There has been a profound change in the world situation and world relations since the CWI’s last World Congress in 2010
The following is an edited version of a draft document on world perspectives, , that will be discussed at the January 2016 World Congress of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). The meeting will be attended by comrades from 35 countries, from all continents. This document does not fully cover developments in Africa or Latin America, which will be dealt with in separate documents. The amended version of this document will be published on socialistworld.net, later in the new year.
There has been a profound change in the world situation and world relations since the last Congress. This has been reflected in the continuing economic crisis, the ratcheting up of tensions between the major world powers, clashes and wars as well as intense politicisation on a world scale. The eruption of the student movement in South Africa and the defeat of the military in Myanmar are reflections of this.
The period has been marked by a significant development of the class struggle, particularly in Europe, shown markedly in the heroic and tenacious struggles of the Greek workers – with nearly 40 general strikes since the beginning of 2010 – followed by the workers of Spain, Portugal and an echo of this in important countries of Northern Europe, with strikes in Germany, Finland and elsewhere. Eastern Europe saw the overthrow of the Romanian government and many other important events.
It has not been a quiescent period; on the contrary, it has been marked by rapid changes and abrupt turns in the situation. In Greece alone in just 2015 we saw the historic election victory of Syriza at the beginning of the year. This was followed by the splendid rejection of austerity in the July referendum, with 61% voting ‘No’, and then the capitulation of the Greek government followed by the plans of the troika for the introduction of planned and seemingly endless poverty for the Greek masses. The right-wing German magazine ‘Stern’ boasted about Greek workers being “crushed”.
The gross betrayal of Tsipras is comparable to the 1914 sell-out by the social democratic leaders of the time, which led to the slaughter of millions in the First World War. In the ongoing class war of the employers against all the hard-won gains of the Greek workers, Tsipras opted to stand on the side of the Greek and international capitalists. Millions of workers are being educated in the brutal school of the class struggle, underlining the absolute incapacity of all varieties of reformism to arm the working class to resist the onslaught of capitalism and create the basis of a new socialist society.
Similar movements, although not yet on the scale of Greece, have taken place in Spain and Portugal, with the recent election of a ‘left’ government in the latter, supported from the outside by the Left Bloc and the Communist Party. Italy is likely to enter a similar cycle of struggle in the next period with the re-awakening of the working class, the renewal of the trade unions and the rediscovery of the revolutionary traditions of the Italian workers.
The working classes on a European level are beginning to stir. The German political situation is undergoing a big change with the economy facing multiple problems: the effects of the slowdown in China have already been felt, the refugee issue has led to the far right flexing its muscles and that, in turn, has provoked the growth of the antifascist movement in which our organisation has successfully intervened.
Scandinavia has also been affected, which in fact has been at the forefront in Europe of introducing vicious neoliberal measures, privatisation of schools, attacks on living standards, undermining of past gains, etc. It has begun to approach in some respects the same kind of deteriorating social conditions as Britain, a product of the collapse of the Swedish and Scandinavian model.
At the same time, we have seen a growth in the far right throughout Scandinavia as the number of refugees has swelled, which is the highest influx into Sweden since the Second World War. Following this was a wave of far-right violence, including arson attempts on three buildings occupied by members of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (RS), the Swedish section of the CWI in Gothenburg. The party is a well-known and significant organisation of the left in the city, participating in many local campaigns on housing, against cuts, prominent participants in antiracism work as well as support for the Kurdish struggle.
In Britain, the unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party signifies that it has entered a period of political convulsions. He recorded the highest leadership vote of any British party leader in history, much higher than Blair. However, this was a spectacular manifestation of the law of unintended consequences. A measure eagerly approved by the right of the party, aimed at further undermining the collective voice of the unions and the left, voting by email in the contest for the same price as a pint of beer, worked spectacularly in his favour.
His election was only possible because of the already huge anti-austerity mood and, with it, the rejection of right-wing social democracy, which had been evident in Britain for at least 20 years. This remained untapped by the refusal of the trade union leaders to break and form a new mass party. The forces around Corbyn represent a new party in the process of formation.
However, it is not certain that he will be able to consolidate this victory – which is only possible by boldly appealing to the forces inside but mostly outside the Labour Party. They are predominantly young and fired up to defeat the right. But Corbyn – although genuine in his desire to change the Labour Party towards the left – manifests the features of reformism shown in other countries: wishful thinking and a refusal to boldly organise and mobilise his base to crush the right. His indecisiveness irritates the bourgeois and, at the same time, disappoints the politically advanced workers.
A state of open civil war exists. The right don’t even pretend to hide their intentions of replacing Corbyn and the ranks ferociously resist this. Instead of preparing for this inevitable conflict, the forces around Corbyn wish to conciliate the right and have a completely electoral perspective. However, the key issue in Britain now is how to defeat the cuts and particularly the massive round of £20 billion which the Cameron/Osborne government has introduced. This, by the way, is the same as the sum which the government used to bail out just one collapsed bank, Lloyd’s/HBoS.
This is a new chapter for the organisation in England and Wales because it has broken the political logjam, has stirred up issues which were not widely discussed before and pushed into the background, and provides a favourable opportunity for Marxism to explain its programme and to win new forces.
