World capitalist crisis and the class struggle
“We stand on the eve of convulsive events, the greatest in world history, of which the mighty movements in these countries are the precursor.”
This was how Peter Taaffe of the CWI’s International Secretariat described the current international situation in the session at this year’s CWI summer School on the ‘Capitalist World in Turmoil – the crisis and the class struggle today’. The “mighty movements” he referred to were the huge protests in Turkey, Brazil, Egypt and South Africa over the last 12 months, which have shown the colossal power of the masses once they move into action. These have followed on from the protests against austerity in Europe of the last few years.
The mass occupation of the squares in Turkey was followed by mass action by the working class.
Millions mobilised in Egypt to overthrow President Morsi, more than in the first revolution of two years ago, although the absence of an independent workers’ leadership helped the military tops seize the opportunity to put themselves in control. However the struggle between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution are not over yet.
In Brazil, the mass demonstrations that began as protests against fare rises on public transport convulsed over 120 cities. At one stage, 1 million or more were on the streets. They forced the government to recognise the massive social problems confronting the country.
In the past, such movements in Latin America might have led to ‘guerrillaist’ ideas gaining ground but South America is now the continent with the highest proportion (84%) of its population living in urban areas. The working class and city poor are the overwhelming majority and lead the mass movements although it has echoes in rural areas. These huge changes are preparing the forces of revolution throughout the world.
These events – avidly watched through the mass media and social media by workers internationally – also underline the way that the world today is bound together with iron hoops. The events in one country, continent or region can exercise a sometimes mesmeric effect on the outlook of the working masses. In so doing, they reinforce the need for internationalism upon which the CWI is based and will grow.
The essence of Marxism is to generalise the experiences of the working class and draw out the lessons for the workers’ movement and especially the CWI, guiding our actions now and in the future. Without a broad understanding of perspectives we would be like a sailor without a compass in a stormy sea.
We cannot analyse events pragmatically and empirically. Marxists need to approach ‘reality’ in an all-sided way. If not, we will be unprepared for the sharp turn of events and its highest and most important form: revolution itself.
Peter explained that our method had permitted the CWI to foresee a situation when an ANC government in South Africa would turn guns on workers. Similarly, we had predicted the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt. We forecast a ‘second revolution’ based on an understanding of the laws of revolutions. The masses make revolutions and their dissatisfaction with the Muslim Brotherhood in office brought them back onto the streets to get rid of them.
Character of the era
Our conclusions are founded not on sentiment or wishful thinking, but on the character of the present era, which is marked by the most devastating world economic crisis now in its fifth or sixth year. Capitalist society exists with one quarter of youth worldwide as ‘NEETs’ (Not in Employment, Education or Training’).
Desperate economic straits provided the initial impulse for the revolution in Egypt. Over 1,500 factories have closed since the first revolution in 2011. Half of the country’s eighty million people are living below the poverty line or near it. One journal, in relation to the overthrow of Morsi, commented: “This was a revolution of the hungry.”
However, Peter warned that the overthrow of Morsi by the army – even though it appears initially it had the support of big sections of the mass movement, particularly the liberals – is a potential danger for the working class. The Egyptian workers had shown tremendous appetite for struggle and organisation. David Johnson explained that the independent unions had grown in size from 50,000 to 2.5 million members in two years. However, one of their leaders had joined the military-led cabinet following Morsi’s overthrow! The movement that overthrew Morsi and the Brotherhood had behind it shadowy figures of the ‘Deep State’ and the Mubarak regime.
The downfall of Morsi and the Brotherhood had realigned the positions of the regional powers in the Middle East, whose stance was guided by the simple proposition what best would serve the counter-revolution against the ‘Arab Spring’. The interests of these powers are now polarising the Middle East and threatening the masses of the region, as witnessed by the bloody civil war in Syria.
The Egyptian army is not like the Portuguese army in the uprising in 1974. That army had been radicalised by neo-colonial wars. The Egyptian army, like all capitalist armies, ultimately guards private property and the ‘Deep state’ has a significant economic stake, rather like the Pakistani army.
The likeliest outcome of the events in Egypt is that the Brotherhood and their co-thinkers in the rest of the Arab world will be weakened. This will have consequences in Tunisia, where the Ennahda government is facing challenges to its rule. When a leading leftist opposition leader was assassinated last week, a general strike movement was ignited.
We must always stress the independence of the working class and organisations from all pro-capitalist forces and fight for the creation of independent, working-class forms of struggle.
It is not always economic crisis that provokes mass movements. Both Brazil and Turkey have seen economic growth in recent years. But the fruits of this growth have been unevenly distributed.
This has laid the basis for the social explosions which have taken place, not just in demonstrations, but with moves towards occupations, assemblies, etc., which socialists in Brazil have campaigned for during this social and political tsunami. These revolutionary events have developed not from grinding austerity, as in Europe.
Significant economic growth has strengthened the power of the working class and the masses, which was then displayed in its full power in these movements.
With the worldwide intensification of class struggle, the capitalist state has implemented measures of civil war against the rights and conditions of the working class and the poor.
That is the warning from the revelations of whistle-blower Edward Snowden; of the massive surveillance against the population and organisations or of the planting of police spies in the anti-capitalist and workers’ movements and organisations.
While these measures are anti-democratic, the capitalists cannot establish a police state now because of the opposition such a move would provoke. But the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece shows the medium and long-term dangers to the working class, which needs to fight against the encroachment and attacks on civil and democratic rights, including anti-trade union laws.
These developments have induced widespread disillusion with President Obama, who has proved to be just as undemocratic and oppressive as George W Bush. And his unpopularity is compounded by the lack of improvement in the conditions of the working class in the US. The bankruptcy of the city of Detroit illustrates the depth of the crisis.
