We live in uncertain times. Two decades into the twenty-first century, at a time when scientific and technological advances offer potential prospects hardly dreamed of by previous generations, life seems ever more dangerous, and society more conflicted, while environmental degradation is threatening the very future of humankind. A clear understanding of the causes of this crisis and of a possible way forward has never been more urgent.
In this age of globalisation more than ever, it is impossible to understand the course of events within narrow national horizons. Capitalism strives to transcend the confines of the nation state through trade agreements like the World Trade Organisation, the EU, NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement. “Real time” trading in shares, stocks, currencies and futures is conducted internationally in milliseconds. News is relayed instantaneously via 24-hour television news channels, the internet and mobile phone technology.
Lenin once commented: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”.
Following the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century, for most of its second half the world maintained a precarious equilibrium, neatly divided into three distinct sectors. The USA and the developed capitalist countries of the “West” and the Stalinist states of Russia, Eastern Europe and China remained perched in a state of mutual nuclear stalemate – not so much at “peace” but enjoying a brief respite from the endless war and carnage of the past, which was still rampant in the volatile emerging former colonies of the “third world” on the periphery.
Today there is no longer a tidy tripartite division of the world into a stable order of separate mutually balanced sectors: advanced capitalism, Stalinism and the Third World. After an era of almost glacial stability, suddenly history is once again hurtling onward in full flood. We are all finding ourselves sucked ever more rapidly into a common vortex of crisis. The old divisions have melted away and blurred into a single whirlwind of turmoil.
In the last thirty years, two almighty cataclysms have shaken the planet: first, in 1989-91, the collapse of the Stalinist regimes throughout Russia and Eastern Europe, and then in 2008 the capitalist financial meltdown, which has plunged the world economy into havoc ever since. Both came as utter shocks to the mainstream establishment. Following the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of their ideologues (rather prematurely) even celebrated “the end of history” and the final triumph of capitalism. And on the very eve of the 2008 meltdown, deluded reformist politicians were still boasting that they had ended forever the boom-and-bust economic cycle. When the crash came, Greenspan, head of the USA’s Federal Reserve throughout the course of the boom, confessed that he was “in a state of shocked disbelief”.
Only the most penetrating observers had monitored the subterranean processes undermining the surface stability of both capitalism and Stalinism. Some had even characterised the period as a “race” between the social revolution in the West and the political revolution in the East. That events unfolded as they did is no accident; but just imagine if the order had been reversed: if the capitalist financial crisis had preceded the collapse of the Stalinist regimes. In the context of a world economic crisis, is it conceivable that the overthrow of the Stalinist regimes could possibly have led to a restoration of capitalism? And conversely, would a spate of uprisings for workers’ democracy in the East not inevitably have revitalised a century of socialist traditions in the West?
Albeit in a hideously distorted form, the Stalinist states in their day had demonstrated the potential for a society freed from the dictates of the market and private profit. For all their decay, monstrous corruption and stagnation, the downfall of the USSR and its satellites still dealt a blow to the morale of the labour movement; while the removal of an alternative power bloc to imperialism, which had previously allowed them a certain scope to play off rival power blocs, meant a material and political defeat for resistance movements in the colonial world.
Clear perspectives are crucial in mapping out a strategy, in this case anticipating the convulsions that were about to bring to a close four decades of rare relative stability. And yet, to use another favourite quote of Lenin’s, “theory is grey but the tree of life is green”. Life has a habit of springing surprises and posing new questions.
Economic and Political Convulsions
The roller-coaster of history is now performing stomach-churning lurches. The last relics of the liberal post-war settlement established two generations ago are finally being stripped away: free health care, social housing, unemployment benefit, free university education, decent pensions and care for the elderly. For more than three decades, the ruling class had been gnawing away at these reforms gained by the working class in the aftermath of the world war, initially drawing back for fear of mass resistance, but now their very survival is under threat. With indecent haste, that tissue of liberalism is being stripped away.
It is now a decade since the economic catastrophe of 2008. During the winter of 2008-9, trade and industrial production were collapsing at a faster rate even than during the Great Depression. In the ten years since then, the world capitalist economy has staggered on only at sluggish rates of growth and investment, and at the cost of a massive accumulation of corporate debt. Aggregate global debt has now piled up to a colossal $247 trillion, equivalent to nearly 250% of world GDP.
Despite “quantitative easing” (the central banks’ magical creation of virtual money) amounting to $3.7 trillion in the USA and the equivalent of $640 billion in Britain, declining rates of profit have kept productive investment at a standstill. Instead, a huge ballast of loose cash is sloshing around, salted away in land, property, art works and an orgy of predatory asset-stripping. The accumulated shortfall in the rise of world output, set against projections from the preceding growth rate, has been calculated at 8.4% – equivalent to the disappearance of the entire German economy.
The world economy is a dangerous minefield, packed with explosive material: unprecedented levels of corporate debt; a tightening Chinese credit squeeze; the knock-on effects of Brexit; above all, the start of a global trade war. As in the 1930s – and in contrast to 2008 – national governments have entered a downward spiral of protectionism, tariffs and competitive devaluations. In the event of a new crash, with interest rates already at close to zero, there is barely any margin left for adjustments in monetary policy; and with global debt already at record levels, finance ministries are reluctant to borrow.
That is the explanation for today’s political convulsions. The post-war liberal settlement in the developed countries is at an end; the age of the democratic consensus has gone. There is a sharp polarisation, a hollowing out of the “centre” and the eclipse of long-established parties throughout Europe and beyond. There is barely a single traditional party inherited from the preceding era, left or right, which is not today in ruins or terminal decline. The incumbent party won less than a third of the thirty or so national elections that have taken place since the 2008 crisis.
Part of the explanation for this is the development of an integrated world economy dominated by supra-national giant monopolies, where massive flows of money, speculation and investment are undertaken irrespective of the needs or wants of any one government. Both the dominant national conservative parties and the traditional parties of working people have embraced harsh policies of austerity and neo-liberalism, arousing faer and alienation among the working population.
The ruling class is preparing now for more aggressive political as well as economic attacks. It has exploited the crumbling of support by middle-class and backward elements for the traditional “establishment” parties of big business, and fostered the emergence of openly reactionary chauvinistic parties. Though at the cost of opening up divisions within its own ranks, increasingly it is turning away from more genteel parliamentary methods and deploying, at first in an auxiliary capacity, forces such as UKIP, the Front National, the Liga, the AfD, the far-right parties in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, etc. Right-wing populist and openly racist parties are thriving and in many cases already in power.
At the same time, there has been a rejection by the working class of its former ex-reformist leaders – renegades who had long ago abandoned even the pretence of genuine reforms, such as Blair and Hollande. Only fragments survive today of established workers’ parties like the French Socialist Party, the Dutch Labour Party, PASOK in Greece, or the Italian Communist Party – which used to be the biggest in Europe outside the Stalinist bloc, with millions of supporters. (A British equivalent to Italy’s new ruling coalition of the Liga and the Five-Star movement would be UKIP and the BNP.) Meanwhile, support has shrunk dramatically for the German SPD, PSOE in Spain, etc. In recent elections, both the ruling French and Italian social-democratic parties lost power, the French Socialist presidential candidate having scraped together just 6% of the vote, and the former Italian prime minister below 19%. In recent elections, the Dutch Labour Party’s vote fell from 24.8% in 2012 to 5.7% in 2017; and the Czech Social Democrats from over 30% in 2006 to 7.3% in 2017. The German Social-Democratic party (SPD), which at one time was winning 46% of the popular vote, is now languishing at 20.5%, and risks being overtaken at the coming election by the racist Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).
