The political crisis and the crisis of capitalism

As the earthquake of economic crisis sweeps across the globe, the political establishment in country after country is being shaken to the core. “Strong” governments have been exposed as, in fact, being extremely weak, both at the ballot box and on the streets. The ruling class is beginning to lose its political grip on society and people are beginning to question the traditional pillars that society has rested upon for centuries.

At its heart, this political crisis is a reflection of the deep crisis of capitalism, which leaves no rock unturned as its tremors spread across the world. Marx and Engels explained in their writings that at the heart of society is the economic base: the mode of production and distribution; the relationship between the different classes and the means of production. Upon this base is built the “superstructure” of forms and ideology within society: the state, the law, the family, religion, morality, culture, etc. As a result, changes to the economic base are, in the long run, generally reflected by changes within the superstructure.

In normal periods, when the productive forces are developing and living standards are improving, society’s economic base is generally speaking not questioned by the majority of people. Up until recently, capitalism was, for many, a sacred cow. All of that changed with the current economic crisis, which has thrown society backwards. As people begin to question the fundamental base of society – capitalism itself – they are led, inevitably, to question everything else that once seemed unquestionable: all the old morals and ideas; the various arms of the state; the political establishment and even our so-called “democracy”. As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto:

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” (The Communist Manifesto; Chapter One; Marx and Engels)

This questioning is nothing new, and is a symptom of a social and economic system that is in decay – that has entered its death agony. A similar process occurred in the later stages of feudalism, which was reflected in the art of the time (Hieronymus Bosch and the art of the death agony of Feudalism), and during the decline of the Roman Empire, when all the traditional culture, morality, and religion was suddenly thrown into question (Class struggle in the Roman Repulic).

The current crisis of capitalism has already shaken many pillars of society. In Britain, the establishment has been rocked on numerous occasions over the past few years, beginning with the MPs’ expenses scandal. Splits in the ruling class have emerged recently, with members of the church and the army speaking out against the coalition government, and now all the sordid links between the media, the police, and politicians have been exposed by the revelations of the phone hacking scandal (see Phone hacking scandal rocks establishment and News of the World Scandal: the ugly face of Capitalism). Internationally, people have been stunned and governments have been rattled by the invention of WikiLeaks, which has helped to play a major role in exposing the backroom deals and machinations of international “diplomacy” and foreign affairs.

The ruling class is finding it increasingly difficult to rule. All of the usual mechanisms of the state – the media, the police, the army, etc. – are in crisis. Faced with the prospect of having to carry out the most severe austerity programme in the history of capitalism, the bourgeoisie can no longer find support through the usual “democratic” channels of the ballot box. Like the foolish man who built his house upon the sand, the ruling class is quickly finding that when the rains come down, their base of support is less reliable than previously assumed. In country after country, the ruling class is facing a political crisis. That the crisis of capitalism is reflected most visibly through a political crisis, should come as no surprise – as Lenin famously remarked, politics is just concentrated economics.

Weak coalitions

This political crisis is clear in countries such as Britain and Ireland, where long standing governments that presided over an economic boom, found themselves kicked out of office at the first possible opportunity as boom turned into bust, only to be replaced by weak coalitions. In Britain, the 2010 general election returned the first hung parliament since WWII, despite the first-past-the-post electoral system that is supposed to guarantee “strong” and “stable” governments. The ruling class were desperate for a strong Tory government to emerge from the elections, in order to implement a vicious austerity programme. In the end, however, the Tories failed to achieve a majority, resulting in the first peacetime coalition government since the National Government that was formed between the three main parties in the 1930’s under similar conditions of economic crisis.

The coalition seemed strong, and the Tories and Lib Dems seemed like natural bedfellows. As The Economist commented, “Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem deputy prime minister, was caught joking with David Cameron, the Tory prime minister, that the pair would never find anything to disagree on. It was even suggested that coalition could lead to an electoral pact or outright merger” (The Economist, 28th April 2011). But pressure from the masses has exposed the weakness in the coalition – first with the student movement against tuition fees and education cuts, then with the outcry against planned changes to the National Health Service, and now with the strike action of the unions in defence of public sector pensions. Despite a full-on media onslaught and smear campaign against the unions over the recent strikes on the 30th June, public support for the strikes remained steady, and in fact increased nearer to the date itself. Now the government – and especially David Cameron – are on the back foot, as their links to the scandals of the tabloid press are being brought out into the light.

