On the morning of 4th March 2005, at his home in Naples, Livio passed away. He was 84 years of age.
Over the past few months his illness had seriously weakened him, but to us he still seemed to be the same exuberant, brimming full of life Livio as ever. His energy and rare intelligence, his joyous sense of humour will be missed by all.
Son of a faithful comrade of 1921 vintage (and of a German mother who he would lose very early on), it was impossible not to feel great fondness towards a man who showed just as much enthusiasm at recent meetings as the young man who joined the party just after the 2nd World war: "Why don’t we just do it, eh, what does it take..?".
When he was with young people, who he used to keep amused during the meals and the breaks at the party meetings, it was almost as though he was animated by some internal force. Drawing on his lucid memory, it was obvious he wanted to pass on to future generations as many of his experiences and teachings, derived from a long life of hard study, as possible.
As he got older, after long years of militant activity, he become justifiably concerned that nothing should dispel the memory, both oral and written, of the communist way of life which had sustained him over long decades, and for part of which, due to generally adverse conditions, he had remained the unique depositary. He treasured every carefully ordered document, and had even transcribed single sentences and well-chosen expressions of old comrades (on one occasion he read us his copy of a wonderful, personal, letter from Ludovico Tarsia to another old comrade, we think from Torre Annunziata, offering condolences on the death of his wife) and he used to wonder whether it would be possible to get them published somehow, or in any case make sure comrades could access them.
Throughout the high and low points of the second half of the 20th Century, he worked tirelessly for the party, doing what needed to be done, fortified by his encyclopaedic reading and huge thirst for knowledge (indeed his study was like a well-equipped and efficient laboratory). Livio was a person who threw himself enthusiastically into every task, who explored every subject, and would examine difficult and controversial topics only to then explain them to us with an air of serene confidence.
The degree to which his depth and enthusiasm overflowed into his conversation, in which he would entrance his listeners with two, three, or four lessons drawn from his personal and party life, and all recounted in such a way as to weave together and highlight the main points, all in the same current of discourse, was matched only by the degree to which he was measured, precise, rigorous and meticulous in his party work. And he did a tremendous amount of work for the party, all in his clear handwriting ’in pencil point’, just so everything was absolutely clear. Beyond him and after him.
Yes, truly an indispensable comrade.
Our fondest condolences to his wife, his daughter, and our Neapolitan
Even before colonisation the tracks of man and beast ran along the banks of the Great River, or Missi-sipi as it was known in the language of the Algonquin Indians.
And it is into the Mississippi-Missouri river, with its great tributaries the Arkansas and Red Rivers feeding in from the right and the Ohio-Tennessee from the left, that most of the continental precipitations within the coastal mountain chains flow. The hydrographic basin of the Great Lakes doesn’t flow into it but an artificial canal connects it to Chicago. Along the river’s principal arm water takes three months to complete its course from source to delta.
At Baton Rouge, upstream from the delta and 100 kilometres from New Orleans, the average flow of the river is 12,800 cubic metres per second with a maximum of two and half times that. But the final course of the river, which follows a millenary cycle and is also linked to variations in sea level, hasn’t always been as it is today. Erosion of its banks has caused the river to widen, resulting in meanders, which later became cut off and left to find their shortest route to the sea.
The amount of solid matter carried along by the ’Brown River’ is calculated at 0.2 kilograms per cubic meter, adding up to 2.5 tons per second. Alluvial floodings of extremely fertile land make up a quarter of modern Louisiana. These sediments have shaped the delta and coastline into an intricate and continually changing landscape of shallows, bayous, swamps, lagoons and meadows. The principal branch of the river, the one which crosses New Orleans, then flows along a peninsula, composed of old silts, and finds an outlet on a spur 160 kilometres out in the Gulf of Mexico.
As in all fluvial deltas, the weight of new deposits exerts pressure through compaction and subsidence – that is, through lateral slippage – on the older layers of clay and mud, and causes a slow, but steady, lowering of the ground level. The erosion caused by hurricanes, tides, the rise in sea level and human activity are other significant factors though of lesser impact. At the present geological moment, taking deposition of material and subtracting lowering of the ground level and erosion, we arrive at a negative figure; between 1974 and 1980 the land above sea-level retreated at an average rate of 430 hectares per annum, corresponding to 1.7% of the delta.
This picture, already very unstable and dynamic, has latterly been complicated by human colonisation.
In 1927 there was a flood which submerged 70,000 square kilometres of the middle course of the Mississippi under up to 10 meters of water. Following the 1929 crisis a New Deal project for a series of hydraulic works got underway whose main object wasn’t regulating the flood waters but rather improving the rivers’ navigability. The problem is the level of the river at low water: to increase the draft, canals were constructed to avoid the rapids, and 27 dams built in the higher course upstream from the confluence with the Ohio.
These works, which continued down to the middle of the last century, caused an increase in the velocity of the water and resulted in a temporary increase in erosion and in the transport of solid matter (by seven times according to some estimates) and in various States resulted in the draining of the vast floodplain and low lying areas for agricultural and building purposes. Rather than diminishing the risk of the river bursting its banks, these works have increased it. In 1973 there was a serious flood, but the worst in recent American history was the ’Great Midwest Flood’ of 1993, during which the river overflowed its banks along a 10,000 kilometers stretch and caused 19 billion dollars worth of damage.
And of course New Orleans has to suffer the consequences of any bad management of the river happening further upstream.
Although the climate and setting are clearly hostile, the city was founded by the French, in that strategic situation, in 1718. It was at a time when building still took place according to what we might call a town plan, that is, an organic relationship between man and territory, and one which would later be recognised as beautiful and good. The choice then was to build on the highest ground, directly onto the outer bank of one of the bends of the great river. Up to the early 1900s, the inhabited area grew in a large semicircle, and building was carefully avoided any lower down; towards the lagoon, Lake Pontchartrain, and the port, which lay 7 kilometers away. Today it is the ’French Quarter’ which has been saved from the water.
Despite the insalubrious climate (in 1853 a yellow fever epidemic killed 10,000 people) the city population increased through an influx of immigrants – freemen and slaves, of all languages and races. In 1830 the city numbered 100,000 inhabitants.
But its urban conformation at that time wasn’t sufficient for the burgeoning forces of rising capitalism. In the last century New Orleans became one of the biggest ports in the world. Today it is 4th in terms of traffic and one of the most concentrated industrial centres in North America. Soon the extraction and refining of oil would get underway as well.
Only the laws of profit and revenue can explain why the great factories and the workers quarters had to be situated in the middle of swamps. The population today (or rather was) 480,000.
In the second decade of the 1900s, with a view to building in the swamps, there began a concerted project to drain the shallow swampland in the low lying depression between the banks of the lagoon and river. A whole network of artificial levees would be built along the lake and, running laterally from the lake to the banks of the river, a network of drainage channels would be excavated. An innovatory pumping system would be set in place which would operate around the clock and keep the basin, as far as possible, dry. A large number of other types of embankments, of great height and extension, also had to be erected along the various canals, which, linking the river to the lagoon, would be used by river traffic and be of service to industry and convenient for warehousing.
That mechanical drainage has only been partially effective is illustrated by the fact that cemetery burials take place not in the ground, which consists of only a very thin stratum overlying the water, but in specially raised aedicules.
The more the water is removed, the more it filters under the riverbanks and under the levees; and the more the resulting subsidence occurs, the more water there is to pump away. At present, the entire city, excepting that built on the banks of the Mississippi, is lower than the annual average level of the river by about 6 meters. Moreover, for the most part, it is also lower than the average level of the sea and the lagoon, with a maximum depression of 2.5 metres, whilst at high tide the whole of the city is at a maximum of 6, and average of 3, meters below sea level.
In Streetcar Named Desire, as she leaves a house in the workers’ quarter of New Orleans supported on the arm of the doctor taking her off to mental hospital, poor Blanche confesses, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers". A presentiment of the catastrophe forever looming over the American bourgeoisie, and over its less bad literature.
But the coasts of Louisiana are threatened not only by river and sea but are threatened from above by tropical hurricanes.
Hurricanes of the force of Katrina, the one which hit New Orleans on August 29, are not uncommon. The statistical information on hurricanes shows they seem to be distributed over a thirty year cycle, and there is no evidence to suggest they are on the increase, either in frequency or force. Currently the opposite is held to be true, and their cause is sought in a supposed climatic change, and talk of this celestial phenomenon is on the lips of ignorant people everywhere. About evolutions of this sort, of such delicacy, slowness, complexity and duration, we – we who live under capitalism – are totally ignorant, with its specialists the most ignorant of all. Not that we Marxists rule out that capitalism will eventually poison the earth and troposphere so badly that the climate will be affected. In fact, we are certain of it. We are however just as certain that it will not be able to measure nor, much less, be able to voluntarily intervene to modify the planetary consequences of its means of production.
Reproaching the ’Bush Government’ with not having signed up to the Kyoto Agreement on the reduction of Carbon Dioxide emissions is therefore just a ’green’ version of the same old anti-Americanism which is so often wheeled out on such occasions, and which is totally rejected by Marxism. As capitalism ages it gets worse, and worst of all in every sense is the capitalism we find in Europe.
The problem, as ever, is on earth and not in the sky. What is clearly on the increase, with respect to hurricanes, is social vulnerability. "What you search for lies within you", responded the oracle to an Oedipus who didn’t want to see, true reversal and assertion of modern man’s consciousness.
If we restrict ourselves to the United States – although this can be generalised to every type of what are aptly described as "unnatural" catastrophes – we observe that over the past 25 years the population in the coastal areas, which are affected by three or four hurricanes a year on average, has expanded by 25 million. The type of building construction, especially in the areas inhabited by the poor classes, is the least adapted to withstanding cyclones, and consists of small flimsy houses with wooden frameworks and outer coverings and panels which easily detach in strong winds.
In the delta, the canalisation of the Mississippi has reduced the lateral dispersion of the floods, which feed precious nutrients and silt into the wetlands, and over the last 75 years vast swathes of marshland vegetation and coastal mangrove swamps have disappeared. Irregular coastlines, along with their protective cloak of vegetation, absorb energy and soften the impact of hurricanes, thereby constituting a natural buffer which is a lot more effective that reinforced concrete. Even for the latter it is calculated – now that the coastline has moved back 8 kilometres – that the sea wall would have to be double the height to attain equivalent resistance.
Moreover, the total lack of planning and the neglect typical of capitalism has resulted in trees being cut down, in particular the lines of cypresses which used to function as windbreaks.
From the time of the Civil War, the difficult, onerous and strategic maintenance of the banks of the Mississippi has been the responsibility of the army corps of engineers; later the job of looking after the levees along Lake Pontchartrain, and the canals and pumping stations, was then transferred partly to the city government and partly to the State of Louisiana.
But the entire system of barriers is only designed to resist an ’average’ storm of ’category 3’, a rise in sea level of 3.5 meters and waves of around a meter in size. The pumps are designed to drain off 25 millimetres of rainwater an hour, and are therefore already not up to dealing with really heavy rains.
Everything that has happened – a real "unnatural disaster" in the strict sense of the word – had therefore already been predicted, and described in minute detail, decades ago in hosts of texts and denunciations. The last of these warnings was issued in a bulletin by the national meteorological service in the days immediately preceding the hurricane. It predicted the consequences for the city of New Orleans in a scenario which exactly corresponded, even in terms of scale, to what then actually happened.
First there was the hurricane. If the little houses in the poor areas could do little to resist it, modern works fared even worse: practically all the bridges and monumental viaducts on the motorways sustained irreparable damage. This shows that they either weren’t designed to withstand ’predicted wind strength’, or they were badly constructed. Present-day mythology and illegal reliance on automatic calculation of structures, using computers, in order ’to save time’, even for straightforward pieces of work like bridge abutments, piles and beams, shows its practical impotence and "reveals the charlatan". Capitalism even fails at what it is supposed to be best at, adding things up, and even statistics and mathematics revolt against it. We have seen images of modern hotels being torn apart by the wind, their windows ripped out and hurled into the maelstrom, followed by the furniture. Even the roof of the stadium was partially blown off.
Then the hurricane turned inland and the levees collapsed. Because the eye of the storm passed to the left of the city, the latter would then be hit by strong southerly winds, which raised the level of the lake by 120 cms. Not enough, therefore, to overflow the levees. Nevertheless three of them gave way, over a length of two or three blocks. Not those facing the lake, potentially susceptible to wave motion, but the ones along the internal canals, communicating with the lake. Not the old levees made of earth but the barriers of reinforced concrete built in the 60s. According to those responsible for maintaining them, the collapse of the entire system of levees was only narrowly avoided.
Soon the sea invaded 80% of the built up areas, covering them in up to six meters of water. All just as had been predicted.
As for the hydraulic technicians, first they had to plug the gaps, then pump out the water, both of which operations were difficult and laborious. Having discarded the idea of blocking the breeches in the damaged levees because they were simply too wide, it was decided to block sea access to the two canals. But due to the fact that mobile or floating bulkheads weren’t initially available, although an obvious precautionary measure, they had to make do with materials delivered by means of helicopter drops and pontoons. And if all that wasn’t enough, a barge had sunk at the entrance of the canal as well, which also hampered operations. The work would take several days.
By September 6, only three of the city’s 148 pumps were working. Since they were old, and no provision had been made for spare parts, it appeared they would have to be rebuilt from scratch.
To see how ’rational’ capital is, we need only refer to the project for reinforcing the levees put forward by the army’s corps of engineers. As the estimated cost for this project was 14 billion dollars, Congress decided it could ’make a saving’ by giving it the thumbs down. However, in the past few days it has already had to allocate 10.5 billions for emergency aid alone, and it is estimated that hundreds of billions more will be needed for reconstruction work.
Where is the logic in all this? It is to be found in the fact that ’reconstruction’ entails not only profits, but revenue from rent. It is worth letting destruction takes its course so that then rebuilding can take place. And this explains the ’inefficient’ management of the aid with regard to the poorest section of the population, composed of proletarians and the vast industrial reserve army. The poor people are sent away and there is a rise in the price of the devastated areas where they used to live.
For several decades now the city of New Orleans, along with every other industrial area in the West, has been hit by an industrial crisis and many factories have closed down; still going strong is the pestilential oil industry and the so-called ’service sector’, in particular the docks and that form of mass alienation known as ’mass tourism’.
The industrial crisis has made the perennial insecurity of the working class a lot worse. Of the population, two thirds of whom are Afro-Americans, a quarter are categorised as poor. But amongst those 18 year and below, poverty rises to 40%. The rate of illiteracy is around 40% as well.
Even after the inevitable catastrophe threatening the city had been known about for several days, nothing was prepared and it was left to the local police force to tell the townspeople that it would be best to get out. But at least 57,000 families were without a car, that is a quarter of the inhabitants. All these have been left to fend for themselves because it was simply impossible for them to escape. There are no buses, no trains, nobody knows where to go. Only 10,000 of these people who left behind have taken refuge in the stadium. And they are told ’to bring their own provisions from home’.
Although the covered stadium is in a less low-lying area of the city and not far from the banks of the Mississippi, which have remained dry, the refugees have been held here for several days and nights in infernal conditions without food, without water, without toilets, without lighting, and weighed down by the torrid summer heat.
The State has intervened, yes, by sending in the national Guard, "with loaded weapons and orders to shoot on sight". For capitalism this makes sense, since every emergency is a social emergency, and there isn’t a suspension of hostilities in the war between classes just because there is a disaster. We see armed soldiers patrolling this scene of desperation and destruction, in the middle of this emergency, whose main concern seems to be hunting down ’looters’. The Baghdadization of New Orleans.
After three days it was announced that, "the National Guard has taken control of the city". The bourgeoisie heaves a huge sigh of relief. The relief operation has still not got underway. It starts with the transferral of hotel guests, the rest are held back by the threat of being shot.
A week goes by, and the authorities decide on forced deportation of the unfortunate occupiers of the Huston stadium to somewhere 500 kilometres away. Those who have survived that is. Meanwhile, armed soldiers go on house to house searches to monitor the dead and evict the living.
We don’t have special sources, but it seems pretty apparent that behind all this there is some nice ’reconstruction’ plan for the city. The poor refugees won’t be going back, and in the areas around the lake they will construct a nice wall of skyscrapers, like in all the Naples’ and Honolulus of this world. And then it will be left to geology to avenge the poor, sucking these lousy buildings, floor by floor, down into the mire.
Is this, therefore, some kind of ’long-term plan’ coming to fruition? We repeat: the dominant classes neither can, nor do they wish to, predict and deal with emergencies. But one thing is for sure, they certainly aren’t concerned about helping proletarians deal with the consequences. This senile impotence which capitalism is exhibiting, vile and indecent, has done nothing to diminish its insatiable rapaciousness. Not ’the Bush government’, not the ’American bourgeoisie’ but the international class of slaveholders.
Even if we don’t deny capitalism’s particularly odious legacy in the many ’deep Souths’ of this world, capitalism, as mode of production based on class oppression, won’t be able to free itself from slavism, anywhere.
Everywhere, objectively, poverty is increasing. For the bourgeoisie it is getting ever more difficult to keep its wage slaves alive, who, after all, are its one and only source of sustenance.
But it won’t be either a natural, nor a social, disaster which will
threaten the domination of the bourgeois class. For that it will need to
undergo a political disaster, the conscious revolutionary intervention
of the working class.
The Iraqi working class
Sixteen months ago, the United States, aided by Great Britain, invaded Iraq. Then they were joined by lesser bourgeoisies, including Italy, who though of the second, third and fourth order proved to be no less criminal, cynical and bloodthirsty. Indeed if anything their hypocrisy was even more disgusting.
The reasons given for the war were entirely spurious: the Iraqi regime was portrayed as a danger to the entire ’International community’ because of its arsenal of ’weapons of mass destruction’, which were later shown not to exist, and its links with, and the fact it was supposedly harbouring – again, never proved – the increasingly mysterious Al Qaeda ’terrorist’ organisation.
The real reasons for the invasion lay elsewhere, in the competition between the imperialist powers: of much more importance was to occupy an area which was both of strategic importance and one of the foremost producers of oil, so that the economies of the biggest global blocs – China, Japan, India and Europe – could be put under pressure. The present oscillations in the price of crude oil show the operation to have been successful.
The entire country was occupied within the space of a few weeks, both due to the superiority of the forces deployed by the Anglo-American alliance, and – and possibly this is the main reason – because the Iraqi army, much larger though it was, deserted en masse. Quite rightly these proletarians in uniform didn’t see why they should make even a minimum sacrifice in the interests of their bourgeoisie and their national State, let alone get killed: they knew then, and they know now, that they have nothing to gain from any ’victory’ by their country.
For the occupiers, the trouble started after the ignominious collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime. Holding on to the territory has proved to be an extremely costly exercise for the troops of the Western coalition. Even with a presence of around 200,000 men it hasn’t managed to carry out its work of ’pacification’. Soon the number of Western soldiers killed by a well-equipped guerrilla force, due partly to the large quantity of easily arms left lying around after the war, would far exceed the number of military personnel killed during the invasion.
The parties of the ’left’ (not just Rifondazione in Italy but everywhere, including groups which claim to be part of the communist tradition) consider the action of the armed bands sacrosanct and exalt the gesture of ’resistance’ against the occupation; they incite the global proletariat to sympathise with the proletariat in Iraq and support it, in the name of Iraqi national independence, Democracy, Liberty...
Genuine communism cannot but oppose this tragically mistaken perspective.
The Iraqi proletariat – which boasts a long tradition of trade-unionism and social struggle – is certainly capable of seeing through those who talk of ’Liberty’ whilst simultaneously dropping ’smart-bombs’ on the civilian population.
Their worst fears about the intentions of the ’liberators’ have been confirmed by the first few months of occupation. The disruption caused by the war has further damaged the economy of the country, and it is the unemployed, now hugely increased in number, who are going to have to pay the cost. The dissolution of the army, and the sacking of the enormous bureaucracy linked to the old regime, has caused tens of thousands of additional families, suddenly without income, to face the prospect of poverty and starvation. The targeted devastation and looting, hitting a country impoverished by more than ten years of sanctions and by the preceding wars, is causing serious discomfort to the general population, deprived of electric power and finding it difficult to obtain water, and even petrol. On the other hand, the administration of the occupiers has spent virtually nothing on getting the basic infrastructures up and running again, still serviceable and efficient but which it means to ’reconstruct’.
As well as the armed battles between the forces of the coalition and their puppet government on the one side, and the guerrilla bands on the other, both sides are using the strategy of terrorism against the general population. As well as being subjected to searches and indiscriminate arrests it is the civilian population, the proletariat and the urban masses, which is most affected by the heavy reprisals which are the inevitable consequence of this strategy.
The denunciation of the sad effects of the military occupation on the Iraqi proletariat is naturally more than justified. The Iraqi government, a direct expression of the occupiers, headed by Allawi, the ex-CIA agent, has shown the workers that it is no better than Saddam Hussein’s. And the Iraqi proletariat knows that very little will change even when the government of the country issues from a parliament which has been elected after formal, multi-party, democratic political elections.
The fact of the matter is that in Iraq a war is being fought between the various imperialist powers to divide up the loot, from theft of the petrol revenue to the ’awarding’ of lucrative ’reconstruction’ contracts. The cowardly and impotent Iraqi bourgeoisie gets along by supporting one imperialism here, another imperialism there, and, if possible, more than one at the same time. It is Baathist and it is anti-Baathist, it is lay and it is Islamic, it is democratic and it is fundamentalist.
What is really at issue is the ’right’ to exploit the Iraqi proletariat. Therefore, for the Iraqi proletariat, the struggle against the military occupation is in itself an objective of no significance: it is a blind alley down which they want to push the proletariat to distract it from its immediate economic interests, in order to subject it, terrorise it and use it as cannon fodder in their dirty, reactionary bourgeois games.
The Iraqi State – totally bourgeois despite being an American puppet – is condemned by the oil locked within its subsoil to remain firmly in the sights of the major global capitalist powers. After the departure of British troops from the country in 1956 its independence has been merely formal, apart maybe from the brief few years in which a young nationalist bourgeoisie attempted to attain a relative autonomy by taking advantage of the divergences between the blocs in the ’Cold War’ period.
The Islamic clerics are not an alternative to the bourgeois regime but rather serve as cover for it; their fiery invective serves merely to hide their collusion with the dominant economic forces and the secret chanceries of the imperialist countries.
If the proletariat in the West had been less corrupted by decades of opportunism, it would be putting the struggle against militarism, against war, and against the occupation of other countries at the top of its list of priorities and it would be denouncing the imperialist lies of its own bourgeoisie. It would be denouncing the fact that even in the aggressor, interventionist countries it is the class of workers who end up paying the material costs of the war.
Equally, the Iraqi proletariat would be steering clear of collaborating with bourgeois movements, which we won’t even dignify with the name of ’nationalist’ – whose anti-proletarian ferocity has been demonstrated again and again precisely in Iraq.
War between bourgeois States destroys solidarity amongst proletarians, sent to the fronts to slit each others throats, but not solidarity between the opposing bourgeoisies who will always place their common class interests, and the preservation of their domination over the working class, over the national interest.
An example of such bourgeois solidarity occurred in Iraq in 1991. Following their defeat in the war against Kuwait, thousands of Iraqi soldiers in the South and the North turned their weapons against the hated regime which had for so long been sending them off to be massacred, and they would find support for their revolt amongst the proletariat. The American battalions who were going up against Baghdad would stop their offensive, cease their bombardment of divisions of the Republican Guard, loyal to Saddam, and support the repression of the revolt. The bloodthirsty Saddam Hussein saved his position, and his skin, precisely because he was held to be indispensable to ensure both social peace in Iraq, and the interests of the western powers.
The war currently in progress is another act in this same drama with the same actors. It is why the Iraqi workers must denounce the present war as well, from both sides. The war may be happening in Iraq, but more and more it is taking on the characteristics of a preparation for a generalised third world war, that is: an imperialist, anti-proletarian conflict.
The Iraqi ’resistance’ represents one of the fronts on which a part of the bourgeoisie is lined up, supported more or less explicitly by a coalition of States opposed to United States hegemony. Communists and the Iraqi and international working class shouldn’t align with either one of them, but rather oppose them both.
In any case, given the instability of the current political and social situation, which is skilfully manipulated from both inside and outside the country, a sudden withdrawal of the occupying troops from Iraq wouldn’t improve the situation of the impoverished masses one bit. The Americans leaving would be of no advantage to the Iraqi working class since they would find themselves being squeezed in an even worse way by an openly Islamic regime, as in Iran, or in a totally arbitrary way, as in Somalia. Behind the apparent chaos they would still both have the national bourgeoisie, in whatever guise, on their backs, and remain in the clutches of the imperialist robbers.
The outlook for the proletariat in Iraq today, same as in all other countries, has be something other than that. The Iraqi working class must defend its own interests and organise itself separately in strong trade unions, and indeed it is already fighting an extremely courageous battle to do precisely that.
On the political level it is necessary for the proletariat to reconstitute its international party on the basis of the original, unabridged Marxist communist programme. A party which will have drawn all the lessons of the Stalinist counter-revolution and its terrible effect on our movement both in the industrialised countries and in those areas which reached the stage of modern capitalism later. Only when equipped with such a party, and solidly linked to it, will it be possible for the working class to emerge victorious.
The task of the International Communist Party today, whilst remaining
in a state of almost total isolation, is to firmly uphold these cardinal
points of communism.
In this issue we are publishing a short note concerning the bloody and murderous terrorist attack on March 11 against a train in Madrid.
Reaching us today comes news from Ossetia about yet another analogous terrorist act, described by the loudhailers of the opposing bourgeois regimes as one more episode in the struggle, as inexplicable as it is ’inevitable’, between different ’civilizations’, religions, and races. Meanwhile, many of the more authoritative amongst them reiterate, with ill-concealed satisfaction, that ’it signals the start of the Third World War’, due to an ’aggressive act’ which ’everybody’ will be ’forced’ to ’defend themselves’ against.
Ossetia obliges us once again to point out that the victims of ’terrorism’ are proletarians and proletarians alone. As always, the instigators of such actions have carefully avoided attacking the symbols, personnel, and apparatus of those States which have declared themselves to be, in words, their ’enemies’.
On the other hand, ’our side’, the military forces of ’those who have been attacked’, don’t think twice about helping the ’fanatical Islamists’ to crush any proletarians unfortunate enough to be caught, literally, between the two competing sets of homicidal maniacs. In Ossetia so it is in Iraq and in Palestine: the ’terrorism’ which never declares itself behind any political programme or social group is always useful as propaganda for capitalist militarism; useful to the Putins and the bearded Chechins, to the Bush-Bin Laden gang, to the old accomplices, complementing and collaborating with one another, Sharon-Arafat.
