A world of explosive social upheavals and inter-imperialist turmoil

Anti-government protest, 22 October, Plaza Baquedano, Santiago, Chile (Photo: Carlos Figueroa, Wikimedia Commons)

The following statement was agreed at a meeting of European CWI sections and supporters, along with visitors from the USA and Nigeria, which was held earlier this week, in London.

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The world situation is marked by explosive social upheavals and turmoil. Even since the re-founding meeting of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), last July, there have been dramatic changes in the situation of the struggle of the working class and inter-imperialist relations.

The eruption of revolutionary and semi-revolutionary movements by the masses, especially the working class and youth, in Ecuador, Chile, Haiti, Catalonia, Hong Kong, and extremely significantly, Egypt, Iraq and the Lebanon, have features of the revolutions which swept Europe in 1848 and also some features of the stormy upheavals in 1917-18. These events have come hot on the heels of the renewed revolutionary upsurges which have previously shaken Algeria and Sudan.

Such movements of the working class and other layers were predicted by the CWI. However, even we did not anticipate the sweep and scale of what has taken place in recent weeks. The CWI has laid stress in our previous material on impending revolutionary struggles of the working class breaking out. This perspective is being born out in the working-class mass mobilisations of millions which have taken place. Those who broke from our ideas on an opportunistic basis, looking towards other forces apart from the working class, have been answered by events and left facing in the wrong direction as recent events have exploded into history. Prior to these movements we also saw the extremely significant movement on climate change, especially September 20-27 which we intervened in. This movement was largely made up of youth including school students. However, in general this did not involve large sections of the working class.

The marvellous united protests against austerity and corruption by Sunni and Shia workers and youth in Iraq, casting off the shackles of sectarianism, represent an historic advance. The same is true in the protests in Lebanon which have united Sunni, Shia, Christian and Druze people in a mass movement demanding an end to austerity and corruption, and the downfall of the government. The masses have come together under the Lebanese flag as a demonstration of their unity and opposition to sectarian division. The Lebanese state was created by French imperialism following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire on the basis of an institutionalized form of ‘Identity Politics’; religious sectarian division make these protests more significant. This movement has forced the resignation of the Prime Minister Hariri. Significantly gangs from Hezbollah and Amal have now attacked the protests in an attempt to split and divide the movement.

In Latin America, the revolutionary wave sweeping the continent, leaping from one country to another, is bearing out in practice the central ideas contained in Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution. These upheavals come only a few months after Trump was threatening military intervention in Venezuela; a declaration which contributed to firming up support for Maduro and undermining the right-wing opposition. Any attempt to intervene militarily by US imperialism in Venezuela or elsewhere in Latin America would ignite a tsunami of mass revolt and attacks on US interests across the continent.

As we have commented, the coming to power of the right-wing populist governments in a series of Latin American countries did not represent the opening of a dark era of right-wing reaction, as imagined by some. The right-populist regimes which came to power lacked a solid social base. They reflected more of a protest against the failure of centre-left or left reformist governments rather than an ideological swing to the right by the masses. Within a very short time scale this has been confirmed. Firstly by the 47 million-strong general strike in Brazil against Bolsonaro. Now even more dramatically by the revolution and uprising firstly in Ecuador, and then in Chile. Across the continent the right-wing populist neo-liberal regimes are in the process of being vomited out by the masses.

Despite protests since the revolt of the ‘penguins’ (the school student movement in 2006) and the protest against the pension system (AFP), Chile has lagged behind the rest of Latin America. Only two weeks before the spontaneous movement erupted, Piñera was bosting Chile was an ‘oasis’ on the continent. Now it has been thrust into the front line of struggle with many aspects of the revolutionary traditions of the workers there beginning to re-emerge. These developments in Chile are certain to have a major impact throughout Latin America. The capitalist classes have all held Chile up as the model to aspire to, i.e. brutal neo-liberalism and relative stability. The ‘model’ has collapsed as millions have taken to the streets, joined general strikes and confronted the military, forcing the government to retreat. However, appetite comes with eating and the concessions made by Piñera have not satisfied the mass movement. With widespread calls for a constituent assembly, our demands for a ‘revolutionary constituent assembly’ and a workers’ and poor peoples’ government, have become more important.