Despite its weaknesses, however, the British ruling class must stick with the coalition, for they have no other option. The government is ploughing on with its austerity programme, but is facing increased resistance from the labour movement, and a breakup of the coalition would signal a major retreat and would be a tremendous spur to the working class in Britain.

The coalition government formed recently in Ireland after a general election in February is in no better shape. The new coalition of Fine Gael and Labour is historic in that it has broken the dominance of Fianna Fail over Irish politics. Fianna Fail, a right-wing bourgeois party, has shaped Ireland’s political landscape for the last 80 years. It has been in power for 75% of the time since 1932 when it was first elected in, and had been in office continuously since 1997 (with various coalition partners). As The Economist stated bluntly, “its utter rejection by voters now is a humiliation. Fianna Fail lost three-quarters of its seats (dropping from 78 to 20) to become the third party in parliament. Many ministers, including Brian Cowen, the outgoing prime minister, wisely did not seek re-election. Most of those who did stand were defeated.” (The Economist, 3rd March 2011).

Fine Gael (another right-wing bourgeois party!) will hardly be overjoyed with being in power. With Ireland at the forefront of the Euro crisis, Fine Gael – in coalition with Labour – will be forced to carry on going with the brutal austerity programme that they have already been implementing for years. This will bring all the contradictions within the coalition – between the bourgeois representatives of Fine Gael and the working class that forms the basis of Labour’s support – to the fore, and can only be a recipe for class struggle. As the Marxists in Ireland argued at the time of the elections, Labour should not have gone into coalition, but should have stayed in opposition and led a mass movement to fight for socialism.

A crisis of Social Democracy

The political crisis is also manifested as a crisis of social democracy; in other words, as a crisis of reformism. The ideology of the social democratic parties has, since the turn away from Marxist ideas in the late 19th– and early 20th centuries, been that of reformism. But the ideology of reformism – like any ideology – has always required a material base to support itself. In the case of reformism, the material base lay in conditions of boom, such as those in the 1950’s and 60’s or 1990’s and early 2000’s, when the economy was growing and the class struggle was blunted.

With the onset of the economic crisis in 2007-08, however, this material basis for reformism has been cut away from under the feet of the reformist politicians. They are now reformists with no reforms to offer. The crisis of capitalism has polarised society, sharpened the class struggle, and posed the options available to the reformists concretely: either you carry out cuts on behalf of the ruling class, or you fight for a transformation of society; that is, you fight for socialism. The right reformists cannot bear to break with capitalism; in turn, the left reformists cling to the right reformists and carry out the cuts that Capital dictates.

Nowhere is this crisis of social democracy clearer than in Greece, where the supposedly “socialist” government of PASOK is now carrying out the most vicious attack against the working class since the fall of the military junta in 1974, with a programme of cuts, tax increases, and mass privatisation. This is the logical conclusion of the ideology of reformism, whose adherents preach “pragmatism” and “realism”, but who in fact behave no differently than the traditional representatives of the bourgeoisie in times of crisis.

Similar processes can be seen in Portugal and Spain, where social democratic governments have been carrying out the cuts in response to the sovereign debt crisis that threatens nation after nation in Europe. In Spain, the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), facing the threat of economic contagion and the current reality of over 40% youth unemployment, is deeply unpopular and has seen wave after wave of mass protests. Yet Zapatero, the Spanish Prime Minister clings to capitalism, and is sticking to an austerity programme that aims to reduce the budget deficit from 11.1% of GDP to 4.4% in the space of three years.

In Portugal, having begun to carry out cuts and then facing the might of the working class in the shape of a general strike, José Sócrates and his Socialist Party jumped ship and called a snap election, where they were beaten by the (right-wing) Social Democrats (PSD), who promised to be “much more ambitious” in terms of their austerity programme. The PSD, however, failed to gain a majority and are now in coalition with the People’s Party (CDS-PP), another bourgeois party.

