Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Monday, June 08, 2009

Europe Today: Like the 1930s in slow motion?

[Reflecting on the election victory of a former member of something called 'the National Socialist Movement' as my local MEP in Yorkshire, I was once again reminded of what to me has always seemed the prescience of a comment made by the late and indeed great Marxist Tony Cliff, who became a Trotskyist in Palestine during the 1930s and went onto found what became the Socialist Workers Party, during the last decade of his life - the 1990s. As Cliff put it, 'At the beginning of the 1990s I stated that observing the 1990s in Europe was like watching a film of the 1930s in slow motion.' Cliff's perspective has often been caricatured by some on the Left as a catastrophist one, and as American capitalism actually succeeded in enjoying a boom during the 1990s which helped world capitalism in general and fascist totalitarianism did not engulf Europe, at times it has seemed that if we were living in a period like the 1930s again, then things were this time round were happening in exceedingly 'slow motion'. However, the Great Crash of 2008 and the current economic recession have signalled the end of the boom, and the current political polarisation between victories of hard right or neo-Nazi parties in the current European elections (together with some successes for the Communist/Trotskyist far left in places like Portugal) suggest that perhaps we should take another look at Cliff's suggestive analogy about the 1930s - which seems more than relevant today with respect to Europe at least. By way of contribution to a possible debate on this, I reprint below an extract from Alex Callinicos's 1994 article 'Crisis and Class Struggle in Europe Today' from International Socialism 63, which I think draws out some of the suggestive similarities between the 1930s and the period since the start of the 1990s well]:

A more helpful way of thinking about the future is provided by a formulation of Tony Cliff's, that observing Europe in the 1990s is like watching a film of the 1930s in slow motion. The same ingredients are present today--deep seated economic crisis which puts increasing pressure on the social structures which built up during the boom, crisis also of the political system, class polarisation involving both the growth of the fascist right and greater working class militancy. The pace of development of the crisis along these different dimensions, however, is - as yet -slower than it was in the 1930s. This can be seen in a number of respects.

1. The economic crisis is not yet as severe as it was in the 1930s. To take the most important case, that of Germany, in December 1932 there were 5.8 million registered unemployed, nearly a third of the workforce: the rate of unemployment was even higher--40 percent--among male industrial workers. There were, in addition, over a million unemployed who no longer bothered to register, and at least 2 million workers on short time working...

2. Bourgeois political structures, though under severe strain, are not yet as fragile as they were during the inter-war period. The First World War and the upheavals which followed it caused an immense shock to the political system. The empires of eastern and central Europe vanished; the successor states were often weak and generally unstable. The Great Depression encouraged a shift towards authoritarian, if not fascist rule across the continent. Surviving parliamentary regimes - above all in Britain and France - found themselves besieged internally and externally. Once again the Weimar Republic offers the clearest case of this process. The conditions of its establishment - first the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy, then the defeat of the revolutionary left - meant that from the start the republic's existence was opposed by mass parties on both the far right and the far left. During the brief period of relative stability in 1923-8 the parties of the moderate right and left were able to evolve some kind of modus vivendi, but it did not survive the onset of renewed crisis in 1929. The Brüning government marked, in effect, the decision of the bulk of the ruling class to dispense with parliamentary rule.

Bourgeois democracy in Western Europe has, by contrast, much stronger roots today. Even those states whose parliamentary institutions date only from the 1940s, like West Germany and Italy, have now experienced 40 years of political continuity against a background of economic growth. Class conflict has to a large degree been contained within the framework of bourgeois democracy, which has been able to weather some severe challenges, notably the upheavals of the 1960s and their terrorist aftermath in Italy and West Germany. Finally, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw the successful extension of liberal democracy to Spain, Portugal, and Greece, an achievement all the more remarkable because of the intensity of the class struggles which accompanied the fall of the dictatorships in these countries. Of course, bourgeois democracy is now under considerable pressure throughout Western Europe...

3. The challengers to liberal democracy from the far right have been successful chiefly in accumulating votes. As yet fascist parties like the National Front in France and the MSI/National Alliance in Italy are primarily electoral machines rather than the paramilitary mass movements built up by Hitler and Mussolini. This is, from the point of view of the fascists' long term chances of winning power, a serious weakness. As Chris Harman argues:

they need an active mass movement behind them capable of penetrating every pore of society. Only that can give them the means to counter other social forces, especially the organised working class which is capable of blocking their totalitarian schemes. They need more than votes. They need supporters also prepared to face up to the risks involved in smashing every street, every housing estate, every factory, every office and every school.

Of course, the existing fascist organisations are willing to use political violence. But small gangs of skinhead thugs who are brave enough to firebomb the homes of sleeping Turks, or beat up young Asians in dark alleyways, do not amount to what Harman calls 'mass street fighting organisations', like Mussolini's squadristi, or the Nazi stormtroopers (SA), who numbered 400,000 in 1932. The existence of these formations was critical in winning the support of big capital for Hitler's accession to office. Unleashing the SA seemed to be the only way of breaking the organised working class. Today's Nazis have yet to convert their largely passive electoral support into the kind of mass paramilitary force which might lead the bosses, should the general crisis become sufficiently acute, to back them.

4. Finally, the organised working class in Western Europe is considerably stronger than it was in the 1930s. In his major study of the German working class under Hitler, Tim Mason argues that mass unemployment after 1929 was a crucial factor in sapping the will of the strongest labour movement in Europe to resist the Nazi takeover. 'The fate of the working class in these years was progressive immiseration, hunger, fear and hopelessness... In the frightful distress of this period the labour market too became politicised--the decision for political activism against National Socialism became more and more a decision for unemployment and hunger.' These circumstances, as well as the confusion, vacillations and divisions of the leaders of the social democratic and Communist parties, may help to explain 'the relatively limited resistance to the destruction of the workers' parties and the unions in the spring of 1933'. The European working class today, however, whatever defeats it may have suffered, and however much certain of its gains may have been eroded with the return of mass unemployment in the past 20 years, is plainly in a much better position to resist future assaults...

None of these differences between the 1930s and the 1990s constitute any reason for complacency. One lesson history teaches is the way in which quantity can turn into quality - how the cumulative effect of small scale changes and pressures can suddenly produce a systematic transformation in the situation. There are already some examples of this in Western Europe today - most notably the collapse of the party system in Italy, and Germany's sudden leap into instability. The continuation of the economic crisis - likely even if there is some temporary and partial recovery from the recession of the early 1990s - may create conditions in which the political structures of bourgeois democracy come relatively quickly under much more acute pressure, and some of the fascist parties are able to make the transition from electoral machines to paramilitary mass movements.

The film of the 1930s may, in other words, be running in slow motion, but it is running. This is not a reason to sink passively into despair, but rather to spring into action. The film need not have the same end this time round. Whether it does or not depends, as does every historical outcome, on the conscious intervention of human beings. It is undoubtedly the case that the existing organisations of the European left are part of the problem, rather than of the solution. The reformist organisations - the various social democratic parties, and the inheritors of Stalinism, like the PDS in Italy - have given up even pretending to offer an alternative to capitalism, and seek simply to manage the market more efficiently and humanely than the constitutional right. This Tweedledum-Tweedledee politics simply drives many of those who want real change into the arms of the fascists...

But the crisis of the 1990s is creating a new generation of young workers and students who can be won to the ideas of the revolutionary Marxist tradition...The potential for revolutionary socialist organisation is vast. The need for it is equally great if an alternative to a capitalist society once again in crisis, and to the fascist barbarians seeking to exploit it, is to emerge. There is time to build such organisations right across Europe in the struggles that are developing--so long as that time is seized now.

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