Comments on Sison’s "Contradictions in the World Capitalist
System and the Necessity of Socialist Revolution"


My friend Ted suggested that I look at some of the recent writings of Jose Maria Sison, the Founding Chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and, I think, the leading ideologist of the Philippine revolutionary movement. There is a new web site devoted to Sison's writings at: (http://inps-sison.freewebspace.com/). I found one recent essay there which is particularly important, entitled "Contradictions in the World Capitalist System and the Necessity of Socialist Revolution", dated May 3, 2001. I recommend that other revolutionaries read this. I believe it is a good summary of the CPP’s general thinking about the world situation, both its strengths and its weaknesses.

The essay has three main parts: I. The General Crisis of the World Capitalist System; II. The Current Crisis of Monopoly Capitalism; and III. Necessity of Socialist Revolution. As these sub-headings suggest, it covers both political economy and politics. All three sections are on a fairly high level of abstraction and on the whole I think the political aspects are stronger than the economics aspects.

In what follows below I’ll address a number of specific issues raised by Sison’s essay.


"The General Crisis of Capitalism"

Sison characterizes the entire imperialist era (or at least this entire period of history starting with World War I, and possibly including the years leading up to that war) as being that of the "General Crisis of Capitalism". In this, he follows the rough picture presented by Lenin in his writings on imperialism from about 1916 on, and later codified (and unfortunately turned into rigid dogma) by the international communist movement.[1] The tradition which I come from has been pretty hostile to this viewpoint, as evidenced for example in Chapter 3 of the RCP’s America in Decline which rejects any aspect of the "general crisis of capitalism" theory.[2]

Lenin’s basic point of view was that the imperialist era is the final stage of capitalism, an era during which all the contradictions of capitalism become enormously concentrated and intensified, and therefore an era of interimperialist war, of economic crisis, and of proletarian revolution. And, actually, looking back at the past century, this does not seem to be too bad a summary of what has actually happened—though clearly the era is not yet over and the process is by no means complete.

Nevertheless, it is now clear that the imperialist era is stretching out to be a whole lot longer than Lenin envisioned, and that within this long historical epoch there are fairly long sub-periods of war or of relative peace, of economic crisis or of relative economic good times (for the bourgeoisie anyway), and of revolution or of relative political quiescence. Consequently the old formula of the imperialist epoch being characterized as one long general crisis of capitalism no longer seems correct. It now appears much too simplistic.

In fact, it has become quite obvious that the capitalist business cycle continues to operate in the imperialist era. That is, there continue to be booms, busts, depressions (or recessions) and recoveries. It is true that the proper analysis of this business cycle in the imperialist era is still subject to dispute. Some people say recessions are now generally much milder (except for the Great Depression of the 1930s of course!), others talk about short waves and long waves, and still others have quite different theories.

My own view might be considered a variation on the short-waves/long-waves theme: Due mostly to government intervention in (and attempted regulation of) the capitalist economy, the old pre-imperialist sort of business cycle has split in two, and now consists of short cycles and long cycles. Of the two types, the longer cycle is the principal descendent of the pre-imperialist cycle, since it involves the complete working out of all the same internal contradictions of capitalist production. The short cycles are really "short-circuited" cycles, wherein the government is able to successfully interrupt the developing chain of contradictions before they get totally out of hand. Only those contradictions nearest to the surface come to a head, and they cause only relatively mild recessions. But as time goes on, the underlying contradictions build up to the point where they can no longer be forestalled by any government action. At this point one of the recessions proves to be uncontrollable, and develops into a far more serious situation—an intractable period of depression and stagnation. The basic cause of such a depression is the massive overproduction of capital which has been building up all along, and the only way to get out of it is through the equally massive destruction of this "excess" capital. In the imperialist era, the forces of production are so great, and the resulting overproduction of capital so enormous, that only the horribly destructive force of interimperialist world war is sufficient to clear the ground again and allow the whole process to start afresh. Until such a hyper-destructive war breaks out, the depression/stagnation phase of the long cycle will continue more or less unabated—though there may be some further, very secondary ups-and-downs within it.[3]

So far I haven’t found anyone who agrees with me on the specific analysis presented in the last paragraph! But however one views the development of the business cycle over the past century, it is undeniable that there was at least one long overall boom in the capitalist world—the quarter-century period after World War II. Thus, from the point of view of economics, at least, it seems really wrong to say that the entire imperialist era has been one of a "general crisis of capitalism".[4]

I should note that most modern (post World War II) theorists of the "general crisis of capitalism" do not deny that the business cycle continues to exist in the imperialist era, nor that there are still booms as well as busts. (Sison also mentions the short-lived boom after World War I, for example.) This was not the view of most of the Comintern theorists of the GCC back in the 1930s; they did see the Great Depression as an integral part of the general crisis of capitalism. But in light of the long capitalist recovery after World War II, GCC theorists these days are forced to say that the general crisis of capitalism is not the same as one long capitalist economic crisis. Sison doesn’t actually go into this very much (at least in the essay I am discussing), except by implication. So, instead, here is what another GCC theorist, the Soviet revisionist V. Trepelkov, says on this score:


The concept "general crisis of capitalism" should not be identified with the concept "economic crisis". Economic crises occur periodically, and each in one way or another is resolved within the framework of the capitalist system. Every economic crisis is an explosion of contradictions that have piled up in capitalist production in the period following the preceding crisis. During a given economic crisis, these contradictions are temporarily eased. Economic crises are one phase of the industrial cycle, and usually continue for a relatively short period (from one to three years); after [that] the capitalist economy gradually and temporarily begins to rehabilitate itself.