In response to the defeat of the Socialist Party in Portugal, The Economist wrote that, “The PSD’s victory leaves the 27-nation EU with only five left-wing governments: Spain, Greece, Austria, Slovenia and Cyprus. Spain, by far the biggest of these, is expected to move into the centre-right camp in a general election due by next March” (The Economist, 6th June 2011). In addition, The Economist seemed smug about the Socialists defeat in Spain in recent local and regional elections, saying that, “Spain’s ruling Socialists reeled from a ten-percentage-point defeat at the hands of the conservative People’s Party (PP) in municipal and regional elections on May 22nd—the party’s worst-ever result.” (The Economist, 26th May 2011)

We see here, as ever, a display of the superficial analysis that the mouthpieces of the bourgeoisie have to offer. They simply see the defeat of “left wing” governments in elections as part of a general shift in society to the right. This empirical analysis by the representatives of the ruling class only scratches at the surface of things, and does not see the contradictions developing underneath. A deeper analysis of the results of the regional elections in Spain sheds light on the real processes at play. Whilst PSOE lost 1.5 million votes, the right-wing PP gained only 560,000 votes. Meanwhile, the communist-led United Left coalition gained 210,000 votes. And, as these very elections were taking place, thousands of young people across Spain were camped out in city centres protesting against youth unemployment and demanding jobs.


What we can see, therefore, is not a shift to the right in society, but a general polarisation taking place, with weak right-wing, bourgeois parties coming to power in elections, not because of their popularity, but because of a deep anger and disillusionment with the traditional parties of the working class, i.e. the social democracies, which have carried out cuts and implemented austerity. The reformists, who not only have no reforms to offer, but are also carrying out counter-reforms, have discredited the ideas of “socialism” for many, and are in fact now paving the way for a return of the right wing and an even more vicious reaction against the working class. The most notable fact in these elections (whether it be the recent regional elections in Spain or the general election in Britain), is the large numbers of working people who don’t turn up to vote at all because they are too disgusted with what is on offer.

In Spain, Greece, Britain, and elsewhere, this disillusionment with the traditional mass organisations has partly manifested itself in the shape of “apolitical” or “anti-political” protests by the youth, and in some cases a rejection of the political process altogether. These protests, which have a slight anarchistic flavour to them, should be seen as a healthy reaction against the opportunism, bureaucracy, and corruption that has built up over the years inside the traditional mass organisations of the working class. As Lenin famously stated in his book Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, “Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working class movement. The two monstrosities complemented each other.” (Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder; Chapter Four; Lenin)

The task for Marxists, however, is to explain the limits of these “spontaneous” movements, and to point out the need for a political struggle; the need for workers and youth to take power and weld it on behalf of their own class interests – the interests of the vast majority of society.

However, despite all its flaws and betrayals, social democracy is unlikely to die an early death, as some on the left conclude from recent events. One cannot underestimate the huge reserves of support that the traditional mass organisations of the working class hold, and the loyalty of workers towards these organisations. For example, despite their role in helping to bring about the imperialist war of 1914 by voting for war credits, the Social Democratic Party of Germany still became the largest party in the Reichstag in 1919.

The more likely possibility is for the contradictions inside the social democracies, between those who cling to capitalism and those who stand up for the working class – which in turn represent the general antagonism between the classes in society – will be reflected in the development of revolutionary tendencies within these mass organisations at some stage. This was the case with the development of the communist parties in France, Italy, and Germany after the Russian Revolution and WWI, which formed out of splits from the social democracy under the hammer blow of events.

The rise of the far right?

The failure of the traditional mass organisations to lead the working class and offer an alternative to the torment of capitalism can also be seen in the rise of the far right in certain instances. This has been the case recently in northern Europe and Scandinavia. Countries such as Sweden and Norway have always been strongholds of social democracy as a result of strong labour movements and their proximity to Russia, which provided an inspiration to workers with the revolution of 1917. This dominance of the social democracy, however, is withering in the face of the economic crisis.

The Social Democrats in Sweden have been in government for 65 of the past 78 years, but have lost the last two elections. The most recent election (in September 2010), saw the Swedish Democrats, a far right party, gain 20 seats in parliament out of a total of 349, with a minority coalition of four bourgeois parties in power. In the Finnish general election in April 2011, the True Finns, another far right party, gained 19% of the vote. Far right parties also hold sizeable numbers in Denmark and Holland.

