We have entered a critical and qualitatively different stage in the crisis of capitalism. The world economy is in free fall, at a rate that surpasses anything we have ever experienced before.
The Bank of England has forecast that the British economy will experience its deepest recession in 300 years - in fact, since the ‘Great Frost’ of 1709 - with output set to plunge almost 30 per cent in the first half of this year alone. This makes 1929 and the Great Depression look like a tea party by comparison.
This is truly staggering by any measure. But it is not only in Britain. Every country on the planet will be affected, on a scale and scope that is unprecedented.
This is a capitalist crisis, triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. The world economy was moving into recession before the pandemic, and all the contradictions of the previous period were already preparing the grounds for a new collapse. The pandemic simply served as a trigger and aggravated the existing crisis, accelerating the process, simultaneously bringing all the underlying contradictions to the surface.
This world slump, much deeper than 1929-33, is very likely to provoke a new Great Depression. The apologists of capitalism are attempting to put a gloss on the crisis. The strategists at the Bank of England, for example, think that there will be a ‘V’ shaped recovery where, after a deep slump, the economy will bounce back quickly. This reflects their own wishful thinking rather than the real perspective ahead.
Dislocation and decline
We could easily be heading for trade wars, the outlines of which are already in place with Trump’s attacks on China and his threats against Europe. Each capitalist country will attempt to place the burden on their competitors - and, ultimately, on the shoulders of the working class.
The epoch of globalisation has given rise to an epoch of dislocation, gaping inequality and intensified rivalries. These are features of the death agony of capitalism. The bourgeoisie is leading society to complete bankruptcy.
This crisis is going to inflict ever greater deprivations and suffering upon the masses of all countries. Unemployment in the United States is already affecting 33 million workers, and this will rise even more.
Mass unemployment will affect all countries as their economies dramatically decline. This will not be temporary, but structural unemployment. The productive forces are in decline everywhere, as factory after factory is closed, and production collapses.
One thing we can be absolutely certain about is that this is not going to be a short-term crisis. It will be extremely deep, with effects that will last years and decades to come.
No one alive today has ever experienced such a situation. 2008-9 was nothing by comparison. These events constitute an enormous shock that is affecting millions of people. Whatever security they may have had will have vanished overnight.
These hammer blows will radically transform the consciousness of the masses, who now face the stark reality of another capitalist crisis, coming on top of a decade of austerity.
Millions of people, who never considered themselves as being interested in politics, will become very political and very radicalised. Some layers will be drawing revolutionary conclusions. While different sections will draw different conclusions at different times, the overall tendency will be in the same direction.
The biggest danger for socialists is to lag behind the situation, to believe that things are going to return to ‘normal’. We have to understand that we have entered an entirely new epoch.
We have been preparing for such events for more than 50 years, and now they have finally arrived, where capitalism in crisis is revealing its real nature to millions of people.
The objective situation that is maturing can be characterised as a pre-revolutionary one. The present crisis at all levels is a clear indication of this.
That does not mean that a revolution is on the cards at 9am on Monday morning. The revolutionary epoch we have entered will be protracted with many ups and downs, and even periods of despair and reaction. It will not be a straight line, as the masses learn only from their own experience.
The post-war period, when capitalism was able to overcome, at least partially, its contradictions - especially the barriers of the nation state and private ownership of the means of production - has come to an abrupt end. The capitalist system has exhausted itself.
The present crisis represents a return to the real nature of capitalism, and is not an exception. This marks a fundamental change. It is necessary to pose this question squarely before the advanced workers and youth.
However, we must also explain that, although it is facing a crisis of historical proportions, capitalism will not collapse of its own volition. The system will need to be consciously and actively overthrown.
Reform or revolution?
Our criticism of the present-day left leaders within the labour movement is that they are living in the past and seek to reform the capitalist system. This is impossible.
It is ironic that they call the Marxists utopian, when it is they who are the utopians. They look for any ‘solution’ except the only solution, which is the elimination of capitalism and the introduction of a rational socialist plan of production.
There is no middle road in this epoch. We must always say what is and tell the truth to the working class. The labour and trade union leaders attempt to lull the working class to sleep, spreading false hopes in the future. While the working class senses catastrophe, they give out platitudes.
Of course, this does not mean that we do not fight for reforms - economic or otherwise. On the contrary, this is vital. Without the struggle for day-to-day demands there can be no overall struggle for socialism.
However, the struggle for these reforms must be linked to the need to change society. All the social reforms of the past were won through militant class struggle.
On a capitalist basis, nonetheless, what the bosses are forced to concede with the right hand, they will always attempt to take back with the left. The capitalists are prepared to concede something to the workers only when they feel threatened with the danger of losing everything.
In the current situation, one of the most relevant documents for today is the Transitional Programme, written by Trotsky in 1938, which should be read and studied.
