Dual Crises of Capitalism & Global Labor:
On Imperialism, Lenin & Today

Against the Current No. 231, July/August 2024

Marcel van der Linden

“If you do not expect the unexpected you will not discover it; for it is hard to track down and difficult to approach.” — Heraclitus, c. 500 BCE

WORLD WAR I was a turning point in many ways. One important change became visible in the economic analyses of the revolutionary left. Very clear was this with Lenin: building on the work of Bukharin, Hilferding and Hobson, he saw an extensive and probably irreversible decline of world capitalism.

The rapidly increasing power of the monopolies since the 1880s began, in his view, to culminate in a new stage of development, namely imperialism. The “essence of imperialism,” he wrote in 1917, is a “combination of antagonistic principles, viz., competition and monopoly.”

Monopolistic competition leads to incessant global expansion of commodity production and competition and results in an intensified struggle for raw materials and sales areas. “[An] increasing number of small or weak nations” is exploited “by a handful of the richest or most powerful nations.”

But monopolist tendencies simultaneously engender “a tendency to stagnation and decay.” Indeed as soon as monopoly prices are established, “even temporarily, the motive cause of technical and, consequently, of all other progress disappears to a certain extent and, further, the economic possibility arises of deliberately retarding technical progress.”

One of the consequences of this is that “the bourgeoisie to an ever-increasing degree lives on the proceeds of capital exports and by ‘clipping coupons.’” Therefore, imperialism has the be characterized as “parasitic or decaying capitalism,” “moribund capitalism, capitalism which is dying but not dead.”

However, Lenin warned against seeing this development as a homogeneous tendency. It does not transform capitalism from top to bottom, but sharpens its contradictions of capitalism; and it does not preclude the rapid growth of capitalism.

With his analysis, Lenin initiated the debate on the general crisis of capitalism that was to dominate left-wing thinking on the development of capitalism for decades — a debate to which, of course, his early death (1924) meant he could contribute little further later.

As early as 1922, Jenő (Eugen) Varga — who would later become Stalin’s chief economist — published The Period of Capitalist Decline. In the years that followed, numerous contributions followed in which the theme was further developed by Marxists of various persuasions.

In 1930, for example, Henryk Grossmann published his influential study on The Law

of Accumulation and Breakdown of Capitalism (1930), and a few years later Leon Trotsky spoke in his “Transitional Program” (1938) of the “death agony of capitalism.”

Even non-Marxists felt that capitalism’s collapse might be approaching. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the liberal economist Joseph Schumpeter said that there was a tendency towards decomposition in capitalist society that would inevitably lead to its dissolution. Up until the early 1950s, almost no one believed in a longer upswing as a real possibility.

Theory and Strategy

I do not want to go into the numerous theoretical variants developed over time. Rather, I want to say something more about the links between theory as such and strategic discussion in the labor movement: how was the connection between economics and revolutionary politics seen in the movements?

According to the Marxist tradition, it is taken for granted that all modes of production and social formations have a beginning and an end. That is also why capitalism does not have an eternal life. But how will capitalism find its Waterloo?

Marx himself worked with two different theoretical approaches that we can call esoteric and exoteric argumentations. According to the esoteric approach, capitalism will finish itself: “the true barrier to capitalist production is capital itself.”

With respect to the precise nature of this impediment, Marx had different ideas. In the Grundrisse, he said that the progressing reduction of living labor in productive processes leads to the breakdown of exchange. Elsewhere (letter to Engels, 1858), he argued that the creation of the world market would be capitalism’s endpoint.

The exoteric Marx, on the other hand, considered “the proletariat” as the class whose “historic task” involved “the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes.”

Marx sought to depict both approaches in a logical context. And as the labor movements began to flourish during his life, this became more plausible.

During the revolutionary wave that washed over the world between 1916 and 1921, the socialist movements also did not feel they had to choose between the two perspectives. Precisely during the years when imperialism emerged, the labor movement also began to gain considerable strength. This is clearly evident, for example, in the growth of the trade union movement (Table 1).

