“The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It”, the title of an action programme that Lenin wrote just before the 1917 October revolution in Russia, precisely describes the current situation in much of the world. This is particularly acutely felt in most of the countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America which are facing some form of crisis or multiple crises. The general background is an extremely unstable world economic situation, dependent on debt and huge amounts of fictitious capital, that is unlikely to see any sustained growth plus the huge impact of the Covid pandemic has had on individuals and societies.
While the form, exact combination and intensity vary in each country these crises are rooted in economic, political, environmental, social and national questions. Practically no country has been left completely untouched, while some have become ‘failed’, or failing, states. Sometimes developments can be rapid as with Sri Lanka suddenly facing a severe economic crisis, raging inflation and the prospect of bankruptcy. Heavily indebted Pakistan is facing the prospect of new austerity measures. In many countries, densely populated coastal areas are threatened by rising sea waters while climate change is affecting agriculture and water supplies. Globally natural disasters are estimated to have destroyed assets worth $280 billion in 2021, the second-highest amount on record. Parts of Africa and the Middle East face wars and insurgencies. 2021 saw military coups take place in four African countries, Chad, Mali, Guinea and Sudan, as well as in Myanmar. Generally, in today’s international situation there are little, or no, prospects for substantial improvements in living standards for the broad mass of the population living in neo-colonial states.
A potentially explosive result is that many young people in these overwhelmingly youthful countries have limited prospects to look forward to apart from mass unemployment and casual work, for some the way out is migration. This rotten future is a key factor in recent major movements and political developments ranging from the resistance to military rule in Myanmar and Sudan, the struggle against autocracy and repression in Thailand, the EndSARS movement against police repression in Nigeria while Chile, alongside continuing mass protests, saw a youth-led mobilisation to defeat the far-right candidate Kast in the Chilean presidential election. However, apart from EndSARS, these have not simply been youth movements but it is young people who have spearheaded them. In contrast, although based on anger, frustration and desperation, the July 2021 clashes and looting in South Africa showed the danger that without a clear lead from the workers’ movement such developments can go into blind alleys or degenerate into criminality and ethnic clashes. This has developed to a greater or lesser extent, and in different forms, in Africa, the Middle East and Asia and parts of Latin America. Nigeria combines religious insurgency in the shape of Boko Haram and ISWAP, largescale banditry in its northwest, armed clashes between herders and arable farmers in the centre and nationalist rebellion in its south-east, all of the while have increased in the absence of the labour movement seriously fighting for a socialist alternative.
Asia, Africa and the Middle East (along with the Balkans and the former Soviet Union) have been impacted by the growing international tensions and rivalries. Once again they are being destabilised by being arenas for competition and conflict between the different world and regional powers. The humiliation of the western imperialist powers finally giving up on their failed Afghanistan ‘mission’, a 20 yearlong intervention that showed again that even the strongest imperialist powers are not invincible. US imperialism seriously tried for years to at least appear to succeed. Washington’s total spending on this war is estimated to total $2.3 trillion, while Obama briefly ramped up the number of US troops in Afghanistan from 30,000 in 2008 to 110,000 in 2011. Despite this retreat from an unwinnable mission, in the future serious interventions can be seen again when the US ruling class feels the need to decisively defend their interests internationally. However, at least in the short-term, this could be more complicated needing the building of domestic support for any sustained military action, while weighing up more carefully how to avoid getting trapped in longer deployments.
But 2021 did not only see Nato’s intervention in Afghanistan ending in defeat, but it also saw capitalism’s failure to rapidly protect the bulk of the world from Covid. Of course, the extent of Covid and other diseases in many parts of the world are partially a result of existing low living standards, poor health care and weak or non-existent basic infrastructure, all of which are results of capitalism’s failure to harmoniously develop former colonial societies. But while the development of Covid vaccines, followed by possible treatments, was rapid, illustrating recent tremendous leaps in science and technology, their production and distribution were handicapped by the capitalist drive for profit, the reluctance of capitalist governments to fund worldwide vaccination and, in some advanced capitalist countries, alienation from and distrust of government which contributed to resistance to anti-Covid measures and vaccination. Demands for an end to Covid vaccine and treatments patent secrecy grew. Even some sizeable shareholders in Moderna demanded to know why the company, which had received at least $2.5bn from the US government to fund its Covid research, charged high prices and refused to give its technology to manufacturers in low or middle-income countries.
