The war in the Balkans and the international situation

  • Juan Chingo and Eduardo Molina | 
  • July 1, 1999
UN pacification troops in Kosovo.


On March 24 this year NATO bombs and cruise missiles started to rain down the Yugoslav territory. The war would rage for almost three months. As it unfolded, the world witnessed the various acts of the drama: the devastation of Serbia from the air, Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing, the flood tide of Kosovar refugees, the disputes within the Alliance and the rows between the latter and Russia, and finally, Russia acquiescing to an agreement aimed at imposing an imperialist “peace” in the region. In fact, the war turned out to be the most important international development in the last few years, thus making its mark on an extraordinarily complex world situation. Hence, the Balkans scenario, a complicated phenomenon in itself already, condensed within its framework most of the contradictions which run through the world situation, with some of its elements revealing themselves directly, like the relationships between the various big powers, other ones rather providing the background (the world economic crisis), or remaining in the shadows (the relationships between the classes). However, the very fact that the conflict in Kosovo provided a catalyst -one which allowed for the precipitation and crystallisation of the several components which make up the world situation, thus shaping them in a much clear fashion-, enables us to work out, with the help of the Marxist method, an explanation of the conflict, the way it unfolded, its denouement and the consequences it has both at a regional and at a world level.

The war in Kosovo has fuelled, quite naturally, a bewildering array of debates in the world mass media, among the hacks of the imperialist bourgeoisie, in the academic circles, amongst workers and the youth, and of course in Marxist circles. The complexity of the world situation, and that of the course and denouement of the war, has given place to two major opposed views: most think that NATO’s victory in Kosovo shows that a “New World Order” is coming to life, thus giving a new lease of life to what was the prevailing view in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR and the Gulf War. According to it, “economic globalisation” should correspond with a “globalisation of security” predicated upon the “only existing superpower”, the United States. This is an economistic view of the world situation.

Meanwhile, as opposed to the latter, a new “geostrategic” view is making a comeback, one that claims the war has shown international “chaos” is spreading, thus highlighting a tendency to a permanent “world disorder”, with the national states making their comeback, their confronting interests clashing one against the other, as the sole main actors of world politics.

Those two one-sided views pervade the analysis and perspectives of the left as a whole.

The first view reigned unchallenged within the left at the onset of the decade, and today is being spread by the “progressive” European circles as a justification for their policy of collaboration with their own imperialism, under the guise of confronting America’s hegemony.

Those who see that a new “world order” is setting in overlook the fact that only historic major clashes between classes, where the imperialist bourgeoisie inflicts decisive defeats on the proletariat which allow for the emergence of a new hegemony (up to include war), can bring about both a new period of capitalist upswing and a “new order”. This is both a pacifist and economistic view, denying the character of the imperialist epoch as one of “wars, crises and revolutions”, and goes hand in hand with bourgeois ideology, which claims that economic “globalisation” abolishes the role of the states, therefore turning wars into a relic of the past.

The second view, fuelled by the increasing resistance on the part of both China and Russia to US “monolithic rule” on world affairs, sounds more realistic than the former, given the international economic and political crisis gripping the world at the end of this century. Hence, “geopolitics” is pervading the perspectives of the left. However, this view fails to deliver a satisfactory explanation of the present situation, since it just takes into account the clash between the states as a factor of world disorder, thereby ignoring the balance of forces between the classes at work behind them. It fails to grasp that the action of the states in our epoch is constrained by a superior force, i.e., the living action of the classes both at a national and international level. Those who support this geostrategic view relapse into a “camps at war” logic typical in the Cold War period, which at that time led to adaptation to the Moscow and Beijing bureaucracies, and to trade the class struggle for the manoeuvres of the latter. Today it looks like a caricature, since they are not adapting themselves to a strong bureaucracy perching itself on top of a workers state, but to brazenly restorationist bureaucratic cliques.

Against such views, in this article we are intent upon working out a strategic analysis of the world situation by resorting to the Marxist method, one whose basic starting point is that “the history of every society which have existed up to present days is the history of the class struggle”. All the more in the Twentieth Century, one characterised by the widest irruption of the masses on history’s scenario. Nothing will be understood when it comes to international politics, unless we resort to an evaluation of the comings and goings in the class struggle.

Lenin and Trotsky’s Third International developed that approach, applying it to the conditions of the imperialist epoch, when analysing the aftermath of World War I, a period of open clash between revolution and counter-revolution, abrupt changes in the relationship between the states and violent oscillations in economic life.

Dealing with reality as a living totality enabled them to integrate the analysis of the its various aspects: the economy, the relationships between the classes and inter-state relationships in the epoch of imperialism; an approach built upon the role of the class struggle, as a ground for both revolutionary strategy and tactics.

In Trotsky’s thought the concept of “capitalist equilibrium”, i.e. a dialectical view of the balance of forces within capitalism, plays a major role as an analytic tool in the understanding of the dynamics of the world situation. In mid 1921, Trotsky addressed the delegates to the Third Congress of the Comintern, opening his report on the world situation as follows: “Capitalist equilibrium is a complicated phenomenon; the capitalist regime builds up such equilibrium, it breaks it up, only to rebuild it and break it up again, widening, in passing, the scope of its rule. In the sphere of the economy, crisis and boom constitute respectively a break-up and restoration of equilibrium. In the sphere of class relationships, a break-up in equilibrium consists of strikes, lock-outs, revolutionary struggles. In the sphere of the relationships between the states, a break-up in equilibrium is war, or either in a more vexed way, a war of customs tariffs, economic war or blockade. Capitalism thus has an unstable equilibrium, which from time to time is broken and later rebuilt. At the same time, such equilibrium is greatly resistant: the best proof of that is given by the fact that the capitalist world still exists.”1Leon Trotsky, The School Of Revolutionary Strategy, Juan Pablos Editor, Mexico, 1974, p.15

Trotsky goes on to describe how the First World War has broken the world capitalist equilibrium of pre-war times: “hence after the war the epoch of great mass movements and revolutionary struggles began”, and how, once the deepest crisis had receded after 1919, and counting on the defeat of revolutionary upheavals in Germany, Hungary and Italy, the bourgeoisie regains its self-confidence and sets out to rebuild the state organs, the economic situation thus becoming stable in the meantime. Those developments posed the question as to whether a world equilibrium was being rebuilt, and what were the consequences for revolutionary strategy. Trotsky puts the issue as follows: “it is all too evident that the bourgeoisie has taken advantage from the current moment of rest, if not to mend, at least to mask the horrific consequences of the war. Has it succeeded in this attempt? Partly, but to what degree? This is the very issue underlying this question, which is about the restoration of capitalist equilibrium.”2Ibid., p.22. In order to answer this fundamental question from the standpoint of the working class movement and revolutionary strategy prospects, Trotsky delivers a detailed and sharp analysis of the economy, the relationship between the states and the position of the classes, showing how the relative bourgeois recovery relied on basis which were enormously frail, as shown immediately afterwards by the crisis in the Ruhr3The Ruhr crisis broke off in 1923 when the French army invaded that German coal-rich and industrial region in response to Germany’s non-compliance with war reparations enforced by the Treaty of Versailles. and the new revolutionary developments in Germany. In the wake of the failure of the German proletariat upheaval, there was a renewed partial stabilisation—in the course of which the English General Strike and the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution were defeated. However, this stabilisation would lead a few years later to the Great Depression of the 30s, which in turn ushered in a decade of massive social and political convulsions. A number of counter-revolutionary defeats inflicted upon the proletariat in those years eventually led to the Second World War. It was not until the war ended that the world capitalist system—due to reasons which are to be dealt with below—was able to find a relatively protracted renewed equilibrium in the period which came to be known as the postwar “boom”.

We shall point out here to an aspect which is embedded in Trotsky’s approach: his use of the law of uneven and combined development (which he was the first one to formulate as such) aimed at highlighting and explaining the various and changing tempos, disproportions and original combinations which occur in the development of the various aspects of reality.4Cf. Trotsky’s explanation in Chapter I of his History of the Russian Revolution. To the extent that imperialism exacerbates to the utmost the uneven and combined development in all its features and as to whole economic, political and social events, this theoretical tool is paramount in order to work out a Marxist understanding of our epoch.

We want to underline three features: in the first place, Trotsky does not hold to “capitalist equilibrium” as a mechanistic concept, but one which is deeply dialectical. It is not a state of rest, static, but a dynamic and unstable equilibrium, set in permanent motion. We are dealing with opposed forces which interact one against the other in a constant fight, in an unstable balance which is broken when one of the poles prevails over its opposite.

The second feature is that this concept of equilibrium comprehends the world situation as a totality encompassing various domains (the economy, the relationship between the classes, and inter-state relationships). One has to “take as a straightforward starting point the analysis of the conditions and the tendencies within the economy and the political situation in the world, as a whole, with its relationships and contradictions, namely, with the mutual interdependence opposing every component against the other”, as Trotsky points out in his critic pamphlet of the Comintern programme in 1927.5Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, Yunque Editors, Buenos Aires, 1974, p.80.

In the third place, the break-ups of equilibrium do not reestablish themselves in an automatic fashion, but through the living action of the classes, a phenomenon that in the Twentieth Century takes on the shape of an open clash between revolution and counter-revolution. Trotsky’s originality lies in his introduction of the role played by the subjective factors as decisive elements for the running of capitalism. Trotsky himself underlined this feature when he pointed out that: “If we are told: “And where are the guarantees (we once again meet up with the demand for guarantees)—where are the guarantees that capitalism will not restore its equilibrium through cyclical oscillations?” then I would say in reply: “There are no guarantees and there can be none” If we cancel out the revolutionary nature of the working class and its struggle and the work of the Communist Party and of the trade unions…and take instead the objective mechanics of capitalism, then we could say: “Naturally, failing the intervention of the working class, failing its struggle, its resistance, its self-defence and its offensives—failing all this, capitalism will restore its own equilibrium, not the old but a new equilibrium”…”</i6Leon Trotsky, ‘Report on the Fifth Anniversary of the October Revolution to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International’, The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume 2, p.201.

With this integral concept, which enables us to highlight the features and the dynamics of eventual break-ups and restoration of capitalist equilibrium on the international arena, we are able to develop an understanding of the various countries which make up the capitalist economy, in terms of links of disparate hierarchy set within this process.

This approach overcomes the mechanistic view embedded in the Second International’s, which would later on make a comeback under Stalinism, with regard to two aspects: not only does it rely upon the decisive weight of international factors, but it integrates national peculiarities and unevenness. This allows us to understand not only the break-ups of capitalist equilibrium, but the fact that is in the weakest links where it manifests itself firstly. When working out the forces driving the world towards the First World War, and why those very same forces had lead to a Balkan War in 1912, before making themselves felt in the imperialist carnage, Trotsky resorts to this dialectic to state that: “…the first countries to be driven out of the state of unstable capitalist equilibrium were those whose internal social energy was weakest, i.e., precisely those countries youngest in terms of capitalist development”. Trotsky points out: “The more powerful a country is capitalistically—all other conditions being equal—the greater is the inertia of `peaceful’ class relations; all the more powerful must be the impulse necessary to drive both of the hostile classes—the proletariat and the bourgeoisie—out of the state of relative equilibrium and to transform the class struggle into open civil war.”7Leon Trotsky, “En Route: Thoughts on the Progress Of the Proletarian Revolution”, The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume 1, ps. 58-60.

The Marxism of the Third International reached with this all-round approach unprecedented new heights, integrating the analysis of the various aspects of reality and elaborating both a revolutionary strategy and tactics. After the degeneration of the Comintern with the victory of Stalinism, the heritage of this tradition was bequeathed to the hands of International Left Opposition (ILO) and its later successor, the Fourth International. The brilliant and prolific analysis of the bureaucratisation process in the USSR are quite renowned. Though less renowned, the analysis of Fascism, of Bonapartism, of sui generis Bonapartism in Latin America, the questions of the Spanish Revolution, etc. remain unrivalled. But Trotsky displays all his genius when analysing the world situation on the eve the Second World War, as his writings of the 30s bear witness to. Let us point out to War and Revolution (1934), A Recent Lesson (in the wake of the Munich Peace, 1938) and finally, the Emergency Manifesto of the Fourth International (May 1940).

The works of the 20s were done when Trotsky was one of the two main leaders of the new-born Russian state, at the head of the young Comintern which was becoming a mass force in several countries. Quite on the contrary, the latter were drafted in exile, with Trotsky under constant prosecution (which would only cease with his murder) and in the midst of isolation and the hardest of grievances. This continuity of his thought and of his work highlight Trotsky qualities as a proletarian strategist.

A deep abyss lies open between this thought and the one of postwar and present day Marxists alike!

The lack of revolutionary continuity with classic Marxism is laid bare by the present day fragmentation of Marxist thought. This lack of continuity is the offspring of the adaptation to the major counter-revolutionary apparatuses at work within the working class movement, first of all Stalinism, during the period of the Yalta Order, or nowadays to the remains of the old bankrupt parties. This is revealed in an appalling “misery of strategy”, i.e., in the separation of the daily struggle—which therefore slides into trade unionism, electoral opportunism, theory detached from intervention, etc.—from the fight for revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. This liquidation of revolutionary praxis leads to the fragmentation of Marxist thought, and to breaking up the dialectical unity encompassing the various aspects of reality. In this way, Marxist thought is today split up in an economistic strand (which gives an absolute weight to economic developments), “geopolitical” strands (which regard the relationships between the states as independent factors), trade unionist or populist strands (which detach the working class struggle o worse still, people’s struggles, from the other factors).

It is necessary to return to the method and to the unity of thought characteristic of Trotsky and the Comintern, as a fundamental basis in order to understand and find a revolutionary orientation in the present-day complex world situation. This article tries to approach to the dramatic events unleashed around the Kosovo conflict, and the consequences it holds on the international arena much from the same angle, so as to be able to deliver a characterisation and perspective from the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism. We shall look back to the main theoretical and political definitions on the world situation made by our group and which were developed in the latest issues of Estrategia Internacional, reexamining them in the light of the new events.

The first part of this work, Kosovo as a catalyst for the contradictions in the world situation, deals with the development and consequences of that war, as well as the perspectives in the world situation.

In the second part, The stalemate of capitalist restoration and its consequences for the world order, we explain how the conflict in the Balkans is the crudest reflection of this process.

In The state of the world situation which makes up the third part, we take a look at the underlying reasons for the worsening of the world situation.

The fourth and final section, The class struggle, the crisis of subjectivity and the crisis of revolutionary proletarian leadership, deals with the situation of the proletariat and the issues concerning revolutionary strategy, as we confront them in the light of the analysis of the world situation and perspectives which follows from here.


Kosovo as a catalyst of the contradictions in the world situation

The war in the Balkans, NATO’s greatest military operation ever in Europe, has become a milestone in the world situation. Its significance lies in that it has been a catalyst, which revealed the enormous contradictions accumulating towards the end of this decade on the international arena and in the class struggle.

The Gulf War ushered in a period of relative international capitalist stabilisation in the wake of the revolutionary events which took place in the East in 1989, (a period also known as “the 90s”). The conflict in Kosovo erupted at the end of this period.

The world economic crisis set off in South East Asia in mid 1997, sending shock waves throughout the globe, thus becoming the first major blow delivered to the unstable equilibrium of the 90s.8See Estrategia Internacional N° 7. The Russian financial collapse in August 1998 was the second blow, as it impact was felt in every stock exchange of the world, Wall Street in particular, which teetered on the brink of a crash. This event highlighted the stalemate of capitalist restoration and the exhaustion of a reformist way towards capitalism. That this equilibrium was cracking apart was shown by the tendency of the economic crisis to translate into a political one, thus paving the way for an international political crisis, as we commented in our editorial of our latest issue of Estrategia Internacional.

Thus Indonesia, Russia and Kosovo itself were all “legitimate children” of such unfolding international crisis.

In Indonesia, the economic crisis shattered the political and social basis of one of the most reactionary and stable regimes in the region, thus unleashing a revolutionary process in this strategic country, that has a population of 200 million and is the fifth most populated country in the world. The first milestone in this process were the revolutionary days of May 1998 which ousted Suharto. In Russia, the economic collapse unleashed an acute political crisis which shook the Yeltsin regime, and saw Primakov go into office. That event marked the retreat of the pro-western wing in Moscow and threatened with a turn to autarchy by the restorationist bureaucracy, thus deepening the current economic international crisis.

Finally, the radicalisation of the Kosovar’s struggle for national self-determination was reflected in the strengthening of the KLA, a petty bourgeois nationalist guerrilla, and threatened to unravel the Dayton agreements-sponsored regional “status quo” in South East Europe, a place just next-door to a vital centre of imperialist capitalism.

Only by taking into account this international framework are we able to explain the magnitude of the imperialist intervention against Yugoslavia. All 19 states were involved in the NATO campaign, with 12 of them, including the US, Canada and the major European powers, deploying a colossal military might against that small Balkan country.

A triumph by the Kosovars in their fight against Milosevic’s army would have been a direct blow to the policy of agreements sponsored by imperialism. This policy was implemented in the last few years to try and stabilise the “hot spots” of the planet, like the Oslo Agreement for the Middle East, the 1995 Dayton Agreement, or Northern Ireland’s last year. A victory of the Kosovars would have strengthened the struggle of the oppressed nationalities not only throughout the region and Eastern Europe, but in the Middle East as well (the Kurds and the Palestine people). Last but not least, the international working class, the European proletariat in particular who saw its mid-decade counteroffensive derailed by the “Third Way” reformist governments, could have taken heart from such a victory.

NATO intervention sought to limit Milosevic’s operations, since his “Great Serbia” policy fuelled national resistance in Kosovo, thus destabilising the status quo in the region and turning more and more against the interests of imperialism. Milosevic’s victory over the Kosovars, on the contrary, would have meant a strengthening of the die-hard nationalist wings of the Eastern European restorationist bureaucracies, particularly in Russia, where the more Western-resilient sectors were starting to get the upper hand both in Moscow’s internal and external affairs. It was obviously not due to “humanitarian” reasons that the US and Europe embarked themselves on the biggest military operation in NATO’s history. It was neither the strategic value of that tiny corner in the Balkans known as Kosovo, but the reasons given above which account for NATO’s war. Imperialism tried to take the easy way out through a reactionary settlement, the “Rambouillet Accords”, whose terms where accepted by the KLA leadership, which thus became a pawn of the strategy of imperialism. But when this attempt failed, due to Belgrade’s reluctance, the decision was taken to impose them through an armed intervention. This was organised under the banner of “integrity of the existing borders”, reassuring every minute that Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia, and of the “humanitarian” defence of the Kosovars as well, but with the essential aim of keeping Milosevic’s excessive ambitions at bay.

Imperialism sought to reinforce NATO’s world “policeman” role as well, and ultimately “build up imperial power”, so as to be in a position to deal with the international economic and political crisis. It also sought to contain, relying on a victory in the Balkans, the powerful tendencies to destabilisation running deep in the world situation.

The outcome of the war has been an important victory for imperialism, but one that has been achieved at a high political cost. We can only understand this if look beyond Kosovo, even the Balkans, i.e., if we take into account the situation in the world order as a whole. Kosovo combined a tendency to the break up of the unstable equilibrium reached to in the 90s with some of the structural spin-offs of the Yalta Order downfall, themselves a result of the 1989-91 revolutionary events which shattered Stalinism worldwide. That Order was based upon the counter-revolutionary collaboration between the US and the Stalinist bureaucracy and was the most conservative element on the world situation in the post-war decades. It not only encompassed international relationships, but it diminished the revolutionary effectiveness of the mass struggles all throughout that protracted period as well. That is why we say that Kosovo revealed the underlying contradictions in the world situation not only on a tactic, or short term, level, but also those of a more strategic scope.

To grasp the significance and consequences of the war in Kosovo for the world situation, we shall refer to the development and denouement of the conflict within the wider framework of the present world situation, taking into account both the 90s, and on a more general historical scale, the “world under Yalta” and the consequences brought about by its demise in 1989.

1. “Farewell to the Yalta Order”

The crisis of imperialist rule and the limits imposed on American power

The victory of NATO has given a boost to those who claim the world is under the unchallenged rule of the United States. Ignacio Ramonet, Le Monde Diplomatique editor-in-chief, says that: “NATO’s war against Yugoslavia has opened up a new phase in international relationships. The dawn of a new global order is coming. Economic globalisation, which constitutes the supreme dynamics of our time, needed to be complemented with a world strategic project in the realm of security. The conflict in Kosovo creates the opportunity to sketch it out”.9I. Ramonet, El País, 4/6/99. In Ramonet’s view, the withering away of the USSR as a world superpower, smashed up an “equilibrium” based on “the simultaneous existence of comparable powers, none of which could militarily defeat the other ones”, what in turn makes room for the first time to “a hyper power to dominate overwhelmingly over the world in all the five spheres of power: political, economic, military, technological and cultural.” Having said that, there would be no challenge or fetters left to contain its actions.10In Ramonet’s view, the UN fettered the hegemonical tendencies of the superpowers. Against such vulgar views, which regard the 90s as “the dawn of a new world order” and American hegemony as reaching its peak (a sense reinforced in the wake of Kosovo), we have otherwise claimed that the zenith of American supremacy is well behind us, for it started to fade out since the beginning of the 70s. Furthermore, we claim that since 1989, the demise of the Yalta Order has ushered in a crisis of rule.

The Yalta Order

American hegemony reached its momentous peak in the aftermath of the Second World War, in what came to be known as the “Potsdam and Yalta Order”. It relied upon US military and economic superiority, in the wake of the military defeat of the Axis imperialist powers and the tremendous decline of its allies: France and Britain. But in addition to this, imperialism could count on a key weapon, i.e., the counter-revolutionary collaboration of Moscow and world Stalinism, which acted as a containment of the proletariat and national liberation movements. This agreement laid the conditions for American hegemony to set in the postwar years.