The defeat of Macri in Argentina represents another body blow to the neo-liberal populist right. This follows four general strikes and other protests against his government. The masses have, however, returned to the Peronists who have tilted in a more populist-nationalist direction but offer no challenge to capitalism. Alberto Fernández was elected President from the ‘centre’ of Peronism and pledged to respect the $57 billion IMF loan agreed by Macri. The memory of the economic recovery in the 2000s, under Fernández de Kirchner, following the crash in 2002, and hopes that it can be repeated, played a crucial role in the campaign. However, with inflation running at 56% and over 35% of people living below the poverty line, such hopes are set to be dashed. Importantly, the vote for the Trotskyist FIT was significantly down. Their sectarian approach has been a barrier from preventing the FIT winning significant layers of dissident Peronist workers.

Revolutionary upheavals

These revolutionary upheavals represent a turning point in the situation in Latin America and internationally. How far these revolutionary movements develop is as yet unclear. The absence of powerful revolutionary parties and a broad socialist consciousness of an alternative system to capitalism can result in a certain stalemate in the struggle for a period. However, a new chapter has been opened in which even small revolutionary socialist organisations can have an impact on events way beyond their numerical size. The uprising in 1989 in Caracas, the Carazco, paved the way for the coming to power of Chavez, 10 years later. However, further upheavals throughout Latin America will not require a decade to develop.

The heroic movement in Hong Kong, especially by the youth, has illustrated the tenacity and determination of this generation to resist attacks on their rights and fight for a change in society. Brutal repression has been used. It appeared, at one stage, that the Chinese regime was preparing for a bloody settlement to crush the movement. Xi Jinping threatened that any attempt to “divide the nation” would result in “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder”. The Chinese regime has held back from this slaughter for fear of the international repercussions it would have. It now seems more likely that the current repression will continue in the hope of eventually exhausting the movement.

The fight for democratic rights is a crucial aspect of this struggle and is ingrained into the consciousness of the masses in Hong Kong. The CWI, in our programme, champions the struggle to win and defend all democratic rights. This needs to be linked to the need for a transformation of society along democratic socialist lines. Inevitably, in Hong Kong, the character of the Chinese regime will mean that confusion and even hostility exists towards the idea of socialism. However, it is important that we explain what genuine socialism is and oppose the Chinese regime in a skilful and sensitive way and to link this with the idea of winning support for the movement in China. The Chinese regime fears the effects the movement in Hong Kong may have in the rest of China.

The brutally repressive regime in China is certain to face major class battles and upheavals against the background of a slowdown in the economy. The awakening of the powerful Chinese working class, at a certain stage, will burst onto the international arena and play a decisive role in shaping world events. The hybrid nature of the regime and economy – a very special form of capitalism – as we have explained in other material, will mean that our programme and demands will combine elements of the social and political revolution.

South Asia

The deepening economic crisis in South Asia has already developed into a major political crisis. Increased state repression is paralleled with a historically high level of privatization and austerity measures. The IMF agreed to bail out Pakistan on the basis of 200 state-owned companies being privatized and attacks on essential public services. The Indian economy is heading into a recession with the prospect of the loss of millions of jobs. Narendra Modi’s regime is increasingly unpopular due to its attack on living standards. He is reliant on Hindu nationalism and patriotism to maintain his grip on power. This and the major repression of national and democratic rights in Kashmir have reignited the national question on the subcontinent raising the prospect of a Balkanisation of India.

The Tamil national question is at a high pitch in Sri Lanka. The sharp rise in Sinhala nationalism following the Easter terrorist bombing is being used by the former dictatorial President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family to try and wage a comeback. All the capitalist parties are split. There is an increased polarization with divisions existing amongst the workers and poor in all these countries. The emergence of populist Bonapartism will not be able, however, to hold back the developing revolt of the workers, peasants, youth and most downtrodden sections of society. There is the beginning of the emergence of workers’ struggles. Even the right-wing trade union leaders – such as WAPDA (All Pakistan WAPDA Hydro-Electric workers Union) in Pakistan or the RSS-led union in India have been compelled to support strikes. Now there is discussion taking place amongst militant trade unionists in Sri Lanka to possibly form a new party. The CWI sections can play an important role and be a catalyst putting forward a clear perspective, strategy and programme in preparation for the impending storms to come.