Some of the sects have sought to capitalise on the situation by attacking us for our alleged ‘mistakes’, which the CWI was supposed to have made on the Labour Party issue at the time of the split in 1991. But we have produced material tracing out the evolution of our ideas. We made the point in 2002 that if the trade union leaders did not move to create a new mass party, it could not be excluded that a new party could originate within or around the Labour Party and we would be prepared to orientate towards this, which we have done successfully.
The world economy has demonstrably failed to fully recover from the devastating effects of the 2007-08 crisis. Stagnation, while not quite on the scale of the 1930s, has lasted longer with little prospect of immediate, dramatic improvement. Indeed, the ‘next recession’ looms on the horizon, indicated by the stock exchange collapse in China in July representing the heat lightning flashes of the coming economic storm.
Europe has not solved its accumulated problems, just inching ahead economically with meagre 0.3% eurozone growth in the third quarter of 2015. The ‘recovery’ in the US, while quite impressive on the surface – particularly with recent improvements in employment – has not solved but deepened the problems inherited from the crisis.
A big class polarisation has developed throughout the US symbolised by the splendid victory in Seattle of Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative, political sympathisers of the CWI. This in turn has played a decisive role in laying the basis for the nationwide Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
His anti-corporate, anti-big business message has found a wide resonance with workers, reaching significant sections of the trade unions but also increasingly impoverished alienated sections of young people and the middle class.
Our task in the US is to further sharpen and develop the class features evident in this campaign to the point where significant sections of his supporters, when Sanders loses the Democratic Party nomination, can draw the conclusion that it is necessary to break and prepare the ground for a new mass radical left party.
If such an initiative is undertaken it will find a big echo and moreover develop at American speed to become a major force in what is still the world’s strongest capitalist power. Although having less than 5% of the world’s population, the US still accounts for 22% of the global economy. But the stored up discontent fuelled by stagnating incomes can provide opportunities for the forces of Marxism, gathered around Socialist Alternative, to grow spectacularly in numbers and influence. This in turn can attract significant forces elsewhere, particularly in Central and South America, not forgetting Canada which has entered a new and potentially radical phase with the election of the Liberal Party, in words at least ‘anti-austerity’.
In the post-crisis period, China played a crucial role as a kind of ‘mini-Atlas’, propping up the battered world economy. Its economic effects were felt everywhere but this was particularly the case for the countries of the neo-colonial world, which experienced a so-called commodities ‘super cycle’, their products feeding the voracious turbocharged appetite of Chinese industry.
This in turn was reflected in the astonishing overall growth in China’s economy by 78% since 2007 while the US could only manage 8% in the same period. The comparison with the performance of British capitalism is even more dismal. In 2005, the British economy was just about larger than China. Now, China is three times bigger than ailing British capitalism!
The maintenance of a significant state sector allowed the Chinese elite – a ‘state capitalist regime with unique features’, combined with its economic size and weight – to directly intervene on an unprecedented scale.
Of course, this has been at the cost of an enormous, unsustainable debt pile which has helped to transform China from ‘rescuer’ of world capitalism to a huge threat. The neo-colonial world, dubbed the ‘emerging markets’ and the great hope for world capitalism, has become the ‘submerging’ market. They have experienced massive upheavals as a direct effect of China’s economic travails, which combined with the slashing of oil prices has severely affected whole continents and many sizeable countries: Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa and Angola.
Ghana only discovered oil in 2007 and began pumping it in 2010 .It was expecting, as a result, bumper government revenue and consequently gave big concessions with increased salaries to civil servants, subsidies, etc. Now with oil prices falling on average by 40% in the past year (and it could go much lower to $20 a barrel) there are many commodity producers in Africa and elsewhere plunged into severe ‘belt tightening’, largely for the masses not the elite.
In Nigeria, a combination of falling oil prices and corruption has led to large numbers of public sector workers and pensioners not being paid. The new Buhari government is hesitating before implementing austerity measures out of fear of provoking the working class and poor; the last attempt to raise fuel prices in January 2012 failed in the face of the biggest mass protest and general strike Nigeria has ever seen.
Together with the drop in oil prices, one of the consequences of the world economic slowdown, particularly in China, is the political fallout in Asia. The fate of many of the countries in the region is linked to China with the prospect for them now of economic stagnation and the political convulsions that will develop in its wake. This in turn has big political implications and opportunities for our sections in Australia – which has seen a 27 year boom, come to a juddering halt – and Malaysia, already mired in government corruption scandals and now faced with a new round of struggle.
The Modi government in India, which was supposed to be firmly ensconced in power for the foreseeable future – although we rightly pointed out in the general election it only received 25% of the popular vote – has been shaken by severe electoral setbacks recently, such as in Bihar.
Despite the much-remarked on economic growth, India remains home to most of the world’s most poverty-stricken people. Over 80% of the population is classified as being on a low income or poor. It is increasingly clear to growing numbers of workers and poor people that the Modi government represents the interests of the big corporations and super-rich.
The recent government attempt to ‘reform’ the labour and land laws are met with vehement opposition. Discontent against the Modi government is growing, particularly among the city workers. This was revealed in the massive participation of 150 million workers in the general strike this year, which exceeded the expectation of the organisers. This strike and numerous other struggles that are taking place across the country have shown the mood for struggle that exists. The development of a generalised struggle against the capitalists and landlords is only held back by the lack of leadership and mass organisations that can articulate and act on the desire for struggle.