Unlike the cyclic economic crises, the general crisis of capitalism is an overall crisis of the capitalist system. It leads to a reduction of the sphere of capitalist supremacy and embraces all aspects of life in capitalist society: the economic and state systems, politics and ideology. The general crisis of capitalism is an irrevocable historical process; it develops within the framework of the capitalist system and continues until the latter perishes completely.[5]


But, despite this, GCC theorists still see intensified economic problems as a very important part of the general crisis of capitalism. Trepelkov says that there are four "major features" of the general crisis of capitalism:

  1. "[T]he world is divided into two opposing socio-economic systems, the socialist and capitalist ones…. [T]he change in the alignment of forces in favor of socialism is the most significant manifestation of the increasingly deepening general crisis of capitalism…. The contradiction between the two opposing social systems is the principal contradiction of the modern era."[6]
  2. "[T]he crisis of the colonial system, a crisis which at a definite stage develops into its breakdown…. A large group of countries that have won political independence are now fighting for their economic independence. Some have opted for the non-capitalist road of development…"[7]
  3. "[T]he aggravation of the internal economic contradictions of the imperialist countries, and the heightening of economic instability and decay. This makes itself felt in sharp fluctuations in the growth rates, in disproportionate economic development, in increasingly frequent crises, in constant under-loading [I don’t know what "under-loading" is supposed to mean! Perhaps it just means the gross underutilization of existing factories. —S.H.], in chronic unemployment, in runaway inflation, in the crisis of international monetary relations, in militarization of the economy, etc."[8]
  4. "[T]he crisis of bourgeois politics and ideology."[9]

However, if we look at each of these four "features" we find serious problems for the general crisis of capitalism thesis. With regard to point 1), the world was not really divided into a socialist sphere and a capitalist sphere in 1983 when Trepelkov’s book was published, nor is it today. The so-called "socialist camp" at that time was really a competing state-capitalist camp. And a mere 6 or 8 years later much of this so-called "socialist camp", including the Soviet Union, fell apart completely.

Feature 2), with regard to the crisis of the colonial system, also has some problems. It is true that old-style open colonialism had a world-wide crisis which led to its nearly universal replacement with neo-colonialism. But the completion of this great (but superficial) change actually led to a lot of demoralization (because neo-colonialism is really little better), and probably even to an overall reduction in anti-imperialist struggle around the world for a time. Of course I don’t say that there cannot be struggle in the neo-colonies for "economic independence", but so far this struggle has been mostly under the leadership of national bourgeois forces—which is why it has been so pathetically weak and ineffective. And as for seeking economic independence by some "non-capitalist", but also non-socialist, road—that is certainly a dead-end pipe dream.

Anti-imperialist struggle, at one level or another, is a permanent feature of the imperialist era. And as such, it might well be described as a permanent problem for imperialism. But none of this necessarily means that imperialism is in a permanent "general crisis".

Let me skip feature 3) for a moment and go on to feature 4), "the crisis of bourgeois politics and ideology". Well, of course, there have been many political crises over the past few decades, but bad as this has been in the "West", it has been worse in the Soviet sphere—which ended up collapsing completely. This general crisis, which is supposed to be "a process in which more and more countries depart from capitalism"[10] has turned out to be more of a general crisis of revisionism, wherein more and more revisionist countries revert to Western-style capitalism. And while there has indeed also been considerable ideological ferment in the "West", actually Western ideologists have been riding relatively high in the saddle in recent years. So much so, in fact, that some of them have proclaimed the "end of ideology" and even the "end of history"! Unfortunately, the bigger ideological crisis has been within the ranks of revolutionaries and Marxists, many of whom have been losing their bearings. (It is bitter to recognize things like this, but it is the truth of the matter.)

So really, if you want to defend the general crisis of capitalism thesis today, it must all come down to "feature 3)", the aggravation of economic contradictions in the capitalist world. And here too there are great problems for the GCC thesis. Here’s one big problem: If this serious aggravation of economic problems is not due to the same contradictions which bring about "ordinary crises", then what is it due to? That should be a really embarrassing question for "modern" GCC theorists, if they were ever to consider it. Neither Marx, nor Lenin, nor Soviet revisionist economists, nor Sison (as far as I know), nor anybody else, has ever given an answer to this question. And in fact, Lenin said exactly the opposite—that the contradictions of the imperialist era are the very same contradictions as racked capitalism beforehand, but now greatly intensified. So while the GCC theorists started out by denying that the GCC is the same as a capitalist economic crisis, in the end that is pretty much all that is left of their doctrine after the invalid and now-discredited political points are thrown out.

It is true, of course, that we can no longer look at capitalist crises in the same way we did in the 19th century. We are forced by plain and obvious facts to recognize that there are both short term fluctuations in the capitalist economy (still usually called "business cycles") and longer-term, broader ups and downs, such as the Great Depression, the post-World War II boom, and the 30-year-long slowdown that began in the early 1970s. And, once again, the very fact that there are also longer-term ups and downs is deadly for the GCC claim of permanent general crisis.

The old Comintern theory of the "general crisis of capitalism" cannot be upheld in either its 1930s form, nor its "modern" form. It is a failed, and even incoherent theory, once you start to look at it carefully. Reality is much more complex than that simple theory comprehends.

So unfortunately I have to disagree with Sison on this very basic conception of a "general crisis of capitalism", around which his entire essay, and entire outlook, is organized. Many of us are probably willing to talk about imperialism or world capitalism being in a limited period of "general crisis" at certain times in its history, but I don’t think many people these days can go along with Sison’s conception that the entire imperialist era is one of permanent general crisis.


