Anti-capitalism: Socialists and ATTAC

The end of April protests against the FTAA summit in Quebec were the latest headline catching illustration of the growing popular challenge to neo-liberal policies and to "globalisation", i.e. the increasing domination of the big monopolies and larger imperialist states. Coming immediately after the international drugs companies’ forced retreat in South Africa, the mass demonstrations showed a growing confidence that the forces behind the capitalist globalisation are not an all powerful, invincible juggernaut which cannot be stopped.

This worldwide radicalisation, which is steadily taking on an increasingly consciously anti-capitalist character, marks an extremely significant change from the situation that prevailed during much of the 1990s. That decade, which began with the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, was marked by an ideological offensive against the ideas of socialism and a very sharp right turn by the leaders of the trade unions, labour, social democratic and communist parties throughout the world. A still present legacy of this is that many who are being radicalised today have a generally non-socialist outlook, not seeing socialism as the only viable alternative to capitalism.

The sheer brutality of the ruling classes’ offensive during the 1990s; the sharpening class divide in almost every single country; the huge increase in profits, particularly from speculation during the last boom; the widely perceived "unfairness" of capitalism; the growing evidence of the environmental damage being caused by the anarchy of capitalism and the ruthless drive for profits; and now, as recession beckons, the growing realisation that the "new economy" cannot provide either security or a future, have all combined to fuel this growing radicalisation.

In general this is mostly taking place amongst youth, especially student youth, but significantly in Seattle, Melbourne and Nice large sections of workers were also involved in the protests against the bosses’ neo-liberal offensive. Generally however the working class has not yet put its mark on the struggle. Events like last year’s popular revolt in Ecuador and the general strike in Nigeria against fuel price rises did not receive sufficient international attention to become recognised as setting examples of mass struggle.

Stalinism’s collapse, the decisive right shift of the traditional workers’ parties, and the weakness of Marxism all combined to firstly ease the way for the bosses’ attacks in the 1990s and secondly to produce the situation that, currently, socialism is not widely seen as immediately practical.

However Marxists always must ensure that they do not live in the past, simply repeating old formulae and thereby lagging behind events. The probable development of a worldwide economic recession in the coming period will finally puncture the idea that a "New Economy" has developed. The exact unfolding and character of the recession is still unclear, but it is plain to see that a traditional capitalist crisis of over-production/over-capacity has begun in the USA. The stark contrast between the continuing needs of the world’s population and the capitalists cutting back production will show again that the profit system cannot provide a secure future for humanity.

Already many of the illusions peddled in the 1990s have been holed beneath the waterline and are sinking. Increasing numbers of youth are starting to reject capitalism, often popularly seen as rule by the big corporations and speculators. In such a situation the search for an alternative to capitalism will inevitably reawaken interest in socialism. Indeed the tremors starting to shake the world economy, and the growing opposition, have already led to more people describing themselves as "socialists" or expressing an interest in socialism. This is why now the Marxists’ explanation that this is a capitalist crisis and also of our socialist alternative can reach a much wider audience.

The late 1990s saw a growing revival of militant anti-capitalist moods, especially amongst young people. The fact that "globalisation" was increasingly understood to stand for unlimited financial speculation and the monopolies’ arrogant and brazenly increased exploitation, alienated increasing layers of the population from their rulers. The hypocrisy of Clinton and Blair’s "Third Way" speeches compared with their actions added to this radicalisation. More recently the blatant rigging of the last US election has undermined the popular "legitimacy" of the Bush administration.

This new "anti-corporate" mood burst into the popular headlines and onto the international political arena after the November 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests. Especially significant was the fact that this particular mass protest was taking place within the world’s leading imperialist power, the USA. This was not accidental. Already before Seattle students in many US campuses were campaigning against sweatshop labour, targeting companies like Nike whose profits are entirely based upon using low wage sub-contractors. In the US, and in other countries, radical authors like the Canadian Naomi Klein, of "No Logo" fame, sell books in large numbers and attract big audiences, something also witnessed in the mass election rallies Nader was able to hold last year.

