Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales), reviews the developments and events of 2013 in Britain and worldwide, and discusses further struggles in 2014 and the development of the workers’ movement.
“Where is this uprising from the left? This is a crisis that began on Wall Street. It really was rooted in the particular American model of liberalised finance. It hurt ordinary people tremendously, and it benefited the richest part of the country – the finance sector – which came through the crisis very well, thanks to government bailouts. You would have thought that this would pave the way for a rise of left-wing populism, as seen in the 1930s.” (Interview with Francis Fukuyama, Spiegel Online international, 1 February 2012)
This was the smug conclusion of the prophet of the idea that neo-liberal capitalism represented “the end of history”, the perfect model of capitalism, which had relegated the class struggle and socialism to the dustbin of history.
He was answered in theory in the pages of The Socialist and socialistworld.net but more importantly through subsequent events with the outbreak of colossal mass movements of the working class and the poor. In 2013, the working class led by the miners, following the biggest strike wave in the world, challenged capitalism in South Africa, as did the Brazilian workers, and the Turkish and Egyptian masses, not to say the continuous waves of struggle, which have convulsed Europe. Greece alone has experienced 31 general strikes since 2009. Lest it be thought that this was just a phenomenon restricted to the more ‘developed’ countries and continents, Nigeria has also seen eight general strikes since 2000! Argentina is in social turmoil, once more, with a police strike in December, leading to “a spate of looting”. The country witnessed a big breakthrough in recent elections for an alliance of Trotskyists who received 1.4 million votes in the general election!
Then there is the political earthquake represented by the election in Seattle, for the first time in 100 years, of a socialist, Kshama Sawant, sympathetic to the CWI. This was, moreover, a reflection of the anger brewing in the US against capitalism that saw the radical democrat Bill de Blasio elected as Mayor of New York City, with 73% of the vote. In Lorain County, Ohio, 24 ‘Independent Labor’ candidates sponsored by the unions were elected. This undoubtedly betokens a movement towards a US radical third-party – with already two thirds in opinion polls favouring this – on a national scale at a certain stage
These and many other examples could be given to refute the corrosive and morale sapping idea that the working class is reconciling itself to the capitalist system, even while that system is rent apart by one of the most devastating economic crises, maybe the worst in its history. Yet even these facts have not prevented others, like the Financial Times, harping on Fukuyama’s theme, and jeeringly asking: “When did the Irish become so accepting of their lot?” “Irish” is taken here for the working class as a whole, not just in Ireland. The myth is fostered that working people have laid down while the juggernaut of capitalism rolls over them.
And the truth is there are some workers even within the labour movement who may be seduced by similar arguments. Firstly, the Irish people, and particularly the working class, have not docilely accepted their “lot”. Witness the mass non-payment campaign over the property tax, where 80% initially refused to pay, with the Socialist Party in Ireland playing a leading and prominent role. There was every prospect for success in the struggle but the Irish government, with the so-called Labour Party an important component– now a completely pro-capitalist force – helping to derail this mass movement by deducting the tax at source.
In this sense, the Irish government learnt from the anti-poll tax struggle in Britain, which beat Thatcher, but did not, in the main, confront similar action by local authorities and the government. Checked on this plane, the Irish working class will turn to forthcoming elections to punish those responsible – particularly the Labour Party – for this punitive measure.
“Europe in a pre-revolutionary situation”
It has increasingly borne in on even the ideologists of capitalism that this system is becoming more and more regressive: “The West is losing faith in its own future”, muses Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times (the ‘West’ being synonymous with capitalism).
He points out that a recent Pew poll, conducted in 39 countries, indicated that in America: “only 33%… believe their children would live better, while 62% said they would live worse.” Some other polls in the US have shown that this pessimism about the future is as high as 80%. Europeans were gloomier. Just 28% of Germans, 17 % of Brits, 14% of Italians and 9% of French thought their children would be better off than previous generations!
The objective basis for a change in society – from capitalism to socialism – is revealed in these statistics. Revolution is knocking at the door of history, even in the most advanced capitalist society, the US itself. Unlike in Europe and elsewhere, the baleful heritage of discredited social democracy and the so-called ‘Communist’ parties, with their history of betrayals, does not weigh down the US working class. They come to socialist ideas fresh.