The Four Stages of the "General Crisis of Capitalism" According to Sison

According to Sison, there have thus far been four stages to this overall "general crisis of capitalism" ("GCC"):

  1. He says the first stage "was characterized by crisis leading to interimperialist war [World War I] and further on to the triumph of the proletarian revolution in Russia, the weakest link in the chain of imperialist powers. For the proletariat and the people, the happy ending of the first stage of the crisis of the world capitalist system was the establishment of the first socialist state in one-sixth of the globe."
  2. "After World War I, the world capitalist system entered the second stage of its general crisis. Eventually, the Great Depression started in 1929, preceded by the boom years of the ‘new era’. It was an extended crisis of overproduction and financial collapse." But a bit later Sison says "In the aftermath of World War II, it was quite easy to recognize that the world capitalist system had gone through two stages of its general crisis, each breaking out in an interimperialist war and leading to proletarian revolution." This is a bit confusing and contradictory to what he said earlier. Perhaps what he means is that the second stage of the GCC started right after World War I, that it underwent a qualitative worsening with the advent of the Great Depression, but that it only came to a head with World War II.
  3. Sison continues by saying that in the aftermath of World War II "it was also easy to discern that the world capitalist system was moving into the third stage of its general crisis as a consequence of the ravages of war and the continuing rise of revolutionary forces." And a bit later: "The world proletarian revolution and the broad anti-imperialist movement reached their peak in the simultaneous advance of the wars of national liberation in Indochina and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China from the 1960s to the 1970s. For the proletariat and people, the victories of these revolutions were the happy ending of the third stage of the crisis of the world capitalist system."
  4. "In the latter half of the 1970s, the world capitalist system entered the fourth stage of its general crisis. The imperialist, the revisionist-ruled and the third world countries, were generally afflicted by economic, social and political crisis and proceeded on a course of continuous deterioration." According to Sison, we are still in this fourth stage, though we have reached the point where "All three global centers of capitalism, the US, Japan and the European Union are suffering more than ever before from the crisis of overproduction, as well as from a heavy overhang of fictitious capital and financial speculation." The third world, too, has "been reeling from overproduction of raw materials since the late 1970s". So I believe Sison is saying that this fourth stage started in the late 1970s, that it has undergone a qualitative worsening in recent years—especially from an economic standpoint—but that it has not yet come to a head. How might it come to a head? He doesn’t seem to say explicitly, but in light of how he identified the closure of previous stages, he seems to view each stage as being completed by some major revolutionary advance, often in the context of a world war.

It is interesting to compare and contrast Sison’s conception of these "stages" of the general crisis of capitalism with the RCP’s conception of "imperialist spirals".[11] According to the RCP there have also been three complete "spirals", and we are now in a fourth. The first two ended with World Wars I & II; the third spiral ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union circa 1990. Thus the RCP focuses on wars or "convulsive conjunctures" to close off its spirals, while Sison focuses on revolutionary advances to close off his stages. The first two of Sison’s stages coincide pretty closely with the first two of the RCP’s spirals—since both ended in wars, and the wars in turn helped bring about revolutionary advances. But Sison’s third stage ends with the (temporary) success of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China—that is, before the revisionist coup that took place after Mao died. The RCP’s third spiral ended, instead, with the collapse of the USSR around 1990.

While there is this one difference, I’m sure the RCP would be very uncomfortable if anyone were to mention how closely its spirals parallel the stages in anybody’s version of General Crisis Theory![12]

The underlying reasons for these parallels should be given a little thought, however. First, both Sison and the RCP try to merge economic contradictions and political contradictions. That is, they want to talk about wars and revolutions, and also capitalist economic crises, all together and all at the same time—as a unified conglomerate of contradictions. The RCP is more explicit about its methodology in doing this, but Sison and other "General Crisis of Capitalism" theorists do it too. Second, of these economic contradictions and political contradictions, both Sison and the RCP take the political contradictions to be primary. Thus both of them start and close their stages or spirals with political events (wars and political convulsions or revolutionary advances), not economic events.

I should immediately say that there is nothing whatsoever wrong in identifying or talking about political stages in any political process or development. But it is wrong to merge separate contradictions together and treat them as if both together were the same as one of the separate contradictions. To do this is one way of denying "the particularity of contradiction", in Mao’s phrase. And this is what both Sison and the RCP are doing with their schemes of stages or spirals.

I’ve already criticized the RCP at length for this sin in my essay "Notes on Notes on Political Economy",[13] so I won’t go into it much here with regard to either the RCP or Sison. I’ll just say that while world capitalist economic contradictions and world political contradictions are closely interrelated, they are not so closely interrelated as to amount to just a single contradiction. And in particular, sometimes one can get resolved without the other being resolved. Thus the long economic cycle (or "spiral" or "stage"), which began after World War II cleared the ground for a renewed capitalist expansion, has not yet run its course. The boom period ended in the early 1970s, and a long slowdown began at that time. Now, finally, it looks like this long slowdown might be nearing a qualitative change for the worse. In any case, the basic world economic contradiction did not get resolved either at the time of the GPCR in China, nor with the fall of the Soviet Union. The resolution of those political contradictions did not require the resolution of that economic contradiction. Talking about either "imperialist spirals" or "stages of the general crisis of capitalism" obscures these extremely important facts.

What I am suggesting here is that schemata which treat multiple contradictions as if they were a single contradiction, like both the RCP’s "imperialist spirals" and Sison’s "stages", tend more to obscure reality than to clarify it.


Sison’s View of the Current World Economic Crisis

As I mentioned above, Sison says that "All three global centers of capitalism, the US, Japan and the European Union are suffering more than ever before from the crisis of overproduction, as well as from a heavy overhang of fictitious capital and financial speculation." He is certainly correct about that. He also pretty accurately describes the current economic situation for the countries in the former Soviet sphere, the few "newly industrialized countries" (such as South Korea), and Third World countries.

However, while I believe these conclusions and descriptions are correct—or close to correct—there is a question in my mind as to the validity of the apparent process whereby Sison came to them.