Britain is only superficially an apparent exception to this trend, due to its peculiar two-party electoral system. After an initial shrinkage of both the main traditional parties and the brief rise of eccentric alternatives (the LibDems, the SNP, UKIP and the Greens), what looks superficially like a dramatic reversion to the main parties has camouflaged what is actually a similar process of polarisation. The Tory Party has in effect been taken over by the xenophobic UKIP, while the Labour Party is in the process of becoming transformed by the influx of hundreds of thousands of previously alienated new or returning members in support of a previously marginalised left under Jeremy Corbyn. For all the problems of Momentum at a national level, it is still the most significant mass left force in Britain since the breakaway of the ILP, a left current within the Labour Party before its split in 1931. The now discredited remnants of the “centre” wings of both parties find their previously solid base giving way beneath their feet, and are edging nervously towards some kind of common refuge.
Other symptoms of political fragmentation include the eruption of long-dormant separatist tendencies in Scotland, Catalonia and potentially Italy’s northern provinces, and in Britain a virulent local version in the form of Brexit, a carnival of xenophobia; the challenges to the dying establishments of both Republican and Democrat parties in the USA by Trump and Sanders respectively; the eclipse of the mainstream bourgeois parties in France by le Pen and Macron; the loss of its majority by the CDU in Germany; the rise of racist parties in the Netherlands, France, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Greece, and even of regimes peddling covertly coded anti-Semitism in Hungary, Poland and throughout central Europe. Under the enhanced authoritarianism of Erdogan, Turkey has fallen victim to an orgy of sackings, mass incarceration and torture.
In the former colonial world, too, those previously unassailable dynastic parties of the post-colonial era which had previously basked in the glory of the liberation struggle for independence and democratic rights – parties like Congress in India, the PPP and Muslim League in Pakistan, ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe and increasingly the ANC in South Africa – are now paying a heavy price for decades of corruption and moral decay. In Egypt, Sisi’s military dictatorship is exacting bloody revenge for the revolution of 2011. Throughout most of Latin America, left governments have collapsed; and in Asia, creatures like the communal butcher Modi in India and the murderous gangster Dutarte in the Philippines have come to power.
And practically every one of these regimes – from Italy to Hungary to Turkey to India to the Philippines – has taken power within a nominally democratic parliamentary framework.
The Working Class
Why is it that in so many formerly politically stable countries traditional party loyalties are loosening? Because the social bases of both the ruling capitalist parties and the traditional workers’ parties are also shifting and crumbling. The rise of supra-national giant monopolies has left the old national conservative parties stranded, dependent upon an abandoned and disgruntled traditional electoral base, while the discredited former leaders of established workers’ parties that had won the loyalty of previous generations due to their legacy of real historic past reforms, no longer have any promises to offer.
Marxists used to point quite rightly to the common tendency of workers, across the globe and throughout their history, to return in times of crisis to their traditional organisations, even insisting that this process had become an inevitable “iron law”. That was a necessary and healthy corrective to the frivolous sectarianism of certain ultra-left fringe elements. And yet even in those days, as with all iron laws there were exceptions. For instance, it could not explain the emergence of PASOK in Greece – a new party arising seemingly from nowhere, which itself just forty years later likewise collapsed, to be replaced out of the blue by SYRIZA.
What is the explanation for this uncharacteristic fickleness? Does it invalidate the fundamental laws of proletarian solidarity and cohesion? No, at that time it reflected the special physiognomy of the Greek working class, 80% of whom are either unemployed, self-employed, or scattered in small workshops.
But equally, so too has the industrial base of the working class now been eroded throughout most of the old “industrial” countries, where there has been likewise a “Greekification” of the working class – a consequence of the shutdown and relocation of industrial enterprises, the removal of employees from formal registers, extensive underemployment, and the reclassification of former employees into self-employment categories, where they are subject to casual and precarious employment patterns, bringing a new element of volatility. In Britain, for instance, the old concentrated industrial communities – the coal mines, shipyards, steel works and car plants – have been almost entirely liquidated in this new era of deindustrialisation, the gig economy and zero-hour contracts.
In the 1930s in Europe, millions of workers were concentrated in strategic workplaces and in housing communities, organised, mobilised in trade unions and in consciously socialist internationally linked parties. Tragically, resistance was split between the parties of the Socialist and Communist Internationals. Today, unlike then, the working class is not just fragmented but in many cases atomised. And yet working society has become levelled, all strata proletarianised by the vast polarisation of wealth and power and the squeezing out of a real middle class; and on a global scale, the working class is potentially stronger than ever.
The relocation of industry through globalisation has transformed the world’s working class. There has been a haemorrhage of manufacturing jobs from their traditional locations. Over the last fifty years, throughout the “West” – the traditional home of industrial production – the percentage of GDP contributed by manufacturing industry has declined from 35% to just 15% today. One third of US manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2001. And the number of manufacturing jobs in Britain has fallen below three million for the first time since 1841!
That is due to a combination of technological innovation, globalisation and in many countries where trade unionism had taken too powerful a base, deliberate policies of de-proletarianisation. These factors have tended to weaken workers’ cohesion in the old metropolitan countries. Above all, Europe and the USA represent dying powers, increasingly peripheral to future historical progress. The new technology created the conditions for an era of globalisation in which the old industrial proletariat was decimated. This led to an erosion of the gains of the post-war era: deep cuts in wages and in welfare (the “social wage” for working people).
Workers in the old traditional industrial proletarian communities enjoyed an ingrained sense of collective power and solidarity that came from their concentration in large numbers on factory assembly lines, in steelworks and shipyards, and their shared communal life on housing estates and in mining villages. Britain and most of the traditional industrial countries have now become so-called “gig economies”, in which the old generation has become largely replaced by a “precariat”, living from hand to mouth in self-employment or casual temporary employment on zero-hours contracts. Trade union cohesion has been severely weakened and the instinctive socialist consciousness that had taken root in the labour movement is almost extinguished. Faith in a mission to assume power and reorganise production comes easier to car workers and miners with their hands on the levers of industry than to peripheral parcel couriers and fast food workers. The working class has become dislocated and its combativity accordingly weakened. And yet even in these conditions a new generation is learning to organise. Office cleaners and MacDonalds workers have staged exemplary and often successful strikes.
Trade unionism survives today mostly within a rapidly shrinking public sector; but this still vital sector has shown that it retains the power to mobilise and resist intolerable austerity cuts. Their traditions of industrial struggle have now reached layers of the population which had formerly classed themselves as “professionals” and who previously considered themselves above such practices. In Britain, the most militant strikes in recent times have been those of school teachers, hospital doctors, and university lecturers.
But the industrial proletariat is not extinct. The working class is now for the first time ever a majority of the world’s population, and it has extended its reach to every continent. For every one worker in the west, there are now five based in China, Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia. Women now constitute a majority of this class and are at the forefront of struggle, both as militant workers and, in their role as traditional custodians of the family, at the cutting edge of resistance to cuts both in wages and in welfare.
There are three billion wage workers worldwide, including 100 million industrial workers in China – more than double the number in all the G7 countries put together (the USA, Germany, Japan, France, Britain, Italy and Canada). China has this year crossed the line to become a predominantly urban society.
The geographical shift in the location of industrial production and the corresponding change in the structures of both the older Western and the rising ex-colonial societies has created significant economic and demographic changes. These help explain the diminished consciousness of workers in the West, accounting largely for the relative eclipse of proletarian and socialist traditions in the old industrial societies of the USA and many Western European countries. But on a global scale it is an overwhelmingly positive factor: a source of hope in the revolutionary potential of the world working class and the future of socialism worldwide.
A New Dark Age?
And yet the rise of so many authoritarian populist governments and of mass racist parties throughout Europe has aroused sombre expectations. As we enter into new times we always look for parallels and historical templates. The crash of 2008 has conjured up once again the spectre of the Great Depression. Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, has said in so many words: “From where I stand, we are at a 1930 point – soon after the crash, and with a fascist movement upon us.”
