Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Socialism is the enemy of Nationalism (1980)

Book Review from the December 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Nation et lutte de classe by Otto Strasser and Anton Pannekoek (Union generale d'editions, Paris.)

Before the first world war, Austria was a multi-national empire in which the Emperor and his bureaucracy ruled not only over Germans and Hungarians but also over Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Croats, Slovenes and others. As a result theoretical discussion of "the national question" became a speciality of Austrian Social Democracy. The problem was particularly acute in Bohemia where Germans and Czechs lived side by side and where a language quarrel raged over schools, jobs in civil service, signs in railway stations, and so on. Even the Social Democratic Party was not immune, the Czech party splitting in 1905 into those who wanted a separate Czechoslovakia and those prepared to work with the German-speaking party within the Austrian Empire.

Orthodox Social Democracy found difficulty in arguing against the Czech separatists since they were too nationalists, regarding the nation not only as a legitimate political form but even as the suitable framework for "socialism". However, within the Social Democratic movement, there were people who insisted on the world-wide nature of socialism and on the incompatibility between nationalism and socialism. They called themselves "intransigent internationalists". Among these were the authors of two pamphlets, first published in 1912, recently translated into French and published together as a single book: Otto Strasser, editor of a local German-language Social Democratic paper in Reichenberg (then in Austrian Bohemia, now in Czechoslovakia and called Liberec) and Anton Pannekoek, a native of the Netherlands then active in the Social Democratic Party in North Germany.

In his pamphlet L'Ouvrier et la nation (The Worker and the Nation), Strasser takes the various arguments of the nationalists as to why workers should regard themselves as part of a nation with a common interest (such as language, land of birth, national character) and demolishes them one by one. He also attacks those Social Democrats who argued that the best way to beat the nationalists was to meet them on their own ground by showing how the Social Democratic programme was in the "national interest". This (which was in practice the policy of the Social Democratic Party) was, said Strasser, self-defeating and should be opposed.

Pannekoek's pamphlet Lutte de Classe et Nation (Class Struggle and Nation) is more theoretical. He accepts the definition of nation given by Otto Bauer, the Austrian party's leading theoretician, viz. "a human grouping linked by a common destiny and a common character". He sees, however, nations as the product of the era of the rising bourgeoisie; at that time capitalists and workers did indeed have a "common destiny" against the forces of feudalism. But, with the development of capitalism, the class struggle more and more breaks out between capitalists and workers shattering their "common destiny".

For the workers the nation then comes to be replaced by the class as the "common destiny". Becoming class conscious, therefore, involves rejecting nationalism. He describes the "national conflict' in multi-national States such as Austria as merely an aspect of the competition between the capitalists within such states, with the different sections using language and nationalism to try to win mass support for their vested interests. He advocates that workers speaking the same language finding themselves divided between two different states (he gives as an example Ukrainian-speakers who were then to be found in both Austro-Hungary and Russia) should not form a single cross-frontier party, but should join the Social Democratic party of the state in which they happened to live, in order to help the struggle to win political power in that state.

Pannekoek emphasises the world, rather than inter-national, character of socialism:
The socialist mode of production does not develop opposing interests between nations as is the case with the capitalist mode of production. The economic unit is neither the State nor the nation, but the world. This mode of production is much more than a network of national production units linked with each other by an intelligent communications policy and by international conventions as described by Bauer on page 519. It is an organisation of world production as a unit and the common affair of the whole of humanity (Pannekoek's emphasis).
For him, "nations" will only survive in world socialism as groups speaking the same language and even then a single world language may evolve.

For all their criticism of the national policy of the Social Democratic parties, Strasser and Pannekoek were themselves Social Democrats and (at this time) shared many of their illusions, particularly that a socialist party should have a maximum (socialism) and a minimum (social and democratic reforms within capitalism) programme. This mistaken belief that socialists should try to combine the struggle for socialism with a struggle for reforms comes out occasionally in the text of both pamphlets. But this does not detract from the fact that both pamphlets put essentially the socialist case against nationalism.
Adam Buick

A shining light (and a dim one) (1997)

Theatre Review from the April 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), The Reduced Shakespeare Company, Criterion Theatre.