Generally it is not enough to be correct about something; you must be correct for good and well-thought-out reasons, and for good reasons which others can see are good reasons. In other words people will usually not pay much attention to your ideas, nor should they, even if they are actually correct—unless you can demonstrate the correctness of your reasoning process that led to these ideas.

As near as I can tell, Sison’s argument goes something like this: During the imperialist era there is a permanent general crisis of capitalism. From an economic standpoint, this should be characterized, in Marx’s words, as an overproduction crisis. Such a crisis automatically gets worse and worse overall (even if there are sometimes ups and downs within it) because of the rising organic composition of capital, leading first (in each "stage") to recession or depression, then—most often—to interimperialist war, and then finally to revolutionary advances on the part of the people. In the paper I am discussing there is really not much more economic analysis of overproduction crises than that. I am trying to discover if he goes into such questions more deeply elsewhere; so far I haven’t found anything. I think Sison must be assuming that this underlying political economy was fully worked out by Marx and Lenin, and all we really need to do now is apply their clear, completely agreed upon, and fully correct high-level conclusions to the present situation. This is very far from the case.

It is one thing to simply say, superficially, that capitalist economic crises are "crises of overproduction" and quite another thing to really bring out what this means, why it applies today, and where, precisely, we are in the working out of such a crisis. And I don’t think Sison has accomplished this.

In fact, the few times where he hints at what lies behind these crises of overproduction he seems to me to be on a wrong track: "In the course of competition, one capitalist wins against another capitalist by raising the organic composition of capital and decreasing the variable capital for wages in order to maximize his profits. The result is the crisis of overproduction relative to decreased market demand." That’s rather undeveloped. Of course this view about the rising organic composition of capital comes from Marx; it is one of many threads of Marx’s thinking about crises that he never wove together into an integral whole. Personally I think this one thread is a loose one, and a more or less incorrect one. In any event, even at best, it is only one thread among many, and by no means the central story of what is going on in crises.

Sison says that "At this time, the world capitalist system is in grave crisis…", but if we don’t see and trust his analysis of why this is the case, then why should we believe him? That is the big problem with his essay, from the point of view of political economy.

Personally I think that the world capitalist economy is indeed in crisis, though I wouldn’t yet call it a "grave crisis". But it is a crisis that does show signs of making a qualitative leap for the worse, that is, of possibly becoming a grave crisis sometime soon. But I believe this because of my own analysis, not because of anything that Sison provides.

Sison does not present us with the evidence we need to rationally come to agree with the conclusions he states.


Keynesianism

Sison discusses two important types of responses by the bourgeoisies of the world to their economic problems: Keynesianism and neo-liberalism. He is surely correct that neither of these approaches (nor, for that matter, any other approach within the capitalist framework) can resolve overproduction crises. But Sison’s discussion of both of these schools leaves a bit to be desired.

With regard to Keynesianism, Sison remarks:


To cope with the Great Depression, the imperialist powers turned to what would be conveniently be called Keynesianism. This pertains to the use of state intervention and stress on fiscal policy in order to pump-prime, stabilize and stimulate the domestic economies of the imperialist countries. The state undertook public works to generate employment and raise consumption, provided contracts and subsidies to private monopoly firms or nationalized them for a while in order to justify the delivery of public resources to the monopoly bourgeoisie.

Independently of the British economist John Maynard Keynes, the New Deal economists of US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt devised state intervention through public works projects and so did Schacht of Hitlerite Germany. In Anglo-American economic history, Keynes took credit for providing the conscious theorizing and mathematical formulations for state intervention through a fiscal policy of pump-priming.


That’s a fair summary of the basic thrust of what is popularly called Keynesianism, though it does not attempt to explain why it cannot work, at least in the long run. Sison seems to suggest here that calling this basic viewpoint "Keynesianism" is somewhat unjustified, and he is right about that too, since many others also came up with the same idea, including a number of German economists writing before Keynes.

Sison sums up his remarks by stating that "Keynesianism has never succeeded in solving the fundamental crisis of monopoly capitalism". That’s quite correct. However, Sison does not deal with the fact that in Germany, at least, "Keynesianism" appeared to work! Werner Abelshauser notes that from 1933 to 1937 "6 million unemployed had been reintegrated into the production process. Indeed, a worrying labour shortage was evident."[14] Similarly, by 1937 real GNP in Germany "was as much as 10% higher" than its pre-crisis peak, and continued to grow.[15] But was that due mostly to Germany’s new "war economy"? Apparently not. Abelshauser gives rather convincing evidence that Germany had pretty much recovered before the production of war materiel became a large component of the economy. (However, in my opinion it is impossible that this recovery could have been sustained without the ensuing war economy, and then the tremendous destruction of capital during World War II.[16])

But even if it was the German war economy that did the trick, that is still Keynesianism (and specifically what is sometimes called "military Keynesianism"). That is, it still involves deficit spending, government contracts for big business, and the like. Sison somewhat obscures this when he states that "Rather than Keynesian public works, war production would revive the depressed US economy during World War II just as war production had buttressed the more aggressive schemes of Germany and other Axis powers." Besides suggesting here that this war production was not a form of Keynesianism, even if that point is understood the comment is still misleading. It then actually gives too much credit to Keynesianism, by suggesting that war production itself might be a long-term solution to overproduction crises.

But then, a few pages later and talking about the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s I guess, he says something close to the opposite of this: "The heavy costs of military production and overseas military forces and the market accommodations to its imperialist allies undermined the US economy." Now that is strange, considering it was actually military Keynesianism, as much as anything else, that was keeping the economy going at the time (even though serious economic problems were indeed starting to develop despite this, and Keynesianism was showing signs of faltering in the U.S.).

