From the March 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Be reasonable: if we hadn’t said we wouldn’t bring you here, you wouldn’t have come.” — Left-wing leaders to workers, passim.
The Left is saying the crisis is coming; and from that crisis the workers will rise to overthrow, cast off the yoke, destroy the juggernaut of capital, et cetera. There comes to mind, irresistibly, the futile drama of all the times before. The Communist speaker of the ’thirties, proclaiming that civilisation now stood at the brink, imparting to his hearers that the capitalist system was tottering and all that was needed was a good push. Syndicalist doomster in the post-war years, impressively pointing to the approaching crisis as one of capitalism itself: the phrase conveying certainty that the machine would now grind to a halt, its cogs gummed-up with (probably) an excess of the seeds of its own decay.
This continual resurrection of old beliefs is one of the many chronic diseases of the Left. Each generation rediscovers the theories which proved sterile for its predecessors. The failure is never attributed to the error of the theory itself. Those who followed it were “betrayed”, or the time was unforeseeably not ripe; but now it will be written on banners to make the revolution. Yet this theory of the climacteric crisis—“the death agony of capitalism”—and its revolutionary consequence is perhaps the most hopeless of all. What is involved is dual misunderstanding: of the nature of economic crises and the nature of the socialist revolution.
The form of the argument today is as follows. Capitalism is now acutely pressed between a falling rate of profit and workers’ wage demands. Glyn and Sutcliffe put it thus in British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze:
Our argument in this book is that British capitalism has suffered such a dramatic decline in profitability that it is now literally fighting for survival. This crisis has developed because mounting demands from the working class for a faster growth in living standards has coincided with growing competition between capitalist countries.
In such a crisis the capitalist class responds, largely through the government, by seeking to force down working-class living standards. Its aim is to draw the teeth of organised labour and reduce wages, and to create unemployment. In the preface to The Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, reprinted in November 1972 by the Socialist Labour League, C. Slaughter asserts:
Yet capitalism must seek precisely to restore those conditions and much worse, this time at a level determined by the even more violent rebellion of the productive forces, stifled by monopoly capitalism.
However, the fact that wage demands and strikes have gone on increasing shows that the workers will have none of this downward pressure on them. The claimed inevitability, therefore, is that as the crisis heightens it must become an open struggle between the crippled giant capitalism and the insistent working class. “Perspectives for the Transformation of the SLL into a Revolutionary Party”, taking up six pages of the Workers’ Press on 3rd February, says:
The British capitalist class, gripped by insoluble world economic crisis, and mortally afraid of the organised strength of the undefeated working class of today, has resolved to destroy these rights . . . The international crisis forces the classes to confront each other in direct conflict.
The belief that the falling rate of profit must produce an ultimate crisis “of capitalism itself” is by no means new Drawn from the section headed “The Law of the Falling Tendency of the Rate of Profit” in Volume III of Marx’s Capital, it was put forward in the 'thirties in John Strachey’s The Nature of Capitalist Crises—a book which was strongly influential on the Left of the time. Then as now the contention was that the downward movement continually approached points where accumulation, the driving force of capitalism, failed; and that these crises would become more and more severe, presaging the eventual downfall of the system.
But this was not Marx’s view. In that section of Capital he listed “counteracting influences at work, which thwart and annul the effects of this general law, leaving to it merely the character of a tendency”. They include a higher intensity of exploitation; cheapening of the elements of constant capital (i.e. machinery, tools, etc.), largely by foreign trade; the existence of a pool of cheap labour-power (“relative overpopulation”) which is used to set up new industries with a higher rate of profit. All these counter-tendencies have been in operation in recent years, leaving the situation as Marx described:
. . . that the same causes, which bring about a tendency of the rate of profit to fall, also check the realisation of this tendency.
We are left, then, with an inherent inclination instead of an uncheckable headlong descent to disaster. And in practice, within the framework of that inclination, the rate of profit has its ups and downs like everything else.
The prediction of crises is an unsuccessful business. Left-wing militants often cite Marx’s writing in the Communist Manifesto of “the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on trial, each time more threateningly”. However, during fifty years both Marx’s and Engels’s views on crises altered in the face of events. From a belief that they became more frequent, Marx changed to an approximate ten-year recurrence. Engels in the eighteen-eighties was saying that the cycles had ended and “permanent and chronic depression” arrived, only to return to the ten-year view.
Modern attempts to predict crises or discover a pattern have done no better. Indeed, one of the reasons for the decline of the Left for several years between the end of the last war and the early ’sixties was simply its reliance that a depression would turn up and restore the traditional field for agitation. It can be remarked that events have not turned out as prophesied even in the short time since the publication of British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze. The authors lean heavily on the effects of growing unemployment :
But as these forms of income grow, side by side with redundancies and unemployment for more and more workers, they come to demonstrate more conclusively the essentially parasitic nature of the capitalist class.
Yet since that was written the number of unemployed has fallen. If that is the yardstick, a quarter of a million workers no longer have the parasitism shown to them.