However, American economic superiority has been in decline since the 70s. By the end of the Second World War, the US economy alone accounted for 50% of the world GDP, but towards the end of the Cold War it had retreated to 30% (the average for most of the 20th century). This is a relative decline, since the US remains the biggest economic power, whereas its power in the technological and military domains, along with its cultural influence is unrivalled. But although in those realms it has undergone a relative decline, the demise of world Stalinism has delivered a strategic blow to the US´ ability to maintain its rule. This is of enormous importance in the light of the features of American hegemony, one which covers the whole planet (therefore turning forcefully the US in a guarantor of the world order) but is not in itself a direct rule. As Zbigniew Brzezinsky recognises it: “The scope of American global hegemony is certainly important, but is rather shallow and is limited by both domestic and external constrains. American hegemony involves the exercise of decisive influence but, in contrast with the empires of the past, not of direct control. The very size and diversity of Eurasia, as well as the power of some of its states, put a limit to the depth of American influence and the scope of its control on the course of events.”1111. Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Great World Board, p.43, Paidos Editors, Madrid, 1998.

Those features force the US to resort to all sorts of misleaderships and to co-opt them, as a necessary complement of its direct influence and power, in order to maintain and administrate its rule. Brzezinsky points out that the “American global system puts an emphasis in its ability to co-opt (…) to a much bigger extent than the old imperial systems did. Likewise it is based to an important degree in the indirect exercise of influence over foreign dependent elites”.

Under Yalta this system carried “perfection” to its utmost since it relied in an indirect way in the biggest bureaucratic apparatus ever to control the mass movement, world Stalinism. The latter not only controlled overwhelmingly the working class movement through the CPs, but also nationalist petty bourgeois and bourgeois movements flowering by his side. The Stalinist apparatus drew its strength from its rule over the bureaucratised workers states, which comprised almost one-third of mankind, and over the USSR in particular, then the second nuclear power in the world. This counter-revolutionary settlement was a novelty in international politics. If in the 19th century it was left to the reactionary powers to unite against the threat of the so-called “dangerous classes”,12The “Holy Alliance” between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Prussian monarchy and Tsarist Russia (turned into a “fortress of reaction in Europe”) is the classic example. now the Yalta Agreement came to enshrine the grand scale co-opting of a working class leadership in order to succeed in that task. This question is related to the difficulties inherent to maintaining bourgeois rule, in the face of the proletariat’s tremendous weight and the irruption of the masses onto the scene of history on a truly unprecedented world scale, a major feature of our epoch.

A solid counter-revolutionary agreement was hidden under the guise of a rivalry of opposing camps (the Cold War), which included an increasing military deployment by imperialism. This brought stability to American rule, which subordinated its rival imperialist powers to its strategic interests, and above all, prevented strategic victories of world revolution from occurring in the imperialist heartlands. Even though some victories were conquered in the semi-colonial periphery, they did not put into question the Order as a whole.

This did not mean that such agreement was almighty. Great revolutionary victories managed to “slip out of” its influence. That was the case with the 1949 Chinese Revolution, a loss of enormous importance for imperialism, along with Yugoslavia, Cuba, Vietnam and great national liberation revolutionary struggles in the colonies (Algeria, the African continent, etc.). However, by means of Stalinism, both the Moscow and Beijing varieties, this victories were re absorbed into the imperialist order. Those conditions made room for the so-called postwar “boom”. In line with Trotsky’s definitions, we can say that a “more protracted capitalist equilibrium” was thus reached. We talk of a more protracted and not “organic” equilibrium, since the “boom” itself was set into a more general declining curve of capitalist development,13See the following articles “Crises and the curve of capitalist development” by Christian Castillo, and “The post-war boom”, by Paula Bach, in Estrategia Internacional N° 7. a pattern which is typical of the imperialist epoch.

That equilibrium started to crack up towards the end of the 60s, with the onset of the economic crisis that hit rock bottom in the 1974-75 recession. This break up in the equilibrium ushered in the greatest upsurge in the postwar period, from 1968 to 1974-76. This was the first major onslaught against the two mainstays of the Yalta Order. The revolutionary upsurge swept through the heartlands (May 1968, the Italian “red-hot autumn”, the Portuguese Revolution, etc.), the deformed workers’ states (the Prague Spring, Poland 1970) and the colonial and semi-colonial world (Latin-American Southern Cone, the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, etc.). In 1975, American imperialism suffered its first military defeat ever. That first onslaught (68-76) shook the Yalta Order but failed to defeat it. Struggles in Europe were derailed (which translated into a strengthening of Socialdemocracy at the beginning of the 80s—with the Mitterrand and Felipe González governments—and into Eurocommunism). The defeats inflicted upon the political revolution in the East and the bloody defeats of the Southern Cone enabled imperialism to rebuild a fragile equilibrium and launch a counteroffensive in the 80s—after a period of confusion and in spite of fresh revolutionary onslaughts, like Iran and Nicaragua in 1979 or Poland in 1980.

The Reagan-Thatcher offensive in those years, aimed at starting up a fresh round of capitalist accumulation, unfolded in three fronts: against the proletariat in the heartlands, particularly the US and Britain; against the semi-colonial world; and against the bureaucratised workers’ state. Capitalist pressure against the latter made the bureaucracy, haunted by political revolution, steer increasingly towards reliance on imperialism, thus undermining the socio-economic basis of the Party-state regimes built around the axis of the CPs. These were already in a quite weak position when the masses passed to the offensive in 1989, what brought about their demise.

The fragility of the equilibrium reached to, once the extraordinary conditions which allowed for the postwar boom had dissipated, lead imperialism to deteriorate its strategic relationship with the Kremlin bureaucracy. But in doing so, it undermined the main element of containment it had relied upon under the Yalta Order, be it in the immediate postwar period, or when faced with the 1968-76 onslaught, as well as for smashing up “regional conflicts” during the 80s (Nicaragua, Angola, South Africa, etc.). As a matter of fact, those were the last great service paid by world Stalinism to imperialism.

The 1989 events: the demise of the Yalta Order ushers in a crisis of imperialist rule

The revolutionary upheavals of 1989-91 smashed the USSR and Eastern European Stalinist one Party-state regimes to smithereens. Most in the left, including many Trotskyists, regarded the demise of Stalinism as boosting a historical strengthening of imperialism. Against those views, our group summed up our perspectives in Estrategia Internacional Nº 10 that “the downfall of this fundamental ally which helped to cope with revolutionary upheavals throughout the world, far for reinforcing imperialism and opening the door to a new order of rule based on American supremacy, ushered in a worldwide crisis of imperialist rule. In other words, 1989 signalled the end of the short century of unchallenged American rule.”

In the first place because, as we put it in EI Nº 10 “the demise of Stalinism weakened the US strategically in the face of class struggle worldwide”. And we went on to say that “the crisis of the institutions of Yalta has forced US imperialism to expose itself more directly in order to confront conflicts on a word scale, as shown by the increase in its military interventions, what in turn makes it more vulnerable (thus speeding up its decline) since it has to deal with the whole contradictions of the world situation”. And we forecasted that “the spread of the “frontiers of insecurity” means that the world situation will hit every time harder to the US, as in the past was shown by the Vietnam military defeat, and today is shown by the shock waves of the world economic crisis”.

Secondly, because “`the withering away of the communist phantom´ opens up a period of disputes for the hegemony of the world”…”if already at the onset of the 70s, the emergence of rival imperialist powers like Japan and Germany, given the crisis of capitalist accumulation, fuelled increasing tensions in the world system of alliances, the loss of the common enemy will sooner or later make come to the surface the increased dispute over the hegemony of the world.” And we forecasted that “the decline of American hegemony and the unwillingness o incapability of the rival imperialist powers to take on responsibilities on a global scale, creates a strategic vacuum or cracks which can be taken for the advantage of world revolution”.

Furthermore, we claimed that the main element deepening this crisis of rule was the decline of the US hegemony, one which we defined as “the main factor of economic and political destabilisation of the world system”. And we added that “at present, America’s attempt to slow down its decline in detriment of its competitors, lays at the base of an intolerable sharpening of the contradictions between the classes and between nations, which sets the scene for the irruption of revolution and counter-revolution, (…) Today, in sharp contrast with the golden years of its hegemony, its own decline forces [the US] to launch an attack against its own proletariat and against its competitors on a world scale”. Basing ourselves on these insights, we forecasted that “in the short term the main challenge to America’s military might shall come from its role on the world arena, i.e., from the inevitable erosion that entails for a leading power to act as a world policeman in an increasingly convulsive world without the precious help of its Stalinist ally.”

2. The “unstable equilibrium” of the 90s

The 1989-91 events in Eastern Europe were thus a sharp blow to capitalist equilibrium. They were an objective response by the masses to the implementation of IMF-sponsored plans in those countries. The ruling bureaucracies acquiesced to those plans in an attempt to overcome the economic stagnation crippling those countries. However, since the revolutionary process sweeping through the USSR and Eastern Europe did not evolve into a series of victorious political revolutions, restaurationist governments were allowed into office and began to dismantle the basis of the degenerate and deformed workers’ state in a brazen fashion. Those revolutions turned out to be “deaf, blind and dumb”, a process where the proletariat was dissolved, and prey of a very backward consciousness as a result of decades of bureaucratic control over the planned economy, a source both of enormous privileges for the parasitic bureaucracy and of hardships for the masses. This was compounded by the lack of synchronisation with the West, where the activity of the proletariat was undergoing a depressive phase, itself the by-product of the Reagan-Thatcher onslaught and of the right-ward turn of union bureaucracies of all sort. Finally, the defeat of the Polish revolution at the onset of the decade made its contribution as well, since the Vatican-backed Walesa leadership left the proletariat helpless in the face of the Jaruzelsky coup, therefore aborting the prospect of a classical political revolution coming true.

Therefore, those inchoate political revolutions were not carried to the end—as the theory of permanent revolution demands—aborting themselves and degenerating into regimes with unstable restaurationist governments at their top, which were consciously pushing forward to the liquidation of what remained of the October revolution legacy. That was the case in Russia with the Yeltsin government. In turn, German imperialism was able to absorb East Germany in 1990, the Stalinist regime there being one of the first to collapse engulfed by huge mass demonstrations. In all, they turned out to be aborted political revolutions, which weakened the power of the state but were unable not prevent the advance of capitalist restoration.

In the previous period, in mid 1989, the Chinese restorationist bureaucracy was able to smash in a bloodbath a two months long process of demonstrations in Tian-an-Men Square, thus bringing about a serious defeat which prevented a process of political revolution from unfolding in China.

The 1991 imperialist victory in the Gulf War against Iraq brought those stormy years to an end. The fact that an unheard-of coalition made up of all the imperialist countries, Russia, the Arab states and semi-colonies like Argentina and others, had to be pieced together in order to intervene against a small country like Iraq, was proof positive that the demise of Stalinism was a sharp blow to the imperialist world order. It showed once again that the 1989 events had not been the by-product of counter-revolutionary blows delivered by imperialism, but rather of a mass onslaught, distorted itself to the utmost due to low working class subjectivity. The Gulf War was also a pre-emptive attempt by American imperialism aimed at containing the unfolding of the strategic consequences of Stalinism’s demise, not only from the standpoint of the class struggle and the oppressed peoples, but of its relationship with rival imperialist powers as well. It was able to steer the consequences on a more strategic ground away from the short-term situation, thus creating the illusion of an apparently unlimited rule; an anomaly that will not hold indefinitely.

All those conditions, achieved by means of derailments (the seizure of power by restaurationist governments in Eastern Europe and the USSR), bloody defeats (Tian-an-Men!), and wars (The Gulf!) ushered in a renewed period of “unstable equilibrium”, also branded as “the 90s”. But this certain re-stabilisation was presented by the world bourgeoisie as an strategic victory or a long-term stabilisation, leaning on the contradictory nature of the 1989-91 events, and hiding that imperialism was left strategically weakened in the wake of Stalinism’s demise, as we explained above.

We pointed out in EI that, “These fact [imperialism’s structural weakness] was eclipsed by the early victory in the Gulf of this unheard-of coalition (…) This victory along with the abortion of political revolution in the USSR allowed for a renewed expansion of capital in the 90s, based upon America’s relative economic strength, the development of the so-called ‘Emerging Markets’, the ‘Asian Miracle’ steadfast progress and above all, imperialist penetration in China, which turned itself into a powerhouse for the world economy”. Against those who regarded those developments as the starting point for a stable “new world order” we said in EI Nº 10: “According to those who support this view, the debacle of the USSR left the US as the only existing superpower, with an unfettered rule over the world system. That triumphalism was reinforced by the fact that since the beginning of the 90s both America’s economy and finance capital were entering a period of relative prosperity, extending their domain to hitherto no-go regions as the former degenerate and deformed workers’ states. The unstoppable march of ‘globalisation, democracy and the market’ was the ideological cover-up of that so-called new order.”

In those years a climate of American “self-confidence” ensued, predicated on the US relative strength as to its competitors. Above all, this was fuelled by the triumphalist ideology trumpeting the debacle of the USSR as showing capitalism’s historic superiority over “bureaucratised socialism” and the US as the “only existing superpower”, one with an unlimited ability to exercise its rule, as the Gulf War seemed to indicate. The main factor reinforcing this ideology was the low level of proletarian subjectivity, itself the by-product of a number of defeats and deceptions suffered by the workers at the hands of the counter-revolutionary leaderships, Stalinism in particular, that had undermined the self-confidence of the proletariat in its own forces. From this point of view, the way the two main contestants of the 90s scenario saw themselves, was to a certain degree like in an inverted mirror: imperialism’s worsened structural situation was overlapping with a disproportionate trust in its own forces and future. Whereas the path for the proletariat was strategically cleared from the main obstacle hindering its revolutionary struggle, it lacked any confidence whatsoever in its own forces.

That was due to the following: a) the impotence of the organisations of the world working class to confront the Reagan-Thatcher onslaught in the West that weakened and put the working class on flexible labour schemes, thus “pushing downward” living standards; b) the loss of the conquests in the degenerate and deformed workers’ states; c) the ideological and political turn to the right of all its leading bodies, which increasingly became direct apologists of capital and preached resignation in the face of the advance of “the market”; d) all of which constituted a deep shock since Yalta’s reformist subjectivity (both in the West and the East) was predicated upon a deep possibilistic conviction which was reflected in fights of pressure on a national level and the “offsetting” of imperialist power on an international level. This subjectivity tried to go beyond those limits in the great world upsurge of 1968-76. Its derailment in Western Europe, and the defeats in the East and the “Third World”, left the proletariat defenceless in the face of the forthcoming ideological, economic and political onslaught launched by capital.

Those elements of the subjectivity of the classes thus were turned into a material force to be reckoned with, an element which was part and parcel of the balance of forces between them. As Trotsky reminds us: “The political balance of forces depends not only on objective data (its role in production, its numbers, etc.) but on subjective ones as well: the consciousness of its own strength is the most single important element of actual strength.” 14Leon Trotsky, Wither France?, Pluma Editors, Buenos Aires, 1974, p.113. The sequels of the abortion of political revolution in 1989-91 by far outweighed the beneficial effects brought about by the collapse of the strongest counter-revolutionary apparatus ever.

The military interventions in the 90s

Imperialism’s increasing reliance on direct military interventions—some branded as “low risk”, many more justified as “humanitarian”—is one of the ways in which the crisis of the Yalta institutions forces imperialism to an increasing exposure (thus becoming more vulnerable) so as to confront the conflicts of the world. Along with this goes the policy of pacts and “peace agreements”, aimed at stabilising the world’s “hot spots” like the Middle East.

The increase in this sort of “low risk” and “humanitarian” military interventions has impressed many people, driving them into believing that they were proof of American imperialism’s renewed strengthening. They base themselves in the latter’s unchallenged military and technological superiority, which they assume as translating into an unchallenged political rule of the same kind.

Nonetheless, Klausewitz already knew two centuries back that “war is merely a part of a political interchange, and therefore is in no way an independent dimension” and that, therefore “war is nothing but the continuation of politics with the intervention of other means”. 15Von Clausewitz, “On War”, taken from Clausewitz and Marxist Thought, editorial Pasado y Presente. Imperialism’s military interventions in this decade give us a magnificent lesson in this respect.

Against those who overestimate the significance of military power, thereby overlooking the political conditions that constrain it, “low risk” interventions show that far from having an unchecked might, US imperialism has not yet recovered from the so-called “Vietnam syndrome” and its sequels. This is shown by its great reluctance to accept casualties, by the obsessive reliance on air war—a tactic reinforced by great technological break-through (which were themselves motivated by the “syndrome”)16The impressive technological reshuffle, with systems of “smart weapons”, along with the new doctrine claiming that air power alone can win a war, is based upon the obsessive concern about lowering the toll of one’s own casualties. That was developed by the Pentagon in the last 20 years, by and large as a byproduct of the “lessons” learned in Vietnam.—by its reluctance to resort to ground troops and to compromise on a long-term military deployment. The Pentagon does not have a wide domestic social base allowing for more aggressive war-mongering. It must cover itself with an abundant “humanitarian” demagogy17The “human rights” frenzy was in its origin a defensive political fig leaf for a weakened US imperialism in the wake of its defeat in Vietnam. In the 80s it became an ideological complement of the onslaught launched against the bureacratised workers states. Finally, in the 90s imperialism tried to use it as a spearhead for a more actively interventionist policy aimed at the peoples of the world. aimed at gaining a social base for its interventions both amongst the masses in the regions which are the target of the aggression, as well as amongst the peoples of the imperialist heartlands, so as to hide its imperialist purposes. The ever increasing need to resort to this policy is due both to internal and external conditions facing imperialism. On one hand, from the domestic standpoint, an increasingly undermined “social cohesion” inside US (and world) imperialism as a result of years of deteriorating living conditions for the masses, of systematic attack against the gains of the American proletariat and of ensuing social polarisation; all factors which make increasingly difficult to gain domestic support for an aggressive imperialist policy. On the other hand, from the external standpoint, that policy is a fig leaf in a period characterised by the aggravation of imperialist plundering over the world. This phenomenon has become intolerable, as shown by the fate of the “Emerging Markets”, Russia’s appalling decline along with the Muslim world and the debacle of the East Asian “tiger economies” (and the massive utilisation of a policy of democratic reaction).

Imperialism has refashioned itself to the new times by increasingly resorting to “human rights” ideology, trying to hoodwink the population of the imperialist heartlands, itself reluctant to direct military deployments, a policy it has been forced to intensify. “Humanitarian” ideology has become the new universal pretext for intervention, since the “ghost of communism” has faded away, in the present conditions of strategic weakness created by the demise of the Yalta Order and by the relative decline of US hegemony.18Let us remind that in the Malvinas war, as late as 1982, anti-dictatorial ideology was to play but a secondary role.

A sharp contrast with the good old times in the 50s and 60s when Yalta reigned supreme! Then, imperialist military interventions were guided by the strategy of “containment of communism”, an euphemism aimed at justifying military interventions whose purpose was to prevent the victory of revolution in the periphery , the most unstable region in the Yalta and Potsdam world order. The US economic upswing and hegemony, unchallenged by any other imperialist power, relied on a relatively wide social base, both at home and abroad, and could resort to “the communist threat” as a shibboleth to rally its public opinion, putting its allies in line and bear the costs of its intervention on the world arena. We shall not forget that at the onset of the Vietnam war (as was the case with the Korean war), it had a massive support in vast layers of the American population, and that it was not until the troops were muddled by the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese, and heavy toll of casualties was suffered, that a strong antiwar movement gained momentum.

The features and the results brought about by the interventions in this decade both give a lie to those who equal the US military might to its political dominance. The 1991 Gulf War was somehow peculiar. The US wrapped itself with the UN banner and was given support by a bewildering array of countries, including the Arab states and Russia to “punish” Iraq for its defiance of the status quo. It was a temporary coalition, of unprecedented broadness, which reflected extraordinary circumstances which facilitated the victory for imperialism and which proved virtually impossible to rebuild in the face of further conflict.

The interventions in Somalia in 1993, in Haiti in 1994, in Bosnia in 1995, the “humanitarian and pacific” occupation of Albania in 1997 by Italian imperialism, Iraq since 1997, the air strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan, etc., were all interventions against countries which bear no strategic significance, where the fundamental interests of US imperialism are not at stake (with the partial exception of oil-rich Iraq). From the standpoint of the class struggle, they are not countries with big proletarian nuclei, or situations of open confrontation with a workers revolution. Rather, they are guided by US domestic policy than clear-cut objectives of foreign policy.

As we can see, the policy of “low risk” and “humanitarian” military interventions in the 90s does not follow from a supposedly unchallenged US rule. Under the facade of strength lay weakness, a lack of “legitimacy” both at home and abroad to openly intervene in defence of its imperial interests. If those elements remained relatively in the shadow when operations demanded a low level of compromise (we shall not forget the Somali fiasco however), in Kosovo they came to the fore, raising the costs and may be the efficiency of such operations, in the face of further big-scale conflicts. In the next chapter we shall deal with more detail with the course, the effects and the consequences of the war in Kosovo.

