So-called left activists, even some self-described Marxists, often exclaim with despair and frustration: "look at how terrible things are, why hasn't there been a revolution yet?"
As Alan Woods explains in this article, those who ask such questions have no understanding of the consciousness of the masses, nor of the dialectical method, which Marxists use to penetrate below the superficial surface appearance of society, to the growing tension underneath.
This article, which originally appeared in issue 37 of the In Defence of Marxism magazine in March 2022 (buy and subscribe here), provides an excellent analysis of the world situation, and the real dynamics of revolution. The subsequent explosive movements in Sri Lanka and Iran in the summer of that year provided material proof of Alan's arguments.
“People do not make revolution eagerly any more than they do war. There is this difference, however, that in war compulsion plays the decisive rôle, in revolution there is no compulsion except that of circumstances. A revolution takes place only when there is no other way out.” (Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Chapter 43, ‘The Art of Insurrection’)
“When the time is ripe things will move there with enormous speed and energy, but it may take a little while till that point is reached.” (Engels, 24 October 1891)
“All that exists deserves to perish”
Hegel explained that all that exists deserves to perish. That is to say, everything that exists contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. That is indeed the case. For a very long time, it appeared that capitalism was here to stay. The existing state of affairs was unquestioned by most people. Its institutions seemed to be solid. Even the most serious crises were eventually overcome, apparently leaving no trace.
But appearances are deceptive. Dialectics teaches us that things change into their opposite. After a long period of political stagnation, the developments of the past few years represent a fundamental break in the situation on a world scale.
The crisis of 2008 marked a sharp turning point in the whole situation. In reality, the bourgeois have never been able to recover from that crisis. We pointed out at the time that every attempt of the bourgeoisie to restore the economic equilibrium would merely serve to destroy the social and political equilibrium. And that has turned out to be literally the case. The bourgeois resorted to desperate measures to solve that crisis, spending unprecedented amounts of money.
They repeated this on a far higher level when the pandemic drove the world economy into a recession in 2020. This enabled them to avoid an immediate collapse. But only at the cost of creating new and insurmountable contradictions. These are now coming to the fore everywhere.
The system was saved by enormous amounts of state spending, despite the prior consensus among the bourgeois that the state was not supposed to interfere with the market. But money, as they say, does not grow on trees. The result of this orgy of spending, using vast sums of money that did not exist, has been to build a gigantic mountain of debt. Total world debt is now approaching $300 trillion.
This is without any historical precedent in peacetime. It is true the ruling class spent similarly large sums in WW2, which was liquidated in the prolonged period of economic upswing that followed the War. However, that was possible due to a peculiar concatenation of circumstances, which do not apply today and are unlikely to be repeated in the future.
The inevitable effect of this mountain of debt is inflation, which is now making itself felt in rising commodity, fuel, gas and electricity prices, hitting the poor.
A new period of economic, social and political instability is the inevitable consequence. The recent events in Kazakhstan were a warning of what is to come. They can be repeated at any time in one country after another.
The present crisis is not merely economic and financial, but has a social and political, even a moral and psychological character. It is characterised by unprecedented instability in all countries.
The capitalist system has passed through the most serious economic crisis in 300 years. This is admitted by all the serious strategists of capital. In addition to this, millions of people have perished as a result of the pandemic, which has still not been overcome, despite the claims of the bourgeois.
From these facts it would be a simple matter to deduce that the conditions for socialist revolution already exist on a world scale. That is perfectly true. In a general sense, it has been true for a long time. But Marxist perspectives are not exhausted by generalities.
It is not sufficient to repeat general statements about the inevitability of socialist revolution. One must know how to explain why this is true. Hegel pointed out that it is the task of science, not to accumulate a mass of detail, but to acquire a rational insight. That is precisely the task of the Marxists.
All too often, people on the left and even some Marxists, resort to quoting endless lists of economic statistics, which can be easily read in the pages of the bourgeois press. Then at the end, they tack on a conclusion that “socialism is the answer” or words to that effect. This may be perfectly true, but it is a conclusion that is not rooted in the list of facts and figures, and therefore has little or no validity. Such a mechanical method is merely indicative of mental laziness and produces a reaction of boredom and impatience in those who have heard it all before.
Abstract formulations and schemas will not help us to understand the concrete realities of the stage through which we are passing, nor will the mere repetition of general slogans about the crisis of capitalism, which lose all their force and relevance through the mere fact of repetition and are reduced to an empty and meaningless cliché.