Quantitative Easing (QE) internationally has had the effect of stabilising the economic situation to an extent. Yet as Robin from Britain detailed, this had led to further speculation and new financial ‘bubbles’ being created that would burst at some stage.
Peter explained that the small recovery of the economic position in some countries and the slight pause in the class struggle and the success of capitalism in getting through austerity measures have posed questions, such as, “Is this a passing phase?” and “Could capitalism establish a new economic equilibrium?” These are the hopes of the capitalists internationally.
Marxists have pointed out many times there is no ‘final crisis of capitalism’; capitalism will only be ended when the working class takes power. But if the working class, through a lack of leadership, fails to take power, a new growth of capitalism in the future could not be ruled out. But this is certainly not the perspective in the short-term.
And this is recognised by the theoreticians of capitalism. They have absolutely no idea of any way out of this impasse for their system.
In all the big economies of the world, there has been little or no growth. And now that the Chinese economy is slowing down, this will have a profound effect both within China – where revolution will be put on the agenda – and internationally for those economies that either supply capital goods, like Germany, or commodities, as comrades from Australia and Canada amplified, where the economies have benefited from the Chinese boom. Raheem from Nigeria showed that the gains from commodity sales, in Nigeria’s case oil, were extremely unevenly distributed: 1% of the population owns 80% of the wealth in the country while 70% of the population lives in poverty!
Comrade Zhang from China outlined the huge debts in China, which has a ‘Frankenstein economy’ – large and out of control! Peter showed that Chinese workers were beginning to stir with strikes, protests and even the imprisonment of a company boss who was closing down a plant without giving adequate redundancy payments to the workers!
Revolution occurs not automatically through economic slowdown or through growth but in the change from one period to another. The consensus of capitalist economists was that we are now in a ‘depression’. With widespread austerity and the attempt to reconcile the working class to an era of low or no growth, further attacks could discourage struggle.
But there is the real prospect of a deepening of the crisis. This is the weakest ‘recovery’ in the US since the Second World War. And the colossal debts of the banks internationally remain. Under capitalism, mass permanent or semi-permanent unemployment will be a feature.
Japan has tried a ‘dash for growth’ recently but this is already beginning to run out of steam. Japan’s effective devaluation raises the danger of currency wars and protectionism, indicated by serious clash between Europe and China on solar panels, is also on the rise.
A central question from the point of view of capitalism is that there are no ‘markets’. This is the result of the massive debt overhang and the existence of deflation.
The Economist magazine has commented: “By 2020 there will be $900 trillion of financial assets worldwide, compared to $90 trillion of GDP. The result will be a world economy structurally awash with capital and a corresponding shortage of places in which it can be invested.”
This is the explanation for worldwide privatisation, as capitalists look to make profits from previously state run industries and services. It is will produce a social catastrophe. But the capitalists hope it could offer a short-term outlet for their accumulated capital, which includes almost $2 trillion held abroad by US banks avoiding US tax.
Peter concluded by saying we are in a new period of long, drawn-out crisis. This, in turn, will mean the intensification of clashes between the capitalist powers that dominate the globe, including in the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and Africa.
Wave after wave of radicalised, revolutionary movements
In this new period, there will be wave after wave of radicalised and revolutionary movements. Tens of thousands of advanced workers, millions of raw masses, are pondering and learning the lessons of Brazil, Turkey and the Middle East.
However, political understanding is still historically low due to a number of factors, including lingering effects of the collapse of Stalinism and the rapid descent into the crisis which has stunned the working class. Comrade Didi from Brazil explained how the workers’ leaders helped muddy the waters: in 1992, they had led protests against the government which led to its downfall but this year, they had only sown confusion through lack of leadership. But the capitalists themselves understand the drawn-out character of this crisis and some are quite clear that they fear revolution, particularly socialist revolution.
They will try and deflect and prevent movements from moving in revolutionary directions. Robert Bechert of the International Secretariat, in his summing up to the discussion, commented on pundits who were comparing the protests to the revolutionary movements of the 1848 and 1968, but were studiously avoiding comparison to 1917 and the period of working-class revolution following the First World War! The mass movement’s of the last year were inspiring but Marxists had too avoid being “intoxicated” with their initial successes and judge soberly what programme and strategy were necessary to ensure that the working class and poor achieve their goals.
Peter said the capitalists have not taken the Marxists into account. A handful of Marxists in one country, for example in South Africa, could be the key to mass change.
There is scepticism and opposition from the new generation to the idea of ‘parties’ in general which are identified with pro-capitalist parties, their policies and massive corruption. Comrades Andros from Greece and Kevin from Ireland explained how workers had the will to fight against austerity but there was still a hangover from the past period and the low level of understanding, which had partially acted against the idea of fighting.
Andros, in particular, showed there have been significant explosions in Greece yet the lack of a leadership was the key to the defeat, so far, of the battle against austerity. And the Syriza leadership was moving rightwards. But new leaders, including the Marxists, would be propelled to the front of the movement in the next period.
Peter’s final remarks mentioned the volatility of the political situation, which has thrown up new campaigns and organisations, like Occupy, the indignados in Spain and the Five Star movement in Italy. Once the masses see a party fighting for their interests – especially on mass scale – which is incorruptible, they will flock to its banner. The current impasse will then be shown to be another passing phase.
New mass formations are inevitable given the stage through which the working class must pass. These will lead on to the formation of mass revolutionary parties.
Therefore, our tasks are to build the CWI now and prepare ourselves together with the working class to lay the foundations of mass revolutionary parties and a mass international.