Towards the end of 2021, the mounting fears over the Omicron variant led to a widening criticism of the short-sighted failure of the major capitalist countries to undertake a worldwide vaccination drive. The former British prime minister, Gordon Brown, pointed out that at the end of 2021 2 billion vaccine doses were being produced each month but their use was concentrated in the richer countries. Between 11 November and 21 December 2021, the EU, UK and US, with a combined population of 850 million, received 513m vaccine doses. But the continent of Africa, with 1,388 million inhabitants, saw just 250m doses administered throughout the whole of 2021. The result is that “just 3% of the almost 8 billion doses given globally have been administered in Africa, and only around 8% of Africans are fully vaccinated” (World Health Organisation). While Brown critiqued this, as a supporter of capitalism he failed to explain that the distribution of vaccines and the failure to expand its production into more countries stemmed from the profit system and especially its neo-liberal advocates.
Given the potential impact which future Covid variants could have this failure to act was short-sighted even from a capitalist point of view. The rotten character of modern capitalism and individual capitalists’ drive for profit combined to hamper what would have been a logical strategy from the point of capitalism as a whole. Towards the end of 2021, the IMF estimated it would cost $50bn to inoculate 60 per cent of the world by mid-2022. That is a large amount of money, but not out of this world. In fact, it is equal to what the US military spent in just over two years on air-conditioning for its Iraq and Afghanistan missions and far less than the $89 billion in profits the top ten pharmaceutical companies made in 2019.
Against a background of many countries still not fully recovering from the aftereffects of the 2007-2009 economic crisis the Covid pandemic has hit hard with further falls in living standards, higher unemployment and the growth of debt. Debt is not just owed to the older imperialist countries but increasingly now also to China. The World Bank president spoke of a “tragic reversal” in development, a “great finance divide” between countries and the debt of 70 ‘low-income’ nations reaching record levels, up by a record 12% in 2020 to $860bn. And, under capitalism, trying to pay the debt will mean further cuts in living standards, either directly or indirectly. Countries, like Argentina and Sri Lanka, can become trapped in a cycle of debt posing the question of new debt defaults. The IMF recently admitted the failure of its 2018 $57bn loans to Argentina which, in 2020, defaulted on its foreign debt for the ninth time. Now, against a background of over 50% inflation and 40% living in poverty, the Argentine government is trying to reschedule its IMF debt when the only solution in the interests of the majority of the population is a repudiation of this largely fictitious debt.
Falling living standards
For the masses, living standards are again falling. This has come on top of the impact of ongoing crises in many poorer countries’ economies accompanied in some cases by worsening climatic and environmental situations. Food prices have been soaring, in 2021 the FAO Food Price Index was, on average, 28.1% higher than in 2020, resulting in many being forced to cut back on the amount they eat. The United Nations estimates that already 320 million people lost access to adequate food in 2020 bringing the global total to 2.4 billion, nearly a third of the world’s total population.
But it is not just the impact of the economic crisis. Just in 2020, it is estimated that nearly 10 million people were displaced by conflict, but over 30 million were driven from their homes by storms, floods, wildfires and droughts. In September 2021 the World Bank forecast that by 2050 climate change could have forced 216 million people to migrate within their own country. Simply without air pollution people in India would live an average of 5.9 years longer, more than double the global average of 2.2 years.
In one country after another, the question is sharply posed, especially for youth, of what future beckons or, often, threatens?
The instability is added to by the international situation of increasing rivalry not simply between the US and China, but also a growing scramble for strategic positions, influence and profit-making involving major and minor imperialist powers (like Turkey), rival states and, within states, different ethnicities, religions or tribes. While the intensity of conflicts and disputes varies, there is not a continent that is free from them and can be especially sharp in poorer nations. Currently, practically nearly all of Africa sees such conflicts ranging from the Maghreb and North Africa southwards to the Sahel, East and West Africa and wider to Central Africa and Mozambique. The longstanding conflicts within the Middle East have been inflamed by the changing world balance of forces and the strengthening of Iran’s position after the US-led invasion of Iraq. The development of new alliances between Israel and some Arab states do not mean either an end to the Palestinians’ plight or the threat of future conflicts involving Israel. While, at present, the conflicts in the Middle East are, apart from Yemen, generally diplomatic or of low intensity they can flare up rapidly, as seen repeatedly in Gaza, something which is also true of the situation in the South and south-east Asia.
As the CWI has explained over recent decades a characteristic of this period of repeated crisis has been the political weakness of many working-class movements. This is a result of two main factors. Firstly, the impact of Stalinism’s collapse on political consciousness, especially the general idea of socialism as the alternative to capitalism. In addition the degeneration of most of the former social democratic and many communist parties into clearly pro-capitalist formations or ones that do not clearly raise the question of socialism as anything more than a nostalgic reference to the past.