The subsequent protests in Melbourne and Nice, plus to a lesser extent Prague and Davos, showed that this opposition was not limited to the US. The shift in opinion has been developing for a number of years. Amsterdam in 1997 and Cologne in 1999 saw mass protests of workers and youth against the policies of the European Union (EU) leaders. In Britain there was the development of "Reclaim the Streets" and "anti-capitalist" protests over the past few years. In France there have been mass protests in support of the radical farmers leader José Bové when he faced trial for attacking the construction of a McDonalds restaurant.

However there is a significant difference between today’s first stirrings currently and the last worldwide radicalisation which started in the mid-1960s. Then socialism was almost automatically seen as the alterative. At that time the Marxists’ biggest debates were usually with supporters of both the then USSR and China leaderships, along with social democrats, over how to achieve socialism and what exactly it was. After the USSR’s collapse and the 1990s this is not so much the case now. Generally today Marxists have to start from a lower level; firstly arguing to convince workers and youth that a socialist democratically planned economy is the alternative to capitalism. But, on the other hand, a positive feature today is that generally there are no large organisations defending the Stalinist regimes in the USSR and China. The collapse of the Stalinist states means that we have to explain what happened to them, but also that we are not faced with widespread illusions in them.

ATTAC’s foundation and growth

In a number of European countries this radicalisation has also recently been reflected in the sudden growth of ATTAC (Association for a Taxation of financial Transactions and for Assistance to Citizens). In Stockholm 1,100 people filled a hall on January 6, with hundreds more outside, for the official launch of the Swedish branch of ATTAC. Over a 1,000 attended the February 24 first national meeting of ATTAC’s Danish section.

ATTAC was originally launched in France in June 1998 and the International Movement ATTAC was formed at an international meeting organised by the French group in December 1998. It has had rapid growth in France and, to a lesser extent, in a number of other countries. In France it now claims over 25,000 paid up members.

While ATTAC mainly has a middle class and student membership its activities, combative approach, stress on action, and international character have attracted many are looking for a way to strike back at the speculators, monopolies and pro-rich governments. While not each national ATTAC is the same, generally it involves a mixture of older people who already have been active in other spheres and a brand new generation of young activists. Often ATTAC activities attract much wider numbers than its membership. Many of those who participate in its protests are already anti-capitalist and potentially can be won to Socialism.

However running through ATTAC is a contradiction. On the one hand there is the radicalism of many of its criticisms of the world market along with the militancy and anti-capitalist feelings of many of its members. But, on the other hand, there are the limitations of its programme and the reluctance of most of its leadership to challenge capitalism.

This fault line also represents the fact that many of ATTAC’s leaders are quite well aware that they are not offering a socialist alternative. While one of its founders, Ignacio Ramonet, indirectly compared the "World Social Forum" held in Porto Alegre last January with previous worker’s Internationals when he wrote that the WSF was a "dissident International" (Le Monde diplomatique, January 2001), they back away from any direct attack on capitalism itself.

Significantly the former Algerian nationalist leader Ben Bella, when opening one of the WSF’s main sessions, called for a minute’s silence in memory of Che Guevara whose "light … illuminates our way still".. The US professor Peter Marcuse ended a speech by saying that "we need a global workers’ movement to take power globally". However most WSF organisers were not trying to rebuild the socialist movement. Reflecting the organisers attempt to be "broad" and to influence world leaders, the WSF was attended by two French government ministers and was partly financed by the German Greens, the party of the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

But these facts must not lead Marxists into the trap of simply denouncing this type of movement as non-socialist or non-working class that we will therefore have nothing to do with. Many opportunities to increase support for Marxism will be lost if we do not openly enter into a combination of dialogue and joint activity with the radicalised layers who, looking for an alternative, are attracted towards the activities of these movements. Marxists need to work alongside and with the best elements in and around movements like ATTAC and the WSF, co-operating on activities and while simultaneously openly discussing our ideas.

