In his new book, Power Systems, Noam Chomsky raises the question: why has the present economic crisis not evoked the sort of massive protest from the working class in the United States of America that the Great Depression of the 1930s did? True, the scale of unemployment today is not as large as it had been during the 1930s. Nonetheless it is substantial; and the crisis has already lasted five years with no end in sight. And yet, America remains a ‘desert’ in terms of any militant working-class mobilization against it.
The proximate answer he provides for this difference is the collapse of militant trade unionism in today’s US; but underlying this, according to him, is the collapse of the US Communist Party, which had played a major role in mobilizing the workers during the Depression. Since Chomsky, as an anarchist, is not known to be particularly well-disposed towards communist parties, his lauding the role of the US Communist Party during the 1930s, cannot be dismissed as a paean from the faithful.
Elsewhere too the communists had played a crucial role in mobilizing the workers during the Great Depression. In Germany, for instance, the party’s support among the young and unemployed workers had soared before Hitler’s coming to power. Large-scale unemployment provides the soil not only for the growth of fascist tendencies that pit one segment of the people against another (“outsiders are stealing your jobs”), or that invoke a mythical conspiracy by an almost non- existent minority as the cause of the people’s woes (half a million Jews in the 1930s are responsible for the woes of 70 million Germans), it also nourishes the growth of a militant Left that mobilizes workers’ resistance.
The question then arises: why has the Left not emerged as a powerful force mobilizing the people in the current crisis? Of course, the growth of Syriza in Greece, of Beppe Grillo’s “Five Star” movement in Italy (and possibly of Yair Lapid’s movement in Israel), can be seen as part of people’s resistance in the context of the crisis. But these movements are not just amorphous (which is not surprising); they lack, as yet, any clear-cut socio-economic programme.
Their being ‘reformist’ is immaterial, for any significant mobilization of the people must necessarily begin with a ‘reform’ agenda; what they lack, however, is a clear programme of ‘reform’ with a thought-out strategy of coping with the implications of putting such ‘reform’ into practice. Their rise is more an expression of anger among the people than a reposing of people’s trust in an alternative economic trajectory. And the traditional communist Left continues to languish even in the midst of the crisis, which needs an explanation.
To say that the quietude of communist formations is because of the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough: many communist formations in the advanced capitalist world had broken with the Soviet Union long before its collapse; they surely should not have been shell-shocked by it. Likewise, to say that such formations are too small to matter at present unlike in the 1930s when communism represented a nascent, vigorous tendency, is not enough. The US Communist Party, like its German counterpart, grew because of leading people’s resistance; why is today different?
There is, in my view, a deeper reason behind it. Communism developed as an internationalist movement at a time when capitalist countries were engaged in a world war that apotheosized national chauvinism. Lenin’s slogan of converting the imperialist war into a civil war, so that workers of the belligerent countries did not have to kill each other across trenches in the interests of finance capital, or Rosa Luxemburg’s slogan of a European workers’ movement for peace, raised the banner of internationalism against the national chauvinism promoted by capitalism.
The finance capital against which they sought to mobilize workers was national finance capital, British, German, or French. The ideology of this finance capital, as analysed by Rudolf Hilferding in his opus, Das Finanzkapital, or as expressed in Erich Maria Remarque’s classic work, All Quiet on the Western Front, was the glorification of the ‘National Idea’. Socialist internationalism stood against capitalist national-chauvinism, and mobilizing the people in each country against the hegemony of such national capital created no theoretical problems for the communists.
What contemporary globalization has entailed, however, is globalization of finance, and hence the formation of an international finance capital, which champions, not national-chauvinism, but its own brand of internationalism. And mobilizing the people of any particular country for an alternative agenda in the context of the crisis, which means a struggle against the hegemony of such international finance capital, necessarily means a retreat into nationalism, a de-linking of the nation, presided over by a particular nation-State which the Left hopes to capture, from the internationalism essayed by contemporary finance capital. This puts the Left in a dilemma.
Matters would be different if international mobilizations of workers could be carried out against the impact of the crisis; but this remains a far cry, even in the European Union, which, in spite of being a supra-national entity, has witnessed no significant supra-national workers’ organizations or even movements. Communists of all kinds, and the Left in general, have thus appeared curiously devoid of any serious alternative agenda, since any such agenda, if voted to power, would necessarily risk a retreat from the internationalism promoted by finance, howsoever inadequate, into a nationalism that the Left in advanced countries has traditionally found distasteful.
For many in the European Left for instance, the EU with all its flaws represents an advance in a continent that had been torn apart by two world wars. The fact that the EU is dominated by finance capital whose cause is championed by Germany and which has brought crisis and unemployment to the workers, is not sufficient reason for them to abandon the European project. Unwilling to retreat, in spite of the crisis, from even the inadequate internationalism brought about by finance capital, and unable to put into practice any alternative internationalist project, the Left appears paralysed for the moment. It is the fascists, who have always revelled in national-chauvinism, with no such inhibitions about de-linking from a supra-national project, who appear better-placed to profit from the people’s anger at the predicament to which they have been reduced by the crisis.
In the third world, where nationalism has been associated with anti-imperialist struggles and hence has had an inclusive character (against which the effort has been to pit other narrow, sectional “nationalisms” like “Hindu nationalism”), the Left has had no such dilemma in opposing the ‘globalization’ brought about under the aegis of finance capital. But in many third-world countries the crisis has had only a muted impact till now. The fact that globalization of capital has led to some diffusion of activities from high-wage advanced countries to low-wage third-world countries, and in the process caused high growth rates of gross domestic product in some of the latter, has created the illusion, even within Left circles, that these countries will be able to avoid the crisis.
Of course, even their high GDP growth has been accompanied by rampant dispossession of peasants and petty producers, without any corresponding increase in organized sector employment; and, hence, by a swelling of the relative size of the labour reserves, and of the magnitude of absolute poverty. But this is something which many, including within the Left, are either oblivious of, or do not take seriously enough on the grounds that a development of the ‘productive forces’ is always to be welcomed. Additionally, they also believe that this phenomenon of high growth will continue in spite of the crisis, that any interruption in it is only temporary.
We are thus in a peculiar situation where both in the first and in the third world, the Left is paralysed in spite of the persistence of the crisis, unlike in the 1930s when the crisis had provided the setting for a massive worldwide growth of the Left.
This stasis, however, is likely to break soon, at least in the third world which is now being hit by the crisis to an extent far greater than before. Indeed China, the biggest gainer from the diffusion of activities from the advanced capitalist world, has experienced such social unrest that it has already started moving towards an alternative growth trajectory with far greater emphasis on the home market. This would require substantial measures of income redistribution towards the working people, especially in rural areas. Similar measures will become necessary in other third-world countries too, as they begin to experience the crisis in all its severity. And it is the Left alone that can lead the struggle for such a change of course.