A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill, National Theatre.

Many local theatres can no longer afford to recruit a company of actors and keep them for a season or so. As a result repertory theatre is slowly dying. Visit your local theatre and you are more likely than not to see something played by a touring company: a group of actors performing the same show, week-by-week, across the length and breadth of the country. In the past month I have seen three such shows. Two of them may likely soon appear in your neck of the woods. One I think you might wish to avoid like the proverbial plague; the other will likely enthrall even if it doesn't delight.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company are currently appearing at the Criterion Theatre in London. But their show The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), is so successful that a second company is currently on tour. I caught their show in Bury St. Edmonds; it was an excruciating experience.

I like satire, irony and farce, but not when they are managed as unimaginatively and crudely as here. Shakespeare is ripe for entertaining comment and diverting song as was recently apparent in a charming little show "The Shakespeare Revue" which also toured widely. But The Complete Works is the "cor blimey" humour of the Sun directed savagely at one of the giants of literature. It is someone who can barely play the piano parodying Mozart; a drunken karaoke performer mimicking the Beatles. In the theatre, as in the rest of life, I am ever the optimist. I've thought about leaving before, but always stayed. Three weeks ago was a first: we walked out at half-time.

In contrast A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, by Caryl Churchill, makes for an illuminating if, finally, a rather melancholy evening. Written in 1976 and currently revived by the National Theatre, and on tour, the play is about those early proto-socialists, the Levellers and the Diggers. The play's title celebrates a Digger pamphlet of the same name, which was circulating at the time of the English Civil War in the late 1640s.

Writing a forward to the text Caryl Churchill talks about the time after Charles I had been defeated when "anything seemed possible". And she goes on: "The play shows the excitement of people taking hold of their own lives, and their gradual betrayal as those who led them realised that freedom could not be had without (the ownership of) property being destroyed."

In nearly two dozen short scenes we are offered a series of cameos of life in England at the time of the Civil War. We see first a hypocritical clergyman patronising his servant; then two cynical JPs sentencing a woman accused of vagrancy to be stripped to the waist and beaten to the bounds of the parish; and then a man joining the army to fight "with Christ's saints for the commonwealth"; and so on. But at the heart of the play is the dramatic realisation of the Putney Debates of 1647, when Cromwell and his generals met representatives of the Levellers.

If this debate grips and excites as it examines ideas about democracy, freedom and the supposed rights of property, the rest of the evening droops somewhat in comparison. This is not entirely Ms Churchill's fault. She has faithfully represented both the fate of the Levellers and the emergence of the anarchic Ranters, and in doing so she seems true to the demands of historical accuracy.

But the imperatives of drama are not the same as those of history, and it is possible to see ways in which the structure of the play might have been altered to give proceedings a stronger narrative line, and to make the key ideas more accessible to a contemporary audience who, as Carly Churchill herself observes, are unlikely to have heard about the Diggers and the Levellers. Moreover, if the play had ended with that classic dramatic device of an epilogue, the struggles of the Levellers could have been given some kind of historical perspective, and we could then have seen evidence of the continuing struggle of the socialist movement for democracy, freedom and the end of private property ownership. But enough of the cavils. This is a play to see.
Michael Gill




Voice of the People

From the November 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

Every week the London Broadcasting Company invites listeners to 'phone in suggestions for dealing with various problems.

The other week it was Inflation. The listeners had a ball! Funnily enough, not one listener or the jockey on the receiving end even mentioned Harold Wilson's £6 limit, or his expensive pamphlets. They all had their own ideas - and what ideas! None of that silly Socialist rubbish about the Government which is saying it wants to stop inflation printing the millions of banknotes which cause it; or the articles in the Socialist Standard making out that deflation (before the war) was just as bad.

No, the People's ideas were all solid, practical, down-to-earth: right down! Not one said that the real trouble was the capitalist system - that inflation, deflation or reflation, the working class was always in the same boat. Oh no! Or that rigmarole about the capitalist system working regularly through booms and slumps.