One other point here: the bourgeoisies of the world have by no means really abandoned Keynesianism for neo-liberalism, as Sison claims later on. Japan has tried ten episodes of massive Keynesian stimulus over the past dozen years—though the only results have been to very temporarily keep their economy from sinking even faster than it is doing anyway and leave Japan with the highest government debt relative to GDP of any advanced capitalist country. China has also been consciously employing Keynesian deficits ever since the 1997-98 Asian crisis, and has so far been much more successful at it than Japan. This will change when China’s foreign debt builds up to the point where the government is forced to trim back those big deficits. Then all hell might very well break out in China.[17]

Even the U.S. also continues to use Keynesian measures. You can arrange for deficit spending by either increasing government spending or by cutting taxes. Democrats still favor the first method, while Republicans favor the second. But both are really ways of bringing about Keynesian fiscal stimulus to the economy.

When Nixon was president he said "We are all Keynesians now." It is true that the ideological tide has changed a bit since then, but it also remains true that the bourgeoisie in every country tends to be pretty pragmatic, and is quite capable of attempting to implement Keynesian measures at the same time it trumpets and attempts to implement neo-liberalism. Logically, these approaches may be opposed; in practice they are often combined.

So I think there is a lot that is at least misleading in Sison’s comments about Keynesianism. All in all, I wonder if Sison’s discussion of Keynesianism doesn’t confuse the issue more than clarify it.


Neo-Liberalism

Neo-liberalism is the bourgeois dogma that everything should be left to the "free market" to work out all on its own, and that things will "work out for the best" if unrestrained market forces are given full play. In other words, it is something pretty close to traditional laissez-faire, except there is now much more of an emphasis on unfettered international trade. Neo-liberalism is the theory that has played out so "brilliantly" in Argentina lately! The U.S., in particular, as the leading imperialist country today, is very concerned to remove any "interferences" in the global market—including the global capital market—(except, of course, those which are to its own advantage). Neo-liberalism is the ideology behind all the recent WTO rules and agreements, and the new economic "globalism" that the U.S. especially has been pushing so hard.[18]

While neo-liberalism has won pretty wide acceptance within the U.S. ruling class these days, the most ardent advocates of the doctrine all along have been conservative ideologists of the "Chicago school", the Hoover Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, etc. Ted Kennedy-style liberals still tend to oppose aspects of neo-liberalism to one degree or another, however, and if there are too many more Argentina-style catastrophes, the dominant ruling-class opinion may begin to shift away from neo-liberalism again (as it did in the 1930s).

When the bourgeois enemy has differences of opinion among themselves about how to advance their own class interests, it is wrong for us to jump in too strongly on one side or other of their intra-class argument. If we focus our criticism too much on one side, that implies that the other side is correct—when in fact all programs designed to promote the class interests of the enemy are wrong from our perspective. Thus, it is wrong for us Marxists to focus our attacks on Republicans rather than both Republicans and Democrats—even though it is true that Republicans often promote policies that are a bit more hostile to the working class. The real point, as far as we are concerned, is that Democrats are also working against the interests of the people even if, at times, they are slightly less vicious about it. (Or they used to be anyway. These days it is hard to see even slight differences between the Republicans and Democrats.)

In the same way, it is wrong for us to focus our criticisms of bourgeois economic theories and policies too much on any one specific theory or policy, such as, say, neo-liberalism. To do so seems to put us in the same camp with liberal bourgeois economists like Robert Kuttner or Paul Krugman. It is not wrong to expose the fallacies (and harmful results for the people) of neo-liberalism, nor of Keynesianism, nor of any other variety of bourgeois thought and policy. But this should always be in the context of criticizing bourgeois thought and action in general.

For some time I have felt that the CPP, and Sison in particular, have been leaning toward this error of attacking neo-liberalism too specifically rather than attacking it in the context of opposing bourgeois economic ideas and policies in general. But in the essay I am discussing now, Sison seems to have eased off considerably from this tendency. I am glad to see this. His criticisms of neo-liberalism seem generally correct to me, and of course he also criticizes Keynesianism.

However, there are still suggestions of this skewed focus in this essay. Sison says:


By 1981, the ground had been laid for the US and Britain to make a major shift in economic policy from Keynesianism to neoliberalism. This was trumpeted as Reaganism and Thatcherism. It was an all-out attack on the working class and the trade union movement, and on the hard-won social rights of the proletariat and the people.


Well, ok, but does this mean then that our goal should be to return to the wonderful days before Reaganism and Thatcherism were implemented? Even if neo-liberalism amounts to an intensification of their attack, wasn’t the bourgeoisie exploiting and attacking the proletariat and the people pretty hard even before the advent of Reagan and Thatcher?

Later Sison says that "In the most revolting way, neoliberalism has pushed the harshest measures for exploiting and oppressing the people." Wouldn’t it be better to rewrite that along these lines: "In the most revolting way, capitalist imperialism has pushed the harshest measures—many of them encompassed under the policy of neo-liberalism—for exploiting and oppressing the people."

I don’t know—maybe I’m making too much out of this point, but it really bothers me when people seem to be implying that it is only certain ruling-class policies that we need to oppose and not their whole system.


China’s "Compradors"

I have a few disagreements with Sison’s comments about China. First, talking about the 1980s I think, he says "China, recently integrated into the world capitalist system, eventually generated a crisis of overproduction in consumer manufactures and ultimately went into political turmoil."[19] It is the grammatical tense of this sentence that I don’t agree with.