It’s true: it is a war. It is their war. A general
war against the global working class to draw them way from their
own struggles and their own organisation; against that same working class
which, where-ever it may be found, in the North and the South, Europe and
the Middle East, in the USA, Russia and Asia, is objectively the only
really important, powerful and irresistible enemy of this putrefying and
The number of civilian casualties caused by large-scale capitalist armed conflicts has gradually risen as capital extends its mercantile laws throughout the planet, constantly perfecting its means of production, and destruction. This is shown by comparing the number of civilian casualties in the Franco-Prussian War (the first imperialist conflict in Europe between fully capitalist states) with those in the First and Second World Wars. And the effect on the population of the so-called ’minor conflicts’, which have raged uninterrupted since the surrender of the Axis troops in 1945, also needs to be taken into consideration.
Since for Capital the proletariat is simply a commodity, to be suppressed whenever necessary, it is highly probable that future inter-imperialist conflicts will find the mass of the civilian population, that is the proletariat, defenceless and incapable of responding. Such has been the case in the recent Balkan Wars, in Africa and, by means of terrorism, as we know only too well, in Spain,.
The terrorist attacks of March last year in Madrid must be considered as a machination by those who are used by the various bourgeois States to attain their ends by clandestine means; and those organisations which make of terrorism their modus operandi lend themselves very well to this type of activity due to their secretive character. There is practically no organisation of this type, anywhere, which doesn’t maintain, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, some kind of link with one state apparatus or another.
Low cost, high impact Terrorist attacks are the ideal as far as this criminally capitalist logic is concerned. Thus it is that the trains on the outskirts of Madrid, which were packed with workers during the rush hour, were the perfect target. The explosives, which were obtained through a criminal/police informer, were placed in the trains in rucksacks with the sleeping victims totally oblivious of their deadly contents. The bombs were packed with grapeshot to cause the maximum number of casualties and exploded with the outcome we all know.
That it was an attack against our class there can be no doubt. It wasn’t an attack against Spaniards, since many of the victims, both dead and wounded, were of other nationalities, and nor was it an attack against Christianity as that meddling priest Rouco Varela has implied. The only factor common to all the victims was their shared condition of being workers; wage slaves who have to procure their sustenance by travelling often hundreds of miles a day in order to work long hours for little pay.
In those moments, Madrid returned to being the martyred city it was in the far off days of the Civil War, when fascist bombardments would accompany the daily activities of its working inhabitants. Even back in those days it was the working class districts which were the hardest hit, by the Francoist artillery and air bombardments. And, as happened then and as so often happens amongst humble folk in moments of adversity, a spirit of solidarity emerged: that characteristic of the human species which has stayed with us from the time of tribal communism through to the horrible class society of today. In a totally spontaneous way, everything that could be done, was done. Some gave First Aid to the wounded in the zone of the tragedy, others, in their thousands, gave blood to staunch this enormous haemorrhage suffered by the working class of Madrid and the world. Fleeting gestures these, certainly, but significant insofar as they serve to remind us that the spirit of communism hasn’t been entirely extinguished, after thousands of years of class society founded on inequality and exploitation of man by man. These are instincts which help to reinforce our faith in the revolution, and as a consequence of the historical dialectic, a society without classes.
Later, after the emotion, came reflection. Who was responsible for this terrorist attack? What motivated them to do it?
Given that we can only move in the realm of conjecture and in light of the outcome, we may hypothesise that the aim was to re-orientate Spanish foreign policy, this time utilising so-called Islamic terrorism.
Occurring a few days before the general elections, the terrorist attacks were bound to have a decisive effect on their outcome, a fact borne firmly in mind by the bourgeois PP government from the very beginning. Hence the pathetic efforts to blame ETA, and thus allay suspicion that it was in fact an Islamic reprisal for the support given by Spain to the United States in the invasion of Iraq. We are left with the impression that the PSOE achieved an election victory which was unexpected, and in a certain sense, not really wished for, given the PSOE’s prudent silence before the attack and its previous lack of criticism of the government’s lies.
And it would be these same lies and the shameless manipulation of the facts before the elections which would propel thousands of people, on the night before the elections, onto the streets. That the aim of most of these people was nothing other than bringing about the fall of the PP government would be confirmed by the victory of the PSOE, which in fact had tried to stop any demonstrations. However, this was no ’mass action’ of major importance as some would cheerfully maintain. In reality what occurred, entirely compatible with democratic norms, was simply a transfer of the reins of the Spanish State from one bourgeois party to another. As a consequence, since there is nothing strange in the PSOE profiting from an opportunity offered to it on a plate, we are now witnessing rhetorical embellishments which Aznar’s ’further to the right’ government would have been incapable of pronouncing: that is, greater links with European rather than with United States imperialism, liberalisation of the laws governing abortion, but not immediately, the making of the teaching of religion in schools optional rather than obligatory; and it might end up with equal rights for homosexual couples, but that will be that. As regards what is really important, the laws on work and political economy, everything will stay the same; or rather that will depend on the level of combativity of the working class, which has currently reached an all time low in Spain as elsewhere.
To sum up: yet again proletarian blood has been spilled in the name
of aims which are not its own, but those of its class enemies. We honour
our fallen, and we continue our fight against this abominable society.
In the early hours of July 7, three bomb explosions on the London Underground and one on a double-decker bus announced the latest round of terrorist attacks.
By Saturday the number of confirmed deaths had reached 49, with further victims still trapped in the wreckage. For the most part the victims were workers, tragically cut down as they fought their way through the rush hour, but the entirely random nature of these bomb attacks meant that members of all classes, and all races, fell victim to these attacks.
The self-sacrifice and heroism which ‘ordinary people’ exhibited in the aftermath of these events was, as is usual on such occasions, startling and impressive; but it was not long before such community spirit would be harnessed to a sense of national, rather than class identity – soon we were informed the bombs had been planted by... foreign terrorists; and it would not be long before reports were coming in of attacks on Muslims, and even on groups such as Sikhs not remotely connected with the prime suspects, al-qu’ida.
What is truly disgusting is that the English establishment is now parading the broken bodies, and the grieving relatives, in order to redound to its own credit. It postures as the protector of the community, the guardian of so-called Western virtues against all those backward, barbarous foreigners who know nothing of freedom and democracy and who need to be ‘taught’ such values.
And indeed just such a lesson did the British establishment, in its capacity as junior partner to American Imperialism, recently impart to the Iraqi proletariat. Here, the latter were supposed to learn that 100,000 lost lives were a small price to pay if a dictatorship were to be overthrown; even if it was a dictatorship installed by their liberators in the first place!
But if the recent terrorist attacks were in some way meant to avenge the imperialist invasion, then clearly they were not a class response, but rather one pandering to one or another of the national interests in the Middle East; exactly whose, it is still not clear, and probably it never will be.
All wars that aren’t class wars are wars against the working class. Both the terrorist attacks of isolated groups, who by circuitous routes are generally linked to some state interest or other in any case, and the officially sanctioned State terrorist attacks, like the invasion of Iraq, leave proletarians dead and dying on the battlefield.
Capitalism is in its period of senile decay. It is a system which is unable to resolve any of the problems it has given rise to, and can only perpetuate itself by an unceasing succession of large and small wars whose main aim is destruction: only through destruction can the different capitalist factions make room for themselves and their commodities in the increasingly congested global market place.
In peace and in war, and when the two phases become increasingly indistinguishable as during the London bombings, the proletariat must seek to retain its identity as a class for itself; an international class with a world yet to win.
If we now condemn the terrorist attacks in London which have so cruelly
destroyed so many lives, including those of Muslims, and taken them in
such a pointless way; if we feel for the countless grieving friends and
relatives, we condemn equally the capitalist state which steps forth as
the defender of ‘order’ in the face of these attacks; a state whose
collusion with terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland (another
area where the difference between peace and war is difficult to discern)
is not seriously in doubt, and whose participation in countless acts of
State Terror, the latest of which in Iraq,
has ruined countless more proletarian lives.
The fable of an international terror network, with distinct political objectives and activity of its own, is used to distract the proletariat from its own class problems. The aim today, by intimidating the proletariat with war psychology, is to get it to accept the current war undertakings of various States. Tomorrow, by brandishing the banners of nation, race and religion, the aim will be to get it to accept the future imperialist world war.
Contrary to what they would have us believe, terrorist organisations are pawns in the hands of bourgeois States, which, as well as attacking the working class, will use any and all means to fight its wars: the protagonists might be groups of fanatics, but the people giving the orders are to be found throughout the world in the chancelleries of the various State powers.
The "religious fanaticism" of the Islamic extremists is one more beguiling delusion to fool proletarians; in the West and in the Muslim countries. Everyone knows that these organisations depend on powerful oligarchies of finance capital. Yesterday, in Afghanistan, they allied with the USA against a supposedly communist Russia; today they are certainly in the pay of all the imperialist powers, manoeuvring in a changing game of alliances within a permanent war. In the Arab countries the "Islamic revolution" is a grim ideology which is simply a cover for reaction : there, too, the ultimate aims are the classic anti-working class ones of every bourgeoisie.
If today war takes on a terrorist guise, it is mainly because of Washington’s clear military supremacy over every other imperialism. That isn’t to say that the USA won’t have recourse to the methods of its enemies, but the future transition to open warfare between the imperialist powers, after an adequate rearmament, is nevertheless a certainty. All bourgeois States are warmongers and in favour of using massacres to destabilise their enemies.
The slogan "War on Terrorism" is therefore totally meaningless. It is impossible to wage war on something which is just a particular way of fighting wars. The only way Capitalism can survive, can tackle its economic crises, is through perpetual war. Today it happens to take the form of terrorism. The only real "War on Terrorism" is the one against capitalism : the communist revolution. If you accept capitalism, you have to accept its wars, and its terrorism.
But surely a capitalist State should stop ordinary workers being massacred? History proves otherwise : here in Italy as well it was organs of the State which implemented the "Strategy of Tension". Each terrorist attack is used by government to reinforce the anti-terrorist laws, all the while maintaining a democratic façade, which are then used against striking workers and communists. As in time of war, proletarians are lulled into accepting the strengthening of their State in the illusion that it will protect them from further atrocities, but instead they are ensuring better health to their own executioner.
The bourgeois world tries to persuade us wars are caused by madmen.
Yesterday it was the Nazis, today it is either Islamic fundamentalists
or the warmongering clique gathered around the Bush family. The bourgeoisie
won’t admit that the factors which determine wars aren’t cultural, but
economic ; factors arising from the capitalist mode of production. That
admission will have to be forcibly wrung out of them by the proletariat.
It will be down to the proletariat to organise itself on an international
level, both politically and within the unions, and convert the wars fought
between states – the bombardments of cities during the 2nd World war,
both conventional and atomic, were terroristic as far as the workers were
concerned – into an international class revolution.
In the Iraqi Referendum of October 15, 78% of those entitled to vote (9 million out of a population of 19 million) approved the draft constitution, officially elaborated by the Transitional National Assembly (an institution which emerged from last year’s elections on January 30th and which performs the function both of a parliament and a constituent assembly). The draft constitution would be deemed to have failed if it was rejected by 3 out of the 18 provinces, and by at least two thirds of the voters, even if the majority of votes cast in the rest of the country were in favour of it. As anticipated, the provinces with a Kurdish majority in the North and those with a Shiite majority in the South voted in favour, whilst the three provinces with a Sunni majority, Salahuddin, al-Anbar and Niniveh, voted against, although in Niniveh only with 55% of the vote.
The way has thus been paved for the next electoral contest on December 15, which will supposedly lead to the formation of a stable parliament and government.
All this of course is entirely hypothetical since the actual situation
in the country is light years away from the normality propagandised by
the United States Occupying forces (and by their allies, whether indigenous
"Errors", or a necessity?
In April 2003, the Anglo-American forces occupied Iraq, and were welcomed as ’liberators’. Within a few days of the advance of the Western Coalition’s hyper-armed troops, and after minimal engagements, the Iraqi army melted away into the background. Hierarchies great and small took flight, abandoning their positions. Thus a formal surrender of the State, as for example occurred in Germany in 1945, never actually happened.
After long years of privation imposed by the war and by the embargo, the Iraqi people, now suddenly released from a regime based on the police and on terror, were expecting ’liberty’ from the occupiers. They aspired to a life which was a little less wretched, they wanted the roads, schools, hospitals and aqueducts to be rebuilt. And this is why, in general, the occupying troops didn’t find the atmosphere that hostile.
Today, two years on, the majority of the population now see the Anglo/Italo /Americans as an army of occupation, which has not only not resolved any of the problems of daily life, but made them a good deal worse by imposing another regime based on terror; one no better than Saddam’s.
Over last few months the resistance movement has been growing and becoming ever more battle-hardened. Guerrilla actions and terrorist attacks targeted at roads and airports have imposed the necessity of diverting more troops to defend the oil fields and pipelines. The resistance movement has operational bases in many cities, towns and villages across the country.
This situation of infinite war – which has already resulted in 2,000 deaths (official figures) amongst the American troops alone, and tens of thousands amongst the Iraqi civilian population (100,000 at least) – is attributed, by many observers, to the United States making a series of inaccurate evaluations and out and out errors of a political and strategic nature.
Their worst error is supposedly that they insisted on declaring war in flagrant violation of "International Law", meaning, in essence, against the explicit disapproval of the other great powers – i.e., a good part of Europe, Russia, China – which perceived the operation as an abuse of power and as a clear threat to their interests.
To this we could add their naïve assumption that a region as socially complex as Iraq would be easy to control with a reduced number of soldiers by relying on the active support of the indigenous population, support which turned out not to be there. Finally, the decision to exclude those States opposed to the war from any share of the reconstruction contracts only exacerbated the coalition’s international isolation, and held up the execution of the major infra-structural works.
A series of errors which, according to many commentators, should be blamed on the nationalist egotism and superpower delirium whipped up by the present bunch of eggheads currently residing at the White House.
Despite the ’late empire’ atmosphere in which we live, with its wars of religion, god-anointed presidents and god-ordained hurricanes, we don’t believe it is anything to do with errors, but with necessity: the necessity of the largest of the capitalisms to defend its world domination, at any cost, at a time when its economic power, and therefore its political and military supremacy, is running out of steam. The productivity of capital invested in the West is less than in the East, whilst the enduring crisis of global over-production is exacerbating the clash between the imperialist powers. In the United States, it isn’t a case of the ’right-wing neo-conservatives’ having ’got it wrong’. The American bourgeoisie have been impelled, by a number of strategic motives of considerable importance, into wanting war: namely, the need to reinforce its military presence in the region after the occupation of Afghanistan and to control Iraqi oil supplies.
But the war has highlighted certain structural weaknesses in their military
apparatus, and in their economic structure too.
Towards the Destruction of the Unitary State
At the end of the 2nd World War, the Liberators from across the Atlantic occupied Europe and brought with them entire shipfuls of margarine, condensed milk, tinned meat and chocolate: if they weren’t going to conquer the hearts of the hungry defeated at least they would be able to fill their stomachs. After the armoured cars, there would come the Marshall Plan and big United States capital, paving the way to reconstruction. Soon the occupied countries, preventively flattened by the flying fortresses, would be obliged to re-embark on the cycle of accumulation, forcing the unemployed masses and poor peasant farmers into the factories and allowing our bourgeois capitalists to get back to enriching themselves. Finally, after a few decades had gone by, a few poisoned breadcrumbs (which today we are paying for) would filter down to the wage earners. Post-war imperialist colonisation by the United States occurred in a tormented Japan and Germany, and, a few years later, in South Korea. Steps were taken to prop up the State to ensure social peace and the submission of labour under the national democratic-republican or bureaucratic-Stalinist banners. With this end in view, either the old bureaucracy was recycled or it was perfectly substituted in a seamless way by one deriving from the anti-fascist parties. And this was the case for the army, police and judiciary as well.
We can’t therefore attribute the tragic Iraqi quagmire to the ’errors’ of a state entity which has more experience than any other at exporting "liberty" and "democracy". Despite the raised expectations produced by such slogans, after Baghdad was taken the victors left the city in the hands of criminal gangs for a good five months. This was after having previously bombarded the ministerial offices of the old regime (apart from the oil ministry) and allowed the national treasures to be plundered. Unexpectedly they sacked the vast bureaucracy on which the State was based, and by reducing to poverty many thousands of families, they broke up and embittered the only structures capable of maintaining order. First of all the Iraqi army. There is no doubt the army was a major symbol of national unity. It was, "multi-ethnic and multi-faith, custodian of ’Arab nationalism’, and capable of opposing the break up of the country into ’ethnic fatherlands’," (as the Italian newspaper Manifesto would put it). And this indeed is precisely why the Viceroy, Paul Bremer, dissolved it.
After these events, we hypothesised that the United States was planning to attack the symbols of Arabic Iraq in order to destroy state unity, thereby opening the way to its dismemberment into various smaller States founded on the basis of ethnic or religious considerations. This plan, drawn up in Washington, has indeed been endorsed in the draft constitution approved by the parliament which was elected in the farcical elections of last January. The project, despite its generic nature, seems to open the way to the division of the State into three regions endowed with considerable autonomy, including having their own parliaments, armies, and, above all, control of the oil resources (’open’, of course, to exploitation by the multinationals). This would mean that the Kurdish region would control the oil wells of Mossul and Kirkuk and the Shiite region the oil wells in the Gulf, whilst all that would remain to the Sunnis, in the centre of the country and including the capital Baghdad, would be some old wells which are running dry.
This would mark the end of the unitary State and be a repetition of that Divide and Rule strategy previously applied in this tormented region following the 1st World War, when the imperialist powers divided up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire.
With such a strategy the United States hopes to win the definitive support
of the reactionary irredentist Kurdish parties and their armed militias,
control the turbulent Shiite proletariat through an alliance with the clerics,
which of course would have a nice slice of the oil cake, and finally, ’normalise’
the predominantly Sunni areas which are the focus of guerrilla warfare
by means of stringently repressive military action and economic impoverishment.
The Social Situation and the Task of the Proletariat
Two years after the war has officially ended life is still extremely hard in Iraq. There has been very little progress in the reconstruction of the basic infrastructure and the social situation is tragic: a quarter of the children are suffering from chronic malnutrition, and the probability of dying before 40 is greater than in any of the neighbouring countries; many children no longer attend school, three quarters of the inhabitants don’t have a stable electricity supply, and a third have great difficulty even accessing drinking water. The number of unemployed is enormous. Added to this there is the general insecurity, fear of terrorist attacks and bombings, indiscriminate killings, arbitrary arrests and generalised torture.
After two years of occupation, and despite the rise in the price per barrel, revenue from Iraqi oil (which was supposed, according to some, to cover the costs of reconstruction) has been considerably lower than anticipated and it hasn’t yet attained pre-war levels. Meanwhile, it seems the costs of the war have gone up, and it is costing the United States alone the staggering figure of 5 billion dollars per month.
In this extremely fraught situation, the Iraqi proletariat finds itself entirely alone in its daily struggle for survival. It is a situation which is neither new nor unexpected: in the present historical phase the proletariat has no allies, no defenders; it must find the power within its own class, and not expect help from outside it.
The Iraqi proletariat certainly cannot consider as their allies the United States and the parties bankrolled by it, who openly support the interests of the big multinational employers and use terror to maintain order. But neither can those parties and movements who are fighting against the occupation, whether by peaceful means or force of arms, be considered as allies. The Iraqi resistance is composed of a myriad of groups, parties and movements, ranging from Baathist supporters of the old regime, Arab nationalists, and various Islamic movements to groups which describe themselves as ’nationalist communist’. But these various components have a common plan: to drive out the occupying armies to constitute a State which is united and independent; a State where the classes they represent can get back to selling their petrol, having their land cultivated, and churning out their commodities in peace – and above all, without having to share the profits and revenue with the invaders. All this, of course, on the back of proletarians, who have to keep on toiling away and sweating blood for their bosses. In fact, as many commentators have correctly remarked, the resistance represents the real continuity of the independent Iraqi State; a State which – whether of the warmongering Baathist variety or not – is still one which massacres proletarians.
In order to restore the conditions which suit it best, the Iraqi bourgeoisie wants to mobilise the Iraqi proletariat to take part in the war against the occupying forces and the collaborationist government. To obtain this outcome, it has no hesitation about conducting a ferocious war against the proletarian vanguards, who have no intention of being taken in by this plan, and who continue to defend their independence and their class organisations.
The arrangement of the world into free and stable nations isn’t an intermediary stage between the present situation and socialism. Communism devotes itself to undermining the blood-soaked framework of the national States with a view to the installation of proletarian power on at least a regional scale. In this necessary strategic perspective there is no place for struggle against the regional occupier. The working class has to conduct its hard, daily struggle to survive and to defend a living wage, but even in pursuit of these limited and contingent objectives it finds the other classes in its own country ranged against it. On the organisational level, the condition for proletarian defence today, and for an assault on capitalism tomorrow, is maintaining the political independence of its communist party; on the tactical level, it must remain outside any front or military structure of inter-classist resistance. What needs to be done in Iraq, tortured by occupation and civil war, as much as anywhere else, is to weave together the weft of the Revolutionary Communist Party with the warp of class based trade-union organisations.
The proletariat cannot recover its unity and power on the basis of belonging to such and such a country, ethnic group or religion, but only by actively belonging to its own class: the class of the exploited.
Just as the Baath party, despite its "lay" origins, fomented religious and ethnic divisions in order to prevent the re-composition of the working class, so too does the United States today; and so too will the resistance if it manages to drive out the occupiers.
The dominant classes will do anything to divide the proletarian movement.
The latter, which in Iraq is restricted by the need for clandestinity and
has to endure living in the midst of a war zone, must cling to its classist
and internationalist traditions. It must oppose the war fronts and commit
itself, as it is already doing in fact, to the vigorous activity of reconstituting
free trade-unions and associations which are capable of resisting the reactionary
propaganda emanating both from the various churches and bourgeois parties,
be they collaborationist, or on the side of the resistance.
The Theses on the Chinese Question was written in 1964 and became known as the Marseilles Theses, after the place in which they were presented. The purpose of these theses is self-explanatory, to counter the Maoist theory of "peasant socialism".
Stalin’s Moscow never had a strategy for a Chinese revolution. In fact Moscow wanted what other capitalist countries wanted – a slice of China. Russia’s involvement in the war against Japan in 1945 was not the freeing of China, but to pillage Manchuria. The victory of Mao’s armies in 1949 was against the express orders and interests of Moscow.
The ideological breach between Russia and China was, to put it concisely, a conflict between national interests, expressed through early border skirmishes through to vying for influence in the so-called Third World. The competing support for the "colonial revolutions" was little more than the marketing of weapons, sold at exorbitant prices.
Conflict between Russia and China was not limited to an economic one, and was soon transferred to the political plane. Stalinist parties were soon wracked with splits, whether to support Moscow or Beijing. Soon there was a plethora of Maoist parties all competing for the support of Beijing, raising the banners of people’s struggles. Moscow wanted its official parties but Beijing distained from conferring its official recognition on any of the various competing Maoist parties.
Today the Moscow International is dead, the Russian party having abandoned the false name of Communist. The various Maoist parties have largely disappeared, but the Chinese state party still falsely calls itself communist, and parades under a red flag. That is why these theses are still relevant.
China has been converted from a backward country into a major player on the world stage. The conflict between China and the old capitalist countries is not against imperialism, but an imperialist one for trade, sources of raw materials and spheres of influence. The expansion of Chinese industry has been through the regimentation of the growing working class, often through the discipline of the "People’s Army". Chinese industry has been able to compete against the older capitalist countries by the ruthless exploitation of its own working class.
The false use of name Communist by the Chinese capitalist state has the added use for capitalists throughout the world – it makes the term communism stink in the nostrils of many workers throughout the world. It has the same function as that of the cold war between Russian and the Western Allies – to denigrate communism, and deny a future for the emancipation of the working class.
Although Maoism is mostly dead, it still has its influence of those who had been through the various Maoist parties. The choice is that between Maoism and Marxism – exploitation of the workers (in China and throughout the world) or its emancipation internationally.
Theses on the Chinese Question
After 1960, the year in which the 81 so-called Communist Parties (including
Mao’s) demonstrated their unanimity on the programme of Kruschevite opportunism,
a de facto break occurred between Beijing and Moscow. We have analysed
various documents in which China outlines its own national variant of Stalinism,
but unlike the other "national socialisms" of Arab, Cuban or Yugoslav stamp,
Chinese "socialism" insists on calling bourgeois Russia to account, on
setting itself up as defender of Marxism and reconstructing under its aegis
the ranks of the world proletariat. It is this claim, more than the inevitable
antagonisms between the Russian and Chinese states, which requires our
response, since neither the social practice nor the official political
ideology of the Beijing leaders is directed toward victory for the Communist
The Revolutions of the East: Character and Perspectives
1. In China, as in the other backward countries of Africa and Asia, the two world wars brought to breaking point the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the old relations of production inherited from the patriarchal regime. Here, over a long period of time, national revolts and agrarian rebellions have followed each other in quick succession, validating the prognostications already formulated by Marxism at the start of the century. Thus, despite the repeated defeats of the proletariat in the European industrial metropolises, the upsurge of national movements in the East has demonstrated the revolutionary strength of the antagonisms accumulated within the capitalist system. But, as has been proved today by the increasing retardation of the backward countries in relation to the economic development of the old industrialized metropolises, these contradictions cannot be solved within a national framework or by means of bourgeois "progress": they are the product of world capitalism, of its uneven development, of the accumulation of all wealth by a handful of super-industrialized States. It was exactly in those terms that the Communist International raised the question of the colonies in its 1919 Manifesto:
"The last war, which was by and large a war for colonies, was at the same time a war conducted with the help of the colonies (...) At best, Wilson’s programme ("Freedom of the seas", "League of Nations", "internationalisation of the colonies") has as its task to effect a change of labels with regard to colonial slavery. The emancipation of the colonies is only possible in conjunction with the emancipation of the working class in the metropolises".
The proletariat had been defeated and then enslaved by bourgeois, pacifist
ideology. But contrary to all the prophets of "social peace" and "peaceful
coexistence", the certain lesson which the working class must derive from
the revolutions of the East is this: that violence is always the sole
midwife of history.