Africa

Africa’s rapid population growth is deepening the crisis it faces as an overwhelmingly neo-colonial continent dominated by the different varieties of imperialism. The scale of this growth is illustrated by the fact that in 2000 811m people lived in Africa, the forecast for next year, 2020, is 1,340m, over 43% of whom will be living in urban areas. Nigeria, for example has seen its population grow from 95m in 1990 to 201m this year and this is set to double again to more than 400m by 2050, when it will have overtaken the US as the world’s third most inhabited country. Looking ahead to 2100 the countries with the three highest forecast population growth are African.

While rival imperialisms are competing to exploit Africa’s riches or for strategic positions the system they defend, capitalism cannot provide for Africa’s population. This is not just the question of jobs, but basic infrastructure whether it be clean water, sanitation, electricity, housing, transport and the impact of climate change like droughts or prolonged rainy seasons. South Africa, the continent’s most economically developed country, is not escaping being affected by most of these issues. Throughout Africa food is a key question. According to the UN of all the continents Africa has the highest proportion of hungry people, 277 million (21% of Africans) have “severe food insecurity” while a further 399m (31%) face “moderate food insecurity”.

As in other parts of the world it is the youth who are facing much of the brunt of this situation. Currently the continent’s median age is just under 20 years old. Large numbers of the youth are either unemployed or massively underemployed. But the figures of employment have to be taken with a large pinch of salt, in Nigeria anyone who works one hour a week is officially counted as being employed. While a number of African countries have seen economic growth in absolute terms, although not necessarily per capita, there is the threat of the impact of a renewed world economic crisis or simply the effect of the current economic slowdown. A particular feature in a number of countries are mounting debts which mean that debt repayments are already starting to impact on governments even before any increase in interest rates.

Against this background there have been repeated struggles on economic, social and democratic issues as well as against corrupt, repressive regimes. In many countries there is the potential for the sudden development of struggles. However, as is the case internationally, the key questions will be the building of viable, independent and democratic organisations of the workers and the programme which they fight for. The magnificent months’ long struggle in Sudan to overthrow Bashir after 30 years in power has been a real example but the fact that the opposition leaders agree to a coalition with Bashir’s generals is a grave mistake which poses the future threat of counter-revolution.

The Sudanese revolution has shown again the importance of learning the lessons of the 1917 Russian revolution if working people are to come to power. The working class in Africa, along with the youth and oppressed, has the power to change society, but where this is not used or is defeated then there is the danger of the further developments of ethnic, religious and national conflicts that divide working people and can be exploited by opportunists and reactionaries.

World economic slowdown 

These upheavals are taking place against the background of a serious slowdown in the world economy taking place and the prospect of another global crisis erupting, which we have analysed in previous documents. The US economy is slowing and economists are raising the prospect that it could slip into recession in 2020. China’s growth has slowed to the lowest rate in thirty years. Germany, once the powerhouse of Europe, is set to slide into recession. Trump’s trade war has compounded the underlying weaknesses that exist in the world economy.

The ruling class has not learnt from the crisis of 2007-08. Global debt at the time of the 2007 crash stood at $173 trillion. In 2019 it has rocketed to $246.5 trillion. As the IMF warned, there is a global time bomb waiting to explode. Low interest rates are encouraging companies to take on more and more debt, which risks reaching a staggering $19 trillion! A new downturn even half as deep as 2007-08 would render the global debt unserviceable, the IMF warns.

The Trump Presidency is in turmoil and has weakened the position of US imperialism internationally. Where Trump intervenes, greater chaos and turmoil is sure to follow. The reckless decision to pull out of Syria has enormously complicated the position in the Middle East. His blunder in this regard has enabled Putin to step in and strengthen further the position of Russia in the region and left US imperialism even weaker in terms of its influence. For the Kurdish people, Trump’s decision created grave dangers and showed the major mistake of the PYD (Democratic Union Party) leaders of entering into an alliance with US imperialism. It is an example of how a rejection of an independent working class and internationalist strategy and investing hopes in alliances with capitalist powers will open the door to defeats.