Table 1: Union Membership as a Percentage of the Labor Force

Country 1908 1913 Postwar Peak 1930 1939-40 1950
Australia 10 25 30 38 35 50
Austria 3 3 39 25 40
Belgium 2 7 27 18 24 36
Canada 6 12 8 8 19
Denmark 7 13 27 21 28 33
Finland 2 11 1 3 17
France 4 5 8 7 17 22
Germany 6 11 30 18 29
Italy 1 2 12 37
Netherlands 11 15 20 22 31
New Zealand 8 15 19 17 39 38
Norway 2 7 13 12 26 34
Sweden 5 6 11 20 36 51
Switzerland 5 12 17 19 29
United Kingdom 11 22 43 23 31 40
United States 6 7 11 7 16 22

Source: J.D. Stephens, The Transition from Capitalism to Socialism (London and Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1979, 115.

Precisely from the point of view of the general crisis of capitalism, the esoteric perspective of collapse and the exoteric perspective of the insurrectionary push seemed to more or less coincide. Only in such a short historical period can a genuinely revolutionary organization achieve the allegiance of large masses whose struggle for immediate, indispensable interests also goes beyond the framework of the capitalist system.

Walking the Tightrope

In the years that followed, however, this changed. In the absence of an acutely revolutionary situation, revolutionaries are faced with the task of walking a tightrope between two abysses — the “right” abyss of reformist opportunism and the “left” abyss of sectarianism.

In the developed industrialised countries, the working masses are generally reformist. If the communist party wants to gain their trust, it must legitimise itself as a successful champion of reform. In doing so, it all too easily becomes a mere part of the system it has set out to destroy, its “left” wing.

If, on the other hand, the party renounces a long and serious struggle for reforms, it will either become a sect that disguises its powerlessness with revolutionary phraseology, or, driven by impatience, it will fall into putschist adventures.

In line with this, Lenin viewed the proletarian revolution from a double perspective. When there was evidence of mass radicalism, as in Russia in the autumn of 1917, he opted for an immediate seizure of power. But when popular revolutionary ferment was on the decline, as in Europe in 1921-1922, he adopted a strategy in which piecemeal reforms became acceptable in the short run as the most expedient means of winning mass support.

The debate on the gradualist strategy was held in several places towards the end of the 1920s, for example in the Italian Communist Party.

Even after World War II, the vast majority of Marxists initially remained convinced that the decline of capitalism would continue. As late as 1948, the German KPD assumed that the increased power of the Soviet Union, the emergence of other socialist countries, the crisis of the colonial system, and the contradictions within the capitalist camp had led to “an extraordinary deepening of the general crisis of world capitalism.”

However, there were certainly Marxists who thought that the decline of capitalism did not have to be inevitable. They included supporters of Nikolai Kondratiev’s theory of the long waves, and for example Edward Sard, an American Trotskyist economist, who in early 1944 had already prophesied that an arms race would begin after the war, implying a rapid growth of the U.S. economy and a drastic reduction of unemployment. (For background see “Sard’s Permanent War Economy, “ a short political biography of Sard by Marcel van der Linden in Against the Current 198, January-February 2019 — ed.)

Traditional Labor in Retreat

It took until the early 1950s before such theories were taken seriously in wider circles. The long postwar boom necessitated a reconsideration of the general capitalist crisis. However, the period the French so eloquently call Les Trente Glorieuses also heralded the beginning of the end of the traditional labor movements.

This first became visible in the 1940s or 1950s with consumer cooperatives. Like all businesses under capitalism, they were increasingly forced to centralize and to concentrate capital, due to improved transportation facilities and new retail forms.

This trend manifested itself partly in the declining number of cooperatives. Often the average age of members rose, as elderly members remained loyal to their cooperatives, while younger ones failed to materialize.