China has become a capitalist country, for sure. And it is well along toward integrating into the rest of the world capitalist system—though it has not yet finished this process. It has just joined the WTO at the end of 2001 but hasn’t fully accommodated its economy to that dangerous new circumstance; it still has a large (though diminishing) state sector; its currency is not fully convertible, and so forth. Of course there are signs of looming economic trouble, and obviously an export-oriented economy like China’s will automatically come up against the present world overproduction crisis. But neither a major economic nor a sustained political crisis has yet developed within China (other than the short-lived 1989 Tiananmen events). They will, but they haven’t yet. I think it is Sison’s overall "general crisis" view that leads him to believe that economic and political crisis must already have broken out in China too.

China has actually been the envy of other Asian countries, since it has been able to maintain high industrial and GDP growth rates both during the 1997-98 period and through 2001. While it has slowed somewhat recently, GDP growth is still expected to be above 7% for 2001. As I mentioned above in talking about Keynesianism, China has been using very aggressive fiscal deficit policies since the 1997-98 Asian crisis, and this is one of the main reasons it has so far kept itself out of the current almost world-wide recession. Another reason is just that it has not yet fully integrated its financial system into that of the other capitalist countries. Thus, unlike most countries—including even imperialist countries like Japan—China is not yet as vulnerable to foreign pressures to limit budget deficits.

The other point about China I wish to dispute is Sison’s characterization of the current ruling class as "compradors". This is a popular idea, one shared by some people who are very knowledgeable about China, such as William Hinton. But I am still dubious. I view them instead as a national bourgeoisie.

If the Chinese ruling class is a class of compradors, to which foreign imperialist power are they compradors? (Recall that in China in the World War II period there were pro-Japanese compradors and pro-US compradors. To be a comprador is to be the local agent of a particular foreign imperialism.) No doubt there are today individual businessmen, and perhaps some individuals in the government, who should be considered compradors to the U.S., or compradors to Japan, or some other country. But for the most part, the new Chinese bourgeoisie seems to me to be out for itself as a class, and there is a very strong nationalist and patriotic trend in contemporary China.

China has had some serious disputes with Japan over trade, for example, and has shown itself unwilling to back down in these disputes. Even clearer, with the new Bush administration the U.S. has shown serious signs of launching a new Cold War against China. Would they do that if the regime there were basically U.S. compradors? (This new Cold War is on temporary hold, of course, while the U.S. engages in its war against Afghanistan and other "terrorist strongholds".)

It might be argued that China’s joining the WTO indicates a comprador stance, since Third World countries are obviously exploited and oppressed by imperialists through WTO-style trade rules. This may in fact turn out to be true. But it seems to me that the Chinese national bourgeoisie is betting that it can beat the rest of the capitalist world at its own game—because of its much greater exploitation of its own workers, which other countries cannot match. I would not be surprised if WTO membership does turn into a disaster for China, but I don’t think their anxiousness to join the WTO indicates any comprador outlook.

What reasons does Sison have for calling the Chinese rulers compradors? One implicit argument is his statement that "China itself has destroyed its agricultural commune system and undermined its own industrial foundation, with the ruling comprador big bourgeoisie overconcentrating on seacoast sweatshops, private construction and the overconsumption of luxury goods imported for the benefit of the few." However, simply producing goods for foreign markets does not make the ruling class of a country into compradors—even if the economy is distorted by this export focus. The U.S., for example, also has a somewhat distorted economy for reasons like this, and so do even more so Germany, Japan, and other export-oriented economies.

A more explicit argument is Sison’s comment that "The new ruling bourgeoisie in former socialist countries takes the character of the comprador big bourgeoisie as it favors the importation of surplus goods and surplus capital from the imperialist countries." There may be a bit of truth to this, but the mere import of goods and capital also does not automatically change the character of a ruling class to that of compradors. After all, it is the U.S. which is both the largest importer of goods in the world, and the largest importer of foreign capital, and nobody is apt to call the U.S. bourgeoisie a class of compradors!

It seems to me that Sison has lost sight of the most essential aspect of being a comprador—namely, acting as a local agent of some particular foreign imperialism, and thus siding with that foreign imperialist power against the "national interests" (i.e., the interests of the national bourgeoisie) of your own country.

Until I hear some good arguments to the contrary, I’m going to continue viewing the Chinese ruling class as a national bourgeoisie, not a comprador bourgeoisie.


The Necessity of and Prospects for Revolution

The third section of Sison’s essay is on the "Necessity of Socialist Revolution", and I don’t have the slightest doubt about that. Sison’s political comments in this section are the best part of his essay, I think. But his weak economic analysis also pervades this section, and that causes me to question many of his important conclusions.

He argues that the growing economic problems of capitalism require a socialist solution—and from my point of view this is even more certain, given that the only other (temporary) resolution of the current long-developing overproduction crisis lies in the horror of a new world war. He says, with complete justification, that "socialist revolution is the scientific and moral necessity for socializing the means of production". He points out that the continuing development of technology makes socialist revolution ever more urgent, and adds that "Every higher technology that raises social productivity opens the road wider to socialism." He makes a lot of good and valid points.

I also like the stress he puts on having a long-term perspective:


The struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is an epochal one. We must therefore take a long view of history. Without this, we cannot have the tenacity to persevere in the historic struggle for socialism and further on to communism, especially when we are confronted with such developments as those in 1989-91 when China was wracked by mass uprisings and the revisionist regimes were disintegrated in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.


Sison notes that "No socialist country has ever been defeated by any imperialist war of aggression." This is indeed a point worth emphasizing. It may seem depressing to some that our defeats have come from our own mistakes more than from enemy attacks, but I look at it in just the other way: If our defeats have come primarily from our own mistakes, then by learning from those mistakes and preventing them from happening again our class has it within itself to secure a permanent victory against the bourgeois enemy. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons I am hostile to the RCP view that Mao and his followers made no serious or fatal mistakes during the GPCR. Such a view, that you can lose so totally even if you make no mistakes, is actually pretty disheartening!)