No clear perspective and programme for mobilising a mass movement is put forward by the so-called Marxist parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the party-aligned trade union leaders. Abrupt revolts in the rural areas should be linked up with the discontent emerging among workers in the cities. Such events will open up opportunities for the ideas of the CWI to grow rapidly among militant workers.
The competition for influence between the West and China in the South Asian region is sharpening. This is reflected partly in Sri Lanka where the US has made an unprecedented number of state visits to capitalise on the political change that has taken place in 2015. The grip of the pro-China President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family was broken in the January presidential election as enormous discontent developed due to the nepotism, corruption and deteriorating conditions for workers and poor farmers. The Tamil and Muslim minorities, who have faced continued communal oppression, helped to oust the notorious warmonger president. The victory of the pro-western traditional bourgeois United National Party (UNP) in the parliamentary election marked a second defeat for Mahinda, further weakening his supporters and opening a way in for the West.
With the ousting of the dictatorial president and the populist programme initially put forward by the new president to win votes, huge hopes and expectations were created among the majority of the population. The current so-called ‘national government’ – formed by the UNP bringing in a section of the SLFP around the president – aims to exploit this mood to push forward its neoliberal policies, such as changing the labour laws, pension reforms, etc., which were outlined in the latest budget proposals. The UNP-led change in economic policies reduced economic growth to under 5% in 2015 as many Chinese-led development projects have been halted. The slowing down of the Indian and Chinese economies will have a further impact.
This change has also created a fresh mood for struggle which is reflected in the number of unions that are coming forward to organise strikes and protests. Recent student protests have shown the combative mood that exists on the ground. The national question is also back on the agenda as the Tamil-based right-wing party, the TNA, and Muslim-based parties are increasingly, and correctly, seen as collaborators and real allies of the anti-working class UNP-led government.
The TNA will not be able to deliver their promises to the Tamil masses, whether that is a genuine war crimes investigation, improved conditions of life or an acceptable political solution that can satisfy their national aspirations. There was a one-day hartal in the North and East of the country in support of a recent hunger strike by political prisoners, which followed by the suicide of a young Tamil who was demanding the release of all political prisoners. These are significant events that have taken place since the end of the war in 2009.
In these circumstances, the main demand put forward by the United Socialist Party, the CWI section in Sri Lanka, of a united struggle by the trade unions, along with other democratic demands, including addressing the national aspirations of the Tamils, can have an enormous echo, creating new possibilities for the growth of our section.
Pakistan is of crucial geopolitical importance. The masses in Pakistan have faced a horrific situation with the growth of religious intolerance, right wing political Islam and economic destitution: capitalism, feudalism and slavery all existing side by side. The coming to power of Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N despite the devastating economic and social situation which remains has represented a change.
On the one side, it has attempted to undertake a number of infrastructure investments involving Chinese investments. The most recent of which is to build an economic corridor linking Kashgar in China to the Pakistani port of Gwadar. While these developments have not in any way alleviated the dire poverty carried on the backs of the masses, they do represent a significant change.
At the same time, the military has gone on an offensive against the armed militant religious groups. This reflects a certain change within the army with the coming to power of a new Chief of Staff. The army has succeeded in driving back the armed groups in order to prevent the situation spiralling out of control. They have acted in a bonapartist fashion – taking action against those groups they formally indulged – either officially or unofficially. While the armed groups have been driven back, religious sentiment has also grown.
However, this has enormously boosted the public standing of the army which effectively rules the country behind a fig leaf of parliamentary democracy. Politically there has been a collapse in the Punjab of the PPP and even the PTI of Imran Khan. The only party of the ruling class which fully functions is the PLM-N.
This situation may not last long; however, it does give an opportunity for our forces to undertake work which has not been possible in the recent period.
Moreover, in some countries in the region, new opportunities will be presented to the CWI with the changed and worsening economic situation. The ‘umbrella movement’ in Hong Kong of 2014 was the biggest protest against the Chinese dictatorship since Tiananmen Square. The first elections to follow saw the ruling parties losing out often to young candidates who had participated in those events. The CWI’s contender received a magnificent one third of the votes cast in her ward, showing the enormous potential for energetic and clearly socialist campaigns to get a response.
The colossal defeat of the military in the recent Myanmar general election is symbolic for the whole of the region, with rising popular discontent against the remnants of the old regime of the generals, who are completely incapable of solving the problems of the masses. Any new government which seeks to conciliate the military will fail. The workers and youth of the country have proud traditions of struggle to follow, such as the mass uprising of 1988 which lasted more than five weeks before it was drowned in blood.
China and the World Economy
With the slowdown in China, the OECD now says that the world economy will expand by just 2.9% in 2015, slipping below the 3% level often used to classify a global ‘growth recession’, the most optimistic scenario for world capitalism. The cut in the estimates for growth is largely because of a sharp decline in Chinese imports, which were previously sucked in from the whole of the world.
Not least are the political ramifications internally of the slowdown in China’s economy, which is now probably on a ‘growth path’ of less than 5%. Chinese manufacturing and industry generally still contributes 30% of China’s GDP. But big factories have been shedding labour in the last two years and ‘labour costs’ – wages – are coming down, which together with the introduction of new technology and robotics in particular to Chinese factories, could lead to a significant rise in unemployment. Not least are the rising levels of inequality.