We must follow the situation as it develops concretely at each stage. And we are obliged to answer the question, which must have occurred to many people: you Marxists say that the capitalist system is in crisis, and that is obviously the case. But why has there not been a revolution?
The question may seem naïve. But it is more serious than what you might think. And it deserves careful consideration. If we are to be truthful, even some people who call themselves Marxists ask themselves the same question: why, if there is such a deep crisis, have the masses not risen?
I refer to those so-called activists, who display an attitude of supreme contempt for ideas and theory, and who imagine that, by running around like headless chickens, shouting for revolution, they will somehow detonate the masses into action.
I well remember those wild-eyed student leaders in Paris in 1968, and I see them now: pot-bellied, self-satisfied bourgeois who sneer at revolutionaries in general, and by implication, spit on their own past. I confess that this transformation was no surprise to me. It was already very clear in May 1968. They understood nothing then, and they understand even less now.
These ‘activists’ are impatient with the masses, and when their constant repetition of empty ‘revolutionary’ slogans – which resemble the mumbled incantations of a tired old priest – do not obtain the desired result, they blame the working class, become demoralised and fall into inactivity. Mindless activism and impotent apathy are merely head and tail of the same coin.
It is not the task of Marxists to hold a thermometer under the tongue of the working class to try to determine when it is ready to move. Such a thermometer has never existed and never will exist. And events cannot be made any faster by impatience.
Is the situation moving too slowly for you? Well, we would all like it to develop faster. But these things will take time and impatience is our most dangerous enemy. There are no shortcuts! Trotsky warned that to try to reap where you have not sown will inevitably lead to errors, either of an ultra left or opportunist character. And if you try to shout louder than the strength of your vocal cords, you will simply lose your voice.
However, if, having read this short article, you really must insist on knowing when the workers will move to overthrow the capitalist system, I am willing to provide you with a very precise answer.
The workers will move when they are ready.
Not one minute before.
And not one minute after.
Geology and sociology
The very fact that one could ask the question of why there has been no revolution reveals more than just bewilderment. It serves to expose a complete ignorance both of the elementary laws of revolution and the way in which the masses acquire consciousness. Neither are automatic and mechanical processes, and, as we shall see, both are closely related.
Let us begin, as always, with fundamental principles. Dialectics informs us that there is a close parallel between society and geology. The evidence of our senses tells us that the ground appears to be solid and firm under our feet (‘steady as a rock,’ as the saying goes). But geology teaches that rocks are by no means steady, and that the ground is constantly shifting beneath our feet.
On the surface, everything might seem peaceful and comfortingly solid. But beneath the surface, there is a vast ocean of seething liquid rock, unimaginable temperatures and pressures that are seeking a weak point in the earth’s surface. Eventually, the elemental force of pressure from below gradually increases to a point where the barriers are broken, and the magma finally breaks through to the surface in a violent explosion, realising colossal pent-up forces in a volcanic eruption.
Here we have a very precise analogy with human society. On the surface, everything is calm, only disturbed by occasional tremors, which pass off, leaving the status quo more or less undisturbed. The defenders of the status quo allow themselves to be deceived by the idea that all is well. But beneath the surface there is discontent, bitterness, resentment and rage, which is slowly accumulating until it reaches the critical point where a social earthquake becomes inevitable.
The precise point at which this change will take place is impossible to predict, just as it is impossible to precisely predict an earthquake, despite all the advances of modern science and technology. Science informs us that the city of San Francisco is built upon a fault in the earth’s crust known as the San Andreas Fault. This means that sooner or later, that city will suffer a cataclysmic earthquake.
Though nobody knows when this will occur, this is quite certain. And it is equally certain that revolutionary explosions will occur when the bourgeoisie and its hired strategists, economists and politicians least expect it.
In a marvellously graphic phrase, Trotsky refers to the “molecular process of revolution”, which goes on in uninterrupted fashion in the minds of the workers. However, since this process is a gradual one which does not affect the general political physiognomy of society, it goes unnoticed by everyone – except the Marxists.
But not everyone who claims to be a Marxist has grasped the most elementary principles and method of Marxism. We saw that in France in May 1968, when the ignorant sectarians of the Mandel sort, had entirely written off the French workers as “bourgeoisified” and “Americanised”. Fewer than four million workers were members of unions, but 10 million workers occupied the factories in the greatest revolutionary general strike in history. However, whether such explosions can lead to a successful socialist revolution is another question entirely.
In 1968, the French workers had power in their hands. President De Gaulle informed the American ambassador: “The game is up. In a few days the Communists will be in power.” And that was entirely possible. If it did not take place, the fault did not lie with the working class, which did everything in its power to carry out a revolution, but with the leadership. This is the central issue we will return to later.
