There is no point in wasting time in speculating over whether the economic situation is changing, or whether a recovery may be under way. Numerous statements have been made to this effect by government officials over the past few weeks. However, not only do these people have no control over the operation of the economy, but their assertions are tainted with motivations which have nothing to do with providing an accurate description of economic reality. And, while this is true of any government, it is even more true of France's Socialist Party-led government, since its only selling point with the capitalist class, which it serves with the same loyalty as right-wing parties did, is to be better equipped to implement anti-working class measures - thanks to the union leaders' support.
The symptoms which are mentioned as evidence of a recovery being round the corner - whether it be the resurgence of economic activity in the US, especially on the housing market, or the resumption of China's economic growth after a period in which it had been relatively subdued, or whatever else - are largely irrelevant compared to the relentless rise in unemployment, the flat-lining of industrial production and the reduction in international trade. The most enthusiastic among the commentators hailing this recovery have no option but to acknowledge that the statistics they use to back up their optimistic predictions lack both significance and reliability. Above all, in the meantime, the economy is increasingly crippled by its financial sphere, with its speculative flows of floating capital whose erratic movements threaten the world economy with new catastrophes.
The financial threat
Over the past two decades, the capitalist economy has been through a series of financial seizures, with various degrees of breadth and depth. The last one, which was triggered by the subprime crisis, in 2007-2008, came close to causing a general banking crash, which would have had immeasurable consequences for the economy. However, this crash didn't happen. The governments' massive intervention combined with the introduction of adhoc monetary policies avoided a Great Depression-type collapse and the possibility of similar consequences.
However, the medicine used to ward off the catastrophe only increased the domination of the financial sphere over the economy - thereby paving the way for an even more threatening future - extending the parasitism of big business and aggravating the conditions of the working class.
The crisis has resulted in an increasing concentration of capital, thereby reinforcing the stranglehold exercised by the most powerful capitalist players, while eliminating a number of lame ducks. But, overall, both the rate of profit and the level of dividends remain high. For the time being, the top layer of the capitalist class has no real reason to complain about the crisis. In so far as its members are concerned for the interests of their class, rather than just about the content of their own bank accounts, they can indulge in relative optimism while they wait for better days.
In its issue dated 13-14 September, the French economic daily "Les Echos" carried a triumphant headline saying "Stock market: five years to mend the century's worst crisis" (never mind that the century is only 13 years old!). It went on to say: "The CAC40 [the Paris share market index] has returned to the level it had reached in September 2008, at the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers... In just over a year, it has gained 40% and now stands above the 4,000 threshold".
Of course, this considerable rebound in share prices provides only a very distorted image of the state of the real economy. And this image is further distorted by the speculation fuelled by the massive liquidities which are permanently injected into the economy by the governments.
This stock market increase undoubtedly means that big business is anticipating a recovery. But for the time being, this anticipation is just another speculative gamble. One of the main problems of today's economy, with its increasing subjection to finance capital, is that, ultimately, all financial profits originate in capitalist exploitation, which takes place in the productive sphere. However, as the French saying goes, "no tree grows [all the way] to the sky" - meaning that share yields don't grow indefinitely. The productive economy will always find a way of reminding the capitalists where their profits come from.
The capitalists' uneasy optimism
Nevertheless, the triumphalism which was mentioned above, reflects the optimism which prevails today within the capitalist class and its hope that productive profits - which remained unaffected by the crisis, thanks to the increased exploitation of the working class - will carry on following the same upward trend. As long as today's profits fuel the hope that tomorrow's profits will be even higher, why would they care about the longer term? Never mind that, as the same issue of "Les Echos" previously quoted points out, "big finance is recording large profits again. But there is still no healthy, sustained economic growth"; adding further that "in and of itself, finance remains a destabilising factor for the world economy".
Having boasted about the role played by central banks in salvaging the economy, by pouring hundreds of billions into the system since the crisis broke out in 2008, former European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet added that "the situation is still fraught with difficulties" and called on governments and banks to put their affairs in order, "otherwise the present period will inevitably pave the way for the next crisis".
Indeed, since its bailout by governments in 2008, the banking system has been on a drip-feed. The US Federal Bank has been printing money, injecting $85 billion into the system on its own, to buy back Treasury bonds (i.e. government debt). But this flow of cash doesn't even relieve economy of its pain, let alone its sickness. On the contrary, most of it feeds the speculative wave. Thus, for instance, the volume of speculation on currency exchange has increased by 35% over the past year.