Confirmation of the dire situation of capitalism has come from the most unlikely sources. The British populist demagogic – and largely right-wing – commentator, Nick Cohen, from the Observer newspaper, condemned the comedian Russell Brand, for calling for “revolution”. However Brand’s views proved to be enormously popular, particularly amongst young people, as revealed by the huge number of YouTube hits. But in the middle of his tirade against Russell Brand, Cohen admits, almost in passing: “Today’s crisis has left Europe in a pre-revolutionary situation”!
In order to carry through socialist change, the objective factors have to be in place. The world is, if anything, rotten-ripe for change. This is obvious in the economic sphere, in the growing political crisis of the capitalists and their parties, the drop in electoral participation, as well as the massive environmental crisis. The British Guardian newspaper pointed to 90 giant multinationals, some in the ‘public’ sector, who are guilty of most of the terrible damage and dangers to humanity posed by their pollution, leading to global warming, the melting of the ice caps, etc.
However, for socialist change - the greatest task posed in human history - the working class and its allies, the poor of the cities, as well as the poor farmers, must become fully aware in its majority of what is required. The overwhelming balance of class forces is in their favour. Over 70% of the world’s population is now concentrated in urban areas, giving the working class greater potential, a bigger specific gravity, than at any other time to effect change. Capitalism will not automatically disappear from the scene of history but will have to be helped to evacuate the stage, as even former right-wing Labour luminary George Brown said in the 1970s: “No privileged group disappears from the scene of history without a struggle, and usually that’s with no holds barred.”
Yet working class mass awareness of the realities of capitalism in crisis and what is to be done and what is the real alternative, has not yet matured fully. Consciousness has been shaped not just by events now but also by the period that has gone before. That period from 1990 to at least until the beginning of the economic crisis in 2007-08 was marked by the effects of the collapse of Stalinism.
Turning back of the wheel of history
This collapse led not just to the welcome destruction of the bureaucratic apparatus of Stalinism but unfortunately also of the planned economy. Albeit bureaucratically controlled, this had represented a point of reference for the working class internationally. It was a indication of what could be achieved through a planned economy, if it was organised on a different basis to Stalinism through democratic workers’ control and management.
Stalinism’s collapse represented a giant turning back of the wheel of history. Revolution, as Marx pointed out, is the locomotive of history. Counter-revolution, sometimes but not always reflected in a dictatorship, represents a giant brake. Twenty years ago was largely an ideological counter-revolution, in which the advantages of capitalism were extolled from thousands of platforms by the capitalists and their spokespersons. Fidel Castro even remarked that the disappearance of the ‘Soviet Union’ was as if “the sun had suddenly disappeared”. Socialism was relegated to the margins, Marxism likewise ‘discredited’.
In reality, the class struggle continued, as did socialism and Marxism. But the mass workers’ parties collapsed under the avalanche of pro-capitalist propaganda and moved to the right, as did the majority of trade union leaders.
Then, when the crisis of 2007-08 broke, the working class was, in the main, completely politically unprepared. One section of the working masses was stunned and hoped that the storm would soon pass. They remain in this ambivalent situation. Another section, once the full gravity of the crisis dawned on them, threw themselves into struggle, as witnessed by the colossal exertion of energy by the working class of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, etc., as they resisted the attempts to unload the cost of the crisis on their shoulders.
However, the outlook of the right-wing leaders of these parties and unions was and still is located in the past. They also hoped for a speedy return to these conditions, which would allow them to remain in the calm of the bay. In vain! Capitalism in crisis was compelled to attack the working class and all its historic gains, which in turn forced these leaders to try and put themselves at the head of mass movements, the better to derail them.
The consequence of this was that the capitalists, in general, won the first and even the second rounds of the struggle. However, a molecular change in the consciousness of working-class people has begun.
