Arab revolutions, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Brazil…lessons from history and today’s struggles
Last week, up to 400 people attended the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) annual Summer School in Belgium, from all around Europe, including Russia. There were visitors from Kazakhstan, Brazil, the US, Canada, Quebec, Australia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Lebanon, Malaysia and elsewhere. Cillian Gillespie reports on a rally at the School.
‘The role of the working class in the revolution in the neo-colonial world’ was the topic of the rally on the second last night of the CWI European Summer School. Along with Peter Taaffe from the International Secretariat of the CWI, comrades heard speakers from Sri Lanka, Brazil and Tunisia speak on the key lessons from the struggle against capitalism and imperialism in the neo- colonial world. The working class has a key leading role to play in this struggle by allying itself and leading the other oppressed sections of society in the struggle for a truly democratic and socialist society.
Revolution in Tunisia
A short film opened the rally and Clare Doyle from the International Secretariat introduced the speakers. Comrade Gaz from the CWI in Tunisia was first. He talked about the nature and the development of the revolution in Tunisia. Like many neo-colonial countries, capitalism was imposed from the top through a collaboration of imperialism and the monarchy, illustrating the weakness of Tunisian capitalism. However despite colonialism there was industrialisation and it was “the progressive working class block” that would play the key role in the struggle against French imperialism.
Tunisia was the first country in the Muslim and Arab world to have a trade union movement. While the Tunisian anti-colonial movement played the key role in the struggle against imperialism, it refused to take the side of the Nazis during the Second World War, unlike some other nationalist movements in the Arab world. It was the working class, through its trade union organisations, that was to also play the key role in championing the rights of women. For example, women were to receive the right to vote in 1943 because of the struggles of the organised workers’ movement. Despite the attempt of the Tunisian ruling class to portray otherwise, all the gains made by women in Tunisia were made by the working class, they were the architects of the trade union and women’s movement in Tunisia.
In the 1980s, the workers’ movement acted like a wall of resistance against neo-liberal policies of the International Monetary Fund. This is why imperialism was to support the Ben Ali dictatorship. The working class was to get revenge through the overthrow of this regime in January 2011. Today the working class is getting organised. A more militant layer of activists are coming into the leadership of the trade unions. They are also beginning to resist the lack of real democracy in Tunisia. Local mayors are being imposed by the government in a top down manner rather than being elected.
If a general strike were to take place this would be enormously significant in a country like Tunisia given how general strikes were bloodily repressed in the past. A general strike would have to be linked in with the creation of defence committees to defend the workers’ movement. Unfortunately the far left mainly orientated towards the bourgeois institutions. The defence committees were the key arena of work to develop real debate amongst the working class.
Gaz pointed out that there was an organic link between these committees and the aim of creating a workers’ government in Tunisia. He finished by saluting the role played by the Tunisian working class in its courageous struggle against imperialism and capitalism in the region.
Brazil – boom creates inequality and struggle
Comrade Isabel opened her contribution by pointing to the real gains made by workers in Brazil during the recent economic boom. For the first time, the poorest section of Brazil could buy computers and people generally saw a real rise in their living standards. Unlike in Greece and Spain, workers could not say that they were worse off than their parents. Yet this was only one side of the story of Brazil’s “economic miracle”.
Isabel explained how this boom had come into existence. There has been a massive export boom of commodities to China and cheap credit had helped fuel a consumption growth economy. However these policies have proved to be fundamentally reckless. During these years, there had been a fundamental undermining of Brazil’s industrial base because of cheap imports from China. The commodities boom had, in reality, reinforced its traditional neo-colonial status. Many families had gone into massive debt because of the cheap availability of credit.
Brazil was the sixth largest economy in the world but the 12th most unequal. It was a country where the modern and backward were present in the process of capitalist accumulation and it was the working class who paid the price for this. The boom was to fundamentally heighten this contradiction.
This was shown by the recent development of infrastructure projects where you had a process of “Chinafication” as for as workers’ rights and conditions were concerned. With major construction projects taking place in the run up to the Olympics and World Cup, homeless people were being affected by removals. These conditions have resulted in a whole series of struggles breaking out throughout the country.
In the Amazon, public sector workers went on strike. Currently 95% of Federal Universities are on strike reflecting the precarious situation that workers and students are faced with. Isabel reported on how, for example, students were forced to have their lectures in church halls. In one campus the ceiling in one building fell in. Throughout Brazil there have been demonstrations and occupations amongst public transport, construction and office workers.
There was now a real challenge to overcome the fragmentation of these struggles. This is why the CWI is participating within CONLUTAS, the radical trade union federation and PSOL (the Party of Socialism and Liberty). The latter is a broad based left party inside which different political tendencies are organised. Like many new left formations its future is very much open. Some of the tendencies are politically moving to the right while others are moving to the left.
The CWI has remained consistent in defending the socialist programme that PSOL was initially founded on. In the upcoming elections the CWI comrades will be standing for the position of mayor in one city and for councillor positions.
Comrade Waruna from the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) spoke about the struggle against the rotten and backward capitalism that exists in Sri Lanka. The FSP emerged as a split from the JVP.
