What are the advantages and disadvantages of looking at the current crisis of capitalist system from a long-term historical perspective?
The unambiguous disadvantage of such perspective is that, while defining long historical terms, in other words different periods of the capitalist system, many specificities and actual dynamics of class struggle are necessarily ruled out or reduced to mere simplicities. The inquiry into the hegemonies of the capitalist system established at the global scale grays the particularities of different countries’ relationships with the hegemonic structures at different moments of the given hierarchy. Looking at the “long-term” renders this unavoidable…
The advantage of such periodization, on the other hand, is that it enables one to develop a sense of various phenomena within the context of capitalist mode of production’s laws of motion at a world-historical level, rather than dealing with all those phenomena one by one. Theoretical abstractions on the laws of motion of the entire system allow the analyst to investigate the behavior of a single country or a region on the basis of these theoretical constructs. In other words, within this analytical context, the motion or the behavior of the entire system is taken as a determinant of the motion or behavior of its parts.
Due to its depth and extension, the current crisis has pushed questions on the movement of the capitalist mode of production as a world-historical system to the forefront. One shall see it as an irony of the history, as the order of the market declared its “ultimate victory” in the ideological sphere right after the demise of real socialism; yet only after two decades, the question now is, “how will capitalism proceed its way?”
Currently, the most frequently addressed historical reference point is the crush of 1929 and the Great Depression of 1930s. We know that this turbulence had led to a new world war, and only thereafter the imperialist hierarchy could change. The reference to 1929 makes sense within this scope; the present imperialist hierarchy may also change after such intense shocks. Academic Marxists have for long been interested in the question, “how will the world look like after such change?”
The greatest deficiency of recognizing the crisis of the capitalist system and the period that we have been going through in this manner is the disregard it implies in terms of the “subjective factor” in history, i.e. reducing the impacts of class struggle on the course of history into some sort of “probability distribution”. According to such perception, the collapse of the system as a result of revolutionary interventions is only one aspect, a probability, given within the spectrum of the assigned distribution; hence from this perspective, which nullifies the role of subjectivity, it is not possible to develop an analytical framework that recognize the process in terms of opportunities, requirements, drawbacks, tasks and responsibilities before the revolutionary subject of history.
Then, how shall we proceed, how shall we construct our analytical method? Of course, we perceive the world through the lens of Marxism-Leninism, thus we are not in a position to exhaust ourselves with an endless search of methodology. We have our methodology of perceiving historical changes, and being materialists, for sure, we would not trivialize the movement of objective factors, but being students of dialectical logic, we would focus on the surfaces of interaction between subjective and objective factors, and comprehend the strength and direction of the vectors emerging in this space.
Then the crucial question for us is not what the future of capitalism will be and our task shall not be speculating on the form of imperialist hierarchy in the coming decades. We rather look at the possibilities of a socialist revolution that would emerge from the current picture. The rivalry, tensions and power struggles between imperialist forces have a meaning only within this context.
Let me dwell a bit more on the crisis of 1929 as an historical reference point once again. The fundamental question is not how imperialism reacted to the Great Depression and whether or not these responses could be repeated in the current situation. But we should rather look at the historical conflicts accumulated by the Great Depression, and the unequal development of these conflicts and contradictions. At which territories and on which class dynamics did this great crisis of the capitalist system created revolutionary opportunities? At what degree could the working class and the toiling masses of the world could make use of these opportunities, and how did imperialism restructured itself upon the catastrophe it created?
Making use of the long-term perspective I addressed at the beginning would be helpful in this regard. However, in order to avert or at least minimize the disadvantages of this perspective, we may construct our perspective from the circles in which the contradictions of the system had accumulated to the system as a whole. Thereby, we may ease, even if not overcome, the tension between the concrete analysis of the concrete situation of the class struggle and the historical periodization of the entire system’s movement.
The Great Depression as an Historical Reference Point
One of Lenin’s great discoveries in his analysis of imperialism was that, the territories in which the contradictions of the imperialist system accumulate are as a rule determined, rather than being determinant within the given hegemonic structure. Yet, among other consequences, the periods of crisis express an increase in the potential of such territories to become determinant, to have a certain impact on the course of history.