Many on the left have become slightly hysterical in response to this “rise of the far right”, bleating about the dangers of fascism. This increase in the far right vote, however, should not been seen with such pessimism and despair. Firstly, it should come as no surprise that the masses, faced with this economic crisis for which they are being asked to pay the bill, will turn sharply both to the left and to the right. The working class does not choose their political parties based on a thorough reading of Marx or any other writer, but will turn, in a time of crisis, towards anyone that offers them a way out – even if that is by attacking the spectre of immigration.

Secondly, it can be seen that these far right parties, unlike fascist leaders in the past, are actually trying to appeal to the working class – albeit on the basis of nationalism and racism – with rhetoric about jobs, housing, and services. In this respect, the rise of the far right is again a symptom of the failure of the leadership of the traditional mass organisations to provide a serious alternative to austerity. Historically, fascism has only been able to come about on the back of the failure of the working class leadership to offer a solution to the problems of the middle classes, who are deeply affected in times of crisis, but who do not have an independent class position. They either look to the workers, if these can offer a way out, or failing that, they can gravitate back towards the bourgeoisie.

Finally, it should be noted that the historical mass basis for fascism no longer exists. In the past, fascism found its support from the petit-bourgeois layers of society – the peasantry, the shopkeepers, the small businessmen, the white collar workers, and the students. But these layers can no longer be relied upon to support the forces of reaction. The peasantry no longer exists in any significant numbers; the owners of small businesses have been crushed by big business and are being pushed down into the ranks of the proletariat; and it is students and “white collar” workers, such as civil servants and teachers, who are now at the forefront of the movements against austerity. As a result, the small fascist gangs that do exist nowadays are mainly recruited from the lumpen, hooligan elements of society, which are not enough to form a mass movement.

Economic engines stalling

Even in the powerhouses of the global economy, the political effects of the economic crisis can be felt. Germany and France, which have been relatively resilient to the global crisis, are feeling the pressures of the sovereign debts crisis in Greece and elsewhere, and Sarkozy and Merkel are stuck between a rock and a hard place with the options of either helping to bailout Greece once more with their taxpayers’ money or making German and French banks accept losses.

Despite strong economic growth in Germany, Angela Merkel – once a firm favourite amongst the bourgeoisie – is struggling to find support. According to The Economist:

“Her [Merkel’s] government is unpopular. Germany’s allies are frustrated. Europeans who look to her for leadership in the euro crisis complain that she has let them down. Businessmen, once among her firmest supporters, are losing faith. A recent cover of Der Spiegel magazine summed up its verdict on her government with a thumb turned resolutely down… Mrs Merkel faces mounting opposition at home from those who think she has been too ready to help the likes of Greece and Portugal. These critics include members of her own coalition, a three-party alliance of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union (CSV) and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). If enough MPs defected over the euro, her government would fall.” (The Economist, 7th July 2011)

The example of Germany shows that the political crisis, like the economic crisis that it reflects, is not confined simply to the “weak” economies, but must, sooner or later, rear its head even in the “strong” economies. This, in turn, reflects that fact that this is a global crisis of capitalism that is in decay. The productive forces are being hemmed in by two great contradictions: the private ownership of the means of production and the nation state. Under capitalism, this can only lead to the intensification of struggles between the ruling classes of different countries and between the classes within each country.

In France, Sarkozy is no better off. Having survived (for the time being) a battle over pensions in October 2010, which saw 3.5 million workers and youth take to the streets, Sarkozy is now one of the most unpopular presidents in French history, with popularity ratings of around 30% in opinion polls. But again, the Socialists offer no alternative. Their preferred candidate (until recently) for the next presidential election was Dominique Strauss Kahn, the former head of the IMF, who was responsible for austerity programmes and neo-liberal “reforms” across the world. With friends like this, who needs enemies! As a result, there has been (unsurprisingly) a rise in popularity for Marine Le Pen, the young leader of the far right National Front.

The USA, the true engine of the global economy, is in a multitude of crises. Not only are US banks heavily exposed to the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, but the US economy is itself already heavily in debt. The Democrats and the Republicans, the two right feet of American politics, are at a stalemate over how to cut the deficit, and noises are now being made about the possibility of a default of US government debt. Public services have already begun to be shut down in certain states due to a lack of money, and the whole federal government came close to a shut-down earlier this year.