Waruna explained how Sri Lanka was ruled by the dictatorial and corrupt Rajapakse regime. He said that he had listened to the CWI comrades at the school over the last few days talking about the implementation of austerity in their respective countries. Yet for the last fifty years Sri Lanka has suffered from consistent austerity because of the domination of imperialism over the country.
The attitude of the capitalist class to this crisis internationally could be summed up, Waruna said; in the words of Chairman Mao “Everything under the sky has collapsed but what a nice day!” They are in reality ignoring the severity of the crisis of their system. Today capitalism is in crisis from Sri Lanka to Europe.
He explained that Sri Lanka has a tradition of fighting back. It had a mass Trotskyist party in the country but unfortunately it was to become a reformist organisation. Partly as a result of this the JVP emerged. Today a new generation was beginning to fight against capitalism in the North and South of Sri Lanka. In the next two decades revolution will emerge.
A world in crisis
Peter Taaffe, Secretary of the Socialist Party (England and Wales) and member of the International Secretariat of the CWI opened his contribution by saying that one of the key themes of the School was that we were living through the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Recently the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, had stated that this had been the worst crisis ever and that we were only half way through it.
Another key theme was the unparalleled movement of the working class in North Africa and the Arab world and in countries such as Greece. The potential power that the working class possesses had not always been recognised even by other Trotskyist and Marxist forces outside of the CWI. This was particularly the case in the period following the Second World War when there had a period of unprecedented boom and the revolt of the “colonial slaves” of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Many of these movements, such as those in Algeria, China, Cuba and Vietnam, were not classical movements of the working class such as that which took place in the Russian Revolution. Rather they were based on the methods of guerrilla warfare and on the rural peasantry. The exception was in Sri Lanka where the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) played a key role in the struggle against imperialism and was a mass Trotskyist party. Peter recounted that it was common in the ‘70s to see 10,000 workers in red shirts marching behind the LSSP banner. Unfortunately, at this stage, it was already compromised by ‘coalitionism’ which, in turn, allowed the JVP to emerge as a rural party of revolt.
The rally was also a celebration of the 50th of the Victory of the FLN (the National Liberation Front) in Algeria against French imperialism. This was a war that was to result in the deaths of 1.5 million civilians. The struggle for national liberation had lasted from 1954 to 1962 and had seen the victory of 40,000 guerrilla fighters against 600,000 French soldiers. Algerians living in France were to show enormous self sacrifice in support of the independence struggle, many sent 50% of their income to finance the struggle for national liberation.
Despite understanding it to be a bourgeois nationalist movement, the FLN was supported by the forerunners of the CWI who believed that a victory of their struggle would weaken French imperialism. This support was not just verbal but had a practical dimension to it as well. Comrades who were engineers by profession went to Algeria to assist the struggle by for example trying to cut the wires around its border with Morocco.
This support contrasted with the role of the forerunners of some “Trotskyists” who refused to support the FLN and instead supported the Algerian National Movement (MNA) that was led by Messali Hadj. Although he had played an important role in the past by this stage he had become a stooge of French imperialism.
The Algerian Revolution had an enormous affect within France leading to the revolt of officers within Algiers (the capital of Algeria) in 1961. Prior to this, De Gaulle had come to power in 1958 and established a form of parliamentary Bonapartism, while the leadership of the French working class in the Socialist Party and Communist Party did nothing.
USFI and the French Revolution
After the victory of guerrilla movements in countries such as Algeria, ideas began to develop that the peasantry rather that the working class would play the key role in the world revolution. This viewpoint was one articulated by the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) in particular and its leading theoretician, the late Ernest Mandel.
In early 1968 Mandel addressed a public meeting organised by supporters of the USFI in London. In his speech Mandel said that the working class in Europe would not move into action for at least 20 years because of the strength of the dollar and the world economic boom. These remarks were made one month before the revolutionary events of May 1968 exploded in France!
This saw the largest general strike in history involving 10 million workers in occupations and the setting up of action committees. All the conditions for revolution were in existence; De Gaulle was powerless. The working class could easily have taken power had it not been for the rotten role played by the Communist Party leaders in derailing the revolution.
Peter said the movements in France, the revolutionary events in Italy in the following years developed when the post-war boom had not exhausted itself. They were nevertheless earthquakes – “a revolution of rising expectations”. Capitalism is in a completely different situation now, where people have seen a consistent onslaught on their conditions through neo-liberal policies.
It was because of the deterioration in the living standards of the masses that the CWI was able to predict the Egyptian Revolution. The Arab revolutions have had an enormous effect on the world situation, for example they were to inspire the movement of workers and young people in Wisconsin. The revolutions in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt were not dead, the masses were “digesting” the key lessons from the initial revolutionary upheaval.
The ‘soft coup’ taking place in Egypt is putting the Muslim Brotherhood to the test. There now need to be new organisations of the working class built throughout the Arab World. In Egypt such organisations could fight for a revolutionary constituent assembly based on democratically elected committees of the masses.
One of the key lessons of the Cuban Revolution was the need for the working class to have control over its own state. Bureaucratism was inevitable unless the state machine was checked and controlled by the working class.
Peter concluded his remarks by pointing out that we are going into the era of socialist revolution. The victory of the working class in one country would resonate throughout the planet. The CWI needs to prepare for this by building a mass revolutionary international.
The rally ended with a rousing, multi-lingual rendition of the revolutionary anthem – the Internationale.