True, this is not yet at the level of consciousness that existed in the 1980s, when socialism was widely perceived as a real alternative. Nor is the working class, apart from a small advanced layer, fully aware of what is required in the present situation. For this, they need further experience through the formation of distinctive mass parties, accompanied by the strengthening of Marxism and a farsighted leadership.
This process began even before the onset of the current economic crisis, in which left parties have been created. However, the leaderships of these parties have been hesitant and not prepared to mobilise the working class in the struggle to defeat the brutal plans of the capitalists. For this to be carried through to a conclusion a fighting, socialist programme to confront rotten capitalism is necessary. Without this, setbacks and defeats are likely. Before the titanic events of Greece, Spain, Portugal and even Britain, of massive demonstrations and strikes, it may have been possible but incorrect to argue that working people would not struggle as they were savaged by capitalism. But nobody now can dispute the preparedness of working people to hurl themselves into the fight. Events have left their mark on the working class’s outlook, and particularly its advanced guiding layers.
Vicious anti-working class policies will provoke mass revolts
Undoubtedly, if capitalism continues on its present course, as it will, through the piling on of more and more vicious anti-working class policies, a mass revolt along the lines of Greece is posed on a European and even world scale. The Greek people are offered no respite whatsoever from brutal and savage cuts: “Endless austerity”, planned poverty for at least another five years, and in reality much longer than that!
George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, also wants to return public expenditure to the level of 1948, with his and the coalition’s programme of cuts. Therefore mass resistance, mass uprisings, even if the alleged leaders of the working class oppose them, could take place, threatening the very foundations of capitalism itself. Look at the wave of ‘pitchfork’ revolts that swept Italy before Christmas. This is by no means a clear left expression – Berlusconi attempted to co-opt this movement and some of its leaders made clearly reactionary statements – but it reflects the inchoate movement of opposition and despair at the blind alley of Italian capitalism. Its existence is also a clear criticism of the failure and incapacity of the union leaders to organise the working-class movement to resist the onslaught of Italian capitalism. Similar movements have developed elsewhere, with the left intervening, particularly through the forces around ControCorrente (the CWI section in Italy) in Genoa, which led a successful strike wave that prevented privatisation and gained some victories.
This indicates, once more, the crying need for new mass working-class formations to fill the vacuum that the capitulation of the leaders of the former workers’ organisations has left. Capitalism will always find a way out of its crises unless the working class leads a movement that gathers all the exploited and downtrodden layers of society behind it in the struggle for power. Because such a force does not exist now, it means that a protracted struggle will develop, with victories and defeats, but which will prepare the basis for the emergence of a real fighting parties and leadership.
This demand for a new mass workers’ party expresses itself on all continents. There is an almost universal mood that the old parties are discredited and ‘something new’, is needed. This was dramatically revealed recently in Chile, for instance, when only 42% turned out in the final round of presidential elections! Even in Britain, with a long democratic tradition, more and more workers are nevertheless declaring ‘none of the above’. In a recent poll, 41% of the British electorate indicate that they do not intend to vote in the general election. This is not because of any ‘anti-political’ mood or acquiescence to the status quo – on the contrary, a boiling anger exists – but none of the pro-capitalist major parties, including Labour, offer a real alternative. Only the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC – an alliance between the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the rail workers union RMT and others) provides a working class and socialist alternative. The TUSC will be standing across the board in the elections in May 2014.
This generalised mood was also dramatically revealed in South Africa at the stadium commemoration for Nelson Mandela. The South African president, Jacob Zuma, was roundly booed, which was witnessed on TV throughout the world. Significantly, South African television did not broadcast this expression of mass opposition to Zuma. A revolt is brewing against the open corruption of the rotten ANC government, symbolised by Zuma’s building of his palatial residence at the reputed cost of around £12 million!