Unfortunately we cannot spare the space to report every brilliant suggestion, but a brief re-cap of the main ones should suffice to show that the spirit of pioneering initiative which made Britain great is not dead but still flourishes. One bright lady kicked off with the suggestion that everybody should buy secondhand clothes at jumble sales: "I haven't bought a new coat for years." (How everybody could be second without any firsts, she did not say.)

Another had discovered that although football-pool promoters ask for 14p a go, it is possible to get a coupon accepted for 8p. He'd had quite a bundle with them over this, and they had finally succumbed. We commend this to Denis Healey; after all, it's no sillier than his Budget proposals. One other suggestion was that everybody should refuse to pay their rates - although when this is to start he did not say.

The only point which was argued about was a proposal for a 100 per cent tax on all foreign goods - in fact, this listener said "no foreign goods at all". Even the simple-naive disc-jockey had to point out that inflation worked in favour of exporting countries, of which Britain has always been one.

Someone else weighed in with a master-stroke. He had observed that most voluntary societies - anglers, cyclists, bird-watchers, etc. - have, in addition to an annual subscription, a "life" one. He had worked out that quite a sum could be saved here (if you live long enough). Them of course, we were bound to get the old wartime chestnut: "Dig for Victory!" Why don't we all grow our own spuds, etc? Very good! Thank you for calling! Call again! Another wanted the Government to subsidize mortgages. A real heart-cry, this one: poor devil!

But the cream was reserved to the last. Even the imperturbable "public ear" got aerated over this one. One listener had discovered that if you write "OHMS" on letters you get away with it, because the Post Office can't collect on them. As was pointed out, what happens of it costs the Post Office 50p or £1 to collect a few pence from the Ministry of Power or the War Office?

And so it went on and on for an hour. What finally emerged was that most of those 'phoning in were so desperately anxious to save a penny or two somewhere that they had no time to think about inflation. They were all too concerned with their own dire poverty, and literally beating their brains out to try and save a couple of coppers somewhere by doing without something or other. Still, it's nice to know that the London Broadcasting Company is giving "the People" the opportunity to have their say and make their proposals.

As Harold Wilson says in his pamphlet: "Democracy works best when it relies on persuasion and consent". Armed with suggestions like these to add to the appalling mess it is already in, Wilson's Labour Government can now march confidently forward to further disaster - as they always have done.
Harry Young

That's the stuff! (1997)

Book Review from the March 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Long Johns by John Bird and John Fortune, Hutchinson, London, 1996, £9.99.

John Bird and John Fortune have been performing hilarious sketches on the Rory Bremner show for over six years now, and this is a transcribed collection of the best of them. They honed their comic talents and eye for the ridiculous in the 1960s at Soho's Establishment club, which they co-founded with Peter Cook. Bird, before he moved to London, had been a member of the Socialist Party. It is not clear from this book how much Bird's political views have changed since those days, though the indications are that they haven't shifted a great deal, while the influence of Cook's own particular brand of irony and satire is evident throughout.

The main targets of Bird and Fortune are the market economy's peculiar idiocies and contradictions, together with the hypocrisy of the ruling class. Trotskyist Paul Foot has claimed that "Bird and Fortune have done more to undermine this government than all the speeches of the opposition put together", and for once he might not be too wide of the mark. It is only to be hoped that they will not spare the Labour Party if and when Blair and company achieve office.

Several of the sketches included in this book are superb, and the famous one about the NHS internal market is arguably the best of all. In this Bird plays a Chief Executive of an NHS Trust. He is interviewed about his Trust's decision to operate a market system for all NHS equipment, and elaborately explains the new procedure whereby, when a surgeon finds that he needs a scalpel during an operation, a message is sent to the Trust's Scalpel Resource Manager who then puts in bids to other hospitals across Britain for a scalpel until the cheapest is found. "If that happens to be in Barrow-in-Furness, that is where he will get it from," Bird says, only to be asked by interviewer Fortune "He will personally go and get it will he?". "He will get it," replies Bird, " . . . we are talking about emergencies here."