2. Whatever the oppression wrought by foreign imperialism in China, the nature of the economic and social contradictions created there were not such as to render China’s revolution an "anti-capitalist" revolution per se. Marxism has always denounced this illusion of petit-bourgeois "socialism", which was adopted also by the Russian populists and is today exploited by Mao’s "extremism". About the Russian populists Lenin had this to say:
"They all readily mouth ’socialist’ phrases, but it would be impermissible for a class-conscious worker to be deceived as to the real meaning of those phrases. Actually there is not a grain of socialism in the ’right to land’, ’equalised division of the land’ or ’socialization of the land’. This should be clear to anyone who knows that the abolition of private land-ownership, and a new, even the ’fairest’ possible, division of land, far from affecting commodity production and the power of the market, of money and capital, leads to their expansion" ("The Political Parties in Russia", 1912, Collected Works, Vol. 18, pp. 52-3).
The liberation of the peasant from the bonds of natural economy, the
development of a "modern" industry, utilising the reserves of labour and
capital supplied by a "modern" agriculture, the creation of a national
market and, crowning it all, the glorification of "national unity", of
"national culture", and of all the "modern" attributes of the State power:
all this has always been, and always will be, the programme of capitalist
3. And yet Marxism, far from restricting itself in a bourgeois revolutionary movement to issuing formal demands for a national State and political democracy, makes the most rigorous assessment of the role of the social classesin all revolutions. The appearance of an industrial proletariat in China, as in tsarist Russia or Europe in 1848, indicated to communists the necessity for a class organization which would utilise the crises of the pre-bourgeois regime for its own political purposes. This is the line of the Communist Manifesto and of the October Revolution; a line that Marx named "permanent revolution". In his Supplementary Theses on the colonial question presented at the 2nd Congress of the 3rd International, Roy stressed the importance of this perspective of independent and continuous struggle for the proletariat in the colonies:
"Foreign domination constantly obstructs the free development of social life; therefore the revolution’s first step must be the removal of this foreign domination. The struggle to overthrow foreign domination in the colonies does not therefore mean underwriting the national aims of the national bourgeoisie but much rather smoothing the path to liberation for the proletariat of the colonies (...) In the first period the revolution in the colonies will not be communist; if however from the very start the communist vanguard emerges at its head the revolutionary masses will be brought on to the correct path along which, through the gradual gathering of revolutionary experience, they will reach the hidden goal".
By imprisoning the Chinese proletariat, from the very start of the revolution,
in "the bloc of four classes" – political formula of the present "people’s
democracy" – Mao’s party has marked the break, by the whole of the backward
East, from the tactics so gloriously expounded by Russian Bolshevism.
4. The permanence of the revolutionary process which was to bring the proletariat of the backward countries to power, would make sense, in terms of the final victory of Communism, only if the proletarian revolution succeeded in spreading to the metropolises of Capital. In the second foreword to the Russian edition of the Manifesto, Marx wrote that Russia could only escape the painful phase of capitalist accumulation: "if the Russian revolution becomes the signal to a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other".
Lenin’s International not only took up this perspective again for Soviet Russia, but extended it to the whole of Asia. We quote here from the theses of the Baku Congress in 1920:
"Only the complete triumph of the social revolution and the establishing of the Communist world economy can liberate the peasants of the East from ruin, poverty and exploitation. Therefore, no other course is open to their liberation than allying themselves to the revolutionary workers of the West, to their Soviet republics and simultaneously fighting the foreign capitalists as well as their own despots (the landowners and the bourgeoisie) until the complete victory over the world bourgeoisie and until the final establishment of the Communist regime".
It is well known how Stalinism turned this thesis on its head by making
Russia’s economic and diplomatic success the universal criterion of Communism’s
progress. Beijing goes even further in repudiating it: instead of seeing
the victory of the Western proletariat as the only prospect for social
liberation in the East, Beijing makes the cause of the international proletariat
dependent on the outcome of the bourgeois national revolts in Africa and
5. In opposition to the Stalinist theory of "building socialism in the USSR", and the tactical extensions that the degenerated International gave to this theory in China, Trotsky has the historical merit of defending the unabridged view of the revolutionary process which was triggered by the first World War and the October Revolution. Thus, in his "Theses" of 1929 on the permanent revolution he declared:
"The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. One of the basic reasons for the crisis in bourgeois society is the fact that the productive forces created by it can no longer be reconciled with the framework of the national State. From this follow, on the one hand, imperialist wars, on the other, the Utopia of a bourgeois United States of Europe. The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds in the international arena, and is completed on the world arena".
Thus the theory of the permanent revolution is applied to each isolated proletarian dictatorship, both those whose economic structures are ripe for certain socialist changes and those in which they are still very backward. No more than Hitler’s Germany, Stalinist Russia couldn’t arrogate to itself the national privilege of "building socialism" within its borders. But on the other hand, Trotsky insisted:
"The development of the world revolution eliminates the question of
countries that are ’mature’ or ’immature’ for socialism, in the spirit
of that pedantic, lifeless classification given by the present programme
of the Comintern. Insofar as capitalism has created a world market, a world
division of labour and world productive forces, it has also prepared world
economy as a whole for socialist transformation".
Democracy and the Proletariat: The National Question
6. By installing the dictatorship of the proletariat in a petty-bourgeois country which had experienced neither parliamentary regimes nor developed capitalism, the Russian Bolsheviks dealt a death-blow to the reformism of the 2nd International which had made bourgeois democracy, and its "progress", an absolute condition for the "transition" to socialism.
Half a century later, not content with considering constitutional reforms and democratic methods as the royal road to socialism, the renegades define socialism itself with bourgeois terms like "people’s democracy" or "State of the entire people". Those who destroyed Lenin’s International have but one slogan and one creed: independence of the various "Communist" parties, non-intervention in the internal affairs of the "national" parties.
In explaining the collapse of the 2nd International, the 1919 Manifesto declared:
"But the centre of gravity of the workers’ movement during that period remained wholly on national soil, wholly within the framework of national States, upon the foundation of national industry, within the sphere of national parliamentarianism".
We deny that the way the 3rd International ended up was inevitable.
capitalism and the imperialist wars had just shifted this "centre of gravity"
on to the international arena, not just for the advanced capitalist
countries, but also for the oppressed countries where the national colonial
question arose to its fullest extent.
7. The national question arises as a specific question for the proletarian movement only in the revolutionary phase of capitalism when the bourgeoisie storms the bastions of power in order to complete its social and economic transformation. During the mature phase of capitalism, on the other hand, if any workers’ party puts out a "national programme" demanding the perfecting of the representative or economic system of the bourgeois State, it constitutes a programme for class collaboration and for "defence of the homeland". That is why Marxism has always strictly defined with reference to geographical areas these two successive phases of capitalism.
"The epoch of bourgeois democratic revolutions in Western continental Europe embraces a fairly definite period: approximately between 1789 to 1871" wrote Lenin. "This was precisely the period of national movements and the creation of national States. When this period drew to a close, Western Europe had been transformed into a settled system of bourgeois States, which as a general rule, were nationally uniform states. Therefore to seek the right to self-determination in the programme of the West-Europe socialists at this time of day is to betray one’s ignorance of the ABC of Marxism. In Eastern Europe and Asia the epoch of the bourgeois democratic revolutions did not start until 1905. The revolutions in Russia, Persia, Turkey and China, the Balkan wars – such is the chain of world events of our period in our ’Orient’" (Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-determination", 1914, Coll. Works, Vo l. 20, pp. 405-6).
Today, this phase is also concluded as far as the entire Afro-Asian
area is concerned. Everywhere more or less "independent", and more
or less "popular", national States have arisen since the end of the Second
World War which, in a more or less "radical" way, have promoted the accumulation
of capital. For this reason alone, Chinese "extremism" can no longer be
depicted as the theory of a national revolutionary movement. Instead it
is the official ideology of an established bourgeois State, a programme
for class collaboration with all that that implies in terms of "socialist"
8. Even during the period of bourgeois democratic revolutions, communists mustn’t make a fetish of the "national question", and should never place resolving it above the interests of the class and their own struggle. The revolutionary proletariat must never forget that its historic task is to destroy the bourgeois State and its relations of production in order to build a society where classes will disappear, along with distinctions between States and even between nations.
As capitalism develops it tears down national boundaries with its commodities and its armies. As destroyer of property relations, capitalism breaks down national entities and imposes its forms of world domination upon the most advanced countries as upon the oppressed peoples. Therefore communists should not expect capitalism to create a harmonious "society of nations" where relations between States are regulated in conformity with "human rights". They were however entitled to hope that the overthrow of world capitalism might mean that the East would be able to escape the phase of capitalist accumulation and constitution of bourgeois national States.
Lenin also said: "We cannot say whether Asia will have had time to develop
into a system of independent national States, like Europe, before the
collapse of capitalism, but it remains an undisputed fact, that capitalism,
having awakened Asia, has called forth national movements everywhere in
that continent, too; that the tendency of these movements is towards the
creation of national States in Asia; that it is such states that ensure
the best conditions for the development of capitalism" (ibid., p.399).
9. The Third International had foreseen the different ways in which
the world revolution might develop:
- Simultaneous victory of the proletariat in the West and the East
- Victory of the proletariat in the industrial centres and independence for the colonies under the national bourgeoisie
- Victory of the proletariat in the colonies and delay of the communist revolution in Europe.
But it never considered the victory of a block of classes to be a lasting revolutionary perspective to which the proletariat in the backward countries should link its destiny. The theses of the 2nd Congress, which Roy dedicated especially to China and India, in any case stressed how necessary it was for the proletariat to detach itself from the "national" bourgeoisie:
"Two movements can be discerned [in the oppressed countries] which are
growing further and further apart with every day which passes. One of them
is the bourgeois-democratic nationalist movement, which pursues the programme
of political liberation with the conservation of the capitalist order;
the other is the struggle of the propertyless peasants and workers for
their liberation from every kind of exploitation. The first movement attempts,
often with success, to control the second; the Communist International
must however fight against any such control, and promote the development
of the class consciousness of the working masses of the colonies".
10. The history of the Chinese workers’ movement and of the political tradition of the Communist Party of China is one of rejection of this demand made by the International. Already having entered the Guomindang in 1924, the young Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gave its support to the "three people’s principles", Asiatic variant of the formulas advocated by Lincoln ("Government of the people, for the people and by the people") and the bourgeois French revolution ("Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). As Trotsky pointed out, the fusion of the Communist Party of China with the nationalist party had nothing to do with the tactics of temporary alliances which Marx considered acceptable during a bourgeois democratic revolution and which had been used by the Bolsheviks in Russia. It was a case of a merger on principle, renewed by Mao Zedong at every "stage" of the Chinese revolution even after the defeat and destruction of the Guomindang. Indeed in 1945, in his report "On Coalition Government" he would declare:
"These views of ours are completely in accord with the revolutionary
views of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen... struggle against foreign feudal oppression
to deliver the Chinese people from their miserable colonial, semi-colonial
and semi-feudal plight and establish a proletarian-led, new-democratic
China, whose main task is the liberation of the peasantry, a China of the
revolutionary Three People’s Principles of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, a China which
is independent, free, democratic, united, prosperous and powerful. This
is what we have actually been doing" (Sel. Works, Vol. III, pp.
230 and 232).
From the Russian Revolution to the Canton Commune:
11. It is in the analysis of the events of 1905 that Bolshevism found its tactics confirmed and which separated it definitively from the Menshevist current. Lenin stated that in Russia "the bourgeois revolution is impossible as a revolution of the bourgeoisie". Thus the proletariat cannot be expected to wait until the bourgeoisie has carried out its political and social tasks (overthrowing tsarism and abolishing feudal property) before launching its own struggle. Leading the social movement without restricting it within bourgeois juridical forms (the constituent assembly) was the meaning of the slogan: "the democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants" and "All power to the soviets!". The result of these tactics was not the establishment of a bourgeois democracy but of the open dictatorship of the proletariat.
In combatting the theory of the "stages" of bourgeois revolution which Stalin already supported at this time, Lenin recalled in March 1917 the essence of the conflict between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks:
"Ours is a bourgeois revolution, therefore, the workers must
support the bourgeoisie, say the incompetent politicians in the camp of
the liquidators. Ours is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, therefore,
the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deception practiced
by the bourgeois politicians, teach them to put no faith in words, to depend
entirely on their own strength, their own organisation, their own
unity, and their own weapons" ("Letters From Afar", Coll. Works,
Vol. 23, pp.297-308).
12. Stalinism has done its utmost to prevent the application to the colonial countries of the principles and lessons of the October Revolution, and to this end it has supported a typically Menshevik interpretation, according to which the imperialist yoke rendered the "national" bourgeoisie of the backward countries more revolutionary than the Russian anti-feudal bourgeoisie. In reply to this theory of Bukharin, Trotsky wrote:
"A policy that disregarded the powerful pressure of imperialism on the internal life of China would be radically false. But a policy that proceeded from an abstract conception of national oppression without its class refraction and reflection would be no less false (...) Imperialism is a highly powerful force in the internal relationships of China. The main source of this force is not the warships in the waters of the Yangzijiang, but the economic and political bond between foreign capital and the native bourgeoisie" (The Chinese Revolution and Stalin’s Theses, 1927).
Without an analysis of the class relations in China, or in the other
colonial countries, it was impossible to understand either the essence
of the agrarian question or the phenomenon of the comprador bourgeoisie,
or finally the role of the "warlords" and the other nationalist generals
such as Jiang Kai-shek and Wang Jing-wei, to whom the International looked
for "allies" but found only hangmen.
13. "The Asiatic revolutions have again shown us the spinelessness and baseness of liberalism, the exceptional importance of the independence of the democratic masses, and the pronounced demarcation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie of all kinds" (Lenin, "Historical Destiny of the Doctrine of Karl Marx", 1913, Coll. Works, Vol. 18, pp. 584-5).
Such are the lessons that Lenin drew after 1913 from the first wave of bourgeois national revolutions in the East: Russia (1905), Persia (1906), Turkey (1908), China (1911). And Trotsky, shortly before the ending of the second revolutionary wave with the massacre of the Guangzhou (Canton) proletariat in 1927, would sum up the bitter lessons of the International’s tactics as follows:
"From the theses of Stalin it follows that the proletariat can separate itself from the bourgeoisie only after the latter has tossed it aside, disarmed it, beheaded it and crushed it under foot. But this is precisely the way the abortive revolution of 1848 developed, where the proletariat had no banner of its own, but followed at the heels of the petty-bourgeois democracy, which in turn trotted behind the liberal bourgeoisie and led the workers under the sabre of Cavaignac. Great though the real peculiarities of the Chinese situation may be, the fundamentals that characterized the development of the 1848 revolution have been repeated in the Chinese revolution with such deadly precision as though neither the lessons of 1848, 1871, 1905 and 1917 nor those of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Comintern had ever existed".
And during the great battles of the Chinese revolution between 1924
and 1927, it was not actually the future of an "independent, prosperous
and powerful" China which was compromised for many years, but the future
of the entire workers’ movement in the colonies, for an infinitely longer,
and much more painful, historical period.
14. By joining the Guomindang, and dispatching its "ministers" to the nationalist government in Guangzhou, the CCP wasn’t making a smart tactical manoeuvre to increase its influence as the International in Moscow would have had it believe. It was renouncing its principles and subordinating its action to the national strategy of the bourgeoisie. Stalin took this position to its extreme consequences, and the "theses" he published in April 1927, more than a year after Jiang Kai-shek’s first blow against the Communists, took a "classical" form.
Indeed adhesion to "the people’s three principles" did not imply just
the simple recognition of abstract principles, the "common belief of the
workers and the bourgeoisie in the national movement". According to the
doctrine of Sun Yat-Sen the "three principles" corresponded to "three stages"
in the development of the bourgeois revolution:
- the first, "military", stage was to translate the principle of nationalism into practice through the unification of China;
- the second, "educative", stage was to prepare the people for political democracy;
- the third, and final, stage was to realise this democracy and introduce "the welfare of the people".
Stalin adopted these same "stages" in his "theses" renaming them anti-imperialist,
agrarian and soviet, only for him the massacre of the Chinese proletariat
signified the ending of the "first stage", during which Communists were
neither to broach the agrarian question nor consider leaving the Guomindang.
All the Stalinist parties would take up this policy again in the colonial
countries. In China, where it was used for the first time, it revealed
itself as open class betrayal, abandoning the insurgent proletarians in
the main industrial centres to the blood-thirsty repression of Jiang Kai-shek.
15. Stalinism never wished to consider the defeat in 1927 as anything other than a "stage" of the bourgeois revolution in China and a "temporary" setback in the workers’ movement. We reject this interpretation. The class struggles of this period were anything but "partial", so much so that they were transformed into a struggle for power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and defeat was accompanied by the physical and long-lasting elimination of the entire Communist vanguard. By then, as Trotsky said, the "democratic revolution" in China had taken on the character not of bourgeois revolution, but of bourgeois counter-revolution. Finally, the failure in 1927 marked the complete rejection on the part of the Moscow International of the Bolshevik tradition in all countries in the East. The April Theses of 1917, in which Lenin announced the approaching victory of the Russian revolution, are contradicted word for word by the theses of April 1927 in which Stalin justifies Jiang Kai-shek’s coup d’etat by the theory of revolutionary "stages".
In opposition to bourgeois and national historiography, Marxism must
re-establish its proletarian and international concept of the historical
course of the bourgeois revolutionary movements:
1789 - 1871: bourgeois democratic movements in Western Europe (as well as in North America and Japan);
1905 - 1950 (roughly): national revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe and in the entire Afro-Asian area; just one proletarian victory: in Russia;
1917 - 1927: world strategy of the permanent revolution, with defeat in Europe (1918-1923) and in Asia (1924-1927) as the conditions for the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia and in the rest of the world.
Peasant "Socialism" and the "New" Democracy
16. Marxism has not only denounced the theory of the "democratic stage", it has also rejected, during the "agrarian stage", the use by Stalin of the slogan "democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants" to cover up the governmental alliance with the left of the Guomindang. In its completed form this theory has become the theory of the "new" democracy, signalling the complete abandonment of those Marxist conceptions on the class nature of each and every State.
"Thus the numerous forms of State systems in the world can be reduced to these three basic types: 1) republics under bourgeois dictatorship; 2) republics under the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3) republics under the joint dictatorship of several revolutionary classes (...) During a specific historical period, the only applicable form of State organisation is the third, the one which we call the new-democratic republic" (Mao Zedong, On New Democracy, 1940).
Lenin’s International never called upon the proletarians of the colonies to establish such "intermediary" States between the dictatorship of the proletariat and that of the bourgeoisie, and we also deny that there exists, or ever has existed, a single example of such a State after over 40 years of "anti-imperialist fronts". The experience of duality of power during the Russian revolution showed that the "democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants" is inevitably transformed, in a short period, into either the dictatorship of the proletariat or the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Trotsky extended this lesson to the Chinese revolution, and we can see its confirmation today in the bourgeois outcome of every anti-colonial movement.
"While the Russian Narodniks, together with the Mensheviks, lent to
their short-lived ’dictatorship’ the form of an open dual power, the Chinese
’revolutionary democracy’ did not even attain that stage. And inasmuch
as history in general does not work to order, there only remains for us
to understand that there is not and will not be any other
’democratic dictatorship’ except the dictatorship exercised by the Guomindang
since 1925" (Trotsky, The Communist International After Lenin).
17. After having long ignored the agrarian movement and the arming of the peasants, the Stalinists became so infatuated with it that they came to consider it the "defining trait of the Chinese revolution and the basis of the new democracy".
"In essence, the national question is a peasant question", Stalin declared. And Mao commented:
"This means that the Chinese revolution is essentially a peasant revolution, and that the resistance to Japan now going on is essentially peasant resistance. Essentially, the politics of New Democracy means giving power to peasants" (Mao Zedong, On New Democracy, 1940)
It is not in this, as far as we are concerned, that the originality of the bourgeois revolutions in the imperialist epoch lies. In the past, all of them have all used the peasants in different ways, including the armed organization, and they have all, to varying degrees, brought along profound changes in agriculture. Yet Marxism has always stressed the incapacity of the peasant class to define a policy of its own. It has shown that agrarian insurrections, which are an integral part of bourgeois revolutions, have only succeeded under the leadership of the cities and by ceding power to them. The Communist Manifesto already insisted back in 1848 on the dual character of the peasantry and why it cannot act as an independent class. The peasant is nothing but the social representative of bourgeois relations; he always leaves his political representation to others.
To all those champions of peasant "socialism" who, both in Russia and
China, have reproached us for "underestimating" the peasantry, we answer
that we have always stressed the lessons of Marxism and that the originality
of the Eastern revolutions lies not in the armed intervention of the peasant
masses, but in the prospect of a proletarian course towards not inevitably
18. The defeat of the Chinese proletariat explains why the revolution had to recede to the countryside. But it does not provide justification for communists to exchange their class conceptions for the theories of peasant "socialism". In 1848-9 the failure of the German revolution had left the proletariat in the same politically disorganised situation; it had put it in the same danger of being submerged by petit-bourgeois democracy. This was the danger confronted by Marx and Engels in their famous Address to the Communist League.
Against the petit-bourgeois radicals, who "seek to ensnare the workers in a party organization in which general social-democratic phrases prevail, while their particular interests are kept hidden", the Address stresses the necessity of an independent class party.
Against every type of petit-bourgeois democratic power, this is how the Address introduced the slogan of the proletarian revolution:
"Alongside the new official governments the workers must simultaneously establish their own revolutionary workers’ governments, either in the form of local executive committees and councils or through workers’ clubs or committees, so that the bourgeois-democratic governments not only immediately lose the support of the workers but find themselves from the very beginning supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of the workers" (Marx, The Revolutions of 1848).
This is the classical answer of Marxism to the reactionary formulas
of "workers’ and peasants’ parties", "workers’ and peasants’ governments"
and of the "new" democracy. The Address of 1850 is directed entirely against
them. If Marx and Engels do not speak of "democratic dictatorship" here,
it is because they didn’t consider it a fitting slogan for the proletariat
to use against the agitation of the petit-bourgeois democrats. The opinions
of Stalin and Mao cannot even be based on the absence in Germany of the
"original" particularity they claimed to have discovered in China, and
indeed even in Russia: the agrarian revolution. On the contrary, Marx and
Engels more than once allowed for a ’re-run’ of the peasant war of the
16th century under the political guidance of the proletariat.
19. The Russian revolution, no more than the German bourgeois revolution, doesn’t reveal the secret of a stable "popular" power representing a block of classes. Long before 1917 Lenin explained the formula of the "revolutionary and democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants" as a power of the proletariat "relying upon the peasants" or "drawing the peasants along behind it"; a formula which was neither frontist nor "democratic". This is how, in perfect continuity with Marx and Engels, he interprets the slogan in April 1917:
"The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry has already become a reality in the Russian revolution, for this ’formula’ envisages only a class correlation and not a concrete political institution implementing this correlation, this cooperation. ’The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies’ – there you have the ’revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ already accomplished in reality" (Lenin, "Letters On Tactics", Coll. Works, Vol. 24, 44-5).
"We have side by side, existing together, simultaneously, both the rule of the bourgeoisie (the government of Lvov and Guchov) and a revolutionary-dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, which is voluntarily ceding power to the bourgeoisie, voluntarily making itself an appendage of the bourgeoisie" (ibid., p.46).
"A new and different task now faces us: to effect a split within this dictatorship between the proletarian elements (the anti-defencist, internationalist, ’communist’ elements, who stand for a transition to the commune) and the small-proprietor or petit-bourgeois elements" (ibid., p. 45).
Between February and October the populists and Mensheviks were rabid
supporters of the "democratic dictatorship", reproaching Lenin for "underestimating"
the peasantry and for wanting to "jump over" the stage of bourgeois social
reforms. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, pointed out that it was not
a question of "introducing socialism" into Russia, but of seizing political
power; after which they would show how the proletarian dictatorship would
realise the economic reforms of the petit-bourgeois democracy.
20. After the capitulation before the Chinese liberal bourgeoisie, the "struggle against Trotskyism" aimed to ensure the triumph, within the defeated proletariat, of positions which had previously been defended by the bloc of populists and Mensheviks at the time of the Russian revolution. And it was Mao Zedong, one time member of the Central Committee of the Guomindang and recent agitator of the peasantry, who executed this task.
In our view he neither "saved" nor "reconstructed" the party of the proletariat by leading it "into the mountains" and pushing it into peasant guerrilla warfare: he simply drowned it in the confused petit-bourgeois mass. In contrast, Lenin in April 1917, and Marx in March 1850, were able to prevent Communists from getting bogged down in this way. And as regards the question of power in the Chinese revolution, Mao Zedong has not even shaken off the petit-bourgeois illusions which allowed Jiang Kai-shek’s repression to go unchecked in 1927. The theory of the "new democracy" is nothing but the development of these same illusions in a period and in a country in which the weakness of the "national" bourgeoisie left no other prospect for constituting the bourgeois power than by the action of the "popular" and peasant masses, so inept and slow to get themselves organised.
The petit-bourgeois democrats love to blame ’reaction’ for the difficulties they have in achieving ’effective’ unity, for their lack of character and their innate instability. Marxism, on the other hand, sees it as a reflection of their unstable economic situation. To appeal to the political initiative of these masses in order to found a national State, to combat imperialism or to realise the socialist programme, this not only repudiates Marx and Lenin, but compromises the entire revolutionary movement. Proof enough is provided, in our view, by the interminable fluctuations of the Chinese revolution and, today, by the blood-stained anarchy contorting the major part of black Africa.
This is why in 1917 Lenin set aside the "old formula" of the "revolutionary and democratic dictatorship", which the populists and Mensheviks wanted to "realise" by means of... the constituent assembly. In the same way the Bolsheviks consigned the name "social-democratic party" to the archives of the 2nd International.
Because, and this also goes for the "new democracy":
"’Democracy’ expresses in reality one moment the dictatorship of
the bourgeoisie, next the impotent reformism of the petit-bourgeoisie
that submits to this dictatorship" (Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution
and the Renegade Kautsky).
Impotent Petit-Bourgeois Reformism
21. In their 1850 Address, Marx and Engels warned German proletarians that petit-bourgeois democracy would play the same treacherous role as the liberal bourgeoisie in the revolutionary transformation of the old social and political structures. The confirmation of these predictions in Russia would be the social-revolutionaries. The Chinese example gives us absolute confirmation on the scale of an entire historical period and of an entire country.
"The democratic petty bourgeois, far from wanting to transform the whole of society in the interests of the revolutionary proletarians, only aspire to a change in social conditions which will make the existing society as tolerable and comfortable for themselves as possible. They therefore demand above all else a reduction in government spending through a restriction of the bureaucracy and the transference of the major tax burden onto the large landowners and bourgeoisie. They further demand the removal of the pressure exerted by big capital on small capital through the establishment of public credit institutions and the passing of laws against usury, whereby it would be possible for themselves and the peasants to receive advances on favourable terms from the State instead of from capitalists; also, the introduction of bourgeois property relationships on the land through the complete abolition of feudalism...