Conditions for a revolution
In order to succeed, a socialist revolution demands certain conditions. These have both an objective and subjective character.
The mere fact of an economic crisis – in and of itself – is not sufficient to make a revolution. Nor are falling living standards. Leon Trotsky once remarked that if poverty was the cause of revolutions, the masses would always be in a state of revolt.
Some sectarians act as if the masses are indeed in a permanent state of revolt, always ready for revolution. But that is not the case. That the capitalist system is in a deep crisis is a self-evident fact that requires no demonstration. However, how this is perceived by the masses is an entirely different question. Illusions that have been built up over many years and decades will not be easily dislodged. A series of profound shocks will be required to destroy the existing equilibrium.
It is true that, objectively speaking, the conditions for a socialist revolution not only exist, but have been maturing for some time. In fact, they are somewhat over-ripe. But human history is made by the actions of men and women. And as materialists, we know that human consciousness in general is not revolutionary, but profoundly conservative. The human mind is extremely averse to change of any sort.
This is a deep-seated psychological mechanism of self-defence that we have inherited from a remote past, which has long ago been erased from our memory, but which leaves an indelible imprint on our subconscious mind. It is a law rooted in the desire for self-preservation.
As a result, the consciousness of the masses always tends to lag behind events, and this lag may be quite considerable, being conditioned by the whole of previous experience. This is a fact that we must bear constantly in mind when analysing the present situation.
There is an old Chinese proverb that tells us that the greatest misfortune that can befall a man is to live in interesting times. When the ground begins to shake under one’s feet; when the old temples and palaces come tumbling down – that is, at first, a most unsettling experience.
People will run here and there, trying to find safety. But in the old ways, no safety is to be found. Therefore, the old ways must be abandoned and new ones must be found. Profound shocks have already begun to shake people’s confidence in the existing society.
However, it is also an undeniable fact that most people feel safer and more comfortable with the familiar surroundings of the world into which they were born and lived for most of their lives. Even when times are bad, they will stubbornly cling to the belief that tomorrow will be better and “normal times” will eventually return.
And when the revolutionaries point out the need for a revolution, their first reaction is to shake their heads and say: “Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t know.” And that is a perfectly natural reaction. Revolution is a leap in the dark that will take them who knows where?
The force of inertia
The ruling class holds in its hands very powerful weapons for defending its wealth and power: the state, the army, the police, the judiciary, the prisons, the media and the entire educational system. But the most powerful weapon in its arsenal is none of those things. It is the power of routine, which is the social equivalent of the force of inertia in mechanics.
The force of inertia is a well-known law that applies to all bodies, and which states that they will always remain in their state, either at rest or in motion, unless some external cause is introduced to make them alter this state, at which point it is called resistance or action. This same law applies to society.
Capitalism breeds lifelong habits of obedience, which are easily transferred from the school to the factory production line and thence to the barracks.
The dead weight of tradition and daily routine hangs on the brain of people and compels them to obey its judgements. This means that the masses, at least in the first instance, will always take the road of least resistance. But in the end, the hammer blows of great events will compel them to begin to question the values, the morality, the religion and the beliefs that have shaped their thinking all their lives.
It takes colossal events to shake the masses out of this mind-destroying routine, to force them to take cognizance of their real position, to question the old beliefs that they thought were unquestionable, and to draw revolutionary conclusions. This inevitably takes time. But in the course of a revolution, the consciousness of the masses experiences an enormous impetus. It can be completely transformed in the space of 24 hours.
We see the same process in every strike. It often occurs that the most advanced workers are surprised when some of the most backward and conservative workers are suddenly transformed into the most active and energetic militants.
A strike is only a revolution in miniature. And in any strike, the importance of leadership is paramount in the process of development of consciousness. Very often, a single bold speech by just one militant in a mass meeting can mean the success or failure of a strike. This brings us to the central issue.
The subjective factor in history
Spontaneous mass revolutionary movements reveal the colossal power of the masses. But only as a potential power, not actual. In the absence of the subjective factor, even the stormiest mass movement cannot resolve the most important problems of the class.
Here we must understand that there is a fundamental difference between the socialist revolution and the bourgeois revolutions of the past. Unlike a bourgeois revolution, a socialist revolution requires the conscious movement of the working class, which must not only take the reins of state power into its hands, but also, from the very beginning, assume conscious control of the productive forces.