As Europe descended into the economic and social crisis of the 1930s, in the preamble to his horrifying vision of the “rough beast” of fascism “slouching” with “a pitiless gaze” through the desert waste, the Irish poet Yeats wrote “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. A more fitting description could hardly be found of today’s social and political fragmentation.
In his panoramic study of the 1930s, Piers Brendon described that decade as “a dark valley inhabited by the giants of unemployment, hardship, strife and fear. Gradually the darkness deepened as the diffuse economic crisis condensed into one great political thunder-cloud.”
As for the current crisis, as early as 1998 in his penetrating book The Trouble With Capitalism the economist Harry Shutt predicted with astonishing foresight the likely consequences of the impending catastrophe:
“Profit-maximising capitalism has outlived its usefulness as a vehicle for human progress… The status quo is becoming manifestly untenable… Rising numbers of destitute people will once again be treated as paupers and vagrants… The only possible denouement, without some radical alteration of course, will be a financial holocaust on such a scale as to bring comprehensive ruin… Such a disaster could undo all the considerable gains so painfully made by Western civilisation in the five centuries since the Renaissance and usher in a new Dark Age such as that foreseen by Winston Churchill as the likely consequence of a Nazi victory in 1940.”
There is no avoiding the question: are we descending into a new dark age? All the old spectres have returned to haunt us: mass poverty, abortive workers’ strikes and protests, the melting of old political allegiances, splits and spurts of new parties and realignments in the workers’ movement, the resurgence of long-buried reactionary dreams, a resurgence of fascism…
Certainly, there are uncanny parallels today with the 1930s: stock exchange crashes; a lurch towards protectionism; the election of quasi-dictatorial and even racist regimes in Europe and beyond, albeit this time behind a paper-thin parliamentary façade; the early signs of a revival of fascist street gangs. The shocks of the Brexit referendum, the Trump presidency, the Italian far-right coalition, the Erdogan presidential dictatorship; horrors like the devastation of Syria, the thousands of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean, the forcible separation of children from their families at the Mexican border, wholesale deportations, mass incarceration in refugee camps, the official denunciation of entire peoples including Mexican and African migrants and Italian Roma as “animals”… These barbaric phenomena, unthinkable even a few years earlier, are not so many steps away from Nazi-style programmes of mass extermination.
In a world brought immeasurably closer together by foreign and intercontinental travel, 24-hour news channels, cultural globalisation, the internet and social media, among the youth especially there is a groundswell of protest against inequality and exploitation, and a revulsion against all forms of bigotry. Racism has yet to gain anywhere near the firm foothold that it achieved in the 1930s.
And yet the balance of forces has not yet been put to a significant test. Marx used to quote Hegel: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” – in other words, it is only in retrospect that historical epochs can be neatly classified, to conform to bibliographical schemas. The decisive conflict is yet to come.
For instance, the years preceding the bloodbath of the First World War witnessed historic steps forward: a massive growth of trade unions and workers’ parties throughout Europe, the foundation of the Socialist International, an international strike on the world’s first May Day, the 1905 revolution in Russia. And terrible though it was, the war was brought to an end by a tidal wave of strikes, mutinies, uprisings and revolutions throughout Europe, retying the knot with the pre-war years of radicalisation. Armies mutinied, monarchies were toppled, and in Russia and beyond, Soviets took power. And yet… in August 1917 it was only by the will of the Bolsheviks that a terrible defeat was avoided at the hands of General Kornilov. Fascism would have acquired a Russian rather than an Italian name.
Conversely, the 1930s witnessed crushing defeats throughout Europe; yet even those dark years were lit by shining manifestations of workers’ resistance: the Spanish revolution, the insurrection in Catalonia, the French general strike, a wave of US sit-in strikes in the USA. In Barcelona, the workers rose up demanding socialist resistance to the Fascist threat, and came within an inch of taking power.
It would have been impossible to prejudge the outcome of any of these paradoxical periods of conflict. All that could have been said was that they witnessed the massing of forces both on the left and the right, as the mutually antagonistic classes were building up to an impending confrontation, the ultimate conclusion of which could not be predetermined. Today too we find ourselves in similar uncharted territory.
It’s right to be alarmed at the manifestations all around us of atavistic reaction: the re-emergence of monsters like Trump, Salvini, Orban, Kaczyński, Dutarte, Modi, Erdogan; the internment, expulsion and drowning of migrants worldwide; the return of outfits like the Ku Klux Klan, and of racist street gangs in Brexit Britain; the rise of openly racist governments throughout Europe.
Yet let’s not forget the other side of the picture: huge manifestations of workers’ resistance. Since the crash of 2008, throughout Europe and beyond, governments have been toppled in electoral earthquakes or by popular uprisings on an unprecedented scale, from Iceland to South Africa, from Spain and Greece to Thailand, in Romania and Bulgaria and throughout central Europe. Dictators were overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, as the Arab Spring spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East. In November 2014 workers throughout southern Europe staged a general strike that transcended national barriers.
It is a paradoxical period of victories and defeats. Hopes were aroused and soon disappointed by the Arab spring, an uprising of the oppressed against tyrannical rulers throughout the region, and by the election of left governments throughout Latin America. The Arab Spring had apparently died with the bloody counter-revolution in Egypt; but this year the Jordanian government has been overthrown by a mass uprising, there has been a wave of strikes even in devastated Iraq, and street protests have continued to rock Iran. Left governments have been dislodged from power by one means or another in most of the major countries of Latin America; but in Mexico, the left leader Obrador has won a decisive presidential election victory. Thailand is once again ruled by a military dictatorship, but there have been huge strikes and protest demonstrations in Vietnam. Governments have been overthrown by popular uprisings throughout Europe. In 2017, 35 million workers in Brazil staged the biggest general strike in Latin America in living memory, and almost 200 million workers in India participated in the biggest general strike in world history! In April 2018 there was a general strike in South Africa. And that’s before we come to the new strike wave in China (see below). The movement for change is not defeated; it is gathering its forces, poised for its next offensives.
It is a time of paradoxical swings and lurches both to left and right. Since the 2008 crash, Britain has witnessed student demos, a wave of youth riots, an unpredicted Tory victory, the shock of the Brexit referendum, the completely unforeseen Corbyn surge, the sudden calling of a new election and the unexpected loss of the Tory majority.
The best explanation of our current predicament is the one offered in his day by the Italian Marxist Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
All we can say with certainty is that a new era has started. After decades of relative stagnation, history is catching up with a vengeance. Marx once quoted from Hamlet: “well burrowed, old mole”, likening revolution to the mole which burrows deep for decades before unexpectedly poking its nose through and breaking the surface of the earth. Tensions accumulate over decades before erupting in sudden crisis. That crisis is now upon us.
The 1930s ended in the most violent conflict in human history. Are we doomed to see the same outcome again?
The 1914-18 was at the time not, obviously, called “the first world war” but the “Great War”, and even the “war to end wars”. It was followed not by peace but only by a temporary respite, a lull punctuated by repeated violations of the Versailles peace treaty (in the Ruhr, the Saar, Rheinland, Austria), annexations and occupations (Austria, Czechoslovakia), fascist coups (Italy and Portugal), military coups (Poland, Greece), civil wars (Russia and Spain), and invasions spanning three continents (Abyssinia, China, Czechoslovakia, Finland) … all within what was officially “peacetime”. Then, in 1939-45, came what was called the “Second” World War, in which some 50-80 million people were killed. In effect, what are known as the two world wars between 1914 and 1945 can be considered a second “Thirty Years’ War”, which started by pitting an assertive German rival against a sinking British Empire, and ended with a dominant US imperialism deadlocked in a stalemate with the Stalinist bureaucracy at the head of the degenerated relic of the Russian revolution.