"As far as the workers are concerned one thing, above all, is definite:
they are to remain as before. However, the democratic petty bourgeois want
better wages and security for the workers, and hope to achieve this by
an extension of State employment and by welfare measures... But these demands
can in no way satisfy the party of the proletariat. While the democratic
petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible,
achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our
task to make the revolution permanent until all the more propertied classes
have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has
conquered State power and until the association of the proletarians has
progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all leading
countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of
these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are
concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be
to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms
but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found
a new one" (Address..., ibid. pp. 323-4).
22. With regard to the agrarian question, Mao’s party had done nothing to combat the petit-bourgeois tendencies which were anxious to emphasise the break with the old relations with a juridical consecration of the sacred rights of peasant property. And none of the reforms so noisily proclaimed since the creation of the People’s Republic have contemplated a greater concentration of agriculture than that based on the development of small production, the "interests" of the small-holding peasant and State "aid" for the latter. When they wished to overcome these limitations, which are those of bourgeois relations of production, the social catastrophe which occurred was no less serious than that which followed the false Stalinist collectivisation in Russia.
In brief, the famous "agrarian revolution" is reduced to a harsh accumulation of capital in the Chinese rural areas in accordance with the two classical phases of the development of capitalist agriculture: firstly the establishment of peasant property, then a slow process of expropriation and concentration under the impulse of the bourgeois productive forces and a growing market economy.
"If no special obstacle arises, we are prepared to continue this policy after the war, first extending rent and interest reduction to the whole country and then taking proper measures for the gradual achievement of ’land to the tiller’" (Mao Zedong, On Coalition Government, 1945, op.cit., p. 248).
"Then, as the peasants are helped to organize farming and other production co-operatives step by step on a voluntary basis, the productive forces will grow" (ibid., p.251).
It has taken a quarter of a century (1927-1952) to achieve the first
phase: confiscation and division. But before China has a "modern", concentrated,
i.e., fully capitalist agriculture, we can only hope that the Communist
proletariat of the world will have got the better of national, peasant
and petit-bourgeois "socialism".
23. In the weary historical development of Chinese agriculture we can see one fact confirmed: its bourgeois character. But our criticism of the agrarian policy of the CCP is to do with a matter of principle: all it has done is mirror the molecular processes of this development without trying to anticipate its social consequences, particularly as regards the overthrow of bourgeois property relations. Let us quote again from the 1850 Address:
"The first point over which the bourgeois democrats will come into conflict with the workers will be the abolition of feudalism; as in the first French revolution, the petty bourgeoisie will want to give the feudal lands to the peasants as free property; that is, they will try to perpetuate the existence of the rural proletariat, and to form a petty-bourgeois peasant class which will be subject to the same cycle of impoverishment and debt which still afflicts the French peasant. The workers must oppose this plan both in the interest of the rural proletariat and in their own interest. They must demand the confiscated feudal property remain State property and be used for workers’ colonies, cultivated collectively by the rural proletariat with all the advantages of large-scale farming and where the principle of common property will immediately achieve a sound basis in the midst of the shaky system of bourgeois property relations" (op. cit., pp. 327-8).
For Communists, it was not a matter of determining whether China or
petit-bourgeois Russia was "ripe" for this transformation: the overthrow
of bourgeois domination is conceivable only on an international scale.
Neither was it a matter of inventing, in a given country, "collectivist"
recipes in order to accelerate its economic development. "We write a decree
and not a programme", Lenin said commenting on the "Decree on the Land",
which some reproached for being the programme of the social-revolutionaries.
And yet on one point this "decree" differed from their "programme": it
did not include the aspirations of the peasantry in fixed juridical forms
(division of land, nationalization). In this resides the whole of the difference
between the programmes of national "socialism" and internationalist Communism.
24. The petit-bourgeois policy of Mao’s party appears in a still clearer light in the "question of the workers". Far from writing "abolition of the wages system" on its banner, the CCP proclaims the association of capital and labour and does not neglect any "measure of charity" in the tradition of the "socialists" â la Louis Blanc:
"The task of the Chinese working class is to struggle not only for the establishment of a new-democratic State but also for China’s industrialization and modernization of her agriculture. The policy of adjusting the interests of labour and capital will be adopted under the new-democratic State system. On the one hand, it will protect the interests of the workers, institute an eight to ten hour working day according to circumstance, provide suitable unemployment relief and social insurance and safeguard trade union rights; on the other hand, it will guarantee legitimate profits to properly managed State, private and co-operative enterprises – so that both the public and private sectors and both labour and capital will work together to develop industrial production" (Mao Zedong, On Coalition Government, 1945, op. cit., p. 254).
Such a programme, such a practice, does not differ at all from the old reformism of the advanced capitalist countries, from the election speeches of any "progressive" deputy or any "reactionary" minister of the West. By calling this "socialism" and vindicating its exclusivity as compared with Moscow, Mao has elevated himself to the "ideological" level of the bourgeois conservative forces of the world. He has lost his halo as a peasant agitator.
In China the petit-bourgeois democracy ceased to be revolutionary
in 1927; even before it took State power it had become reformist;
today it has become reactionary, presenting its illusions, and especially
its economico-social practice, under the label of "socialist construction".
That is the only political significance that we attach to its conflict
25. Thus the historical destiny of Chinese "populism" has been brought to a close. Since the first bourgeois revolution in 1911 Lenin stressed the double aspect of Sun Yat-sen’s ideology. Utopian was the idea of realising "socialism" through a nationalisation of the land, the "limitation" of big capital and the "honest" application of a plan for industrial development agreed upon by the Great Powers. But this programme had a bourgeois revolutionary substance that the Bolsheviks could recognise in China, as in Russia. In adopting it, and realising it, Mao’s party conferred on it the only "original development" that was reserved for it: the Utopian idea of peasant "socialism" has become the reactionary ideology of the "socialist construction" in China; and its revolutionary substance has been squandered in the ocean of petty-bourgeois reforms.
Thus did the political ideology of a class degenerate long after history had condemned it to death. At the other extreme, as early as 1894, as the Russian proletariat was taking its first faltering steps, Lenin could announce the ideological bankruptcy of the "Friends of the People" several decades before their "popular" power saw the light of day:
"The rural countryside is indeed splitting up. Nay more, the countryside
long ago split up completely. And the old Russian peasant socialism split
up with it, making for workers’ socialism, on the one hand, and degenerating
into vulgar petit-bourgeois radicalism, on the other hand. This change
cannot be described as anything but degeneration. From the doctrine that
peasant life is a special order and that our country has taken an exceptional
path of development, there has emerged a sort of diluted eclecticism, which
can no more deny that commodity economy has become the basis of economic
development and has grown into capitalism, but which refuses to see the
necessity of the class struggle under this system. From a political programme,
calculated to arouse the peasantry for the socialist revolution against
the foundations of modern society, there has emerged a programme calculated
to patch up, to "improve" the conditions of the peasantry while preserving
the foundations of modern society" (Lenin, "What the Friends of the
People Are", Part III, 1894, Coll. Works, Vol. 1, pp. 264-5).
Rivalries in the Bourgeois East
26. Unlike India and other colonial countries, China entered modern history as "everybody’s colony". Very soon the export of capital prevailed over the export of industrial products from the old English metropolis. To protect their investments the Great Powers "agreed" on the division of the country into spheres of influence. In Beijing the diplomatic corps had the State finances at their disposal. This situation was a reflection, as Lenin pointed out, of the transition of capitalism to its highest stage: imperialism. Wilson’s programme for "the internationalisation of the colonies", Kautsky’s "ultra-imperialist" version of it, and the project, laid down by Sun Yat-sen, for the creation of a consortium of the Great Powers for the development of an "independent" China had no other objective basis.
"Let us assume – said Lenin – that all the imperialist countries conclude an alliance for the ’peaceful’ division of those parts of Asia; this alliance would be an alliance of ’internationally united finance capital’. There are actual examples of alliance of this kind in the history of the 20th century – the attitude of the powers to China for instance. We ask, is it ’conceivable’, assuming that the capitalist system remains intact – and this is the assumption that Kautsky does make – that such alliance would be more than temporary, that they would eliminate friction, conflicts and struggle in every possible form?" (Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916).
The example of China has shown that it was inconceivable. The country
which at the beginning of the century seemed to offer the greatest promise
of a capitalist development and the surest guarantees of profits has become
the closed battlefield of civil wars and imperialist rivalry. Or rather,
faced with the outbreak of these antagonisms world imperialism had to renounce
all its economic "plans" in China, transferring the unbridled competition
between Capitals to the old colonies or semi-colonies: India, Africa, South
America. Here "overseas development" and the stale pacifisms of the Russo-American
Wilsons and Kautskys reappeared: but the groundwork was also laid for future
revolutionary explosions on an even larger scale.
27. Mao’s party did all it could to ensure its victory wasn’t characterised by a violent rupture of the imperialist chain in Asia. The CCP, adhering even more completely to the world war than Sun Yat-sen, acquired the illusions of the liberal Chinese bourgeoisie about a "society of nations", and an "international co-operation", which would benefit China.
"The CCP agrees with the Atlantic Charter and with the decisions of the international conferences of Moscow, Teheran and Yalta (...) The fundamental principles of the CCP’s foreign policy are as follows: to establish and develop diplomatic relations with all countries, to resolve all questions of mutual relations (...) setting out from the need to crush the fascist aggressors, to maintain international peace, to mutually respect independence and equality in the rights of States, to cooperate with each other in the interests of States and peoples" (Mao Zedong, On the Coalition Government, 1945).
Sun Yat-sen recognised the bankruptcy of this programme back in 1924! Mao not only remained faithful to it but passed it off as "socialism":
"The socialist countries, great and small, whether economically developed or not, must establish their relations on the basis of the principles of complete equality, of respect for territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence, of non-interference in internal affairs, as well as reciprocal support and assistance" (Letter in 25 points, 14/6/63).
In opposition to the petty-bourgeois utopia of a ’socialism’ of the
countries realising a ’harmonious’ development towards ’equal’ trade,
we call for the destruction of the bourgeois countries and the establishment
of non-mercantile, not merely ’equal’, relations between countries in which
tomorrow the dictatorship of the proletariat will be established!
28. Far from reflecting ’ideological differences’, the Sino-Soviet conflict exists on the same terrain as bourgeois national interests. It is incontestable that the compromises which the USSR made with the indigenous bourgeoisie and with foreign imperialism delayed the constitution of national bourgeois States in the East until after the 2nd World War. Just as the Russian Revolution was re-awakening the anti-colonial movements in Asia, the Stalinist counter-revolution halted their development. But Mao’s party taking its stand against Moscow today never denounced this betrayal: neither in 1937, when the CPP timidly executed the turn towards "popular fronts" by renewing the alliance with Jiang Kai-shek, nor in 1945, when Stalin signed a treaty of peace and friendship, again with Jiang, which was supposed to last... thirty years.
It isn’t therefore consciousness of the interests of the anti-colonial movement, less still a critique of Russian ’socialism’, which lies behind the Sino-soviet conflict. Rather it is the contradictions between the interests of Chinese capitalism and Russian imperialism:
"It is yet more absurd to transpose into relations between the socialist
countries the praxis consistent with realising profits at the expense of
others – a praxis which characterises relations between capitalist countries
– and arrive at stating that the "economic integration" and "common market"
introduced by monopolist groups in order to corner markets and divide up
profits could serve as an example to the socialist countries in their mutual
assistance and economic collaboration" (Letter in 25 points).
29. The ’programme’ which Stalin pushed through at the 6th Comintern Congress excluded China and the other backward countries from ’building socialism’ within their national borders: a privilege which Russia had so recently arrogated to itself. Just at the moment when the interests of Russian capitalism became integrated into those of the world market, China took up this old Stalinist slogan to use on its own behalf. And about it we will repeat what Trotsky said about "Russian socialism":
"The world division of labour, the dependence of soviet industry upon foreign technology, the dependence of the productive forces of the advanced countries of Europe upon Asiatic raw materials, etc., etc., make the construction of an independent socialist society in any single country in the world impossible" (Theses on the Permanent Revolution).
The "construction of Socialism" in China can signify only the accumulation
of capital and the extension of a market economy. But this theory hasn’t
managed to mask much more acute antagonisms. The Sino-soviet conflict,
the entire history of the national bourgeois movements in Asia and Africa,
and every conference on world trade has anxiously underlined the growing
backwardness of the ’under-developed’ countries, be they ’independent’
or ’socialist’, compared to the handful of great imperial powers which
detain all military, economic and political power in today’s world.
30. To avert the destiny awaiting it, the bourgeoisie of the backward countries strives by all means to pass off its political and national emancipation as social and human emancipation of the exploited masses. The proletarians of the ex-colonies, who are victims both of their own bourgeoisies and the contradictions accumulated within world imperialism, will find ever more reason to break with democratic and reformist ideology. They will then recall that Marxism, and Lenin’s International, never expected political democracy and national independence to free the colonial peoples from exploitation:
"Finance capital, in its drive to expand, can ’freely’ buy or bribe the freest democratic or republican government and the elective officials of any, even an ’independent’, country. The domination of finance capital and of capital in general is not to be abolished by any reforms in the sphere of political democracy; and self-determination belongs wholly and exclusively to this sphere. This domination of finance capital, however, does not in the least nullify the significance of political democracy as a freer, wider and clearer form of class oppression and class struggle" (The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-determination, Lenin, 1916).
It is against this more open, broader, and freer form of class oppression
that the proletariat of ’popular’ China, and of Russo-American India, will
have to conduct their struggle.
(Part 1 - part
2 in Communist Left 27/28)
The trade-unions of today, present a picture of a labyrinthine complexity of organisations which overlap, merge, and constantly change their names, with a corresponding array of officials and bureaucratic structures, from the factory up to the national and international level. Reflecting this fragmented situation, a cornucopia or rulebooks, and arcane customs add to the confusion.
Although many of these features of the trade unions arose in the course of the unions’ historical evolution out of local organisation, they also indicate the increasing ties of the trade-union leaders to the official State apparatus, to which they have become increasingly bound by the carrots of honours, financial reward and bourgeois respectability, and, the stick of legal restrictions on trade-union activity, including threats to confiscate union funds. Nowadays, on the increasingly rare occasions when a union does launch a strike, the confrontation tends to be more and more isolated within a particular sector, due as much to a narrowly corporativist attitude as to recent legislation against secondary actions.
The fact is that in the modern epoch, it is increasingly difficult for workers to wring even the smallest of concessions from capitalism without breaking the law. But instead of launching a vigorous campaign to defend the rights of union members, the trade-union leaders place all their trust in the vague promises of the bourgeois workers parties to change the law once they have got in power, something they invariably fail to do (in Britain, the Labour Party leader Tony Blair has said that he will only see to change some of the Tory’s anti-union legislation). Thus the cart of the proletariat is hitched up to a gang of political speculators, and the trade-union leaders return to their task of administrating what are increasingly nothing more than pension, insurance and even mortgage societies!
The fact is, the trade union leaders are unwilling to confront capitalism itself, and admit to workers the dreadful truth that aiming for a secure, well-paid existence within parameters acceptable to capitalism is to aim for a fools paradise; a fools paradise which the trade-union leaders are eager to defend since their livelihood depends on it, for at the end of the day, they are no different to the various priests and mystic conmen who, wafting of incense, flock around the disillusioned and sell them expensive utopias.
A resounding silence then has been the response of the official trade-union leaders to the increasing stranglehold of the bourgeoisie, and it is a stranglehold which has undoubtedly been strengthened by the increasing marginisation of communists within the unions, to the extent that they are either forbidden from assuming leading positions, or find themselves entirely straitjacketed by a union constitution which is dedicated to anything but class warfare.
In Italy, in response to the increasing availability of the union leaders o bourgeois directives, the trade-union movement has split. The workers, and therefore communists, are starting to desert the old trade-union organisations and join the base committees and other alternative workers’ economic organisations which have come about as a result of the old ’syndicates’ being reduced to an empty shell. In these organisations it is possible again for communists to form fractions and make themselves heard.
In this climate of increasing illegality of all workers’ struggles,
these new organisations in Italy are of compelling interest for workers
still trapped within the old, sclerotic trade-union organisations elsewhere.
Increasingly they are forced to enquire whether their own trade unions
are not every bit as hidebound as the ones from which there has recently
been such a mass desertion in Italy. And if so, wherefore now? To answer
these questions effectively would mean making an actual comparison of the
respective histories of the Italian and other trade-union movements (a
work we also engaged in), but equally in this current situation, it is
a good time to refresh our memories about the fundamentals of the ’trade-union
question’, and retrace our steps back and examine the theoretical bases
of Marxist strategy and tactics in the unions.
1. THE ’YOUNG HEGELIAN’ MARX
Marx first broached the problem of social conflict in general as a student at Berlin University. After matriculating in the Law department in October 1836, he would soon cast off his early romanticism and in an attempt to resolve a problem he had encountered in his Law studies, of the gap between ’what is and what ought to be’, would make a conversion to Hegelianism as sudden as it is profound. It would not be long before Marx had entered into the thick of the controversies that raged between the ’Old’ Hegelians, who remained loyal to the system and conservative ideals of the older Hegel, and the ’Young’ Hegelians who would stress the revolutionary elements in the Hegelian method, whose significance lay in "that for the first time the totality of the natural, historical and spiritual aspects of the world were conceived and represented as a process of constant transformation and development and an effort was made to show the organic character of the process" (Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific).
Marx would soon be recognised as one of the main contributors to the ’Doktorklub’, the main bastion of the ’Young’ Hegelian movement, and would take up a position on its extreme left wing. Discussions would revolve to begin with around the question of religion, but soon, in an atmosphere where a rising bourgeoisie was starting to have occasional skirmishes with the Prussian absolutist State, the ’Doktorklub’ would become increasingly involved in political matters and defending the supporters of constitutional monarchy. When Frederick Wilhelm IV ascended the throne in July 1840, they were keen to see whether the King would put into effect the many reforms he had proposed as Crown Prince, including freedom of speech. They were to be rudely awakened. On them would his first repressive falls, and there would be a concerted attempt to remove Hegelians from all Government and academic posts. By the winter of 1840-1 the club were calling themselves ’friends of the people’ and their theoretical position was therefore at the extreme left wing of revolutionary republicanism.
The result of this for Marx personally was that he was forced to abandon
his hopes of becoming a university lecturer. Instead he would turn to journalism.
2. MARX AND THE ’RHEINISCHE ZEITUNG’
In the course of 1841, a loosely knit group of industrialists (including Camphausen, the railway king and future prime-minister), merchants, writers and philosophers came together in Cologne: the epicentre of Prussia’s most industrialised region, the Rhineland. By the middle of the year, this group had conceived of the project of having a daily newspaper of their own, and this plan eventually came to be realised by taking over an already existing, but ailing, cologne newspaper, with money put up largely by Cologne industrialists. On January 1st, 1842, the first number appeared.
Marx had been associated with this group from the start, and after the success of his first contribution, an article on freedom of the Press (his first published article) he was pressed to contribute as many articles as possible. In October 1842, Marx took over the editorship.
Commenting on this period, Marx would later write "In the year 1842-3, as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, I experienced for the first time the embarrassment of having to take part in discussions on so-called material interests. The proceeding of the Rhineland Parliament on thefts of wood, and so on... provided the first occasion for occupying myself with the economic questions" (from ’A Preface to a Critique of Political economy’). Engels would reiterate this and say in a letter to R. Fischer (MEW XXXIX 466) that he had "always heard from Marx, that it was precisely through concentrating on the law of thefts of wood and the situation of the Mosel wine-growers that he was led from pure politics to economic relationships and so to socialism".
This increasing interest in socialism had also been nurtured by the communist movements in France and the Chartists in England, whose activities were regularly reported in the RZ and in the German press in general. Stoking these flames, there was Moses Hess, who in August 1842 had started a study-circle for the discussion of social problems which effectively became the editorial committee of the paper. Hess was the first of the Young Hegelian camp to turn his attention to communism and Engels reports he was the first three to come over to communism.
Ironically, considering his future course, Marx’s debut article as editor was a refutation of charges of communism made against the Rheinische Zeitung by another paper ("Communism and the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung"), but the article consisted more in a criticism of the rival paper’s refusal to take communism seriously than an outright condemnation, and marx was careful to say that ’the Rheinische Zeitung doesn’t concede theoretical validity to communist ideas in their present form (our underlining).
During this period, however, Marx was still essentially at the extreme left wing of bourgeois democracy. But whilst still experimenting with the idea that it might be possible to convince the rulers of the need for change, he could nevertheless see that if divine inspiration from above failed, English history pointed to another possibility: Charles I mounted the scaffold because of divine inspiration from below".
Marx’s increasing involvement with the real problems of the day, along with the continual harassment at the hands of the Prussian censors, was resulting in a growing conviction that simple ’criticism’ of the status quo was not enough, and this would lead to a split in the Young Hegelian movement between the ’critical critics’ headed by Bruno Bauer, and the more practical contingent around Marx. "The more deeply Marx plunged into reality, the more his Berlin friends lost themselves in abstraction. Their criticism became ever more ’absolute’, and was destined to end up in empty negation. It became ’nihilistic’.
"The word ’nihilism’, which dates from those times, was coined for them. The Russian writer, Turgeniev, who is generally supposed to have invented it, learned it during this period in Berlin, when he met members of Bruno Bauer’s circle. He transferred it to the Russian revolutionaries twenty years later (...)". Eventually they "spun a new theory out of their very impotence, made a fetish of individual consciousness, which they regarded as the only battlefield on which victories could be fought and won, and ended up in an individual anarchism which reached its zenith in Max Stirner’s ultra-radical and ultra-harmless Einzigen" (from Karl Marx, Man and Fighter, by Nicolaievsky and Maenchen-Helfen).
Marx’s increasing disillusionment with the Freien group, the
remnant of the old ’Doktorklub’, and their indulgence in empty philosophising
reflected Marx’s own doubts that the rulers could be brought around to
the need for change by philosophical means. In the end, the matter would
be settled once and for all by the establishment’s very unphilosophical
riposte to the criticisms levelled at them: they would close down the paper
– along with the entire liberal press in Prussia. The last issue would
go out on March 31, 1843 with the following poem as its epitaph "We boldly
flew the flag of freedom, and every member of the crew did his duty. In
spite of the watch having been kept in vain, the voyage was good and we
did not regret it. Though the gods were angry, though our mast fell, we
were not intimidated. Columbus himself was despised at first, but he looked
upon the New World at last. Friends who applauded us, foes who fought us,
we shall meet again on the new shore. If all collapses, courage remains
unbroken". The new shore would be Paris.
3. THE PROLETARIAT IDENTIFIED AS THE REVOLUTIONARY CLASS
But before moving to Paris, there would be a brief interlude when Marx ’withdrew from the public stage into the study to solve the doubts that assailed him’. In March 1843, he moved from his mother-in-law’s house in Kreuznach where he stayed for the following six months, marrying Jenny in June. It was during this stay that he decided to get to grips with Hegel’s political philosophy, a project he had had in mind for more than a year (...)
’A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ was "written when Marx’s ideas were in a transient state: he adopted the fundamental humanism of Feuerbach and, with it, Feuerbach’s reversal of subject and predicate in the Hegelian dialectic. He considered it plain that the task ahead was the recovery by man of the social dimension of his nature that had been lost ever since the French revolution levelled all citizens in the political state and thus accentuated the individualism of bourgeois society. It was clear to Marx that private property must cease to be the basis of social organisation" (Karl Marx Selected Writings, D. McLellan, OUP). Marx also clearly identifies here the "class of immediate labour, of concrete labour" which didn’t so much "constitute a class of civil society as provide the ground on which the circles of civil society move and have their being".
Marx would later say in the preface to the Critique of Political Economy that he was led, during these studies, to the conclusion "firstly that the legal relations as well as forms of state are to be understood neither in themselves nor from the so-called general development of the human mind, but rather have their roots in material conditions of life (...) secondly that the anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy".
In October 1843, Marx moved to Paris to take up co-editorship of a new paper the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbucher – The French-German Year-books – which aimed to bring into an ’intellectual alliance’ the Germans, who were most advanced in theory, with the French, who were the most advanced in practice.
Here Marx would identify the role of the "class of immediate labour"
as the one which would put into practice the revolution he had already
accomplished in philosophy. In his Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy
of Right: Introduction written in early 1844, Marx, in posing the question
"so where is the real possibility of a German emancipation" would answer
"in the formation of a class with radical chains, a class in civil society
that is not a class in civil society, of a social group that is the dissolution
of all social groups, of a sphere that has a universal character because
of its universal sufferings and lays claim to no particular right, because
it is the object of no particular injustice but of injustice in general.
This class can no longer lay claim to a historical status, but only to
a human one. It is not in a one-sided opposition to the consequences of
the German political regime, it is in total opposition to its presuppositions.
It is finally, a sphere that cannot emancipate itself without emancipating
itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating these
other spheres themselves. In a word, it is the complete loss of humanity
and thus can only recover itself by a complete redemption of humanity.
This dissolution of society, as a particular class, is the proletariat.
This dissolution of society, as a particular class, is the proletariat".
Further on, Marx scotches all notions about the utopian nature of a propertyless
communist society by pointing to the fact that it is already the case for
the proletariat: "When the proletariat proclaims the dissolution of the
hitherto existing world order, it merely declares the secret of its own
existence, since it is in fact the dissolution of this order. When it demands
the negation of private property it is only laying down as a principle
for society what society had laid down as a principle for the proletariat,
what has already been incorporated in itself without its consent as the
negative result of society". The dichotomy of German Philosophy and French
socialism stood revealed as one between communist ideas and proletarian
material: ’As philosophy finds in the proletariat its material weapons,
so the proletariat finds in philosophy its intellectual weapons, and as
soon as the lightning of thought has struck into the virgin soil of the
people, the emancipation of the Germans into men will be completed.’
4. THE PARIS MANUSCRIPTS
In 1844, Marx was firmly ensconced in Paris, and was immediately impressed and stimulated by the numerous workers’ associations and attended as many of the meetings as possible: ’at the communist workers’ meetings brotherhood is no phrase but a reality, and a true spirit of nobility is reflected in the faces of these men hardened by labour’.
Paris was also host to about 100,000 German immigrants, who tended to depress the wages of French artisans and there had been as a result several street battles between the two groups, and tension did not diminish until various revolutionary groups started working amongst the workers. Soon there was no French secret society without a German member and the Blanquist groups actually had special German sections. Contacts between Marx and the league of the Just – which aimed to set up a ’social republic’ in Germany and was almost entirely composed of artisans – were to the extent that Karl and Jenny Marx even tried a short-lived attempt at living in a ’philanstery’ which included Maurer, one of their leaders.