Beautiful stuff, and certainly worth a tenner of you have it.
Dave Perrin

Oh! What a Lovely Centenary (2013)

From the January 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last October David Cameron delivered a speech at the Imperial War Museum detailing the government’s plans to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.
Also known as the Great War this was to have been ‘the war to end all wars’. There will be commemorative events to mark the outbreak of the war in August 1914, various battles such as the naval battle of Jutland, the disastrous Churchill-inspired Gallipoli campaign, the 'bloody' first day of the Somme, the Third Battle of Ypres popularly known as Passchendaele, and the Armistice of 11 November 1918. This is quite a number of events that will be commemorated between 2014 and 2018. It could be like the Royal Wedding, Diamond Jubilee, Olympics, Princess Diana's funeral and the première of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse for four long years as the capitalist class endeavours to bolster British nationalism and militarism.
It is interesting to note that in 1964 for the fiftieth anniversary there were no commemorative events apart from the 26 episodes BBC documentary series The Great War, and in the same year film director Joseph Losey made King and Country set in the Great war with a marked anti-war sentiment.
Nationalist propaganda
Cameron's speech was a great example of capitalist class propaganda to induce that false solidarity of ‘we're all in it together’, to make ‘us’, the working class, identify ‘our’ interest not with our own class but with that of the interests of the ruling capitalist class through identification with the ‘we’ of the nation state. Words like ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘our’ are used all the way through Cameron's speech.
Celebrations such as the Royal Wedding, Olympics, and Diamond Jubilee are all part of making the working class identify with the nation state, and the normality and routine nature of donations to Help For Heroes or the Poppy Day Appeal all combine to create a powerful consensus in the nation state with its strong links to the military. It helps soften up the working class to accept the need for military action, as recently in Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran.
Cameron said in his speech ‘the Diamond Jubilee celebrated this year, says something about who we are as a people’. Actually, what it says is that we, the working class are subjects to a relic from feudalism, and that if we can be made to accept the inherited privilege of the Royal Family we can almost certainly accept the inequalities and exploitation of capitalism.
Cameron described a visit he made to Gallipoli in the following way: ‘the beaches we were meant to land at, the beaches we did land at’. It is as if you and I, the working class are private soldiers landing with subaltern Cameron in the Dardanelles.
Millions of pounds will be spent on events and educating school children in the capitalist history of the Great War, another generation will grow up not questioning capitalism or war and the links between them. Cameron emphasised that the Coalition Government would continue to maintain free access to museums despite Gradgrind and austere economic policies which shows how important the capitalists view the centenary of the Great War.
Cameron mentioned Rudyard Kipling, the Poet of Empire (‘send forth the best ye breed’) in the context of the War Graves Commission which is apt as he shares responsibility for the slaughter of the European working class in the Great War.
The Great War was a major disaster that befell ‘us‘, the working class in Britain and Europe. Millions were slaughtered or ‘sacrificed’ in the trenches. Cameron used the word ‘sacrifice’ seven times during his speech to refer to all this slaughter. They ‘gave their lives for us’, that is we, the working class did. Cameron talks about ‘us’, the working class of 1914 in the following terms;
‘for many going off to war was a rite of passage. Many of them were excited; they would eat better than they had when they were down the mines or in the textile mills. They would have access to better medical care’. Here Cameron distanced himself and by extension ‘us’ from the Great War with the use of ‘they’, the working class young men from the South Yorkshire coalfields or the Lancashire cotton towns. There is an acceptance from Cameron that in 1914, ‘they’, the working class, had it very hard, but with the implication that it's different today. But it isn't. Capitalism and the exploitation of the working class for their surplus value continues.
