We organized a meeting in London in July 1991 to discuss the consequences of the Gulf War, Imperialism and the New World Order. The meeting was attended by comrades from Wildcat Germany, as well as Radical Chains from Britain, and various other bods. There was a high level of agreement as to the basic method of analysis. The participants have rejected the classical Marxist "crisis theory" and adopted a more "autonomist" position. We can hardly do justice to either approach in a few lines, but we'll try anyway.The traditional view takes various forms, including Paul Mattick's "the falling rate of profit explains everything", the saturated markets of Luxemburg, and Lenin's theory that imperialism would inevitably lead to world war and generalised permanent ruin. All these theories have in common the view that the internal workings of capital lead to periodic catastrophic breakdowns which are essentially independent of anything the working class does. The working class, then, remains passive until such time as the crisis, in the form of recession and/or war, comes along and gives it a good kick in the arse, spurring it into understanding the fundamentally nasty nature of capitalism and thus the need to struggle for communism.
The autonomist approach can be summed up as follows :
- The working class has power to influence the direction and slow down the progress of capitalism.
- Almost everything capitalism does can be explained as a reaction to the class struggle.
- The class struggle is everywhere. It takes multiple forms, most of them disguised as something else.
- The capitalist system is not an objective fact, governed by iron laws. It is a relationship of power between classes.
- The economic crisis is initially caused by working class struggle, but is also used by the bourgeoisie as a weapon against that struggle.
The difference between the two approaches can be clearly seen in wartime. Crisis theory tends to see war as just an inevitable symptom of capitalist competition and economic collapse. The experience of two major wars in the Gulf, though, has taught us how important war is as a means of crushing the class struggle. War is not a symptom of capitalist collapse - quite the contrary. With the anarchists we say "war is the health of the state!".
The most accessible journal in the autonomist tradition to English speakers is Midnight Notes (available from Box 204, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130, USA). Various articles from this journal were distributed before the conference. Valuable though these extracts were, the participants at the conference rejected Midnight Notes's support for everything that moves, including national liberation struggles which have always undermined the class struggle. Midnight Notes's optimistic assessment of the state of working class autonomy in America today led one comrade to remark "What have they been smoking, and where can I get some?".
Radical Chains found this too cynical, arguing that the USA has not yet tested whether it has really overcome the post-Vietnam syndrome. Our German namesake argued against the idea of "ultra-imperialism", the view that capitalism is united on a world scale. There were numerous other disagreements at the meeting, the minutes of which will be available shortly. In this article, we reiterate our view of the current balance of class forces. First, a brief summary of the last 25 years of world history.
May 1968 in France, when 10 million workers paralysed the country in a mass strike outside union control, and politicized students rioted in Paris for a program of immediate social revolution, demonstrated that revolution is possible in an advanced industrial democracy. It was the tip of an iceberg. Mass strikes shook the world through the late 60's and early 70's, and a revolutionary movement emerged, opposing capitalism east and west and affirming pleasure, the refusal of work, the rejection of authority, and the overthrow of this society and its replacement with one based on cooperation in place of competition. The old mole was digging new ground.
The Vietnam war led to mutinies, desertion and the killing of officers. Soldiers held three-day dope parties rather than fight the enemy. This was recognised by the North Vietnamese negotiators who said that their men would not fight Americans who avoided combat. This defeat had devastating effects on America's self-image, to the benefit of the working class. That self-image has only just been restored.
No ruling class gives up voluntarily. In Chile, Italy and elsewhere, capitalists experimented with repression and restructuring of industry. Thee price of oil was raised to generate inflation, undermining wages. In America, Christianity crawled back into the light of day. The drug war attacked the counter-culture and justified the militarization of the police. Grenada was invaded to restore US national morale, then Panama, then the Gulf. There were numerous working class reactions - France '79, Poland '81, Britain '84 - but the proletariat had no political direction. Isolated defensive struggles were inadequate against an aggressive, conscious, political assault by the world ruling class, increasingly united under US leadership. The USA has forestalled the emergence of a rival imperialist power for the immediate future, though in the long run it will come into conflict with the Fourth Reich, or European Community. In the meantime, numerous small wars will continue to proliferate against the working class.
Communists greatly underestimated the depth of defeat. Many comrades didn't believe the Gulf war would happen. Our view that it would be another Vietnam was completely wrong. Events overtook us. The propaganda of the "No War But The Class War" group in London was too concerned with opposing both sides, instead of pointing out that the two capitalist sides were in fact united against our side.