The war in Kosovo and the unstable equilibrium of the 90s

As we have seen above, most of those on the left and right alike regard the 90s as signalling a new era of unchallenged US hegemony. We examined the extraordinary conditions that made this appearance set in. Other people, basing themselves in the limits of US power, and above all, emphasising the disputes amongst the various powers, hold the opposite view. For instance, Stratfor, a “strategic analysis” think-tank,19Its daily analysis on the Kosovo war where followed by left wing intellectuals and parties alike all over the world. explains the contradictions facing the US as follows: “Kosovo brings to an end what we see as an interregnum between two eras. The Cold War was not superseded by a world under single command. That was a temporary anomaly. A new era of a superpower and several big powers weakly united to restrain America’s might is now beginning. We shall tentatively brand it as of a new world disorder, in wait for this new era to name for itself.”20Stratfor, 3/5/99. Stratfor’s bourgeois and imperialist view accounts for the emergence of other powers and for the “temporarily anomalous” character of the US supposedly unchallenged rule in the 90s quite accurately. But since it is soaked in “geopolitics”, it fails to take into account the class struggle along with its effects on the relationships between and the actions of the states; it regards international “order” or “equilibrium” solely as the by-product of the states wrestling against each other.

But when faced with those two views, one economistic, the other of geopolitical nature, we feel compelled to ask, did not class struggle exist throughout the 90s? It goes without a saying that it did. How are we to forget that after the imperialist victory in the Gulf War the Los Angeles revolt erupted in the US itself, in its wake pushing Bush out of office, in spite of triumphalist warmongery?

The imperialist victory in the Gulf, which ushered in a reactionary subphase on a world level, did not prevent class struggle from manifesting itself, not even in the “golden days” of neoliberalism. Albeit in a very elementary fashion, it manifested itself in what we have called “revolts and upheavals”. Those were a vast spontaneous and violent reaction of the masses—though a defensive one—which put a limit to the ongoing capitalist and imperialist onslaught, but failed to stop it in the tracks: Los Angeles 1992, Santiago del Estero in Argentina in late 1993, Chiapas in Mexico in 1994, the peasant revolts in Brazil (highlighting the emergence of a vast Latin American peasant movement), the continuous riots of immigrant and marginal youth which shook Britain and France, and finally, the open combat of the South Korean proletariat throughout the decade (albeit of a different nature), constituted some of the phenomena typical of that period.

That was a phase containing in embryo superior stages of mass struggle, which were to emerge later, towards mid-decade, bursting out into a new upsurge of class struggle, since as we had correctly argued at the time, no insurmountable wall lay between their defensive nature and them becoming an all-out onslaught.

The attempt made by Europe’s imperialist governments of launching a much bigger attack against their own working class movement was challenged by the stubborn response of the latter. The public workers’ general strike which brought France to a 22-day standstill in late 1995, with massive demonstrations in Paris and throughout France, was a watershed in the class struggle, thus paving the way for a major people’s and workers counteroffensive which swept through several countries. That development did not come out of the blue: it was heralded by the Italian working class that smashed the “Tsar” Berlusconi’s privatisation plans and forced his resignation in 1994. That wave engulfed several European countries: Denmark, Greece, France again, Germany, etc. Because of the role of its leaderships, the working class was prevented from bringing down capitalist plans altogether, but managed to muddle them nonetheless. The imperialist bourgeoisie saw the time had come for a “change of guard” in the governmental sphere, which signalled the entrance of reformists—Socialdemocratic and refurbished Communist parties—into office. The counteroffensive had finished off the conservative governments, thus forcing the bourgeoisie to rely on the services of these socialtraitors and their policy of social peace in order to force through the “cuts” and attacks against the conquests of the proletariat.

That counteroffensive was not only European. It spread to several countries in the five continents, expressing itself in the tendencies towards the general strike and political struggles of the masses: South Korea’s “workers’ wars” in 1996, the general strikes in Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay in 1996, the powerful dockers’ strikes in Australia, along with hundreds of strikes, including several general strikes in many other countries, from South East Asia to Africa and Latin America, up to the Russian miners’ strikes, were all part of this process. Its highest peaks were the Albanian revolutionary upheaval in early 1997, which smashed the army, and Ecuador’s general strike, which ousted president Bucaram. In Albania, it was through elections which saw recycled Communists into office and the deploy of Italian troops that the revolutionary process was derailed and the rebuilding of the state was able to proceed. In Ecuador, the reformist mass leaderships supported Alarcón’s interim government as a reshuffle within the bourgeois democratic regime.

This wave ended up, as a rule, strengthening “centreleft” variants (that in many cases went into government) that however any formal small concession, stuck to capitalist plans in essence, and stood by those reactionary governments to prevent them from wearing off (an event that would have led to open crises bursting out in those regimes), while they strove to replace them through the ballot box.21Korea was the case more in point. The new Kim government, which went into office backed by the working class movement due to his long opposition to the dictatorship, launched a draconian economic plan in response to the slump.

That workers’ counteroffensive went hand in hand with several strikes and trade union fights in the US, with the UPS victory at its peak.

The onset of the international economic crisis in mid-1997 signalled a change in the general conditions of the class struggle. Its effects on international world politics and on class relationships, threatened to compound into a break-up of the unstable world capitalist equilibrium of the 90s.

Furthermore, the obstacles hindering the major imperialist powers from putting the burden of the economic and political crisis onto the shoulders of their own proletariat are pushing rival imperialist powers (and states) to an increase in commercial rivalry. Since, in Lenin’s words, “politics are concentrated economics”, this is in turn fuelling the emergence of opposed international orientations and political tensions of all types.

Revolutionary developments in Indonesia, the Russian default (and the threat of an “autarchic” turn) and the radicalisation of the Kosovar’s fight for independence all heralded that in 1998 the economic turmoil was starting to become an international political crisis. This was also reflected in South America, where the crisis of the regimes deepened, with Bonapartist attempts defeated in Paraguay, and the outburst of a mass struggle in Ecuador.

The bourgeoisie has failed to impose on the proletariat and the masses of the world decisive defeats, like the victory of Hitler in the 30s in a big power like Germany, or the crushing of the 1925-27 Chinese revolution in what was then the biggest semi-colonial country in the world.

Without an accumulation of strategic defeats along these lines there is no point in claiming that a “new world order” has come into life. The forces of the proletariat have been worn off by the “neoliberal” onslaught and the advance of capitalist restoration in the East, but they have not been defeated yet. The persistence of high unemployment levels, big-scale casualisation and flexible labour schemes, the systematic attack on the old gains achieved by the working class and the masses, all of them hinder the emergence of working class struggles. In the short term, the effects of the division between employed and unemployed workers, casual and permanent, native and immigrant, unionised and non-unionised are all brought to bear a negative pressure. High unemployment on one hand, and the divisive role of the trade union bureaucracies on the other, were and still remain an effective weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie to hold down the fighting disposition of the working class. All of these are major obstacles to the irruption of the working class movement in the centre of the scene, and to the development of its subjectivity, along with a lingering crisis of revolutionary leadership.

The continuity of these factors has made room for imperialism to achieve partial victories like the ones early in this decade, which allowed for a relative capitalist restabilisation. That was the main advantage laying the basis for the deepening of the imperialist and capitalist onslaught against both the semi-colonial world and the decomposing workers states, and also against the imperialist countries. The international economic crisis and the events in Indonesia, Russia or Kosovo, were starting to undermine an unstable equilibrium, thus threatening to open cracks in which further developments in the class struggle might be able to slip through.

Given those conditions, imperialism decided on its armed intervention against Yugoslavia, ultimately seeking to reinforce both its imperial facade and power, thus containing the dangerous tendencies to the break-up of the equilibrium which make themselves strongly felt on the world arena.

3. The war in Kosovo

The question of Kosovo acquired and enormous international relevance because it acted as a catalyst of the contradictions lying deep in the international situation, which unfolded around the drama of this small and poor province in the Balkans. A number of threads of the world situation converged, thus synchronising two decisive planes: the beginning of the end of the unstable equilibrium of the 90s, compounded with the long-term structural effects of the crisis of rule opened since 1989.

US imperialism’s structural weakness along with the high cost of maintaining its domain without its old Stalinist ally, all came to light when it was forced to intervene directly as was the case in Kosovo, as a guarantor of a threatened order. The excess in self-confidence boosted in the upper echelons of the empire by the artificial image reflected on the mirror of the 90s lead it to intervene on the assumption that a token air campaign would suffice to put Milosevic in retreat. The US would thus reassure its leading role within NATO over its European allies and would keep Russia at bay. Its overwhelming military superiority should have deterrent effects and should be convincing at a low cost. A new “low risk” intervention and under humanitarian pretexts would suffice according to the Pentagon’s calculations, but would the new remedy be good in the new circumstances? The conditions of the 90s are changing under pressure of the world political and economic crises, and the deeper going contradictions opened up by 1989 were beginning to emerge.

It was soon evident that it was a gross miscalculation, and a severe crisis burst into the Alliance. Brent Scrowcroft (former national security advisor to president Bush, and military advisor to presidents Ford and Nixon) pointed out that: “NATO threw itself into this adventure convinced that Milosevic would surrender quickly. Its strategy had already failed more than a month ago, but in order to save face, it was forced to carry on with it, to the point of a break-up with each of its members holding different views. Milosevic and the Russians have played and are still playing the game of splitting the Alliance. Had the war continued, we might have witnessed an official and wholesome split within its ranks. That is the reason why we have reached the so-called peace.” 22Corriere della Sera, 7/6/99.

A few days of bombings seemed not enough, in spite of the terrorising destruction of Yugoslavia. The European allies began to reproach Washington with an ever increasing louder voice. No one could seriously think of—at least for the time being—affording the cost and the risks of a big-scale land invasion, without enough domestic support, particularly the European allies like Germany and Italy, both with powerful proletariats. Germany was particularly reluctant to engage in such a campaign, a reflection in turn of Russia’s unrest. Once again, for all the high-tech weaponry of Cruise missiles, Apache helicopters and Stealth fighters—all of them sufficient to smash Serbia to smithereens—history proved Old Clausewitz was right when he said: “war is a tool of politics; it necessarily has its character and dimensions; in its main outlines, it is nothing but politics and the latter, changing a sword for a pen, always abides nonetheless by its own rules”.

However, the masses were unable to use in their own interest the cracks that had opened between “those at the top”. The responsibility for this lies in the reformist leaderships of the mass movement: the Socialdemocratic and Stalinist parties and the union bureaucracy all alike, which either make up or support the “Third Way” governments at the head of 13 out of 15 European Union countries, and which championed NATO’s armed intervention. A reactionary nationalistic policy, i.e. Milosevic’s Great Serbian chauvinism oppressing the Kosovo Albanians, which turned into a bloody “ethnic cleansing”, was a major advantage playing in the hands of imperialism. It could thus resort to the smokescreen of “humanitarian intervention” on a massive scale, covering up its aggression in the eyes of the masses, both at home and in the region as well under the guise of a human rights policy. Therefore, apart from some small vanguard demonstrations, the world working class was by and large absent from the war scenario as an autonomous factor. It was deceived by the illusions it holds in Socialdemocratic governments, which far from opening up a “third way” and “defending the Welfare State”, paid their supporters back by getting involved in the war as good administrators of imperialist interests, thus conquering a better position to try and smash the remaining conquests of the European workers.

In this way, the way was paved for imperialism to impose a reactionary outcome, accepting as a way out of the stalemate Moscow’s good services, a role which proved essential in turning NATO’s military quagmire into a political victory. Stratfor, when commenting on the latest G8 summit, put it this way: “the time has come to settle accounts with Russia’s reformers. To their own great risk, they led Milosevic to the negotiation table and gave Kosovo in to NATO. Without Russia’s willingness to participate in the diplomatic process, which turned an awesome military muddle in a diplomatic victory for NATO, NATO would be still making plans for an impossible ground attack. Without Mr. Yeltsin’s cooperation, the Pristina affair would have had dangerous sequels on the ground”. 23Stratfor, 19/6/99.

After almost eleven weeks of air strikes, which devastated Serbia’s infrastructure and Kosovo itself, with thousands of civilian casualties and the exodus of Kosovars terrorised both by Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing and NATO bombings, an agreement was imposed. One that basically consists in acceptance of a NATO protectorate, with partial Russian engagement, over the beleaguered province of Kosovo.

4. A first balance sheet of the war:

A major imperialist victory achieved at a high cost

The arch-reactionary imperialist outcome of the Balkans war, based as it is on the occupation of Kosovo, was thus imposed both at the price of a catastrophe for the Serbian masses and of a harsh defeat of the national struggle of the people from Kosovo.

It constitutes a significant tactical victory for imperialism, even though one achieved at a high political cost. NATO was able to impose an imperialist peace in Kosovo. This is a blow to the international working class and the oppressed peoples of the world which strengthens the grip of the class enemy, and will bring about reactionary sequels for the world situation in the short term.

On a regional level, this victory of the Alliance reinforces the reactionary Dayton Accords. However, in spite of this break-through, the agreement does not guarantee a long-standing stabilisation of the Balkans. The situation in Serbia and in the neighbouring states can still prove a watershed for the fragile reactionary equilibrium in the region. As The Economist puts it, “insofar as those who live in and around the region regard their conflicts with markedly opposing views, the old powder keg will retain all of its explosive power.” In turn, the precipitous fall in the living standards of the Serbian masses as a result of the war, may turn out to be a most important source of tensions in the region, what has lead The Economist to say that “both deliberate and spontaneously, Serbia might repeat its deleterious game of destabilising neighbouring countries exporting a big number of desperate people, ´this time they might be Serbian´”.24The Economist, 19/6/99. We could even witness a revolutionary upheaval in Serbia itself. In addition to this there is the issue of “peace” keeping in Kosovo, where a semichaotic situation still lingers on, with the disarmament of the KLA—which is filling up the political vacuum left behind by the Serbian withdrawal—not being a minor problem on the occupation troops’ agenda.

But the most significant element is that this precarious “peace” in the region was achieved at a high political cost for imperialism. US imperialism was not able to translate its awesome military superiority into a political rule of the same kind. That is why, in spite of the “triumphalism” reigning in the Western media, there is still room for concern in the analysts. In an editorial headed “Disastrous war, disastrous peace” The Economist states that: “…when a few bombs proved not enough, they [the Western leaders] found out that they had slipped into a war which they did not expect to fight, they had not prepared to fight and they did not want to fight, at least with men ready to die. This is not a noble gesture. The war in Kosovo turned out to be, as it always happens in a war, a disaster. Peace, if that is what the June 9 agreement brings about, looks hardly better.” 25The Economist, 12/6/99. Leslie Gelb, from the Foreign Affairs Board, sums up as follows: “The sense is that the situation was too bad to begin with and that NATO along with the Clinton administration made it worse and, to the surprise of its critics, they reached an agreement better than anyone could expect. But they achieved it at an awesome and terrible cost, and that is why people are going to deny Clinton credit for this.” 26Clarín, 12/6/99.

That is the case because the vicissitudes of the conflict in Kosovo have begun to make clear—albeit still in the half-light of NATO’s recent victory—the constraints of imperial power and the increasing rivalry between the different powers.

5. Kosovo and the constraints of imperial power

The course and the denouement of the war, however favourable to imperialism, exposed significant constraints of US imperialism.

Firstly, the limits of “humanitarian interventions” of the 90s, this time aimed at dealing with deeper contradictions fuelled by international political and economic crisis are all too evident. In Kosovo, in spite of imperialism’s tactic victory, this type of intervention has begun to show its exhaustion. Not only because it failed to achieve its declared purpose (to prevent “ethnic cleansing”), and of the awesome destruction it brought on Yugoslavia, but first and foremost because of the high political cost it entails for Washington. According to The Economist: “The great reason to question the nature of the allies’ victory, however, is their main failure: this was a war aimed at stopping ethnic cleansing, but its main effect was to intensify it.” (…) “In humanitarian terms, the campaign was a disaster.” 27The Economist, 12/6/99. A think-tank of the US Republican right wing, Henry Kissinger, who cannot be suspected of “humanitarian” concern says even that: “a strategy vindicating its moral convictions from altitudes higher than 15,000 feet—devastating Serbia and turning Kosovo uninhabitable in the drive—has created a flood of refugees and injured people more than any combination of diplomacy and force one could have ever imagined. It deserves to be questioned both on moral and political grounds.”28Article by Henry Kissinger published in Newsweek during the war. What Kissinger is worried about is that abuse of the “humanitarian” facade in operations which are not strategic for Washington’s “national interests”, might rapidly backfire since they unmask the arch-reactionary and imperial nature of such operations.

On the other hand the high political cost was shown in the need for Russia’s recognition as a prop for the negotiation and the final agreement all alike, in the row with China. It was also shown in that the enormous disproportion between the “objectives” and the “costs” gave rise to the NATO’ allies open reluctance to accept out of hand the US political and military command.

All of those elements have questioned another tenet of interventions in the 90s: “low risk” itself. The course of the war can be regarded in two ways. A triumphalist view indicates that NATO’s air superiority proved enough to achieve its purposes. A more objective view, shall point out that for all of the bombs and missiles, imperialism failed to destroy Milosevic’s army. Most important of all, the US reluctance to send in ground troops was clearly shown. This is not a privilege that the US, as a guarantor of the status quo and world policeman, can easily lay claim to in the face of the peoples of the world. Those elements dissipate the assumption that “easy victory” as automatically flowing from its military supremacy can be achieved by imperialism. This is an important blow to its self confidence as expressed by the constraints on its imperial power. That is why it has become feasible that, as Stratfor’s analysts put it, “the decade that began with Kuwait comes to an end in the skies above Serbia. There will be no American government, in the foreseeable future at least, to assume it has the necessary military might to impose its will (…) There is a vast gap between being the biggest military power in the world and omnipotence. (…) The overhasty assumption that the general superiority of American military power would translate into a fast victory in any given circumstance, is obviously wrong.” 29Stratfor, 12/6/99.

All those elements given, success as in Kosovo might prove difficult to repeat itself. As The Economist recognises it: “For a purportedly defensive Alliance, the air war against Kosovo was a surprisingly new starting point, but one that is likely to be an exception, rather than the rule”.

Still more, warnings are already heard that if it were to follow that path, imperialism might end up in a fiasco scenario. Mariano Aguirre, head of a Spanish strategic think-tank (Centro de Investigación para la Paz), comments on the virtues of the air war tactic, but does not fail to point out that: “The enemy is both psychological and militarily worn off and you do not have casualties in your own ranks, what enables you to sell much more easily military operations to the public opinion at home, a condition call forth by the so-called American Vietnam syndrome now extended to NATO.” But Aguirre warns that “both the US and NATO could be faced in the future with other situations involving the ground option and in which a split in the Allies or the lack of political command shall lead to a unique result: inhibition”.30El País, Madrid. 10/6/99. As this analyst puts it very well, as opposed to any ideology of technological fetishism, resorting to “air war” is a reflection not of military prowess, but first and foremost of political constraints: “the Vietnam syndrome now extended to NATO”.

Without overcoming those constraints, namely, without the imperialist powers being able to bear a heavy loss of lives in their operations, “imperial power” cannot be boosted up to the point of acting as a mainstay for a world order of rule. To reassure its role of world policeman in forthcoming interventions of much bigger scale, imperialist counter-revolution shall be able to deliver hard blows against its own working class, in order to be able to count upon a reactionary social base and thus make room for the domestic conditions that allow for much bigger scale operations than the ones the small and beleaguered Yugoslavia demanded.

Secondly, a number of elements are beginning to undermine imperialism’s unlimited self-confidence, itself a by-product of the US bourgeoisie triumphalism in the early 90s which was rooted in the “victory over communism” ideology. As an American analyst writing in Newsweek puts it: “The whole catalogue of those problems [the end of the illusion of completing capitalist restoration in Russia via reformist measures, the red alert of the risks of “globalisation” launched by the South East Asia crisis] does not mean that disaster is looming around the corner. It rather means that, when contemplating the post Cold War world, we have underestimated the risks. It may be the case that this was unavoidable in the wake of the Cold War, when we Americans felt justly proud of “our way of life” having prevailed. But a country is never to take news very seriously.” (…) “We cannot refashion the rest of the world according to our image. When we suggested that we could do so, the formula of “superpower” gave rise to careless analysis and extravagant expectations. The danger in doing the first thing is that it leads to massive miscalculations—Kosovo is a good example. The danger in doing the second thing, insofar as Americans seize upon the ambiguities of the post Cold War era, is to be disillusioned and to retreat. Neoisolationism is not a privilege we can tolerate, because the world unavoidably is bounding us. But we need to be more disciplined and less romantic when thinking of national interests. To start with, we can rid our vocabulary from the word “only existing superpower”. 31Robert J. Samuelson, Newsweek, 28/5/99.

Imperialism has shown that is anything but a “paper tiger” and that the new hindrances increase its aggressive nature and its warmongering. But Kosovo has started to show that to deal with the new challenges on the world arena it shall be able to confront bigger contradictions and risks, both at home and abroad.

6. An increasing rivalry between the big powers

In EI 12 we pointed out that “we are not facing yet an open fight for world hegemony or the heyday of proletarian revolution, what shows that we are witnessing the onset of an international political crisis rather than its last episodes”. However, already in this initial phase, the war in Kosovo acted as a catalyst for the rows between the great powers, which thus were forced to come to the fore. The end of the war is far from healing the dispute.

The European allies, which joined in the American policy to Kosovo, under NATO’s umbrella, without any objection, have shown an increasing mistrust towards Washington political and military command, a fact highlighted in the rows between the Allies throughout the war. Therefore, tendencies towards more European autonomy with regard to the US in “security” issues concerning the Old Continent will become stronger. The New York Times points out that “The war in Kosovo has brought drastic changes for Europe in its wake, putting Germany in a military leading position not seen since 1945, galvanising various attempts at forging a common defensive policy and altering its relationship with the US. Of course, with Russian stabilisation still uncertain and the sudden movements of Russian troops in Kosovo, the Europeans still remain cautious as to any “disengagement” with Washington. However, to the wish of keeping the transatlantic links is now adding up a drive to balance them in a distinct fashion.” 32The New York Times, 17/6/99.