In this highly charged Parisian atmosphere, Marx would write his famous Paris Manuscripts. What is immediately apparent is that the language is simpler and clearer and less wrapped in the abstruseness of Hegelian terminology. Marx was now less concerned with philosophical contradictions than with the actual contradictions of contemporary society, and is obviously firmly under the sway of Feuerbach’s writings, which in the preface he refers to as the only ones "to contain a real theoretical revolution since Hegel". But although Feuerbach’s radical brand of materialism had successively ’inverted’ Hegel’s philosophy in seeing mind as derived from matter, rather than matter derived from Hegel’s ’absolute idea’ Marx would nevertheless move beyond the abstractness of Feuerbach’s notions of ’Nature’ and ’species being’ to flesh out these concepts as ’capitalist society’ and ’social being’ respectively. And discovering the material contradictions in society meant a study of actual society rather than the reflection of these material contradictions in the minds of philosophers.
The Paris manuscripts have become the subject of much debate amongst Academia, since they think they have discovered a ’humanist’ Marx which they can deploy against the revolutionary Marx. This has largely been achieved by ignoring the obvious fact that Marx was still in the process of clarifying his revolutionary position, which was then still under the influence of the declaredly Humanist Feuerbach, but also by ignoring the revolutionary implications of Marx’s first serious analysis of wages and the proletarian class.
Thus, in the very opening lines of the manuscripts, in the section entitles "wages of labour" we read the following: "Wages are determined through the antagonistic struggle between capitalist and worker, victory goes necessarily to the capitalist. The capitalist can live longer without the worker than the worker without the capitalist. Combination amongst the capitalists is customary and effective: workers’ combination is prohibited and painful in its consequences for them" for "the worker can supplement his income from industry with neither ground rent nor interest on capital. This is the reason for competition among the workers". Thus we find Marx condemning from the very outset the possibility of a favourable outcome for immediate struggles and by implication, all reformist attempts to reform the wages system rather than overthrowing it. After more than 150 years, we can say that these words have been confirmed – despite combinations of workers now being legal, the capitalist can still hold out longer, and even if forced into arriving at some compromise with workers’ demands, the workers’ victories which accrue are inevitably of short duration.
But the wage is not just decided by competition. The worker enters the capitalist’s calculation just as another cost of production. And the lowest necessary cost of producing a worker is the level around which the level of wages gravitates: "For wages the lowest and only necessary rate is that required for the subsistence of the worker during work and enough extra to support a family and prevent the race of workers from dying out. According to Smith, the normal wage is the lowest which is compatible with common humanity, i.e. with bestial existence".
"The demand for men necessarily regulates the production of men as of every other commodity. If the supply greatly exceeds the demand, then one section of the workers sinks into beggary and starvation. The existence of the worker is therefore reduced to the same condition as the existence of every other commodity. The worker has become a commodity, and he is lucky if he can find a buyer".
Thus when the worker enters the struggle for improved conditions, he
immediately, even if not consciously realising it, is striking at the very
heart of the capitalist system. But the reformist trade-union leaders make
damn sure that this fact is concealed by constantly dangling the enticing
prospect before the workers of an improvement of their lot under capitalism.
As if in reply to these illusions Marx says "Let us take the three chief
conditions in which society can find itself and consider the situation
of the worker in them:
"(1) if the wealth of society is decreasing, the worker suffers most, for although the working class cannot gain as much as the property owners when society is prospering none suffers more cruelly from its decline than the working class".
"(2) Let us now consider a society in which wealth is increasing. This condition is the only one favourable to the worker. Here competition between the capitalists sets in – the demand for workers exceeds their supply. But:
"In the first place, the rise of wages leads to overwork among the workers. The more they want to earn the more they must sacrifice their time and freedom and work like slaves in the service of avarice. In doing so they shorten their lives. But this is all to the good of the working class as a whole, since it creates a renewed demand. This class must always sacrifice a part of itself if it is to avoid total destruction".
But even this more favourable condition for the worker involves its own negation. Marx points out that "as a result of the accumulation of a large quantity of labour, for capital is accumulated labour" more of the worker’s products are being taken away from them. This increasing accumulation of capital results in an increasing division of labour which produces a "very one-sided and machine-like type of labour", and also makes him "more and more dependent on every fluctuation in the market price, in the investment of capital and in the whims of the wealthy". An additional fact undermining the workers supposed advantage of a capitalist "boom" is that competition amongst the capitalists and there is an increasing concentration of capital which throws a host of small businessmen into the working classes which increases competition for jobs, once again causing a depression of wages. "Hence a section of the working class is reduced to beggary or starvation with the same necessity as a section of the middle capitalists ends up in the working class".
The reformist trade-union leader, for whom notions of a ’good’ capitalism are his veritable bread and butter, might be now forced to admit that not all workers will ’make good’ under such conditions. He might regale us with moving tales of the vitues of ’hard-work’ and Stakhnovite exertions, and be forced to admit that he is in fact a firm believer in the ’right’ of the worker to improve himself (at other worker’ expense), to pull himself up by the bootstraps, and elbow his fellow workers aside in a bid to become a capitalist himself. After all, hasn’t he himself beaten a path through to the leafy glades of suburbia? For this too Marx has a reposte: "An increase in wages arouses in the worker the same desire to get rich as in the capitalist, but he can only satisfy this desire by sacrificing his mind and body. An increase in wages presupposes, and brings about, the accumulation of capital, and thus opposes the product of labour to the worker as something increasingly alien to him. Similarly, the division of labour makes him more one-sided and dependent, introducing competition from machines as well as from men. Since the worker has been reduced to a machine, the machine can confront him as a competitor". Thus the legendary hard-working John Henry, the epitomy of pride in muscular exertion, and immortalised in song, died in his attempts to prove his superiority over machinery. Finally, just as the accumulation of capital increases the quantity of industry and therefore the number of workers, so it enables the same quantity of industry to produce a greater quantity of products. This leads to overproduction and ends up either by putting a large number of workers out of work or by reducing their wages to a pittance".
The third condition which can occur in society is when this state of growth has reached a peak. In a nutshell: "The surplus population would have to die".
To sum up: "In a declining state of society we have the increasing misery of the worker: in an advancing state, complicated misery of the worker; and in the terminal, static misery".
If a humanist Marx exists in the Paris manuscripts, it is only insofar as he succeeds in voicing the dreams of the factory worker tied to an unsatisfying and repetitive job; dreams which arise as an initial escape, an initial overthrowing, in the mind, of capitalist society. Thus in the section on ’estranged labour’ he points out that "an enforced rise in wages (disregarding all other difficulties, including the fact that such an anomalous situation could only be prolonged by force) would be nothing more than better pay for slaves and would not mean an increase in human significance or dignity for either the worker or labour". [note: that despite Marx seeing a sustained rise in wages as anomalous, he still says that it can only be ’prolonged by force’]. The dream is of real involvement and pleasure in human activity, but if Marx allowed himself to be inspired by it, he would nevertheless spend the rest of his life dedicated to proving that it was the actual conditions of life which prompted the dream, and that even dreams only arise when the material possibilities exist to realise them.
But "Even the equality of wages, which Proudhon demands, would
merely transform the relation of the present-day worker to his work into
the relation of all men to work. Society would be conceived as an abstract
capitalist". Already in 1844, Marx had already foreseen what a serious
obstacle to workers struggles the calls to defend nationalised industries
and the future "planned economies" of the so-called "socialist" bloc would
be; schemes which would retain all the instruments for perpetuating estranged
labour – whilst passing them off as workers’ paradises. How often would
workers fall into the clutches of pseudo workers’ parties vaunting nationalised
industries as the panacea of all ills!
5. LABOUR IN A POST-CAPITALIST SOCIETY
In Excerpts from James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy, written at the same time as the manuscripts, Marx provides us with one of his rare constructions of a future communist society, a ’dream’ which he contrasts to the condition of alienated labour under capitalism:
"Let us suppose that we had produced as human beings. In that event
each of us would have doubly affirmed himself and his neighbour
in his production. (1) In my production I would have objectified the specific
character of my individuality and for that reason I would both have
enjoyed the expression of my own individual life during my activity and
also, in contemplating the object, I would experience an individual pleasure,
I would experience my personality as an objective sensuously perceptible
power beyond all shadow of doubt. (2) In your use or enjoyment of my product
I would have the immediate satisfaction and knowledge that in my labour
I had gratified a human need, i.e. that I had objectified human
nature and hence had procured an object corresponding to the needs of another
human being. (3) I would have acted for you as the mediator between
you and the species, thus I would be acknowledged by you as the complement
of your own being, as an essential part of yourself. I would thus know
myself to be confirmed both in your thoughts and your love. (4) In the
individual expression of my own life I would have brought about the immediate
expression of your life, and so in my individual activity I would have
directly confirmed and realized my authentic nature, my
"Our productions would be as many mirrors from which our natures would shine forth".
"This relation would be mutual: what applies to me would also apply to you:"
"My labour would be the free expression and hence the enjoyment of life since I work in order to live, in order to procure for myself the means of life. My labour is not life".
"Moreover, in my labour the specific character of my individuality would be affirmed because it would be my individual life. Labour would be authentic, active, property. In the framework of private property my individuality has been alienated to the point where I loathe this activity, it is torture for me. It is in fact no more than the appearance of activity and for that reason it is only a forced labour imposed on me not through an inner necessity but through an external arbitrary need".
"In the object I produce my labour can only become manifest as what it is. It cannot appear to be what it is not. It therefore becomes manifest only as the objective, sensuous, perceived, and hence quite indubitable expression of my self-loss and my impotence".
Thus far, we have followed Marx as he analyses wage labour and shows its organic connection with capital. We have seen that Marx held out no prospect of any significant improvements for the wage labourer under capitalism, even during its peak periods, and points to a future society in which labour would be truly fulfilling and human, because man would be able to act as a communal, social being.
There is no doubt that Marx’s observations are as valid now as when written, on a global scale; for through the conditions of the proletariat have definitely improved in the capitalist metropolis (though relative to the increased needs that modern capitalism has suscitated the improvement is not significant) the condition of the proletariat in the rising capitalisms is as dire, if not worse, than those which predominate in 19th Century Europe. Famines, executions of surplus children, and wars prey on the minds and bodies of this ex-colonial proletariat, and the breadcrumbs of social welfare, which still fall off the banqueting tables of the metropolitan capitalism, barely exist.
Nevertheless, we have hardly broached the trade-union question yet; we have equipped ourselves with facts to counter some of the illusions of the trade-union reformists, with agitation material to draw workers to communism, but we do not think the revolution will only transpire when a majority of workers are communist; precisely the bones of the trade-union question resides in how to set into action the masses of non-communist workers outside the party; those on workers’ economic organisations often dominated by reformists, but who nevertheless may be instinctively drawn to communism at crucial moments of intensified struggle.
But even to say that is to jump ahead of ourselves, to beg the question,
for what is the relation between proletarian politics and the workers’
economic organisations? Could not the communist party operate without the
unions, or vice-versa? This subject was first broached by Marx in an essay
on the King of Prussia and social reform written in 1844, and it is there
we will commence our enquiry in the next part.
Report presented to the May 2002 Party Reunion.
(Part 1 -
2 - 3 -
The United States in the mid Nineteenth Century
At the time of Lincoln’s election to the presidency of the country, the United States of America was an expanding society the like of which had never been seen before. The population of 23,261,000 in 1850 had risen to 31,513,000 in 1860, an increase almost entirely due to the influx of European immigrants. Indeed the wave of Irish immigration caused by the famine in the 40s had been followed by another wave due to the political reaction after the revolutions of 1848-49, composed for the most part of Germans. These were often politicised, skilled workers, many of whom were communist, and amongst them were many of Marx’s friends, including Weydemeyer and Willich, who would achieve high ranks in the Northern army during the course of the Civil War.
Those who didn’t stay in the industrial cities of the North moved off towards the Frontier where there was work for all. Although the Gold Rush certainly played an important part in the transfer of so many people to the West, the main dream of the pioneers was a patch of fertile land where they could live with their families. By 1860, the Union was still predominantly an agricultural country; in the previous ten years the area of cultivated land had grown by 50%, and the gross product had almost doubled. Five out of six Americans made a living from agriculture and only one dollar in nine was invested in non-agricultural activities.
And yet the most surprising phenomenon of those times was actually the rate of industrial development, which started up on the basis of the enormous market created for products linked to agriculture, and which was rendered possible by the uninterrupted flow of manual workers from Europe. In the same ten years the growth of industry is such that it is measurable in values of around the 100% mark, or even more. Along with the industrial development came an enormous development in the infrastructure, in particular in railways, merchant shipping, and the telegraph. Great cities like Chicago arose from nothing whilst the average literacy of the population was around 90% (as compared to around 20% in newly united Italy).
Trade had undergone a rapid and tumultuous expansion too, concentrating on the export of agricultural goods, mainly cotton, tobacco and cereals. Imports consisted principally of textiles, clothing, tea, coffee, and manufactured iron goods.
Workers had to endure harsh conditions, working eleven or twelve, or in extreme cases, 14 or 15 hours a day for low wages. Yet still, as compared with Europe, working and living conditions were better. If on the one hand the continual influx of starving immigrants tended to lower salaries, there still remained the choice, for the proletarian of New York or Pittsburgh, of acquiring a spade and a gun and heading off for the Frontier – a choice clearly denied to his brother proletarians in Manchester, Dusseldorf, Turin or St Petersburg.
One consequence of this fluidity of labour was a lesser permanence of
the workers in the workplace, and therefore a certain dislocation between
the minority of specialised and the mass of generic unskilled workers.
This characteristic would mark out the American workers’ movement and influence
even some aspects of its trade-unionism, soon to become a phenomenon on
a national scale.
North and South
This picture of American society, which refers to the year 1860, is not enough to portray the Union’s economic, social and political situation, the origins of which are to be sought in the revolution of the century before. In the 80 years or so before 1860, two clearly differentiated poles had been developing within the Union according to two very different logics, the North and the South; to which may be added a third pole, the Mid-West, eventually better known as the North-West, less populated but extremely dynamic, and which would later be found to hold the balance of power in the conflict.
The North was composed of the states of New England, arisen from the puritan emigration in the 17th century, and strongly homogeneous in terms of culture, religion and custom. At the beginning these states had been communities of fishermen and sailors, and of merchants; and, incidentally, it was from New England that virtually all the American slave ships came. Intermediate from a cultural point of view were Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, even if economically they were undoubtedly part of the North.
The South is considered to start a little below the 40° parallel, the so-called Mason-Dixon line, which separates Pennsylvania from Maryland. In 1860 it comprised the major part of the United States, including the states of the Atlantic strip and the Gulf of Mexico, from Maryland to Texas, and the states further inland (Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky). With an extremely varied climate and terrain, a very dispersed population and few cities, the colonies, later states, in the South soon discovered their vocation in agriculture and were drawn towards the cultivation of those species particularly required by the world market, such as tobacco, rice and indigo; cotton would be introduced later. The wide open spaces favoured the installation of large landed properties and the sparsity of the population favoured the phenomenon of acquiring forced labour from abroad. Initially that included whites as well, on contracts of temporary slavery; later slavery would centre on the importation of Africans, captured and deported.
These differences, which already existed prior to the anti-colonial revolution, would become accentuated in the following years as bit by bit the two parts of the Union developed their potentialities, and brought into being two parties representing these divergent interests. The North became the stronghold of the ’federalist’ party, which was pro-centralisation, and supporter of strong federal government and the creation of a powerful Union bank – functional objectives of Northern mercantile interests (especially at the start). The South was represented by the ’Democratic’ party, supporter of decentralisation – of maximum autonomy for the individual states, and fearful that the central government could end up in the hands of a financial oligarchy; to these characteristics were added the defence of agriculture against other economic activities, and of the small business against the large. These were objectives, in fact, which were shared not only by the agricultural population of the South but also by a large part of the popular masses in the North which was composed of a significant number of small farmers and artisans.
This formula allowed the Democratic Party to secure the presidency with Jefferson (1800) and hang onto it, with a few, insignificant exceptions, until the fateful year of 1860.
Such continuity of government and political line, not without occasional
jolts and resistance from the North, allowed for an uninterrupted development
of the United States both in a territorial and economic sense. In 1860
the territory of the Union was already approaching what it is today, being
bordered by the two oceans and by Canada and Mexico. The principal stages
in this growth were:
1) the acquisition of Louisiana from France in 1803
2) the 1812-14 war with Great Britain, which prevented an expansion towards Canada
3) The acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1819
4) The war with Mexico (1845-48), followed by the acquisition of enormous territories in the South-West.
From a political and economic point of view various events would occur in this period which would have repercussions on the crisis which led to the Civil War. In the South the cultivation of cotton suddenly became very lucrative with the invention in 1797 of a machine for separating the seeds from the cotton fibre. In the space of a few years cotton would become the main crop in numerous Southern states, bringing wealth and an important export crop to the country.
The consequence of the war with Great Britain was a boost to the industrialisation of the North. Without the supply of goods from industries in Great Britain it became a pressing necessity to set up indigenous industries, and the preferred area for industrial expansion was – due to the concentration of capital, the continual influx of manpower and the already entrenched commercial sector – precisely the North, which to start with had been extremely opposed to the war. Among other things the government had to reconstitute in 1816 a Union bank, and also institute mild protective tariffs in order to protect the nascent industry from overseas competition. This matter of protectionism – required by the industrial North in the interests of its immense internal market, and opposed by the South, exporter of agricultural products – would come to overshadow every relationship between the two halves of the country.
1818 would mark the controversial appearance of another key issue in
North-South relations, slavery. The territory of Missouri was ready to
be admitted as a full state of the Union, but it was proposed by a deputy
from the North that admission should be conditional on a gradual abolition
of slavery in that state. What prompted this demand and why did it give
rise to a serious crisis? To understand this it is necessary to go a bit
deeper into the question of slavery and examine the changes it had undergone
in previous years.
The ’Peculiar Institution’
Slavery had existed in the United States since the colonial period. The chronic lack of farm labourers had made necessary the importation of forced labour, in other words, slaves. And the Southern farmers were not worried about the colour of their skin, it was just the enslavement of whites was not really a viable proposition, even if a form of temporary slavery had been applied earlier on when it had been the custom to keep European workers as slaves, for periods of seven years and more, in virtue of a contract that these had signed to cover their passage to America. A kind of temporary serfdom. But after the prescribed period they were free, if indeed they hadn’t freed themselves before: all one had to do was head off West, and to be courageous and adaptable. There was plenty of land for everybody. The Indians, what few there were, had shown how little adapted they were to working in the fields, as well as being susceptible to illness.
The first slave ship was a Dutch warship. In August 1619 it stopped off the coast of Virginia, and put ashore in order to put twenty slaves up for sale. This event, new for the Northern hemisphere of the New World, had been customary for some time in the European colonies of Central and South America. Other ships would soon follow.
The slaves arrived just as the plantations of Virginia were entering a crisis period. The enormous extent of the territory they covered required a huge number of hands, and the only alternative was to abandon it. In a short time slavery extended to all the English colonies in America, including New England in the North. Thus, once again showing that, at least in certain areas, relations of production aren’t determined by theoretical schemes but rather by the iron laws of production. In a short time there had been a transition from modern relations of labour, typical of the bourgeoisie which in Europe was just then starting to shake off its feudal chains, to feudal relations, and from these to slavery.
However in the North slavery never really took root: the type of work, commercial and craft-based to begin with, later industrial, wasn’t adapted to slavery, which functioned best in the great plantations; in addition, there was already labour in the North, consisting of small peasants and craftsmen, and none of them intended to have to compete with slave labour. Slavery therefore quickly disappeared in the North, but not for humanitarian reasons, the contrary. That the puritans of the North were far from being saints, despite the opinion they had of themselves, is shown by the fact that in the space of a few years they had set up in the slave business themselves, and such was their enthusiasm for the trade that eventually they would carve out a virtual monopoly for themselves, and derive enormous profits.
For the Southerners, the arrival of the slaves – especially when these began to constitute a substantial part of the population – was viewed with a certain amount of concern, because of the changes it brought to the country, and because of the potential threat to the economy and problems of coexistence with the whites. Therefore the colonies of the South, even before independence, enacted measures which prohibited the introduction of new slaves via the African trade; measures which the British government regularly annulled since it had no intention of renouncing the profits it derived from the trade. Thus the states had to wait until after the war of independence to prohibit the slave trade. There was even a proposal in 1787 to abolish the importation of slaves throughout the whole of the Union, a proposal which was thrown out, due, in fact, to opposition from the North; and for the same reasons as the government of his Britannic majesty. In the end there was a law passed in 1808 which abolished the trade, and another one, in 1820, which branded it as piracy.
Naturally, this didn’t mean the end of slavery, nor did it even halt the growth in the number of slaves, which actually experienced a veritable boom during this period. For a start, a good number of the slaves came from states within the Union: specifically those with economies intermediate between the north and the South (the so-called border states, such as Virginia, Maryland and Delaware etc) which had a limited requirement for them, but specialised in the production of slaves (an activity which had never been prohibited) as if they were just so many heads of cattle. Secondly, the only real consequence of the trade was an increase in the price of slaves because smuggling them had been going on pretty much continuously all along.
The price of slaves continued to rise, and on the eve of the war the average price was $1,000, peaking at $2,000. Indeed, the capital expended on slaves would come to constitute the main part of a company’s fixed assets, worth more than the market value of the land itself. The fact that the Northern business classes had never stopped dealing in slaves is illustrated by a newspaper story which tells us that even after the commencement of hostilities, on 21 April 1861, a slave ship was captured in Boston headed for New York with 960 slaves on board. These facts need to be borne in mind if we are to understand how lacking in unity the two sides were, both in the condemnation of slavery in the North, and the defence of slavery in the South.
Throughout the 19th Century the position of the African slaves and their role in Southern society was not very different from that of the European working class, which was then enduring the oppression of a bourgeoisie greedy for profit; and Marx didn’t hesitate to place the conditions of the one and the other on the same plane: "For slave-trade read labour-market, for Kentucky and Virginia, Ireland and the agricultural districts of England, Scotland and Wales, for Africa, Germany"(Capital, vol.1). In certain respects the condition of the slaves was better than the workers: the fact that the slave only had a value for as long as he was alive meant that that someone had to maintain him or suffer an economic loss. The enterprise which went bust would sell its slaves, who would merely have a change of boss, whereas for ’free’ workers, in periods of economic crisis, if their work ended they would be abandoned to starvation and poverty. Even the pace of work was a lot more relaxed, and not for one moment would the Northern industrialists have considered using slave labour in their factories: in the final analysis, workers cost less than slaves, with the advantage that there was no need to make a substantial initial investment, and it was possible to ’let them go’ whenever convenient. Also they were considerably more efficient and diligent.
The situation would change substantially towards the end of the 18th century when the invention of the machine, already mentioned, for separating the cotton seed from the fibre would change the face of the South for ever. The machine, known as the cotton gin, allowed a man’s productivity, in terms of the amount of cotton hulled, to be substantially increased from half a kilo to 50 kilos a day. It was from this time that the South, totally abandoning the old crops en masse, became a country of cotton plantations. "There is not the least doubt that the rapid strides of cotton spinning, not only pushed on with tropical luxuriance the growth of cotton in the United States, and with it the African slave trade, but also made the breeding of slaves the chief business of the border slave-states. When in 1790, the first census of slaves was taken in the United States, their number was 697,000; in 1861 it had nearly reached four millions" (Capital, vol.1).
Cotton, produced for export to England, became therefore an immense source of income on both sides of the Atlantic, for the shipping magnates of Liverpool and New York as well as the Southern farmers and Manchester industrialists. And the other consequence was the immiseration of all involved in its production and processing, slaves here, workers there, united in their bosses’ unbridled pursuit of profit. "Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact the veiled slavery of the wage-workers in Europe needed for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world".
The condition of the slaves in the South, in particular those who worked
as manual labourers on the great cotton plantations, would in the space
of a few years get progressively worse, combining together the disadvantages
of slavery and wage labour. Marx gives an accurate description of this
phenomenon. In the chapter on ’the working day’, in the section on ’the
greed for surplus value’, he shows in a compellingly forceful description
how the condition of the slaves had become a living Hell. Surplus value
wasn’t invented by capitalism, he says, referring to previous economic
forms, "it is, however, clear that in any given economic formation of society,
where not the exchange value but the use-value of the product
predominates, surplus-value will be limited by a given set of wants which
may be greater or less, and that here no boundless thirst for surplus-value
arises from the nature of the production itself. Hence in antiquity
over-work becomes horrible only when the object is to obtain exchange-value
in its specific independent money-form; in the production of gold and silver.
Compulsory working to death is here the recognised form of over-work (...)
Still these are exceptions in antiquity. But as soon as people, whose production
still moves within the lower forms of slave labour, corvée labour, &
c., are drawn into the whirlpool of the international market dominated
by the capitalist mode of production, the sale of their products for export
becoming their principal interest, the civilised horrors of over-work are
grafted on the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom, &c. Hence the
Negro labour in the Southern states of the American Union preserved something
of a patriarchal character, so long as production was chiefly directed
to immediate local consumption. But in proportion, as the export of cotton
became of vital interest to these states, the over-working of the Negro
and sometimes the using up of his life in 7 years of labour became a factor
in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of
obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products. It was now a
question of production of surplus value itself".
The Missouri Compromise
Thus, even if many vocal and influential philanthropic and abolitionist societies did exist, the reason impelling the North to call for the banning of slavery was nothing to do with morality. The fact of the matter is that ending slavery in Missouri meant ending colonisation by southerners and opening it up to northerners. And that wasn’t all. Thanks to the parliamentary deputies which the new State had elected, the equilibrium in Washington could be altered in favour of the North in a definitive way. But politically most significant of all was the fact that for the first time the South no longer saw eye to eye with the frontiersmen; the pioneers who were populating the mid-west. It was they, rather than the New England industrialists, who were demanding the abolition of slavery most loudly, at least in the new territories. But despite this, the planters couldn’t afford to break off from such an important social group. Although at the time there weren’t that many of them, their numbers would grow rapidly, and there would be a proportionate increase in their economic and political weight up to the point of them deciding the election in Lincoln’s favour; and the destiny of the country at the time of Civil War.
After a tense period, the so-called Missouri Compromise was reached
in 1820. It was established that slavery would be permitted in that State
(where it had hardly taken root anyway, to the extent that in 1861Missouri
wouldn’t side with the Confederates), but in future no slave state would
be admitted from the new territories north of Missouri’s southern border
(latitude 36º30’). This meant keeping back enormous spaces for the north,
for future settlement and colonisation; for the free peasant and free wage-earner.
