May Day 2020: Covid-19 pandemic exposes capitalist barbarism and the need for global socialism 

United Socialist Party (CWI section in Sri Lanka) on May Day march, Colombo, 2018

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) extends revolutionary socialist greetings to workers and the oppressed everywhere. This year’s May Day takes place in extraordinary circumstances. The covid-19 pandemic has fully exposed, in the words of Lenin, capitalism’s “horror without end”. The criminally reckless approach of capitalist governments to the covid-19 outbreak has resulted in workers and their families enduring great hardship and their health put in danger. All across the world, securing the basics of existence is becoming an urgent struggle. ‘Food riots’ have broken out in South Africa, Nigeria, and elsewhere.

The ‘lockdown’ means that in most countries demonstrations and other events normally associated with international workers’ day will not take place. Despite this, workers are still marking May Day, where they can. The CWI adds its voice to those militant activists calling on workers to wear red clothing on 1 May. In Ireland, CWI supporters led the way in initiating a campaign in the trade unions to encourage activists to hoist red flags and union banners in workplaces and local communities, including in both Catholic and Protestant working-class areas of the North. In Germany, CWI supporters are amongst those organising public street actions, in over thirty cities, to mark May Day. They are also calling for protest actions on 12 May, the ‘International Day for Care Workers’.

It is apt that actions of protest and solidarity will take place on May Day. The origins of marking the first of May to celebrate workers’ struggles and solidarity, worldwide, dates back to 1886 when hundreds of thousands of workers in the US fought for an eight-hour working day.

Huge death toll

Worldwide, hundreds of thousands have died of the virus and many more are infected. Cruel US sanctions against Iran and Venezuela are causing many unnecessary deaths. Globally, many more thousands, particularly those living in overcrowded, polluted, and impoverished conditions, will die from the virus. Starved and overstretched public health services mean that many people with other life-threatening illnesses and chronic conditions will not receive adequate treatment during the covid-19 crisis, adding to the huge death toll.

It is no coincidence that those countries where neo-liberal policies of privatization and deregulation went the farthest over the last three decades, such as the UK and the USA, are facing the greatest covid-19 crisis – with far more infections and deaths than anywhere else in the world.

And in the poorer capitalist countries, how are the masses living in slums, from Nigeria to Brazil, meant to carry out safe social distancing? The first cases of covid-19 related deaths are reported in Dharavi, in the heart of Mumbai, where 800,000 people live in a one-square-mile slum. The world’s shanty dwellers and poor rural populations do not have reliable, clean running water and safe sanitation. Many suffer from malnutrition, making them highly vulnerable to covid-19. This comes on top of the scourge of other preventable diseases, like tuberculosis, cholera, and malaria, which kills millions, especially children, every year in the neo-colonial world. Bodies of covid-19 victims lie in the streets of cities in Ecuador and other countries, uncollected by the authorities. Along with the coronavirus outbreak, famine threatens about three dozen nations, the World Food Programme warns, due to multiple factors related to capitalism and imperialism, including wars in Syria and Yemen.

The abject failure of capitalist governments

Capitalist governments abjectly failed to prepare for the pandemic, despite years of warnings from scientists. And the cold-hearted, chaotic response to the covid-19 outbreak starkly shows that the interests of the ruling classes are incompatible with those of working-class people. The popularity that many governments enjoyed in the initial stages of the covid-19 crisis, as fearful populations looked for assurance from ‘authorities’, is now turning into its opposite.

The lack of PPE for health workers, public transport workers, and other essential employees, is criminal, condemning many of these frontline workers to catch covid-19, becoming seriously ill and dying. In countries like Nigeria, India, and South Africa, the imposition of lockdowns, without any state benefits provided or food supplies, yet with a sharp increase in state repression, reveals the callousness of the ruling classes.

The workers’ movement must resist the attempts by capitalist governments and the mass media to ‘individualise’ responsibility for the spread of covid-19 and their efforts at demonising working-class people. Indeed, more sections of the working class are taking protest action, with workplace walkouts, and discussing strike action, over PPE and other shop floor health concerns, as well as over pay and conditions. The CWI’s co-thinkers from the Independent Socialist Group, in the USA, joined a 100-strong car cavalcade supporting nurses fighting lay-offs at a major hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, just when all health staff is most needed.  Bus drivers in London won a significant victory, with CWI members playing an important role, when they secured that passengers only enter and exit from the middle doors of buses that have this facility, helping to safeguard the health of drivers.

Throughout the covid-19 crisis, the needs of working people are clearly subordinated to the selfish economic and class interests of the capitalist class. That is why there is a push to ‘exit’ early from the lockdown by many governments, contrary to most scientific advice, revealing the ruling classes’ cruel indifference to the lives of many thousands. Trump may be the crudest ruling class representative of this ‘drive’ to force workers prematurely back to the workplaces, without adequate virus safeguards. However the US president’s approach is echoed by many other world political figures, like Merkel, in Germany, and Macron, in France, who are all compliant to the big bosses.