The essence of the Transitional Programme was to raise demands that could serve as a bridge from the present consciousness to the need for the socialist revolution.
This was based upon the Bolshevik approach, as outlined in Lenin’s article The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, written in September 1917. It was also based on the Theses of the Third International in its heyday. Of course, this was linked to mass work, but there are nevertheless important lessons for today.
Firstly, the working class must not pay for the capitalist crisis. Therefore, what is needed is not warm words, but a fighting programme that corresponds to the real conditions of decaying capitalism. The reality now is that even the most modest improvements of life for working people are incompatible with the existence of capitalist society.
The Transitional Programme opens with the fact that there is a historical crisis of leadership of the working class. This remains the case today. The ruling class in 1938 was tobogganing towards disaster with its eyes closed. And that is once again the case now. Without a fundamental change, we face a catastrophe.
In his discussions on the Transitional Programme and how to apply it in the United States, Trotsky outlined the approach that should be taken.
“What are the tasks? The strategic task consists of helping the masses, of adapting their mentality politically and psychologically to the objective situation, of overcoming the prejudicial traditions of the American workers, and of adapting it to the objective situation of the social crisis of the whole system.”
The need to change society must be rooted in the demands we put forward today. If the capitalists refuse to pay workers and hide their profits away, we should demand they open their books to be inspected by the workers.
“Yes, the capitalists do [open their books] in two instances: when the situation of the factory is really bad, or if they can deceive the workers. But the question must be put from a more general point of view. In the first place, you have millions of unemployed, and the government claims it cannot pay more, and the capitalists say that they cannot make more contributions—we want to have access to the bookkeeping of this society. The control of income should be organised through factory committees.
“Workers will say: We want our statisticians who are devoted to the working class. If a branch of industry shows that it is really ruined, then we answer: We propose to expropriate you. We will direct better than you. Why have you no profit? Because of the chaotic condition of capitalist society.
“We say: Commercial secrets are a conspiracy of the exploiters against the exploited, of the producers against the toilers. In the free era, in the era of competition, they claimed they needed secrecy for production. But now they do not have secrets among themselves but only from society.
“This transitional demand is also a step for the workers’ control of production as the preparatory plan for the direction of industry. Everything must be controlled by the workers, who will be the masters of society tomorrow.
“To call for the conquest of power—that seems to the American workers illegal, fantastic. But if you say: the capitalists refuse to pay for the unemployed, and hide their real profits from the state and from the workers by dishonest bookkeeping; the workers will understand that formula.
“If we say to the farmer: the banks fools you. They have very big profits. And we propose to you that you create farmers’ committees to look into the bookkeeping of the banks. Every farmer will understand that. We will say: the farmer can trust only himself; let him create committees to control agricultural credits—they will understand that. It presupposes a turbulent mood among the farmers; it cannot be accomplished every day.”
(The Transitional Programme for socialist revolution, pp.85-86)
The crisis in Britain and internationally is becoming acute. Under the hammer blows of events, workers are drawing radical conclusions. It is true that consciousness is very conservative, but it can and will be dramatically transformed by big events.
“The class consciousness of the proletariat is backward,” wrote Trotsky, “but consciousness is not such a substance as the factories, the mines, the railroads; it is more mobile, and under the blows of the objective crisis, the millions of unemployed, it can change rapidly.” (Ibid, p.157)
The objective conditions have never been as ripe for revolutionary class struggle as they are today. Consciousness, which always lags behind, will therefore tend to catch up explosively. Such is the lesson of dialectics, where quantity changes into quality in leaps.
Of course, the most pressing thing for workers at this particular moment in time is how to deal with the coronavirus. Urgent action and bold measures are required to protect ourselves. This in turn should be linked to a clear socialist programme that can offer a way forward. First of all we must state boldly:
- No trust or confidence in this Tory government and their big business backers!
- Labour must not participate in any national government. No coalition or deals with the Tories!
The bosses and their craven political representatives have shown that they will always prioritise profits over lives. We demand emergency measures to protect workers and put health before wealth.
- For a fully publicly-owned health service, under workers’ control and management. Abolish private healthcare providers. Reverse all privatisation and outsourcing. All health services must be nationalised without compensation, and integrated into the NHS. Nationalise the pharmaceutical companies, without compensation.
- Reverse the austerity inflicted upon public services. Provide a massive increase in resources to the NHS to meet the needs of the crisis.
- Launch a fully-funded training programme for doctors, nurses, paramedics, medical staff, with decent pay and hours, to increase staffing levels across the board. New hospitals must be urgently built.
- Expropriate any venues used as emergency hospitals, without compensation, so that they can be used for the needs of the people. Where necessary, hotels and mansions should be requisitioned and converted to care homes, sanatoriums, and shelters for the homeless.