Through the mechanism of workers’ control of the factories it prepares the way for a democratically administered socialist planned economy. That was not at all the case with the bourgeois revolutions of the past, since the capitalist market economy does not require any planning or conscious intervention whatsoever.
Capitalism emerged historically spontaneously, as a consequence of the evolution of the productive forces under feudalism. The theories of the bourgeois revolutionary leaders, insofar as they existed, were merely an unconscious reflection of the requirements of the nascent bourgeoisie, its values, religion and morality.
The close relationship between Protestantism (and especially Calvinism) and the values of the nascent bourgeoisie were exposed in great detail by Max Weber, although, as an idealist, he stood the relationship on its head.
A century later, in France, the rationalism of the Enlightenment prepared the ground theoretically for the Great French Revolution, which boldly proclaimed the rule of Reason, while, in practice, preparing the ground for the rule of the bourgeoisie.
Needless to say, neither in its earlier religious garb, nor when it later dressed itself up in the splendid cloak of Reason, did the leading ideas truly represent the crude, materialistic, money-grubbing interests of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, those disguises were absolutely necessary as a means of mobilising the popular masses to rebel against the old order while fighting under the banner of their future masters.
Insofar as these theories did not adequately reflect (or even contradicted) the interests of the rising bourgeois class, they were unceremoniously ditched and replaced by other ideas that fitted the new social system more adequately.
In the early stages of the English Revolution, Oliver Cromwell had to push the bourgeois elements to one side in order to complete the overthrow of the old monarchic order by leaning on the most revolutionary plebeian and semi-proletarian elements. He stood for the Kingdom of God on earth in order to arouse the masses.
But having accomplished this task, he turned against the left wing, crushed the Levellers and opened the door to the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie who proceeded to arrive at a compromise with the king and then carried out the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, which finally established the rule of the bourgeoisie. The old ideas of the Puritans were discarded, and they were forced to emigrate to the shores of the New World to practise their religious beliefs.
An analogous process can be observed in the French Revolution, where the revolutionary dictatorship of the Jacobins, resting on the support of the semi-proletarian masses of the Parisian Sans-culottes was overthrown first by the Thermidorian reaction and the Directory, followed by the Consulate and the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, and finally by the restoration of the Bourbons after the Battle of Waterloo. The final victory of the French bourgeoisie was only ensured after the revolution of 1830 and the defeated proletarian revolution of 1848.
The Russian Revolution
The crucial role of the subjective factor can be shown very clearly in the Russian Revolution. Lenin wrote in 1902:
“Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.” (V. I. Lenin, What Is to Be Done?, Wellred Books, 2018, p. 26.)
And he added that “the role of vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory.” (Ibid., p. 27.)
That was not the case with the bourgeois revolution, for the reasons we have already stated. But it was absolutely necessary for the success of the socialist revolution, as we saw in 1917.
The February Revolution took place without any conscious revolutionary leadership. The workers and soldiers (peasants in uniform) showed that they were strong enough to successfully overthrow the tsarist regime that had ruled Russia for centuries. Yet they did not take power into their own hands. Instead, we had the abortion of the Dual Power that lasted until the soviets finally took power in November, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks.
Why did the workers not take power in February? Of course, one could answer this question with all manner of ‘clever’ arguments. Even some Bolsheviks asserted that the reason lay in the fact that the proletariat had to obey the “iron law of historical stages”, that they could not “skip February” and that they had to “pass through the stage of the bourgeois revolution”. In reality these people were trying to cover up their own cowardice, confusion and impotence by appealing to “objective factors”. To those people Lenin replied scornfully:
“Why don’t they take power? Steklov says: for this reason and that. This is nonsense. The fact is that the proletariat is not organised and class conscious enough. This must be admitted: material strength is in the hands of the proletariat but the bourgeoisie turned out to be prepared and class conscious. This is a monstrous fact, and it should be frankly and openly admitted and the people should be told that they did not take power because they were unorganised and not conscious enough.” (Lenin, ‘Report at a meeting of Bolshevik delegates to the All-Russia Conference of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies’, April 4, 1917, Collected Works, vol. 36, p. 437, my emphasis.)
Let us be clear. Without the presence of the Bolshevik Party – in fact, without the presence of two men, Lenin and Trotsky – the October Revolution would never have taken place, it would have been aborted and ended in counterrevolution and a fascist regime.
In other words, the power of the working class – which is a fact – would remain merely as a potential. And that is never sufficient. That is the colossal importance of the subjective factor in history.