The growing interest of establishment politicians and even ministers in the WSF, ATTAC etc. also represent an attempt to hold back the movement’s radicalisation and keep it within "safe", i.e. capitalist, confines. It is clear that these elements want to be a "moderating" influence on the leadership, trying to keep the movements from starting to seriously challenge capitalism itself. At the same time this could produce a sharpening political polarisation within ATTAC. Making a call for ATTAC and similar movements to be independent from all capitalist or pro-capitalist governments and agencies will increasingly become important.

The spur which led to the creation of ATTAC was an article, "Disarming the markets", published in December 1997 in Le Monde diplomatique by Ignacio Ramonet, one of its co-editors, who along with another co-editor, Bernard Cassens, launched ATTAC.

In essence this article denounced "financial globalisation" as "a law unto itself" which causes "universal insecurity … makes a mockery of national boundaries and diminishes the power of states to uphold democracy and guarantee the wealth and prosperity of their peoples … The task of disarming this financial power must be given top priority if the law of the jungle is not to take over completely in the next century". Ramonet when on to attack the $1,500 billion traded every day on the world’s money markets saying that the "first victims of this quest for profit are of course the employees … How long can society continue to put up with this intolerable situation? The time has surely come to put a stop to these destructive movements of capital. There are three ways to tackle the problem: close down the ‘tax havens’, increase tax on unearned income, and levy a tax on financial transactions."

Tobin Tax

The huge growth in financial speculation and its completely parasitic nature has led to widespread support for action to stop, or at least curtail, it. In the event of a financial crash causing a severe economic crisis and/or wiping out any savings of the middle and working classes there will be widespread calls for action to be taken against the speculators and finance capital in general. Demands for taxation of speculators etc. have the same character as calls to "tax the rich" or "end corruption", demands Marxists support while explaining their limitations.

ATTAC’s idea for a special tax on financial dealings is often called a "Tobin tax", named after the US economist who proposed it in 1972. Ramonet writes "At 0.1%, the Tobin tax would bring in some $166 billion a year, twice the annual amount needed to abolish the worst poverty by the end of the century". By the way Ramonet was talking about the end of the twentieth century, i.e. by last year. While the idea of changing society simply through taxation is utopian, the figures that ATTAC give are extremely useful propaganda weapons when explaining that there are the resources already available to begin to significantly improve the lives of the 1.2 billion people who, according to the UN, currently live in "extreme poverty". The capitalists’ resistance to even such a modest level of taxation can be used to expose both their character and to skilfully argue for their expropriation. Ramonet’s figure was actually lower than Tobin’s original proposal of a tax of 0.25% on every international financial transaction, something that would theoretically produce around $300 billion a year.

Calls for a Tobin style tax have been getting a wider response. Political figures like the Indian Prime Minister P.M. Vajpayee have called for an "international levy on capital flows".. At the end of January the German and US trade union federations, the DGB and AFL-CIO, issued a joint statement calling for the "taxation of currency transactions". In Belgium the Christian trade unions, the largest federation in the Flemish area, have launched a petition in support of a Tobin tax. Given that now international currency trading has reached the level of over $1,700 billion a day, it is inevitable that there are growing calls for controlling this speculation.

Ramonet ended his December 1997 article by calling for the creation of "a new worldwide non-governmental organisation, Action for a Tobin Tax to Assist the Citizen (ATTAC)". Although the acronym remained the same, the actual name later chosen for the international movement was slightly wider than the French section.

ATTAC’s Platform

These themes were also in the ATTAC Platform adopted by its founding meeting in June 1998. It added, "Financial globalisation … is purely speculative and only expresses the interests of multinational corporations and financial markets.