China, incredibly, has overtaken the US in the ‘Rich List’ of billionaires. As in the past, this in turn can further the mood of discontent of the Chinese masses. There are other factors which can contribute to a significant slowdown in the Chinese economy. There is the demographic factor with the prospect of a big drop in China’s population – compounded by the one child policy in the past, which has now been dropped by the regime. There is massive overinvestment, with crippling excess capacity – ghost shopping malls – with no outlet now for Chinese goods given the scale of the enduring economic crisis affecting all corners of the world. The Chinese regime is scouring the world looking for new fields of investment. It greedily looks towards Central Asia with much talk of a new economic ‘Silk Road’ centred on countries like Kazakhstan.
The latter is itself facing a much bigger crisis than in the past with the loss of oil revenue. In response, Nazarbayev has launched a massive programme of privatisation and allowed the currency to massively devalue, causing hardship for millions.All this will mean a new upsurge of mass discontent and opportunities for us if we can build a stable determined organisation in the country, which in turn can have an effect on other countries in the region that will be affected by the crisis.
China, however, could clash with Putin’s Russia, who has his own ambitions for ‘collaboration’ with the regimes in Central Asia, which are considered to be a Russian sphere of influence. This could bring Russia up against China despite the talk of collaboration between both regimes. Then there is China’s terrible environmental problems which, together with ingrained corruption, the present regime is attempting to cut down but without much success. There is the potential for flare ups on any number of issues, which if they take place in the cities could be a trigger for revolutionary upheavals and uprisings.
The faltering prospects of the world economy remain a central and enduring concern for the ‘experts’ of the system. Even before the Chinese slowdown, there were major doubts about future economic prospects and particularly about the ‘imbalance’. Some commentators compared the world economy to a car engine with a major mechanical fault. There were ‘good prospects’ for growth in some areas but the outlook was dismal in others. There is also the massive inherited debt overhang of the 2007-08 crisis, which now stands at $200 trillion, three times world GDP! Like leaden boots, this holds back growth. This in turn leads to ‘risk aversion’ – the failure to reinvest some of the surplus extracted from the labour of the working class back into creating production opportunities, jobs growth, etc.
One of the consequences of this is that the super profits of big business – widely recognised by all serious economists – is not leading to an increase in productive potential but, on the contrary, to massive cash piles, often described as a ‘savings glut’, which has grown by a colossal $57 trillion since 2007. Consequently a major banking crisis is brewing – with economic indicators, particularly on debt, already flashing red! As we have pointed out before, the contraction in ‘demand’ – which is being fuelled by inequality and other factors – also acts to repress investment.
Bourgeois governments have attempted to overcome this through low interest rates combined with printing money – quantitative easing, etc. – which has served to accumulate the debts of governments, corporations and households. Much of this extra money in the past seven years has also been recycled into the financial markets of the neo-colonial countries, but this has not led to a significant increase in production. All of this has acted as a colossal drag on world capitalism, resulting in low growth in general, fears of a long period of ‘secular stagnation’ and serious political repercussions for the system.
What is even more alarming from the standpoint of the strategists of capitalism is that they appear to have no answers in place if, or rather when, they are confronted with a new crisis. Stephen King, economist for HSBC bank, summed up the situation: “The world economy is like an ocean liner without lifeboats.” The capitalists have used up all their ‘ammunition”: zero or near zero interest rates, quantitative easing on a vast scale particularly for the US, Britain and the EU. Given their mountainous debts, they are reluctant, to say the least, to embark on another significant round of printing money. However events – particularly on the scale of 2007-08 or worse – would compel governments to intervene through semi-Keynesian measures in order to try and avoid the massive political fallout which would develop in the wake of a new crisis.
They have not been assisted either by the big fall in world trade, which in 2015 recorded its largest contraction since 2008, the volume of global trade falling by 0.5% at one stage. The first half of 2015 recorded global trade’s worst situation since 2009. This is in marked contradistinction to what happened during the post-war boom, where world trade grew at twice the rate of the economy.
One of the features of the 1950-75 world economic boom was that capitalism , through ‘trade liberalisation’ – with tariffs on imports dramatically cut – did partially overcome the national limits of the nation state which enormously assisted its growth. This resulted in a spiral of growth ended by the economic collapse of the 1970s. Then barriers to trade developed, including currency manipulation and devaluations, which had the opposite effect in depressing economic growth.
We see the opposite process to the post-Second World War situation today. Even before the present clashes over trade agreements, there has been the stalling of trade liberalisation efforts at Doha. The Obama regime, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – aiming to liberalise trade in the Pacific to the advantage mainly, of course, of US imperialism – has been for the moment thwarted by opposition amongst others from the working class and the US unions.
This even compelled Hillary Clinton, who indicated earlier support for TPP, to perform a somersault and come out in opposition to it because of the need to get the US unions onside. China described the TPP as partly designed to undermine China and enhance the position of US imperialism in the Pacific as an ‘economic NATO’.
The opposition of the US unions and the working class to these measures – which they see as compounding their problems – aroused resistance to US capitalism.
Martin Wolf, Financial Times chief economics commentator, indicated the scale of the social crisis in the US when he pointed out that 12% of US men – one in eight- are neither in work or looking for work. What is called the ‘participatory’ rate – having a job of one kind or another – is well below that of the UK, Germany or France, standing at roughly 8% non-participation. The figures for women are even worse, close to the ratio of Italian women at 26%. This in turn has a knock-on effect in terms of US productivity and is a real measure of the lack of a substantial ‘recovery’ for the working class from the crisis of 2007-08.
