piles in the poorest areas of the towns and cities of Europe.
From 2008/9, the fury of the system in deep crisis was unleashed and a flammable accelerant was prepared for igniting the piles. Simultaneously, the workers' organisations were attacked, the social services and employment laws weakened and new divisions were created in society by media campaigns against the most downtrodden sectors of society, the immigrants, racial and religious minorities.
Given the absence of well-established socialist ideas and organisations amongst the workers, the reactions to the governments' attacks right across Europe have led to the formation and strengthening of a new rightwing populist, semi-fascist or neonazi Right. These groups have mushroomed in virtually every country. While workers' organisations have staged ineffective general strikes against budget cuts, and tried to win elections, support for the Right has burgeoned everywhere while leftwing groupings hardly exist or flourish anywhere apart from Greece. The difference is profound.
Worse, in a whole series of areas where the old workers' parties dominated politically for decades, they are being, or have already been, eclipsed by the Right. These include the north of England, northern France, the Netherlands, whole areas in Hungary and the Czech republic, Russia and most of Scandinavia. Some populist parties emerge out of the shadows and then disappear again as in northern Italy, Switzerland and Austria. Estonian, Latvian and Russian nazis openly parade on the streets. Parliamentarians in Budapest call for the naming of Jews in public office, pogroms are carried out in rural Hungary and Romania. Putin continues to impose an authoritarian rule and racism flourishes in the streets of the capital.
And the list goes on.
In the light of all this, we could repeat the mantra that nothing can break the will of working class to change society or that the mighty Chinese proletariat will awaken and that the future of society belongs to the workers. Or we could remind ourselves of the second half of the maxim which states that unless the chains of capitalism are broken, then the class struggle may end in the common ruin of the contending classes.
The reaction of millions of workers to the attacks on their living standards and job security has been a sharp increase in xeonophobia and a general meanness towrds welfare recipients. As we saw in Brittany and in the old mining areas of northern France, in Bradford and in Rostock, in Moscow and in Sicily, the anger of masses of workers has initially turned to the Right, towards protectionism and racism. This is a general movement by important layers of the class; while there are still left trade union federations, it is only a short step from mass demonstrations and strikes against austerity to a coupling of the protests with demands to expel migrants.
And so the question is posed before us about the nature of phase we have entered. Are we not faced with the prospect of continent-wide authoritarian governments and the undermining of all social gains, the stifling of protest and criticism? Even where workers still favour state ownership over privatisation, that is no proof of leftwing thinking. As we often stated, nationalisation in and of itself is not a "step towards socialism"; the nazis also expropriated sections of the bourgeoisie. Even if there is a renewed mini-boom in the economies of Europe, weaker or stronger makes little difference, what remains decisive are the ideas in the heads of layers of the working class. And such workers are being seduced, in general, not by the left but by the right, demos and strikes notwithstanding.
It would be entirely possible for authoritarian governments to use racism to marshal many millions behind it as we saw in the 20s and 30s in Europe. Analagous to the defeat of the workers' parties then is the absence of fighting workers' parties now and moreover the absence of the consciousness of the need for any such parties. Such a phase, if events turns that way, cannot stabilise itself for a whole epoch because of the class contradictions inherent in a populist movement, but it can impose its rule for a decade or more, completely shifting the centre of gravity of the left's political work.
Roger Silverman writes in response to Dan Armstrong's comments
I for one quite agree with Dan. The scenario that he predicts is perfectly possible.
Mistakenly anticipating what I assume he had been expecting to be a rather different response from me, he has sought to caricature putative critics by ridiculing them in advance:
"In the light of all this, we could repeat the mantra that nothing can break the will of [the] working class to change society or that the mighty Chinese proletariat will awaken and that the future of society belongs to the workers."
Let me reassure Dan that I for one would never resort to such bombastic platitudes. I can only assume that he is recalling buried memories from a much earlier stage in his life of a different organisation in a different era.
Unfortunately, as we in WIN have repeatedly emphasised (for instance in our 2009 document Preparing For Revolution), far from the working class of Europe showing an unbreakable will to change society, “the new crisis today finds the working class in its former strongholds politically disarmed. Its earlier traditional socialist outlook and basic class consciousness have ebbed, due to a number of factors… What remains today of 150 years of socialist tradition in the West is little more than a fading memory among diminishing circles within the older generation. In the old homeland of the proletariat, many workers today are far less conscious than previously of their role, their tasks or even their class identity… “
In case this is not clear enough, we specifically added: “Beneath the surface of British society, for instance, there is a bubbling inferno of barely suppressed racism. The warning signs are clear.”
At the same time, the picture that Dan has painted does not by any means tell the whole story, even in Europe. He has left out one rather significant factor: the utter contempt towards capitalism that pervades society: the overpowering mass hatred of the capitalists, the bankers, the privatisers, the bosses, the press magnates, the politicians. That explains the volatility, the opinion polls, the anti-capitalist protests, the occupy movement, the general strikes, the demonstrations and mass uprisings, all of which also characterise the present period, side by side with the admittedly darker features of the situation, including hostility to immigration.
It is this that explains too the remarkably unstable nature of the ultra-right, which in most countries is better characterised as right-wing populist rather than overtly neo-Nazi. Take as an example the phenomenon that I referred to in recent correspondence: the implosion of successive fascist organisations in Britain (the NF, the BNP, and now the EDL) compared to the steady rise of UKIP. (And please don't forget, in the context of this discussion, that it was I who first raised the prospect of a future UKIP/right-wing Tory regime as a possible next-but-one government in Britain.)
As for what appears to be a rather dismissive reference on Dan's part to the potential future influence of the Chinese working class, I notice that Dan himself prudently confines his remarks to consideration of the situation in Europe. And if Europe were the only continent in the world today, then perhaps there would be a great deal more substance to his gloomy prophecies. Does he disagree with our suggestion that once it enters the world stage as an independent force, the Chinese proletariat could well play as big a part in rebuilding the world working class as an independent political force as in their day the German working class did in building the Socialist International, and the Russian working class the Communist International?
According to the Marxist outlook that we all share, the class that is destined to overthrow capitalism and usher in a new society is the proletariat, and above all the industrial proletariat. This class is actually larger, stronger and more powerful than at any time in its history. However, the fact that it is now largely relocated to new territories cannot but alter the pattern, tempo and interaction of events.