Through What Stage Are We Passing?
[The] assertion that ‘everything is possible in human affairs’ is either meaningless or false. -- E. H. Carr1
What Happened to the Socialist Revolution?
Anyone who has pretensions to being a revolutionary socialist nowadays, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, is surely obliged to answer one simple, if salient, question: what on earth has happened to the socialist revolution?2 For those of us who believe that the socialist transformation of society must of necessity pass through the gate of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order, the fact is that moves to do just that have, since the mid point of the last century, been almost entirely absent from our planet; and absolutely absent3 from that part of our planet where the locus of capitalist power lies––the advanced metropolis of western Europe, north America and Australasia.4 While the first half of the last century, as we shall see, was indeed a period rich in revolutionary experience in just this part of the world capitalist system, since the restabilisation of social and political order following World War II the metropolitan capitalist citadel has remained pristine in its resistance to revolutionary challenge.5 revolutionary socialism. So, if the conclusion that the struggle for socialist emancipation was a naïve and utopian dream is to be avoided, the question poses itself in all its force: what is it that is absent from the current world set-up that was present in the first half of the twentieth century; and what might be the circumstances that will announce its return?
While some will surely use this state of affairs as further ammunition for the argument that the revolutionary struggle for socialism was always a chimera, it is incumbent for anyone maintaining a commitment to socialist transformation to point out that other roads to socialism––the so-called parliamentary one, for example, or the once modish strategies of ‘counter-hegemony’ and the like––have been found even more wanting than socialist revolution in dislodging the power of the bourgeoisie and its political institutions. The hard truth is that capitalist power has only ever been directly and successfully challenged by a
The ‘Long-Waves’ of the Capitalist Economy
It is now commonly accepted across the most diverse schools of economic thought––bourgeois and Marxist, mainstream and heterodox––that the global capitalist social order (whether it is labelled as such or not) has since its infancy been subject to long-rhythm cycles (or ‘waves’ or ‘periods’ according to taste) of more and then less accelerated growth, of relative expansion and relative contraction, of now more advanced development and now relative regression. There is, of course, vigorous disagreement as to what the real root cause of these successive long-term waves of relative boom and slump may be, and what in turn the waves themselves represent;6 given the scope of this essay, however, we shall for the moment be skating around these questions, and taking the existence of the phenomenon for granted.would induce little outrage, even across the most diverse schools of economic thought:
How can we periodise these long-term cycles? Again, while debate surrounds the details, there is perhaps surprisingly general agreement as to the rough outline of the model. The following table7
Table 1: The Long-Waves of the Capitalist Economy
|Cycle||Rising Phase||Declining Phase|
According to this model, the modern global capitalist system has undergone four successive cycles of (relative) development and (relative) stagnation; we should now be, were it to continue repeating itself, either right at the end of the fourth or just at the beginning of the fifth of them.
Following this model, and by a process of induction alone, where should we expect significant revolutionary socialist challenges to the capitalist system to occur? It should brook little argument that revolution requires deep economic and social crisis to be triggered: we should therefore not expect to find significant revolutionary upsurges––at least, not in the metropolis––in the ascending ‘A’ phases of the cycle. And indeed we do not.
Nor should it provoke too much opposition if we assume that revolutionary socialist movements will post-date the formation of genuinely proletarian mass organisation, so we shall ignore the period before the mid-point of the nineteenth century. We––knowing nothing else––should deduce that the socialist revolution would pose itself as an actuality in the descending ‘B’ phases of the second, third and fourth cycles, in other words within the roughly demarcated periods 1870 to 1896, 1914 to 1945, and 1967 to the present day.
But what do we really find? It is true that one of these periods––1914-1945––did indeed witness significant revolutionary struggle: the last great metropolitan socialist revolutionary cycle––indeed, the only one there has ever been in human history––took place here. The great revolutionary wave of 1914 to 1923 saw not only the first successful overthrow of capitalist rule in human history, in the Russian October 1917, but revolutionary conflagration across Europe east and west, from Finland to Italy, from Siberia to Spain. And in the 1930s the spectre of revolution was again to criss-cross the European theatre: now in Germany; then in France, Austria, and Portugal; and finally in Spain. Such was the sense of mortal danger within the institutions of bourgeois society, that the blunt instrument of fascist dictatorship was unleashed with the aim of forever eliminating the threat of socialist revolution. But in vain; for in 1944-45, a continent-wide mass insurrectionary movement, directly aimed at liberation from Nazism, once again raised that spectre.8 repeatedly and consistently confronted with revolution.
Put another way, then, the entire period from 1914 to 1945 in Europe was one in which the very existence of capitalist rule was periodically challenged by revolutionary movement from below.9 According to our earlier inductive suppositions this is what we might have expected to find.