The political weight of a slave-holding Missouri would be compensated by
a new State, Maine, in the north-east.
After the War of Independence, and above all after the famous ’Louisiana Purchase’, the first migrations of pioneers had poured into the Mississippi-Missouri basin and transformed vast areas of prairie and forest into productive agricultural enterprises. Since the differences between North and South were perpetuated even in the interior, the Mason-Dixon line appeared as a valid demarcation also to the west of the Allegheny mountains. But whilst the States of the new south (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, etc.,) weren’t very different from the Atlantic States, the states of the North-west, today referred to as the Midwest because they form an intermediate zone between the East and the Rocky Mountains and beyond (the Far West), assumed entirely new characteristics.
Being in the main individualist farmers, of a hardy and stubborn nature, the pioneers undoubtedly had more in common with the southern planters; not least because many of them had come originally from the South. Environmental conditions were not, however, such as to permit the cultivation of cotton, tobacco and sugar cane. Conditions more resembled the north-east, and the most suitable activities would prove to be the cultivation of maize, wheat and cattle rearing. All of these were activities which required very few workers and which for the most part could be carried out by the farmer’s own family. Cattle rearing too required very little investment in labour (the famous cowboys). Thus, in these new States (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, etc.,) conditions for a large labour force were not created, and slavery didn’t take root. The essentially agricultural nature of the economy caused the frontiersmen to feel a deeper affinity with the South in any case, and the democratic party long enjoyed strong support from the region.
The superabundant frontiersmen would achieve their first success with the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828. With him the control of the democratic party would pass out of the hands of the southern planters and into those of the men of the west. Whilst this signified a move towards democratisation of the country, the principal consequence of which was universal suffrage; and if indeed the Central bank was liquidated, favouring the southern autonomists; nevertheless, in 1832, at the beginning of Jackson’s second term, it also brought a rise in customs duties. Whilst this was one of the North’s perennial requirements, needed in order to protect the young industries from low price foreign imports, it was nevertheless fiercely opposed by the South because damaging to the exportation of cotton and other agricultural products. But in the Midwest and South-west not everyone agreed, including the sheep farmers.
Sensing that it had been betrayed, the South reacted, and South Carolina, which had always been the most rebellious State of all, declared the relevant ordinances as invalid within its state frontiers. The government sent in troops; South Carolina mobilised its militia; and then, as on other occasions, a compromise was reached.
But the burning question had been forcefully posed: from whence came the autonomy of individual state, and from whence came the unquestioned authority of the central government? Obviously the vision of an autonomist and federalist society suited the agricultural interests of the south, whilst a centralised society was ideal for the nascent industrial bourgeoisie of the North. Ten years later History would give its answer to this question. Meanwhile Midwest and South had been reconciled because the former was annoyed by the North’s attempts to pass laws preventing the acquisition of land by the ’pioneers’, intended as a measure to staunch the flow of labour from the cities of the East. And yet still to come were those mass migratory waves of a few years later referred to in Capital: "The enormous and ceaseless stream of men, year after year driven upon America, leaves behind a stationery sediment in the East of the United States, the wave of immigration from Europe throwing men on the labour-market there more rapidly than the wave of emigration westwards can wash them away". The growing stream of Germans and Irish in the decade which followed would create just such conditions, providing sufficient labour for the factories, and thereby rendering less serious this point of friction between frontiersmen and the industrialists of the North-east.
Meanwhile, the Whigs of New York and Boston had to mark time whilst the democrats celebrated their victory in the war against Mexico; a war which had provided the Union, and agricultural expansionism, with an enormous territory stretching from Texas to California.
None of the fundamental problems had been resolved however: the South continued to survive in its own way, perpetuating a system of production which was incompatible with the historical advance of the American continent. By now crisis lay around every corner, and even this latest victory posed an inevitable question which appeared in the form of a bill presented by a Northern congressman: why not exclude slavery from the territories which had been seized from Mexico? Such a measure, passed off as ’humanitarian’, would keep the Southerners away from the recently conquered territories. The South, naturally, rose up in protest, even threatening to secede. The Wilmot Proviso, as it was called, would be withdrawn, but in this case, too, a new conflict, adding to all the other sources of internal friction existing amongst the different sides, had emerged into full light of day. The men of the Midwest had fought to conquer the South-west, but that was because it was open to "free" labour, not slave labour; in other words, not to the southern farmers. This would make the frontiersmen turn against slavery, not for humanitarian reasons, but, as in the case of the Yankees, out of carefully calculated self-interest.
Thus, in the twenty years or so preceding the civil war, economic and social conditions in the United States were heading in a direction which would change the balance of forces between these three souls which existed within society; up to the point where a republican president was elected; up to the secession of the South.
We won’t go into the prodigious growth of industrialisation in the North in any great detail, but suffice to remark that it was towards the end of this period that the capital invested in industrial activities overtook that invested in the whole of American agriculture, both North and South. The South would inevitably lose ground, even in agriculture, to the North and West. The North was becoming richer and richer, the West was expanding in size and becoming more productive, with ever greater quantities of goods crossing the prairie for the Northern ports, or for Chicago – the new metropolis of the Midwest – on the railways, which were rarely of any interest to the South.
The North had two main problems it needed to resolve, that of manpower which, as we have seen, it counted on solving with the hordes of immigrants who were arriving in ever greater numbers, and that of custom tariffs, which it sought to resolve by passing appropriate laws, even if by means of extremely protracted parliamentary struggles. The problem of customs tariffs would only be definitively resolved after the war. Indeed, even if industrial development after 1850 was extremely rapid, for some products, nevertheless, such as iron and textiles, acute difficulties arose towards the middle of the decade preceding the war. Towards the end of 1854, stockpiles of iron were starting to build up in all the world’s markets. Most of the American factories had to close down. In the textiles sector, Lancashire had brought its costs down below New England’s, and between 1846 and 1856 its exports of printed and dyed cotton had jumped from 13 million to 114 million yards, and that of rough calico from 10 to 90 million yards. In 1857 there was a fairly serious financial crash. The tariffs approved for that year, bowing to Southern pressure, didn’t rise, in fact, in real terms, for these two manufactured articles, they went down. These facts aroused angry indignation amongst the industrial circles of the North.
Meanwhile the Midwest established closer and closer links with the industrial North and became increasingly bound up in its development. On the other hand, the disagreement between the frontiersmen and the South was rapidly taking more definite shape. The latter could survive only by exporting its agricultural system, based on large holdings and slave labour, to the West, whilst the West, if it didn’t have a problem with slavery to the east of the Mississippi, was totally resistant to slavery spreading towards the west coast where they considered the land should be available for small farmers. And not just available, but free, or at a very low price, for whoever was ready to turn the soil and make it productive, after, to be sure, having removed any boulders, cut down trees, and uprooted any stumps – and any Indians – they might find there.
The southerners were quick to oppose the movement, known as free-soilism,
which consisted, in any case, mainly of people from the North-East. The
North, meanwhile, in the fifties, had no reason to oppose it. There was
therefore a notable slackening of that strong bond which had united the
farmers of the South and West over the previous ten years: the consequence
of this separation, which also had repercussions on the Democratic Party,
and which effectively turned the South into a foreign body within the Union,
would soon be felt.
The 1850s - The Decisive years
In the ten years between 1850 and 1860 matters would come to a head and there would be a radicalisation of all the issues which had set the two spirits within the Union against each other. The economic and political conditions, responsible for the friction between North and South, could only but develop according to their own inexorable logic. By now, the South had come to understand that it couldn’t relent on any of its key positions under pain of undermining the cornerstones of its economic system, and thereby incurring total subjection to the North. The North was unable to put a break on its drive to expand because propelled by the relentless and inexorable forces of a young and exuberant capitalist system; which allowed no restraints, barriers or conditions to stand in its way, and whose intention was to maintain and develop the enormous domestic market (an initial requirement for any nascent capitalism) which the United States was rapidly becoming. Over and beyond any nationalist, democratic or humanitarian rhetoric, these were the real forces which lay behind the decisions; decisions which were forced on them, which led to war, both in the North and the South. By now, every disagreement between the two sides became a crisis, every struggle resulted in drastic measures, and every time, in the South, someone would conjure up the spectre of separation from the Union. In fact by this time it was already a case of there being two economic systems with divergent interests; interests which could not be addressed without one of the two sides suffering serious damage. Thus the ever more intransigent retreat of the two sides into their respective positions; thus the encroaching sense of hitting a dead end.
The decade would begin with a new dispute over the introduction of slavery into the new state – this time rather important – of California. A slavery, of course, which the Californians didn’t even want. The South rebelled, convoking a convention in Nashville to identify those provisions which would be required to safeguard the interests of the southern States. Already the word ’secession’ was passing from mouth to mouth. However a compromise was reached yet again: California wouldn’t be a slave state, and some concessions would be made to the South, including a more effective law for recuperating slaves which had escaped to the North. It would prove to be a very counter-productive step. The ’Fugitive Slave Law’ would only serve to irritate the northerners, including at the popular level, and the organised assistance to escaped slaves known as the Underground Railway would continue to grow; it was around this time too that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, rounding off the moulding of Northernist public opinion against the South, and against slavery.
A particular feature of the 1850s was the development of the Midwest as an entity, of the Frontier, which continued to expand ever westward. New territories wanted to be admitted to the Union. Soon, along with a new problem, there arose a new crisis: that of the Nebraska territory. According to the Missouri Compromise, this territory couldn’t be a slave state, but the South, having only a few years before had to bite the bullet whilst it saw California succumbing to Northern influence, maintained that the terms of the Compromise had now expired. The leader of the Democratic party at the time was Steven Douglas, a midwesterner from Illinois. In those years he would find himself taking on the role of mediator between the two forces within the party: the frontiersmen, who wanted a systematic State ordering of the territories, free land, and no slavery, and the Southern planters, who were for free-exchange and slave-holding and were anti-centralist. Douglas, with his presidential ambitions, didn’t want to alienate himself from either of the two sides, and yet the law which he passed would have the opposite effect. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act created two States, Kansas to the South and Nebraska to the North. The Missouri compromise was abolished, and all questions pertaining to slavery would be decided by the resident populations. The law was interpreted as betrayal in the Midwest, and as capitulation in the South. Instead of seeing a growth in his electoral following, Douglas would see it drop sharply even in his home territory, and his chance of getting into the White House would be definitively compromised.
In an article entitled ’The North American Civil War’, written on 20 October 1861, Marx showed how he viewed the important question of slavery: "The cultivation of the Southern export crops, i.e. cotton, tobacco, sugar, etc., by slaves is only profitable so long as it is conducted on a mass scale by large gangs of slaves and in wide areas of naturally fertile soil requiring only simple labour. Intensive cultivation, which depends less on the fertility of the soil and more on capital investment and on intelligent and energetic labour, runs contrary to the nature of slavery. Hence the rapid transformation of states such as Maryland and Virginia, which in earlier times employed slavery in the production of export commodities, into states which raise slaves in order to export them to states lying further south. Even in South Carolina, where slaves form four sevenths of the population, the cultivation of cotton has remained almost stationary for years due to the exhaustion of the soil. Indeed South Carolina has become partly transformed into a slave-raising state by pressure of circumstances in so far as it already sells slaves to the states of the deep South and South-west to a value of four million dollars annually. As soon as this point is reached the acquisition of new territory becomes necessary, so that one section of the slave-holders can introduce slave labour into new fertile estates and thus create a new market for slave-raising and the sale of slaves by the section left behind. There is not the least doubt, for example, that without the acquisition of Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas by the United States, slavery would long have disappeared in Virginia and Maryland. In the secession Congress at Montgomery one of the Southern spokesmen, Senator Toombs, strikingly formulated the economic law that necessitates the constant expansion of the slave territory. ’In fifteen years more,’ he said, ’without a great increase in slave territory, either the slaves must be permitted to flee from the whites, or the whites must flee from the slaves (...)’.
"As a result of economic laws, then, to confine slavery to the limits of its old terrain would inevitably have led to its gradual extinction; politically it would have destroyed the hegemony exercised by the slave states by way of the Senate; and finally it would have exposed the slave-holding oligarchy to ominous dangers within their own states from the ’poor whites’. With the principle that every further extension of slave territories was to be prohibited by law the Republicans therefore mounted a radical attack on the rule of the slave-holders. Consequently, the Republican victory could not help but lead to open struggle between North and South. However, as has already been mentioned, this election victory was itself conditioned by the split in the Democratic camp (...)
"The slave-holders’ party, with Breckinridge as its candidate, asserted
that the Constitution of the United States, as the Supreme Court had declared,
made legal provision for slavery; slavery was in actual fact already legal
in all territories and did not require special naturalization. Thus, while
the Republicans prohibited any growth of slave territories, the Southern
party laid claim to all territories as legally warranted domains. What
they had tried, for instance, with Kansas – imposing slavery on a territory
against the will of the settlers themselves, by way of the central government
– they now held up as a law for all Union territories (...) On the other
hand Douglas’s ’settlers’ sovereignty’ could not satisfy the slave-holders’
"The Union was only of value for the South in so far as it let it use federal power as a means of implementing its slave policy. If it did not, it was better to break now than to watch the development of the Republican party and the rapid growth of the North-west for another four years, and to begin the struggle under less favourable conditions. The slave-holders party, therefore, now staked its all! When the Northern Democrats refused to play the role of the Southern ’poor whites’ any longer, the South brought about Lincoln’s victory by splitting the votes and used this victory as an excuse for drawing the sword.
"As is clear, the whole movement was and is based on the slave question. Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be directly emancipated or not, but whether the twenty million free Americans of the North should subordinate themselves any longer to an oligarchy of 300,000 salve-holders; whether the vast territories of the Republic should become the nurseries of free states or of slavery; finally, whether the foreign policy of the Union should take the armed propaganda of slavery as its device throughout Mexico, Central and South America".
Elsewhere Marx would reassert that the war for the South was "a war of conquest, aimed at extending and perpetuating slavery".
Having been instructed in ’the letter of the law’, the country mobilised to prevent Kansas from falling into the hands of the South (with Nebraska remaining firmly opposed to slavery). The Missouri southerners were the first ’to invade’ Kansas, staking an illegal claim to vote and creating an illegal Assembly which passed pro-slavery legislation: meanwhile, in New England, associations were formed to favour emigration to Kansas. It was clear that the North, due to the more powerful migratory thrust which characterised it, would eventually win out; and hence the activism of the southerners. The fact that it wasn’t really about slavery but was rather another episode in the battle between North and South is shown by the fact that there were only two slaves living in the entire state even in 1860.
The free-soilers, in just as illegal a way, would go on to elect a second assembly; there was no chance for the dust to settle, especially since the government, and president Pierce, clearly supported the southerners. It was therefore inevitable that the situation would lead to armed conflict, with all the violence and bloodshed which that entailed. And it was in this setting that the name of ’captain’ John Brown began to circulate, surrounded by an aura of terror. In the end, as was predictable, the free-soilers would get the better of the situation, but a rift had opened up between Midwest and South which would never be mended, on the contrary, thanks to subsequent events, they would draw even further apart. In 1858 the Kansas case would lead Douglas to line up against the Southerner president Buchanan, thus sanctioning the split in the Democratic party.
Indeed, in the 1856 elections the democratic candidate had only won thanks to divisions in the enemy ranks. Buchanan (the democrats having preferred another candidate to Douglas this time as well), took advantage of the weakness of the Whigs and the inexperience of the new party, the Republican party. This new party, composed of ex-Whigs and remnants of various other movements, defended a programme which, behind its ideological smokescreen, consisted of prohibition of slavery in the new states, the construction of a trans-continental railway, and included the political-economic demands of both the new financial and industrial oligarchy in the North, and the frontiersmen. It was a party which for the first time in the history of the country would manage to bring together the whole of the North (both East and West) against the South.
On the other hand the Democratic party was national only in a nominal
sense, and since it was obliged to intransigently defend the interests
of the South it gradually alienated other parts of the country. We’ve already
seen the split with the frontiersmen; now it was a matter of deciding what
the Democratic party’s stance would be towards the Atlantic states –
and particularly towards Pennsylvania, a centre of iron and steel production
which was increasingly feeling the pressure of English competition. Who
ought it try and please, the Southern free-exchangists, or the capitalists
and workers in the steel industry, all of whom were faithful Democratic
party supporters? The South opted for the former. The same negative stance
was taken towards the ’free homesteads’ by deploying both the majority
in the Senate and the presidential veto. Proposals to improve the navigability
of the lakes of the North-west were also greeted with a resounding ’No’.
Turned down as well were proposals for the trans-continental railway, the
request by Kansas, now pacified and a non-slavery territory, to join the
Union, and the project to open agricultural colleges in the West. Virtually
all these refusals hit the Midwest, and they could hardly fail to turn
it into a sworn enemy of the South. Before long the consequences would
be seen in the presidential elections of 1860; whose electoral programmes,
whether for or against, would be centred on these unresolved issues, with
slavery acting as the cement binding all the various elements opposed to
The party’s end-of-summer meeting was held this time in Cortona. We have one of our more established sections here, which is well-known after more than forty years in existence. As well as enjoying the beautiful old city, a fine example of an organic urban-territorial development which has escaped random over-development, we met in an environment highly suited to our work, both in terms of accessibility by train, the tranquillity of the surroundings and convenience as regards getting from place to place.
Marxist Economy The Self-knowledge of the Italian Bourgeoisie Anti-militarism and the Workers’ Movement The History of Modern Iraq The Jewish Question Today Trade Union Work amongst the Railway Workers
The first report we heard, on the theme of
Marxist economy, continued the brief survey, and not-too-difficult criticism,
of the twentieth century ’vulgar’ economists. Having looked at the Keynesian
school, we touched this time on the work of Schumpeter and Sraffa, considered
by the press and ’educated public’ as important innovators in the realm
of economic doctrine.
Both belong to the world of ’official’ academic economics, i.e. economics supported and financed at a State level. The first example is the English ’Cambridge school’, an institute specifically entrusted for more than a century – backed up with plentiful supplies of money and prestige – with the sole task of covering up the bourgeoisie’s guilty neurosis about Marx, and catering for their need to ignore, to bury in confused concepts, and to obfuscate and misconstrue his economic doctrine. We already knew this, but a few, slightly more in-depth readings – and there aren’t many of those – certainly seem to confirm this.
Schumpeter is a self-declared marginalist, and he doesn’t therefore present much of a challenge to us on the theoretical level. In his analysis he attempted to tackle the phenomenon of cyclicity within capitalist development, which he saw as connected to the modernisation of the fixed capital element. He distinguished three types of cycle: the short, 36 month Kitchin cycle, the nine year Juglar cycle, already very adequately described by Marx, and the long, 50 year Kondratief cycle. The latter, and it is debatable whether it really is a ’cycle’, supposedly corresponds to the great industrial and technical revolutions.
Following the first of these revolutions, which is the industrial revolution par excellence, there are those corresponding to railways, steam ships, and then electricity, chemistry and road transport. Now electronics has been added to the list.
Sraffa’s construction is subtler, and less ignorant, although not entirely original. He rejects the subjectivist and psychological criteria of marginalism, and doesn’t deduce prices from the meeting of the curves of utility and disutility. In similar way to the classical economists he has recourse to an economic system which reproduces itself, with a flow of goods and money within and between classes. But this is not enough to justify the definition “neo-classic” which has been used to describe his economics.
Indeed Sraffa, like the marginalists, rejects the theory of the Labour-Value of commodities, that is, the “classic hypothesis” which may be enunciated thus: that what historically defines and connects commodities, and determines the measure of the exchange relation between them, is the quantity of average social labour necessary to reproduce them. Having ignored, without explicitly saying so, the concept of the value of commodities, there is the attempt to arrive at a determination of Price within the market of the goods produced. Having, for the purposes of analysis, assumed a society which is “primitive” and yet “mercantile” (a construction totally outside any historical context: a history which, quite obviously, is made to overlap with a no better defined, although apparently immutable, “mercantilism”), it is at first hypothesised that this society produces only wheat and steel, products which it consumes, in given relations, in their very production. The price of one with respect to the other is supposed to be imposed by the requirements of the market: the amount of wheat and steel, in terms of quantity and value (Quantity per Price) “is resolved by the system”, that is, that the ’entries’ in the scheme of reproduction, whether simple or expanded, balance each other out in the rows and columns. Price becomes the “relation of exchange which allows a replenishment of stocks and a distribution of profit between the two industries”.
The real mechanism of the capitalist market is here turned on its head. It isn’t the case that the price of a commodity is determined by the scale of demand for its consumption within the production process, but exactly the opposite. The theoretical problem of getting the schemes of simple reproduction and expanded reproduction to ’balance’, as much in a theoretical sense as within actual economic relations, is much more complicated than ’adjusting’ prices and the average rate of profit in order to achieve such an end. With this comforting and, in essence, tautological loophole, one ends up denying that the problem of capitalist anarchy even exists – that is, the fact that the adaption of production to demand is always delayed. In the capitalist world, the correspondence between quantity produced and values exchanged comes after the fact, by means of the permanent phenomena of over, and under, production of commodities and the fluctuation of Prices around Values.
The attempt to define the rate of profit independently of its origin in the rate of surplus value Is equally destined to fail. Capitalism’s heart resides in the realm of production, in the employment of labour power, in variable capital alone. It is there that one can discern the original and exclusive source of Values, there that one may find the origins of all its difficulties in effecting its continuous reproduction.
The Self-knowledge of the Italian Bourgeoisie
Never has Italy demonstrated its ’Italianness’
so openly as in the days of the so-called ’miracle economy’ following the
2nd World War. And by ’Italianness’ we also mean the inordinate lengths
it was prepared to go to get itself accepted by the big super-powers.
It’s the old dream, certainly not indifferent to the actual efforts of the bourgeoisie of this country, of being recognised as modern, but ever poised between reform and reaction, ready to run to ’the aid of the victor’... and be well thought of by the imperialist brigands.
We shouldn’t be misled by Italy appearing to have opted for the Atlantic bloc. In actual fact its leading figures were pretty good at switching back and forth between the Western option and its position as go-between for the emergent forces in North Africa and the Middle East. It has showed Itself capable of carrying out at least three different foreign policies at the same time, and there is continual suspicion that it is playing a double, or indeed a triple, game.
But we aren’t interested in ’getting at’ our bourgeoisie in particular. Rather we wish to demonstrate how those bourgeoisies which got to the imperialist banqueting table late in the day are prepared to bend in any direction as long as they can also partake in squeezing the last drop out of the proletariat and generally deriving advantages for itself.
Its traditional weakness, and at the same time its unrealistic ambitions, must be correlated in a context which takes into account a proletarian tradition which has had in the “Boot” of Italy a specific dignity of its own. We are convinced that it was no accident, in the context of the class struggle on the international level, that our small party was actually reborn in 1945 in Italy alone. The Italian Left had had a very well-defined function within the International: our fraction alone had stood firm on the key theoretical positions and had been able to escape the counter-revolutionary ice age.
Let us not forget the Stalinist tactics adopted in the Mediterranean zone during the 2nd World War: today we still ponder over whether it was Togliatti, or Stalin, who chose to collaborate with the Badoglio government... The documentation certainly attests to the fact that the imperatives of Russian power had the final word. In this context we can explain the Togliattian ’duplicity’, which is well-matched with the duplicity, indeed ’triplicity’, of the avowed bourgeoisie, with whom opportunism seeks to attune itself by all means and at any cost.
The operation is revealing because it demonstrates how bourgeoisies which arrive late on the scene have shown themselves to be the most untrustworthy and hostile to proletarian pressure. Above all, by being prepared to stoop to any deception, they increased the disorientation of the still combative proletariat which emerged, bled dry and disorientated, after the war.
Anti-militarism and the Workers’ Movement
There followed another report in our ongoing
series on anti-militarism. At the last party reunion, we examined the various
stages of Mussolini’s betrayal. Having started out by advocating the proclamation
of the insurrectional general strike, and then become a possibilist, he
eventually settled for open interventionism.
We recalled how even the young Gramsci, from the columns of Grido del Popolo had adopted the Mussolinist formula of ’Active and Effective Neutrality’, declaring it to be perfectly aligned both with the doctrine of an alleged national socialism and with the interests of the proletariat.
Also presented at the last reunion were the clear positions of those revolutionary left groups within the Socialist Party which, holding firm throughout, never tired of reiterating the cardinal points of Marxism throughout the war; a stance which corresponded perfectly with Lenin’s position.
Faced with Mussolini’s renunciation, the revolutionary current within the Italian Socialist Party didn’t mince its words. It immediately expressed its disagreement and stated that the socialist movement could, and would, do without he who, up to a little time before, had been their leader.
In clear antithesis to the future Duce’s famous slogan, the October 22, 1914, issue of Il Socialista published an editorial with a title which left little room for misunderstanding: ’For Active and Effective Anti-Militarism’ .
The concept of neutrality, declared the revolutionary Marxists, has as its subject the State, and certainly not the proletariat. The Socialist Party’s duty, therefore, was to impose neutrality on the bourgeois State, in an unconditional and absolute way, during the war; and even if the national territory was invaded, the proletariat shouldn’t act in defence of the country.
In order to achieve this objective, the proletariat, under the firm guidance of its party, would have to take action against the State using all the means of class struggle: no armistice with the capitalist class and its State because class war is permanent, and no disarming.
Our formula of ’Active and Effective Anti-Militarism’ stood in irreconcilable contrast with concepts such as pacifism and collaborationism, and couldn’t be mistaken for them. By putting pressure on the State to remain neutral, the proletariat would remain its open, active and effective, enemy, and, by not conceding any truces or adjournments, it would bar the road leading to the mirage of national unanimity; down which, unfortunately, the French, German, and other socialist parties had so recently trodden.
But what is most significant is that as far as the revolutionaries were concerned the rejection of the mirage of national unanimity didn’t just refer to the pro-war type of solidarity; they also nurtured the same openly declared aversion towards pacifist solidarity. Their formula was quintessentially one of class struggle, wherever and whenever, as much during war as in peacetime.
“What we were saying, therefore, was that we wouldn’t put up with a political coalition with Giolitti and the Catholics, as was fondly wished for at the time, just because they wouldn’t go to war if they got into power. Indeed, if any such support had been given by our parliamentary group we would have repudiated it for the same reasons for which we deplored the support given by the French, German etc, parliamentary groups.” (Storia della Sinistra).
Even before the outbreak of war, which had by now become inevitable, the Marxist extreme left of the PSI, analysing its underlying causes with extreme lucidity, located responsibility for that enormous massacre of proletarians not in any so-called teutonic militarism (presented by democratic propaganda as a pre-bourgeois reminiscence, and therefore pre-, and anti-, democratic) but in the intrinsic nature of modern capitalism.