While the US leading position within NATO homogenised policy-making and decision-taking, the European Union (EU) lacks of any clearly defined leading power, a weakness that in the face of potential crisis will complicate the possibility of tuning the array of national interest in a common policy. The fact remains that there is no single European imperialism, and therefore there can be no single European policy, but distinct imperialist states with a particular national interest and diverging and even opposed policies: Italy, Germany and France have all their own options. This, in the medium term, weakens them in the face of the destabilising winds swirling out of the East and of future revolutions. This is not irrelevant for the class struggle and its perspectives, all the more since we are dealing with Europe, a continent which constitutes a neuralgic centre for the world working class.

But the great strategic divergence that emerged in the war boils down to the role Russia is to play both in Europe and worldwide. Russia refuses to be transformed into a semicolony, demands that “her rights of great power ” be recognised and wants to play the card of her national interest. This is reflected in the sharp turn of the international policy pursued by the restorationist bureaucracy, that earlier in the decade was in line with the US strategy and now is resisting it to a certain degree.

Imperialism mistook Russia’s crippling crisis, the corruption of the bureaucracy and the ruinous state of its armed forces for its liquidation as an international political actor. Kosovo has helped Russia to reemerge as an European “player”, as shown by its major role during the conflict, most notably in finishing it off and the ensuing peace accords. Above all, it was shown by the unexpected deployment of a Russian contingent in Pristina. Beyond its symbolic nature, and in spite of Russia giving in to NATO in every major issue, it points out to the fact that Russia is not willing to easily accept new humiliations by the West. The Economist says “the soap opera-like incursion of Russia after the bombings, should not make us forget about the serious rows between Russia and the Western world.”33The Economist, 19/6/99. Russia’s re-entry on the scenery of Europe has altered the balance of forces throughout Eastern Europe, first and foremost in the former USSR countries. It boosted realignments still on the run from the Baltic to the Balkans, fuelled by the renewed Russia-NATO competition for neighbouring states, most of them drifting towards NATO’s influence. A secondary conflict like Kosovo has thus unleashed new strategic tensions potentially far more destabilising than the war in the Balkans itself. This will affect the EU in particular.

As Stratfor points out: “Europe will be left in a particularly uncomfortable position. On one hand, Europe is more vulnerable than the US to the tensions running deep in the world system. As such Europe is inherently more averse to running a risk. A conservative turn and a drive to reassurance of her own interests in Russian politics will face Germany with major strategic dilemmas, ones it would rather not deal with (…) The current confrontation will demand quick and dangerous developments within NATO. This is something Europeans want not to happen. Casting aside the inherent costs of NATO expansion, this logically entails expanding the EU. With the euro performing so badly, and the emergence of a cyclic weakness in the European economy, Europeans would rather avoid being confronted with this for now.”34Stratfor, 27/6/99. The European bourgeoisies see their imperialist duties have grown after Kosovo. This is notably true of Germany, as shown by the fact that after a small participation in Bosnia, is now the second force in Kosovo with a 7,000 troops contingent and the responsibility of civil “reconstruction” in its hands. However, she is not ready, be it the political, economic or military sphere, to fully bear that responsibility. Any attempt at making a break-through in her imperial power, extending to the South and to the East, will “bring back” home the contradictions in those “hot spots”. Above all, a shift in her situation at home to put it up to that challenge will be needed. This means holding down its own proletariat to a much bigger extent. A massive increase in the defence budget calls for a cut in other areas thus shifting the burden onto the shoulders of the masses (a process already in course), a drive not easy for the bourgeoisie to force through without setting its own social base on collision course. As yet, the German bourgeoisie cannot stomach such a move, at least to the necessary extent.

In turn, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade unleashed a whole series of events that could signal the end of the Chinese policy of “cooperation” with the US—which started in the 70s with Nixon’s trip to China and was later to be reinforced by Deng-Xiao-Ping. The latter ushered in the “Chinese miracle” in the 90s, boosted by a massive inflow of foreign capitals. This rapprochement peaked when the Asian crisis was unfolding, when Clinton tripped to China to fasten “strategic cooperation” between Washington and Beijing, what at the time we branded as an attempt at a “small-scale Yalta”.35This is to say, an attempt by Clinton to further counter-revolutionary collaboration by the restorationist Chinese bureaucracy in the face of increased economic and political instability worldwide. However, this endeavour failed to bear any fruit, and the Chinese bureaucracy shifted to a policy of increased confrontation with the US. China and Russia’s frail position (though to different extents) along with their shared interest in challenging American pressure and reclaiming a place for themselves in a US-hegemonised world, is leading both giants to collude in a more or less informal bloc. At the root of this turn in orientation by both restorationist bureaucracies lays the drying up of the inflow of capital they counted upon to recycle themselves as local bourgeoisie, aimed at succeeding in capitalist restoration. In Russia it faded away and in China the conditions for keeping it running are exhausting. None of them want, nor do their ruling cliques have room to, reduce themselves to a semi-colony status. The most outstanding feature is that they resort to blackmailing, resorting to geopolitical disputes to better wrestle concessions from the US. In Russia’s case this can affect the frontiers of the ex USSR, and in China’s case the destabilisation of Asia might ensue.

This realignment on the part of Russia and China has brought about further restraints to the US room for manoeuvre. From a strategic, long-term viewpoint, Japan and Germany, the US main imperialist rivals, shall take due notice of that. Germany, the main EU economic power and its “powerhouse” as well, cannot ignore Russia’s new international position. This in turn will force her to adopt her own strategic decisions if it is to steer clear from the destabilising effects of those new realignments now taking place in world politics.

Likewise, Japan, the second imperialist economy, when faced with the increasing polarisation between Washington and Beijing in East Asia, will be forced to work out policies from the standpoint of Tokyo.

All those pressures run against the current order, in which Germany and Japan’s economic prowess does not correspond with their international military and political roles. This is a remnant of the Yalta Order, itself the byproduct of their defeat in the Second World War, when they were clearly subordinated to both the US hegemony and strategy.

Those disputes between the powers show once again the massive political cost that US imperialism had to pay for its military operation in Kosovo. As a well-known US analyst pointed out: “Russia, China, Japan and Germany are 4 out of the 8 leading nations of the world. It is stupid for any American president to push through a policy devoid of any actual strategic interest for the US that upsets or threatens with governmental instability in any of those four countries. Still worse, this is a perverted flirtation with historic disasters. The US have either suffered defeat or partial victories, some of them in denial in her three latest wars (Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf), a fact that fits in the classical definition of a mature great power on the eve of its decline. The historians of Rome, Spain, Holland and Britain have written a vast amount of books dealing with what was to come. Can the same thing happen again? Of course it can. The Balkans and the Middle East can both turn out to be a devastating tangled web.”36Kevin Phillips, Los Angeles Times, 28/5/99.

At the end of the day, that the military adventure in Kosovo has favoured imperialism does not preclude it from taking the overtones of a “flirtation with disaster” typical of “a mature great power on the eve of its decline”. Some other analysts add with sarcasm: “NATO has clearly succeeded (…) However is a victory with a high price attached, higher than any of us would have foreseen or been willing to pay before the war. NATO comes out of the war internally more feeble than when it entered. Russia and China come out of it more hostile, instead of less. Stability in the Balkans is a permanent and unattainable responsibility for the West. It was a victory. A couple of more victories like this and….”37Stratfor, 28/6/99.

That a minor regional conflict in itself has led to the emergence of such tensions gives proof of the ever increasing hindrances for imperialism as a whole, notably the US, to rule over the world status quo.

7. The world “post-Kosovo”. Wither the world situation?

Imperialism has achieved a major tactic victory in Kosovo, with reactionary short-term consequences worldwide, but has failed to succeed in its most offensive endeavours. Furthermore, its high cost complicates the strategic prospects for imperialism in the medium and long term.

The outcome of the war has meant a new blow against the world working class and the oppressed nationalities. It gives imperialism a fresh breath to carry on with its onslaught against the masses worldwide. Just now, it has become harder for the proletariat to fight against its class enemy. However, in contrast with the Gulf War in the early 90s, the imperialist victory in Kosovo is not one of the necessary magnitude so as to send the tendencies to destabilisation into reverse and to contain the ongoing political crisis worldwide.

Coming back to the methodological questions raised in the introduction, we ask: Has imperialism been able to rebuild a new “unstable capitalist equilibrium” as in the 90s? When answering this question we have to ponder the three dimensions concerning this issue: the relationship between the classes, the economic factors and the relationships between the states.

In the sphere of class relationships, the current economic crisis is giving a major boost to the tensions between the classes, as shown by the decomposition of the social base of various regimes and governments which were rather strong in this decade, a development which turned quite acute in East Asia and also affecting Latin America. In the former, though the bourgeoisie has succeeded in derailing the revolutionary process in Indonesia through the ballot box, the outcome looks still precarious. The new government to take office—an issue still unresolved due to the antidemocratic electoral system that could mean the continuity of the present administration—shall deal with the strong mass expectations which were reflected in the vote for Sukarnoputri (see related article in this issue). This is a major problem for world imperialism since a revolutionary process is unfolding in this country, one which may be similar to the 1931 Spanish revolution that led to the 1936-39 Civil War. On the other hand, those tensions have led in Latin America to “short-circuits” in the bourgeois democratic regimes (such as Ecuador and Paraguay), which have been propped up by weaker reshuffles.

In Europe, the Third Way governments have been impelled to assault the conquests of the major proletariats, as Schroeder is threatening to do in Germany, or more hesitatingly D’Alemma in Italy, thus jeopardizing the “social pact” policies enforced to derail the workers and people´s counter-offensive of the last few years. The different strands of European imperialism increasingly need to launch an assault on the working class at home, as much as the US did in the 80s. Otherwise, they risk lagging behind in the interimperialist concurrence. This is also a need for Japan, although for now is resisting such a drive in the face of the fragility of its political system, thus hindering in turn the way out of its structural crisis. At the same time, this could fuel a comeback of Japan’s warmongering nationalism of the 30s.

The economic situation (an aspect we shall deal with in more detail in the next chapter) does not show clear signs of improvement, and is still premature to say that the world economic crisis has come to an end, as the bourgeoisie does out of interest. Japan has undergone a relative recovery, after hitting an all-time low last year, thanks to a massive injection of funds in its bank system, but it can still prove illusive, since Japan’s economy has not been restructured yet. The European economies have “slowed down”, and some countries like Italy show a steep decline in GDP. The US, on the contrary, is still growing apace, but the mishaps in its growth may force the Federal Reserve to a fresh increase in the interest rates. Such a drive could have a sharp impact on the world economic crisis, thus shattering the jerry-built calm of the last few months. Above all, it could be a sharp blow to the semicolonial countries, the most hardly-hit since the onset of the Asian crisis. In this sense, the Russian economy does not show any “sign of life”, and China’s has failed to recover its previous dynamism due to the plunge in capital inflows, which underpinned its growth in the 90s.

This narrower ground of the world economy, which shows itself unevenly in the various national economies, has given rise to a massively increased tension in the relationships between the classes. “All of which makes the class struggle unavoidable, every time sharper, as a result of the shrinkage of the national incomes. The more the material basis are narrowed, the more the class struggle will grow, and the various groups will bitterly struggle against each other for the scramble of the nations’ incomes”. 38Leon Trotsky, The School of Revolutionary Strategy, p.55. We must not lose sight of such material basis pointed out by Trotsky, since the class struggle, although omnipresent, still is lagging well behind at present times.

The deterioration of the relationships between the states is the most dynamic aspect of the current world situation, as shown by Russia and China’s drive to rapprochement aimed at offsetting American pressure, or the new line-ups within the European Union, especially Germany’s new position. This is also shown by the flaring up of new regional “hot spots” not only on European soil, but in Asia as well, such as the low intensity war for Cashmere between Pakistan and India, the military stand-off between the two Koreas (which has fuelled anti-Communist euphoria in the south), or in the Middle East, with Israeli strikes against Beirut. In addition to these, the Northern Ireland “peace process” is stumbling into increasing difficulties these days. The increased rivalry between the imperialist powers on one hand, and between the latter and the restorationist bureaucracies on the other are a permanent focus of tension undermining the foundations of the system of international relationships upon which the unstable equilibrium in the 90s was based.

From this picture of the world situation, it flows that although in the short time imperialism has been able to gain time to contain the unfolding of the international economic and political crises, they have not come to an end, and still remains to be seen where the world situation is heading to in the medium term. What we can be sure of instead is that is impossible for the 90s unstable equilibrium to make a comeback. As we have shown in this article, the conflict in Kosovo has set up a new framework for the world situation, one whose components were already present, and now have crystallised as a result of Kosovo’s catalytic action. The war in Kosovo is thus a watershed in the world situation, signalling the end of a decade of US’ apparently unchallenged supremacy. This does not spell a 1930s-style open dispute for the hegemony of the world taking place right now, nor does it preclude the capitalist system from reaching a fresh equilibrium. Indeed, Kosovo does usher in a period of weaker equilibrium, for new forces are to be reckoned with, ones which do not allow for containment within the framework of the old status quo, such as was the case in the last decade due to the abnormal factors we have pointed out. The imperialist victory in the Balkans makes room for a less traumatic transition here and now, but otherwise might have happened had the military muddle not been overcome.

The current phase in the world situation can be paralleled to the overture of an opera. In a certain way it advances, “as much as an overture does…the musical themes of the whole piece”, condensing them and displaying in advance the melodies to follow in the future “with the accompaniment of the tubas, double-basses, drums and the rest of the instruments which make up the actual class struggle”.39Trotsky resorted to this metaphor in 1929 to highlight the events that the crimes of Stalinism were heralding. History proved him right through and through. Imperialist aggression campaigns, like the one in Kosovo, colonial wars, revolutions like in Indonesia, crisis in the regimes and “short-circuits” of bourgeois democracy, tendencies towards Bonapartism as in Russia, the emergence of commercial wars and imperialist disputes, all of them may well show in advance—however its embryonic form—the themes of the opera to come in the first decade of the forthcoming 21st century.


The stalemate in capitalist restoration and its consequences for the world order

The Balkans have crudely shown the failure of the “reformist way” to the restoration of capitalism in the former degenerate and deformed workers states, a fact already highlighted by the Russian collapse in August 1998. The former Yugoslavia, with its millions of refugees, with several wars which left hundred of thousands of victims in their wake, increasing imperialist intervention, all of them bear testimony to the ominous destruction of productive forces, of “the catastrophic decline of the economy and culture alike”—as Trotsky put it—brought about by the transition from a superior social formation, one where the bourgeoisie has been expropriated, to an inferior social system, such as the capitalist economy in its phase of decomposition.

This is the most extreme expression of an encompassing decay and decomposition of the productive forces engulfing the formerly bureaucratised workers states. Yugoslavia being its most violent species, the “peaceful” variant, i.e. Russia, whose economy has contracted around 50%, shows a level of destruction only comparable to that of the Second World War.

As to the “successful” Chinese model, it is also reaching its limits, faced to the change both in the regional and international conditions which made room for a period of dynamism. The hike in unemployment, a tremendous social polarisation and regional differentiation, are all making several analysts to regard China’s stability as a crucial question in the next two years.

The war in Yugoslavia, with its enormous costs, shows that the imperialist order towards the end of the decade is still unable to absorb the destabilising impact, both at political and inter-state relationship levels, of the winds swirling out of the East and China, namely, the stalemate of capitalist restoration in the former, and the storm-clouds gathering over the latter.

The attempt at undoing a knot in a place, like the Balkans, threatens to potentially unravel things in another place, like Russia, much in the way of a machine with permanent logjams. The fears for the fate of Russia haunted the G7 summit in Cologne, where the G7 met with Yeltsin after the Kosovo war. That was reflected in the following analysis: “Much more important than what happened in Kosovo, is the question of what is happening in Moscow. The victory of the anti-western Slavophiles in Moscow, can shape a generation in history. The West must do all that is at hand to prevent this from happening. Of course, it has already clinched a deal to reassure this. Actually, NATO resorted to critical reserves in Moscow in pursue of its aims in Kosovo. It must now rebuild those critical reserves…”40Stratfor, 19/6/99. This refers to the ousting of Primakov, a man fruit of a compromise between the Communist Party and the Slavophiles.

All this shows that the attempts at assimilating the former degenerate and deformed workers states into the world economy, a process which consists in a vicious semi-colonisation, far from bringing stability to the Western world, is nourishing traumatic contradictions. The war in the Balkans and its strategic consequences, in the light of NATO’s first military intervention ever in its mid-century existence, prove that the question of the social nature of those countries remains still unresolved by history, and that “the issue will be definitely resolved through the struggle of two living forces on the national and international arena”41Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Crux Editors, s/f, p.224. Such were Trotsky’s words more than 50 years ago in The Betrayed Revolution.

Against those who deemed capitalist restoration/semi-colonisation was an accomplished fact in the former bureaucratised workers states (in a peaceful way!?), the war in Kosovo shows that, as we said in EI N° 8: “The consolidation of a capitalist social formation in those countries is a process still unresolved, and the likelihood exists that it will remain so, unless either a revolutionary upheaval or a counter-revolutionary blow succeed, at least in the case of China and Russia, for several years to come”. Against those who rushed to label those countries as “capitalist”, our definition proved again to be methodologically correct: “It is wrong to state that capitalist social formations have already sprung up in those states. In the lack of a better definition, we still deem as valid to define those countries as degenerate or deformed workers states in decomposition. This formula seeks to establish that the state apparatus and the governmental staff is bourgeois or of a bureaucratic and restaurationist nature. The latter seek to consciously succeed in capitalist restoration, and have introduced juridical changes that resulted in the smashing of the economic planning and the monopoly of foreign trade, thus favouring the development of private property, and qualitatively advancing in decomposing the social basis of the bureaucratised workers states, to the point of making them unrecognizable. But they have not succeeded in consolidating a working capitalist regime of production worthy of the name. We do not define them as embryonic bourgeois states, not by taking into account their superstructure or the policy they have pursued in the last few years, but we endeavour to account for, in the present transitory situation, the existence of a temporary conflict between the superstructure and the corresponding socio-economic formation, a temporary conflict worsened by the political and economic crisis engulfing world imperialism, and by the fact that the masses in those countries have not been wiped out as an independent historic factor.”42Estrategia Internacional N° 8, “Dossier on capitalist restoration”.

The key of our definition is that there is a transitory situation characterised by a sharp “contradiction between the superstructure and the socio-economic formation, a temporary conflict worsened by the political and economic crisis engulfing world imperialism, and by the fact that the masses in those countries have not been wiped out as an independent historic factor“. This contradiction is highlighted by the conflicts in the Balkans; by the repeated flare-ups of the national question (themselves a labyrinthine reflection of the class struggle) and the emergence of progressive nationalist movements (like yesterday in Chechnya, Bosnia or Kosovo today); and by the weakness of the Russian state and the recurrent political crises engulfing Moscow. It is also reflected by the sharp deterioration of the relationships between imperialism and the Russian and Chinese restorationist bureaucracies (the Chinese regime resorted to mass nationalist demonstrations to let the steam off when confronted with the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade); in the “last trench” style resistance of the Russian proletariat, or in the massive pre-emptive deploy of troops by the Chinese army in the face of several symptoms of resistance on the part of the masses, etc.

The restorationist bureaucracy, that placed their bets on piecemeal restoration of capitalism, relying on world imperialism in its drive to recycle themselves as a bourgeoisie, are seeing their illusions are fading away under pressure of abruptly changing economic and political conditions on the world arena. She is standing between two forces that surpass her: the pressure of imperialism on one hand, which endeavours to turn the decomposing bureaucratised workers states into semi-colonies—and is not able to provide funds and resources as in the past. On the other hand, the proletariat and the masses, which have not suffered a historic defeat, and will violently clash with the bureaucracy when the latter attempts to accomplish restoration/semicolonisation. In the present conditions, the enormous structural weakness of the restorationist bureaucratic cliques is thus exposed. They are corroded by insurmountable contradictions (as openly shows Russia, more inchoate in China) and they have relied on imperialism’s support in pursue of their political and economic stability in the last few years. To sum up, we can state today without fear of exaggeration that the attempt to fully assimilate the bureaucratised workers states in decomposition to the world capitalist economy and system alike has become today a source of destabilisation of most importance for the world order. As we have said above, this is the ground for the current stand-off and the strategic realignments now taking place amongst the biggest powers, be it in Asia or in Europe. “This prospect spells that, inasmuch diplomacy early this century was unable to resolve peacefully the consequences of the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which turned out to be a powder keg that led into First World War, the disintegration of the former USSR and the Russian collapse, make up a tremendous destabilising force in the world situation”. (EI N° 8)

We said this for the following reasons: a)the attempts by several neighbouring states of the ex USSR, and also imperialist powers, to take advantage of the weakness of Russia´s “vital space”; b)the temptation to and the need of every single Russian head of state to unify its forces and of restoring state power, re-establishing its authority over the run-away periphery; and c)the crisis of the old repressive order and the weakness of central power can boost the struggle for national self-determination—thus turning it in a driving force of the revolutionary process against the Great Russian policy of the restaurationist bureaucracy and the new oligarchy alike.

Russia at the doors of Bonapartism?