Collapse of the centre
Revolutionary upheavals are implicit in the whole situation today. They will occur, as night follows day, whether a revolutionary party is present or not. But in the war between the classes, just as in wars between nations, the importance of good generals is a decisive factor. And therein lies the problem.
The masses are striving to find a way out of this nightmare. They look at one party and leader after another, discarding one after another into the dustbin of history. This explains the extreme instability of political life in all countries at the present time. The political pendulum swings violently to the right, then to the left.
The main victim is that peculiar animal, the centre. This is a cause of serious concern among the strategists of capital, because the centre represents a kind of fulcrum that balances out the extremes of left and right and neutralises them. It is that vague landscape where all clear lines of demarcation are blurred to the point of nullity, where empty rhetoric and vague promises pass for real coin, or at least for promissory notes that may be redeemed at some future (unspecified) date.
For a very long time, the centre was represented in the United States by two parties, the Republicans and Democrats, and in Britain by the Labour and Conservative Parties, which were more or less indistinguishable. But all this had a material base.
In the post-war period, when capitalism enjoyed an unprecedented economic upswing, Labour and social democratic parties granted important reforms, such as a free national health service in Britain. That period has long ago passed into history.
Nowadays, the ruling class cannot even allow old conquests to continue, let alone give new reforms. The old certainty has gone and with it, the old stability. Everywhere there is turbulence and crises. The crisis of capitalism is the crisis of reformism.
The role of the 'Left'
The crisis of reformism and the collapse of Stalinism mean that there is a vacuum on the left. And since nature abhors a vacuum, it must be filled. Since the Marxist tendency lacks the forces to fill it, that space will be occupied by the left reformists.
For historical reasons we cannot deal with here, the genuine forces of Marxism have been thrown back a long way. Given the weakness of the subjective factor, it is inevitable that when the masses awaken to political life, they will turn to the existing organisations and well-known leaders, especially those with ‘left’ credentials.
The present period will therefore see the rise of left-reformist and even centrist tendencies. But these, too, will be put to the test by the masses, and in many cases, will have a merely ephemeral character.
Recognising this fact, the Marxist tendency must have a flexible attitude to the lefts, providing them with support insofar as they are prepared to fight against the right reformists, but always criticising them when they vacillate, make unacceptable concessions and retreat before the pressures of bourgeois public opinion and the right-wing traitors.
The desire to achieve a fundamental change in society cannot be limited to a clear understanding of programme and perspectives. It also involves an element of will power, or the will to power: that is, the conscious will to win, to conquer, to sweep aside all obstacles and change society.
This, in turn, must be based on a vision of the future and a complete confidence in the ability of the working class to change society. But the left reformists have neither. Therefore, they constantly shy away from the central objective.
They prevaricate, procrastinate, seek compromises, which is just another word for surrender, since to seek compromise where none is possible, to build bridges between irreconcilable class interests, is to attempt to square the circle. Doubts, ambiguity and indecision are their inner essence. Defeatism is hardwired into their very soul and psyche.
Naturally, they cannot admit this, even to themselves. On the contrary, they convince themselves that theirs is the only true path and that any other course will lead inevitably to disaster. They find a thousand reasons to deceive themselves and, being so convinced, they are all the better equipped to deceive others.
In many cases, the lefts are honest people. Oh yes, they are completely convinced of the justice of their arguments. And a sincere left reformist can do much more damage than an insincere one. Their betrayal is not a deliberate or conscious one. The masses deposit all their trust in them and are therefore even more surely led into the jaws of defeat.
Martov was undoubtedly a very honest and sincere man, and a very able and intelligent one, too. Yet he played a very negative role in the destiny of the Russian Revolution.
The case of Greece
In the stormy period of the 1930s, the mass organisations of social democracy were in a state of ferment. The economic crisis that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the resultant mass unemployment, and the rise of fascism in Europe, produced the phenomenon known to Marxists as ‘centrism’, which, to use Trotsky’s words, was “a general name for most varied tendencies and groupings spread out between reformism and Marxism”.
However, in the present period, the revolutionary movement in society has not generally been reflected in the ranks of social democracy in the way that was the case in the 1930s. Movements like Podemos in Spain, SYRIZA in Greece and, to a much lesser extent, the movement behind Mélenchon in France, partially reflected the growing discontent. But they all had a very confused political position, and are only a pale reflection of the centrist currents of the 1930s.
In the case of Greece, under conditions of extreme social crisis, SYRIZA, a small left party that emerged from a right-wing split of the Stalinist Communist Party (KKE), grew rapidly at the expense of the traditional mass reformist party PASOK, which was largely discredited in the eyes of the masses. SYRIZA was thrust into power in January 2015 in a landslide victory over the right-wing New Democracy.