EU fails to respond

The nature of the profit system, which is based on the private ownership of the means of production, and the capitalist nation-state, means that a worldwide, rational, and planned global response to combating the disease is not possible. The European Union, a bosses’ club, failed to respond to cries for help from Italy when the virus struck that country. And now the EU, with its internal capitalist nation-state rivalries and tensions, particularly between the richer northern countries and southern Europe, is proving incapable of co-ordinating a common response as the virus ravages the entire continent. The future existence of the EU is put under the spotlight by these events.

The rule of capitalism, which puts competition and private profit first, is severely complicating and delaying finding a vaccine to covid-19 and developing medicines to treat those affected. In contrast, a socialist society would see scientifically-based, worldwide intervention and cooperation to end the pandemic.

Economic meltdown

The economic consequences of the lockdown actions of ruthless capitalist governments world-wide are devastating for working people and their families. Millions were made jobless overnight. Incomes collapsed. With no regular pay and severe delays in receiving state benefits lasting weeks or months, it is little surprise that many workers can no longer pay rent, energy, and food bills. Food Banks are unable to cope with the strain of hungry families. Sections of the middle classes are also facing severe hardship. Many small businesses, small traders, and the army of self-employed face ruin, as governments decide to prioritise bailing out big business.

The world capitalist economy is going into meltdown. At one point, oil prices went into zero figures as world demand slumps. The pandemic will cost the global economy $1 trillion this year, according to the World Economic Forum, and “vulnerable communities” will be “impacted the most”. The Forum also predicts that “nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost”. Even the most powerful capitalist nation in the world, the US, lies prostrate. Over 26 million Americans, who were able to, filed for unemployment benefit. Many national economies will head into a deep recession or even depression in the coming period, which will have profound effects on class relations and class struggles.

Capitalist competition not cooperation

The pandemic has not brought capitalist nations together to fully pool resources to find a rational solution to the crisis. On the contrary, it has heightened competition and rivalries between capitalist states. It is reported that governments seeking PPE from China are being gazumped by other countries just as their ordered supplies are about to fly out from Chinese airports.

Trump has used the crisis to hike up threats against China and Iran. Out of the covid-19 crisis, we will see a deepening of international tensions, competition, and clashes between world and regional powers. This will eventually lead to new bloody conflicts unless the international workers’ movement acts decisively to cut across imperialist war plans.

By exposing the capitalist system, the pandemic crisis also poses the need for socialist change. A common refrain amongst working people is that they are “not going back”, to the old ways of rule – untrammelled neo-liberal policies, global capitalist exploitation and environmental degradation. The dramatic intervention by the state, in many countries, to stave off complete economic collapse, poses the question in the minds of millions – ‘Why are huge resources not used to improve the lives of working-class people in ‘normal times’?

These developments give socialists the opportunity to present a bold socialist programme for fundamental change; getting rid of capitalism and creating a socialist society, where the economy is democratically owned and planned by the working class for the common good.

Instead, the leadership of many trade unions and labour and social democratic parties have, in effect, accepted the argument of the national bourgeoisie that this is a time for ‘national unity’. This ‘national emergency’ argument demands that working class needs have to be set aside.

But what is the ‘nation’? What does the super-rich elite, who can safely self-isolate in luxurious mansions with extensive private grounds, have in common with the mass of working class families facing sharp drops of income, a struggle to access food, and overcrowded homes?

Some of the left parties and new left formations have also gone along with the ‘national needs’ sentiment and their members of national parliaments have voted for new ‘emergency measures’. But already the results of consigning new powers to the capitalist state apparatus can be seen. The French police used heavy-handed lockdown measures in some of the poorest and most densely populated parts of Paris that have led to clashes between youth and police. In India, too, police felt free to baton-charge unarmed migrant workers.

As the CWI warned, these new powers can also be used against the organised working class. In late April, a protest by laid-off workers at the Debenhams high street store in Dublin, following social distancing rules, was dispersed by Irish police, citing new legislation to deal with covid-19. Right-wing populist regimes, such as those of Orban, in Hungary and Duterte, in the Philippines, are exploiting the pandemic to introduce more steps towards dictatorial rule and heavy military repression, including Duterte’s recommended shoot to kill approach.

Independent workers’ programme needed

The workers’ movement requires its own independent programme and organisation, at all times. Towards developing a fighting programme during the covid-19 crisis, the CWI has produced an ‘An emergency programme to fight Covid-19 and protect working people ( This is now being discussed in unions and other workers’ organisations, as well as amongst local community activists, students and other activists across the world. In Chile, India, Nigeria, and many other countries around the world, CWI comrades are to the fore in helping to draw up joint programmes and actions along with militant trade unionists and other activists.

The covid-19 pandemic exposes the brutalities and degradations of capitalism and poses stern tests for the international workers’ movement. In the future, more novel viruses and other serious diseases will confront humanity, as will other potentially catastrophic threats, such as climate change, but how they are dealt with is conditioned by the class character of society. In a society of deep social inequalities and rule by the ‘1%’ super-rich elite, the working class and poor will suffer the greatest and, in most cases, needlessly.

The future of public health, and indeed humankind and the environment, is inextricably linked to overthrowing capitalism and the socialist reorganisation of society, on a rational and democratic basis.

On May Day 2020, the CWI re-commits itself to this goal. As we remember the past brave fighters and martyrs of the workers’ movement and mourn for today’s victims of the virus of capitalism, we appeal to readers to join us in the struggle for socialism!






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April 2020