A period of sustained insecurity for the US working population has opened up. Lifetime employment is a dream in the new cutthroat competition for jobs. 53 million Americans – 34% of the workforce – are now ‘freelancers’. ‘Portfolio careers’ have become the norm with constant switching between one form of employment and another. This new system is called ‘Knowledge Integration Toolkit’ (KnIT) meaning that individual workers compete against one another and unions are diminished, which in turn has had a serious effect on the wages and conditions of the working class. Decades ago, General Motors was the biggest employer where workers earned $35 an hour in today’s money.
Now Walmart is the biggest employer with its workers on $9 an hour. GM workers were no more educated or more capable than Walmart workers. The crucial difference was a strong union in GM and no union in Walmart. Fewer than 7% of US workers in the private sector are now in a union. The ground is being prepared for a mighty explosion of union expansion in the US but this would have to be accompanied with renewal at the base and leadership, drawing on the experiences of Seattle which has pioneered $15 an hour and led to a nationwide movement. Our sympathising party will play an important role in rebuilding the power and effectiveness of the US workers’ organisations.
At the same time, the middle classes are being hollowed out. Once the ‘professions’ were ‘islands of security’. No more! The systemic crisis of US capitalism, aggravated by the new stream of technological improvements which are being introduced – and which we have analysed – will result in the slaughter of previously secure jobs for workers but also for the middle class as well. This goes together with even greater inequality than existed prior to 2007 08!
That is what Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Labour Secretary, has called a process of ‘distribution upwards’ from the working class and poor to the rich. The ratio of the wages of employees and the top CEOs in corporations has grown to about 300 to 1 in the US and about 200 to 1 in Britain. This at a time when two thirds of the working class is living from ‘pay cheque to pay cheque’.
The US unions are down to 6 million members, roughly the same number as Britain with almost six times the population. This in turn is generating a big revolt against right-wing trade union leaders who are clueless and impotent on how to build the unions. This will be a vital step in defending the working class from downwards pressure on their wages and conditions.
This means a rising tide of discontent affecting more and more layers who may have previously felt that they had a stake in capitalism but are now questioning it. In a recent poll, 55% of Americans agreed with the proposition ‘the rich are getting richer’. There is a widespread perception that the rich are being bailed out by the state and that bank bailouts in the aftermath of the last crisis was ‘socialism for the rich’. There is also the potential for growth particularly in the US of socialist and Marxist ideas, reflected in Kshama’s election victory, the support for Bernie Sanders and, not least, the rapid growth of our political sympathisers in the US.
There have also been feeble counter-efforts in Britain, the US and elsewhere to ideologically answer what appears to be the rising tide of anti-corporate and anti-capitalist feelings amongst growing sections of the population, particularly the young. This has been taken up by sections of the ‘liberal’ wing of the Tory party in Britain, resurrecting a campaign in favour of ‘popular capitalism’. Given the scale and the depths of the worldwide capitalist economic crisis and what looms on the horizon, this is unlikely to generate big support. On the contrary, elements of the politicisation and left radicalisation of the 1960s – heralded by the entry of the youth onto the political arena – are lodged in the present situation.
A new phase of world relations has emerged since the last Congress. Then, as we commented at the time, ‘Pax Americana’ – the military domination of US imperialism which had been overwhelming in the previous period and was reflected by the Iraq war, intervention in Afghanistan, etc. – was already on the wane.
The unipolar world of George Bush – with his military ‘full spectrum dominance’ – was already giving way to a multipolar world, particularly because of the rise of China, not just economically but also increasingly demonstrating its enhanced military prowess.
US imperialism is having difficulties accommodating to this new situation but its strategists – taking the long view – have conducted a kind of campaign to reconcile the US to the real situation, which one commentator describes as ‘relative decline’.
The US has been far and away the most powerful military actor, the only power with global reach. In fact, following the collapse of Stalinism and, with it, the weakening economically of Russia this domination was ‘lopsided’ in favour of the US.
Although Russia and now China are beginning to reassert themselves – the former in Ukraine and now its intervention in Syria – the US is still likely to be the overwhelmingly dominant military power on the globe for years. China has furiously begun to step up its military posture, particularly in the development of a ‘blue water’ naval strategy, concentrating first on the Pacific, where it vies for support and influence against US imperialism.
The EU cannot compete militarily with China or the US, with the bourgeoisie of the continent preferring to largely shelter under the US military umbrella. Yet economically the combined weight of the EU is equal to or even in some reports, ahead of the US. But Britain, which is no longer really a world power, signified by its keenness to become an economic colony of China, now spends a paltry sum on ‘defence’.
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA
Following the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters and subsequent social catastrophes, the US giant is effectively politically paralysed, prevented from unleashing its full military power now in Syria. The mood of opposition of the American people – foremost the working class – to any proposals for large-scale military operations in the Middle East or elsewhere is clear. It can conduct military-police type operations – including aerial bombing – in concert with its allies but cannot extend this to significant forces, ‘boots on the ground’.