A downward trend could also be observed early on in some workers’ parties, for example the French Communist Party.

Percentage voting for the PCF, 1924-2007

After the long boom ended, the decline of the unions and workers’ parties began to become more general. In most countries with independent workers’ organizations, union density (union members as percentage of the total labor force) has been declining and on a global scale union density is almost insignificant.

Independent trade unions organize only a small percentage of their target group worldwide, and the majority of them live in the relatively wealthy North Atlantic region.

According to an estimate of the International Trade Union Confederation, 10 years ago global union density amounted to no more than 7%. Since then unions in most parts of the world have continued to lose members, so that global union density may by now approach 6%!

Labor, Social Democratic, and Communist parties are not doing very well electorally. Table 2 indicates that, of 18 social democratic and labor parties listed, 14 reached their apex before 1990.

Table 2: Average Parliamentary Electoral Results of Social Democratic and Labor Parties, 1920-2019

Country 1920-29 1930-39 1940-49 1950-59 1960-69 1970-79 1980-89 1990-99 2000-09 2010-19
Australia 45.2 32.4 46.5 46.3 45.1 45.4 47.0 40.8 39.2 34.9
Austria 39.3 41.1 41.7 43.3 50.0 45.4 47.6* 37.3 33.7 25.0
Belgium 36.7 33.1 30.7 35.9 31.0 26.6 28.0 23.2 24.0 13.9
Brazil 12.1 16.8 15.4
Canada 15.4 17.1 19.7 9.0 15.0 22.1
Denmark 34.5 43.9 39.1 40.2 39.1 33.6 30.9 36.0 26.8 25.7
Finland 27.4 37.5 25.7 25.3 23.4 24.5 25.4 24.4 23.0 17.8
France 19.1 20.2 20.9 15.1 15.9 21.0 35.3 34.6 38.8 18.4
Germany 29.3 21.2 29.2 30.3# 39.4# 44.2# 39.4# 36.9 31.9 23.1
Italy 24.7* [20.7] 13.5 13.8 9.7 12.9 7.9** 22.1***
Netherlands 22.0 21.7 27.0 30.7 25.8 28.6 31.0 26.5 21.2 16.7
New Zealand 25.7 45.4 48.7 46.1 43.2 42.8 43.3 34.2¶ 38.8¶ 29.8¶
Norway 25.5 38.0 43.4 47.5 45.5 38.8 27.4 36.0 30.8 29.1
Portugal 35.2 27.6 39.0 39.8 32.7
Spain 23.1 30.4 44.1 38.2 40.2 25.4
Sweden 36.0 43.8 48.8 45.6 48.4 43.7 44.5 39.8 37.5 30.0
Switzerland 25.5 27.5 27.4 26.5 25.1 24.1 20.7 20.9 21.4 18.1
United Kingdom 37.7 34.4 49.7* 46.3 46.1 39.1 29.2 38.7 38.0 32.9

* Only one election
** Party disbanded in November 1994
*** Result for the “new” Democratic Party
# Figures between 1950 and 1990 refer to West Germany
¶ In 1993 the first-past-the-post electoral system was replaced by a mixed-member proportional voting system

Communist parties in non-communist countries are the second major political form. Most of them are having a hard time. In quite a few countries the parties have been dissolved after electoral decline, splits or financial bankruptcy.

Even the CPI-M (the Communist Party of India Marxist) in West-Bengal, which received a majority of the votes in a whole series of elections from the 1970s until 2011, has now been reduced to a minor player because of its violent neoliberal policies. All in all, the downturn of the old labor movements seems to be almost all-embracing.

U.S. Union Density, 1880-2015 Graph: Bureau of Labor Statistics Population Survey

Systemic Capitalist Decline

At the same time, global capitalism is in trouble. Since the beginning of the great recession of 2008, awareness has generally taken hold that the years of rapid economic growth are over. In 2016, Foreign Affairs magazine devoted an entire issue to how to survive slow economic growth.