If we approach the Great Depression as an internal moment within a longer period of recurrent crises starting from 1870, we will then recognize the impacts of a previously determined territory becoming a determinant as marked by the glorious October Revolution. Considering from the long-term point of view, which extends between 1870 and 1929, we can say that the collapse of the colonial logic of British imperialism had been determined, in the final analysis, by the disengagement of Russia from the imperialist system. Hence, we may conceptualize 1929 as an historical reference point in view of the disengagement of Russia and its accelerating influence on the rise of many territories in the East from a determined to a determinant position. As the October Revolution reshaped the East radically different than the one in the imagination of imperialism, the Great Depression marked the ultimate collapse of British colonial imperialism.
As the costs of sustaining the colonial logic exceeded the economic surplus extracted from the colonies and the semi-colonies, the British hegemony unraveled. What became more essential to imperialism in early 20th century was to secure the flow of debt repayments to financial capital, rather than ensuring the subordinate nations to supply raw materials and agricultural products to the imperialist countries. However, this only increased the indebtedness of subordinate countries as it rendered the colonial resource transfer mechanism unsustainable, because the pressure put on the small and medium peasantry and the satellite industries of these countries took them to the cleaners. In a book on the global impacts of the Great Depression, a German scholar points to this unraveling as follows:
“Once the gold standard was abandoned by the majority of nations they turned to the policies of the ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ type described earlier. The problem with many countries at the periphery was that they could not even do that as they were colonies which had no control over their monetary and economic policies. The colonial rulers had only their own interests in mind. As the case of India will show, the British profited from keeping the economy of this large colony deflated and depressed as this led to the further flow of ‘distress gold’. Reflating colonial economies was a task which none of the colonial powers was willing to shoulder. Moreover, while earlier the access to raw materials and produce was the main reason for acquiring and maintaining colonies, the depression had reduced the prices of all primary commodities to such an extent that colonialism was no longer required for that purpose. Only the national debts of such colonies accumulated in the past made it necessary to keep these debtors under control. To that extent the web of credit was still in place while it had recoiled in every other respect.”
In view of these intensified contradictions, how can one ignore the grave influence of the torch of independence ignited by the Soviet Union? As a matter of fact, the rise of anti-colonial national liberation movements was not among the effects, but among the causes of the collapse of British colonial imperialism.
Looking at the current crisis in light of this historical reference, we can at first highlight the following point: we shall admit that the crisis of capitalism of late 1960s and early 1970s have approached to an end with the current global crisis. Of course, I do not mean to say that capitalist system has been in a permanent crisis from the late 1960s onwards. The last four decades mark a period during which capitalism could not overcome the structural, systemic factors that caused the crisis of late 1960s and early 1970s, but could manage to defer the “solution” on its own behalf by different means. The statement referring to the end of the sustainability of this act of deferral, in turn, implies that capitalism has run out of the possibilities to jump over these structural and systemic causes. 1929 as an historical reference makes sense at this juncture.
However, the same reference point loses any meaning as we look at the situation of the territories where the contradictions and the conflicts of the system accumulate. The very same four decades have not marked any significant disengagement of any countries from the imperialist system, any transformation among those countries from the status of being determined to the position of being determinant through socialist revolution. Besides, many of the former socialist countries, which would definitely support such rupture, had become the pariahs of imperialism and dragged to a position of subordination by the latter. This fact is of crucial importance in evaluating the possible exit of imperialism from this historical period, which we refer as a possible termination of an era.
Even under the presence of a force that had become a determinant over the course of history by disengaging itself from the capitalist-imperialist system during the terminal crisis of British hegemony, the transformation of imperialist hierarchy took a destructive period of almost two decades. Today, under conditions that no such historical actor exists, we have valid reasons to expect the transformation of the capitalist-imperialist system to be even more tormenting and causing even more destructive consequences for the toiling masses of our planet.
An imperialist hierarchy centered on China? Before considering such possibilities seriously, our problem shall be to focus on the dismal effects of the long, painful and destructive transformation that awaits the peoples of the world. I mentioned above that we first need to look at the places where imperialism accumulates contradictions on this account. Central and Eastern Europe, and Turkey, which has many common properties with this region especially in terms of economic dynamics but is quite different in terms of political aspects, can be assessed in this context.