But what of the other two periods? What of 1870-1896 and post-1967? It is of course clear that no period of capitalism is entirely free from struggles, sometimes very great struggles, and these two periods are no exception. The first saw possibly the first great proletarian insurrectionary movement in human history––the Paris Commune; and the second bore witness to two of the most highly developed mass struggles of recent living memory––May 68 and the Portuguese Revolution. But neither of these periods can compare with that of 1914 to 1945 in the way that in this last case the capitalist system was
And now, of course, we have arrived again at the question posed at the outset. Why is the present post-1967 period not like that of 1914-1945? Once again: what has happened to the socialist revolution?
I have assumed that economic stagnation is a precondition of socialist revolution. But is it the only one? Are economic collapse, crisis and slump sufficient to impel the masses to undertake the potentially mortal struggle for political power–– and are they sufficient to allow them to win?
I have consistently described the capitalist order in the foregoing as a ‘global’ order. This is not to say that the global capitalist economy is composed of an undifferentiated and unmediated social structure: relations of domination, subordination, dependence and inequality clearly obtain within its social fabric, but they are not ultimately relations between national capitalisms, but between nationally-located capitals within a single, global, social structure. Let us reiterate: ‘capitalism in one country’ has been historically as much of a myth as ‘socialism in one country’ ever was; something on which the founders of classical Marxism were absolutely clear.10 absence of hegemony, and as a mechanism to resolve the absence of hegemony.
But nationally-located capitals are indeed nationally-located: it is too highly pertinent to observe that while at the level of the social capitalism tends to the global, at the level of the political the fundamental structure of the bourgeois orderis precisely national. And if we look at the capitalist order on a global scale, we see alongside an international capitalist economy a highly structured international system of national states. And one of the most notable features of this state system is that it is hierarchical: not just in the relations between the states of the imperialist and imperialising metropolis and those without, but also among the states of the metropolis themselves. The history of the capitalist system is at the same time the history of this highly structured hierarchical state system within the metropolis: of its evolution, and of the rise and fall of successive hegemonic states within it.
It is generally accepted that thus far under the capitalist mode of production we have witnessed three such hegemonic states: the Netherlands, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; Britain, in the nineteenth; and, today, the United States.
But what is a hegemonic state; or, in other words, what distinguishes a hegemon from a simple primo inter pares? It seems to me that, in the case of the international state system, for one state to be considered truly hegemonic it would have to play a role in that system which would be determining in how the system as a whole operates. Since we are considering here the capitalist state (or capitalist states), a state is hegemonic to the extent that it is able to set the framework in which the whole capitalist system operates, in which the accumulation of capital on a global scale takes place.11
How can we date these various periods of hegemony? Britain has been one of the most important capitalist states for a long time now. But it would be a mistake to confuse an economic big-hitter with a true political hegemon. Despite Britain’s eighteenth-century world commercial role, up to the French Revolution the true hub of world finance remained Amsterdam. In fact it would be difficult to claim for Britain a determining role within the world state system at least before the post-Napoleonic settlement, when, with France defeated, and Amsterdam having been hit terminally hard by the war-time blockade, followed by the resumption of gold payments in 1821, British economic and political dominance really did begin to appear genuinely unchallengeable. The height of British hegemony is therefore precisely that subsequently ushered-in Pax Brittanica ‘Free Trade’ era of the mid nineteenth century, a period characterised by Perry Anderson as that of ‘diplomatic-industrial imperialism’––to be distinguished from a subsequent period (in which rival imperialisms, principally Germany and the United States, emerged to challenge British supremacy) which he dubs that of ‘military-industrial imperialism’.12
By the same token, if we want to locate the period in which the United States began to play a directing role within the world state system, i.e. operated as a true hegemon, perhaps the key date should be July 1944––the signing of the Bretton Woods agreement, which saw the subsequent stetting up of the IMF and IBRD––events which, in their own way, set the conditions anew for the functioning of the post-bellum global capitalist economy within the framework of supranational institutions in which the United States would predominate. And perhaps the first signs of the weakening of US hegemony can be dated to the collapse of this system, in 1971. These observations lead us to a number of interesting conclusions.
First, it seems as though capitalism ‘needs’ a hegemonic power within it, to give it stability. The period between British and United States hegemony was of course marked by two World Wars, each in turn witness to human and material destruction on a scale hitherto unseen; and the period immediately preceding British hegemony again saw continent-wide total war. In fact, it is difficult not to see these wars as a product of the
Second, the periods of British and US hegemony seem to correspond to distinct stages of development of the capitalist system itself, and if we factor in the period of Netherlandish hegemony, the observation is confirmed. The Netherlands functioned as hegemonic power in the period of ‘commercial capitalism’, through its dominance of world commerce, by controlling shipping and the international monetary order. Britain, with a pre-classical imperialist industrial capitalism, did so through its manufacturing dominance and its naval policing of ‘free’ trade. The United States, within the modern imperialist system proper, does so through the hegemony of the dollar (and subsequently its military machine) and its dominant role within supranational state institutions, including those set up under the auspices of Bretton Woods. Thus the manner in which hegemony is exercised within the capitalist state system seems to be in turn a function of the stage of development of the capitalist system itself: mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism, finance capitalism. Qualitative changes in the latter bring about a qualitative reorganisation of the state hierarchy.