The four-year long civil war has resulted in 11 million people out of 26 million being driven from their homes and at least 250,000 losing their lives. The original uprising was fuelled by hunger, in turn the product of climate change. Drought took hold in the largely Sunni dominated countryside and an influx of impoverished farmers into the cities laid the basis for the uprising against the Assad regime, which rested mainly on the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of the Shias. Imperialism – and not a few on the left as well – believed that this movement, embracing the majority of Sunnis, would quickly overwhelm the regime.
However, the CWI, together with a few farsighted bourgeois commentators, did not believe that Assad would be quickly overthrown. Assad did not just rest on the Alawite-Shia population of Syria but on other minorities as well, such as the Christians and the Druze, who later felt mortally threatened by the brutal, murderous torturers of ISIS.
Moreover, the conflict assumed an increasingly sectarian form, with a major element of a proxy war between Shia Iran and the Sunni Saudi Arabian regime. The latter, with its billions of petrol dollars, was prepared to fund almost indefinitely an uprising against the hated Assad regime. This, they hoped, would once and for all remove the Shia-aligned regime from the face of the Middle East, in the process curbing Iran’s regional ambitions that had been boosted by the Iraq war, which saw a Shia regime emerge linked to Iran.
However, they and the ‘farsighted’ Obama and Cameron had not reckoned with the reaction of the hundred million Shias in the region: in Syria itself, in Iraq, in some of the Gulf States and in Iran with nearly 70 million Shias alone. Iran and its Lebanese co-religionists Hezbollah supplied the foreign fighters necessary to bolster the Assad regime, alongside Pakistani and other Shias from the Gulf States. This proved necessary at critical moments when Assad faced formidable opposition forces – bolstered by sectarian jihadis – that appeared to be about to overthrow his regime.
As the war’s toll of the dead and injured rose so did the increasing difficulties of conscripting young people into the government forces. This was aggravated by the low pay for those enlisted in the Syrian army, contrasting with the lush living of the elite who did not dirty their hands with much fighting. Isis and the other reactionary anti-Assad forces suffered no such economic difficulties. Those who joined its ranks from other countries in the region received handsome remuneration through much higher wages than the impoverished conditions ‘at home’, with access to the latest technological goods too.
It was these factors which determined the intractable character of the conflict. Assad as well as Isis and other anti- Assad forces were too strong to be beaten but were also too-weak to defeat each other!
However, recently, it appeared that the regime faced a looming ‘catastrophe’, admitted Assad, with the increased strengthening of opposition forces by the US, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in particular. This changed everything particularly for Putin’s Russian regime, which had inherited from Stalinism military and financial ties with the Syrian regime. The implications of his possible overthrow forced the Iranians to intervene and urge Russia to seek to militarily underpin his regime. Russia’s commitment to increased air cover for the regime, backed up by the possible use of 2,000 troops, against Isis, completely changed the situation. Obama – with his own air campaign not working – was completely wrong-footed, as was the hapless Cameron.
Putin intervened not out of any deep-seated sympathy or loyalty to the Syrian people but for its own imperialist interests. Faced with increased hostility from the ‘developed’ world – US and Europe – over the war in Ukraine – he took the opportunity to enhance the power and prestige of Russia in the region. History shows, the present conflict attesting to this, that wars cannot be successfully fought just from the air with intense bombardment.
The US and France, restricted to air attacks alone, and without any reliable ground forces – apart from the Kurdish forces in the north – are incapable of defeating Isis. Russia can rely on ground forces – those of the Syrian regime itself – to coordinate attacks on Isis. This forced a switch in tactics by the US and Britain who have indicated that they will possibly ‘coordinate’ attacks with Russia, and therefore with Assad himself. They have invoked once more the example of Roosevelt joining with Stalin to defeat Hitler.
At the same time, they have repeated that any political settlement cannot include Assad! The aim is for some kind of political deal along the lines of the Dayton Accords following the Balkan war which brought the different warring powers together including President Milosevic, representative of the Serbs. However, he ended up being found guilty in The Hague for ‘war crimes’.
Assad is unlikely to agree to voluntary suicide, which is what such a deal means for him and his regime. It is not clear whether others like Russia and particularly Iran will also go along with this. However, the interests of Assad let alone the fate of the Syrian people, is so much small change to the outside powers who have one concern on how to enhance their own power, prestige and income.
It is true that this war, with comparisons drawn with Europe’s ruinous mediaeval Thirty Years War, has produced a yearning for peace in the region and elsewhere. Its effects, as the CWI anticipated, have radiated out to all the neighbouring countries and beyond, ratcheting up sectarian, national and religious conflicts, not to say murderous terrorism, the fleeing of millions to Europe to what they imagine will be a ‘safe haven’, dividing and destabilising in the process whole societies.
Even the Pope has described it as a new version of a ‘Third World War’, particularly for the Middle East. There is no possibility of a real world war breaking out from the present conflagration for the reasons – particularly ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) – that have been analysed previously by the CWI.
The YPG/YPJ, the military units linked to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) associated with the PKK, has been one of the most effective forces in deterring ISIS. This is linked to their programme containing some radical elements – in terms of women and Kurdish national rights in particular – that has appealed to important sections of the Kurds, as well as to a layer of youth internationally. Yet the PYD has not been able to secure active popular support outside of the Kurdish majority areas.