Those prospects began to materialise with the Russian default in August 1998 which signalled the beginning of the end for a “reformist” attempt at the restoration of capitalism, at the behest of the “pro-western” sectors. No matter the Yeltsin regime survives, a road leading to Bonapartism has been opened. Bonapartism is not around the corner, and to impose it several years will be needed, unless the West steps in to deliver a significant amount of aid, both economic and political, to support the Yeltsinite cliques (something unthinkable in present-day conditions), or were the Russian proletariat not to leap forward coming to the fore, thus overcoming its atomised resistance. Actually, neither the first nor the second variant seem the most plausible right now. In the words of an analyst, “There is nothing that the Western world can do in order to revive the Russian economy. It is not a matter of money. The question in Russia is that money is not turned into capital. All the investments are hopelessly squandered through a combination of inefficiency and embezzlement. For money to be turned into capital , for investment to flourish, there must exist those institutions that guarantee those things such as legal and predictable enforcement of contracts, a reliable transportation of goods from one point to the other, the neutrality of the government when it comes to economic concurrence, etc. None of those things currently exist in Russia. The contracts are not liable, the basic infrastructure is nonexistent, and the government not only is unpredictable in dealing with the participants, but is deliberately obstructive at times.”43International Herald Tribune, 11/9/98. In these conditions, it is very unlikely that imperialism should risk the enormous sums of capital needed for making the Russian economy look like something resembling “capitalism working as such”. The Russian proletariat, apart form the miners strikes which accelerated the ousting of Gorbachev in 1990, have not yet shown (in spite of significant partial struggles) any tendency towards becoming an independent political force, amid the terrible havoc of the economy, the culture and its social conquests all alike.

The stalemate in the restoration/semi-colonisation process means that in spite of the terrible destruction inflicted on the old class relationships, neither imperialism nor the proletariat have been able to capitalise on the situation in their favour, thus calling forth the emergence of an arbiter placed over and above the two fundamental struggling forces, that by reestablishing state power, try and impose a reactionary solution.

Russian Bonapartism, one which can take on a Great Russian Socialchauvinistic shape, will be the agent to try and push forward down the road of capitalist restoration to the very end. Its social base shall nourish of whole swathes of displaced elements of the bureaucracy as well as most of the top officers in the army. They both yearn to recover the lost privileges of the old regime, reinforcing by necessity, given its Great Russian nature, the oppression on the minor nationalities within and out of the Russian Federation itself. This does not mean that they are in a position such as to fight for rebuilding their influence over Eastern Europe, given their tremendous weakness, but they will surely be more aggressive towards the run-away republics of the former USSR. An imperialist commentator ominously points out that: “Fortunately, Russia’s strategic position is such so as to prevent it from getting back global preponderance. Many Armenians, Lithuanians, and Uzbeks will have to die before this is achieved”. 44Ibid.

The war in Kosovo has drawn even closer the likelihood of a Bonapartist drive taking place in Russia. This process may well take several years to set in. It poses enormous foreign policy dilemmas to Western Powers and will be a major source of tensions on the international system. But success is not secured in the least. Each step taken in that direction could give a major boost to national movements of a progressive nature amid the oppressed nationalities and the peoples under threat. Will the Russian proletariat side with them, their allies, to fight back against the Great Russian chauvinistic bureaucracy, or will it be utilised as it already happened in the last decade with the Serbian proletariat as cannon fodder against their brothers, the oppressed nationalities? It is not possible to say. But the Russian proletariat will bear a fundamental responsibility as to whether or not Russian Bonapartism sets in, since the social strength of the former is infinitely superior to that of the “red-brown” coalition—a bewildering array of generals and former generals, nostalgic of the Nomenklatura, former Stalinists rallying under the pictures of Stalin and the Tsar, etc.


The world economy

The deepening of the world economic crisis is the underlying factor both of the increasing tensions between the classes, and also of the deterioration of the relationships between the states, itself reflected in the increasing interimperialist rivalry that marks the end of the 90s “unstable equilibrium”. The latter was predicated on the basis of the US recovery in this decade against its competitors, particularly Germany and Japan, which since the 70s had seen an improvement in their relative position vis-à-vis the US. Basing itself on this, along with the fact that the USSR demise left the US as the sole existing superpower, the illusion was thus created of a “New World Order” with an unchallenged American might at its core, going hand in hand with capital’s unstoppable march and economic globalisation.

This bourgeois ideological onslaught which presented a blind confidence in the unchecked thrust of the market pervaded those groups claiming themselves Marxist with bourgeois economism. Against those who cling to views which give an absolute predominance to the crisis of leadership, thus relapsing in a renewed economic automatism which reads like this: “there is a crisis of proletarian leadership, the bourgeoisie will sooner or later find out a new point of restabilisation and a fresh boom cycle”, we had argued that, “this view turns into absolute a given element, the crisis of proletarian leadership, and works out from here an almighty strength in capital to overcome its crises. That the crisis are every time more recurrent and deep going, that the inter-imperialist contradictions deepen, that the crisis of imperialist rule boosts warmongery in the heartlands, that the working class hit before the crisis started in several countries, that a crack is looming for the world economy…nothing matters, the bourgeoisie will find a (peaceful) way out.”

Neoliberal think-tanks, all of them “market fundamentalists”, thought of the market as perfect, and of capital as superseding its contradictions. Likewise, in the Marxist camp, those who gave supreme relevance to the crisis of leadership drew, however strong the evidence, a symmetric conclusion: capital’s unchecked onslaught along with the opening of a new phase of development for capitalism, in which the main features of the imperialist epoch are nonexistent, were here to stay. In this way they were getting ready for a protracted period of evolutionary and peaceful development for capitalism, one in which the proletariat was to overcome its low level of subjectivity only by treading back the road of the 19th century: a fight for reforms within the system, with proletarian revolution as a far-away perspective, what in fact means wiping it out as a strategic goal. Against this late century neo-Bersteinian or neo-Kautskian45This is to say, a renewed brand of reformism, in the late 20th century, amid capitalist senility, all of which turns it more utopian and reactionary than its predecessor of late 19th century-early 20th century. ideology, we stated that “we need to go back to the methods of the Comintern theoreticians in its revolutionary period(…) an approach which established a dialectical interaction between the economic cycles and the political factors, giving pre-eminence to the latter in the explanation of the developments within the imperialist phase”.

1. A leap in the capitalist crisis

The peculiar conditions of the declining phase of the curve of capitalist development, i.e. the phase of imperialism, bear their mark on capital’s laws of motion. Against those who see a regularity in the cycles of accumulation, the nature of the epoch, in which the political factors along with the role of the states and the vicissitudes of the class struggle play a preponderant role in the process of reproduction of capital, all of them disrupt the regularity of capital’s endogenous motion. This means that in the imperialist epoch capitalism can only succeed in achieving long-lasting stabilisation on condition of strategic defeats for the working class movement (such as the ones in the 30s) and wars for hegemony, like the Second World War. An almost absolute supremacy of US imperialism, along with the existence of the counter-revolutionary Order of Yalta and Potsdam were to lay the basis for the post-war boom. The US enjoyed of an unchallenged economic, military and political domination throughout the period, thus exerting a mighty control over the world economy. That control, along with the levers of anti-cyclical mechanisms46Among those anti-cyclic levers we can count the extension of credit, the role of the arms race, permanent inflation. The reader wishing to expand on this subject, see “The post-war boom”, Estrategia Internacional N° 7. that the capitalist states resorted to, were unable to prevent overproduction crises from breaking off on a national level, but they did ameliorated their sequels notably, essentially preventing them from affecting the world system.

The about-face in the late 60s, early 70s, smashed the equilibrium reached by the world economy during the post-war period. The watershed was brought about by the decline in the absolute hegemony of US imperialism, and the subsequent strengthening both in Japan and Germany’s lot, along with the biggest workers and people’s upsurge since the Second World War against US imperialism and the Stalinist bureaucracy—the two mainstays of the Order of Yalta. Those political factors, along with economic ones, such as the increase in the organic composition of capital and the ensuing fall in the rate of profit, were to bring about what we have called a “crisis of accumulation of capital”. Ever since, the world economy has undergone five cyclic recessions in the years 1969/70-71, 1973/75 (the first worldwide), 1979/82, 1990/91, and last but not least, the August 1997 East Asian slump. Yet, we have seen partial recoveries or stabilisation, but of a fragile or limited nature, both geographically and in terms of economic growth. Now that the hubris of capital’s apologists faded away, the 90s are proving to have been a decade of more reduced growth that the 80s, which were in turn much below the 70s. The recovery in the 90s, far from being global, as the harmonic globalisation view claims, was essentially US-based. Japan could not find a way out of depression, after the late 80s speculative bubble burst, while Europe showed a very feeble growth throughout the decade (with a slight improvement in the last few years). The frailties of the world economy in all those years, itself an expression of the increasing weight of finance and of the decomposition of capital, can be seen in the successive currency and stock-exchange shake-offs since the 1982 debt crisis. Ever since, we have witnessed the 1987 Wall Street crash, the collapse of the real estate and finance bubble in Japan in the early 90s, the disruption of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, with the subsequent floating of the lira and the sterling pound, the 1995 “tequila” crisis, the current slump in Asia which bottomed in late 1997, the August 1998 Russian default and Brazil’s crisis in February 1999—the latter was kept at bay before making an impact on the world financial system. They prove that the crisis in accumulation of capital, started in the 70s, has not been superseded in the 90s. Moreover, since the Asian crisis it has reached new heights, thus confirming that the world economy is not heading towards a new expansive phase of the productive forces, but that we are rather before the first tremors and the exacerbation of the features of the imperialist epoch, the epoch of capitalism’s mortal agony.

The economic slump which followed the collapse of “the Asian miracle” has spread globally, as shown by Japan, Russia, the whole of the semi-colonial world, and the bad omens for Europe. The US alone has kept a significant thrust in an increasingly ruined world.

Meanwhile, the attempt to assimilate Russia, China and the East, far from allowing for a major boom in the world economy—a mirage widely believed in the early 90s—has turned out to be a source of sharp contradictions. As we put it in EI N° 8, May 1998: “In a word, the crisis of capitalist accumulation and the ever more parasitic and speculative nature of the economy of the world, is one of the major factors precluding the “peaceful and harmonious” integration of those countries into a world economy under imperialist domain, without such advances bringing about internal and external shake-offs, such as the recent crisis in South East Asia bears testimony.”

2. The United States, renewed structural strength or cushioning of its historic decline?

The fact that the US has remained relatively untouched by the world crisis has encouraged views claiming this is the result of a structural break-trough, the by-product of a fresh “industrial revolution”, its driving force being the “information technology revolution”—a fact highlighted by the growth of productivity.

Against the view claiming that US imperialism is “rejuvenating” itself, thus fending off its decline, we said that: “Today, in contrast with the golden years of its hegemony, its decline is forcing it to launch an attack on its own proletariat—a fact shown by the mushrooming of junk labour, stagnation and wage cuts, as well as the astronomical cut in welfare benefits—and against its rivals worldwide. The US decline, since its military defeat in Vietnam, and given the crisis of capitalist accumulation running back to the early 70s, is sending shock waves through the whole world economy, thus undermining political stability of inter-imperialist relationships and between the nations of the world.”47Estrategia Internacional N° 10.

During the post-war boom, the US overwhelming economic superiority enabled it to give significant concessions to the proletariat at home, thus co-opting sizable swathes of it and cementing internal cohesion as well as boosting recovery both in Europe and Japan. It managed its hegemony over the world economy through international economic and financial institutions which mirrored its interests (IMF, GATT, World Bank, Bretton Woods accords, etc).

Today, the US relative economic strength is otherwise predicated upon an important defeat against the proletariat at home—a spin-off of the onslaught in the 80s—which significantly increased the rates of exploitation, a paramount underlying factor of the US recovery and dynamism alike. Neither Japan nor Europe were able to attain anything of the sort in this decade. They dared not to challenge their proletariats by breaking up the old seasoned “social pacts” propping up either Europe’s “welfare state” or Japan’s system of “life-long employment”. In Europe’s case this is reflected in the bourgeoisie’s inability to get rid of what bourgeois think-tanks call “labour market tightness”, i.e., they have been unable to bring in a US-style flexible and casual labour schemes. The latest report of the OCDE shows which social force has “benefited” (in their words) from the non-implementation of, or rather resisted (we should say) against, such measures. The report states that: “the tight European labour market benefits ‘the spine’ of workers, adult labourers from 24 to 55 years old, which make up the bulk of trade union members and provide for most of trade union militants.”48International Herald Tribune, 29/6/99. In other words, the various European imperialist nations, apart from Britain, were unable to inflict defeats or significant setbacks to the most concentrated battalions of the industrial proletariat, such as the 1984 crackdown on the miners strike, or the UAW—auto workers union—sell out in the US during the peak of the 1979/82 recession, which meant the loss of significant conquests. Given those conditions, the US was able to bring into play its military, technological and political superiority, while cushioning its historical loss of economic positions at the hands of Japan and Europe with a good performance. The consequences of such a break-through made by capital has resulted in an enormous structural setback for the US working class. The brutally regressive redistribution of income and the ensuing abysmal social polarisation are both undermining political cohesion at home, discrediting the bipartisan system and boosting bitter political stand-offs in the establishment, strongly intertwined with financial institutions, most notably Wall Street. Those disputes, reflected in Clinton’s trial just before the Kosovo war, are weakening institutions, particularly the White House. As Kevin Phillips had already pointed out in 1995, “It is this destructive convergence of forces—signs of the US national decline, along with the political entrenchment of lobbying groups, and the growing weight of finance in the economy—what is casting a shadow of doubt on the vitality of the US as we draw to the end of century.”49Kevin Phillips, Arrogant Capital.

On the other hand, the US relative dynamism is essentially sustained at the expense of its rival powers and of the whole of the world economy, as shown by the expansion of its MNCs (multinational corporations) and the growth in its exports in the decade. The US increasingly resorts to its pre-eminence in financial and economic institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO in pursue of its unilateral agenda, thus throwing them into crisis and clashing every time more openly with the interest of rival capitalist powers. But its more “perverted” role is played out from its command position of the world financial system through the control of the dollar as world currency, one which accounts for most of the transactions on the stock markets. “In the 90s, by taking advantage of its dominant position in a crisis-ridden world financial system for its own benefit, has dragged the world economy late in this decade to deflation and the collapse of the last capitalist miracle for the past 20 years (South East Asia)”. 50Estrategia Internacional N° 10.

Such a use of its position in the world financial system is to account for most of the easy-going financing that American dynamism counted upon in the 90s. As an economist points out: “the fact that the US economy has been able in recent years to sustain a high rate of investment in spite of a very low rate of savings, is due to the great inflow of capital from abroad in the US during that period. In other words, the rest of the world have been willing to furnish the necessary savings to keep investments in the US going, thus allowing the US “to eat his cake” (consumption) and to invest at the same time.”51Monthly Review, The US economy in 1999, by Fred Moseley, March 1999.

This need for a permanent economic pressure on its competitors as well as on the whole world economy, increasingly clashes with the US strategic necessities, and is at the base of the tensions with its allies and agents. It is enough to mention that while the allied intervention in Yugoslavia was raging on, so did the commercial wars between the US and Europe, set against each other on such disparate fields such as “the war for bananas” (aimed at pushing through the European market the US monopolies Latin America-grown bananas), “the meat war” (where the US rejects hormone-treated American beef), or “the noisy planes war” (with the EU poised against American “noisy” jetliners, with Washington threatening to retaliate with the ban on Concorde’s access to US airports), and last but not least, the row around genetically manipulated food.

All these point out to the fact that in spite of the US recovering in the 90s with respect to Europe and Japan (as opposed to its steep decline in the 70s and 80s), the present decade signals not a structural “rejuvenation”, but rather a relative strengthening, or in other words, a temporary cushioning of US decline.

3. Will the protracted boom in the US be sustained?

After the most acute peak in the world crisis, which in August last year forced the Fed to bail out the LTCM hedge fund and to three successive cuts in interest rates, the American economy apparently seemed to have staved off the deflationary pressures coming from the world economy. The US economy has undergone a robust growth in the first semester of 1999, fuelled by the strong dynamism of consumption at home. These facts, most notably this strong growth in the US, has boosted a relative “optimism” in the American bourgeois media, which predict that the US shall not be affected by the world slump. This confidence has been reflected in Wall Street’s renewed bull market. But this soar is due not so much to a robust dynamism at home, but to the crippling condition of the world economy fundamentally. As we said in April this year: “The upswing in Wall Street, far from showing the strength of the US economy, reflects instead the slump of the world economy and capital flight from the rest of the markets, but not the soundness of its operations, which have seen massive benefits cuts in the wake of the world crisis.”52Estrategia Internacional N° 11-12.

The beneficial effects of the worsening world slump for the US economy, have widened the massive internal imbalances that go along with the strong upswing this year, thus threatening its continuity.

The fall in the price of commodities, most notably oil, and a massive capital inflow (“flight to quality”) resulted in huge gains “on the spot” which dispelled short term bad omens over corporate profits. This was further encouraged by the significant cuts in interest rates which prevented the disruption of cash flow to the enterprises—the main reason behind Greenspan’s move in September 1998. Those elements encouraged a new hike in Wall Street (to the point of breaking the insane 11,000 points Dow Jones index barrier) and the continuity of the so-called “wealth effect”, thus underpinning an unusually high growth rate of consumption at home.

In turn, this ushered a low-inflation robust growth for the first quarter, giving fresh credit to the supporters of the “new economy” paradigm.

However, this a pace too hard to keep. The Economist goes on to argue that: “it is hard to conceal that demand in the US has been growing at untenable levels, even counting on an increase in productivity. The demand at home grew at a 7% annual rate in the first quarter of 1999, well above sound growth rates. Eventually everyone, up to include the most extreme optimistic people agree that such a heating up in the economy will end pushing up prices.”53The Economist, 19/6/99.

The other side of the coin of this high growth rate of US consumer spending is a strong import growth, which is fuelling a massive trade deficit and a huge increase both in private and corporate borrowing. “America’s consumer frenzy is being financed through a heavy debt creation both by households and corporations alike, whose debts are growing to the fastest pace ever in a decade. Consumer debt has hit record levels contrasted with earnings: the corporations are issuing vast amounts of debt to buy back equities.”54The Economist, 25/6/99. Basing itself on such data the above mentioned magazine cast the following prognosis: “the whole evidence points out to overheating: an irrational stock market, along with consumer frenzy, a borrowing rush and an inchoate shortage of labour.” This last point boils down to the US bourgeoisie increasing concern that the shrinkage of the industrial reserve army end up strengthening the grip of the US working class, thus kicking off wage struggles. We shall not forget that an almost 20 years-long wage cut is at the base of the US renewed dynamism. Such accumulation of symptoms heralds, beyond the short term perspectives, that the current growth is increasingly hard to sustain for a long time to come. We cannot even write off an abrupt slump. Concern is evident is some imperialist mouthpieces: “Just as Japan’s economic strength was exaggerated in the 80s, eventually spiralling out of control, likewise the recent actual economic break-throughs in the US have been overestimated. Had the Fed acted earlier on to let some air out of the Wall Street bubble, then the US economy would not be now in such an imbalaced position.”55Stratfor, 21/6/99

Those imbalances in the US economy are not a mere currency issue due to Greenspan’s miscalculation, but they rather reflect a deep going phenomenon: the strong imbalances in the world economy.

The US is unable to act as a “last resort market” for the crisis-ridden economies in the rest of the world, without throwing its trade balance into disarray, thus weakening the dollar. Such weakening in the world´s favourite currency for speculation might end up “puncturing” Wall Street’s bubble. As we said in EI N° 11: “the US economy has become utterly dependent on the stock market performance”, so that a fall in Wall Street would hit consumer spending—the main prop of US dynamism amid the world crisis—hard, and might throw the whole of its economy into recession. This in turn would result in a worsening of the world crisis, sweeping away the feeble tendencies to stability in Asia, Latin America and worldwide.

Capital inflow, along with the short term advantages still enjoyed by the US, might prolong this state of affairs for some time, but at the cost of further exacerbating the contradictions that run deep in the US economy.

It is worth noting that just 8 months back from now Greenspan (chairman of the Fed) was forced to cut interest rates to avoid the risk of deflation, and that now he further lowered them a quarter of point to stave off inflation. This shows crystal clear the narrow room for manoeuvre left to an US economy surrounded by a world in ruins, as well as the impossibility of keeping the current pace of growth indefinitely.

Those domestic imbalances in the US are ultimately both the byproduct and the expression of the enormous contradictions running deep in the world economy. To sum up, against those who hold optimistic views, they show that the unstable world economic equilibrium of the 90s has come to an end—whatever the inevitable ups and downs in the tempo of the crisis might be.

4. Are we drawing close to end of the international economic crisis?

This year the world economy has shown signs of some recovery. The shake-off in Brazil signalled the crisis was spreading to Latin America but after hitting rock bottom in February-early March this year, the IMF package seems to have conjured a 1997 South Asia-style demise, even at the expense of unleashing a severe recession.

There are reports about a recovery taking place in some Asian countries, such as Korea. Japan’s stock market has soared 40% after hitting an all-time low last October and last January.