But the US leaders' worst fear is that by turning off this drip, as a recovery appears to be picking up, they might cause the financial collapse that they took so much trouble to prevent in 2008.
The more lucid spokesmen of the capitalist class - people like Trichet - are careful not to indulge in blissful optimism. But their warning to the capitalists is also a way of hinting that more sacrifices will be demanded from the working class.
Commenting on the 1920-1921 crisis, Trotsky wrote: "So long as capitalism is not overthrown by the proletarian revolution, it will continue to live in cycles, swinging up and down. Crises and booms were inherent in capitalism at its very birth; they will accompany it to its grave".
In other words, for us, Marxists, the cyclical pulsations of the capitalist economy do not mean that an economic crisis necessarily results in the collapse of capitalism, nor that from such a collapse will necessarily arise a social revolution.
The domination of the capitalist class will only collapse as a result of the conscious action of the only revolutionary class which can offer society a future - the proletariat.
With regards to the recovery, Marxists are just as unable as anybody else to predict the evolution of the economy. However, in this case, those who remark on the fragility of the economy and the threats resulting from the dominant role of the financial sphere are the spokesmen of the capitalist class themselves. Their own remarks provide all the necessary arguments to conclude that there is no recovery of any kind except in the professional optimism of political leaders.
The capitalists' offensive will carry on
Beyond the pointless speculation over a recovery being round the corner, it is important to understand that, should the crisis continue or - worse - should a new financial crash result in a brutal collapse of production, the working class - as well as society as a whole - will be facing catastrophic consequences.
But it is just as important to keep in mind that, even if there was the beginning of a recovery, it would not at all mean the end of the capitalists' attacks against the working class.
Big business has taken advantage of the crisis to tip the balance of forces against the working class, and in its favour. This is obvious in a material terms. The conditions of the working class have been getting worse and worse through the crisis. The most catastrophic aspects of this degradation are unemployment and under-employment, which have been pushing a growing section of the working class away from any kind of regular productive activity and depriving them of a regular wage. This phenomenon, aggravated by the casualisation of labour and the rolling back of welfare provisions, is impoverishing the working class.
The growing poverty is weighing on the working class as a whole. The protracted, continuous degradation produced by the crisis has forced an increasing number of workers into long-term joblessness or under-employment, without leaving them any hope of finding a proper job again.
The change in the relationship of forces between the capitalist class and the working class is reflected in the fact that since the beginning of the crisis, the capitalist class has managed to considerably increase its share of the wealth produced, at the expense of the working class. It is reflected even more clearly in the loss of morale and class consciousness among the working class: confronted with a capitalist class which appears triumphant in spite of the crisis of its economy, the working class has lost its self-confidence and its faith in the future.
This is a decisive feature of the balance of class forces today. Faced with capitalist domination in its most parasitic and abject form - the reign of money - the working class feels disarmed.
The capitalist class has succeeded in transforming the crisis into an effective weapon in its class war against the working class. It has managed to regain all the ground it had conceded in the past - whether as a direct result of the workers' struggles or to pre-empt these struggles.
In the event of a recovery, there would be no reason for the capitalist class to abandon the gains it has made thanks to this relationship of forces - because this would go against its political interests. The capitalist class has an acute sense of the balance of class forces, because its exploitation of the working class and, therefore, its profits, depend on it. This is particularly striking in this period of crisis. Indeed, while the increasing role played by the financial sphere has changed the comparative profitability of the various forms of capital, primarily to the disadvantage of productive investment, the capitalist class has only managed to face up to the crisis - so far, at least - by increasing the overall surplus-value it extracted from the working class - i.e. by increasing the level of capitalist exploitation. And the possibility of the capitalists increasing their exploitation depended directly on the balance of class forces.
Class consciousness and balance of class forces
However, the overall balance of forces between the capitalist class and the proletariat is also dependant on subjective factors, like the proletariat's class consciousness and the state of the working class movement which embodies this class consciousness. And this is the area in which the damage caused by the present crisis is the most serious.
It may be true that the downward slide of the class consciousness of the working class started long ago. The present crisis has simply taken much further an already protracted regression. For decades, social-democratic reformism and, even more so, Stalinism, have been hollowing out the revolutionary ideas embodied by the proletariat, by blurring the very idea of the proletarian class struggle together with its historical perspectives.