Securing people’s support and reaching out to working class and poor communities beyond Rojava is a vital task to break the area’s isolation. But this task is undermined by the PYD leaders’ policy of balancing between and seeking deals with the rival powers active in the region – forces that put entire communities under bombing and persecution – especially the Arab Sunnis, whose sense of victimisation in both Iraq and Syria has been instrumental in ISIS securing a social base. Socialists recognise some of the gains which have been achieved in Rojava, but insist on the need for a mass and democratically organised struggle armed with a principled programme based on the unity of working people and the poor, on the uncompromising defence of the rights of all minorities and internationalism.
Terrorism and Isis
The indiscriminate, murderous, terrorist Paris bombing seems to represent a new stage in the tactics of Isis, following the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai and the bombs in Baghdad, Ankara and Beirut. Needless to say, as our French comrades made clear, we unreservedly condemn these fascistic-type attacks which target the innocent. Just eight terrorists were able to inflict so much death in Paris. It may have been a lot worse if they had got into the French German football match which François Hollande, the French president, was attending.
There is naturally mass outrage at this atrocity but the bourgeois media have attempted to drown out those voices that try to explain how and why this terrorist wave has developed. As terrible as the Paris killings were – particularly to the families who are affected – and the mass fear which it generated, the total number who died is equivalent to the numbers killed and maimed each day in Syria.
This does not in any way underestimate the fear effect in France, first and foremost on the working class. But as even bourgeois commentators have sought to explain, this represents ‘blowback’, a phrase originally coined by the CIA in relation to the conflict in Afghanistan and its effects on the whole of the world. The Iraq war, Afghanistan, Libya and not least the murderous conflict in Syria itself have reinforced the conclusions of the CIA!
Isis (referred to as ‘Daesh’ by many in the Middle East), at least its original cadre, was drawn primarily from the officer ranks of the predominantly Sunni Iraq army who had been sacked and excluded by the purge which followed the overthrow of Saddam and the occupation which followed.
Until recently, its strategy seemed to be concentrated in the immediate region of Syria, Iraq etc., in seeking to create a ‘caliphate’. It rejected Al Qa’ida’s approach of spectacular global terrorist attacks, like those of the World Trade Center. From the outset, it appeared to be quite different from previous attempts at Arab resistance. It proclaimed the need to capture territory in order to establish a state – an Islamic ‘caliphate’ – with all the ramifications that this implies, including the establishment of sophisticated financial arrangements. It helped to sustain itself through the trade in captured ancient artefacts as well as oil arising from the seizure of Mosul with its considerable oil producing facilities and resources. It has even traded with the Assad regime itself.
Therefore Cameron’s bluster that Isis should “not be dignified with the name Islamic state” is completely bogus. As Patrick Cockburn has commented: “Unfortunately it is a real state and one which is more powerful than half the members of the UN, with an experienced army, conscription, taxation and control of all aspects of life within the vast area it rules.”
It will therefore not be easily eradicated. But it has been pushed back in the past months, giving up territory under pressure from Kurdish forces. Its leaders seems to have concluded that the best means of deterring effective intervention from outside powers is now to take the ‘war’ to the enemy, through sustained terroristic actions along the lines of Paris.
It cannot be excluded, in fact it is likely, that similar attacks will be launched in other European cities and wider afield. Isis has found ready recruits from amongst the North African and Middle Eastern diaspora of discriminated against and alienated Muslims in Europe. Moreover, an appeal is now being made to the wider ‘Muslim world’, with a noticeable rise in interest and hardening of support for Isis in Africa, in Asia – it is growing in Bangladesh, for instance – in Malaysia and elsewhere. On the other hand, seamless progress for Isis is not inevitable. The bourgeois, for its own reasons, can take effective action against it in the neo-colonial world.
In Pakistan, for instance, the army, which plays a balancing bonapartist role, appears to the masses as the only cohesive force in society. It also has considerable economic stakes in the economy and has combined repression of the Taliban and the incipient Isis threat with economic reforms which benefit a layer of the masses and is paid for by Chinese largesse.
It remains to be seen whether some kind of ramshackle military coalition could be put together to push back Isis from its existing present shaky stronghold. The intervention of Russia, supported by the Syrian regime, has introduced a new crucial factor in the war. Isis still maintains elements of a guerrilla-type force.
However, to be successful, such forces cannot rule by repression and terror alone or by taking on every power. Ultimately, only a sympathetic and supportive population – ‘the sea in which the guerrilla fishes swim’ – can sustain its grip for any length of time. Isis’s methods – its religious death cult, the propagation of a Hobbesian hell of ‘each against all’ – will over time alienate the population under its control as well the disastrous economic effects of terrorism.
Witness the catastrophic fallout for the masses from the Isis-inspired attack on the tourist town of Sousse in Tunisia in 2015. It is now a ghost town, shunned by visitors and tourists, which will inevitably lead to mass unemployment. The terrorist attack in Luxor in Egypt in 1997 had a similar disastrous effect on the economy.
War in Yemen and Saudi Arabia
The other bloody conflict in the Middle East, next to the Syria/Iraq nightmare, is the civil war in Yemen. Seven months of air strikes, together with the intervention of ground forces by the Saudi-led coalition, has heaped even more terrible suffering on what is already the poorest population in the region. Over 5,000 Yemenis have been killed, including at least 2,400 civilians.