It is a truism that while capitalism lasts, there will be constant wars. With a defence budget this year of $716 billion (40% of total world military expenditure), the USA is at this moment waging war in 76 countries, dropping 121 bombs per day (44,000 a year). Like the recurrent surrogate wars in the Balkans in the period leading up to 1914, but this time on a massively more destructive scale, the current apparently endless cycle of wars in the Middle East are precursors to a future major global conflict. The rapid development of ever more sophisticated military technology suggests that it is unlikely that human civilisation can survive intact a third world war.
And yet… In the 1970s the USA was defeated in Vietnam due to domestic revolt and outright mutiny: mass protest demonstrations at home, the wholesale defection of conscripts, an army rife with drugs and insubordination, and multiple “fraggings” – the murder of officers with fragmentation bombs by conscript soldiers under their command. Having burned its fingers badly in Vietnam, for a period the USA held back its military power, apart from some relatively small-scale local interventions in Grenada and Panama.
It was the blatantly provocative attacks of September 2001 that gave the USA cover for increased military intervention in the Middle East. True, the US military sustained 4,500 deaths and 32,000 wounded in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – but these losses were insignificant in comparison to the 58,000 dead and over 150,000 wounded in Vietnam.
What would be the response of American youth to a full-scale engagement with a really formidable enemy: China? Or even Iran? Including this time perhaps the possibility of mass civilian casualties on US soil? It is highly significant that since the Vietnam war the USA has never again resorted to conscription.
The USA has manipulated popular outrage at the terror tactics of al-Qaida and later even more effectively the barbarous antics of ISIS to legitimise its attempts to wrest control of the Middle Eastern oilfields. Terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism have served as a useful diversion for capitalist politicians. For all the hysteria whipped up against it, Islamic terrorism represents little more than a symbolic gesture of impotent defiance against decades of imperialist plunder. The idea that it constitutes a mortal threat to “democracy” and “Western values” was always an exaggerated xenophobic myth exploited by imperialist politicians. This phenomenon suits perfectly the ruling elites that suck up profits from mayhem and war, enabling them to divide working people by promoting racism and fear of immigration, to create convenient scapegoats for their poverty and insecurity and to divert attention from the real cause of the crisis in society.
Nevertheless, religious fundamentalism and communalism pose a crucial danger in that they split the working class and poison the minds of youth in revolt, from Hungary to India. In its most virulent guise, communalism constitutes a variant of fascism. Fascism always drapes itself in the costume of its national myths: Mussolini’s Fascists in Caesarism and the Roman Empire; Hitler’s Nazis in Aryan Nordic sagas; Franco’s clerical fascists in the Catholic Church and the Inquisition; the Indian Shiv Sena in Hindu epics, gods and princes; and the various Islamic fascist groups (ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Jamaat-e-Islam) in seventh-century Mecca, Medina and the early caliphates. Successive British fascist groups have cloaked themselves in the paraphernalia of the British Empire, and their American counterparts in the folklore of the American revolution, the frontier pioneers, and the civil war Confederate states.
What all fascist groups have in common is their active mobilisation of militant activists, their violent bigotry against vulnerable minorities, and their common prime target: the labour movement.
The greatest advantage that the USA still retains is its overwhelming military superiority. The USA and Russia remain rivals, but new and bigger fault lines have developed. US imperialism needs to clear away the debris of the old conflicts to prepare for those that lie ahead. It now has a far more formidable enemy to contend with. The new US Defence Secretary has announced that “Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security”.
Looming ahead is the ultimate prospect of an inevitable future confrontation with China. Whenever one dominant empire is challenged by another, it poses the threat of war. In the period since the collapse of Stalinism there have been constant local or proxy wars: in the former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria. While the USA retains such overwhelming military supremacy, isn’t it in its interests to engage sooner rather than later? And yet the spectre of Vietnam still haunts the ruling class, when the world’s strongest superpower found itself humbled and defeated by a country of ragged peasant guerrillas and helpless in the face of a mutinous army and mass anti-war protests at home.
The “American century” is drawing to a close. Despite the premature jubilation of 1991, at the time of the implosion of the USSR, when US ideologues were crowing triumphantly about “the end of history”, we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of the post-war ascendancy of US capitalism, its unremitting relative decline.
Following the end of the 25-year postwar upswing in 1974, economic growth was maintained by a combination of military investment and the rise of new technology, together with an orgy of privatisation. This was followed by the dot.com bubble, and then an era of increasingly complex speculative gambling, which culminated in the crash of 2008 and the subsequent long recession.
After the shocks of the Vietnam war and the abandonment of gold convertibility in 1971, the dollar had sustained a recovery. Its supremacy is now once again under threat. The relentless tendency of the rate of profit to fall has led to a dearth of productive investment, creating a massive surplus of capital, a huge ballast swilling around in search of a profitable niche. It found temporary expedients in grotesque arms expenditure; then in the dot.com bubble; in a wave of economically senseless privatisations stripping the state bare; then finally in a further descent into rampant gambling and speculation, ending in a gigantic crash, prompting a massive redistribution of wealth to the super-rich. Quantitative easing has accumulated piles of redundant credit in the banks, as outlets for productive investment are becoming exhausted.
This has always in the past been a recipe for slumps and wars. The decline of US imperialism has aggravated tensions and brought to a head long-running pressure points throughout the world from the Middle East to the Korean peninsula. The USA found itself standing by helplessly when Russia won the Georgian war, annexed the Crimean peninsula and took control of eastern Ukraine. Despite its expenditure of $1.6 trillion on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it ended up ceding effective control of Iraq to Iran, and a predominant influence in Afghanistan to the Taliban. Throughout the Middle East – a seething cauldron like the Balkans before the First World War – the USA has proved in effect impotent to impose its interests. That explains why, in sharp contrast to its interventions in Iraq and Libya, the USA is now meekly standing by to allow Assad a free hand (or even covertly colluding with him) to destroy civilised life in Syria.
The Trump regime has recklessly torn up the nuclear treaty with Iran, provocatively moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and, before apparently retreating, initially blundered into the risk of direct confrontation on the Korean peninsula. It is preparing domestic repression by whipping up confrontations with black and Latino minorities and wilfully inciting both terrorist atrocities at home and foreign wars, initially with Iran or North Korea, but always with the distant implied threat of war with China looming ahead. Above all, the first shots have been fired in a potentially disastrous trade war, as the US slaps punitive tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, including from its “allies” in Canada and Europe, and seeks to suppress Chinese advanced manufacturing in robotics, aerospace, electric vehicles, artificial intelligence and biotech.
The current administration in Washington is deranged, brutal and crude, fronted by a cartoon buffoon corruptly entangled with the sinister Putin regime. Let’s not forget, though, that the mainstream establishment itself regularly conducted dirty surreptitious wars and weekly drone strikes. It is alarmed at the wayward and corrupt nature of the Trump regime, but its effete remonstrations reflect its fear of the consequences of using its reserve powers to replace it. This is a political expression of the deadlock that American imperialism faces.
The Chinese GDP has grown by nearly 1200% in the last twenty years. It is now the largest trading nation in the world. In 12-15 years the Chinese economy overall will overtake that of the USA.
Chinese economic power is now asserting itself on the world stage. Its influence is growing in eastern Asia, supplanting both US control of the Philippines and the former Soviet dominance over central Asia, with its ambitious “Belt and Road” initiative; and also in Latin America and throughout Africa, where it is constructing railways and ports and establishing a naval base in Djibouti.
The meteoric rise of China on the basis of a bureaucratically managed economy was made possible by a unique combination of factors: a revolution that had swept aside landlordism, freed millions of peasants from serfdom and thus released almost inexhaustible labour reserves; globalisation, which created the material basis to facilitate industrial investment on a massive scale; and strictly administered state planning. The result is a society resembling a projection on to a massively higher plane of the “New Economic Policy” that operated in Russia in the early 1920s, in which licence was given to private entrepreneurs (“Nepmen”) and capitalist farmers (“kulaks”) following the devastation of the civil war. This is “state capitalism” in its original sense: private enterprise within the constraints laid down by a dominant state bureaucracy. Ultimately the contradiction of Stalinist state control and a rapidly growing capitalist class must eventually be resolved one way or the other, and that can only mean by violent upheavals.