The oil price, one of the fundamental commodities, hardly hit at the onset of the crisis, has gained ground consistently. This has fuelled some optimism in the bourgeois media, which forecast an end for the world slump. But these are still-born and biased. The world economic crisis has not found yet a new point of equilibrium. When many anticipated a coming economic recovery, the Japanese economy, second in the world, has seen a sharp deterioration in the trade front, which uncovers the limits and the narrowness still lingering on both the world market and the economy, thus hindering a way out of the crisis. True to form, they are hindering a peaceful way out of the crisis, without deepening commercial wars and tensions between the great powers and a renewed attack against the proletariat at home. “Japan trade surplus in May fell around 31.5%, whereas its surplus with the US increased almost 15%. On the economic front this spells a decline in cash available, still needed first and foremost by the Japanese banking system to keep its balance via ready money. On the political front this means that there will be no abatement of the commercial links with the US. So Japan is enjoying the worst of both worlds: a surplus contraction without a corresponding decrease of political tensions. The roots of the decline are to be found in Europe, since the exports to the EU have declined in one third. European demand is shrinking, thus signalling the European economic expansion is running into serious trouble. This is bad news for Japan for the obvious reasons. To a certain extent the Japanese economy seemed to have had arrived at a turning point. Europe’s weakness may undermine such expansion.”56The Economist, 26/6/99.

The US alone maintain, as we saw above, a significant growth. But “the US economy ‘bonanza’ cannot keep on going amid a deep ongoing world crisis”. The US is not in a position to act as “last resort consumer” of a ruined world economy. The current situation has already led to the formation of a strong protectionist lobby, most notably the steel industry. A law bringing in quotas for steel imports from Japan and China was passed by the House of Representatives. Some analysts suggest the passing of this law might unleash a commercial war, with retaliation measures that could strongly affect the pharmaceutical industry, agriculture, and high technology industries, up to include the very steel industry. Eventually, the Senate rejected such a law, but as The Economist points out: “no matter the steel industry has lost the battle over the imports quota, it still seems likely to win the war.”57The Economist, 26/6/99. Any further worsening of the world situation can assemble this protectionist bloc together again.

In turn, were the interest rates in the US to increase any further—to stave off inflation—this might unleash a leap in the crisis engulfing the debt-ridden semi-colonial countries, as it happened with the “crisis of the debt” in 1982, or the “Tequila” crisis in 1994. Higher cost credit, due to an unexpected rise of inflation in the US, might trigger a drop in real state values, a depreciation of all financial assets, and a recession in the US. More factors, be it internal or external, might trigger off such a recession. As Fred Moseley from Monthly Review correctly puts it: “The possibility exists, though not the likelihood, of the American economy just slowing down. If the rest of the world just ran smoothly—whether the Asian and Latin-American economies (particularly Japan and Brazil) start to recover, if we do not have a bitter surprise anywhere in the world economy, if a credit crunch is avoided both in American banks and stock markets; if the stock market keeps on growing apace, regardless historical precedent and actual profits; if American households keep on spending more than they earn—then, may be the US economy will slow down thus staving off a recession. However, if just one or two of these conditions are not met (what seems to me highly likely, for instance, the absence of a recovery in Brazil and/or Japan), then, the likelihood exists of the global crisis reaching home.”58Monthly Review, op. cit. All of which shows the fragility of the world economy as a whole nowadays.


The class struggle, the crisis of subjectivity and the crisis of proletarian revolutionary leadership

1. A theoretical consideration of the conditions for socialist revolution

The prospect of social revolution has been wiped out of the social horizon of the working masses and the oppressed, up to include some vanguard layers at the forefront of the combats in the latest period. To the sequels of a decades-long nefarious dirty work by Stalinism, Socialdemocracy and the trade union bureaucracy all alike on the consciousness of the masses, now add imperialist propaganda, with its hired hacks ceaselessly pounding on biased shams such as “the death of socialism” or “the farewell to the proletariat”. In the present-day poisoned atmosphere, of ongoing attacks against every Marxist fundamentals, we feel obliged to start with the ABC of historical materialism, so as to lay bare the fraudulent nature of the currently reigning “overproduction of bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideology”, to approach then the question of proletarian subjectivity.

In a speech delivered in 1924,59Leon Trotsky, “Europe and America” p.9. Pluma Editors, Buenos Aires, 1975. Trotsky asked the following: “Which are the necessary conditions for social revolution? Under which conditions can it emerge, unfold and impose itself? There are many, but we can group them in three types and, may be to start with, in two: the objective ones meaning those who take shape behind people´s backs, and the subjective ones. The objective ones (to start with the base, with the fundamental principle) spring up in the first place in response to the level of development of the productive forces. (..) Thus, the cardinal, fundamental question for socialist revolution is a given level of development of the productive forces, in which socialism (and communism later on) as an economic system, as a mode of production and distribution of goods, offers unmatched material advantages (…) Have we already reached that level yet, if we are to take into account the capitalist world as a whole?(…)

“The second condition is for society to be divided in such a way so that a class exists with an interest in socialist change, one that is strong enough in its ranks and with due influence over the industry so as to bear upon itself the burden of making that change happen. But this is not enough. It is necessary for this class—and here we move on to subjective conditions—to have a clear understanding of the state of affairs and to consciously yearn for change.”

“Subjective preconditions”—or in our words subjectivity of the proletariat—are “the consciousness on the part of the proletariat of their role in society and their organisation by a party capable of leading them.”60Leon Trotsky, “Europe and America” p.9. Pluma Editors, Buenos Aires, 1975. The recognition by the proletariat of their forces and of their role in society not only is translated into ideas, i.e., into class consciousness narrowly speaking, but it relies upon institutions built accordingly by the class itself with the aim of self-determination, and upon the leaderships and/or parties which shape them out. This is a history-long process, which unfolds through leaps, advances and setbacks, and where working class subjectivity develops under pressure of class combats and in contact with (under the influence and in fight against) other classes and social groups and their political representatives.

As we can see, the question of subjectivity is not reduced to one of “consciousness” in the abstract, regarded in a rationalist or idealistic way, but as we have said above, it rather includes institutions, consciousness and leadership. The highest point of proletarian subjectivity is a revolutionary workers movement, with its sovietic-type fighting organs led by a revolutionary proletarian party. Marxism’s scientific programme (which embodies the history-long experience of proletarian class struggle) is thus turned into a powerful material force when fused with the social subject who has the ability to transform society from top to bottom, by means of the revolutionary party’s lead.

That is why proletarian subjectivity and revolutionary Marxism are entities which cannot be separated, however non-identical. As Lenin put it, there cannot be a revolutionary party as such in absence of a genuine revolutionary movement, but the existence of the latter is a necessary—but not enough—condition for the victory of the proletariat. In the 20th century, where revolution and counter-revolution openly clash against each other, a revolutionary leadership acquires a decisive and conclusive value for the proletariat to be able to overthrow the bourgeoisie. In the imperialist epoch, when capital resorts to the corruption of the established leaderships of the working class, thus bringing about an internal differentiation inside the proletariat, with the emergence of a labour aristocracy, building a revolutionary party is needed to codify in a programme the historic interests of the working class as a whole, including its mostly oppressed and exploited layers—a centralised party both at a national and international level. For the proletariat to be able to win the struggle, a conscious organisation of revolutionaries is needed, with a previous preparation around a programme able to shape the cadre with the ability to resist, in the decisive moments, either fascist repression or the lure of the popular front.

The relationship between subjective and objective factors

The development of the various aspects, be them subjective or objective, is not harmonious, but uneven instead. It is always the case that subjective factors lag behind with regard to the evolution of the objective factors. As Trotsky puts it: “Politics considered as a historic mass driving force is always lagging behind as to the economy. If the reigning of finance capital and of monopolies and trusts alike began in the late 19th century, it did not reflect on world politics well after the imperialist war, the October Revolution and the foundation of the Comintern”61Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, Yunque Editors, Buenos Aires, 1974, p.149. This disproportion of decisive significance tends to be resolved when contradictions sharpen up to the utmost, under economic, social and political upheavals, since the very nature of the epoch “dictates the proletariat the historic need of seizing power”, creating favourable conditions and giving the opportunity to work out this contradiction. The “scissors” between objective and subjective factors only is bridged on the grounds of the class struggle, since “the revolutionary nature of the epoch does not consist in that allows for making a revolution, this is to say, seizing power, at any time, but rather in its abrupt oscillations.”62Ibid., p.150. In this way, only on the grounds of great developments, through the living combat between the classes, the revolutionary subjectivity of the proletariat is able to develop apace, thus tuning itself in with the maturity of the objective conditions.

Leon Trotsky pointed out that: “Over and over again we Marxists have pointed out , as opposed to all sort of idealistic views, that a society’s consciousness always lags behind the objective conditions of development, and this is reflected on a grand scale in the destiny of the proletariat. The productive forces have long ago matured for socialism. The proletariat have been playing a decisive economic role since long ago, at least in the major imperialist countries. It controls the levers of production, and consequently, the levers of society. What is missing is the last factor, the subjective one. Consciousness lags behind existence.”63Leon Trotsky, On Europe and the United States, Pluma Editors, p.11. Trotsky himself explains how when the subjective and objective factors are separated by “wide open scissors”, it is left to great developments, like cracks, wars and epoch-making catastrophes to restore the correspondence lost between the objective and subjective, throwing mercilessly light on the decomposition of society, shaking up the consciousness of the masses and drawing them out of daily conservatism. Now, this means that the proletariat and the oppressed masses alike can be forced to bear the brunt of additional costs, in the guise of increased hardship, partial defeats, etc., to be up to with their historic tasks. It also means running the risk of an increased cost insofar as the independent intervention of the proletariat on the world arena is still further delayed.

What is the relationship between Trotsky’s concept of “capitalist equilibrium” and this dialectic of subjective and objective factors in the imperialist epoch? In “peaceful and normal” times the contradictions and the role of the various classes, institutions, parties, etc., in society are kept in the shade cast by the stability of bourgeois rule. The periods when “capitalist equilibrium” breaks up, of “deep and abrupt oscillations”, massively sharpen up all the contradictions thus weakening the enemy, furnishing those material conditions which make room for a revolutionary irruption of the proletariat.

That is why, the precise scientific determination of those sharp twists and turns in reality are paramount from the standpoint both of revolutionary strategy and tactics.

As Lenin puts it: “Marxism differs from every other socialist theory in its magnificent unification of an utter scientific sobriety in the analysis of the state of affairs and the objective march of evolution, with the most resolute recognition of the importance of revolutionary energy, of revolutionary creativity, of mass revolutionary initiative, as well as of individuals, of the groups, organisations and parties alike which know how to find out and realize the link with any given classes. The high relevance of revolutionary periods in mankind’s development flows from the whole set of concepts of Marx about history: it is precisely in those periods, when the several contradictions accumulated slowly in periods of so-called peaceful evolution eventually find a solution.”64V.I. Lenin Against Boycott, July 1907.

The Comintern and Trotsky’s comprehensive approach, which took as its starting point the concept of capitalism as a “world embracing fact” and the nature of the imperialist epoch as one of “crises, wars and revolutions”, integrates as we have seen, the relationships between the economy, the states and the classes, to work out the dynamics of break-ups. This method enabled Trotsky to summarise as follows: “If in the last decade the immediate consequences of the imperialist war were the main source of revolutionary situations, in the course of the following decade instead [i.e. the 30s] those situations shall spring up, after all, from the reciprocal links between Europe and America.”65Ibid. He thus deemed interimperialist disputes as paramount to formulate the questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics the Comintern had to confront in the late 20s. Basing ourselves on such theoretical considerations we shall try and advance in defining the general conditions for the development of the class struggle, the subjectivity of the proletariat and of revolutionary leadership, in the epoch ushered in by the Russian Revolution.

2. The class struggle, subjectivity and leadership in the 20th century.

The victorious October Revolution in Russia, led by the Bolshevik Party, was the highest peak ever in the development of the revolutionary subjectivity of the world working class. It was under the impact of such a great revolutionary triumph that the Comintern was founded (the preparations for which had begun during the First World War, with the Conference of Zimmerwald), in what constituted the greatest endeavour to furnish the world proletariat with a unified leadership. That truly revolutionary High Command was built in the course of the post-war revolutionary upsurge, which threw millions of workers into revolutionary action and spurted a soviet/council building drive while new-born Communist Parties were coming to life. In a word, it was a time when the class struggle (with the wave ushered in by the war and the Russian Revolution), working class subjectivity (with the emergence of soviets) and the development of an international revolutionary leadership were all alike synchronised.

That first onslaught of proletarian revolution was to undergo a series of defeats in Germany, Hungary, Italy, etc., owing to the immaturity of the CPs, which would in turn allow for a partial restabilisation of capitalism, leaving Soviet Russia isolated and exhausted in the drive. Under such conditions a bureaucratisation process was to unfold, one which resulted in the degeneration of the Comintern and the CPs all alike.

The 30s were a period of reaction, signalled by great revolutionary combats of the working class worldwide, which were defeated owing to the betrayal of its misleaderships, what eventually paved the way for the Second World War. Trotsky, already on the brink of the war, said that, “The political situation of the world now is characterised, primarily, by the crisis of proletarian leadership”66Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution, Pluma Editors, Buenos Aires 1975, p.7. That formula codified the responsibility of the leaders of the Communist and Socialdemocratic Parties for the successive cruel defeats inflicted upon the proletariat in several revolutionary processes, in which it had shown a certain revolutionary instinct as well as a great fighting disposition. In the case of Spain, Trotsky, arguing against those who claimed a so-called “immaturity of the masses” was to blame for the defeat, said that: “The line of action of the workers diverged every minute, in a given angle, from that pursued by the leadership. In the most critical moments that angle displayed a 180° divergence. The leadership then, collaborated, either directly or indirectly to force the workers into submission through armed force. In May 1937 the Catalonian workers rose up not only without their leadership but against it.”67Leon Trotsky, “Class, the Party, and Leadership”, Bolshevism and Stalinism, Yunque Editors, Buenos Aires, 1975, p.39. Such was the case with the Chinese revolution in 1925-27, which was defeated thanks to Stalinism’s opportunist policies, which subordinated the CP both political and organisationally to the Kuomingtang. The result of this policy was the vicious carnage of the revolutionary workers which had been at the core of the Shanghai and Canton insurrections, massacred by the supposedly bourgeois nationalist ally, Chiang-Kai-Shek.

In turn the German proletariat, Europe’s best organised and strongest, which handed power over to the Socialtraitors in the 1918 revolution, and squandered a second chance for seizing power in 1923 due to the CP’s vacillation, was eventually surrendered to Hitler without a single bullet being shot by the KDP and SPD’s nefarious policy.68It is worth noting that many groups which claim themselves Trotskyists have turned Trotsky’s statement about the“crisis of revolutionary leadership” into an abstract, superhistorical concept, dissolving it thus in a vague statement, meaning the one and the same thing in 1919, 1938, 1968-74 or 1999. Such revision, in the years of Yalta, led to “beautify” Stalinism’s counter-revolutionary labour, underplaying its nefarious role in demoralising the working class movement and in the degradation of its subjectivity. Today it means ignoring the nature and scope of the task confronting the world proletariat, therefore leading either to a helpless position or to opportunism.

Those defeats inflicted upon the masses, which in spite of their heroism proved unable to supersede those traitor misleaderships, finally opened—we insist on that—the door to war.

The foundation of the Fourth International in 1938, on the eve of a renewed world carnage, sought to maintain revolutionary continuity and to ready itself to intervene in the revolutionary opportunities which were to emerge in the inevitable post-war upsurge. It sought to found the nucleus of a revolutionary High Command which would eventually become a mass Fourth International

A new period begins in 1943. With the decisive defeat inflicted upon Hitler’s armies in Stalingrad, a fresh and extraordinary mass upsurge in Europe and the colonial and semi-colonial world sets off. Paradoxically it ended up strengthening the traitor misleaderships´ grip, particularly Stalinism, which won enormous prestige out of crushing the Nazis.69Revolution swept western Europe. In Italy, France and Greece it was derailed and beheaded thanks to the collaboration of the CPs, which abode by the counter-revolutionary role sealed in the Yalta accords of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt.
Such counter-revolutionary pact was unable to prevent the victory of the Chinese and Yugoslav revolutions, when the CPs were forced to go beyond their will, thus building deformed workers states (the same process unfolded in the Red Army-occupied Eastern Europe).
A momentous mass upsurge swept through Asia, Africa and Latin America, smashing the old colonial empires and shaking the semi-colonies.
Tragically, history gave the lie to Trotsky’s prognosis about the Fourth International strengthening in the face of a revolutionary upheaval.

During this period, the renewed strength of counter-revolutionary apparatuses blocked the evolution of the working class movement’s subjectivity, thus further deepening the crisis of revolutionary leadership. As a result of the capitalist bonanza brought in by the “boom” in the imperialist countries and in some prosperous semi-colonies, a reformist-like subjectivity crystallised in the working class movement, which was shaped by the rule of counter-revolutionary apparatuses. Meanwhile, both nationalist petty bourgeois and bourgeois movements grew strong in the periphery of the world. Although significant revolutionary victories were won there, bureaucratic leaderships got on board of them, thus eventually strengthening the grip of Stalinism and making room for the imperialist order to absorb them. In this way, the road for future defeats was opened.

In the “world of Yalta”, parties and unions alike built and supported by the proletariat gained enormous power, but they became increasingly subordinated to the bourgeois state, from which both the labour aristocracy and the union bureaucracy were able to wrestle substantial perks amid the post-war economic bonanza. Therefore, when confronted with the about-face in the economic situation at the onset of the world economic crisis in the 70s, they showed themselves helpless to successfully challenge the onslaught unleashed by capital. Meanwhile, bureaucratic and reformist leaderships alike on top of those organisations went on to brazen counter-revolutionary collaboration with capital. With their betrayal, the Communist and Socialdemocratic parties all alike prevented the working class from using in their favour the break-up in capitalist equilibrium ushered in by the onset of an economic crisis worldwide.

Such crises in the subjectivity of the proletariat are not new in the history of the working class movement. Trotsky, when explaining the tragedy of the German proletariat trapped in the First World War carnage, which was supported by its powerful unions and its mass party, Socialdemocracy, he stated: “History has revealed itself in such ways that in the epoch of imperialist war German Socialdemocracy proved to be—and this we can point out to with utter objectivity—the most counter-revolutionary factor in world history. German Socialdemocracy, however is not an accident; does not come out of the blue, but was built thanks to the efforts of the German working class along decades of ceaseless building activity and adaptation to the Junker-capitalist state conditions. The building of parties and unions adjacent to her absorbed the most outstanding and energetic elements of the proletarian milieu, which were thus shaped both psychological and politically. When the war broke up, this to say, when the moment of the great historic test came, the official organisation of the workers was revealed as thinking and acting not along the lines of fighting proletarian organisation set against the bourgeois state, but as an auxiliary organ of the bourgeois state aimed at submitting the proletariat. The working class was paralysed, since it had to bear on their shoulders not only the full weight of capitalist militarism, but that of its own party as well. The plight of the war, its victories, its defeats, smashed the paralysis the German working class, and set it free from the discipline imposed by the official party. The party split up. But the German proletariat remained without a fighting revolutionary organisation. Once again history showed the world one of its dialectical contradictions. The German working class devoted most of their energies in the previous epoch to building self-sufficient organisations, and its party and union apparatus ranked first within the Second International. But precisely that was the reason why, in this new epoch, when the moment for switching to an open revolutionary fight for power came, the German working class proved to be extremely defenceless organisationally.”70Leon Trotsky, “A revolution is crawling” The German revolution and the debate on soviet power, p.286, Pathfinder Press, New York.

Since the onset of the capitalist crisis in the 70s, the world working class proved to be “extremely defenceless organisationally” in the face of the bourgeois onslaught. However hard she tried—the industrial committees in Chile, the coordination bodies in Argentina, Bolivia’s Popular Assembly, Portugal’s Soldiers and Tenants Committees; the positions and conquests gained in the previous period turned against the working class in the decisive moments. The existence of the USSR and more than a dozen workers states, million-strong unions, all of them in the hands of counter-revolutionary leaderships, were used to open betrayal by those actual lieutenants of capital within the working class movement. Once the 1968-75 upswing was derailed and crushed, the working class was to pay the highest cost of “downsizing”, the loss of conquests and the hike in unemployment in the following years, since it was unable to shrug off the enormous dead weight, the shackles, embodied in the subordination to the counter-revolutionary apparatuses that drew upon its energies and its victories, at the service of ultimately strengthening its class enemies.

That was the case because the thread of continuity with Bolshevism incarnated in the Fourth International was cut off. The FI was no alternative to the above mentioned apparatuses, since it collapsed into centrism in the early 50s, thus deepening the crisis of revolutionary leadership. In the years of “Yalta” those groups claiming themselves Trotskyist squandered one after another the opportunities for advancing towards the construction of an embryonic international revolutionary leadership, as it happened to be the case in the Bolivian revolution of 1952 (and also in Ceylon), and later on, albeit they grew strong in the 1968-75 upswing, they further deepened their centrist collapse. In the 80s, the forces claiming themselves Trotskyist went along with the rightward drift of the traitor misleaderships. This prevented them from being an actual alternative, able, at least, to relatively shape the subjectivity of the masses or some vanguard sectors, when they rose against Stalinism in 1989.

3. The situation of the working class in the last two decades

As we have said above, the inability of the working class to speak with its own voice when the crisis of capitalism unfolded in the early 70s, resulted in the latter having to pay with a dismal deterioration in its labour and living standards and with an enormous soar in unemployment. This has reached levels similar to those of the Great Depression, thus turning into a structural problem. The figures are eloquent. According to the ILO, before the Asian crisis there was a mass of unemployed of up to 140 million people in the world, with 25 to 30% of the work force worldwide on part-time jobs.71This, in spite that the world economy has not yet suffered the devastating effects over production and jobs of a 1929 Wall Street-style crack. Nowadays, as Trotsky said in the 30s, “the current army of unemployed can no longer be regarded as an ‘industrial reserve army’, since its fundamental mass cannot have any hope of finding a new job; on the contrary, this mass is poised to become bigger with a steady flow of additional unemployed. The disintegration of capital has brought in its wake a whole generation of youth that never have had a job and have no hope whatsoever of finding one. This new sub-class between the proletariat and the semi-proletarians is forced to live at the expense of society.”72Leon Trotsky, Marx’s living thought, Losada Editors, Buenos Aires, p.25. That huge mass of unemployed is used by capital to divide working class ranks between employed and unemployed workers, effective and casual labour, unionised and non-unionised, immigrant and native workers.