Attempts to take on the labour movement and break the unions were met with a tremendous response by workers and youth in Wisconsin, and class struggle in the US is now firmly back on the agenda. What is lacking in the US, however, is a mass party of Labour to fight on the side of the trade unions and workers in this struggle.

Political crises are not, of course, restricted to “democratic” countries. In China, cracks are emerging in the “strong”, authoritarian government of the Chinese Communist Party, with mass protests breaking out across the country on a regular basis now. For the bourgeois empiricists, who only look at the surface of things, such protests are simply about fighting for their version of bourgeois democracy. After all, what else can anyone have to complain about in a country where there is annual GDP growth of 10% or more every year? But again, such a superficial analysis fails to look beneath the surface at how this newly created wealth is being distributed; at the growing inequality and disparity between the rich and the poor.

The same situation could be found in Egypt before the revolution. The economy was growing at a rate of 5% per year, and all seemed well on the surface of things. On January 25th, at the same time as the large protests in Tahrir Square began, the IMF had just left Cairo saying that the Egyptian economy was in good shape. Two weeks later, and Mubarak had fled. Now, several months later, and the protests in Egypt have flared up again, this time with explicitly social and economic demands.

The presence of certain democratic rights in most countries – the right to vote, organise, protest, and strike – act as a warning sign to the ruling class in most countries. The ability for the masses to express their anger through legal channels allows for the ruling class to respond before things are too late, and in normal times helps to give people the sense that they are in some way connected to the running of the country; that they are listened to and that they have a say in what decisions politicians make. But authoritarian regimes, such as those in China and the Middle East, do not have these warning signs. As was seen in Tunisia and Egypt, by the time the regime realises there’s a problem, things can already be too late for them.

Technocrats and Bonapartism

Over the centuries, the ruling class has developed and perfected their state apparatus and the political machinery that they require in order to oppress, exploit, and subjugate the majority on behalf of a small minority. Democratic rights, such as suffrage, free speech, and the right to organise, are not simply “ideological” preferences for the ruling class, but are rights that have been won through struggle. In many respects, it is simply preferable for the ruling class to grant these “rights” and give the impression of “democracy” and political representation, than to openly oppress the masses through authoritarian means and risk the possibility of generating a more explosive situation.

In places where the economic crisis has reached its extremes, the ruling class is forced to push aside the usual mechanisms of this bourgeois democracy, and thus nakedly expose the actual political, social, and economic relations that exist. Nowhere is this more evident than in Greece, where parliamentary democracy is now openly recognised as being a sham. How can there be any talk of “democracy” when 80% of the population is against the austerity measures that have been pushed through by politicians? How can it be “democratic” for the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission – the unelected Troika – to dictate to the Greek people what economic measures they must accept? Where is  “sovereignty” for the masses in Greece?

Writing in The Guardian, Aris Chatzistefanou and Katerina Kitidi, a pair of Greek documentary makers, describe the political regime in Greece as a “debtocracy”; a regime where “The power of the people (demos) is handed over to foreign and local lenders, who ask from the Greek government solely one thing: some more time in order to transfer the Greek debt to the European Central Bank; that is to European taxpayers” (The Guardian website, 9th July 2011). They describe the situation in Greece whereby, “officials of the governing party now cannot show themselves in public in any part of Greece without being attacked by citizens”, adding that, “The Greek crisis is no longer financial. It is deeply political and social.”

Drastic times call for drastic measures. In the case of Greece, the extremity of the crisis has led to calls for a “national government” in the “national interest”. George Papandreou, the Greek Prime Minister, has attempted to reshuffle his cabinet to give the appearance of change, and at one point he even suggested the idea of a national government to the New Democracy, Greece’s main bourgeois party. The only problem is that the New Democracy  isn’t too keen on being associated with the government and its austerity programme. Papandreou even struggled to find anyone within his own party who was willing or eager to take on the role of finance minister in his cabinet, and Antonis Samaras, the leader of the New Democracy, politely told Papandreou what he thought of the idea of a national government.

The job of carrying out the Troika’s austerity programme in Greece is a hot potato that politicians are seeking to avoid. The New Democracy would much rather pose as being in opposition to the cuts and then ride into power with a “clean” slate in an election. Of course, the New Democracy is already tarnished for helping to bring about this economic mess in the first place, and their “victory” in any future election would be in spite of their policies, not because of them.