After the 2008 crisis, Greece was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. It was among the countries most severely wracked by Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. The EU, IMF and European Central Bank offered to bail Greece out, but at the cost of imposing brutal austerity measures. This raised a massive movement of the masses against austerity. In contrast to the New Democracy and PASOK governments, SYRIZA promised an end to austerity. But on the basis of the capitalist crisis, that was impossible.
The European bosses saw this as a threat. They had to crush SYRIZA, as a warning to others, like Podemos in Spain, who might be tempted to follow its example. They were determined to undermine and destroy the left government by any means possible. Under these conditions it was absolutely correct to call a referendum, to mobilise the masses behind the government and against austerity.
The bailout conditions offered by the EU leaders were decisively rejected in the referendum of 5 July 2015, when 61 percent voted “NO”. Given this resounding result, who will dare to doubt the fighting spirit of the Greek working class? Not just the workers, but every layer of the population was mobilised for a fight. Every layer, except for the ones who were supposed to give a lead.
If Tsipras were a Marxist, he could have used the movement to change society, calling on the workers to occupy the banks and factories. The people of Greece would have been prepared to accept hardship, as the Russian workers were prepared to accept it after the 1917 revolution.
A revolutionary policy, backed up by an internationalist appeal, would have had an electrifying effect on the workers of the rest of Europe and the world. The masses in Spain, Italy, France and elsewhere would have responded enthusiastically to an appeal for international solidarity from the beleaguered people of Greece. Demonstrations and strikes would have followed, forcing the bankers and capitalists onto the defensive and opening the door to revolutionary possibilities everywhere.
The question was posed point blank: either fight to the end or suffer an ignominious defeat. But the left reformists never fight to the end. They always look for the road of least resistance and seek to compromise with the ruling class. The SYRIZA negotiators tried to play games with words, prevaricate, and offer half-way solutions that solved nothing. But the other side was not interested in compromise.
In the end, the European bourgeois called their bluff. Faced with a clear choice of fight or surrender, Tsipras chose the latter course. He accepted conditions that were far harsher than the ones that had been so decisively rejected by the Greek people in the referendum. Following this sell-out, Tsipras and his team slavishly accepted the dictates of Brussels and Berlin. A wave of anger was followed by disillusionment and despair.
Such is the inevitable consequence of left reformist confusion.
In Spain, Podemos, like SYRIZA, became a mass force in a short space of time, reflecting the burning desire for a change on the part of the masses who were seeking a clean break with the past.
The main leaders of Podemos were influenced by the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. But they were completely incapable of absorbing the lessons of its strength – the need to mobilise the masses with a bold revolutionary message.
Instead, they copied only the weakest side of the Bolivarian Movement: its lack of theoretical clarity, its ambiguous messages and refusal to carry out the revolution to the very end. In a word, they copied the negative features that eventually led to the shipwreck of the Venezuelan Revolution.
The hopes of millions of people were aroused by Podemos. Thanks to the radical-sounding rhetoric of its leader Pablo Iglesias, Podemos went from an unknown formation to being first in the opinion polls. But the closer they came to power, the more Pablo Iglesias and the other leaders of Podemos toned down their message.
Instead of fighting to overtake the social-democratic PSOE from the left, they were satisfied with accepting ministerial office as junior partners in a coalition government with the PSOE. Instead of a radical break with capitalism, they participated in a government that saw its main task as managing the crisis of Spanish capitalism.
In exchange for a few ministerial portfolios, Unidas Podemos (UP) as it is called today, has become co-responsible for a government which sent the riot police against striking metal workers in Cadiz and is now managing European funds, which come with austerity strings attached.
As a result, support for UP has slumped, the party is in constant crisis and has lost most of its active base. It is now a mere shell of what it promised to be at the start. The revolutionary potential inherent in the movement has been squandered leading to widespread demoralisation with it amongst the most advanced workers and youth. This is the logical result of left reformism.
The lessons of Corbyn
The most striking success of left reformism was the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.
The main point here is that Corbyn tapped into the subterranean feelings of discontent with the establishment and the status quo. He won a decisive victory, receiving almost 60 percent of the vote in the leadership elections. Suddenly the floodgates were opened and hundreds of thousands of new members were joining the party to back him. They were ready and willing to fight the right wing.
The ruling class was terrified. The conditions were in place for a root-and-branch transformation of the Labour Party. Plans to introduce mandatory reselection of Labour MPs, force recall by-elections of MPs who step out of line, and moves to entrench members’ powers were all being considered. The right wing was in despair. Several Blairite MPs left the party.