The meteoric growth of the Chinese proletariat has brought with it a fundamental change in Chinese society. The working class has become more coherent, stronger and more combative in struggling for decent living standards. China now has well over 100 million industrial workers – more than twice as many as in all the G7 countries put together. Hundreds of millions of former peasants are now urban workers. By 2020 the urban population will reach 60% of the population.
In 2014-5 alone there were 4,000 public protests recorded in China, including nearly 1,000 strikes. In the six months September 2017 to February 2018 there were over 900 industrial disputes, in construction, mining, transport, manufacturing, services, education and retail, including sit-ins, workplace blockades and demonstrations, and the wave of unrest has continued without pause, reaching for the first time to national strikes of crane operators and van drivers in May 2018. In the three years 2015-17, there were 6,694 strikes reported, encompassing almost every sector of the workforce: construction, manufacturing, services, transport, retail, mining and education.
Along with the rising tide of industrial struggle has come a clearer insight into social reality. According to Michael Schuman, writing in TIME magazine in 2013, “The rich-poor divide is perhaps most volatile in China”. In a Chinese opinion poll, 80% of respondents agreed that the “rich just get richer while the poor get poorer”. The gross polarisation of wealth in China is kindling a growing flame of rebellion. Factory workers in Shenzhen have been reported saying: “All the workers should be united…The way the rich get money is through exploiting the workers… Communism is what we are looking forward to.”
It is this stupendous polarisation of wealth and poverty throughout the world that is paving the way for an almighty explosion. In his great work Capital, Marx predicted: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”
It used to be said that Marx’s law of polarisation of wealth had been proved wrong. On the contrary, today we see the grossest inequality in history. More than 3 billion people (half the world population) live on less than $2-50 a day, including 1.3 billion who live on less than half of that. Meanwhile, in the last year 1,542 dollar billionaires increased their combined wealth to six trillion dollars – around one sixth of world GDP. Three Americans own as much as half the US population. The wealth of Jeff Bezos grows by $250 million every day. By the calculations of Oxfam, while in 2016 half the world’s wealth was held by 62 individuals, by 2017 this number had shrunk to eight. Of all the new wealth created in 2017, 82% of it went to the 1%. By the calculation of the Guardian, by 2030 two-thirds of the world’s wealth will be concentrated in the hands of the 1%.
People can tolerate the most acute poverty, so long as they see some prospect of future relief, of a better life for their children and grandchildren. It is when they feel that their suffering and sacrifice is futile, and when all hope in the existing order is gone… that is what puts revolution on the agenda.
Most alarmed of all are the more far-sighted capitalists themselves. Christine Lagard of the IMF has urged the world’s rich to open their eyes to the danger, and Joseph Stadler, of the finance conglomerate UBS and head of Global Ultra High Net Worth, has said of this growing inequality: “This is something billionaires are concerned about… The question is to what extent is that sustainable and at what point will society intervene and strike back?”
One of these plutocrats, Nick Hanauer, has even published an open letter headed to “my fellow zillionaires”:
“Like you, I am one of those .01%ers, a proud and unapologetic capitalist… Like you, I have been rewarded obscenely for my success, with a life that the other 99.99 percent of Americans can’t even imagine… But let’s speak frankly to each other… What do I see in our future now? I see pitchforks. At the same time that people like you and me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest of the country—the 99.99 percent—is lagging far behind. The divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast… Inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day… Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.”
That is why the capitalists are bracing themselves for unpredictable political consequences. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence has taken note of “shocks like the Arab spring, the global financial crisis, and the global rise of populist anti-establishment politics” and predicted “deep shifts in the political landscape that portend a dark and difficult near future”.
As far back as 2011, the more serious commentators were already anticipating the coming storm. The television historian Simon Schama explained that “there is often a time-lag between the onset of economic disaster and the accumulation of social fury” and thought “we might be on the threshold of an age of rage… an organised mobilisation of outrage”. The former editor of the Observer was expecting “a Europe closer to the 1930s: fearful, stagnant and prey to vicious racist and nationalist ideologies”. The former head of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn sounded a warning of “social unrest in many countries” and predicted “rising social discontent” in “nations all around the world”, while the US Director of National Intelligence alerted the Senate to the risk of “regime-threatening instability” from which “the United States would not be immune.” All of these prophecies have materialised.
It was in Greece that the bankers of Europe first came directly face to face with the rage of the masses. The Greek workers staged at least 42 general strikes in five years. The tidal wave of protest was not contained in the workplaces but surged on to the streets. It was the public spaces that became the site of occupations. The mass of humanity crowding into the public squares, inspired by the examples of Tahrir Square in Cairo and the Spanish indignados, more than made up in inclusivity and breadth of composition what they lacked in access and proximity to the levers of production. They drew into joint struggle and mutual dialogue workers, pensioners, the unemployed, housewives, students, youth, small entrepreneurs, veterans, and – crucially – migrants and refugees. The mass occupation of the city squares was the most eloquent, striking, public manifestation conceivable of popular outrage; an assertion in the flesh of the common popular solidarity of the 99%, stretching across the entire mass of the oppressed and deprived population. The effects of this were graphically illustrated in the demographic breakdown of referendum voting in July, when 62% of the electorate, and a majority within almost every demographic category, voted a resounding NO to the bankers’ demands.
In an opinion poll in 2011, 33% of the Greek population opted for “revolution”. More than one third of respondents – 35%! – had personally taken part in at least one street protest. Finally, the referendum proved in hard incontrovertible arithmetic that almost two thirds of the population were ready to defy the bankers, at no matter what cost.
It was not the determination of the Greek people that was lacking. In July 2015, when the harsh austerity terms of the European bankers were presented to them, they resoundingly rejected them by a majority of two to one. As the ministers watched the results come in, according to the account of the outgoing finance minister Varoufakis, he “jumped up and punched the air… only to realise that I was the only one in the room celebrating,” following which he had an extraordinary exchange with the prime minister Tsipras.
“Alexis stared at me and said we had messed up badly. I decided to put it to him straight: would he honour the NO vote, or was he about to throw in the towel? At that point Alexis confessed to something I had not anticipated. He told me that he feared a ‘Goudi’ fate awaited us if we persevered – a reference to the execution of six politicians and military leaders in 1922. He then began to insinuate that something like a coup might take place.”
If this account is true, then Tsipras was confessing to a degree of cowardice that could only have aroused contempt from the descendants of those hundreds of thousands of Greeks who had given their lives in the resistance to Nazi occupation and in the civil war which followed, and the hundreds of youth who had died in the uprising against the colonels’ junta in 1973.
The ferocity with which the bankers crushed the people of Greece is an admission of their fear for the future. The financial and political trends forecaster and publisher of the journal Trends, Gerald Celente, wrote as early as in 2011:
“What’s happening in Greece will spread worldwide as economies decline.… We will see social unrest growing in all nations which are facing sovereign debt crisis, the most obvious being Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Iceland, the Ukraine, Hungary, followed by the United Kingdom and the United States.”
More recently, the fears of the ruling class were frankly spelled out by Donald Tusk, current president of the European Council, at the time of the Greek crisis:
“I am really afraid of this ideological or political contagion, not financial contagion… The febrile rhetoric from far left leaders, coupled with high youth unemployment in several countries, could be an explosive combination. For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe. I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions.”
Change is Coming!