It is in the US where flexible labour has advanced the most. Different works, such as Brenner’s, show how at least one third of employed labour, although they actually have a job, make up a vast surplus labour army of workers looking for a job, being de facto part of the mass of unemployed, therefore exerting a strong downward pressure on wages. That accumulation of partial defeats, has dented the fighting capacity of the working class and in the short-term runs against the development of a revolutionary subjectivity.

The divide in workers’ ranks, reinforced by the policy of the union bureaucracy, enormously hinders the defence of the most elemental demands. Amid an ocean of unemployed, workers understand that a partial struggle waged in isolation or on a factory basis, is helpless to stop capital’s onslaught. Thus, throughout these years those conditions favoured the “neoliberal offensive”, which relied upon active collaboration on the part of the union bureaucracy, which set up all sort of social peace pacts, bargaining at factory level, etc., thus further undermining the unity of workers’ ranks.

In turn, the advance of the bourgeois offensive has resulted in an ever reckless attack against the whole working class, not only affecting its most exploited sectors, but its most privileged layers as well: the labour aristocracy. This tends to level down the situation of the majority of the proletariat, a development of major social and political consequences for the composition of the working class. The increasing busting of a big percentage of skilled jobs and the descent of skilled workers into the most oppressed layers of the proletariat, has resulted in a change of the internal composition of the working class.

We have explained above the conservative role that this has played on the fighting capacity of the working class. But the increasing structural homogeneity, spurted by the very capitalist onslaught, has laid ever stronger objective basis for the unity of the working class, much stronger than in the years of “boom”. Then capital was able to incorporate a significant share of the working class, above all in the developed world, therefore guaranteeing “social peace”.

The above mentioned is manifested when capital launches strong attacks against the whole working class and the poor, out of a miscalculation in the actual balance of forces or forced by a crisis. It is then when strong tendencies towards class unity emerge in workers’ ranks along with a drive to a united front aimed at confronting the attack. This was notably the case in France, when in late 1995 the civil servants went on strike, drawing behind them the overwhelming solidarity of the whole population (in spite of the latter being “affected” by the public service and transport strikes). It happened likewise in the US, when the UPS workers strike, which was received with great sympathy, since it was a challenge against the part-time regime affecting a sizable chunk of the US working class.

The short-term effect of the situation confronting the working class has been to dampen its fighting disposition and to put off its entry on the scene. But although the bourgeois offensive succeeded in denting the strength of the working class, it has been unable to inflict on it epoch-making defeats such as the ones in the 30s.

Furthermore, the view which holds the proletariat is supposedly “fading away” is a theoretical nonsense. The working class remains a fundamental class owing to its role in production and its weight in society. “The undeniable material reality is that never before the working class was so powerful like now since its formation in the 19th century. A scientific analysis shows that, far from a ‘withering away of the proletariat’, this has grown numerically. Although this is relatively less concentrated in great units of production, at the same time it has increased its concentration in gigantic megalopolis, its objective force stronger than in the most revolutionary periods of history, such as the 1917 Russian revolution or the 1918 German revolution, not only in the biggest imperialist countries, but also worldwide, as shown by the powerful South East Asian proletariat”. This was explained by us in the Dossier “Crisis of labour or crisis of capitalism?”, published in EI N° 11-12.

This highlights the fact that the crisis of the proletariat is not fundamentally of sociological nature but essentially political. In Trotsky’s words, the crisis of the latter has all to do with “subjective preconditions” or the “final subjective condition”.

4. The break up of Yalta’s “strategic stalemate”

There has been a heated debate in the 90s as to the current situation of the working class movement and the ways for its recomposition. This has revolved around the significance of the historical events in the late 80s which took place in the Eastern European countries and the former USSR. Most in the left argue, including centrism of Trotskyist origin, that in ’89’ imperialism as a whole succeeded in conquering an epoch-making positioning. Its latest victory in Kosovo has given those views a new boost.

On the contrary, our group has argued that (see EI N° 8): “From 1989 up to 1991 a number of revolutions swept through Europe, China and the USSR; some of them were defeated (China), others were derailed/strangled (Eastern Europe and the USSR). A significant share of this magazine is devoted to ponder the magnitude of such defeats. However, we shall not forget, not even for a minute, that the Stalinist ruling cliques against which the masses rose in 1989 were a major stabilising factor (the main factor, should we say?) for the capitalist-imperialist order (…) That is why we argue, however paradoxical it may sound, that it may well be the case that those defeats in the East (which—the reader should bear in mind—however deep going, in our view are in no case to be regarded as historic defeats) forced a hitherto upside-down history to stand on its feet again, in a contradictory and dialectical manner. What do we mean with this? That as we said in the past and still argue today, we are witnessing an actual break-up of the “strategic stalemate”, a situation in which the proletariat was able to “easily” achieve “victory”, but strengthening in the drive the grip of either union or ruling bureaucracies, which in turn worked in favour of maintaining an imperial order. Nowadays, the proletariat is starting to regain spontaneity. The bureaucracies standing in their way are much more feeble than Stalinism or Socialdemocracy in their “glory days”. Its road will be surely defeat-ridden , but there is a light at the end of the tunnel now, and is the possibility that self-organised masses will conquer victory, but this time not working for their mortal enemy, the capitalist-imperialist order—what was the case during the Order of Yalta.”

Our thesis about the “break up of the strategic stalemate” under Yalta spells a prospect of more favourable strategic conditions for solving the crisis of proletarian subjectivity in a revolutionary fashion. Those who equal the low level of current proletarian subjectivity to a historic defeat of the world working class contest that view. For them “the strategic stalemate” has broken up, but in favour of the right, thus allowing imperialism to “strategically position itself”. Against such a view, we have argued that it has broken up improving the left’s lot, thus weakening imperialism strategically. Towards the end of the decade we can draw a balance sheet: such a break-up favourable to the right, tantamount to a historic defeat being inflicted to the proletariat in those countries, might have laid the basis for settling-down a long-lasting capitalist stabilisation and a renewed imperialist rule setting in. Conversely, the unstable nature of capitalist equilibrium amid an ongoing world economic crisis, the failure of capitalist restoration via “reformist” paths in the East, the limits of the US prowess highlighted by Kosovo in spite of NATO’s tactic victory, all show eloquently that there is no such “historic repositioning”.

Accumulative partial defeats inflicted upon the proletariat (which continued well into the 90s), the crisis of revolutionary leadership and the overproduction of bourgeois ideology, all of these have prevented the working class from perceiving that, on a historical level, imperialism has lost a fundamental ally which actively crushed workers’ fights and went to the extent of sweeping the board or reabsorbing in those victories. Moreover, its downfall has everything to do with massive demonstrations and nothing to do with a foreign invasion (such as in the Second World War with the Nazi invasion).

Finally, we shall point out that such a view of a supposedly “historical repositioning” gives credit to an evolutionary perspective for rebuilding proletarian subjectivity. With a “neo-socialdemocratic” twist, sees it as proceeding under a “strategically triumphant” stabilised capitalism, therefore ignoring that such a recomposition will be convulsive, thus blurring the dividing line between the revolutionaries’ strategy and programme and those of the reformists.

The 1968 and 1989 events, from the standpoint of the break up in Yalta’s “strategic stalemate”

The events of 1989 have been a dialectical, distorted continuity of the great world upsurge set off in 1968. That proletarian and mass upheaval brought about the first great confrontation ever against the two mainstays of the Order of Yalta, namely imperialism and the Stalinist bureaucracy. They were shattered, their foundations undermined, but that upsurge was unable to bring the Order of Yalta tumbling down. Conversely, it was derailed and/or defeated thanks to the priceless counter-revolutionary collaboration of Stalinism, Socialdemocracy and bourgeois nationalist movements all alike. In other words, albeit such upheaval nurtured a strong mass radicalisation, the world order still counted upon strong misleaderships so as to prevent the victory of revolution. Successive defeats and derailments put such radicalisation in reverse, a retrogression made worse by the absence of a revolutionary alternative that might have helped the vanguard in drawing revolutionary lessons from that period.

In a bastardized fashion, the mass upheavals of 1989, which blew up world Stalinism, completed the task of breaking down one of the fundamental props of Yalta, leaving imperialism strategically weakened. In other words, however low the subjectivity, the lack of proletarian centrality, the absence of radicalisation, the demise of the Order of Yalta ushered in a new period characterised by the lack of trustworthy and powerful misleaderships in terms of counter-revolutionary efficiency such as world Stalinism under Yalta.

This brings about a structural weakness of counter-revolutionary misleaderships to succeed in blocking and dampening the initiative, spontaneity and creativity of the masses in the new period of class struggle opened up after 1989. In turn, it implies the smashing of a major safety valve in the hands of the imperialist order to deflect the impact of any victorious revolution in the periphery, preventing it from reaching the metropolitan heartlands.

In the world under Yalta, Stalinist parties led or collaborated in leading dozens of revolutions to the worst catastrophes. In those cases when they were forced to seize power such as China, North Korea, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, even though they went on up to expropriating the bourgeoisie, they blocked the advance of revolution, dampening its development both at home and abroad. That was the reason why Trotskyism branded those countries as “deformed workers states”, including Cuba.73Even though Castro’s Movimiento 26 de julio was not a Stalinist party, but a petty bourgeois guerrilla group, it was to fuse swiftly with the old PSC, thus being assimilated into world Stalinism. Those bureaucratic misleaderships blocked both the permanent and international dynamics of revolution. A case in point is the victory in Vietnam, which in spite of being the first direct military defeat ever to be inflicted upon US imperialism, (which was engaged with hundreds of thousands of troops and suffered more than 50.000 casualties), of combining with the greatest revolutionary upsurge in the post-war (from the May Events in France to the Portuguese revolution), it could notwithstanding be reabsorbed because the Order of Yalta propped up the US. So, after a short period of confusion, the US was able to relaunch an offensive in the 80s, the Reagan era—albeit with some restraints such as the lingering “Vietnam syndrome”.

When blocking the international extension of revolution in the name of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism and of “building socialism in one country”, Stalinism was spelling disaster for the very workers states under its control. As the Permanent Revolution forecasted, after the seizure of power in a backward country “the destiny of the dictatorship and of socialism will depend, in the last analysis, not so much of the domestic productive forces as of spreading international socialist revolution”, since “A socialist revolution starts on the national arena, grows into the international arena and is completed through and through on the world arena”. 74Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution, p.168, Yunque Editors, Buenos Aires, 1974.

The break-up of the “strategic stalemate” has meant that imperialism, while not succeeding yet in inflicting decisive defeats to the former workers states (a process that means transforming those countries in new prosperous semi-colonies which give capitalism a new far-reaching lease of life), cannot count any longer in the years to come with the fundamental factor which, in the name of “socialism” and “revolution”, blocked the spread of revolution to the world. Those two aspects of the misleaderships’ frailty—to contain revolutionary upswings and isolate or deface victorious revolutions-, are a major advantage for the development of the proletariat’s revolutionary subjectivity.

5. The recomposition of proletarian subjectivity shall not be linear

Out of more favourable conditions strategically, are we to expect an automatic and easy recomposition of proletarian revolutionary subjectivity and consciousness alike? No. We have argued: “the fact that the strategic stalemate has been superseded and workers spontaneity making a comeback in the fight against the onslaught of capital does not mean, and cannot mean in any way, that working class movement institutions are vigorous or its consciousness has clearly defined alternative aims to capitalism. Rather, it is like starting over from scratch”.75Estrategia Internacional N 10.

The whole history of the working class shows that the development of its organisations, of its consciousness and leadership does not follow an evolutionary, peaceful path, but proceeds through the assimilation of the great lessons drawn from class struggle milestones. There are leaps in such motion, an in every corner of history the proletariat has sometimes paid a high price for its future break-throughs.

From the blood-tainted lessons left by the 1848 revolution nourished the Paris Commune. In 1871 were defeated after seizing power. However ephemeral, that experience showed the way forward for a great development in the European and world working class movement in the following decades. The victorious October revolution, heralded by the revolutionary lessons drawn by Lenin and Trotsky in the wake of the 1905 defeat, was a powerful lever and an example upon which the revolutionary Comintern was built.

The conditions for the political maturity of the working class are opposed to those of the bourgeoisie under feudalism, which was able to accumulate power, wealth and culture in an evolutionary fashion under the ancien regime, until it was able to seize command of all spheres of society. As Marx put it: “The bourgeois revolutions in the 17th century broke through unstoppable from victory to victory, its dramatic effects multiply, men and things alike look like gleaming in the light of fireworks, ecstasy being the every day mood; but those revolutions are short-lived, they reach their zenith soon and a deep slump grips society even before it has learned how to assimilate quietly the offspring of such an aggressive and impetuous period. Instead, proletarian revolutions, such as those of the 19th century, are constantly criticising themselves, they stop continuously their march, they come back to what was finished to start it all over, they mock reckless and resolutely of vacillation, of the weak sides and of the meanness of the their first endeavours, it appears to be the case that they defeat their enemies, who are then reborn with new forces, standing in front of them more gigantic than ever, they recoil in horror confronted with the vague and monstrous enormity of their purposes, until a situation sets in that does not make room for recoiling any longer and the very circumstances shout: ‘Hic rhodus, hic salta!’ [Here lays Rhodes, jump here!]76Karl Marx, in Marx-Engels Selected Works, volume IV, p.291, Editorial Ciencias del Hombre, Buenos Aires, 1973. Those words have not grown old, but have regained a new significance with the coming of the 20th century, an epoch of capitalist decline and agony, one whose nature dictates the proletariat in an imperative way: You seize power!77The Transitional Programme. As Rosa Luxemburg put it in A crisis in German Socialdemocracy (also known as the Junius pamphlet) in the face of the tragedy of the European working class, led to the imperialist carnage by its official leaders: “the modern working class has to pay a high price for each breakthrough made in its historical mission. The road to the Golgotha of class liberation is plagued of horrific sacrifices. The June combatants, the victims of the Commune, the martyrs of the Russian revolution, an endless list of bleeding phantoms have fell in the field of honour, as Marx said when referring to the heroes of the Commune, to be placed for ever right next to big heart of the working class. Now millions of proletarians are falling in the fields of dishonour, of fratricide, of self-destruction, with a slave song in their lips. We have not even been dispensed of that. We are like the Jews led by Moses through the desert, but we are not lost, and victory shall be ours if we have not forgotten how to learn. And if the current leaders of the proletariat do not know how to learn, they will fall, to ‘leave room for those who are most capable of confronting the problems of the new world.” 78Rosa Luxemburg, Selected Works, volume II, p.64, Pluma Editors, Buenos Aires, 1973.

During most of this century, the monstrous development of counter-revolutionary apparatuses, particularly Stalinism, turned out to be an enormous hindrance for the working class to learn out of the lessons of its defeats and its victories alike. The counter-revolutionary work of the apparatuses led to an extreme weakening in its old organisations and to a dismal setback in its consciousness. In the 80s and early 90s the subjectivity of the world working class reached a rock bottom level. In the formerly deformed workers states there was a 180° divergence between the consciousness of the masses and their action. This was crudely shown by the events in 1989, where the increasingly pauperised masses ousted Stalinism, only to place their illusions in a “welfare state”-like capitalism.

The demise of Stalinism in 1989-91 has strategically weakened the apparatuses holding back the proletariat, thus making room for the masses to unleash their spontaneity and their energy. However, the recomposition of proletarian subjectivity in a revolutionary fashion has not made any significant break-through yet. It still remains by and large a “start from scratch”. We are now evidently facing a historical situation very different from that confronting the German proletariat on the morrow of the First World War. Let us point out that a victorious Russian revolution and the foundation of the Comintern furnished a major prop for the recomposition of subjectivity along revolutionary lines. This was reflected, in the wake of the defeat of the 1918 German revolution, in the loss of political control over most of the working class by Socialdemocracy, the emergence of mass centrism (which boosted the Independent SPD) and the accelerated foundation of a CP with a mass membership and strong mass influence. Had not been for the vacillations of the leading members, it might have seized power in the 1923 revolution.

Today, as opposed to the historic moment confronting the German proletariat in 1914-18, the perverse sequels of the break down in revolutionary continuity of proletarian subjectivity have accumulated. The damaging effects of Stalinism on the consciousness of the masses still persist, along with the contradictory outcome of 1989. As we put it in EI N° 9, “…they have not sprung up as yet either mass vanguard fractions striving to build left wings in the unions or soviet-style, alternative institutions to the latter. The idea of revolution has faded out of the horizon of the masses and even out of that of the vanguard. Perhaps that accounts for the most deleterious effect brought about by the defeat of political revolutions which set off in 1989.”

Therefore, regarded from the whole of the current world situation, it is crystal clear that rebuilding proletarian subjectivity along proletarian lines will be a tortuous and complex process, and that any facile approach, be it spontaneist or evolutionary, of the ways to resolve this contradiction is clearly untenable.

6. Subjectivity and leadership

In this century, the working class has had to pay a high historic price for the action of bureaucratic apparatuses. As Rosa Luxemburg eloquently put it, the proletariat has not been dispensed neither of “dishonour, fratricide, self destruction with a slave song in their lips”. How to find a longer string of humiliations for the proletariat, than having to bear on their backs the full weight of Stalinism, which tainted the banner of the October revolution in the mud and the blood of Gulag, in order to uphold “in the name of socialism” the rule of a vile, parasitic and totalitarian bureaucracy?! Is there any bigger paradox than the working class bringing down the Stalinist juggernaut while holding illusions in the return of capitalist enslavement?!

As we say above, Stalinism and Socialdemocracy’s counter-revolutionary work has deeply undermined the subjectivity of the proletariat, thus worsening the crisis of revolutionary leadership.

But, which are the basis to overcome the crisis of revolutionary leadership and subjectivity? The conditions are twofold: objective and subjective.

The class struggle is stronger than any bureaucratic apparatus

With respect to the objective conditions for overcoming such a crisis, the 20th century not only proved the perverse action of the apparatuses, but also highlighted that the class struggle is stronger than any kind of bureaucracy whatsoever. The whole 20th century shows how with each revolutionary thrust of the masses, its energy, creativity, spirit of sacrifice, and organisation capacity all came to light, unleashing powerful tendencies towards political class independence and to self-organisation along soviet lines, breaking apart the control of the apparatuses and laying milestones of revolutionary subjectivity. Proletarian revolution followed the First World War, bringing into life million-strong revolutionary masses across Europe. Soviets, factory committees, militias, the school of the Civil War, all mushroomed in Petrograd, Berlin, Hamburg, Turin, Vienna or Budapest. Revolution was victorious in Russia alone, because only there was a galvanised revolutionary party with links with the masses, able to organise an insurrection and of seizing power at the head of the soviets. The newly born CPs in the shade of the October revolution grew swiftly, recruiting hundreds of thousands of vanguard workers and youth which radicalised under the impact of the war. On their shoulders a new International with mass influence was built. The bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR and the Comintern alike sharpened the crisis of revolutionary leadership and several apparatuses mushroomed which strangled the tendencies to self-determination and self-organisation running deep in the masses, albeit the latter forced their way to the surface in each major revolutionary development.

The Spanish proletariat in the 30s display unheard-of heroism in the military camp, in the running of production and in bringing in workers’ control alike. The French proletariat was at the centre of a massive wave of factory sit-ins in 1936. In 1945, when Fascism was crushed, liberation committees mushroomed throughout Yugoslavia, Northern Italy, etc. In 1952, Bolivian workers smashed the army and built the COB based on its militias. In Hungary 1956 Workers Council sprung up. The 1968-74 upswing saw a revival in tendencies both to radicalisation and self-organisation. In Prague, in Chile, in Bolivia, in Argentina, in Portugal all alike several types of democratic fighting organisations emerged, underwriting a mass thrust to soviet-style organisation. Iran 1979 with its shoras and Poland 1980 with the building of Solidarnosc both bore testimony to this.

The weight of Stalinism and of counter-revolutionary leaderships in general prevented those tendencies from unfolding and from leaving some kind of continuity in their trail. This was tragically seen in the revolutionary events of 1989.

Under fire of forthcoming convulsions, the proletariat and the masses alike will be pushed into the fray, and when that moment comes, the frailty of the old crust of ancient organisations and counter-revolutionary leaderships in blocking the deepest tendencies running in the proletariat will be exposed in the light. To deal with the huge tasks and challenges posed by the struggle, the masses will have to resort to all their reserves of energy, spontaneity, and creativity, discovering once again in the arsenal of historical class struggle experience the tools, the arms and methods for the combat, implementing them according to present-day needs, As the class struggle unfolds and new masses leaning to revolution emerge, it will furnish the objective pre-requisites for rebuilding proletarian subjectivity, thus overcoming the crisis of revolutionary leadership.

But, which are the subjective pre-requisites for solving this question? It is all about reestablishing continuity of revolutionary Marxism, as a social movement of the exploited, one whose aim is overthrowing the bourgeoisie, thus setting up the dictatorship of the proletariat and starting the transition to socialism.

Re-establish continuity of revolutionary Marxism so as to furnish the working class with a High Command of social revolution

Revolutionary continuity, as such embodied in the programme of revolutionary Marxism, namely Trotskyism, is today a worn off thread, the weakest element of working class subjectivity. In this sense, the crisis of proletarian revolutionary leadership has become extremely acute.