- No to speculation! Democratically-elected consumer committees to be established to check prices and enforce price controls. If the bosses refuse to comply, then the big supermarkets and pharmacies must be nationalised and put under workers’ control.
- All non-essential workplaces to be closed immediately. All remaining workplaces to establish workplace committees, to establish workers’ control and management. These must have the power to ensure the implementation of health and safety measures, and a safe working environment, with social distancing in place and the necessary PPE guaranteed for all.
- Workers sent home should be on full pay for as long as necessary. Those out of work, including the self-employed, should be fully paid by the state.
- The financial resources required for this must not come from increased taxes or more austerity, but through the nationalisation of the banks and finance houses! Rather than a ‘wealth tax’, we call for the expropriation of the monopolies.
- Rather than building up the national debt, the money needed should be obtained entirely from the profits of the bosses. Big businesses are sitting on combined cash reserves of £700 billion - accumulated profits made from the exploitation of the working class. These assets should be expropriated for the public good.
- As mass unemployment takes hold following the epidemic, work should be shared out without any loss of pay, in order to lower the hours of the working day, and provide jobs for all.
- Many small businesses are faced with bankruptcy, with banks resisting any extensions of credit. Many are squeezed not only by the banks, but by the big monopolies. By nationalising the banks we can supply these small businesses with the lifeline of guaranteed low-interest credit and loans.
- If the bosses say they can’t afford to pay for workers’ wages, we say: open up the books! Let the working class and the labour movement see the accounts! If firms plead bankruptcy, they should not be bailed out, but nationalised under workers’ control.
- No to austerity! The working class must not pay for this crisis!
It is clear that the market has failed and capitalism is in a deep crisis. The anarchy of capitalism prevents the planning of society’s resources, in Britain and internationally.
- We therefore stand for the nationalisation of the 100 biggest monopolies, banks, utilities, big landlords and so on—under workers’ control and management—and without compensation. On this basis, the economy can be democratically planned in the interests of the majority, and not for the super-profits of a few.
- A Socialist Federation of Britain should be linked to a Socialist United States of Europe and a World Socialist Federation, in order to plan resources internationally for the benefit of all. This would put an end to barbarism of capitalism and allow humanity to begin solving the urgent issues of climate change, disease, and poverty that face society and our planet.
Building the forces of Marxism
Clearly, in putting forward our programme, we need to differentiate ourselves from the lefts, who try to limit themselves to what is possible within the confines of capitalism. We don’t simply want the crumbs, we want the bakery. We don’t simply want to tax the rich, we want to expropriate them.
“All methods are good which raise the class-consciousness of the workers, their trust in their own forces, their readiness for self-sacrifice in the struggle,” explained Trotsky. “The impermissible methods are those which implant fear and submissiveness in the oppressed in the face of the oppressors…”
As to the viability of the demands we put forward, Trotsky argued:
“If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. ‘Realisability’ or ‘unrealisability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter its immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.” (Transitional Programme)
The situation that confronts us is like nothing we have ever experienced. As we have explained many times, the working class learns not from books but from events. The impending events will throw up many questions, and the working class, especially the youth, will draw very radical, and even revolutionary conclusions.
“Such shake-ups are of very great importance,” explained Trotsky. “They shake off their conservativeness; they force them to seek an account of what is happening, what is the perspective. And every such shake-up pushes some stratum of the workers onto the revolutionary road.”
Our task is to connect with the advanced layers and later, through them, the wider layers. But for us to do that effectively, we must build up the forces of Marxism. For every one we can educate and train in these ideas now, we will be in a position to win hundreds and thousands as the situation unfolds.
The key question remains the vital importance of Marxist theory, which is the generalised historical experience of the working class. This is the bedrock upon which a powerful Marxist tendency can be built. “Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement,” explained Lenin.
The Transitional Programme was adopted as a means of turning the small forces of Trotskyism, in wartime conditions, towards the masses. For us, at this stage, what is important is the method of the Transitional Programme, which allows for a dialogue with workers and allows the Marxist tendency to reach out to new layers, linking the day-to-day demands to the need for socialist revolution.
Socialism or barbarism
Britain is heading towards a pre-revolutionary situation, as are many other countries, one that will last for some time. Marxists must rise to the tasks posed by history.
Episodic improvements are possible, even inevitable. But the overall curve is towards decline and impoverishment.
With the correct ideas and methods, combined with audacity and energy, especially towards the youth, a mass Marxist tendency can be built in the years ahead, and become an important factor in the situation.
If capitalism is allowed to continue on its present course, this would mean further crisis and unbearable hardship for the working class, and could eventually lead to the complete disintegration of European civilisation.
The only choice facing humankind is between socialism and barbarism.