The movement towards a new mass workers’ party is inexorable. The CWI comrades in South Africa have played a crucial role in laying the basis for the expression of a powerful movement in this direction through the formation of the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP). This, in turn, has helped push the metalworkers’ union (NUMSA) towards declaring themselves in favour of a new mass workers’ party based on the trade unions. But in politics, timing is of the essence: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” (From ‘Julius Caesar’ by William Shakespeare)
Peter Hain, the British Labour MP and formerly a steadfast supporter of the ANC, has warned in the British Sunday Telegraph: “The economy delivers for just 9% of the population…” [In reality, it is a much smaller proportion of the population that benefits] …” ANC rulers face a revolution of rising expectations and frustration.” It is absolutely vital that an electoral challenge should be made in this year’s election in South Africa. If the metal workers’ union NUMSA does not take the initiative to stand in 2014, WASP should stand in order to provide an alternative to the rotten, corrupt ANC.
Thailand recently has provided the most remarkable and bizarre expression of political confusion when a clear workers and socialist alternative has not been built. The present government, dominated by the Thaksin billionaire family, finds its base mostly in the rural areas. The opposition forces, on the other hand, are concentrated largely in the urban areas, and its leaders support the monarchy. Thai workers and peasants are therefore tied to the coat-tails of different sections of their exploiters, the capitalists and landlords. The opposition is fuelled by the poverty and rampant corruption which scars the country. Because they are in the minority they are opposing new elections which they calculate they will lose: “Demonstrators do not consent to allowing the dictatorial majority… To betray the people, to destroy the balance of democratic power.” [Financial Times]
The government bussed in thousands of its own supporters from its rural heartland to oppose the mass demonstrations in Bangkok. The deadlock looks as though it will only be broken by the seizure of power by the generals, in what they will present as a ‘soft coup’. A real party of the masses would find a different road by calling for elections to a revolutionary constituent assembly, alongside democratically elected committees, with elections and the right of recall in the towns and countryside. This could outline a programme linked to the day-to-day conditions of working people and the peasantry, proposing this to be implemented by a ‘workers and small farmers’ government’. This could break the deadlock and prepare a democratic and socialist future for the Thai people. There is a similar stand-off in Ukraine.
Organic crisis of capitalism
The idea of a new mass workers’ party is not ephemeral and will not disappear from the political map. It is fuelled by the organic crisis of capitalism and the failure of all those parties that are tied to a dying system. The hopes of capitalist economic experts that the world economy would be experiencing ‘escape velocity’ in 2013 have been dashed.
In April 2013, the International Monetary Fund portrayed the world moving at three speeds. The so-called ‘emerging markets’ – Brazil, China, India, etc. in the neo-colonial world – would experience growth, the US would continue to ‘recover’ from the crisis and only Europe would still be mired in the economic doldrums. Now, they have been forced to switch, recognising that growth has fallen in China, India and Brazil. Europe remains blighted. Growth in the ‘emerging markets’ has been fuelled through the speculative funds arising from ‘quantitative easing’ in Europe and America. The mere announcement that this will now be ‘tapered’ by the US Federal Reserve resulted in a massive outflow of finance from these countries, which in turn helped to lower their growth prospects.
Amongst the advanced industrial countries, only the US and Germany have ‘recovered’ from the 2007-08 crisis, in the sense that production has managed to nudge ahead of the level of output prior to the crisis. However, this recovery is largely a joyless and jobless one, even for the US and Germany, but particularly for the rest of the capitalist world.
Despite all the bluff and bluster of Osborne, the only recovery in Britain and elsewhere is in the pockets of the bosses themselves. They have stored up fabulous piles of wealth. Some of the capitalists themselves and their representatives, like Obama when speaking at Mandela’s commemorative meeting, and now also the Pope, increasingly denounce growing inequality, which is woven into the very fabric of capitalist society. It has reached extraordinary levels in the last decades.
Just how little the very poorest masses have escaped from the indignities and exploitation of class society has been illustrated by new research in relation to ‘modern slavery’. The Guardian revealed that “Kevin Bales, lead researcher on the global slavery index published last month by the Walk Free Foundation, has calculated that the price of a slave (on average $90, or £55) is at a historic low. Bales defines modern slavery as one person completely controlling another, using violence to maintain that control, to exploit them economically. Although slavery is illegal everywhere, Bales says 29.8 million people are trapped in slavery today – in debt bondage, slave labour, sex trafficking, forced labour, or domestic servitude.”. Astonishingly, this is even worse in crude figures than the original slave trade itself: “This compares with an estimated 12.5 million sent across the Atlantic to the Americas and the Caribbean.”