Mr Tusk is right. There is a restlessness in the air. It started at the turn of the millennium with the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Seattle, Prague, Gothenburg and Genoa, and gathered pace in February 2003, when 30 million demonstrators in 600 cities worldwide marched in protest at the impending Iraq war. Then in quick succession came the Arab spring; the Occupy movement; the Greek uprising; the Spanish indignados; general strikes in India, Brazil, South Africa and throughout Europe; the Corbyn surge in Britain; in the USA, organised revolts among the black population, women and youth; the overnight rise of new parties, both right and left. Traditional loyalties and affiliations are in flux. New formations are springing up, and new trends within old parties, congealing and just as rapidly melting away in the search for a way forward, from SYRIZA to PODEMOS to Die Linke to France Insoumise to Momentum to the DSA.
There is an abiding and growing aspiration towards a new society, especially among the youth. For all the decline of industry in the Western countries and deepening cuts in workers’ living standards, it is nevertheless more than eight decades since the working class last suffered a crushing defeat comparable to those of the interwar years in Italy, Gemany and Spain. The general mood of discontent may be soft and disorganised, reflecting the greater atomisation of work patterns and the deindustrialisation of Western society, but in spite of the inexperience of the youth, there is a growing awareness of the obsolescence of capitalism. At the same time, the new technology has sparked an unprecedented awareness of events, instant communication and a spontaneity that make politics more volatile than ever before, with sudden mobilisations appearing almost from nowhere. There is a new universal moral outrage at the grotesque polarisation of wealth and power.
In the USA there are innumerable signs that the ground is shaking: ad hoc grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and the school students’ gun laws revolt, the wave of teachers’ strikes sweeping the southern states, the Sanders phenomenon, the growth of the DSA, the new popularity of nominally “socialist” candidates. Slaking the thirst among the youth for change, Sanders toyed with radical slogans, denouncing the 1% and the rule of the billionaires… and then tamely capitulated. But first, thirteen million people voted for what they understood to be socialism, including two million voters under 30. Last year in the USA, 54% of respondents voted yes to the idea of a “political revolution to redistribute money from the wealthiest Americans”. That included 68% of Afro-Americans, 65% of Hispanics, and 68% of 18-29 year-olds.
In the 1960s, resistance to the racism endemic in American society brought forth an aspiring revolutionary party (the Black Panthers), and the war in Vietnam was brought to an end by a huge anti-war movement, with thousands of youth burning their draft cards and a wave of army mutinies. These are memories that still haunt the US establishment.
It is not only the hardship of austerity or the gross injustice of wealth inequality that have radicalised the attitudes especially of the youth. There is a growing recognition of the very real and immediate threat posed to human civilisation by the looming environmental catastrophe. The consequences of climate change and the depletion of natural resources constitute an existential threat to human society, which can only be resolved by the total reorganisation of society. As earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions and forest fires engulf the planet, the environmental threat has now become as urgent and imminent as the threat of nuclear annihilation. Within the very structure and dynamic of capitalism are the processes that can destroy human society. In its constant drive to expand and accumulate, its insatiable thirst for profit regardless of all other consequences means not just the merciless exploitation of human beings but also the rape and plunder of the earth’s natural resources, for instance through the colossal wastage caused by inbuilt obsolescence and the indiscriminate proliferation of packaging and plastics. Capitalism poses an existential threat to human survival.
Within the last two decades, we have experienced the hottest fifteen years on record. Droughts and heatwaves now cause more deaths in Africa than malaria, yellow fever and typhoid. Meanwhile, these environmental catastrophes have wreaked unprecedented turmoil: major wars for the control of diminishing oil reserves, local wars and civil wars, natural disasters, mass migration and a massive refugee crisis. The UNHCR reports that 65.3 million people have been forced from their homes, including nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. In 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively, 11 million, 14 million and more than 16 million refugees migrated abroad.
Recent years have seen some of the biggest recorded natural disasters, in the form of earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and in Japan the resulting nuclear crisis, some of them undoubtedly linked to climate change. Quite apart from environmental disaster, faith in the boundless potential of technology has diminished; in its place has come a conviction that society is fast reaching the limit of the world’s finite resources, especially in terms of energy. There is a widespread understanding that capitalism has despoiled the planet, that civilisation itself is under threat. In the absence of a socialist alternative, it is understandable that this helps create feelings of helplessness; of fatalistic resignation to the inevitability of Armageddon.
The old intrinsic faith in the boundless potential of technology has faded, replaced by the spectre of environmental devastation; the fear that capitalism has terminally despoiled the planet and that civilisation is in peril. It is the prime task of socialists today to restore faith in the power of human ingenuity. The challenge of the age is to restore confidence in the ability of the working class to harness science, industry and technology to the task of saving humanity. The rationality of socialism needs to be demonstrated and the ideological case argued all over again. Only then can socialism once more become a living force – a “material force gripping the minds of the millions”.
There are few illusions left in capitalism. What is lacking is confidence in the power to overthrow it. There is an awareness of the sheer enormity of the task of breaking the stranglehold of the corporations, and a lack of any conception of what could replace it. It is therefore the prime task of socialists today to re-establish theoretically the rationality of socialism. To inspire a new generation, the ideological case for socialism has to be demonstrated all over again in an entirely new context before it can become once again a living force.
And yet in a rationally harmonised society, science could within a generation have achieved almost limitless potential to save the environment and utterly transform human existence, with the use of 3-D printing, robots, renewable energy sources, synthetic meat, electric cars, energy efficiency, new battery technology, mechanisation, automation, digitalisation and artificial intelligence.
Towards A New Society
On the threshold of such an age of “zero marginal cost”, there is a growing realisation throughout society of the redundancy of the current system. There is also a widespread contempt for today’s increasingly oppressive and intensive manifestation of capitalism, which goes beyond the daily struggle for material reforms. The intensification of never-ending productivity drives and the resulting stress and alienation are building up a huge resentment against oppressive management systems and the companies that impose them.
There is no solution to the crisis facing human civilisation than the replacement of capitalism with a rational harmonious socialist society. Even according to Yanis Varoufakis, the left former finance minister of Greece who spent six months trying in vain to grapple with the world’s bankers, there is no alternative but to expropriate the capitalists and challenge their rule head-on. Unfortunately, he quite arbitrarily limits his objective to the public ownership of just a certain proportion of the capitalists’ productive capital. “We must first and foremost redistribute between us the riches that the machines we have created can produce”, he writes, “through part-ownership of these machines. I can think of no other way of turning human society from the slave of its creations into their master.” What proportion of society’s productive power he proposes to nationalise is not specified; nor why any part of it should be left in the hands of a class which has abused it to exploit the working class and despoil the planet. It is not as if he has any illusions in the possibility of a gentlemanly compromise to effect a peaceful and gradual transition, for he is fully aware of the ferocious resistance that would be put up to any threat even to a proportion of their wealth. “What stops us from doing this? The fierce opposition of the tiny but very powerful minority who own the existing machines, land, office blocks and of course the banks.” But in that case, since it will require an all-out fight to relieve them of even a proportion of their wealth, what justification can there be for leaving the bulk of it in the hands of a class which has become a totally parasitic burden on society?
Everything in society is straining towards a new order. By its very nature, the working class strives instinctively towards solidarity. It produces collectively and organises collectively. The struggle to build an international workers’ party goes back almost to the beginnings of capitalism. It is based on the common interest of all working people, and the need to overcome all attempts to divide the workers along the lines of craft, gender, nationalism, racism or chauvinism.
Across the world, the workers’ movement today is on the brink of change. Objectively, the latent power of the working class has grown exponentially: through its massive numerical growth worldwide; its extension to sectors previously outside its domain; its spread beyond its original territory to China, Asia, Africa and Latin America; the universal employment of women, who now make up at least half of the world’s work force; the heightened awareness and integration of workers and youth worldwide through migration, modern telecommunications and social networks. The proletariat is for the first time ever a majority of the world population. For every worker in the older established industrialised countries, there are now
five spread across the globe. China has twice as many industrial workers as all the G7 countries put together.
