In any historical period, the dominant ideas are those of the ruling class. In 1989 the world was treated to the words of Francis Fukuyama, who published an essay with the title 'The end of history?' His argument was not that historical events had literally stopped happening but that the collapse of so-called 'communism' in the Soviet union meant that western liberal democracy had successfully established itself as the ultimate and ideal form of government. With all the other forms of political rule having been discredited, it was only a matter of time before Western liberal democracy spread to the entire world, he argued. Wars, inequality and injustice, starvation and avoidable death through disease would soon be things of the past. Marxism, with its ideas of the class basis of society, of class conflict and of the need for economic and political revolution to bring about a democratically planned and controlled socialist society lay totally discredited he declared, gloatingly.
Fukuyama's anti-socialist triumphalism was music to the ears of the advocates of capitalism everywhere. The 'captains of industry' pride themselves on being hard-headed practical people who get things done and have little time for fancy talk or fancy theories. However even they sometimes feel the need to provide some kind of moral, historical or theoretical justification for the consequences of ‘free market’ economics. That is when their client so-called intellectuals are hauled out of the universities, dusted down and allowed to give the wider world the benefits of their 'wisdom'. Every dog has his day and this was Fukuyama's.
Time and reality inevitably have dealt unkindly with Fukuyama's theories. Capitalism, on a global scale and increasingly dominated by multinationals possessing the power to dictate to national governments, has continued to subject the world to civil and international wars that have killed millions; to headlong exploitation of natural resources and environmental pollution that threaten the future existence of the globe; to untold luxury for tiny minorities and despair and desperation for huge swathes of the population particularly in the so-called 'developing economies'; and now to growing economic uncertainty and insecurity even in the advanced countries.
Economic ideas and theories are used to serve the material interests of conflicting classes. No matter how flawed or false, if repeated often enough they can develop a power of their own and become the accepted wisdom of the day. Fukuyama's ideas, despite being absurd, served the world of capitalism well at the time.
In the UK the late 1980s, when Fukuyama advanced his ideas, and the subsequent decade and more have been difficult times for the labour and trade union movement. They were still recovering from the severe defeats inflicted by the Tories on organised labour, the miners in particular. Neil Kinnock and other Labour Party leaders had launched an attack against the Marxists in the Labour party with the enthusiastic support of the capitalist press.
This action was followed up by various constitutional and organisational changes in the Labour Party, which strangled criticism of the leadership and stifled political discussion, leading to a decline in membership and activity. Many good socialists who were long-term activists dropped out of politics altogether in disgust or simply in disillusionment. Strikes and industrial militancy were at a low level. At the time the economy was undergoing a boom which may have been built on quicksand but nevertheless spread the 'feel-good' factor, as large numbers of working people experienced improvements in their living standards and expectations.
In these circumstances the general drift of Fukuyama's ideas, which should have been discredited the moment he uttered them, evoked something of an echo with certain elements both on the right and the left of the labour movement. Strikes and even trade unions, it was 'explained’, were now outdated and irrelevant. Workers had been 'bought off' with consumerism. Human beings, they argued, are by nature greedy and selfish. Socialist ideas were a thing of the past, they said, because 'we're all middle class now.'
Without any worked-out political theory, it is inevitable that even many genuine socialists will be blown hither and thither, enthused when things go well and confused and disillusioned when they don't. Only Marxism provides a method of objectively analysing economic, social and political processes and identifying the most likely developments among the various possibilities.
So far as the UK is concerned, the next few years could be very different from the past period. We appear to be entering a period of economic instability. The economy is likely to grow only fitfully. Price inflation is already biting and the collapse of Northern Rock is evidence of the fragility of finance capital. House prices are falling. The capitalists are confused and pessimistic about their own system, but one thing we can be sure of is that they will try to solve the problems of their system by attacking the living standards of the working class. We can be equally certain that the working class will fight back.
Answering Fukuyama on the one hand, and those genuine socialists who have grown pessimistic over the last period on the other, social changes have taken place that are likely to have a bearing on the forthcoming struggles. Far from the working class having disappeared, the reality is that proletarianisation has taken place. Workers are now subject to harsher discipline and ever more demanding work rates as productivity increases. Relative differentials in pay and status have been eroded. No longer can so-called 'professional' workers such as teachers stand aloof because of their relative social and economic privilege. Huge numbers in low-paid and low-status jobs such as those in call centres or massive open-plan offices experience conditions which are an updated version of the industrial employment which Marx and Engels studied in the nineteenth century and out of which class consciousness developed. Advanced technology has given some small groups of skilled workers the potential to bring key areas of the economy to a halt. Far from us all being middle class now, a recent Guardian poll showed that over two-thirds of those interviewed regarded themselves as 'working class and proud of it.'
For Marxists, conditions determine consciousness. However this theory is not applied as though it is simply automatic. Already we have witnessed a rise in industrial militancy among teachers, civil servants and the Scottish oil refinery workers, for example. Workers will not simply stand by and watch the value of their wages being eroded through inflation, nor will they lie down and accept the job losses that are likely to be threatened if the economic stutter turns into a full-scale crisis. There will be setbacks but workers largely develop class consciousness through the experience of shared struggle. Their experiences in a period of what could be real instability are likely to contrast starkly with what they have seen and known in recent times.
Of course the labour movement has been relatively quiescent over the past decade. As the mood changes however trade union branches kept going by a few stalwarts are likely to be revived, trades councils could become the centre of local struggles and trade union leaders will be forced to reflect and lead an aroused membership or risk being shouldered aside by real class fighters. Even in the Labour Party ward branches that are currently no more than empty husks and even whole constituency parties are likely to undergo a transformation as they are reclaimed by working class people from the real infiltrators, Messrs Kinnock, Blair, Brown and other supporters of the 'New Labour Tendency'.