Thanks to our international contacts, we were able to produce a leaflet after the war explaining how it was ended by mass desertion on the Iraqi side, and how Saddam Hussein, the West and the Kurdish nationalists cooperated to prevent the uprising turning into a proletarian revolution. The leaflet, included in this issue, has been distributed in Britain, Germany, the USA and elsewhere.
The war in the Gulf demonstrated the success of the counter-revolution against the gains of the working class movement of the sixties and early seventies. The US working class has been smashed. As Colin Powell, the US commander, announced on 28 February, the post-Vietnam syndrome has been cured. Now the US feels able to intervene militarily anywhere in the world to attack the class struggle. America is finding a role as the world's policeman. The workplace struggle in the US has virtually disappeared, crushed by unemployment and atomization. Real wages are now lower than they were in 1959. Struggles in the community around housing, prison, police harassment and so on, are being successfully held back by racism and diverted by separatism.
Western Europe is a hot spot compared to America, but for the most part, the working class here is also going through a massive defeat. Nonetheless, the ruling class is having to pay a price for restructuring. In France and Britain for example, we have seen the reemergence of a minority of the working class with no social-democratic links to the state, whose struggles take the form of direct confrontations with it. This minority is learning how to organise riots with growing confidence. The legitimacy of the state is increasingly in question. Western societies rely on a huge bluff. State power is not based on force alone. The drain in public confidence in the police is an expression of this bluff gradually falling apart. But the economic crisis has proved to be a very effective way of sabotaging workplace struggles.
Eastern Europe contained greater potential for class conflict, but considering the scale of the counter-revolution, the working class is simply failing to defend itself. Nevertheless, Romania showed the international ruling class the danger of working class revolution has not been permanently overcome. The events of December 1989 started as a workers' uprising in Timisoara, and had spread halfway across the country, to Sibiu to be precise, before the army were able to take control of it. This was a major failure in the programme of privatising Eastern Europe.
This is why capitalism has started a civil war in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia has a long tradition of international class struggle, across its various internal boundaries. Nationalism has been deliberately stirred up by Yugoslavian and German politicians to crush the class struggle. Dividing the working class by racism and nationalism has proved the most effective way of avoiding a united international working class being created by capital's homogenisation. When different groups of workers are constantly engaged in killing each other, they are obviously unable to unite as a class to fight the attacks of capital. The conflict is continuing to spread, threatening to involve other European countries. In 1914, we were urged to defend Serbia against German imperialism. Today, its the other way round. The bourgeoisie is turning Yugoslavia into another Lebanon. This will be a massive blow to the class struggle in Eastern and Western Europe. (A detailed history of class struggle in Yugoslavia can be found in the pamphlet Yugoslavery, available from BM Blob, London WC1N 3XX).
We do not know the precise mechanics of the Yeltsin coup in Russia, though it seems certain that the "hardliners" were set up by the KGB -just like Saddam Hussein was set up to invade Kuwait.
The involvement of ordinary people in Yeltsin's manoeuvres around August 19 is symptomatic of the success of the counter-revolution. They were used as extras in a theatrical set-piece battle whose outcome was never in doubt. The crane which tore down Dzerzhinsky's statue was provided by Moscow city council. As we have maintained since the beginning of perestroika, the popular upheavals in Eastern Europe have been largely directed by the state. More detailed analyses of the counter-revolution in Eastern Europe can be found in Wildcats 12 and 14. Now Yeltsin and his followers can disguise the jackboot of perestroika with the figleaf of a popular revolution, denouncing strikers as Communists as they introduce privatisation, mass unemployment, wage cuts, price rises, and national and ethnic conflicts across the whole of what was the Soviet Union. This doesn't mean that they want to break up the Soviet Union economically - its far too integrated for that and Russia and the Ukraine, through their control of heavy industry and food supplies, have the power to dominate the other Republics. With its monopoly of nuclear weapons Russia can also dominate them militarily if need be. As with the EC the rulers want the best of both worlds; a strongly integrated economic bloc in which the working class is nationally divided. It remains to be seen whether the class will be able to resist the collapse of its living standards.
As we write, the counter-revolution is deepening almost daily. Democracy and the free market stalk the world, dealing dispossession and death. But this is not a rerun of the counter-revolution of the thirties. Capitalism has progressed since then. The world proletariat, the dispossessed, has expanded considerably. It now confronts one united world capitalist class, ruling a world with an increasingly homogenous culture and even one language, which potentially unites capitalism's gravedigger. We don't know how long it will be before the international class struggle revives. In the long term, the New World Order contains the seeds of its own destruction. But the immediate future looks bleak.
September 21 1991.