Aversion to a war against the Triple Alliance, and against the Triple Entente, had, therefore, to be advocated in equal measure. The proletariat was averted to the dangers of thinking in terms of aggressor and defender, not least because each of the disputing parties, by fishing in the inextricable labyrinth of diplomatic gestures and exploiting the first inevitable frontier incidents, whether actual or contrived, could demonstrate that it was they who were the victims of enemy aggression.
Only capitalist relations of production should be considered the real, and unique, cause of modern wars. And in fact wars represent only one aspect of the machinery of contemporary history by which the working and exploited class is continuously sacrificed.
The proletariat’s liberation would be accelerated neither by the defeat of tsarist feudal Russia by Germany, nor by the defeat of the central empires by the democratic powers. Faced with the insistent threat of militarism, it could only be achieved by the proletariat launching an independent struggle, and showing, on the terrain of class war, that socialist internationalism was not merely a rhetorical expression but a real and formidable fact.
In fact the Socialist International was the one force which could have seriously contested the militarism of the big European States.
Thus the events of 1914 marked not only the collapse of the bourgeois dream of a democratic, peaceful capitalist Europe, but also the indisputable failure of socialism. Along with failure to put up any serious opposition, there had been almost universal adhesion of the national socialist parties to the war.
And the comrades who arrived at chauvinist positions such as these were not just an isolated minority; in fact they were the same comrades who over long years had distinguished themselves as champions of anti-militarism and as revolutionary leaders of the first rank. What was most tragic about it wasn’t so much the fact that these comrades had abandoned class for nationalist terrain, but the fact that many of them claimed they were no less socialist than before. They thought (or led one to believe) that they were merely building on their earlier convictions, rectifying them slightly in response to current events.
This determined a situation where the European proletariat didn’t just see nationalism extolling war, but above all saw war being extolled, and indeed demanded, by revolutionary socialism, by syndicalism, by anarchism, in the name of the historical process from which the new society would inevitably arise. Above all if the armed victory smiled on one rather than the other military coalition.
Another great merit of the comrades of the Italian left, which derived directly from them having managed to situate the phenomenon of the imperialist war in the light of the Marxist dialectic, was freeing the socialist camp from alleged innovators and those who wanted to change the revolutionary programme. In Italy the Mussolinis were shown the door, something which didn’t happen in the other European socialist parties.
The History of Modern Iraq
There are certain constants which characterise
the evolution of the relatively young Iraqi State.
1.The struggle for national independence, within which there are two tendencies battling it out: the ’national’ tendency, which prioritises the constitution of the Iraqi bourgeois State and puts the emphasis on national interest, and the ’Pan-Arabist’ tendency, which wants instead to form one State for all the Arabic-speaking peoples.
2. The struggle between the various nationalities and religious groups which, due to imperialist intervention, compose that State: the Kurdish minority in the North, the Sunnis in the centre, and the Shiites, the most numerous, in the central south.
3. The traditional border disputes, mainly with Iran and Kuwait, but also with Turkey.
There emerges however one constant which is more powerful than all the others, even if it is usually played down by bourgeois political scientists and historians, that is, the struggle between the three classes which have composed Iraqi society since its foundation, namely: the big landowners, the nascent commercial and industrial bourgeoisie, and the proletariat of town and country.
The story of this struggle constitutes, according to Marxist analysis, the central element in understanding the tragic history of Iraq and represents the unique key which can allow us to read, seeing beyond the daily horrors, what is happening in Mesopotamia; a land blessed for thousands of years by the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and today cursed by oil and its strategic position in the Middle East.
The report, by dealing with the history of the evolution of Iraqi society and the activity of the communist movement there, cast light on the modernity of production relations in Iraq and the great tradition of class struggle. The latter has been sustained by a proletariat which – notwithstanding constant and ferocious repression of its activity by all successive governmental regimes and by the counter-revolutionary action of Stalinism and its derivatives – has managed to hang on to its own traditions. This is clearly shown by the proletarian revolt which followed the tragic conclusion to the First Gulf War, and which was bloodily repressed by Saddam Hussein’s special corps with the active collaboration of the coalition armies.
Despite the great burden weighing on the Iraqi workers in the latter years of the regime, a burden which presses all the more heavily following the latest war, the Anglo-American occupation, and the creation of the present puppet government, the Iraqi workers of town and country are attempting to rediscover their own independent road. It is a road which rejects ethnic and religious distinctions, and rejects any subjection to the national bourgeoisie; both the one linked to the American boss, which presents itself as ’democratic’ and ’legalitarian’, and the one which, having chosen the path of armed opposition to the occupation, presents itself as ’nationalist’ and ’anti-imperialist’. Furthermore, it is a road which will need to pass through a phase of reconstitution of the class unions, and which must lead to the rebirth of the communist party on the basis of the traditional Marxist programme of revolutionary internationalism.
The Jewish Question Today
We intend to deal with the Jewish question
as it is generally perceived today, and how instead it viewed by our political
We know well the types of aberrations which can arise from the question, and we see this as a clear indication of the fact that the tangle of contradictions, on such a historically charged theme, is sorely in need of unravelling.
Over the extermination of the Jews there weighs a judgement which, under the pretext of being exorcistical and capable of preventing the possibility of new massacres, doesn’t hesitate to make use of a-historical terms such as ’absolute evil’, or of circumlocutions which are supposed to have the power of absolution, of laying the matter to rest.
We, on the contrary, are convinced that one never gets to the bottom of anything by way of the superstructure. It is by other means that one dissolves the paradoxes and absurdities intrinsic to all theological/fideistic constructions.
That the modern capitalist regime has ended up by exalting ancient, thousands-of-year-old cultures, such as Judaism, is so well known that we hardly need to repeat opinions which have already become part of our ideological baggage; such as those for example which relate to the experience and practice of usury, in relation to which Judaism has been in the eye of the storm since medieval times up to the present day.
It is just that the would-be ’indemnifiers’ of the Jewish slaughter believe they can get by with a superficial balance-sheet which skims over important historical periods, in particular the one which involved the need for capitalist imperialism to free itself definitively from everything which didn’t appear homologous with its own internal logic of power and dominion.
Far from taking Judaism as a category in itself, historical materialism has to be capable of identifying the contradictions which pushed modern nationalism to unleash itself against those forces which appeared uncontrollable, incapable of being brought under the empire of Blood and Soil.
Thus, according to the needs of the moment, Judaism has been considered both as at the root of, and behind, everything, and equally, against everything, with reference both to capitalism and with regard to its social opposite, i.e. communism.
We are concerning ourselves with this issue to underline the fact that ’Jewish’ civilization, which can never be subjected to normalisation as long as the laws of capitalism hold, is in reality the proletariat, and its need to go beyond the so-called “natural laws” of a given mode of production and social life.
Trade Union Work amongst the Railway Workers
The final report we heard was about our trade-union
work amongst the railway workers and the difficulties that have been encountered
in this extremely important area of party work.
With the signing of the national collective work contract by Or.S.A (Organizzazione Sindacati Autonomi e di Base, a federation of autonomous and base, rank-and-file, unions which, rather than being formed on the crest of a wave of class struggle, was formed in order to fulfil the bosses “soglia di rappresentitività”, threshold of ‘representativeness’, requirements in order to be involved in negotiations), a few days before the party meeting, a completely new and changing situation came about. The signing was a real ’smash and grab’ raid against the entire organisation, and was in open violation of the tried and tested method which, ever since the days of CoMU (Cordinamento Macchinisti Uniti, United Train-drivers Co-ordination), has seen any decision go before the membership and the active cadres first. The national secretariat of OrSA-Macchina (five members) voted 3 to 2 against, but the minority supported by OrSA-National went ahead in any case. The initial result was resignations from the three, while the other two (coincidentally also members of the inter-category national steering committee) continued to follow their own path. It should be emphasised that the OrSA rules state that if an entire category is opposed, any signing or agreement is invalidated. Therefore the behaviour of the two as well as being fraudulent is illegal as well, but it got through anyway due to the general impotence.
After initial dismay the reaction of the membership was disappointment, or amongst the best of them, rage. Both emotions which are quite understandable, but which still end up playing into the hands of the company (Trenitalia) and those within the organisation who support it.
On the 2nd and 3rd of August we took part in two very heated national meetings in Rome: the first of OrSA-Macchina (the train-drivers section) and the second of OrSA-intercategoriale. We found the situation to be the same as five, indeed ten, years ago: still there is a majority of around 60% which is ever ready to negotiate, wherever and whenever, in order to conquer minor and personal advantages; and, in sharp contrast, there is a minority which has managed to maintain a combative stance, even if it is increasingly reliant on Tuscany, and in particular on the minority of the Regional Coordination in which Pistoia carries decisive weight – not so much because of any work we carry out there, but due to the tradition and sense of cohesion which has existed all along, and which is facilitated by the small local membership.
We need to start organising those forces which have stood firm on correct positions. Only if we are able to unite il poco ma buono, the few but good elements, can we hope to resolve this conundrum.
In the next shop-floor (RSU, Rappresentanze Sindacali Unitarie, Unitary Trade Union Representations) elections, the Transport CUB (Comitato Unitario di base, a Base Union) will also allow representatives of OrSA and other organizations to stand.
Throughout Italy consternation has been caused by those who want ’to start from scratch’ again, as if such a thing was possible, as if 2005 was the same as 1985. In fact, many train drivers are addicted to overtime and are signing their own contracts, whilst outside, in the working world, ever harsher and more restrictive controls are being introduced. If we were to go out on strike like we used to, the consequences would be far more serious this time around.
At the end of September the Confederate Unions proclaimed a strike against the VACMA (a technically improved automatic breaking system) in order to head off discontent, to recruit new members, and to present themselves all spruced up at the shop-floor elections in November. Our strike will be on October 13th. Too bad that they would only strike for such restricted aim (the VACMA) and that some have fallen for it. The Tuscan OrSA took up a very lacklustre position pronouncing itself in favour of freedom to take part, just as it had during the CUB strike.
All we can do is continue pursue our own path, although the involvement of our militants in this situation is becoming increasingly difficult to bear.
Course of capitalism History of modern Iraq Origins of trade unions in Italy Russian capitalism, post 1991
On January 29 and 30th party comrades found themselves back at the editorial offices of our Florence branch for another of our periodic working meetings.
It is a well-known fact, in compliance with an old ambition which goes back to the very beginnings of the communist movement, that we entrust the performance of all party functions – from the embryonic ones of today to tomorrow’s more diversified ones – to the convergent, disciplined, and ordered work of all the groups and individuals which compose its militant body. In our meetings we don’t compare new theses, we bring contributions to the collective rediscovery and defence of the old theses and redraw the line of continuity which, beyond today’s individuals, links the past of the class and party to their future.
We prefigure a party without internal conflict; which works according to a unique plan which is known to all and accepted by all, and which makes best use of all its available forces.
The ways and means and the emotional aspects of working in the party, these are no less important or separable from the results achieved through correct evaluations of living history or through appropriate slogans and watchwords. We are not talking about an aesthetic Galateo (the title of an early Italian book on etiquette) or a hypocritical ritual, but of a natural and spontaneous party arrangement which allows for greater efficiency and consistency over time.
As expressed in specific bodies of theses, we deny that the struggle between the opposed classes of society also takes place within the party (indeed we are for a “closed” party), or that there must necessarily – constitutionally – be reflected in it a battle between individuals and groups. “Here we don’t make politics” is how Karl Marx put it. This the Left has never done (not even in the 3rd International when it was fast degenerating and when, under Stalin, the presence within the party of “traitors” and those who had been “corrupted by the bourgeoisie” suddenly started to be theorised), and it was in this spirit, and with the forces we presently have at our disposal, that we conducted our meeting.
The first comrades started arriving on the Thursday morning so they could have a bit of extra time to put the finishing touches to their reports. On the Saturday morning, there was the organizational meeting in which we prescribe the terms of our various lines of study and consider what issues need further attention, as well as looking at the possibility of external interventions. Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning were dedicated to listening to the reports of the various study groups. As usual, we will give a brief summary of them here, pending their publication in full in the July issue of Comunismo.
Course of capitalism
With the help of an overhead projector, graphs
and statistics were used to illustrate our regular updating of the time
series which describes the economic conjuncture of capitalism. The speaker
paused to consider them one at a time in order to draw out historical comparisons
and similarities between one country and another. Particular attention
was paid to the course of the present crisis in various countries.
Relative, then, to the period from 1937 to now, and to the ‘six countries’ of old capitalism (over the last ten years it is to these we have dedicated most attention) the speaker tried to draw up a global balance sheet of the cycle which starts, in 1937, on the eve of an economic crisis leading to the Second World War, and which continues up to a point in time, now, which, without wishing to force the analogy, bears witness to new associated phenomena of widespread economic crisis and war preparations.
We were shown, therefore, various tables, relating to industrial production (this is data which is global and more easily obtainable). In particular, one chart showed the short cycles and the other the long cycles of capitalism. As periods of the latter, delineated by peak years, the extreme points, 1937 – 1973 – 2000, divided neatly into 36 and 27 year periods respectively.
Considering the 63 year period as a whole, including a war, reconstruction and a more serious protracted senile growth, we have the series running from the slowest to the most dynamic: Great Britain (+1.6% annual average) – France (+3.1%) – USA (+3.7%) – Germany (+3.8%) – Italy (+4.0%) – Japan (+5.6%). Our economic-political assumptions are confirmed for the umpteenth time, and despite post-industrialisms and globalisations: the rate of profit of a national capitalism becomes less and less the older it is.
If we look instead at the two separate periods, we observe that in each of the six countries the rate of profit declines inexorably over time.
On the other hand, whilst the series 1937-1973 perfectly confirms the course of a rising rate of profits from the oldest to the youngest of the capitalisms, there appears a certain irregularity in the 1973 - 2000 period: the average rate of profits for the United States is slightly higher, and that of Italy is much lower that the Marxist general law would have predicted. The exceptionally favourable course of American industry in its last short cycle, coinciding with the last decade of the last century, therefore requires an explanation. To be sure, certain super-structural explanations of political and military force may have something to do with it – of advantage to the USA but of disadvantage to the Italian bourgeoisie. However there remains an element of uncertainty over our having committed ourselves to the year 2000 as the final year in the cycle. Maybe it won’t mark the closure of this long capitalist cycle after all; accounts, all accounts, remain to be settled!
History of modern Iraq
The report described events between the July
1958 revolution and the Coup d’Etat in 1963.
On July 14, whilst the radio was transmitting the Marseillaise, the insurgent troops made their assault on the royal palace. After a brief bombardment the royal guard surrendered and King Faisal II, Abd al-Ilah the hereditary prince, and various other members of the royal family were immediately executed by firing squad. With the Coup D’Etat over, the military called on the people to take to the streets. The masses responded enthusiastically to the call. Baghdad and the other Iraqi cities immediately became the theatre for enormous demonstrations and widespread looting.
The social situation in Iraq was so explosive that the new government, which represented the rising bourgeois class, found itself, from the very outset, having to settle accounts with a combative and organised urban and rural proletariat on the one hand and a powerful and concentrated class of landed proprietors on the other. It was a matter of having to decide what stance to take on agrarian reform, on what relations to maintain with the foreign oil companies, and on freedom of association of the parties and trades unions. There was also the thorny problem of Kurdish independence to consider. It was a matter of choosing between a Pan-Arabic policy, which would shortly have led to the union with Egypt and Syria, and a nationalist one, which aimed at establishing Iraq as a regional power.
The first rift in the government was precisely between the Pan-Arabic tendency, supported by the Ba’ath Party and by Colonel Arif, which required immediate union with the UAR, and the Iraqi nationalist tendency, supported by the liberals, the Stalinists, and by the Kurdish Democratic Party. The struggle spilled onto the streets during the Mosul military revolt in March 1959.
In the way the different groups lined up during the revolt there was often a high level of coincidence between economic divisions and ethnic and religious ones. But where economic divisions didn’t coincide with that of ethnicity or faith, it would be the class factor, as opposed to racial or religious factors, which prevailed. The Arab soldiers sought solidarity not with the Arab officers but with the Kurdish soldiers. The heads of the landowning Kurdish clans united with the heads of the Arab landowning clans. The long-established, wealthy Christian merchant families did not make common cause with the Christian peasants. When acting under their own initiative, the peasants, whatever their ethnicity, directed their anger against the landowners in an indiscriminate way, and without taking account of individual political positions. For their part the poor, and the workers of the Arab quarters, united with the Kurdish peasants and Aramaic Christians against the Muslim landowners.
The agrarian reform inclined towards putting land onto the market and modernising land management in such a way as to allow an evolution towards capitalist relations of production and property in the countryside. It certainly wasn’t anything to do with relieving the misery of the millions of landless peasants. Only the worse land was actually confiscated, and the costs of acquiring this confiscated land put it beyond the means of the poor peasants, who were without capital and access to credit and therefore unable to benefit from it. Instead the class of peasants with small and medium-size holdings would be reinforced by this measure.
The al-Dawa organisation (“the Call”), composed of Shiite muslims and associated with the young Alim Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr (father of the al-Sadr who would make life so difficult for the American marines), maintained that the expropriation of private property was contrary to Sharia law, and whipped up protests against the agrarian reform law; this campaign would allow the government to carry through the payment of indemnities to landed proprietors, and lead to the decision to have waqf land (i.e. the property of religious institutions) excluded from the law, thereby reducing its impact.
In November 1960, ministers close to the CP were forced to resign and the principal mass organisations of the party, the Partisans of Peace, the Youth League and the Women’s league, were closed down.
The revolution had nevertheless set the whole of Iraqi society into motion. The poor peasants started to be transformed into proletarians and to move into the cities; relations between individuals and within the family were revolutionised, and women started to free themselves from an age-old oppression. Amongst often bloody conflicts the new Iraq was transformed, in the space of a few decades, into one of the most powerful States in the area; a regional power which the imperialist diplomatic corps didn’t hesitate to propel into a terrible war with neighbouring Iran in order to reduce its economic, financial and military weight.
Origins of trade unions in Italy
There continued the detailed examination of
how trade unions were organised, in Italy, under fascism. Fascism boasts
of having no theory but at the same time it ‘theorises’ its relativism,
its borrowing from every party of what suits it and rejection of what doesn’t.
In this respect it anticipates an attitude proclaimed by the entire spectrum
of parties in the post-fascist period. Perhpas the one point of reference
and ‘all-absorbing’ concept is ‘the idea of the hierarchically ordered
More precisely, though, and in terms of political practice, fascism theorises first of all the ‘identification’ of the party with the state and its disappearance into it. Thus the party goes, the State remains, revealing the real relation between fascist party, and any other bourgeois party, and the State, and the necessarily subordinate relation of the party to the State. “The party is just a civil and voluntary force subject to orders from the State” (Mussolini).
And with such instruments, declaredly opportunist, even fascism finds itself having to deal with the ‘union question’.
It is true that a workers’ union, even if inspired, formed, controlled and directed by the bourgeoisie, and even if communists maintain that it isn’t worth working within and advise workers to desert it, remains a body accepted as inevitable but potentially alien to and a source of conflict within the bourgeois regime, as well as being a source of disturbance on the conceptual, and certainly the economic, planes. All those ‘mystic’ notions about the State ‘absorbing’ the Nation can neither do without, or totally endorse, the economic representation of the workers.
The speaker therefore gave ample documentation, quoting passages from speeches made at meetings of the Grand Council of Fascism, which repeatedly expressed this concern. There was thus an oscillation between cries of alarm about the dangerousness of an evolution in ‘a class’ direction even of the fascist unions, and the adoption of provisions tending toward the most strict control over its organisation, and indeed nomination of its officials. Another guarantee was correctly identified as the cohabitating within the same organisation of unions of both workers and providers of work.
One example, although a fairly isolated one, of the aforementioned impossibility of suppressing class struggle entirely, was the strike of the Lombard metal-workers in March 1925, on which occasion the fascist trade-unionists put themselves at the head of the fight for the workers demands. And fascism had no choice but to put up with the strike and defend the workers’ gains.
With the Pact of Palazzo Vidoni on October 1925, the internal commissions were abolished, but the fascist unions continued to demand recognition of their network of factory fiduciaries and their legal protection before the bosses, a right which the regime refused to concede.
Rigola, ex-reformist trade-unionist, would write at this time: “the Labour Charter has been a bold step on the path to reforms, insofar as it serves to integrate and generalise those class conquests which, given the State’s lack of interest, free trade-unionism didn’t manage to ensure, or if so only to a small number of workers”. Rigola agrees with us on the continuity of trade-unionism, from that dreamt about by the reformists, to fascist trade-unionism and on to post-fascist trade-unionism.
Russian capitalism, post 1991
In the ex-Soviet Union, the counter-revolution’s
most infamous masterstroke has been in disguising as communism as
a variant of capitalism, and thereby achieving the inversion of
the specific aims of the working class. In the realm of economy, it has
contrived to make these aims coincide with the maximum and fastest development
of capitalist accumulation, in domestic politics, with the acceptance of
the bourgeois principles of democracy, coexistence of the classes, and
proletarian subjection to nationhood, in foreign policy, with the defence
of the fatherland Russia and support for all its imperialist and bellicose
In 1991, all the nauseating iconography of red flags and gilded hammers and sickles – which now seem so hackneyed and incredible – was ditched, revealing the reality of a capitalism which was the twin brother of its global rivals. This fact, however, hasn’t prompted an admission that the previous Russian regime was capitalist as well.
Like certain creatures which are incapable of defending themselves by other means, capitalism must conceal itself from the proletariat. Monstrous though it is, it doesn’t want to be recognised for what it is. Its external metamorphoses and the ways it reforms itself are therefore continuous: from democracy to fascism to nazism, and vice versa, from capitalism to socialism, and vice versa. Sometimes it is simply enough to alternate the governments, every one of them bourgeois, in order to divert the attention of the global proletariat: and how easy it is then to write gigantic Black Books (reference is here made to the Black Book of Communism, an anti-communist, rather over-large, pamphlet published a few years ago in many western countries), used by this side or that as the occasion demands, to keep the masses in a state of confusion.
As everybody knows, our party has made its own consistent evaluation of social events in Russia. We interpreted from a Marxist viewpoint the cycle passing from feudal-autocratic forms to the 1917 revolution directed by the Communist party; to the ensuing counter-revolution which led to the degeneration of the party, in Russia and within the International; to the extermination of the communist old guard, and thence to capitalism’s bloody primitive accumulation, under the auspices of the State, in that boundless, heterogeneous empire.
This reading of ours of the history of capitalism in Russia, which we see as linked and running in parallel to capitalism on the international level, leads to an interpretation of the so-called ‘collapse of communism’ in 1991 as the latest involutional shift of that capitalist economy, and that bourgeois State regime. In the final analysis, what underlies this crisis is the inherent weakness of Russia’s economic structure, which is efficient and modern in the large-scale industrial sector but much less so in small-scale industry, and weakest of all in the agricultural sector.
The ‘original sin’ of the Stalinist counter-revolution, also in the bourgeois sense, even if historically inevitable, lay in the overthrow of the original revolutionary alliance between the industrial proletariat and the peasantry by means of the brutal political submission of the former, and the seeking of support from, and compromise with, the latter. This compromise between Russian capital, its State, and the peasant world would generate an appalling backwardness in the countryside which has now endured for over three quarters of a century.
The low fertility, on average, of these cold lands is the main cause of this. Another is the difficult and as yet unresolved issue of access to the seas.
The political weight of the peasantry, only very slowly reaching that level of impoverishment which tends towards a concentration of land holdings, and well protected behind a barrier of auto-consumption, managed to delay by half a century those liberalising reforms which at the 20th Congress of the CPSU were nevertheless deemed necessary.
This structural weakness of capitalism in Russia has likewise been at the root of its difficulties and general awkwardness in the inter-imperialist contest – with diplomatic and military defeat of the Russian giant at the hands of its biggest rivals, America (also in decline itself) and China (which is on the up) – and also its inability to reach the ‘fusion temperature’ required to meld together the various, ancient and dissimilar nationalities imprisoned within the same old ‘prison of the people’ which the Tsar used to be reproached about.
Thus it is incumbent upon us today to document the post-1991 economic course of those countries of the ex-Soviet Union which, as current demagoguery would have it, the conquest of multi-partyism and electoral and parliamentary practices would finally free from the stranglehold of state planning, centralised control of prices, and bureaucratic intrusiveness.
Following the period of disorganisation which came after the break up of the Soviet Union, the State Statistical Office has resumed publication of its yearbooks and it is from these that we can derive the data which interests us. Obviously the new series of figures only goes back to 1992, and it is not always easy to correlate it with the ‘Soviet’ data, which refers to the much more extensive territory of the Union. Every comparison, therefore, pre-supposes this discontinuity.
At the meeting, therefore, we were able to show and comment on a considerable number of numerical tables, extracted and condensed, without further elaboration for now, from the gigantic yearbooks – a more thoroughgoing study of which we will have to postpone to a future, larger work.
We were able, nevertheless, to make a general assessment of the raw data relative to: demographics; employment of labour power and its repartition amongst the sectors of production; consumption of the populace, in terms of value and physical quantity, of foodstuffs and the availability of housing; types of enterprise, with the Russians careful to distinguish between State and private property; development of the industrial sector in general and of particular sectors of it; repartition and extension of various types of land management; quotas of agricultural production per such arrangements; technical foundations of agricultural management expressed in terms of availability of machinery and use of fertilisers; harvest trends, in total and subdivided according to type of enterprise; livestock capital, in quantity and in production, also divided into type of enterprise; railways and road networks, and volume of merchandise transported; foreign investment in the Federation per country of origin; economic relations with the countries of the “Confederation of Independent States”, the ex-USSR, in terms of investments, migratory movements, reciprocal financial and commercial exchange; price trends; the import-export structure subdivided per country of origin-destination.
The conclusions we can draw for now are as follows:
1. All the data concurs in confirming, some in truly dramatic fashion, the enormity of the crisis which has shaken this great country; a rift, in terms of the figures on population and production, of no lesser degree than that provoked by the First World War and the ensuing civil war, and by the invasion during the Second World War. Certainly not since 1929-33 in the United States of America has there been such ruin and catastrophe during ‘peacetime’.
2. The recovery (referring now to the 2003 data) still appears unstable twelve years after the crash, and it is lagging behind compared to the maximum levels achieved before. Thus, in 1998, industrial production in the Federation dropped to 46% of what it was in 1990 and in 2003 it is still only at 70 %. All the figures covered by the speaker (transport, consumption, etc) confirmed the extreme difficulty of recovering from the trough.
