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Millennial Politics: The Nightmare of George Orwell

Al Richardson

IMPORTANT EVENTS cast their shadows before them, and this involves social and political change as well. Engels demonstrated this in Anti-Dühring when he pointed out that capitalist monopolisation and étatisation anticipate post-capitalist organisation – the old society, in effect, borrowing from the new to prolong its existence. Old John Robinson, the leader of the Left Fraction, reminded me of this aspect of social evolution when I interviewed him some years ago. He explained how what we had always regarded as features of the new society have already been introduced in a different form under capitalism, giving among many other examples how credit transfer has replaced money already for all but the smallest transactions, how housing associations already compete with mortgage finance and, not least, how capitalism is itself already rendering the nation state obsolete.

Although as a social science Marxism cannot claim exactitude, as a science of perspectives it must have some predictive value. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union caught practically the entire Marxist left unawares, its leaders have fought shy of creative speculation, fearing to be proved wrong as soon as they put pen to paper. This is a shame, for a lack of even provisional perspectives leaves us quite blind. But since apart from picking up a few more columns of hysterical abuse I have nothing to lose, I thought I may as well start the ball rolling here. If some of my speculations appear far-fetched, I can only plead that since the collapse of the Soviet Union world politics has entered a new experimental phase, with the disappearance of many of the old diplomatic alignments and the creation of new ones. Certainly, wielding its control of the United Nations without any challenge from Russia, the USA seems to be intervening all over the world, if only to find out how far its power extends. Other states are also using their new-found freedoms.

It is well known that artists and writers, who have to keep their fingers on the pulse of the age, are often more farsighted than the rest of us, social scientists and politicians included. Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne, Jack London – the list of such prophets is endless. But, like Marx himself, because they are so clear-sighted they have the unfortunate habit of shortening the time span. Here I have in mind above all George Orwell’s frightening vision of the future in his 1984. The only thing that is wrong with his scenario as far as I can see is the date he placed on it – almost a century too soon.

What is this novel’s world view? It is the disappearance of the conventional nation state and its replacement by three great continent-wide tyrant states of almost identical social and political formation, battling it out for the control of the world. Is this not what we see in embryo in the development of the European Union and the similar setups envisaged in North America and the Pacific basin? Is not this globalisation a recognition by the capitalist classes that the bourgeois nation state no longer provides sufficient basis for their operations on the world market? And does it not, in this way, imitate the structure of the Soviet Union and Tito’s Yugoslavia?

One question that has been posed since the end of the Middle Ages, and came to a crisis point during the Second World War, is that of the unification of Europe. All previous attempts failed – by the Habsburgs in the 16th century, by France under Louis XIV, the Revolution and Napoleon, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and by Germany during the first half of the 20th. The 1789 Revolution and Napoleon failed because capitalism was as yet undeveloped. The Habsburgs, the Kaiserreich and Hitler failed because they were operating on the basis of antiquated political formations, when more advanced European states were already in existence, and in Germany’s case because it was attempted in the midst of a world war. The failure of Germany set back the process for a generation, with Europe divided between the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, including the reunification of Germany, the movement for European unification is gathering speed. Where Hitler failed by trying too quickly, Helmut Kohl’s Bundesrepublik seems set to succeed peacefully, on the basis of a democratic state with the ready agreement of the other European governments. Hitler failed momentarily by trying to shorten the time span, but a united European imperialist state with Germany at its heart seems to be the present direction of European history.

If this is so, then we in Europe can expect certain obvious steps. On the analogy of the part played by the zollverein in the 19th century unification of Germany, we can expect customs union and a single currency to be followed by the erection of strong centralising state forms. Now two essential features of any strong state are a foreign policy and an army.

I made allusion above to the fact that since the collapse of the Soviet Union the USA, by measuring its global influence, has been indulging in experimental politics. An obvious example is the Gulf War against Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was first encouraged to attack, and then subjected to an enormous barrage from the USA and its UNO allies. Practically every state of any importance took part, and no doubt this was one of the points of the exercise.

But what seems to have escaped people’s notice is that others were experimenting at the same time. The French and the Germans were promoting the idea that the European states should adopt a common approach, similar but not identical to that of the USA and the others. This is surely the first halting steps towards a common European foreign policy. Talk about a separate European force on the part of these powers at the same time also points to a future all-European armed force. The experiment in this case came to nothing, simply because Britain went around as drummer boy for the USA, dragooning all the other states into line. But that does not mean that our rulers will be either inclined or able to play this role in the indefinite future.

This unsettling vision of a future world and a future Europe dictates that feasible revolutionary politics must take fresh directions. If we are to be confronted with the state of an all-European bourgeoisie, then transitional politics must take the form of a call for an all-European federation of working class parties, and an effective European TUC. The conflicts of the three projected power blocs will also involve increased exploitation in the rest of the world, as well as heightening suppression of national minorities within their own borders. A structure for the operation of socialist internationalism will become more necessary than ever.

Obviously, there are all sorts of additional factors in play that could well falsify these gloomy predictions, and I would be interested to find out what our readers think. (No more personal abuse, please, John Archer and Amanda Sebestyen!) Without some such discussion, are not we Marxists lagging dangerously behind the times?