"Against the background of a global transformation presented as inevitable, citizens and their representatives find themselves fighting to maintain the power to determine their destiny. This weakening and impotence nourishes the growth of anti-democratic political parties. It is urgent that this process should be halted by creating new regulatory and monitoring instruments, nationally, in Europe, and internationally. Experience shows that governments will not do this unless we encourage them. To face up to the dual challenge of a social implosion and political despair, it is necessary for citizens to take militant action"

ATTAC acts "with a view to preventing international speculation, taxing capital revenue, punishing fiscal paradises, stopping the extension of pension funds and, more generally, recapturing the spaces of democracy lost to the financial sphere and to oppose any new abandonment of the sovereignty of states on the pretext of ensuring the ‘right’ of investors and merchants. It is simply a question of taking back, together, the future of our world."

The December 1998 Platform of the International Movement ATTAC, developed further some of these ideas. Criticising the World Trade Organisation and other free trade plans it declared:

"There is still time to put the brakes on most of these machines for creating inequalities between North and South as well as in the heart of the developed countries themselves.

"Even at the particularly low rate of 0.1%, the Tobin Tax would bring in close to $100 billion every year. Collected for the most part by industrialized countries, where the principal financial markets are located, this money could be used to help struggle against inequalities, to promote education and public health in poor countries, and for food security and sustainable development. Such a measure fits with a clearly anti-speculative perspective. It would sustain a logic of resistance, restore maneuvering room to citizens and national governments, and, most of all, would mean that political, rather than financial considerations are returning to the fore.

"To this end, signatories propose to participate or to cooperate with the international movement ATTAC to debate, produce and disseminate information, and act together, in their respective countries as well as on the continental and international levels."

These documents sum up ATTAC’s present political characteristics of sharp critiques against finance capital and neo-liberal policies, opposition to the demands for "open markets" and a commitment to direct action from below (what ATTAC calls "militant action"), combined with reform proposals that do not challenge capitalism itself.

Of course in a movement like ATTAC there is no single unified "line". This is precisely why it is so important for the CWI to seek those in ATTAC and in the wider anti-globalisation movement who are most opposed to neo-liberalism and capitalism, looking to building a fighting alternative and open to Marxist ideas.

Marxism, Free Trade and Sovereignty

While participating in struggles and opening up a dialogue with those in and around ATTAC Marxists obviously start from where there is agreement. Some activists will already agree that the capitalist system is the enemy; others may be on the level of simply opposing the World Trade Organisation (WTO), neo-liberalism etc.

In discussion with those activists who do not yet totally reject capitalism Marxists would explain that "financial globalisation" is not separate from capitalism as a whole. One of capitalism’s main characteristics is the continuous struggle between rival capitalists, whether it is between competitors or different groupings like finance and industrial capital. Finance capital can and does come into collision with industrial capital, but this does not mean that we would side with the "good, productive" capitalists against the "speculators". The working class can exploit divisions within the ruling class, but the recent neo-liberalist offensive did not simply spring from finance capital, it represented a counter-attack by the capitalists as a whole against the gains won by the working class in previous struggles.

ATTAC, along with many other organisations, has shown how organisations like the WTO and European Union (EU) are breaking down barriers to extend privatisation and to allow the imperialist powers to increase their exploitation of the neo-colonial world. But, as the statements quoted above show, ATTAC does this in the form of defending "sovereignty of states", a policy which goes alongside some of its leaders’ arguments for protectionism (e.g. an article by ATTAC co-founder Bernard Cassens "Let us invent an altruistic protectionism, against the proliferation of world trade", Le Monde diplomatique, February 2000).

Clearly in the neo-colonial world Marxists start from a firmly anti-imperialist footing, opposing foreign domination of the economy, the imperialists’ demands to "open up the economy" and what is, effectively in many countries, an economic re-colonisation. But simultaneously we would have to openly explain that partial tariffs, import controls etc really do not benefit the working population and rural poor in the long run. These types of partial measures do not, at the end of the day, break the country free from imperialist domination or provide a road to development. Usually they become a means for allowing the local capitalists to make extra profits, either by charging higher prices and/or corruption around the allocation of import licences.