Wages and Profits
The belief that wage increases can cripple capitalism is also untrue. Obviously there is a sense in which capitalists would like workers to work for nothing, and in industries like agriculture low wages are a result of workers’ inability to organise effectively to resist the downward pressure. But obtaining substantial increases does not necessarily mean proportional inroads on employers’ profits. F. W. Paish in Studies in an Inflationary Economy (1966 edition) writes:
In fact we find that, between 1953 and 1955, income from wages rose by 17 per cent and gross trading profits of companies by over 24 per cent. There is no evidence here that wage increases were at the expense of profits. It is rather that wages went up, not so much because trade unions asked for higher wages as because employers could afford to pay them.
Paish is here refuting the view that wage demands are the cause of inflation. It can be argued, of course, that the profits would have been higher had the wage increases been less. But—and this is part of the fallacy of seeing catastrophe in a falling rate of profit—capitalism has no optimum profit figure which must be sustained. From where does a rise ascend or a fall descend? Expectations are no doubt created by precedent, but in practice the satisfactory figure is the best one obtainable in the current circumstances.
The position is that in times of expanding production and full order-books, employers will grant increases with little argument rather than risk hold-ups in production. In the opposite situation they will resist demands—thereby creating an illusion that it is the workers who are starting to fight. At the present time British capitalism is undoubtedly going through such a phase, principally through the effects of foreign competition. But that is the normal cycle of capitalism, not a revolutionary situation.
Prophecies are sometimes borne out by coincidence. If a severe depression were to happen and unemployment grow to mass proportions in Britain in the near future, is the working class ready for what the SLL’s writer (preface to The Transitional Programme) calls “the impending revolutionary battles”?
The chief source of the optimism of militant organisations is the growth of industrial action over wages and conditions. They point to the fact that the number of working days lost through strikes has risen steadily from 6 million in 1969 to 13,600,000 in 1971 and will almost certainly have exceeded 20 million in 1972. However, a glance at the figures for pre-war years would lessen this euphoria. In the decade 1921-30—described by Glyn and Sutcliffe as “a period of crisis in some ways similar to the present”— an average of 31 million days a year were lost from strikes and lock-outs. Relatively the excess over the present was greater, because there are now many more trade unionists and a higher incidence of unofficial strikes.
If the similarity to the present can be noted as significant, it must be worth noting also what ensued from the unrest of the ’twenties. They were characterised by depressed trade, high unemployment and terrible poverty among the working class. For the reason already given that in such times the employers strongly resist wage demands, all the strikes produced less than nothing: wages as a whole fell by about 20 per cent. Nevertheless, the political militants of the period were urging workers into "revolutionary battles” with the cry that the capitalist system was gripped by a crisis from which it would never recover.
The excitement generated by this conviction is shown in quotations given in our 1932 pamphlet Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse. Palme Dutt, the Communist Party theoretician, wrote in Labour Monthly in such terms as “the fight is here”, “the whole system is faced with collapse”, “the hour of desperate crisis begins”. James Maxton, the ILP MP, was reported in a newspaper: “ 'They may postpone the collapse for a month, two months, three months, six months,’ he cried, forefinger pointing at his audience, and body crouched, ‘but collapse is sure and certain.’ ” And what happened? After each wave of discontent the hollowness of the theory was admitted by all those who had held it. A writer about the unemployed in the Communists’ Workers’ Weekly put it:
They have attended innumerable meetings and have been told to be "solid”. They have marched to London, enduring terrible hardships . . . All this has led nowhere.
Poverty and Consciousness
What is appalling—less objectionable only than the glorification of war—is to find the prospect of a crisis hailed enthusiastically by Left groups. In paranoid hopes of some kind of victory for themselves, they speak eagerly of a situation which would mean destitution for huge numbers of working people. While it is true that the Social Security system has taken the sharpest edge off unemployment in recent years, it should be remembered that in the pre-war depression unemployment pay was reduced and the Means Test applied rigorously. There is nothing attractive or exciting about a slump.
The easy assumption is that extreme poverty will make workers rebel against capitalism and flock to “revolutionary” leaders. All the evidence is against it. If it were true the Gorbals, Liverpool, Falls Road and the tied farm cottages of England would be full of revolutionaries. In the hungry era between the two world wars, the majority of the working class elected Conservative (or “National”) governments except for two short spells of Labour rule. Unpalatable as it may be, what the unemployed worker seeks is work and relief from his acute immediate problem, not to be assaulted further in an ideological battle. Dr. E. W. Bakke, in his 1932 Greenwich study The Unemployed Man, wrote:
But when the invitation was issued by the agitators in Greenwich for men to take part in what was termed the largest demonstration of the year, there were only ten men from that community at the appointed meeting-place. Ten men are not conspicuous among the more than 3,000 unemployed in Greenwich.
That does not mean conditions are irrelevant. Socialist consciousness starts from indignation at the consequences of capitalism; but until feeling has given way to understanding, consciousness does not exist. The aim of the crisis-struck Left is to foster blind revolt, from which not Socialism but only defeat and disillusionment can result. The real need is for working men and women to comprehend that, in or out of crisis, the capitalist system must always frustrate hopes of a satisfactory life. As William Morris prescribed it:
Intelligence enough to conceive, courage enough to will, power enough to compel . . . and then, I say, the thing will be done.