[OPE-L] Michael Heinrich and the new conception of the epoch

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Thu Aug 02 2007 - 04:12:37 EDT

The assessment of the nature of an epoch is fraught with difficulty. This is
wellknown by historians who have studied how people perceived the times in
which they lived, and what they forecast compared to what actually happened.

Shortly after the founding of the Comintern, its economic experts mooted the
perspective of the "final crisis of capitalism". Within a few years time,
this was revised to "the restabilisation of capitalism" but after the stock
crash of 1929 there was again a popular belief in the impending collapse of
capitalism. At the end of world war 2, there was a widespread perception
that the end of capitalism was nigh, because it was entangled in an
insoluble crisis that would cause a deep depression from which it would not
recover. This was believed not just by most Marxist authorities (Stalin
actually fired Eugen Varga from his job when Varga questioned the impending
collapse) but also by e.g. Joseph Schumpeter and Paul Samuelson.

Subsequently, many Marxists and non-Marxists thought a third world war was
looming, possibly a nuclear war. Just prior to May 1968, I recall that
sociologist Raymond Aron proclaimed that the French republic had never been
so "stable" before. After May 1968, many Marxists believed in a coming
revolution within about 10 years, and indeed Tariq Ali published a book on
it.  Around that time also, numerous economists also claimed that the mixed
economy had solved the problem of severe recessions or depressions once and
for all. As the long recession set in, many proclaimed that the long wave of
post-war growth was over. Then, when a new growth spurt occurred in the
1990s, various writers postulated a new long wave of economic growth.

What you can conclude from that I think is several things.

1) Our ability to predict the future development of society in a useful way,
beyond about 5 years or so, is usually rather limited
2) Real crises and catastophes - not necessarily caused by economic
factors - very often take most people by surprise.
3) The analytical frameworks used to assess the nature of an epoch are often
not based on thorough research, but more on ideology and theoretical
4) The ability to predict accurately may have a lot to do with the way
society itself is organised - e.g. a deregulated capitalism possibly makes
it more difficult to predict what will happen.
5) People often perceive crises where there are none, and overlook real
crises when they occur.
6) Capitalism is often pictured as an "economic engine" which has a tendency
to break down, rather than as a social system with various modes of capital

Andre Gunder Frank, as I think I mentioned before, wrote a couple of
humorous articles once, in which he compared the predictions of economists
with astrology, finding little difference between them. (See e.g. "Equating
Economic Forecasting with Astrology is an Insult - to Astrologers",
Contemporary Crises, Amsterdam, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1978, pp. 97-102, republished
in Ticktin's journal Critique)

Among Marxists, their fake catastrophist perspectives often function to
bolster their revolutionary fervour. But actually, Lenin himself proclaimed
that there were no absolutely hopeless situations for capitalism, in that
there were always possibilities to find a way out - what would happen,
depended on political fights and on whether the bourgeoisie as a class was

The actual quote is:

Comrades, we have now come to the question of the revolutionary crisis as
the basis of our revolutionary action. And here we must first of all note
two widespread errors. On the one hand, bourgeois economists depict this
crisis simply as "unrest", to use the elegant expression of the British. On
the other hand, revolutionaries sometimes try to prove that the crisis is
absolutely insoluble. This is a mistake. There is no such thing as an
absolutely hopeless situation. The bourgeoisie are behaving like barefaced
plunderers who have lost their heads; they are committing folly after folly,
thus aggravating the situation and hastening their doom. All that is true.
But nobody can "prove" that it is absolutely impossible for them to pacify a
minority of the exploited with some petty concessions, and suppress some
movement or uprising of some section of the oppressed and exploited. To try
to "prove" in advance that there is "absolutely" no way out of the situation
would be sheer pedantry, or playing with concepts and catchwords. Practice
alone can serve as real "proof" in this and similar questions. All over the
world, the bourgeois system is experiencing a tremendous revolutionary
crisis. The revolutionary parties must now "prove" in practice that they
have sufficient understanding and organisation, contact with the exploited
masses, and determination and skill to utilise this crisis for a successful,
a victorious revolution.

It is doubtful whether there was "a tremendous revolutionary crisis all over
the world", but there is no denying that the Russian insurrection had a
tremendous political impact on the world (see: Paul Dukes, October and the
world. St Martin's Press, 1979)

The opposite perspective of long-term steady growth has turnd out to be just
as wrong. The real problem is that anxiety about the future is not conducive
to what you actually have to do in the future, and that pessimism does not
lead to action that helps shape the future.


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