In the present crisis, the capitalist class no longer bothers to conceal its preoccupations behind the soothing tales and outright lies of politicians using a socialist or communist phraseology. Instead, it presents openly its own values as being those of society as a whole. Even the phrase "working class" is being replaced with that of "middle class".
In France, one of the most concrete signs of this evolution is the rise of the "Front National" [France's main far-right party, which is currently topping the polls in the run-up to the European elections, with 24% of voting intentions - Class Struggle]. For the time being, this rise is mostly electoral. But it is a threat for the working class and for the whole of society, in that it could facilitate a mobilisation of the petty-bourgeoisie on a reactionary, anti-working class basis. Whether this threat materialises at some point will depend on the evolution of the general situation and, more specifically, of the crisis. However the most worrying aspect of this phenomenon is the attraction that the "Front National" has for the most demoralised and disorientated section of the working class.
Unlike what some nitwits - and some "leftists" in the true sense of the word - believe, countering the influence of the "Front National" in the working class cannot be achieved by chanting slogans like "fascism shall not pass" nor by having the odd fist fight with far-right activists. What is needed is for the working class to return to its class perspectives and to the values of the working class movement.
The rise of religion, the growing influence of political Islam, the communitarian tendencies - all these trends express, albeit in very different ways, the same reactionary evolution of society as the rise of the "Front National".
Indeed, one must keep in mind that a significant part of the working class in France, especially among its most exploited sections - in industry and construction - is made up of workers originating from the Maghreb and, more generally, from Africa.
The responsibilities of the former workers' parties and union bureaucracy
In this respect, the reformist currents within the working class movement - which have long turned into left-wing bourgeois parties - have a considerable historical responsibility. By abandoning the values of the working class movement or by perverting their content, they have discredited these values. By giving up the fight against the capitalist social order and, even worse, by serving it through their participation in government, they have assumed (and, in cases like that of the Socialist Party in France, are assuming today) the responsibility for all the defects of this system - and they have especially done so directly within the ranks of the working class itself.
The growing influence of the National Front in the working class, just as much as, on a different level, the rise of reactionary political Islam, is made possible by the weakening of workers' consciousness that, beyond their origins, trades or nationalities, they belong to a single working class. To a large extent, individualism and the "taking-care-of-number-one" mentality have replaced any sense of collective interests, just as DIY resourcefulness has replaced class action and solidarity. The lumpen proletariat is as old as the proletariat itself and the conscious working class movement always had to fight its corroding influence. The truth is that today, the worship of "easy money" and the capitalist law of the jungle are able to penetrate working class districts because there is no opposition to them - due to the absence of a solid, conscious working class movement which is proud of its values and its struggles and capable of rallying the youth, in particular.
This consciousness of belonging to a single class was based on objective factors - the workers' common interests due to being subjected to the same exploitation - but it was also the result of decades of activities by the conscious working class movement. It is precisely this conscious, proactive existence of the working class movement which has been emptied of any substance, before being abandoned.
Both the leaders of the large parties which had historical links with the working class and those of the trade unions adopted the ideas and false pretences of the capitalist class and even its vocabulary - competitiveness, the need to reimburse the public debt, the national interest, etc... These parties and unions no longer even feel the need to use the old language of the class struggle inherited from the past, to better mislead the workers and conceal the fact that they are serving the capitalists' interests.
Just to mention one example, in the very early days of the political working class movement, Marx warned workers against allowing the idea of competitiveness into their ranks, because it was a vital component of capitalism itself. But today, the leaders of the ex-workers' parties and trade unions endorse the vocabulary and notion of competitiveness - as if it was a given.
In the Transitional Program, Trotsky stated that "the present crisis in human culture is the crisis in the proletarian leadership" and added that the task of the revolutionaries of his time consisted in "freeing the proletariat from the old leadership, whose conservatism is in complete contradiction to the catastrophic eruptions of disintegrating capitalism and represents the chief obstacle to historical progress".
This Transitional Program was written in 1938, at a time when the 1929 crash and its consequences had caused huge social upheavals. The objective circumstances were raising the question of whether society should be led by the capitalist class or the proletariat. The working class was then active on the political scene, with a large number of disciplined, organised activists. But the leaderships' failure to make the most of the fighting capacity of the working class, led to a number of dead ends - with the Popular Front policies used in France, for instance, and even more so in Spain - before paving the way for the outbreak of World War II.
Trotsky's exhortations in the Transitional Program were not simply meant as a statement of fact regarding the Social-Democratic and Stalinist leaderships' betrayal of the working class. They were also meant to express his conviction that the working class would eventually rise up and fight back.