3. Agriculture has responded even worse to the crisis and has effectively retreated into auto-consumption. There has been a mass slaughter of livestock: between 1993 to 2004 there was a reduction from 52 to 25 million head of cattle; pigs, from 31 to 16 million; sheep, from 51 to 17 million head... contraction of agricultural land with a severe reduction in cereal crops and pasturage, market gardening has remained stable, the only increase has been amongst the industrial crops (flax, beet, oil seed).
4. “Privatised” industrial concerns now employ 52% of the labour force, as opposed to 20% in 1992. In Agriculture, production in the “agricultural organisations” (Kolkhozes and Sovkhozes) is evidently being dismantled in favour of “family firms” (for the most part) and farms belonging to “peasants and individual entrepreneurs” (in small but growing numbers). In order to measure the level of agrarian development, it should be recalled that Marxism focuses on the technical form and the type of relations of labour more than on the title deed to the land.
In response to today’s facile demagogueries, we need to recall how misleading it is to ask whether “State planning” favours capitalist development or not, even when this is with the intention of showing how capital can, and does, allow itself to be “planned” from “without”. It isn’t the State which intervenes in the economy, but the capitalist economy which intervenes in its State, and uses it according to its requirements.
* * *
About our work in the trade union field, a
rail-worker comrade gave a detailed report on the reactions of rail workers
and their organisations in the aftermath of the accident at Crevalcore.
He referred in particular to how difficult it has been for the OrSA trade
union (Organizzazione Sindacati Autonomi e di Base), seriously culpable
for having abandoned the spontaneous strike called by workers immediately
after the accident, to keep to the correct line.
The latter report is published in full in issue no. 310 of Il Partito Comunista.
On August 10, existing employees of the airline caterer Gate Gourmet, based at Heathrow, found that new seasonal workers had been hired. They were surprised and upset that the company had made this unilateral move because they knew their trade union, the T & G, was currently in negotiations with the management about proposed redundancies. So what on earth was going on? While union reps responded to this clear provocation by seeking an explanation from the management, workers assembled in the canteen for a meeting. A management spokesman then suddenly appeared and told workers they had 20 minutes to get back to work or they would be sacked. They refused and remained in the building. Workers starting the late shift also refused to come into work having heard the news. Those assembled in the car park would then hear a muffled megaphone announcement from the management and later find they were sacked. This was then confirmed in a pre-prepared note which was handed out to them.
Six hundred and seventy workers, mainly women from the Sikh communities of Southall, were now without a job. The insecurity which is the lot of every worker had become an all too painful reality. Fellow workers turning up the next day were faced with the ultimatum of signing a new contract which would slash pay and conditions or face the sack as well. Considering the wage of Gate Gourmet catering assistants is a derisory £12,000 per year, any reduction was bound to be resisted as a matter of necessity.
The next day the sacked workers declared on their union website that the whole situation had been contrived by the company and prepared for many months in advance. Indeed, the evidence for this is overwhelming: dismissal letters had been prepared beforehand and sent to all staff, whether they were on leave or sick; an outside security company had been hired; the police had been alerted, and indeed Gate Gourmet had previously informed the companies they trade with that there was going to be a dispute.
And why this elaborate charade? Because the company wanted to sack the workers without paying them any redundancy pay, and introduce lower paid workers on short-term contracts.
The current situation goes back to the failed negotiations in June of this year. At that time the T & G was in the process of negotiating a ’rescue package’ with the company which included redundancies. The union argued that if these were to take place, they would have to be across the board and include management. The company’s smug response was to re-grade 147 shop-floor workers, earning around £14,000 per annum, as managers and then make them redundant. The workers were then told that managers’ starting salaries in the company’s proposed new structure would be higher than before, with the lowest grade paying £18,000 as opposed to £14,000 and other starting salaries being raised to £22,000 and £28,000. This was the final straw. The ’rescue package’ was rejected by a margin of 9 to 1. As negotiations foundered, the company then announced it was to employ 120 additional temporary staff, and the unilateral introduction of these new staff would be the spark which would ignite the dispute.
On August 11, on the day after the mass sackings, 1,000 British Airways baggage handlers and loaders represented by the same union as the catering staff came out in sympathy. Then another union, representing British Airways check-in staff, advised their members to stop work for health and safety reasons after disgruntled passengers took out their frustrations on their members.
This immediate solidarity was due to the BA workers belonging to the same union, and the fact that the sacked workers used to be employed by BA when it ran its own catering operation. There were also strong family links between the two groups: many of the striking BA staff were sons and husbands of the striking women.
The inevitable resulting chaos for airline passengers has been reported in such tedious and exhaustive detail that we won’t dwell on it here. Suffice to say that the media could have given more airtime to the traveller who commented that it is better to have a disrupted holiday than be summarily sacked. But even that relatively innocuous comment would have been far too controversial, of course.
Since the start of the dispute, the sacked staff have been staging daily demonstrations outside the entrance to Gate Gourmet’s Heathrow headquarters and on a verge called Beacon Hill about 500 yards away. Emotions are understandably running high: the police have been called in to investigate allegations that one of the Gate Gourmet workers still at work had been head-butted; a Times reporter spotted six armed policemen chasing three middle-aged women in saris across the car park.
With the State so clearly on the side of the employers, it is no surprise that Gate Gourmet have already been awarded an injunction by the High Court limiting the number of people that could picket outside its main entrance to six. The injunction has also named 17 people who have been accused of harassment and intimidation. The T & G has also been made legally responsible for the pickets’ behaviour.
The union’s role in this dispute has been to curtail the spontaneous acts of solidarity, and try and get back to the negotiating table as quickly as possible. Accordingly on August 11, the company and union agreed to discussions, via the use of ACAS, and the T & G went in to successfully head off the BA workers wildcat strike. By August 16, talks had already stalled over the refusal of Gate Gourmet to reinstate the sacked workers. In the words of the company chairman: "The hardliners and militants are never coming back". This is the main sticking point.
At this point the T & G called on BA to play "a part in the resolution of this issue", whilst adeptly trying to regain a bit of militant gloss by condemning BA for victimising their wildcat strikers.
British Airways has about 550 flights a day in and out of its main hub, Heathrow, carrying around 100,000 passengers. It is Gate Gourmet’s main customer. The latter is the 2nd largest catering company in the world and provides BA at Heathrow with 36,000 in-flight meals a day. According to a BA spokesman, Gate Gourmet is the only company large enough to cater for its needs. It’s destiny is therefore inextricably linked to it. Thus, in the present dispute, BA has concentrated on trying to bail out Gate Gourmet. By August 16, BA had already signed a new deal with Gate Gourmet reported to involve a two-year extension to the current contract at a better price, but dependent on labour issues being resolved.
But BA doesn’t want to get too involved. It knows it has to tread carefully with the unions because it will need them to approve the redundancies it is planning when the new terminal 5 opens. And this isn’t the first wildcat strike BA has had, in July 2003 there was one in protest against the introduction of a new electronic clocking-on system.
So Gate Gourmet probably won’t succeed in getting BA to take its side, or not in a high profile way in any case. BA has just decided to dangle a bit of cash in front of Gate Gourmet as an incentive to ’get things back to normal’.
And Gate Gourmet’s problems aren’t confined to Heathrow. In America, unions representing their employees successfully sued to get their health benefits restored after the company tried to eliminate them, and it hasn’t exactly distinguished itself in an operational sense either. In February, the Food and Drug Administration cited its Hawaii plant for health violations, including mould in the refrigerators and vermin. In England, Virgin Atlantic switched to another caterer after its inspectors uncovered hazards such as dirty floors with puddles "attracting flies" and blocked sinks etc. The Herald Tribune reports that several passengers from flights it served this summer are suing, claiming for food poisoning.
On August 28, Gate Gourmet outlined the redundancy terms it hopes will end the dispute. Staff taking voluntary redundancy would receive two weeks’ pay for each year of service, more than twice the statutory minimum. Talks between Gate Gourmet and the union are due to restart once it is known how many of the 1,400 existing staff and how many of the 670 sacked workers are prepared to accept the redundancy offer.
What is unclear is what will happen if the "troublemakers" refuse to accept the offer, and who exactly are these ’militants’ on the company’s hit list? Although only 17 workers were mentioned in the injunction, David Siegel, the global head of Gate Gourmet, has upped the number of workers he considers as "holding the company hostage" to 200!
What clearly emerges from this strike is the power of lightning strikes to strengthen the workers’ hand. The union seems to recognise this, and occasionally takes the rostrum to fulminate against restrictive labour legislation. But when direct action is taken, and the anti-strike laws are simply broken, they are very quick to condemn the perpetrators and retreat into defence of the Rule of Law. It is said the union didn’t step in to stop the wild-cat strike for 14 hours, thereby tacitly approving it. But why then were they so categorical in condemning the strike when they did step in? If it is the Law which lies in the way of workers’ solidarity, then the Law will have to be broken! That is what they should be saying, and that is what the wildcat strikers actually did.
The official unions, the T & G in this case, are far too integrated into the state apparatus to be able to put up a real fight. Even now, their previous leader sits recumbent in the House of Lords, no doubt reminiscing about his commie bashing exploits to gout-ridden millionaires; and helping himself to a pinch of parliamentary snuff every now and again. And part and parcel of being integrated into the capitalist state apparatus, the union is too integrated into the Labour Party: a party which has done nothing to overturn the anti-working class legislation introduced by the Conservative party. The Labour Party, condemned by Engels at its very inception, is a pro-capitalist party through to its very marrow, and the fact the union is funding it means they are part of that pro-capitalist axis.
And even if the union, in the most generous of hypotheses, did collaborate with the wildcat strikers for 14 hours, and this is difficult to prove, finding little anomalies in the Laws is not going to be enough. Working class demands can only be established by force. All Laws do is record the balance of forces as they exist at the time. And the same goes for negotiations. Therefore, when the T & G disarms the workers, by depriving them of the arm of unofficial action, they effectively weaken the workers bargaining position, and end up with less for the workers in the final negotiated agreement. To stress the importance of the union having a squeaky clean record of abiding by the law, to enhance the workers’ bargaining position, is therefore a nonsense.
But all the unions have done in any case is to tail behind the workers. It is amongst the wildcat strikers that the seeds of the future class conscious union movement lie.
The fact that a wildcat action has taken place means there must already be an organisation and leadership which is capable of defying the anti-strike laws and creating that solidarity between workers in different sectors which is of such crucial importance; not only for the fighting of the immediate economic battles of the working class, but as a way of forging that wider class consciousness which will be needed to fight the bigger battles which lay ahead.
Unfortunately we do not know exactly how the solidarity strike broke
out (due as much to the workers concerned needing to protect themselves
from being sacked as it is due to the media’s reluctance to report, and
their lack of interest in, such matters). We nevertheless extend our solidarity
to them, and to the sacked workers, and urge them to preserve the organisation
and links between them which have developed during the course of the recent
events... even if in opposition to the official union.
In our last article when we looked at what has been happening in the UK trade unions we pointed out that the then leftist leader of Aslef (the Train drivers union) Mick Rix was not elected again. Rix had been the only other trade union leader who was a member of Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. Although a Blairite, Shaun Brady, whose "power base" is in the South East of England, won, less than half of the 15,500 members of Aslef bothered to vote. Crises of various kinds were growing within Aslef, and some were voting with their feet. Union bureaucrats were using their connections within the labour movement to secure themselves other jobs, especially with the TGWU (Transport & General Workers Union), and some train drivers were finding their own ways of establishing links across categories within the rail industry by joining RMT (Railways, maritime and transport union). RMT has other categories in the rail industry, such as train guards, amongst its membership.
We have previously concentrated on the trade unions as being state registered and regulated bodies, tied to capitalism and its state. In this article we shall also have the opportunity to look at other aspects of these unions, as employers and financial institutions. As always a distinction needs to be made between the interests of the workers, as union members, and those of the bureaucrats who run the unions. It is precisely the economic conflicts that the workers find themselves in that interests us, and not the petty machinations of those scrabbling for top jobs in the union hierarchies.
The events in Aslef were a conflict between Right and left wing factions, but it was also a conflict between the post of General Secretary and that of the union’s Executive Committee (EC). Democracy is kicked around as being a wonderful, fundamental principle, but at the end of the day it depends upon which form of democracy is being advocated.
There were so many accusations of fraud, incompetence, sabotage, etc, that the EC of Aslef brought in a leading Barrister, Matthias Kelly QC, to investigate, interview anybody relevant, and report back. Now QCs are costly (Queen’s Counsellors on taking up their appointment are said to have "taken silk") and their reports are supposedly balanced, thoughtful and respected. "I recognise that the union belongs to the members and not to any officer or body" so states the eminent QC in his Report for the EC of Aslef. However, just let the workers try asserting themselves against the bureaucrats, and they will soon see how little democracy is worth!
Brady takes over as General Secretary
In what Kelly QC puts down as a state of paranoia, the incoming General Secretary believed that a "scorched earth" policy was being conducted against him. Some of the officers had resigned, whether taking up new jobs, or just clearing off, left Brady with the impression that a conspiracy was afoot. Severance payments had been made in some cases, and accusations of fraudulent goings-on were being hinted at. The usual clearing of old files on computers (known as housekeeping) led to computer experts being brought in to crack passwords, and check the IT system. The apartment that Rix had been allowed to occupy, and Brady had said he didn’t need, had been allocated to the caretaker – this Brady took as being directed against him, and he wanted the caretaker throwing out. All this smacked of a new Manager coming in to "sort all the workers out".
Brady took it upon himself to have his own internal investigation carried out. Paul Blagbrough was asked by the new General Secretary to carry out a review of the financial affairs and administration of Aslef. Severance payments to the out-going general secretary, Rix, and his partner, were under fire. The draft of the Blagburgh report, dated March 2004, marked as a draft and confidential, was removed by an ally of Brady and given to the "Mail on Sunday". This right-wing newspaper had a field day "exposing" the supposed internal affairs of Aslef. It was as a result of the newspaper "exposure" that the EC commissioned the report by Kelly QC. During April and May 2004 Brady refused to cooperate with the Kelly Inquiry. The Kelly Report was presented to Aslef at the end of June 2004 and seemed to have cleared everybody, except the "uncooperative" Brady. No financial mismanagement was found – and a relieved Rix was happy about being exonerated.
Discontent amongst the office staff
Unsurprisingly the workers in Aslef’s headquarters were concerned about what was going to happen. There was a fear of bullying and harassment, which led to a sudden increase in sick leave. Members of GMB (General Municipal and Boilermakers union), who organise the office workers, issued a notice about balloting for strike action. Brady then wrote to all 40 members of staff, at their home addresses, on 29th December 2003 spelling out what would happen if they dared to take any form of strike action.
Brady wrote that should any form of strike action be taken, this would be regarded as a breach of contract. The GMB would be de-recognised. If any employee is regarded, in the first eight weeks of the strike, as having previously committed acts of Gross Misconduct then they will be dismissed straightaway. All Annual Leave would be cancelled, no sick pay payable, childcare vouchers no longer issued. After 8 weeks and one day of the first strike day all the rest of those who took part in the strike would be dismissed – this is allowable in employment law. New staff would be employed who would not be allowed to be members of GMB. The new employees would have individual contracts, and be members of the ASLEF Staff Association "in line with the practice of other rail unions".
At this point the Trades Union Congress (TUC) intervened to try to improve internal industrial relations at Aslef. The TUC acted just as it would for any employer, in order to contain an industrial dispute.
Following a meeting between TUC general secretary Brendan "Demon" Barber, and officials from Aslef and GMB, agreement was on resolving the internal problems. Brady withdrew the letter to GMB members and GMB agreed not to initiate industrial action until talks took place. Well of course Brady agreed to withdraw his threats to the workers, because the threat of strike action itself was withdrawn!
This was not the first time that "Demon" Barber of the TUC had to speak to Brady of Aslef about inter-union rivalries. On the Metrolink tramway system in Manchester Aslef had been for some years recruiting the tram drivers into their union. Eighty out of the hundred and fifty tram drivers had joined Aslef. Aslef was pressing for union recognition, and the right to negotiate over pay and conditions. Metrolink already had a single-union agreement with TGWU, which they preferred, and would stick to. Metrolink bosses were happy with the agreement with TGWU because they were not involved in inter-union rivalry to force up wage rates.
The same issues had arisen two years before when the TUC had received assurance from the previous Aslef leadership that they would respect the TGWU single-union agreement. Now the Aslef leadership was proving to be uncooperative, Brady being regarded as "too light-weight", not up to the job – in other words... trouble. When such impressions take root it isn’t long before the person concerned has to go.
The state of Brady’s supposed paranoia was growing. He wasn’t given access to finance, conflict between the General Secretary and the Executive Committee was increasing, internal investigations grew apace, and sooner or later a showdown would take place. Sooner or later it would be established – who run the union, the General Secretary or the Executive Committee.
Fisticuffs at a barbecue
In May 2004 a barbecue was held on the terrace of Aslef’s Hampstead premises. An argument took place in which Aslef’s President Martin Samways was accused of hitting a female officer of the union. Brady moved in to restrain him and they both ended up in a wrestling match in a flowerbed. Samways denied deliberately striking the female officer. Three senior officials of Aslef were immediately suspended pending an enquiry.
The Executive Committee found itself to be in complete charge of the affairs of Aslef. As the directing body of the Union, they are ultimately the employers of the senior Officials. Employers have always found it to be a useful exercise in suspending, and dismissing, all those involved in fighting, and so not being bothered with who caused the problems, and who was "innocently" caught up in events. Then the dismissals can be argued to be "fair".
There is only one body within Alsef which could challenge the authority of the Executive Committee and that is the Annual Conference. The next Annual Conference was due to be held in Scarborough in June 2004, and because of the conflict going on within the top levels of the union, this was deferred until the autumn.
An independent three-person panel investigated the fracas at the barbecue and concluded that the behaviour of Samways was "wholly unacceptable". The internal report concluded that the union was "highly factionalised" and urged members to stamp out what was called a "self-destructive culture". Samways admitted his mistake and resigned as President of Aslef.
An attempted putsch
Brady now considered that a left-wing coup had been carried out against "the membership" and himself. The logical next step was to try and call for the Annual Conference to meet immediately and overturn the control of the Executive Committee. Brady concluded that if two-thirds of the delegates gathered together they could declare themselves to be quorate, and therefore legally the Conference of Aslef. This was supposed to take place on Monday 7th June, the day in which the Conference in Scarborough should have taken place. In the end only a third of the delegates assembled, and there could be no pretence that this was the conference of Aslef.
After two hours about forty of the sixty train drivers assembling in a local pub decided to march on Aslef’s offices. They found the premises in Arkwright Road locked and barred, with CCTV cameras recording events. They were not going to be allowed into the premises, the former residence of the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, but a three-man delegation could go in to express their opinions. This was refused, and after an hour the protesters shuffled away making comments about the Kremlin.
"Demon" Barber of the TUC had called top-level meetings to try to bring some sort of order into Aslef’s affairs. He had a meeting with Brady and a severance package of a year’s salary (£65,000) was offered if he went quietly. Brady appears to do nothing quietly.
Brady was dismissed in August 2004 after refusing to cooperate with the Kelly Inquiry. At the September Conference two-thirds of the delegates voted against discussing the case. Brady’s appeal was heard in November by an appeals committee, appointed independently of the Executive Committee and composed of representatives of the eight districts of Aslef. The appeals committee rejected his appeal.
The "Brady Bunch", as dubbed by the EC, ended up by breaking away from Aslef and "some dozens" have formed an Associated Train Crew Union at the beginning of 2005. It was recently announced that Brady had given up train driving and become a publican.
Bullying and Harassment in the GMB
The threats to GMB members, who were employed by Aslef, wasn’t greeted with a sense of shock and horror by officialdom within the unions. Bullying and harassment had been the stock-in-trade of union management for such a long time. Indeed the GMB could hardly take this up as a matter of proletarian principle because the GMB leader in Scotland had previously been found guilty of sexual harassment of female staff. This leader was not even suspended from his job, but finally went with a golden handshake.
An election took place for the post of General Secretary of GMB during 2003. The winning candidate, Kevin Curran, with two-thirds of the vote cast, had stated as policy aims the ending of the bullying culture within the GMB and reviewing the relationship between the union and the Labour Party. Curran’s running mate for the position of Deputy General Secretary, Debbie Coulter, was also elected. Curran’s opponent, Paul Kenny, was the London regional Secretary – and both candidates confined themselves to regional issues.
Curran, as the chief official in the North of England, had powerful backing from regional officials, which undoubtedly helped to secure his victory. There was no internal campaign against bullying and harassment within the GMB from the new General Secretary when a Lancashire official was named as guilty of victimising and harassing a female officer of the union. The fact that this same official was a key ally of Kevin Curran within the GMB cannot be ignored.
More than a dozen GMB members made complaints about the conduct of the Curran – Coulter election campaign and the union held its own investigation. The complaints were upheld and the Government’s Certification Officer ordered the GMB to rerun the election, at least for the position of Deputy General Secretary. Age limit rules for standing for positions were afterwards considered to be discriminatory. Coulter won the re-run election, and became a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee.
Curran was inheriting a union hierarchy in a financial crisis. Membership was down to just over half a million, mainly because of the decline of manufacturing industry, with debts having grown to a reported £30 million. "A detailed plan of action and investment in membership" is urgently needed stated Labournet, an internet site for trade union activists. "Kevin Curran will need the active support of the whole union to turn our decline around" so continued Labournet. Although Labournet carried the story of the bullying and harassment of GMB in Scotland, its emphasise was on the financial cost to the GMB rather than the personal effect it had on the female staff of the union. We can see where the priorities of these "trade union activists" lie.
During 2004 Curran maintained a high profile over funding from GMB to the Labour Party and a corresponding low profile over the treatment of female employees of the union. The emphasise on reviewing the relationship with the Blairite New Labour led The Times to dub Curran as the wild card in the trade union pack.
Rather than being a wild leftie Curran had been a staunch Labour loyalist. He accepted the Blairite promises to keep Government spending down to the previous Tory Government’s limits. Curran had some vague hope that a second Labour victory would then release radical energy that would transform society in a dramatic fashion. This of course would not happen. There never was any intention by the Labour Government to edge itself over to the left.
The Trade Unions and Labour Party Election "Compromise"
Labour Party officials began to prepare for an election in 2005. Support, both moral and financial, was being asked of the Trade Unions. To this end a Labour Party "Forum" took place at Warwick University during the summer of 2004. On the basis of continuing financial support from the unions a "compromise" of better workers rights was supposedly agreed. There were also pledges on the unions being consulted on government initiatives. Some Trade Union leaders went away smiling happily. Unsurprisingly, no such workers rights materialised. The "Warwick Agreement" was at best a sham.
Even before the Warwick Forum took place the GMB decided to donate £0 to the labour Party for additional financial expenses. Whether this was connected to the internal financial crisis in the GMB is not clear. It would however continue to provide funds Labour MPs who "share the GMB’s aims and values". The number of Labour MPs who could be supported was wider than the existing 130 strong GMB-backed group of MPs.
"I could not ask GMB members to maintain their relationship with the Labour Party if midway through the third term of a Labour Government there was still no sign of the party addressing the concerns of GMB members" stated Curran. In an interview with The Times Curran stated what he was looking for a Labour Government third-term to deliver: a higher minimum wage, renationalise the railways and reversal of the Thatcherite legislation against secondary strikes.
Curran is regarded by some as a supporter of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the likely successor to Blair as Prime Minister. The trade union leaders who are calling for an early, and well organised, hand-over to Gordon Brown are preparing the way for their own lucrative rewards.
Red Pepper, a trendy radical publication, carried an interview with Curran in its October 2004 edition. Curran was projected as a man with a long-term game plan. He was moving away from Labour officialdom and embracing social issues. Curran spends a lot of time speaking at public meetings and conferences, on everything from racism to social housing. Curran’s approach is more the defence of the public sector, rather than the defence of the workers. Red Pepper concluded: "For the moment, therefore, it’s a matter of pushing the existing structures of the Labour party to the limits. But you get the sense that after the election, whatever happens, a new phase in the game plan will open up". Well, the "game plan" ended up with a novel twist.
Ballot Rigging Claims Against Curran Surface Again
The financial crisis within the GMB now needed to be addressed by Curran. The cost of the "administration" was taking up 70% of the income of the union. Like all financial institutions the only solution is to maximise income or cut costs. Curran went for the cutting of costs, which included lower pensions for GMB employees. This would have to be enforced against the regional organisation of the GMB, and against the very power-base which had elected him.
By mid-December 2004 more allegations of vote-rigging had been made against Curran. Accusations were being made that ballot papers for dead and lapsed members had been diverted to "safe-houses" so that they could be used to tip the balance in Curran’s favour. Further cases of sex discrimination by union employees were going before employment tribunals, and efforts were being made in one of them to prevent the accusation of ballot-rigging being aired publicly. In the end accusations of illegal acts in the 2003 election were made under oath at a tribunal.
The GMB’s General Purposes Committee decided to hold an investigation, by an "independent" person, into the 2003 election. Curran denied any wrong-doings and declared that accusations had been made against him because of his attempts to implement change in the GMB.
In March 2005 the GMB’s Central Executive Council "reluctantly" decided to suspend Curran until the independent investigation was finished and the report had been presented to the union. Within a month Curran had resigned as General Secretary after agreeing to an "amicable settlement" with the union. Subsequently the defeated candidate in the 2003 election, Paul Kenny, was appointed as the Acting General Secretary of the GMB.
Fire Brigade Leader is Ousted
The Fire Brigades Union [FBU], who conducted a series of strikes for a 40% pay claim during 2002/3, ended up voting for a compromise pay deal of 16% over a two and a half year period. There had been criticisms of the General Secretary of the FBU, Andy Gilchrist, over his management of the strikes, and his inability to get a better deal out of the Government. The post of General Secretary came up for election in the spring of 2005, and on a 40% turnout, Gilchrist was defeated by Matthew Wrack, the former London organiser of the FBU by a margin of almost two to one. This was an expression of the hostility of the rank and file firemen against all the deals and compromises Gilchrist had entered into during the recent strikes.
Many of the attacks upon the conditions of the Fire Brigade workers had been on those who go out on the emergency calls, and involved closing down of fire stations, shift changes, and working payments for public holidays. Now the control centre staff are under attack. Government plans are being advanced for combining emergency services, police, fire brigades and ambulances, into the same centres. There is much resentment and suspicion about what will happen when such reorganisations are forced through.
The thought of entering further fights with Gilchrist as the FBU leader has undoubtedly been one of the reasons why he was not elected. To succeed the Fire Fighters need not only a different leader, but also a new strategy: of joining forces with other workers in struggle and developing links with others workers, and sectors, in struggle.