Even earlier, a report published by the OECD argued that growth expectations for the coming decades appeared to be “rather mediocre.” While growth continued more in emerging economies than in the OECD, it would be slowed by gradual exhaustion in the race to catch up and the less favorable demographics in all other countries.

Moreover, influential authors such as Meghnad Desai, Robert Gordon, Paul Mason and Wolfgang Streeck are of the opinion that capitalism has lost its momentum or even reached its final phase.

Surveying the period since Lenin wrote Imperialism: The Highest Stage, it seems that the thesis contained in that work has become curiously inverted by the reality of the last century. To see that, we must first of all note that the period between the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and the crisis of 1974 was historically extraordinary.

“The entire period from 1929 until the 1970s constitutes a significant divergence from the trends unleashed by the industrial and transportation revolution of the nineteenth century. The post-1970s period returned the world to nineteenth-century trends and their associated financial turbulence, culminating in the 2007-9 systemic crisis.” Herman M. Schwartz, States versus Markets. The Emegency of a Global Economy, 3rd edition, Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 181.

The changes of 1929-1974 obviously had a prelude and aftereffect, so that the periodization is less sharp than these years suggest. What made this time so special? Interpretations vary widely, but historians generally point out that capitalism in the North Atlantic underwent a number of important changes in the early 20th century.

The First World War is often mentioned as a turning point. I just mention here the social democratic theory of organized capitalism developed by Rudolf Hilferding from 1915; the communist theory of state monopoly capitalism; authors emphasizing the rise of Fordism; and authors who saw corporatism as the most important characteristic of the new situation.

I cannot evaluate all of these theories here, but they agree that in the early decades of the last century, there had been major changes in the structure of advanced capitalism. After about half a century it became clear that the new form of capitalism was coming to an end. One spoke of the “crisis of Fordism” or the “end of organized capitalism.”

So it seems that the general crisis Lenin spoke of in 1916 was interrupted for half a century. But in the meantime, the balance of power between capital and labor changed dramatically. Around 1916-21, the inevitable decline of capitalism seemed to have begun, while workers’ movements grew significantly in strength and revolutionary possibilities also grew.

From the 1980s onwards, the decline of capitalism is beginning to take hold again, but this time the workers’ movements have weakened and the revolutionary possibilities seem slim for the time being. We now face a double crisis: not only of capitalism, but also of the workers’ movements.

Lenin Revisited and Reconsidered

In any case, Lenin’s theory of the general crisis must be re-examined. Lenin would certainly have had no problem with that. He never hesitated to modify his positions whenever he deemed it necessary.

Between 1893 and 1924 he changed his theoretical thoughts on the agrarian question, the tactic of the proletarian party, the state and the dictatorship of the proletariat in capitalist underdeveloped countries. If he were alive today, he would also have reconsidered the theory of the generalized crisis.

It is now up to us to re-analyze socialist perspectives on a global scale especially as regards the enduring necessity and opportunity of workers’ movements.

The crisis of the labor movements is particularly worrisome because there is still a very great need among working people for effective economic and political advocacy, especially at a time of capitalist decline.

In these circumstances, what are the prospects for workers’ movements? In the long run, things may not be as gloomy as they seem today. A number of factors may change, thus enabling a more optimistic future.

Old and New Movements

The weakening of the workers’ movements has made it possible for other movements to appropriate a part of the sphere of activity of those missing workers’ movements.

Religious and nationalist movements partly fill the currently existing social void by deflecting class conflicts. They offer their supporters elementary forms of social security and trust networks, as well as self-esteem and clear life goals.

Many poor people are drawn into such movements, in all their variants — from the Pentecostalist movements of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, to Salafism in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Precarious youth in capitalist industrial cities likewise appear sometimes to be attracted to groups offering a new religious certainty.