The coalition is fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis, which seized Sana’a, the capital, and other areas last year. Yemen, with a population of 23 million people, was the poorest country in the Arab world long before the removal of President Saleh following an uprising against him in 2011. The Saudis, the richest country in the region, supported by the Gulf sheiks and American imperialism, have imposed a vicious blockade of ports and other outlets, resulting in the prospect of famine, with 13 million people already defined as ‘food insecure’.
The Houthis are located in the Yemeni highlands and are allied to Saleh against the Saudi coalition, resulting in stalemate between the two sides. The Saudi regime is acting more and more openly as a counter-revolutionary gendarmerie in a conflict which also has all the hallmarks of a proxy war against Iran, with the poor Yemenis facing the prospect of further bombing and starvation with no solution in sight.
However, the rotten Saudi regime is paying a price for its costly interventions in regional conflicts and in seeking to maintain its leading position in the oil trade. Its decision to keep on pumping oil in order to protect its global market share is in danger of rebounding on the regime in the next period. In an upcoming meeting in Vienna of Opec, it has been indicated that it is likely to shift its position.
Last year, they rocked the oil market by abandoning the traditional position of reducing supplies in order to stabilise prices. Since then, oil prices have collapsed from a $115 to below $50 a barrel with billions of dollars of investment in oil production elsewhere being put on hold. But the other side of declining oil revenues have rebounded on Saudi Arabia, which now has a budget deficit of at least 20% of GDP. This has led the government to dip into its huge reserves, which has had an effect on investment in infrastructure and squeezed government spending. This in turn sparked a private sector slow down, cuts in subsidies and the general squeezing of living standards.
Taken together with the disaster of hundreds killed at the annual Hajj pilgrimage, this has resulted in unprecedented criticism of the corrupt Saudi regime. Letters in Arabic have circulated calling for the overthrow of the King and have been welcomed by wide layers of Saudis, having been read by 2 million people. This represents the wind famously ‘blowing the tops of the trees first’. Increased repression by the regime is probably a symptom of growing opposition. The removal of the more corrupt layers in the ‘kingdom’ could open the floodgates to unprecedented demonstrations, which can have a significant impact not just in Saudi Arabia but throughout the region.
A new situation has opened in Iran as Obama has moved to negotiations and proposed the lifting of sanctions, although this has still to be ratified in the US Congress where it will meet opposition from hard-line Republicans. At the same time, Iran itself has intervened to back Shia forces in various conflicts in the Middle East, sometimes in opposition to the forces supported by US imperialism.
Within Iran itself there are growing social tensions and some divisions within the regime. We need to be ready for major social upheavals within Iranian society in the coming period.
Tunisia, Egypt and Libya
The working class and its allies remains the key to the situation in the Middle East. The North African and Arab revolutions – particularly in Tunisia and Egypt – showed their colossal strength and the potential political power which the working class and its allies have to change the situation.
However, the fallout from the splintered and disturbed state of the world has enormously complicated the situation. If the workers’ organisations had possessed a clear perspective and programme linked to a socialist vision and a leadership equal to the situation, things could have turned out entirely differently. Big opportunities have been lost because of the absence of the mass ‘subjective factor’. This was partly determined by the fact the working masses had been kept under the heel of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes in the preceding period.
In Egypt, the independent trade unions played an important role in the struggle against the Mubarak regime. But they were not strong enough to impose themselves on the revolution in its early stages. Tunisia was an exception to the general pattern. The country which had seen the development of a powerful independent trade union movement, the UGTT, in the first period of the revolution when a big element of dual power existed could have played a decisive role in leading the revolution and, in the process, initiated a new mass party of the working class.
This would have found a big echo throughout the region. Because of the absence of the subjective factor and the speed of events, it was not possible for the formation and crystallisation of a distinct class and socialist consciousness.
In general, we have seen big but as yet unsuccessful movements of the working class. The Egyptian revolution presaged powerful movements of the working class in Europe, which has shaken the continent, particularly southern Europe – Greece, Spain, Portugal – to its foundations. This was clearly underlined in North Africa and the Middle East where the initial revolutionary wave saw US imperialism as an impotent bystander unable to intervene.
Only with the ebb of the revolutionary wave – which in turn was contributed to by the weakness, virtual absence in fact, of a conscious revolutionary core able to win the masses and direct the movements – did reaction gradually take the reins of power back into their hands. They could not directly intervene in the first phase but sought a role for reaction through the back door by establishing a foothold in Bahrain, Libya, etc.
We should never forget that they were helped ideologically – although ineffectually – in this task by alleged Trotskyists, including some in the USFI along with the poisonous little sect the AWL in Britain, who gave ‘critical’ support to imperialism’s ‘civilising’ role in intervening in Libya in overthrowing Gaddafi. They justified this scandalous position of alleged ‘Marxists’ on the grounds that it was ‘progressive’, would prepare the way for democracy, independent workers’ organisations, etc. One commentator wrote: “It was utterly predictable that military intervention would be a fiasco.”
We did not back reaction, unlike these groups who indirectly bear some responsibility for the disastrous situation where sectarian war, gangsters and rich Libyans lord it over the Libyan workers and peasants. Libya has never existed as a homogenous entity. It was a collection of “fiercely autonomous, proud and unruly tribes”, suspicious of centralised rule, which through the Ottoman Empire and the imperialist domination which followed was only loosely held together by Gaddafi through divide and rule, who kept “a weather eye open, heaping privileges on some and prestige on others in order to consolidate a