Even the Pope, like Obama, has been denounced by neo-liberal radio ‘shock jock’ Rush Limbaugh for allegedly embracing the economics of “pure Marxism”. The Pope retaliated by insisting that he was no Marxist but “there was the promise that once the glass had become full it would overflow and the poor would benefit. But what happens is that when it’s full to the brim the glass magically grows, and thus nothing ever comes out for the poor.”
In Japan, the banks have assembled reserves equal to almost 50% of gross domestic product but with no profitable outlet Japan continues to stagnate. The desperate attempt of the Japanese capitalists to extricate themselves from this through a big injection of ‘liquidity’ will not succeed because of the crisis in the rest of the world. Indeed, it has dawned on the capitalist economists that they face a drawn out period of, at the very best, ‘sluggish growth’. They fear that Japan’s experience of deflation will be repeated throughout the capitalist world.
Larry Summers, former US Treasury Secretary, has poured “gallons of icy water on any remaining optimists” by suggesting that capitalism faces a period of “secular stagnation”. A small growth in some countries and some regions of the world is possible, and even likely. But it will not be on the pattern of the past where broad based substantial growth provided the largesse for rising living standards. There is an attempt by the capitalists to reconcile the working class to a new ‘normal’ of stagnating and falling living standards, structural mass unemployment and poverty.
Marxists have always recognised that unless the working class and its organisations seize hold of the levers of power and begin to transform society in a socialist direction, capitalism, even from a position of severe crisis, can, in time, ultimately stage a recovery of kinds. Indeed, an economic recovery, even the limited one that has taken place in the US, can be favourable to the struggles of the working class. This was revealed in the strikes last year of the fast-food workers in the US, which could be repeated in 2014, on a bigger scale. The demands of $15 an hour has been championed by Kshama in the election campaign, and can be taken up by workers, including the unions, in the next year.
Can technology extricate capitalism from crisis?
Is it possible, therefore, for a new boom to take place which will allow capitalism to extricate itself from its present difficulties? Capitalist economists have begun to turn towards the idea of green technology as a means of extricating themselves from this crisis. The huge development of shale production in oil and gas could give the US self-sufficiency, at a certain stage. Therefore, this new economic strength of the US, allied to new green technology, could, they hope, provide the lever for a new economic renaissance. However, even if this develops fully, it is unlikely to provide the US with the power to become the economic locomotive for the world to find a way out for capitalism. As in the 1930s, the capitalists are incapable of fully harnessing this technology to provide a new economic boom.
Capitalism itself achieved the historical task of placing technique on a higher level than societies before. It therefore furnished the prerequisites for the full use of all of the planet’s resources. However, the capitalists are incapable of actually carrying through this urgent task to a conclusion. The productive forces – science, the organisation of labour and technique – have massively outgrown the narrow limits of the nation state. Wars in the past were an expression of the productive forces coming up against state borders. It is impossible in the modern era, with weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, for a war along the lines of the First and Second World Wars to take place because this could lead to the nuclear annihilation of humanity, as a whole. This is not to say that the nightmare of an ‘accidental’ nuclear exchange could not take place, for instance in the Middle East. An economic ‘war’ or devastating crises can fulfil the same tasks for capitalism, through the destruction of the productive forces. This, in turn, if it is not utilised by the working class to begin to change society, could destroy value, open up new fields of investment and a ‘new boom’.
However, this would mean that the capitalists had succeeded in inflicting the conditions of Greece, for instance, on the whole of Europe. It is inconceivable that the working class would not react to this ‘war’, as the Greek workers have demonstrated, with general strikes. In turn, mass resistance will lay the basis for the creation of new organisations; both parties and trade unions, to politically equip the working class for victory. Rotten capitalism is threatening to drag the whole of humanity into the abyss of barbarism.
The working class and the poor masses of the world will avoid this catastrophe only by realising its full power through struggles to fashion a new socialist world.
[A version of this article will be published in the first issue of The Socialist (weekly paper of Socialist Party – CWI England and Wales) in 2014]