Trump’s decision also enabled Erdoğan in Turkey to try and whip up nationalism and shore up his position temporarily following his defeat in local elections, earlier this year, and growing protests against his government.

Putin has emerged strengthened internationally and has built a powerful military apparatus. However, economically Russia remains weak. Putin is searching around for a puppet to run for the presidency when his term expires, who he will be able to control. The working class in Russia has yet to put its stamp on the situation but it will do as the crisis develops further in Russian society.

Trump and the US in crisis

Domestically, Trump is facing a major crisis which could still engulf his presidency. The social turmoil and polarization within the US and increasing struggles by workers remain decisive features of the international crisis of capitalism. The splits within the White House deepen as increasing numbers of former aides and advisors testify against Trump in the impeachment hearings. In scenes reminiscent of the decline of the Roman Empire former collaborators have turned on Trump. He is facing the most serious threat yet to his presidency. The Democrats, relying on nationalistic and jingoistic rhetoric, hope to use the impeachment hearings to mortally wound him in the run-up to the 2020 election campaign, but it could have the potential to backfire. Given the overwhelming majority-Republican composition of the Senate, where a two thirds majority is needed for impeachment, it appears unlikely Trump will be impeached at this stage. However, such is the crisis unfolding, further revelations could make his position untenable. Nixon, after all, had the endorsement of the Republicans, until he didn’t and was forced to resign!

There remains a significant amount of pressure among workers to defeat Trump. This was even reflected at the World Series baseball match in Washington, where Trump was booed and jeered to chants of “lock him up” which he had used against Clinton. At the same time, at this stage, the core of his base has largely remained firm. At this stage, the impeachment proceedings have not yet developed a corresponding mass movement along the lines of the anti-Nixon movement. But that could change very quickly and new revelations could turn Trump’s own base against him.

The US labour movement has maintained its forward momentum, with more strikes in 2019. The past year featured the most strikes out of the last 30 years. The strike wave has begun to move into the private sector, and, with the recent strike by auto-workers and metalworkers, it has begun to move into heavy industry. There have also been a series of new union branches organised at various small and medium sized businesses, and on-going attempts to organise larger workplaces like Amazon and Google.

However, the labour movement still has a long way to go to measure up to American labour’s pinnacle in the post war period, or its most militant era in the 1930s. While there have been no out-and-out defeats in the recent battles, many of the new contract agreements are of a clearly mixed character. This has the potential to limit the speed and breadth of the developing strike wave, and there are dangers that frustrations with the union leadership could lead, for a time, to demoralisation rather than the rank and file revolt on display recently. While there have been a number of protest actions taken at various jobs in response to moods in society, such as the Wayfair Walkouts against ICE, these have not been successfully linked to the need for unions in these workplaces, or to the need for unions to seriously pick up political and social demands.

The Democrat primaries are clearly narrowing down to two main contenders – Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. Sanders has made a certain comeback following his heart attack. This was reflected in his rally in New York attended by 25,000. The class polarization in US society is reflected in these primaries. The endorsement of Sanders by the ‘Squad’ of four congresswomen is significant. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s radical speech reflected the class antagonisms which have burst through in US society. However, it is clear that this is not a re-run of 2016. Sanders lost a big opportunity in 2016 by not splitting from the Democrats and launching a new party. He is compounding this mistake today and explicitly arguing for his supporters to come into the Democratic Party.

Sanders has explicitly stated that he will support whoever is the Democratic Party nominee for the Presidency. While being skilful and sympathetic to Sanders supporters, it is necessary to demand that he should break from the Democrats and form a new party, and criticize him for not doing so. The former CWI supporters in the US who broke from us on an opportunistic basis unfortunately fail to give emphasis to this issue and raise no criticism of the inadequacies of the programme advocated by Sanders or AOC and the ‘Squad’. They have unfortunately blurred the lines between themselves and the Democrats in the election campaign in Seattle.