There are no veterans left alive today. Which is just as well for Cameron. Harry Patch, ‘the last fighting Tommy’ died in 2009 aged 111 years. He fought and was wounded at Passchendaele and is on record as saying things like: ‘War is a licence to go out and murder for the British government’ and ‘War isn't worth one life. It is the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings’.
The working class were ‘sacrificed’ for the interests of the capitalist class in the Great War.
Economic causes
The Socialist Standard of November 1914 pointed out that theSunday Chronicle of 30August 1914 let the cat out of the bag when they wrote the following; ‘the men in the trenches are fighting on behalf of the manufacturer, the mill owner, and the shopkeeper’.
Cameron does not question why there was war in 1914. The capitalist media and historians would have us believe that the Great War was caused by a combination of things like Prussian militarism, the 'German character' (whatever that is), blood feuds in the Balkans, diplomatic alliances that got out of control, and even idiosyncrasies in the Kaiser's personality.
Economic causes are the fundamental reason for the outbreak of the Great War. Even Keynes in 1936 identified ‘the competitive struggle for markets’ as the predominant factor in ‘the economic causes of war’. Fundamentally, the causes of the Great War lie with ‘bacon and steam trains’, or the Serbian Pork war with Austria where an Austrian trade embargo on Serbian livestock fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism, and the German building of the Berlin to Baghdad railway whose ultimate aim was Basra on the Persian Gulf which so terrified British commercial interests in the Middle East and threatened the route to India.
Cameron believes that the Great War is important for the ‘origins of a number of very significant advances’, which is all very calculating. Firstly, he cites the execution of Edith Cavell as important in ‘advancing the emancipation of women’ which ignores the war work women engaged in, the ‘middle class’ women of the Suffragette Movement, and the working class women who always had to work and their involvement in trade unionism. Secondly, he sees the death of the first black army officer, as the ‘beginnings of ethnic minorities getting recognition, respect and equality’ which is quite baffling. It would be more apt to point to Arthur Wharton, the first black professional football player who played for Preston North End in the 1880s. Thirdly, advances in medicine, and finally ‘advances in technology transformed the nature of war’ which Cameron will be glad about as he travels as the capitalist sales rep for arms manufacturers. He visited the Middle East and North Africa trying to sell the latest military hardware in February 2011 at the height of the ‘Arab Spring’, and he was in the Gulf in November trying to sell the same stuff to autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia.
Cameron proposed ‘friendly football matches to mark the famous 1914 Christmas Day truce’ which is rather ironic considering national rivalries in football are just displacement activities for war, witness the rivalries between England and Germany (two world wars), England and Argentina (Falklands War), and the most bitter of all that between Holland and Germany.
Cameron feels that ‘to us, today, it seems so inexplicable that countries which had many things binding them together could indulge in such a never-ending slaughter, but they did’. He adds that in Europe ‘we sort out our differences through dialogue and meetings around conference tables’. This is all rather disingenuous considering that war takes place outside Europe because that is where the resources are located. We have wars In North Africa and the Middle East, in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. And is Iran next?
In August 1919 the Socialist Standard wrote ‘while competition between capitalist groups for routes, markets, and control of raw materials exists, the cause of war remains’.
As socialists ‘we’ recognise the truth of what Marx wrote in 1848 that we, that is, the working class, ‘have no fatherland’. It is about our identity. We should use terms like ‘we’ and ‘our’ in relation to our class not the nation state and the capitalist class.
Steve Clayton