In the course of time, the structure and composition of the working class changes in each country. In their historic habitat of Europe and North America, it is true that the traditional “heavy battalions” of the industrial working class are no longer concentrated in factories, coal mines, steelworks and shipyards, while their children and grandchildren are increasingly driven into casual dead-end temporary self-employment. However, new generations of couriers, office cleaners and fast-food workers are themselves beginning to organise, while, as noted earlier, “white-collar” workers such as teachers, lecturers, civil servants, nurses, doctors and others formerly considered middle-class now find themselves taking to militant struggle out of necessity if they are to defend or secure a decent life.
Mass communications and the “information revolution” have conjured up a new generation incomparably better informed than their grandparents. The world has drawn together and a global consciousness has arisen. The size and reach and specific weight of the proletariat have grown worldwide.
At the same time, a major countervailing factor is the perceived failure of socialism in the old “communist” bloc, and the struggling economies of North Korea and Cuba. The derailing and sabotage of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, with media coverage focussing on the consequent devastation and chaos, has also had a disorientating effect on the consciousness of those seeking an alternative society. Arising from this legacy, there remain doubts about the practical effectiveness of socialism, which have held back any conscious movement to change the economic system. It is the task of socialists today to counter the obfuscation and distortion resulting from capitalist propaganda and present a clear alternative model that puts the working class in control of society.
Nevertheless, it is a remarkable fact that, for all the daily misinformation pumped out by the press and media moguls and the defection of traditional labour leaders, in recent opinion polls worldwide, socialism proves consistently more popular than capitalism. Among “millennials” in the USA, 44% voted for socialism and 7% for communism!
It is no longer illusions in capitalism that hold the working class back, but the sheer brute power of the ruling class, politically, economically, militarily; plain awe at the challenge of overthrowing so formidable an enemy. In all countries, above all in Asia, home to the fastest growing working class, there is a growing aspiration for an alternative society. Resistance to corporate rule is manifesting itself worldwide. For instance, at the time of writing there is on-going joint strike action against the Ryanair Corporation organised in Ireland, Germany, Sweden and Holland. Corporations are trans-national, and resistance to their rule must also be international. All that is missing is an organised force that can formulate workers’ common aspirations and mobilise them for co-ordinated action: internationally co-ordinated trade-union struggles, and ultimately by extension a worldwide party of the working class.
The creation of such a party is clearly not at all an abstract or unreal idea. Every day, in every continent, we see new evidence that such a party is straining at every nerve to be born.
Where could it come from? From the thousands of youth in anti-globalisation protests at the turn of the millennium, traveling across continents to besiege the secret cabals of the oligarchs; from the 30 million who marched in 2003 in 600 cities worldwide against the capitalists’ war plans; from the worldwide occupy movement in 2011, spontaneously leaping from continent to continent across the world; from the landmark cross-border general strike across southern Europe in 2014; from spontaneous uprisings spreading across entire regions like the Arab Spring; from the millions who took to the streets in 2013 in simultaneous public protests throughout Turkey, Brazil and Egypt; from the participants in mass uprisings which have toppled governments from Iceland to Romania to Armenia to Jordan; from the months-long popular assemblies reclaiming public squares in every continent. These is an instinctive straining towards unity and coherent organisation.
The worldwide phenomenon of street protests and mass occupations is no mere fad, but a natural expression of resistance, manifested worldwide: in Tienanmen Square (Beijing), Palace Square (Bucharest) and Wenceslas Square (Prague); in Tahrir Square (Cairo), Puerta del Sol (Madrid), Placa de Catalunya (Barcelona), Syntagma Square (Athens), Zuccotti Park (New York), Causeway Bay (Hong Kong), Symphony Way (Cape Town), Oaxaca (Mexico), Wisconsin State Capitol… Reclaiming the streets is an assertion of universal democratic rights in the era of globalisation and the internet, drawing into a common front workers, students, women, youth, professionals, the self-employed, the unemployed, migrants.
The forces for a worldwide workers’ party can be found today in workplaces, on public squares, on street corners and in shanty towns across the continents. Its first birth pangs are stirring in the debates raging in workplaces, shanty towns and occupied public spaces across the world.
From Athens to Cairo to Santiago to Seoul to South Africa, hundreds of thousands have been marching, mobilising, striking… and talking. For weeks on end in each of these cases, tens of thousands of people were crammed together in public squares. What a hothouse of political debate! We can be sure that the discussions they had will have at least as much to teach us as whatever abstract lessons we may have gleaned from our study of the textbooks. The first duty of socialist activists is to listen, mingle, talk, interact, exchange ideas, learn and draw conclusions from their experience.
It was after all the workers of Paris in the Commune of 1871 who demonstrated to Marx, and not the other way round, the necessity of smashing and replacing the bourgeois state machine rather than simply commandeering it. It was the workers of Petrograd who proved to the Bolsheviks, initially sceptical and distrustful of what they perceived as a threat to the “leading role of the vanguard party”, the crucial role of the Soviets as democratic organs of workers’ power. Theory is concentrated experience. A thorough grounding in theory is indispensable – in times of reaction or stagnation, all the more so. But in times of turmoil and revolution, workers in action are capable of brilliant feats of improvisation, brusquely bypassing the theoreticians. As Trotsky once remarked, “human thought is conservative, and at times that of revolutionaries most of all”. The lessons of history must be placed at the disposal of the new generation; but what is needed too is a willingness to listen and learn; to grasp and assimilate and recycle current experience.
The actual course of events is always more flexible, imaginative, and daring than can be predicted by any dry theory. New forms of struggle have been improvised, in the occupy movement, the “Arab spring”, the Greek uprising, the South African strikes, the demonstrations of the Spanish “indignados”, etc. It is necessary to draw together the forces fighting capitalism into a new broad anti-capitalist front; to build an international forum in which programmes, strategies and tactics can be tested out democratically in the crucible of battle.
Who is to say that the embryo of a workers’ international is not already being created right now, in the debates that must be raging in workplaces, public squares, street corners and shanty towns across the world? A new, stronger, more cohesive international class is taking shape, bestriding every continent, and rapidly learning afresh the strategy and tactics of class struggle. When tens of millions protest – on the same issues, with the same slogans, often on the same day in internationally synchronised action – then in all but formal structure, the world party of the future is already beginning to materialise. It is time to give it substance.
Human solidarity is a natural feature of civilised society and especially of working-class culture; it is the elementary building block of trade unionism. Internationalism is a constant feature of workers’ struggles, from the support of Lancashire textile workers for the slaves on the cotton plantations in the American civil war, to the refusal of British dockers to load warships bound for intervention against the Russian revolution, to the 35,000 volunteers who flocked to join the International Brigade in the Spanish civil war, to the worldwide boycott of South Africa which helped bring down the apartheid regime.
In 2010-2015, the population of Greece fought a prolonged and determined struggle, which ended in defeat only because they were a little ahead of the rest of us and found themselves facing the enemy alone. But if proof were needed of their awareness of the internationalist character of their struggle, it is necessary to look no further than the banners the demonstrators had been flying in Syntagma Square. Their defiant anti-capitalist slogans were written not just in Greek but in English, Spanish, French, Italian and German, consciously and explicitly rallying the working people of Europe to join together with them in a continental-wide uprising.
Similarly, a recent BBC television programme broadcast the reminiscences of the BBC reporter Kate Adie of the events of 1989 at Tienanmen Square in Beijing. It showed how the rebellion of the Chinese youth and students spread like lightning to the working class, and from Beijing to all the cities and regions of China. The programme confirmed that the youth who occupied the square and gave their lives were singing, not the Stars and Stripes, but the Internationale – the traditional battle hymn of workers’ international solidarity.