At this stage, it appears that Biden is the front runner to win the nomination although Elizabeth Warren is increasing her support. Even if Biden is selected, a powerful mood of “anyone but Trump” will develop. The powerful pressure of ‘lesser evilism’ will be reflected in the campaign. However, at this stage, we cannot rule out a second term for Trump. In a skilful and transitional way, it remains the task of Marxists in the US to warn of the capitalist nature of the Democrats and the need to build an independent workers’ party.

Deepening crisis in Europe

Europe is confronting an ongoing crisis. The growing tensions within the EU bloc have been sharpened by the Brexit crisis. In addition to the crisis surrounding Brexit, the ongoing crisis in Italy with its budget deficit still poses the possibility of a re-eruption of the euro crisis, with the prospect of Italy crashing out. Tensions have also developed over the policy of the ECB. As we have explained in other material, these conflicts illustrate the limits of integration which took place and the inability of capitalism to overcome the limits of the nation state. The antagonisms which have developed between France and Germany illustrate this. Further instability has also been injected into the EU from some central and eastern European states.

The prospect of Germany tipping into recession next year and the prospect of a collapse of the coalition government open a new chapter in the major European power. This will have major repercussions throughout the EU. The prospect of a deepening social and political crisis in Germany is unfolding thirty years after capitalist re-unification. The triumphalism and optimism displayed by German and international capitalism then is in stark contrast to the pessimism and turmoil which exists today. As has been revealed, Thatcher advised at the time against German re-unification and urged Gorbachev not to go too far with capitalist restoration. Reflecting the rivalries between different ruling classes, she feared a strengthening of German capitalism and also wanted an element of ‘communism’ to remain intact, in order to use it as a weapon politically against the left and the working class.

Thirty years on from German reunification, GDP per individual in eastern Germany is still only 73.2% of what it is in the west. Despite a marginal narrowing of the gap there remains a significant difference in living conditions and suffering faced by the working class in the east and the west. The sense of alienation felt is reflected in the over 40% of the eastern population who consider themselves ‘east German’ rather than German and the recent decline, to 60%, of easterners who feel there has been a positive change since unification.

The winter of Merkel’s leadership may still be rocked by the collapse of the Grand Coalition government should the SPD finally withdraw from it. Support for the SPD has plummeted to an all-time low of around 14% nationally – down from the pitiful 20.5% of the vote it won in the 2017 federal elections. The CDU is also facing a decline in its support.

The failure of Die Linke to effectively intervene with a fighting alternative has allowed the far right AfD to maintain significant support in recent state elections. The onset of recession inevitably will result in even greater polarization and sharper class struggles breaking out in Germany in the coming period. The debate over the issue of nationalization which has developed on housing and the auto-industry is significant as to how political consciousness can evolve. This offers new opportunities for the German section to make significant headway, building amongst the youth and the working class.

The inability of Die Linke to capitalise on the collapse in support for the SPD echoes the failure of both the newer reformist and left populist parties to strengthen their positions in Europe. In general, there is a historic decline for the support of the former social democratic parties. In some countries, like Portugal, Denmark and, for a short time, Spain, the social democratic parties have been able to make a certain comeback electorally. However, as the experience of Sanchez and PSOE illustrates in Spain, this is not on a solid basis and can melt away very rapidly.

The mass revolutionary upheavals in Catalonia have been reignited by the savage prison sentences given to the pro-independence leaders. The brutal repression by the state and the sentences illustrate that the Spanish ruling class will not tolerate the prospect of an independent Catalonia or any breakup of the Spanish state. It is essential that Marxists adopt a correct position on the national question. It is certain to emerge as an issue in many countries as the crisis intensifies. Support for independence in Catalonia is not fixed and will ebb and flow. Should Boris Johnson win the general election in Britain then it will enhance support for independence in Scotland. Failure to adopt a correct positon on this question can break the back of left or socialist parties. Similarly the rise in sectarian tensions around Brexit in Northern Ireland emphasises the need for an independent class position.