The lack of independent intervention by the proletariat in the latest years has worsened the current crisis of revolutionary Marxism. However, there is no mechanical coincidence between them. It is true, as Lenin said, that no revolutionary party can be built unless a real revolutionary mass movement comes into life. But there is no objective law dictating the present-day state of prostration of the Trotskyist movement. What still further worsens the crisis of revolutionary Marxism is revisionist adaptation to counter-revolutionary apparatuses by those leaderships speaking in its name.

The Comintern was the zenith for a unified leadership of the working class worldwide, a genuine High Command of social revolution. Such international leadership of workers carried on and took the labour of its forerunners to new heights. Lenin summed up thus such evolution and the “historic-universal” significance of the Comintern: “The First International laid the basis for a proletarian international struggle for socialism. The Second International signals the epoch of paving the way for an encompassing extension of the mass movement to a number of countries. The Third International has harvested the fruits of the Second International’s labour, has chopped the rotten, opportunist, social-chauvinist, bourgeois and petty bourgeois part off and has begun to implant the dictatorship of the proletariat. The international alliance built by the parties at the head of the most revolutionary movement on the face of the earth, the movement of the proletariat aimed at overthrowing the yoke of capital, is now founded on ever solid basis: several socialist republics which have made come true, on an international scale, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the latter’s victory over capitalism. The historical-universal significance of the Third International, the Communist International, lays in that it has begun to put into practice Marx’s most important slogan, one which sums up the development both of socialism and of the working class throughout the centuries, the slogan enshrined in the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”79V.I. Lenin, “The Third International and its place in History”, April 1919.

Against the vitriolic accusation launched by some intellectuals claiming the Russian revolution turned out to be longest road to capitalism, the seizure of power in a backward country a historical mistake, Lenin’s word come to our minds. As we said before, the subjectivity of the proletariat is not built in university classrooms, nor by a generation to generation transmission of family values, as much as bourgeois subjectivity unfolded under feudalism. Proletarian continuity grows upon milestones set in the class struggle. When establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat, thus showing that is able to launch an all-out assault against the established order, and of imposing its own power, workers laid the greatest milestone ever conquered in almost two centuries of struggle. It thus retains all of its subversive character of the bourgeois order, regardless of the degeneration of the USSR and its historic destiny. In the face of the degeneration of the Comintern owing to the consolidation of Stalinist political counter-revolution, maintaining revolutionary continuity was paramount. This was left in the hands of Trotsky and his co-thinkers, which waged a fierce struggle against the stream in one of the darkest periods of reaction this century. The foundation of the International Left Opposition first, and then of the Fourth International were the only correct strategic option left. As the Transitional Programme declares: “The Fourth International has emerged already from great developments: the greatest defeats ever to be inflicted upon the proletariat in all its history. The reason for defeat lays in the degeneration and betrayal of the old leadership. The class struggle does not tolerate any interruption. The Third International, following in the steps of the Second, is dead for revolution: Long live the Fourth International!”[The Transitional Programme.]]

Between Marx’s work in the First International and the Fourth in Trotsky’s life ran a red thread of revolutionary continuity, around the axis of a strategic aim. Marx had clearly spelled out the strategic aim of the proletariat’s struggle: “Between capitalist and communist society there is a period of revolutionary transformation of the former into the latter. To that period also corresponds a political period of transition, whose state cannot be other than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”80Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha’s Programme, Ediciones Compañero, Buenos Aires, 1971, p.38. The Comintern, in the opening article of its statutes declares that “A new International Labour Association is founded with the purpose of organising the action of the proletariat as a whole in several countries aimed at a same and only end, namely: the smashing of capitalism, the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and of an International Republic of Soviets in order to completely abolish classes and to build socialism, the first step towards a communist society.”81The First Four Congresses of the Comintern, volume I, p.137, Pluma Editors, Buenos Aires, 1973. The Fourth International, the heir and follower of the Comintern, also declared that: “The axis [of our programme] can be summed up in four words: the dictatorship of the proletariat.”82Leon Trotsky, “Manifesto of the Fourth International on the imperialist war and world proletarian revolution”, Writings, volume XI, p.294. Pluma Editors, Colombia, 1976.

Post-war Trotskyism was unable to keep any essential continuity in revolutionary Marxism. In the post-war, the Trotskyites were unable to resist the enormous pressure of Socialdemocratic and Stalinist parties brought to bear over them, as well as that of bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalism in the semi-colonial world. They ended up adapting themselves and collapsing into centrism, i.e., they lost their independent strategic orientation and started to adapt to any leadership which was to emerge in the mass struggles then. Pabloism was to codify, under the guise of “imminent Third World War”, tailism of the Stalinist bureaucracy. It was the gravest expression of the illness of centrism and revisionism affecting the FI. This led to a crisis in 1951, and later to a blow-up in 1953. The FI ceased to exist as a unified organisation and was transformed in a centrist movement made up of several fragments, what we have branded “Trotskyism of Yalta”. Weak threads of continuity were kept through some partial combats by some elements of the movement, but essential continuity with revolutionary Marxism had been broken.

The 1968-74 upsurge strengthened the various groups claiming to be “Trotskyist”, a reflection of the radicalisation of some vanguard layers. But due to all sorts of tailism to treacherous leaderships, and to their failure in drawing the necessary lessons of the shortcomings of the first mass onslaught against the two mainstays of the Order of Yalta, their drift into centrism deepened. Furthermore, the revisionist conclusions drawn upon that period by the various centrist groups of “Trotskyist” origin drove them to even more opportunist policies in the 80s.

In those conditions of decline, boosted by years of tailism and adaptation, Trotskyism was unable to pose a revolutionary alternative, for vanguards layers at least, when Stalinism came tumbling down. As we have said dozen of times, when confronted with the events of 1989, “the programme of Trotskyism passed the test of history, Trotskyists failed it”. In the late 80s, early 90s the various components of “Yalta’s Trotskyism” were torn apart as a result of adaptation and helplessness. Ten years on from such developments, the conflict in Kosovo has meant a new catastrophe for Trotskyist centrism, which has shown itself unable to raise an independent policy, opposed to that of counter-revolutionary apparatuses.

7. The programme of Trotskyism passed the test, ‘Trotskyist’ centrism failed it

When contrasted against the background of dramatic and complex developments that have marked this century, both the programme and the theoretical foundations of Trotskyism have proved correct, ever since they were formulated in the struggle of the International Left Opposition and the Fourth International alike.

The events of 1989 proved that the bureaucracy was a chaste hostile to socialism, thus confirming that if political revolution failed to wipe it out from the bureaucratised workers states, it would turn itself more and more in an agency of imperialism within the workers state, thus starting a drive to the restoration of capitalism. The theory of permanent revolution, a theory dealing with “the nature, the internal connections and the methods of international revolution in general” has been confirmed by a whole series of revolutions—triumphant and defeated alike—since the Second World War.

Against evolutionary views held by Stalinism and a whole array of nationalist forces in the semi-colonial world, which saw distinct “intermediate phases” before the dictatorship of the proletariat, revolutions in the semi-colonial world showed that those countries, to guarantee “an integral and effective resolution of their democratic aims and of national emancipation” had to expropriate the bourgeoisie out of need, so much the bureaucratic or petty bourgeois leaderships at their head were forced to do, however their reluctance. At the same time, those revolutions showed, against those who supported “peaceful coexistence” and the “building of socialism in one country” that every victorious revolution on the national terrain shall be thrown in reverse unless it becomes a trench of the struggle for the defeat of imperialism worldwide.

The Transitional Programme has shown itself to be an unmatched tool, both as a system and a method of transitional demands to bridge the gap between the objective revolutionary nature of our epoch and the level of consciousness of the proletariat and the masses. The foundations it relies upon have but remained valid: the nature of the epoch as one of crises, wars and revolutions, in which capitalism outlives itself owing to the delay of proletarian revolution, and the need for an international revolutionary leadership, without which world imperialism shall never be defeated.

Trotskyism, the continuity of the revolutionary tradition of Bolshevism and that of the Comintern, has passed the test due to the strength of its theory, its strategy, its method and its programme—worldwide proletarian revolution—which all express the historical interest of the most oppressed and exploited layers of the proletariat and are the only ones able to furnish mankind with a progressive way out.

Nonetheless, most of the groups and fragments of centrism of Trotskyist origin have shown unable to learn from their own failure. Some of them would rather seek the reason for their helpless position in some kind of “basic flaw” in Trotskyism, thus jumping over to liquidation. Conversely, our group, which was born out of the blow-up of the Trotskyist movement early this decade, thinks they way forward to overcome this situation is the combat for recovering Trotsky’s legacy, fighting for the re-establishment of Marxism’s revolutionary continuity.

8. The war in Kosovo shows that the proletariat must break away from reformism

We have maintained that the 20th century has been characterised by the nefarious action of counter-revolutionary apparatuses, but that the working class has conclusively shown its energy and revolutionary potential. However, it is in the subjectivity of the proletariat and in the crisis of revolutionary leadership where the consequences of their action have been mostly been felt. This has resulted in the wearing off of the forces of the proletariat under the whip of capital in the last two decades. From this view, we believe that we are able to claim that the world situation is characterised by “the maturity of objective factors and the immaturity of working class revolutionary subjectivity”. This a concrete definition highlighting a material reality: that is how the contradiction that has run deep in all of this dramatic century is becoming now manifest, i.e., capitalism in its imperialist or declining phase, which outlives itself due to the delay of proletarian revolution. That delay in turn has sharpened to the utmost the contradiction between the subjective and objective factors, such as we are seeing on the eve of the new century.

In the 90s, the proletariat has taken some initial steps towards the recomposition of its subjectivity. Early in the 90s we witnessed several revolts and explosions, which hindered capitalist plans, but which left no continuity in their trail. Since 1995, with the general strike of French civil servants, a new workers and mass counter-offensive sparked off in several countries, engulfing the five continents. The wave of mobilisations, strikes, upheavals and so on, which have engulfed dozens of countries all show that the working class is starting to recognise itself and is flexing its muscles, and is an acting social subject in the class struggle. However, that first phase went hand in hand with the strengthening of existing counter-revolutionary misleaderships. We said in EI N° 8: “Although the proletariat worldwide is recovering from historic-low levels of subjectivity in the early 90s, with the mass counter-offensive we have witnessed since 1995 in several countries the reformist illusions and counter-revolutionary leaderships of the mass movement have been reinforced.”

In Latin America, the people and working class masses put their trust in bourgeois “opposition leaders” to “neoliberalism”, such as Chavez in Venezuela. In Korea, Kim went into office, and in Indonesia the masses have voted for Sukarnoputri.

In Europe, the fact that recomposition has proceeded along “reformist lines” has nurtured the “Third Way” and Socialdemocratic governments as well. All 13 EU countries have such governments, with the participation of the CPs and the “Greens”, all of them sustaining NATO’s war effort like well seasoned “socialimperialists”. The trust put by the proletariat in such socialimperialists strengthens the position of governments which are committed to relaunch an imperialist and capitalist offensive against workers conquests and against the peoples of the world. The reformist illusions held by the masses in that those governments shall defend the “welfare state” are now running against them, at the price of a new defeat for the world working class and the oppressed nationalities alike such as has been the case with Kosovo. The latter has tightened the grip of socialimperialist governments, what is running against the proletariat at home, such as in Germany, where Schöeder is readying for a strong austerity drive.

That war has shown that the proletariat must shred off its reformist illusions. There is no alternative road to the decomposition and decline of the capitalist-imperialist system. Either the worldwide proletariat comes into the fray in the forthcoming period, taking the road of a more resolute class struggle, laying in the drive new milestones of revolutionary subjectivity, as it showed capable of doing in its most glorious hours of a 200 year-long struggle, or the world bourgeoisie is set to impose a reactionary way out. To intervene actively in that perspective, revolutionaries have to get ready theoretical and practically, and in the heat of the radicalisation of the vanguard and wide layers of the masses which inevitably will come, build Leninist revolutionary combat parties.

9. The struggle of revolutionaries today

There is no other way to re-establish the continuity of revolutionary Marxism other than in a practical and theoretical struggle aimed at laying the basis for revolutionary and internationalist workers parties, drawing upon the experience of the Bolshevik party, i.e., Leninist combat parties. The content of such struggle is to pave both theoretical and practically the way forward to the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is a two-fold task: develop class independence of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie on the one hand, and fight for the working class to impose its hegemony over the rest of the oppressed and the exploited classes within capitalist society on the other.

The dictatorship of the proletariat, paired with Bolshevism, has been under heavy fire in the last few years. Socialdemocrats have been in the front line of that attack, ranting at Lenin’s “Jacobinism” and his brainchild, the Bolshevik party. We are not going to respond here to such brazen attacks against proletarian revolution. From a different view, formally from the “left”, autonomists such as Toni Negri, detach a given element from reality, the structural strength of the proletariat (which as we have shown in EI N° 11-12, is the biggest in its history), and give it an absolute value, thus denying in that way the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat and fundamentally questioning the need for a revolutionary party for the seizure of power. For him the social process of production begets the collective subject of alternative power, one which is able to exert its “constituent power” without any need for proletarian revolution.

The new generations have only seen the working class recoiling, but when the working class is set in motion, and unfolds its energy and potential, such ideas can have a pernicious influence on the vanguard. Against such renewed spontaneism we underwrite the fundamental thesis of revolutionary Marxism.

It is worth remembering a historic experience. The German working class was the strongest, the one with the highest cultural level and organisation capacity in Europe. But whereas his revolution failed, the Russian proletariat alone succeeded: “The Russian working class, when she organised the October revolution, counted on a priceless legacy from the previous period of a revolutionary centralised party (…) all of this [the experience and the political struggles of the preceding years] moulded a great team of leaders tempered in the struggle and stuck together by the unity of a socialist and revolutionary programme.

The German working class did not have anything similar to this. It was forced, not only to fight for power, but to build its organisation and train its future leaders in the course of the struggle. It is true that under revolutionary conditions this education task is done at a feverish pace, but it nonetheless takes time to carry it through. Without a centralised revolutionary party, without a fighting leadership bearing an universally accepted authority among the toiling masses; lacking tempered and fighting leaders and nuclei in the action of several centres and regions of the proletarian movement, that movement, when unleashed, took necessarily an intermittent, chaotic, and slow character.”83Leon Trotsky, “A revolution is crawling”, op cit. The German revolution ended in defeat.

When tryig to solve the question of the party, as to whole issues concerning the subjectivity of the proletariat and the class struggle in general, we do not have to deal with it with an evolutionary and piecemeal approach. Such vision leads head-on to some sort of “neoconformism”. A sectarian, doctrinaire attitude, “self-preservation” in wait for the proletariat to mature on its own for the seizure of power, are both to be discarded out of hand.

Party building will proceed through leaps, closely connected with the emergence of radicalised mass and vanguard layers to life, orientating themselves towards revolution. It will proceed in open political struggle against reformists and centrists alike in the heat of victories and defeats of the proletariat, under pressure of political, economic and social shake-ups (Trotsky’s “deep and sudden oscillations”). Revolutionary party building will proceed along these lines, bearing in mind that not only we fight against capital, its states, regimes and governments but also simultaneously, in the decisive moments, against the corrupted bureaucracies in the unions and the refomist parties. Fourth International-inspired parties armed with such strategy, and intensely trained, gathering and training their cadres and hammering out the lessons of the international class struggle in a preparatory period, shall all empower the proletariat to become conscious of its historic mission, the seizure of power through combat organisations in the course of the revolution. Such a party can thus be a crucial lever in the fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

But such party, albeit in the decisive moments may well grow through leaps, can not be improvised overnight.

Lenin, when explaining the history of Bolshevism, said that “it was founded in 1903 on a very solid basis of Marxist theory”(…) “it avidly sought a correct revolutionary theory and kept a close eye on Europe and America’s ‘latest fashion’ to this respect”(…)”it conquered a richness of international links and an excellent knowledge about the forms and theories of the worldwide revolutionary movement like no other country did. On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had emerged basing itself on this granite foundation, had a 15 year-long record of practical (1903-1917) activity unparalleled in the world, one of plentiful experiences. During those 15 years no other country witnessed nothing of the sort in terms of revolutionary experience, as to such a bewildering array of legal and illegal movement forms, both peaceful and violent, underground and in the open, local circles and mass movements, and parliamentarian and terrorist forms. In no other country such plenty of forms, ways and methods of struggle of all classes of modern society were condensed in such a brief period of time, a struggle which owing to the backwardness of the country and to the rigorous Tsarist yoke, reached maturity with exceptional speed and assimilated with particular anxiety and efficiency the last word of America and Europe’s experience”.84V.I. Lenin, Ultraleftism, an infantile disorder of communism, Anteo Editors, Buenos Aires, 1973, p.3. Bolshevism, like Lenin points out, was forged in a “reckless fight” against all sort of bourgeois, petty bourgeois, reformist, sectarian or ultraleftist groups within the mass and the working class movements.

Fighting revolutionary parties have to be built in a preparatory period, basing themselves on an internationalist fight for ideas, fusing themselves the most advanced elements of the working class, fighting against the reformists and their attempt at preventing a new independent proletarian subjectivity from coming to life. Along with these come the struggle against the centrists and their adaptations, practically encouraging and working out theoretically any progressive step taken by the masses towards class independence, namely, to self-organisation and self-determination. That struggle is part and parcel of the fight for re-establishing the revolutionary continuity of Marxism.

10. For the rebuilding of the Fourth International and its national sections

The orientation pursued by most of the groups and trends claiming themselves Trotskyist is quite the opposite. In France, Lutte Ouvriére and the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LO-LCR) throw all their lot in recycling themselves as renewed “left reformism”, reaching the extent of capitulation in their public positions, such as the ones held during the Kosovo war. In Latin America, the remnants of the LIT do likewise: the Mexican POS is busy tailing the EZLN, the Venezuelan PST is in the shadow of Chávez, the Brazilian PSTU trailing behind the CUT and PT; they all adapt themselves and capitulate to misleaderships at home. In Argentina, whereas the MST has become a carbon copy of Stalinism in the elections, the trade union and students movements, PO is wavering between electoral opportunistic self-proclamation and the wooing of trade union bureaucrats to convince them to build a Workers Party.

In that way, they are trying in different ways new versions of their permanent strategy of exerting pressure on the existing leaderships and parties. Since these are in a deep rightward turn, they are dragging the centrists ever more to capitulation and opportunism.

But as the record of Trotskyist centrism tragically has shown in the last fifty years, no shortcuts or substitutes are to make up for an independent Trotskyist policy. Only insofar Trotskyists are able to fight against the attempts of reformist and bureaucratic leaderships alike to lead the masses down the road of a “reformist-styled recomposition” of their subjectivity, thus helping the masses to break away from the existing misleaderships; only insofar as they educate the vanguard not to trust at any time in their class collaboration preaching—a task centrists are utterly opposed to, as shown by the LCR-LO the PSTU, PO, etc.-, they shall be able to make a contribution to the recomposition of revolutionary subjectivity.

The class struggle currently furnishes and shall furnish us revolutionaries with plenty of opportunities to intervene in a revolutionary fashion. Thousands, may be tens of thousands of workers and youth sympathise with the banners of Trotskyism in some countries. Under the hammer blows of reality, many individuals, cadres, and even factions of centrism of a Trotskyist origin can start paying attention to revolutionary positions.

It is possible and necessary to make a breakthrough. Every single step taken, along with those groups, parties and comrades with which we draw common revolutionary lessons from great class struggle events on a international level and in the different countries, will help to converge, to fuse with all of those orientating themselves to revolutionary Marxism. This means converging with all of those which—like ourselves—are endeavouring to recompose revolutionary continuity.

We deem drawing common conclusions from the class struggle as the only method fit to that urgent task, so as to ascertain the common comprehension of the great tasks confronting us in the face of the acid tests on the international arena (it is them which separate revolutionaries from centrists), and to go forward the foundation of a Liaison Committee for the Rebuilding of the Fourth International. In our view this is a preparatory task vital for the organisation of principled Trotskyism, flexing our muscles and getting ready when radicalisation comes, thus providing a real chance for the rebuilding of a World Party of Socialist Revolution.

However tortuous each step taken today, when radicalisation is nowhere to be seen, be it in the working class masses or in wide vanguard layers, we have an unshakable strategic confidence in the revolutionary potential of the working class and in the strength of the Fourth International’s programme, to deal with the tasks facing revolutionaries in the convulsive years ahead.

We call on those seeking to orientate themselves towards revolutionary Marxism, to embrace Trotsky’s words: “The capitalist world has no way out, unless we deem a protracted agony is a way out. We need to ready ourselves for long years, or decades of wars, insurrections, short periods of truce, renewed wars and insurrections. A young revolutionary party has to rely on such perspective. History will provide it with many chances to test itself, accumulate experience and reach maturity. The faster the fusion with the vanguard proceeds, the shorter the phase of bloody shake-ups will be, the less the destruction wreaked on the planet. But the great historical question will in no way be resolved until a revolutionary party is at the head of the proletariat. The question of the tempo and the intervals bears enormous importance, but does not alter the general historic prospect nor the orientation in our policy. The conclusion is simple: we have to carry on the task of organising and educating the proletarian vanguard with ten-fold multiplied energies. That is precisely the aim of the Fourth International.”85The Fourth International Emergency Manifesto.


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Juan Chingo

Juan Chingo

Juan is an editor of our French sister site Révolution Permanente.
Eduardo Molina

Eduardo Molina

Eduardo (1955-2019) was a lifelong revolutionary militant in Argentina, Bolivia, and other countries. An obituary in English: Forever Until Socialism!



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