However, the right reformists had the support of the ruling class and the mass media, which organised a vicious campaign against Corbyn with the intention of forcing him to resign. The result was the outbreak of civil war inside the Labour Party. But it had a very one-sided character.
Under these circumstances a split in the Labour Party seemed inevitable. The Blairites were clearly preparing for it. The strategists of capital had already drawn the logical conclusion. But in the end, it all led nowhere. The Corbynistas were routed by the right. Why? How was it possible, when Corbyn enjoyed massive support in Labour’s rank and file? The answer lies in the very nature of left reformism.
The most pernicious role was played by the pro-Corbyn Momentum movement. This could have become a focal point for thousands of activists. Big meetings of Momentum were being held in different parts of the country, where a very angry and radical mood was in evidence.
But the right showed all the determination that was conspicuously absent on the part of the lefts. The leaders of Momentum were more frightened of the rank and file than they were of the right. At every step they applied the brakes and sabotaged the campaign to deselect right-wing Labour MPs, which the Marxists were demanding consistently from the start and had widespread support in the rank and file. As a result, the Party members were fighting with both hands tied behind their back.
But a fatal element was the role played by Corbyn himself. The lefts, starting with Corbyn himself, were not prepared to carry out a serious struggle against the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The leaders of Momentum defended their betrayal by saying: “We held off on deselections because Jeremy asked members to do so.”
The excuse was that “we are for unity”. They feared a split with the right wing in the PLP. But that was absolutely necessary if the gains of the left were not to be utterly destroyed. And that was precisely what happened.
The right know just where they stand. They pursued an aggressive policy against the left, and against the Marxists in particular, and were prepared to go to the end, regardless of any consequences.
Needless to say, when the right went onto the offensive, they showed no sign of the pusillanimity of the left. They launched a ferocious attack, utilising all the power of the bourgeois media to slander and discredit Corbyn. In the end, they effectively expelled him, along with a large number of Lefts.
Naturally, the Marxist tendency was the main target. Socialist Appeal was proscribed, but organised a very effective counter-attack, which got a lot of support. By contrast, the left behaved in a cowardly manner, refusing to fight back against Starmer’s witch hunt, which he was able to carry out to the end.
The crisis in Britain
The Corbyn episode, which started with so much promise, ended in a disgraceful rout. Thousands of people have left the Party in disgust and the left was completely crushed. The huge illusions aroused by Corbyn have given way to a mood of deep scepticism in the Labour Party.
With the unravelling of the left, the present situation is now moving in a completely different direction. This, however, is not the end of the story. For both objective and subjective reasons it is now increasingly clear that Britain is one of the key elements in the crisis of European capitalism – if not the key element. From being the most stable country in Europe only a few years ago, Britain is now probably the most unstable. It is now one of the weakest links in the chain of European capitalism.
Defeated on the political plane, the workers are turning to the industrial front. There is the beginning of radicalisation in the unions. The crisis of the Johnson government will inevitably lead to its fall.
The pendulum will undoubtedly swing back to the left in future, especially if the Labour Party under the leadership of Keir Starmer and the Blairites comes to power under conditions of a deep social and economic crisis. That will expose all the inner contradictions in the Labour Party, which have temporarily been submerged, but which could reassert themselves with a vengeance in the future.
This will open up serious possibilities for the Marxist tendency. Everything depends on our ability to grow. And serious growth is possible now. While we still represent a very modest factor in the situation, the British section of the IMT has an experienced cadre base, has built a strong base among the youth, a national organisation and a paper that is well known in the labour movement.
In any event, our forces are far stronger than those that Trotsky had in Britain in the 1930s and have an infinitely higher level. With correct tactics, the possibilities for growth are quite exceptional.
Change of mood
The present crisis – which has an international character – is qualitatively different to the crises of the past. In the last two years, millions of ordinary people have been slowly but surely drawing conclusions. Everywhere, beneath the surface of apparent calm, there is enormous discontent. The masses are seized by moods of rage, anger, a burning sense of injustice, and above all, frustration – unbearable frustration.
They say little but murmur under their breath that the present state of affairs is not to be tolerated. The idea is fast gaining ground that something is badly wrong with the existing society. In the immediate term, as a rule, they are not yet ready to take direct action against the established order.
Sooner or later, with or without the necessary leadership, they will move into action to take their own destiny into their hands. We have already seen many examples of this. In the past years we have seen powerful revolutionary or pre-revolutionary movements in Chile, Sudan, Myanmar, Lebanon, Hong Kong and more.