It is correct for Marxists to support an independent socialist Catalan Republic. At the same time, it is necessary to ensure that the democratic, language and cultural rights of Spanish speakers opposed to independence are also defended, and an appeal is made to the working class in the rest of the Spanish state for a united struggle against capitalism and the right-wing parties. This is something the former CWI section in Spain, Izquierda Revolucionara, which split from us on a sectarian basis, dismissed and underestimated.

Pablo Iglesias and PODEMOS have swung sharply to the right and demanded ministerial seats in a coalition with PSOE, which Sanchez rejected. The failure of PODEMOS to offer a socialist alternative coupled with its refusal to support the independence movement in Catalonia have resulted in its continued decline.

Sanchez’s embracing of capitalism, coupled with the decline of PODEMOS mean that another hung parliament is in prospect in the Spanish election in which the right – Partido Popular and the neo-fascist VOX – make gains. This complication in the explosive situation in Spain was denied by the IR, who tried to prettify the situation and ignore these and other complications which the working class needs to overcome. In Italy polarization has also deepened over the renewed electoral growth of the ‘Liga’.

The decline of PODEMOS in Spain has been mirrored in Portugal by the failure of the Left Bloc to make headway. Together with the Communist Party they have been imprisoned into supporting the Socialist Party government and its policies by the agreement they signed up to. The Communist Party lost one third of its seats. The Left Bloc, while maintaining its vote at 10%, still lost 50,000 votes. The SP government benefited from a slight growth in the economy, largely as the result of tourism. However, this will not last. The government has already come into collision with teachers and hospital workers who took strike action in the run up to the election.

The compromise and dithering of the new left parties has been reflected by the Corbynista-led Labour Party in Britain. The turmoil over Brexit has led to an unprecedented political crisis reminiscent of the dramas previously played out in southern Europe or Latin America. A political fragmentation has run through all parties, resulting in divisions and splits. It is the synchronising of the political infrastructure with the economic reality of a rotten imperialist power.

The turmoil over Brexit has been used to mask the underlying explosive situation that exists in Britain. The constant guerrilla attacks by the right wing in the Labour Party and Corbyn’s failure to act decisively mean that the Corbynistas have not capitalized on the explosive social discontent which exists. The Tories hope that the campaign for the 12 December election will be a ‘Brexit’ one and the social and class issues will be hidden. However, as in the 2017 campaign, this is unlikely to be the case and these issues can come to the fore. This election is the most unpredictable for decades, as all the capitalist commentators acknowledge. It is not excluded that Corbyn and Labour could emerge as the largest party or even have a small overall majority. However, this is far from certain, and a Johnson victory or another hung parliament are also strong possibilities. Should Johnson win, the ground will be laid for bitter class battles to erupt. Should Corbyn and Labour win, then it will open an era of political turmoil and struggle and splits in Labour.

France under Macron has already seen big social upheavals and protests particularly in the ‘Gilet Jaunes’ movement. Strikes have broken out but the CGT and trade union federations have not unified these and other movements into a generalized struggle. Dissatisfaction with his government continues to grow and has rocketed to 65%! The reform package Macron is forcing through and attacks on the working class point to the prospect of an even bigger social explosion taking place in the short term – quite possibly after a national day of action on 5 December. Like the other ‘new’ left parties in other countries the left front, ‘France Insoumise’, has not strengthened its position.

On the brink of even bigger social explosions

Europe stands on the brink of even bigger social explosions than those which have already taken place in Catalonia and other countries. The prospect of a new recession and economic crisis in Europe and internationally will pose new issues in the struggle. The consequences of the 2007-08 crash radicalised a layer of youth and workers, and big political and social upheavals flowed from it, as we have explained in other material. The prospect of the emergence of a more rounded-out socialist consciousness will be posed, offering big opportunities to build stronger revolutionary parties of the working class.

New challenges will present themselves, posing the need for us to defend a principled revolutionary socialist programme and the application of flexible tactics. With a consistent orientation and intervention amongst the working class and youth, we can be confident the CWI will build a much stronger base amongst the working class in the coming years, and begin to shape events.