Today, however, the leadership crisis is not limited to the party and union leaderships, it is also affecting the milieu of activists which exists within the working class.
But the history of the working class movement is full of periods, of variable length, in which, especially after a defeat, the working class eventually found a way of collectively raising its head again and rebuilding its self-confidence. One of the factors behind this resilience was the working class's capacity to produce new generations of activists from within its own ranks.
In a booklet explaining the demobilising, criminal role of Stalinism in Germany, in the run-up to the victory of fascism, Trotsky pointed out: "The German working class will rise again, Stalinism never!"
The working class will rise again
Whether the crisis continues or, even more so, in the event of a recovery, the working class's militancy will come back. In the past, the working class' struggles often resumed with a new vigour when the economic situation was improving. In this resurgence of militancy, the new generations of workers, those who have never experienced defeat, will have a decisive role to play.
Only the future will tell which general demands this new upsurge of working class militancy will focus on, and with which ideas the best activists will identify.
The reformist machineries inherited from the past, although fossilised, will inevitably have a head-start - if only due to their long-standing presence among the working class. A resurgence of working class militancy is likely to initially benefit the old reformist organisations, possibly repainted in red colours for the occasion, and possibly under the leadership of new "saviours from on high" who will have succeeded in revamping their worn-out ideas to present them as novelties.
Should these organisations remain the only ones to put forward a policy for the resurgent working class movement, this would inevitably lead to new betrayals.
This is why it is vital to defend a revolutionary communist perspective - and in some respects, even more vital in a period of downturn in class consciousness such as the present one.
And this is why, also, the issue for us is not to add a touch of red to the reformists' rhetoric nor to find new recruitment grounds by trying to appeal to the preoccupations of the petty bourgeoisie. No, our task consists first and foremost in stating as clearly as possible that the future depends on the proletarian class struggle, with its ultimate perspective, which is to wrestle political power from the capitalist class in order to revolutionise the economic and social organisation of society.
The resurgence of workers' struggles is a prerequisite for these ideas to regain strength and credibility. It is not within the power of revolutionary communists to engineer this resurgence, which will result from the molecular re-emergence of class consciousness among hundreds of thousands, in fact millions, of individual workers. But revolutionary communists should make the most of every political opportunity to raise the banner of social emancipation - and in the case of France, the coming elections offer such an opportunity [every local council will be renewed in 2014 and this will be followed by the election to the European Parliament - Class Struggle].
To state our adherence to revolutionary communist ideas in this day and age is to go against the stream. The world around us has bought into the values of the bourgeoisie, workers are demoralized and the level of consciousness of the working class is at a low ebb. To stand for revolutionary communist ideas in these circumstances requires the capacity to face hostility or, worse perhaps, indifference.
But let us recall the fact that the Trotskyist political current which kept the flag of revolutionary communism afloat during the period when Nazi barbarism and Stalinist reaction were shaping the political scene - when it was "Midnight in the Century" as Victor Serge put it - had to face far more difficult conditions. And that the Stalinist stranglehold in countries like France, together with the manhunt against revolutionary communists, went on long after Stalin's death.
Objective conditions carry much more weight than the activity of revolutionary communists, at least as long as there is no change in the mood of the working class. Until then, the prevailing low level of class consciousness will favour fake leaders of every description, people who pretend to offer new ways when they simply have forgotten the proven old ones.
However, this period is offering us an opportunity at least, of which we should make the most. It allows even a small organisation to raise its profile way above its size. When apathy prevails among a shrinking milieu of working class activists, it becomes easier for such an organisation to be heard - by demonstrating that it is not demoralised, that it retains its militant capacity and, above all, by asserting its ideas and its confidence in the ability of the working class to fight and to play its historical role.
Revolutionary communists won't get any support on this basis and will remain isolated? Maybe so. But when the working class starts looking for answers, when the first women, men and youth decide they want to act, these isolated activists will be in a position to attract dozens and hundreds of others around themselves.
Nobody can tell when and how such a situation will occur. But as Marxists, we are deeply convinced that revolutionary communism is "the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process" (Trotsky). The fact that the proletariat can adopt the ideas of the class struggle and that it is the only force capable of taking them to their ultimate conclusion - the overthrow of the capitalist order - shows that these ideas stem from the dynamics of society itself, of the history of mankind. Sooner or later, they will triumph.