This would not mean that in neo-colonial countries we would be neutral against, for example, WTO demands for the opening up of the economy or International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands for "Structural Adjustment Programme" (SAP) type austerity measures. We would oppose such demands, but not limit ourselves to the status quo. We would continue to strive to build a socialist movement arguing for a state monopoly of foreign trade, as part of a democratically planned economy, to start to develop the country in the interests of the working class and rural poor. Of course the question of democratic control and the struggle against corruption would also be very important, otherwise a state monopoly of foreign trade might be criticised as simply another means for officials and politicians to take bribes etc.

But in a major imperialist country like France to raise the idea of defending the "sovereignty of states" opens the way to siding with national capitalists against foreign ones, as well as opening the door to nationalism. While nationalism within a neo-colonial country or an oppressed nation can have more progressive elements, in imperialist nations the reactionary elements far outweigh any positive features such as popular opposition to foreign control. Of course there is no suggestion of ATTAC being a reactionary nationalist organisation; on the contrary it stands decisively against the increased exploitation of the neo-colonial world. But, in the long run, this sort of idea, based on defending each capitalist nation, can in fact run counter to the aim of building an international movement of all the exploited.

Working class opposition to the "‘rights’ of investors and merchants" cannot be simply on the basis of "national sovereignty". While always opposing imperialist exploitation of countries we try to explain a socialist alternative, based upon struggle to overthrow capitalism, both nationally and internationally. In this struggle, especially in still largely peasant neo-colonial countries, the working class needs to lead a national movement to break with landlordism and capitalism, not simply to defend "national sovereignty". Furthermore the whole history of the former Soviet Union shows that, unless this struggle ultimately leads to the socialist transformation of the advanced capitalist countries, imperialism’s control of the world economy will eventually strangle any attempt to build socialism in one country.

The method of approach in the formal ATTAC documents reflects the position of some of its founders. They are against the "excesses of capitalism" and, by implication, appear to look back to some mythical period when "citizens" held power. The very use of the term citizens, while having a certain historical echo within France itself due to the traditions of the French Revolution of 1789, ignores the question of class. The ATTAC leaders, while sometimes appearing anti-capitalist, strive to avoid using the term, presumably out of fear that ATTAC could develop into a socialist movement.

The vagueness of the ATTAC leaders is also repeatedly seen in the 1998 Platform of the French ATTAC. Both this and the International Platform end with the call that "It is simply a question of taking back, together, the future of our world." Certainly the working people of the world should take the future of the world into their hands. But this would not be a question of "taking back", because they have never controlled their future. Since the development of class society control has always been in the hands of the different ruling classes and elites and now, for nearly two hundred years, the capitalist world economy.

How to Present Socialist ideas

When participating in ATTAC Marxists will build upon what is positive in its programme. In the above case, for example, by posing the question of how can working people take control of their future into their hands? Then we could explain what could be achieved, once the grip of capitalism has been broken, on the basis of a socialist planned economy. In this way, the irreplaceable collective role of the working class, both in leading the opposition to global capitalism and in creating a new, socialist, society, can be explained in a living way to a new generation of fighters.

An important aspect of this explanation is that CWI members will give examples of the role of our international organisation that has been involved in, and has often led, workers’ and youth struggles in all areas of the world, the neo-colonial and ex-Stalinist states along with the advanced capitalist countries.

While other left formations are also turning towards ATTAC and similar movements, they are often doing so in an opportunist fashion and also without arguing the need for a fighting socialist international.

An illustration of this is the British Socialist Workers Party, which leads the semi-public International Socialist Tendency of similar groupings in some countries. This grouping has for years used a "maximum and minimum" approach to political work. Sometimes they shout for "revolution", but more often limit themselves to slogans like "tax the rich" and general calls to "fight-back". Effectively this means not attempting to seriously explain to the widest possible numbers the link between today’s struggles and the need for socialism.