Sison states that world contradictions are intensifying at present, and again he is surely correct. It is true, however, that the contradictions between imperialist powers—though rising again—are not anywhere near what they were during the Cold War between the U.S. and USSR. And it is also true that the contradictions between the working class and the bourgeoisie in the advanced capitalist countries, while also intensifying now, are nowhere near what they were at the time of the last world economic crisis (during the 1930s). Even the contradiction between the imperialist powers (and especially the U.S.) and the countries of the Third World are not yet back to the point they were at during the Vietnam War, for example, though here again the contradictions are now intensifying. So while the trend is for all these contradictions to intensify now, we still have a long way to go before they all reach their former peaks. This is a point that Sison does not seem to recognize, or at least state.

Sison makes some explicit predictions about the coming period, including some specific to the situation within advanced capitalist countries like the U.S. These comments deserve some serious consideration on our part:


Within the current decade, the class struggle can be expected to intensify in the imperialist countries, especially in those that have most stagnated in the previous decade. The current recessionary trend in the US will cause collapses in finance and production in other countries. As in previous times, the monopoly bourgeoisie can be expected to turn to fascism to oppose the mass movement of the proletariat and nonproletarian masses. At the same time, contradictions among the imperialist powers can intensify upon the aggravation of the crisis of overproduction and the rise of domestic fascist movements.


I have no doubt that there is some degree of truth to all of these points. But how much truth, exactly? That is the real issue here.

If, as Sison seems to imply, the economic situation within the U.S. and around the world is currently taking a qualitative and long-term turn for the worse, then this lends a lot of credence to predictions like these. In the 9 months, or so, since Sison wrote his essay there have been a number of events which seem to suggest he is right. Recessions have developed in the three most important imperialist countries, the U.S., Japan and Germany. The Japanese economy in particular is looking more precarious than ever. Many other advanced, or relatively advanced, capitalist countries (such as France) are also stagnating at present, even if they are not actually in recession. And many important Third World countries (including Mexico, Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand) are either in recession, or are at least limping along pretty slowly compared with previous years. A few, which seem to be hanging in there, or even doing a bit better in recent months (such as South Korea), will almost certainly be pulled back into the morass if the recovery currently being predicted in the U.S. for the 2nd quarter fails to materialize. China’s continued economic health also depends on an early recovery in the U.S. and Europe. And the case of Argentina, which appears to still be in the midst of an almost free-fall economic collapse, has to be especially alarming to the world’s bourgeoisies. I think that at this point the reality of the world overproduction crisis is undeniable, as is the fact that at the moment this crisis has intensified in the form of a close-to-global recession.

But the way I feel about all this is that it is not yet clear how immediately serious it all is. It is not yet clear if the world capitalist economy really is moving into a new, long-term, qualitatively worse situation right now. My own understanding of political economy also leads me to believe that such a thing will happen sooner or later, but I cannot say for sure that it is happening right now (nor can I totally rule it out). Personally, I doubt that this is the way things will play out over the next couple years, though it is a possibility, especially if the major financial crisis in Japan that some are now predicting actually develops this year, and leads to a world-wide financial crisis for the capitalist system. My point, however, is that while such scenarios seem to be gaining in plausibility, I don’t understand all the short-term economic, political, and even psychological forces at work around the world well enough to make any such definite predictions at this time. And moreover, I am not convinced that anybody else understands things well enough to plausibly make such definite predictions, either.

My main reason for criticizing Sison so harshly on the economic aspects of his paper was to bring out that he also does not provide us with good and sufficient economic analysis for fully accepting his political predictions. Frankly, it seems to me that his economic analysis is at a very superficial level, so much so, in fact, that his conclusions and predictions amount to little more than some tired old dogmatism. In America in Decline the RCP rightly criticizes "general crisis" theorists for constantly repeating the same old "sky is falling" refrain on the basis of their dogmatic theory.[20]

Those who constantly "cry wolf" are appropriately ignored. And yet…sometimes wolves do show up. Sison may in fact turn out to be right in his implication that the world capitalist economy is presently taking a qualitative turn for the worse (he doesn’t actually use those words), and if this is the case, then his political predictions may also turn out to be right. But in my view, he has not presented us with anywhere near enough analysis and evidence to justify the definite predictions he is making.

What can we say about the present situation with reasonable certainty? We can say, with Sison, that world contradictions are indeed intensifying, though none of them are really acute at this point yet. We can say that the world overproduction crisis which first began in the early 1970s is now showing signs of making a major turn for the worse—though it is by no means certain yet that this is happening.

Even many of the bourgeois economists who are predicting a recovery in the U.S. soon are also saying they expect it to be quite weak. I think that is almost certain. And I believe that even if the world economy does not take a major long-term turn for the worse at this point, we can at least expect a moderate-term minor worsening overall.

For some time I have been predicting that the U.S. may be following in the footsteps of Japan—that there might very well be a long series of recessions interspersed with weak recoveries. I still think this is the more likely possibility at this point than a sudden major world economic collapse. But I do not rule out that possibility entirely. The world capitalist economy is indeed on shaky ground.

If the world economy does undergo the sort of qualitative worsening that Sison seems to be predicting, then I think his political predictions will start coming true too. But if my U.S.-following-Japan scenario is closer to the truth for now, then I think those same predictions will only have a small degree of truth to them. That’s the best I can say for now.


Conclusions

There is a lot more of interest in Sison’s paper, including brief discussions of the so-called "new economy" in the U.S., the growing threat of fascism around the world as the global capitalist economy gets deeper into crisis, and the question of how to conceptualize the different periods of the history of the struggle of the international working class since the "Communist Manifesto" was first published. However, these comments are approaching the length of the essay I am commenting on, so I need to wrap this up!