The Tienanmen Square youth uprising of 1989 marked the overture to the entry of the Chinese proletariat on to the stage of world history. A sleeping giant is awakening: the Chinese working class may well lay the foundations of an international stronger than all its predecessors put together.
The current underground strike wave in China recalls the 1890s in Russia: a period of rapid industrialisation, in which millions of young peasants are being uprooted overnight from remote and scattered farms plying the primitive wooden plough, and transplanted overnight into high-tech modern factories operating state-of-the-art industrial technology, concentrated in vast numbers, learning industrial skills and flexing for the first time their collective strength, with corresponding effects on their consciousness and combativity. That economic boom in Russia ended in strikes, a general strike, a full-scale insurrection, the birth of Soviets and the 1905 revolution, paving the way to the revolution of 1917 – an event that transformed the international working class and ushered in an era of world revolution.
The impending entry of the Chinese working class as a political force could transform the face of the world labour movement. Just as it was the British trade unions which provided the foundation for the 1st International, the German labour movement the 2nd, and the Russian workers the 3rd, so today the Chinese are busily and silently creating the foundations for a new international.
Building a World Party
Many times in the history of working-class struggle, international parties have been painfully assembled as the movement has prepared itself for decisive confrontations with capitalism, only later to be defeated and dashed against the rocks of reaction.
The First International (the International Working Men’s Association) was rooted in the elemental movement of solidarity, above all among the nascent British trade unions, with the fight against slavery in the American Civil War, the Polish rising against Russian Tsarist oppression, the revolutionary nationalist movements of Italy and of Austro-Hungary, the French workers languishing under the jackboot of the self-appointed “emperor” Louis Napoleon. It was an amalgamation of pioneering campaigning radical groups, with all their confusions and misconceptions – incipient workers’ parties groping towards a common outlook. But it grew meteorically to an estimated 5-8 million members. The Times (at that time the strategic voice of the world’s most powerful ruling class) marked its birth as the beginning of a new millennium and even, rightly, compared its significance to the birth of Christianity.
Marx and Engels regarded the crucial few years of the International’s meteoric growth as a political workshop in which to forge a coherent world programme and ideology. As Engels explained, the aim of the IWMA was “to weld together into one huge army the whole militant working class of Europe and America; therefore it could not set out from the principles laid down in the (Communist) Manifesto.”
The objective of the First International was to unite all the disparate, nascent workers’ organisations around the world. Even outside the parameters of the working class, it strove to encompass all genuine movements of protest against the existing order; to unite all the existing embryonic organisations of resistance to capitalism into a single worldwide movement. That gave Marx and Engels the framework within which to pit what they considered their scientific ideas against rival theories. The IWMA was to become for a time a worldwide ideological workshop, in which all the rival theories could be tested out in practice against the practical experiences of the workers in victory and in defeat.
It took just seven years for the ideas of Marx and Engels to triumph over the quack panaceas of the political snake-oil salesmen and charlatans of their day. The organisation fell into disrepair following the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, when for the first time ever a city had come under the revolutionary rule of the working class; but two decades later an immensely stronger Socialist International had come into being. By the eve of May Day 1890, as workers throughout the world staged the first worldwide general strike to call for the eight-hour day, Engels could proclaim:
“True, the International itself lived only nine years. But that the eternal union of the proletarians of all countries created by it is still alive and lives stronger than ever, there is no better witness than this day. Because today, as I write these lines, the European and American proletariat is reviewing its fighting forces, mobilized for the first time, mobilized as one army, under one flag, for one immediate aim… And today’ s spectacle will open the eyes of the capitalists and landlords of all countries to the fact that today the proletarians of all countries are united indeed. If only Marx were still by my side to see this with his own eyes!”
It is a stunning tribute to Marx’s and Engels’ work that within seven short years their ideas had already triumphed. Although the IWMA itself was soon to be dashed against the rocks of reaction, once the tide had turned and the newly emergent mass parties and trade unions throughout Europe and beyond had established the Socialist International in 1889, it was under the banner of the ideas of the Communist Manifesto. The Second International (Socialist International) was built on mass parties and trade unions, standing proudly upon the principles of Marxism.
The Third (Communist) International, too – contrary to popular misconceptions – was composed overwhelmingly of mass workers’ parties, including the Bolsheviks (the word means “majority”) of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party; a majority of the Independent Social-Democrats (USPD) who had formed the activist base of the German Social-Democratic Party; the French Socialist Party (which affiliated en bloc and promptly renamed itself the Communist Party); the Norwegian Labour Party; the majority of the Italian Socialist Party; and even trade unions like the Spanish CGT and the South Wales Miners’ Federation.
When, following the collapse and decay of its predecessors, Trotsky proclaimed the need to build a new international reclaiming their original traditions, this had an impact on a generation of workers already mobilised in the ranks of the socialist and communist parties, affiliated respectively to the Second and Third Internationals. The call for a Fourth International had an immediate resonance for them, reasserting the need for a genuine world party of the proletariat.
To a modern generation eighty years later, the hollow ritualistic calls of some isolated activists for a fourth (let alone, as one group has it, a fifth!) international makes no sense. The pretensions of any existing group that it alone is building the future mass workers’ international completely misses the mark. Like its precursors, the new International will be composed of mass organisations, numbering in today’s conditions millions, that have arisen organically from the struggles of workers in each country. It will not simply spring up ready-made out of any single self-styled “vanguard”. Even among experienced activists, there is a profound scepticism of any hint of these groups’ exclusivist messianic postures.
All the past internationals were unions of mass workers’ organisations – whether, like the First, an association of trade unions, socialist societies and broad anti-capitalist campaigns; or like the Second, socialist parties and trade unions; or like the Third, radicalised mass parties and tendencies.
So too today, a new international will not conform to anyone’s pre-conceived prescriptions. Like the First International, which initially, as Engels put it, “could not set out from the principles laid down in the Communist Manifesto”, it will aspire nevertheless to “weld together into one huge army the whole militant working class”. It too will be a broad anti-capitalist forum in which rival schools of thought fight a battle of ideas in the search for the most effective strategy.
The Internationals of the past represented the composition at each successive stage the changing character of the working class of their times. In today’s conditions, it seems strange to recall that the First International was actually called an association of working men. Even the Third International was largely concentrated in Europe and, to a limited extent, Asia. The International that will emerge from the coming struggles will encompass a new and strengthened working class comprising hundreds of millions of men and women from all the continents. It will constitute the most formidable mass movement in history. No force on Earth can stand in its way, short of the sheer destruction of human society.
What is necessary today is to draw together the forces fighting capitalism the world over into a new broad anti-capitalist front, to build an international forum in which new programmes, strategies and tactics can be thrashed out democratically, in the traditions of Marx and Engels at the time of the First International.
At some point, probably simultaneously from many of the myriad movements of struggle around the world, the call must and will inevitably come to co-ordinate and share experiences, to establish lasting links, to organise solidarity action, to form a worldwide forum or network, and ultimately to convene an international assembly to draw up a formal constitution for a new international.
A new international today will not start out as a monolithic world party with a common ideological line. What is needed – now as then – is a united movement to organise solidarity action in support of workers’ struggles, a common forum in which to learn from them collectively. It will be alive with debate. In the furnace of struggle, rival programmes will be tested, and the best will win out.
Above all, it is in the factories of China, and their nascent underground trade unions, that the future salvation of humankind is being forged right now. They will need common mobilisation with their fellow workers internationally, to create new bonds of solidarity linking assembly line workers in China, software engineers in India, service workers in Europe, financial workers in New York, miners, agricultural workers and radicalised youth in South Africa. Workers in the old industrial countries will have a crucial part to play. It will be the task of those who embody the old labour traditions in the West to promote class solidarity with the new proletariat and share with it a century and a half of rich experience across a vast geographical and cultural chasm.