In such conditions, the idea has been posed of doing away with political parties and parliament altogether, and instead appointing a government of “technocrats”. The Economist online “Newsbook”, in an article entitled “Greece’s political crisis”, said that:

“Mr Papandreou discussed with Antonis Samaras, leader of the opposition conservative New Democrats, the possibility of stepping aside and the pair jointly appointing a team of technocrats to run the country, perhaps with Lucas Papademos, a respected former deputy president of the European Central Bank, as prime minister.”

“But within hours colleagues and advisers had talked Mr Papandreou into dropping the idea. A disappointed-sounding Mr Samaras said today that a one-off opportunity had been lost. The result has been to scare off economists and bankers who had already been thinking about offering their services. It seems that Greece’s politicians will have to go it alone after all.” (The Economist “Newsbook” online, 16th June 2011)

Paul Mason from the BBC reported a similar proposal in Italy, where the sovereign debt crisis is beginning to loom large over the country (and Europe as a whole). In a blog post entitled, “Italy: Enter a coalition of technorati?”, Mason announced that the Democratic Party in Italy (the main opposition party to Berlusconi), “has agreed to rush through parliament the €40bn austerity budget that the Berlusconi administration is still quibbling about… In return they want Silvio Berlusconi to go and a ‘technical government’ headed by a ‘European big figure’, deputy leader Enrico Letta tells me tonight.”

The examples of Greece and Italy show the extents to which the bourgeoisie will go in order to protect their interests (i.e. their property). When their backs are against the wall, they will happily give up all pretence of “democracy”, in favour of the so-called “national interest” (i.e. their interest). Suddenly the will of the people is irrelevant and wise “technocrats” are needed to run the country.

This talk of “national governments” and “technocrats” has led some to worry about the return of “Bonapartist” regimes in Europe and elsewhere. At the end of May 2011, the internet was awash with reports that the CIA was warning of a Greek military coup, as a result of an article by the German newspaper “Bild”.

The term “Bonapartism” is a historical analogy, based on Marx’s work “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, used to describe a regime of military police dictatorship. Such a regime is characterised as “rule by the sword”, and in such situations one sees a greater independence of the state apparatus from class society below it. “Strong men” emerge in such situations who appear to rest above the classes, leaning on one class and then the other, striking blows against all the classes in order to consolidate their own power. However, in the final analysis, such regimes always act to protect the interests of one class. Such was the case with Louis Bonaparte, who acted to protect the private property of the French capitalists, despite violently attacking certain individual members of the bourgeoisie. The term ‘Caesarism’ is also often used to describe such cases, named after the example of Julius Caesar, who rose above the classes in the Roman Empire, but nevertheless defended the interests of the Roman slave owners.

These Bonapartist regimes arise when there is a deadlock between the classes; when the old economic system is in decay and the current ruling class is losing its ability to rule, but the new society is not yet ready to be born due to the weakness of the new progressive class. Such regimes, by their very nature, are unstable, and must end up in either revolution or counter-revolution. No political power can remain suspended in mid-air without a class base on which it can rest. As Talleyrand, the French foreign minister under Napoleon I, once said, “You can do many things with a bayonet, but you can’t sit on it”. Trotsky describes Bonapartism with a particularly lucid metaphor:

“As soon as the struggle of two social strata – the haves and the have-nots, the exploiter and the exploited – reaches its highest tension, the conditions are given for the domination of bureaucracy, police, soldiery. The government becomes ‘independent’ of society. Let us once more recall: if two forks are stuck symmetrically into a cork, the latter can stand even on the head of a pin. That is precisely the scheme of Bonapartism. To be sure, such a government does not cease being the clerk of the property-owners. Yet the clerk sits on the back of the boss, rubs his neck raw and does not hesitate at times to dig his boots into his face…”

“…The Bonapartist regime can attain a comparatively stable and durable character only in the event that it brings a revolutionary epoch to a close; when the relationship of forces has already been tested in battles; when the revolutionary classes are already spent; while the possessing classes have not yet freed themselves from the fear; will not the morrow bring new convulsions? Without this basic condition, that is, without a preceding exhaustion of the mass energies in battles, a Bonapartist regime is in no position to develop.” (Germany, The Only Road; Trotsky)