Is capitalism crumbling?

From the March 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Leftwingers are calling for the nationalisation of the banks. They may get their way. And then?
The severe economic crisis has dominated newspaper headlines – day after day for at least the past six months – like no other story in recent history. The massive layoffs, losses and bankruptcies have grown as familiar as the daily death-count in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ranks of the unemployed are overflowing and no job seems secure.

Not only is the situation spinning out of control, but workers are being reminded how little control they have over their lives. Their own futures are in the hands of business leaders and politicians, who themselves can do nothing more than follow the inhuman impulses of capital.

One bright spot, however, is the market for solution-peddlers and doom-prophesiers, which is booming. On the one hand, there are the experts claiming to know the secret for getting capitalism back on its feet and curing the system of its manic-depressive tendencies; while on the other hand, there is the minority that views the crisis as the beginning of the final collapse of capitalism.

The pages of this magazine, in contrast to that commotion, might seem calm, or even complacent. As in the quieter days before the crisis, we continue to advocate socialism in much the same tone and with the same arguments. Some readers might be wondering how this crisis affects socialists and how we are responding to it. How do we differ from those offering to solve the crisis or from those who say we are witnessing the end of capitalism?

Reformist solutions
As workers, socialists do not necessarily relish an economic crisis, as we face unemployment or wage cuts like everyone else. Being a socialist does not equip a person with a protective force-field to block the harmful consequences of capitalism. There’s no question that the working class, including socialists, will suffer the most from this crisis.

It is in this atmosphere of anxiety that reformists of all kinds step up to offer sure-fire ways to relieve capitalism of its hangover and keep it sober forever more. Most on the Left remain confident that greater intervention and regulation on the part of the state will pretty much do the trick, pointing to how well it apparently worked back in the 1930s. That is certainly debatable, but these ideas will probably be tested by reality soon enough. Even if such measures are more or less effective, the crisis still may drag on for several years – although no one is really in a position to make clear predictions.

The clear aim of reformists is to get capitalism back on its feet again, yet many on the Left like to spice up their own Keynesian reformism with revolutionary rhetoric. They are able to get away with this thanks to the widespread misconception that any involvement by the state in the economy is “socialistic.”

The more imaginative reformists have viewed bank nationalization, for instance, as an integral part of measures to both overcome the crisis and put in place a new system of socialist production – rather than being a temporary measure to prop up the crumbling financial system. Their brand of “socialism” may be very attractive as it offers something for everyone, but they are in fact peddling a form of state capitalism under a false label.

Take the Socialist Equality Party in the US, for instance, which back in September, at the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, confidently issued the following demand as part of a “socialist program”:
“The entire financial system must be taken out of private hands and nationalized in the form of a public utility under the democratic control of the working class, with provisions taken to safeguard the holdings of small depositors and share-holders. It must be subordinated to the social needs of the people and dedicated to developing and expanding the productive forces in order to eliminate poverty and unemployment and vastly improve the living standards and cultural level of the entire population.” (“The Wall Street Crisis and the Failure of American Capitalism”)

The author, Barry Grey, presents this demand as one part of a “socialist program that places the needs of the people before the profits and personal fortunes of the ruling elite,” necessary because “there is no solution within the framework of the profit system” to the “crisis of the American economic and political system.” So we can only suppose his nationalized financial system is operating in a “socialist” society (or a society that follows a “socialist program”).

But with socialism like this, who needs capitalism! There will still be a financial system, so one would have to assume that goods are paid for with money and thus produced for the market. There would be no need for any of that in a society where things are produced to directly meet people’s needs, as democratically determined by them. It may sound nice to say that the financial system will take the “form of a public utility under the democratic control of the working class” and be “subordinated to the social needs of the people”, but what would that mean in practice? (Even that “socialist program” sounds a bit dodgy, with its promise to “place the needs of the people before the profits and personal fortunes of the ruling elite,” as it assumes the continued existence of a wealthy ruling elite.)

Perhaps we should compliment the Socialist Equality Party for being “ahead of the curve” on this nationalization issue, as any good “vanguard party” should be, now that many capitalist governments are thinking about implementing that measure. And we might compliment them further if bank nationalization succeeds in stabilizing the financial system. But this organization and so many like it deserve our contempt for dressing up reformist measures to look revolutionary. Their sweet-sounding promises only block the path to revolution by utterly distorting the meaning of socialism.

A collapsing theory
On the other extreme from the reformists, or at least it would seem, are those who argue the final collapse of capitalism has begun and that efforts to prop up the system are doomed to fail.

The reasons given for this inevitable collapse vary quite a bit, however. Some argue, as many Marxists did back in the 1930s, that it is the result of capitalism’s internal contradictions, such as the tendency towards a declining rate of profit. But many more, including the adherents of peak oil theory, view the collapse as the result of capitalism colliding with some outside force that prevents the further accumulation and expansion that is the lifeblood of the system. 

Not only are there a myriad of reasons offered to explain the inevitable collapse, but there are starkly different conclusions reached about what will replace capitalism. There are those who see the collapse as radicalising the population and bringing workers around to a revolutionary standpoint; while others depict a prolonged period of social anarchy or even a return to a pre-industrial life, and advise people to head to the hills after stocking up on gold, guns and vegetable seeds.