Third, if we, now look more closely at the dates of British and United States hegemony, we see that, respectively, these two hegemonic periods run from something like 1820 to 1890, and 1945 to the present day, with a clear ascendant and descendent phase in each case. Two things now immediately stand out: first, that between each hegemonic phase there is an extended interregnum, a transitional period of non-hegemony; and second, that our two hegemonic periods now look very similar in scale, and rhythm, to our long-wave economic cycles II and IV. Let us then replot the original long-wave table, and, without stretching the dates too much, map our periods of state-system hegemony on it.
Table 2: The Long-Waves of the Capitalist Economy (Political-State Hegemonic Periods Shaded)
|Cycle||Hegemon||Rising Phase||Declining Phase|
I would suggest––but here can do no more than suggest––that this relation between cycles of political hegemony and economic rhythms is not casual: that capitalist relations need––and find, through force of necessity––a stable institutional political framework in which to unfold themselves, and this institutional stability is granted them through a state system held in balance by a hegemonic state power.
Each cycle of state hegemony corresponds to a phase in the economic cycle. But, as the modalities of capitalist accumulation evolve (from commercial capitalism, through industrial capitalism to finance capitalism), the necessities of the economic structure vis-à-vis the institutional framework change, and the hegemon acts as a brake on economic development, while new possible contenders for the role of hegemon are pushed forward: hence the close match between the ascendant and descendent phases of the political and economic cycles. Finally, freed from the shackles of a redundant hegemon, a new economic cycle begins––less spectacular, less stable and more prone to crisis than the preceding one. Increasing instability at the institutional level––manifested most clearly in wars (the Napoleonic Wars and the two twentieth-century World Wars)––supervenes to bring the cycle to a close. The political instability––the wars––serve to resolve the interregnum, and a new cycle, now newly hegemonic, begins.13
Some Results and Prospects
So what happened to the socialist revolution? Lenin once famously remarked14 ––chiding the voluntaristic impatience of the early British Communists––that for revolutions to occur it is not sufficient that the exploited classes not want to go on in the old way; the exploiters must be unable to carry on in the old way. In other words, we have to look for the ‘objective’ preconditions for socialist revolution not only in the socio-economic fabric of capitalist society, or with respect to the level of consciousness and/or combativity of the working class, but also in the situation of the ruling class and its institutions in relation to other classes and institutions both within and without the country.
The problem I posed above––why do we find that revolutions occur in only one of the descending ‘B’ phases of the long-term economic cycles, when we should expect them to occur in two more––should now not be so perplexing. For what distinguishes the ‘B’ phase of the third cycle––the period 1914 to 1945––is that it is the ‘B’ phase of a cycle within a period of an absence of hegemony within the political-state structure. And if we are looking for a factor present in the inter-war period and absent today it is precisely this: US hegemony may be on the wane, we may be on the cusp of a new cycle of political and social ascendance and descendance, but we are still clearly living, and have lived since the late 1960s, under a state system within which the United States functions as hegemon.
My argument here is that a necessary condition for the ruling classes to be unable to go on in the old way is a breakdown in bourgeois state hegemony within the metropolis. That without such a breakdown the institutions of capitalist rule here prove –have proved–too robust to be shaken in any real qualitative –revolutionary–way. The post-67 period witnessed no socialist revolution in the metropolis for precisely this reason: US hegemony, operating at both the political and ideological levels, even if in the descendent, has resulted in a bourgeois institutional structure that has proved itself too strong.
If the foregoing has an element of truth to it–and this is a big ‘if’, for, as should not need saying, what I am presenting here is nothing but a sketch, which can only have the scientific status of tentative conjecture––what conclusions can we draw?
First, in relation to the character of the period we are about to enter. We can surmise that we stand on the brink of a new long-wave cycle––the fifth under capitalism. The forthcoming cycle will be marked by an absence of global hegemony; or, rather, will form an interregnum between one global hegemon––the United States––and the next. Which the next will be, of course, we do not know, as this will be something determined by inter-imperialist competition between the declining power––the United States––and new, rising, ones, and overdetermined by other factors exogenous to the cyclical process. But who might the contenders be? What seems to be happening in the present leads to the conclusion that the coming period of inter-imperialist competition––and this is what will be new about the forthcoming cycle––will be fought out not between states but between blocs of states: a northern American bloc, a European bloc, a Pacific bloc. And it seems not unreasonable to project that, while these imperialist blocs will operate within a world with clearly definable core, periphery and semi-periphery regions, as now, within these blocs too we will be able to discern core, periphery and semi-periphery regions, and the consequent tensions and instabilities arising from these multiple relations of political and economic dependence and domination.