In a SWP pamphlet, "The IMF, globalisation and resistance" published last September; there is a mass of good anti-capitalist facts and figures, but not a single hint of what is the alternative to capitalism. In this pamphlet there is absolutely no mention whatsoever of any kind of socialist alternative. Anyone looking for a programme that goes beyond simply calls for "protests" or appeals to "take on the IMF" would find nothing at all. In reality this type of approach is an attempt to curry favour with the newest activists by downplaying political differences. The SWP may hope that by this tactic they can easily win initial support and then later recruit by revealing that they are "revolutionaries". But in fact this is the political reason for the SWP’s failure, despite being in existence for over 50 years, to have ever led a serious working class struggle and the large-scale turnover in its membership.

This type of manoeuvre not only angers genuine activists, it also does not in any way help to develop the general political understanding of the whole movement. Marxists start off from the immediate issues, fighting to win struggles but also seeking to generalise these experiences into support for a socialist alternative. It is not sectarian for Marxists to argue for their views while participating in a broader movement. As Marx and Engels wrote long ago in the "Communist Manifesto" we "fight for the attainment of the immediate aims of the working class; but in the movement of the present, (we) also represent and take care of the future of the movement".

2001’s agenda

One of the most positive aspects of this new radicalisation is the desire for action. Big sections of the young people attracted to these movements are looking for something to do, for concrete action. Clearly this is a reason for the large turnouts at the protests over the past few years.

The CWI is already mobilising for the anti-EU summit demonstrations this year in Gothenburg and Belgium, plus the Genoa anti-G8 summit protests in July, particularly to link the protests with the immediate issues facing working people in the vicinity. Simultaneously with campaigning to maximise the turnout, and arguing for protest strikes as well, we will strive to explain our socialist policies, including the idea that the real alternative to the bosses’ EU is a Socialist Europe.

This is not an abstract issue. The majority of the leaders of the European workers’ movement support the EU and, along with some formerly on the left, simply argue for its democratisation. But the EU is not like a nation state, it can only function in so far as its member states are prepared to allow it powers. A crisis in the EU, or the Euro currency, would immediately expose the national divisions and rivalries that, ultimately, limit how far capitalist Europe can be integrated. A genuine, voluntary unification of Europe could only come about on the basis of the working peoples of Europe collectively striving to create a Socialist Europe.

The EU is also important issue within ATTAC. While ATTAC attacks the EU Commission as having "systematically pursued an offensive against public services and for privatisation", it avoids taking positions on either the euro currency or the EU itself. This implicit support for the EU, possibly in the totally mistaken view that it is a step towards a united Europe, will become a crucial issue in Europe when the EU and the Euro currency enters into a severe crisis. Unless there is a socialist alternative put forward, opposition to the EU would be left in the hands of the right wing, nationalist forces.

While ATTAC is not a mass working class organisation, in a number of countries its mobilisation of a new layer of activists is a significant development. There is the possibly that these new activists can, alongside militant layers of the working class, can play a wider role in the rebuilding of the socialist movement.

ATTAC played a very important role in the mobilisation for last December’s protests in Nice during the EU summit. It also can play a role locally. During the TCAR bus drivers strike in Rouen, France, at the end of 2000 the local ATTAC branch came to the strikers’ demonstrations because they regarded the workers struggle against the new owners of the privatised service as part of the struggle against "globalisation".

The strength of ATTAC clearly varies from country to country. In some countries it has really grown, but for how long it is difficult to say. But clearly ATTAC, and other similar movements, is attracting to its events youth who want to be active in the fight against neo-liberalism and finance capital.

Many may combine militancy with idealism. It is these active layers that the CWI wants to win to Marxist ideas and show how, in the CWI, we can help build a socialist movement which can defeat the big corporations and the ruling classes, and open the way to implementing their ideals in a socialist world.

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September 2001