Regardless of those particular differences, however, the idea of an inevitable collapse of capitalism clearly implies that a great historical change could take place regardless of our actions. Instead of socialism replacing capitalism, based on the conscious decisions and actions of workers, we would have capitalism ending at some point, and that collapse then stimulating a great social change – for better or worse.

One might wonder, though, what sort of society would exist in the interim, however brief it might be, between the collapse of the old and the emergence of the new. It would be “non-capitalist,” one would assume, but what would be the dividing line between the two? Is it possible for a society to not be capitalist, but still not be anything else either?

The reason for much of the confusion among the “catastrophists,” as they are sometimes called, is that – just like the reformists who confuse nationalization with socialism – they do not have a clear understanding of what capitalism is, exactly. That is to say, instead of understanding capitalism on the most essential level, as a system of commodity production in the pursuit of profit, they get caught up in the various forms of capitalism, and imagine that some are more capitalistic than others.

It is certainly true that forms of capitalism or particular governments can collapse, but this should not be viewed as the collapse of capitalism itself. There are many examples of collapses to choose from, most notably the fall of the Weimer government in Germany that was followed by a fascist regime. For over a decade, Germany went through economic crisis, political upheaval, and a catastrophic war. With no exaggeration, one can speak of that period as a collapse of civilization. Yet throughout it all the capitalist system remained intact.

It is easier to speak of the “collapse of capitalism” if a person has no clear idea of what capitalism means. And if its meaning is unclear, then the understanding of socialism will also be a muddle (just like those reformists who mistake state capitalism for socialism). It is important, therefore, to distinguish between an economic or political collapse, and the end of capitalism itself, which only workers can bring about by replacing it with socialism.

Optimism in depression
The criticism of those two tendencies might lead some to believe that we offer no solution to the crisis, or that we ignore the objective factors of reality and overemphasize the subjective ones.

We do in fact have a solution to this crisis and to economic crisis in general. But our approach to the problem is similar to how we approach other problems, such as the destruction of the environment or war, in that we do not propose a separate solution for each problem. This isn’t because we are indifferent to the problems, but because we recognize the relation between individual problems and the capitalist system.

In a sense, to solve one problem requires the solution of all of them. The fundamental solution to the problem of crisis, for instance, requires the introduction of a new system of production and consumption no longer mediated by the market, where there would no longer be any basis for crises. In other words, socialism is the solution to this particular crisis and the problem of crisis itself, along with every other social problem that is specific to capitalism.

As for objective versus subjective elements, we would certainly recognize that the objective reality of the crisis will have an impact on how people view capitalism. This new situation may create a more favourable environment for explaining socialism.

Already, in the past six months, there has been a tremendous shift in “public opinion”, so that now it is almost fashionable to rebuke bankers for their greed and ignorance. There is no question that more people than ever are wondering whether capitalism is indeed the best of all possible worlds.

Of course, even while the changing reality has stimulated thought and debate, the conclusions people are reaching vary. Many see the crisis as the bankruptcy of “neo-liberalism”, rather than capitalism itself, while the religious minded might even say it is punishment from God. No matter how much the objective reality may influence ideas and test theories, it will not directly deposit the concept of socialism in a person’s mind.

So we still have the task of explaining socialism, and it is more important than ever as workers suffer under the crisis. That explanation, as always, is based on the recognition of the fundamental contradictions and limitations of capitalism, and the realization that this (obsolete) system cannot be reformed beyond a certain point. It is during a crisis that those contradictions and limitations are most evident. Marx describes how the “contradictions and antagonisms of bourgeois production are strikingly revealed” during a crisis of the world market, which is a moment when there is a “real concentration and forcible adjustment” of those contradictions (Theories of Surplus Value).

With the problems so plain to see, and the limitations of capitalism so palpable, the explanation of socialism as the solution may very well begin to seem more concrete and practical – and urgent – than before.
Michael Schauerte