When I first read Sison’s paper my initial reaction was that it was fairly good, despite the business about the General Crisis of Capitalism which I already knew was wrong, and some other immediately apparent weaknesses here and there. But as I really began to study his essay, and think about it more deeply, I gradually became much more critical.

I found most of Sison’s general views remarkably "conventional" and "conservative"—that is, conventional and conservative in terms of being around for a very long time within the world communist movement over the past century. Really, they struck me as formulaic. I was surprised by this.

I don’t think the revolutionary communist movement can meet its responsibilities if the best we can do is just memorize and repeat old formulas. We need to develop our understanding and our revolutionary theory to a much deeper degree than that.

I don’t think Sison provides a very good model here. I was disappointed to discover this.

I have great respect for Jose Maria Sison and the role he has played in refounding the Communist Party of the Philippines as a genuinely revolutionary party. I also respect the role he apparently continues to play in helping to guide that party, and also the role he plays internationally. But based on this one essay, and the relatively small amount of additional reading I have done of Sison’s works, I don’t think his general views about Marxist political economy, the world economy and the world situation in general, have been demonstrated to be accurate enough, and profound enough, to constitute a reliable guide for either the international communist movement, or even our own small efforts to be part of that movement.


—Scott H. (1/23/02)



Notes

[1] For one of the final Soviet revisionist English-language presentations of their version of this theory see V. Trepelkov, General Crisis of Capitalism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), 168 pp. Sison's version of "general crisis theory" seems to me to follow that of the Soviet revisionists pretty closely, although Trepelkov's "stages" are different than Sison's, as I mention in note 12.

[2] Raymond Lotta with Frank Shannon, America in Decline, Vol. 1, (Chicago: Banner Press, 1984). For a criticism of some aspects of this RCP attack on General Crisis Theory, see section 7 of my essay "First Notes Towards a Critique of America In Decline" (Feb. 1999), posted at: http://www.massline.org/PolitEcon/ScottH/AID_Crit.htm

[3] For a somewhat more elaborated, but still brief presentation of this bifurcated business-cycle theory see my "Letter on Imperialist War and Capitalist Economic Cycles" (1979) which is posted at: http://www.massline.org/PolitEcon/ScottH/econ_cycles.htm

[4] See also figure 3.1 in America in Decline, p. 248.

[5] V. Trepelkov, op. cit., pp. 21-22.

[6] Ibid., pp. 22-23.

[7] Ibid., pp. 23-24.

[8] Ibid., p. 24.

[9] Ibid., p. 25.

[10] Ibid., p. 21.

[11] See: RCPUSA, Notes on Political Economy: Our Analysis of the 1980s, Issues of Methodology, and The Current World Situation, (Chicago: RCP Publications, 2000).

[12] Not all GCC theorists divide up imperialist history in the same way. Trepelkov, for example, claimed that there were only 2 complete stages as of 1983, and that the world was then in stage 3. He also used somewhat different criteria to delimit his "stages"—though they are still political criteria. According to him the three stages are:
  1. "[T]he period from World War I and the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution (1917) in Russia to the outbreak of World War II."
  2. Stage 2 "began with World War II and the socialist revolutions in several European and Asian countries, and continued to the mid 1950s."
  3. The 3rd stage "started in the second half of [the] 1950s and is the stage we find ourselves in today." [See Trepelkov, op. cit., pp. 26-27.]
Why the mid 1950s breakpoint? Good question! It seems rather arbitrary. But apparently what they are really referring to obliquely here is the transformation of the Soviet Union into a very different entity after the death of Stalin, which led to the supposed era of peaceful coexistence.

[13] See my essay "Notes on Notes on Political Economy" at: http://www.massline.org/PolitEcon/ScottH/NotesNPE.htm

[14] Werner Abelshauser, "Germany: guns, butter, and economic miracles", in Mark Harrison, ed., The Economics of World War II: Six great powers in international comparison, (Cambridge University Press, 2000 (1998)), p. 124.

[15] Ibid., p. 125.

[16] Apparently Keynesian-style deficit spending did bring Germany "out of the depression" in the 1930s. In 1933-34 this was primarily deficit spending on public works programs, etc., and from 1935 on it was more and more due instead to military spending ("military Keynesianism"). Keynesianism will work for a limited period, but eventually too much public debt is built up and it then fails because the government is forced to cut back on any continued huge deficits. Even in Germany there were signs that Keynesianism was faltering at times: for example, employment in industry in 1940 was 10% lower than in 1939. (See Abelshauser, op. cit., p. 151.) Nevertheless before the Keynesian measures completely ran out of steam, Germany was in and through World War II, and suffered massive destruction of capital—which allowed the accumulation process to start all over again. Thus while it is sort of true that Keynesianism got Germany "out of the depression", Keynesianism is not a general, or long-term solution for overproduction crises and ending depressions. As partial empirical proof of this, I offer the repeated failures of Keynesianism in Japan over the past decade and more.

[17] China, however, has huge foreign reserves. For this and other reasons, a financial crisis is probably not imminent in China.

[18] For an extensive discussion (from a more or less "liberal" perspective) of the development of modern laissez-faire ideas ("neo-liberalism") and their role in the U.S. campaign for "globalism", see John Gray, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, (NY: New Press, 1998).

[19] It appears from the prior paragraph that Sison is talking about China starting in the 1980s here. Later on he explicitly says "The integration of China into the world capitalist system in the 1980s was touted as the signal even for making East Asia and the entire Asia-Pacific region the strongest growth area for capitalism during the rest of the 20th century and onward to the 21st century." While China was indeed already a capitalist country by the 1980s, it was not very well integrated into the rest of the world capitalist system at that time. The process is much further along now, but still has at least a few years to go until it can be considered more or less complete.

[20] See the first paragraph of Chapter 3 of America in Decline, on page 243.

— End —

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