Second, class conflicts will not diminish and workers all over the world will continue to feel the ever-present need for effective organizations and forms of struggle. Let us just have a quick look at the last two years.

Interesting things are happening on the strike front, including in the two superpowers. The Hong Kong based China Labour Bulletin collects strike data for the Chinese People’s Republic. In its 2023 report, the magazine concluded that there had been 1,794 “incidents,” more than double that of the 2022 total (831 incidents) and exceeding pre-pandemic levels of worker collective actions, with the main sectors being construction and manufacturing.

The background here is the current recession, as the editors note:

“The high youth unemployment rate has led more university students to accept unemployment, or seek part-time jobs and other means to make ends meet. As for those workers who were directly laid off and whose benefits were reduced, many more launched strikes and protests. Under such circumstances, China’s workers need trade unions that can represent them before and after rights are violated.”

The United States has seen a resurgence in collective action among workers. According to Cornell ILR’s Labor Action Tracker, there were 354 strikes in 2023 involving roughly 492,000 workers — nearly eight times the number involved in strikes for the same period in 2021 and nearly four times the number for the same period 2022.

Mass protests took place in Europe, for example in France between January and June 2023 against the pension reform by the Borne government [Elizabeth Borne was President Macron’s previous prime minister. — ed.] Huge public transport strikes took place in Germany and the Spanish state, among other places.

In 2022, in India more than 200 million workers joined the two-day nationwide strike on 28-29 March [2022], in protest of the government’s anti-worker, anti-farmer and anti-people policies. In Vietnam, a wave of wildcat strikes erupted in 2005, a wave that reached a temporary peak in 2011 but is still continuing.

Third, we should not forget that the global labor force is larger and more interconnected than ever before. The number of employees (wage earners) worldwide increased from 2.33 billion in 1991 to 3.55 billion in 2022, an increase of about 1.2 billion people.

Simultaneously, enormous shifts are taking place within separate regions. An historic migration from the countryside to swelling megacities is under way. In 1960, the total number of international migrants worldwide was about 72 million, by 2015 it had tripled to 243 million.

Internal migrations have also become significantly more extensive. In 2000, the National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China estimated that there were 113 million rural migrant workers in the country. In 2020 this had expanded to 376 million.

Fourth, there are also explicit signs of a renewal. Organizing drives for previously unorganized workers in hospitals and the care sector in general have been increasing over the past few years. The rise of the International Domestic Workers Network since 2009, and their campaign resulting in International Labor Organization Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (ILO, 2011) has been an inspiration for many.

The current strike wave of incarcerated workers in the United States reveals that new segments of the working class are beginning to be mobilized. In many countries trade unions are trying to open up to “informal” and “illegal” workers.

In recent years, the Ugandan Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union succeeded in affiliating a mass membership of informal transport workers. Quite spectacular is India’s New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), founded in 2006, which recognizes the importance of both paid and unpaid women’s work.

NTUI attempts to organize not only the “formal” sector, but also contract workers, casual workers, household workers, the self-employed, and the urban and rural poor; it also tries to restructure collective bargaining frameworks accordingly.

It is also remarkable that in many places in the world we see a re-invention of forms of organization that played a major role in the early classical labor movements. Think, for example, of mutual aid funds, i.e. forms of mutual insurance against illness or unemployment — a form of self-protection that dates back to the eighteenth century at the latest, but is now being reintroduced by precarious and informal workers.

Also noteworthy are the housing cooperatives and the small consumer coops, e.g. the Solidarity Purchase Groups which have since 1990 seen the light of day in several countries. But we can also think of new types of cooperatives that build on older models, for example energy production cooperatives.

To conclude, we are confronted with two crises: the crisis of capitalism, and the crisis of workers’ movements. One definition of “crisis” is “the turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death.”

Nobody can be certain that capitalism will once more revive. But neither is it impossible that the workers’ movements regain their vitality, and this would obviously have direct consequences for the development of capitalism.

July-August, 2024, ATC 231