The latest addition to this list was the popular uprising in Kazakhstan at the beginning of this year, which began with protests of oil workers at rising fuel prices. That was a warning. The same pressures that led to that uprising are present in many other countries.
The ruling class is aware of the danger and the strategists of capital are making gloomy predictions for the coming year. For a time, the movement of the workers was hampered by the coronavirus. But now there are indications of a revival of the class struggle. Soaring prices and falling living standards act as a stimulus for an increase in strikes.
The demagogic appeals for national unity are met with scepticism as the cynicism, greed and self-interest which the ruling class displayed during the pandemic is exposed. A mood of disillusionment and anger that was steadily building up is now coming to the fore. Support for the status quo and existing governments and leaders is in rapid decline. But all this does not automatically lead to a successful socialist revolution.
Trotsky once said of the Spanish Revolution that the Spanish workers could have taken power, not once but 10 times. But he also explained that, without adequate leadership, even the stormiest strikes solve nothing.
A prolonged period of revolution and counterrevolution
There are many parallels between the 1920s and 1930s, and the present situation today. But there are also important differences. Before the Second World War, a pre-revolutionary situation could not last long, and would be quickly settled by a movement in the direction of either revolution or counterrevolution (fascism).
But that is no longer the case. On the one hand, the ruling class lacks the mass social base of reaction that existed in the past. On the other hand, the unparalleled degeneration of the workers’ organisations acts as a solid barrier, preventing the proletariat from taking power. The present crisis will therefore be long drawn out. With ebbs and flows, it can last for some years, although how long precisely it is impossible to say.
When we say that the crisis will be long drawn out, that does not at all mean that it will be peaceful and tranquil. On the contrary! We have entered the most turbulent and disturbed period in the history of modern times. The crisis will affect one country after another. The working class will have many opportunities to take power.
Sudden and sharp changes are implicit in the situation, which can be transformed in the space of 24 hours. And we must honestly admit that there is a danger that we can fall into routinism, passively using the same old methods and failing to take advantage of the new opportunities afforded to us.
In such periods, Marxists must show the highest level of energy, determination and tactical flexibility, and boldly reach out to the layers that are moving into a revolutionary direction.
The present situation can last for some years without producing a decisive resolution. But this delay is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is enormously favourable to us, because it gives us time – although not all the time in the world! – to build and strengthen our organisation; to recruit the best of the workers and youth, to educate and train them.
Everywhere, one sees a crisis of government and an increasingly critical mood in the population, directed against the establishment and all its institutions. This is especially the case for the youth, who are most open to the most advanced revolutionary ideas.
The great learning process has begun. It may seem to proceed slowly. But history moves according to its own laws and at its own speeds, which are determined by many factors, and not always easy to determine in advance.
We have received many reports of the emergence of a movement towards communism among the youth. Even in the most conservative parts of the Deep South of the USA, there are important layers of radical young people who are coming to regard themselves as communists.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. These are key symptoms that reveal something very important is changing in society and Marxists must find a way to take advantage of it.
Build the IMT!
We have to face facts: the subjective factor has been thrown far back by a series of objective factors, which we need not explain here. It exists in an organised form in the ranks of the International Marxist tendency, at least in an embryonic state.
But an embryo is still an abstract potentiality. In order to fulfil our purpose, and become an actual force in the class struggle, we must advance beyond this stage.
The IMT has made impressive gains. In all countries, we have been growing, while all other so-called left groups, who long ago abandoned Marxism, are in crisis, splitting and collapsing everywhere.
Our advances were made possible by our intransigent attitude to theory and our concentration on the youth. As Lenin said: he who has the youth has the future. Yet we must admit that we are not yet ready to face the enormous challenges that will confront us when we least expect them.
In order for a revolutionary organisation to take full advantage of a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation, it is necessary to possess at least a minimum of experienced cadres and a viable organisation.
A revolutionary organisation that aspires to play a leading role needs a certain size to be noticed by the working class at all. Such things cannot be improvised or built easily in the heat of events.
In the final analysis, everything depends on our growth. And that will take time. Trotsky wrote in November 1931: “In the present world situation, time is the most precious of raw materials.” And these words are truer today than at any other period in history.
We must proceed with a sense of urgency. Because if our forces are not sufficient to meet the challenges of the coming years, then important opportunities will be lost. We must be prepared! Our slogan must be that of the great French revolutionary Danton:
“De l'audace, encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace!”
Audacity, audacity and still more audacity!
Originally written 1 March 2022