If it is historical analogies that we are looking for, then we can say that the coming long-wave will not have the political characteristics of the last cycle but those of the one before, i.e. that we will be moving in a period more akin to that of 1890-1945 than 1945 to the present. The ascendant phase of this cycle, it will be recalled, was coloured by the imperialist scramble to divide up the hitherto unconquered world; the forthcoming cycle may well be conditioned by a redivision of the world in a desperate and increasingly competitive scramble for dwindling energy supplies. The recent oil wars would appear to point to that possibility, the element of inter-imperialist competition being signalled by the differences within the imperialist world––between the United States and Europe, for example––on the strategy of war, and the growing conflict between the dollar and the euro in, amongst other places, the oil market itself.
We can expect the ascendant phase of the coming cycle to be marked by a slower and more unstable rhythm of growth than we saw during the post-World War II boom, and the descendent phase by qualitatively more turbulence than the post-1970 period: the descendent phase of the third long-wave cycle opened of course with World War I and closed with World War II. But the supervening period was that single period in history to see a genuine flourishing of socialist revolution.
What conclusions can we draw as socialists, particularly in respect of the type of political organisations we should be building? It should now be clear that what should not be not on the agenda is the type of organisation that was being built in the late 1930s, as the few remaining socialist revolutionists struggled desperately against time and against seemingly impossible odds to construct parties that would be ready, in extraordinarily unfavourable circumstances, to deal with what was seen as an imminent struggle for power. We are in a period more akin to the end of the nineteenth century, in which the mass parties of the Second International were built. And, although it is generally thought today that the Second International ended in failure, in ignominious collapse in the face of imperialist war, this one-sided picture misses its real lesson. What really happened was that, faced with the outbreak of World War I, the parties of the Second International split: the very crisis of war acted as midwife to that radicalisation, spurred on by the Russian Revolution, which bequeathed to us the only global mass revolutionary socialist force we have seen: the young Third International.
The only political current which today retains any filiation to the idea of socialist revolution is that emanating from Trotsky’s Fourth International, formed exactly towards the end point of that last period of revolution and counter-revolution. But the political practice of the organisations which trace their origins to this tradition––‘leadershipism’ and leadership cultism, literary fetishisation of programmatic declarations, bureaucratic centralisation to the point of monolithism, catastrophism, extreme hyperactivism, vanguardism, ‘short-cut’ substitutionism––is precisely a reflection of the fact that these groups still see themselves on the brink of a real collapse of the capitalist system and an actual and imminent struggle for power, as if the maxims of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme (which saw the Left’s principal problem as a lack of revolutionary leadership)15 were not conjunctural pronouncements contingent on the circumstances of the time but timeless and ahistorical programmatic ones.
No: the parties we require will be built in the manner in which Lenin presented his What Is To Be Done?, which did not call for the creation of a doctrinally pure centralised ‘propaganda group’, but instead urged ‘revolutionary social-democrats’, all revolutionary social-democrats, to build a party of the Russian working class movement, in close connection with and out of that movement; exactly in the same spirit in which the Communist Manifesto, calling for the ‘formation of the proletariat into a class’, could declare that ‘The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.’16
Engels, writing much later (in 1884), summarised his and Marx’s ‘party’ approach:
When we founded a major newspaper in Germany, our banner was determined as a matter of course. It could only be that of democracy, but that of a democracy which everywhere emphasised in every point the specific proletarian character which it could not yet inscribe once for all on its banner. If we did not want to do that, if we did not want to take up the movement, adhere to its already existing, most advanced, actually proletarian side and to advance it further, then there was nothing left for us to do but to preach communism in a little provincial sheet and to found a tiny sect instead of a great party of action. But we had already been spoilt for the role of preachers in the wilderness; we had studied the utopians too well for that, nor was it for that we had drafted our programme.17
And this is the choice we face: To ‘take up the movement [...] and to advance it further’, building ‘a great party of action’; or ‘to preach communism in a little provincial sheet and to found a tiny sect.’
And, while my argument here is that the struggle for power is not on the immediate agenda, it is also that it will come, and the former statement is, as a consequence of the latter, no alibi for quiescence. For 1914-45, while it brought the socialist revolution to the fore, also brought with it terrible, and unimaginably terrible, world war. So we had better not fail, for socialism or barbarism it will be again.
17. ‘Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49) (n.d.), <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/03/13.htm> [28 Dec., 2004].