Ted Grant elaborated on the point that Trotsky makes about the Bonapartist regimes that arise during the decline of the economic system, this “senile” Bonapartism, which he differentiates from the “strong” Bonapartism that arises when an economic system is in its ascendancy:

“The Bonapartism at the stage of capitalism’s rise, raising itself above society, suppressing and ‘arbitrating’ the open conflicts within it and regulating the class antagonisms, is strong and confident. Under the conditions of a powerful development of the productive forces, it attains a certain stability. But the Bonapartism of capitalism’s decline is affected by senility. Rising out of the crisis of capitalist society, it cannot solve any of the problems with which it is faced. The main crisis of society, the conflict between the productive forces and private ownership and the national state, has become so great, the class antagonisms which it engenders, so tense, that this which alone allows the rise of senile Bonapartism, at the same time, as a consequence, makes it so weak and feeble that its whole structure is shaky and likely to be overthrown in the series of crises which confront it. It is this weakness of Bonapartism which leads to the bourgeoisie and military clique surrendering the power to fascism and unleashing the greedy bands of maddened petty bourgeoisie and lumpenproletariat against the proletariat and its class organisations.” (Democracy or Bonapartism – A Reply to Pierre Frank; Ted Grant)

The question arises, therefore, of what are the concrete conditions facing society today? As Marxists, it is not enough simply to make historical analogies. We must, at all times, analyse things dialectically; that is to say, we must look at the specific situation that society is in now, and the processes that have led up to this point.

As has been outlined above, the entire world is facing a deep crisis of capitalism, and there is no way out in the long run under capitalism. Every attempt by the bourgeoisie to overcome this crisis can only either delay the crisis, leading to it returning at a higher level at a later point in time, or lead to an intensification and sharpening of the class struggle. As a result, there is no safe avenue for the bourgeoisie. Nowhere in the world is there a “strong” political regime any more. In country after country, the establishment is in crisis and the political representatives of the ruling class are showing signs of weakness.

The prospect of a “strong” Bonapartist government is off the cards. Even a “senile” Bonapartist regime is unlikely. Such a regime relies upon the support of the state apparatus – the “armed bodies of men” in the army, the police, etc. But the depth of the economic crisis has forced the bourgeoisie to eat into its own state. In the past, reactionary governments such as the Tories under Thatcher were able to bolster the police force in preparation for taking on the working class. Nowadays, the army and the police in Britain are seeing their numbers cut as part of the general cuts to public spending. Lower layers of the police force have complained that they are being picked on because they cannot unionise and strike. The Police Federation in Britain has not ruled out action against the cuts of 20% in their budget.

In addition, as has been explained above, the possibility of a move towards fascism (which is a form of Bonapartism) is also ruled out due to the changed class composition in society. Over 50% of the world’s population is now urbanised, and the numbers in the peasantry are in decline as more and more people in developing countries move to the cities in search of jobs. The student population has expanded and in the process become “proletarianised” and radicalised. The middle classes are continually being pushed down into the ranks of the proletariat. The working class these days is numerically by far the strongest class in society. What it lacks is a fighting, revolutionary leadership.

A crisis of leadership

On the one hand we see the weakness of the ruling class and the political establishment; on the other hand we see the weakness of the working class due to a lack of revolutionary leadership. The reformists, with no material basis for reforms, will be polarised – like society in general – towards two poles: those who push for austerity, and those who fight for a transformation of society.

In this deadlock between the classes, one might expect a Bonapartist regime to arise; but such a regime would be so weak and unstable that it wouldn’t be able to play any role in overcoming the antagonism between the classes. Instead, the general perspective is for a protraction of the class struggle, with weak governments being replaced by other weak governments; none of them able to overcome the fundamental limits to the development of capitalist society: the private ownership of the means of production and the nation state.

We can see a hint of this perspective in Japan, where a stagnant economy that has been in crisis for two decades now has seen a quick succession of prime ministers and minority governments, with 13 different prime ministers in the last 20 years and five PMs in the last five years.

This protracted class struggle will not be a linear process, but will contain ebbs and flows, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary trends. The masses will learn from the defeats and be spurred on by the victories. Over time, they will look for a revolutionary way out from the crisis of capitalism. As Trotsky remarked in “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”:

“All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet ‘ripened’ for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” (The Transitional Program; Trotsky)

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