This has meant that either most of the workers’ organisations that currently exist do not even formally present a socialist alternative to the current crises or there are countries where there are no workers’ organisations that even potentially could present such an alternative. Where such vacuums exist other, non-working class forces can develop and guide the undoubted anger and discontent into other channels such as national, religious or tribal ones. Thus Islamic fundamentalist forces have grown in different parts of Africa and Asia, while there are signs of an ISIS revival in parts of the Middle East. Meanwhile in Brazil and India Bolsonaro and Modi respectively use religious fundamentalism as means of mobilising support.
The absence or weakness of the workers’ movement is a key factor in the sharpening of the national question in many countries with ethnic conflicts, tendencies towards the breakup of states and Balkanisation. This is especially widespread in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, regions which especially suffered from the way in which the rival imperialisms historically divided or combined lands between themselves. In the absence of a strong workers’ movement, social crises can accelerate the tendencies towards a breakup. The non-sectarian protests in Lebanon illustrate the potential alternative, but without clear policies and strategies, they can fail in their objective. In such circumstances, the workers’ movement needs to be equipped with a programme that combines the defence of minorities and the right of self-determination with striving to build a united movement fighting for democratic rights and a government of representatives of workers and the poor to begin a socialist transformation. Even when supporting the creation of new nation-states Marxists argue that they must defend the rights of all, including minorities within it, and be led by a government with the programme of breaking with capitalism. However, from the outset such a new nation founded on the basis of breaking with capitalism would need an internationalist perspective, appealing both for support for its right to exist and for workers and poor internationally to follow its example, break with capitalism and join in starting to build a socialist future.
In Africa and parts of the Middle East, an increasing characteristic of this unstable period is a tendency towards the disintegration of society, the collapse of the infrastructure and, in some instances, the break-up of nation-states. The break-ups can be ethnically, religiously or linguistically based or, as in the case of Libya, back into the entities which existed prior to modern imperialists establishing their colonial rule. In these situations of collapse, there have been positive examples like working people in South Africa themselves coming together to provide some of the basic needs of everyday life to the communities they live in. Something similar has developed in Sudan where, in some areas, the Resistance Committees have provided food and arranged medical care while organising struggle against military rule.
Spontaneous mass movements
A regular feature of this period is the rise of spontaneous mass movements that come to pose a challenge to the entire capitalist system. The Estallido Social (social outburst) in Chile which, starting from a small rise in Santiago transport fares in 2019, became a massive rebellion against both the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship and the old political parties which shattered the old political system and put the ruling class onto the defensive. Tax increases and the official response to the Covid pandemic helped spark the mighty protests, including general strikes, in Colombia during 2021 which saw grassroots organising for wider demands The building of new or revitalisation of existing workers’ organisations are key steps. The two-day national strike of Iranian teachers, followed by national days of action, in December 2021 marked an important stage in that country’s workers’ struggles and the development of independent workers’ organisations since 2017. With 230 strikes and protests taking place in Iran in December 2021, there can be no doubt about the potential for the development of a workers’ movement offering a class alternative for workers, poor and oppressed to fight for.
While spontaneous movements are extremely important and can, in some cases, actually challenge and threaten the overthrow of ruling classes, without a clear programme and plan of concrete steps such revolutions will not be completed. This is why Marxists have constantly explained the key role of a conscious working-class movement, especially with an organised body of revolutionaries, to lead struggles/revolutions that can break the grip of capitalism and imperialism.
It has been the absence of such movements and political organisations with a clear socialist programme and strategy that has meant that while there have been repeated struggles and revolutions over recent years there have been no conscious movements to seize power from ruling classes. This has resulted, again and again, in revolutions being derailed or defeated as ruling classes buy time by incorporating popular and workers’ leaders into pro-capitalist governments that declare they will “defend” the revolution when in fact, consciously or unconsciously, they are defending capitalism.
When opposing old elites and corrupt parties the idea of building ‘youth parties’ has arisen within some of the youth movements, as briefly seen in the EndSARS protest although no such party actually materialised. Socialists welcome the idea of building new parties that genuinely fight for the interests of youth, working people and the poor but that warn that while young people can be their driving force such parties need to be based on a socialist programme not on age, age itself is no barrier to opportunism or corruption.
Depending on the situation this will not simply lead to a ruling class being able to stabilise its rule as before but can be accompanied by brutal repression. In general under the banner of fighting terrorism, and now Covid, internationally ruling classes have been adding to their armouries by strengthening state forces, adopting new laws and techniques of control, surveillance and repression. This has been accompanied by the growth of mercenary forces, paramilitaries, ‘unofficial’ methods and militias used both in repression and internal conflicts.
These developments put the questions of defending democratic rights and defeating the various forms of suppression high on the agenda.
While the workers’ movement can suffer defeats, sometimes severe ones, the movement will begin to revive at some point. In South Asia, we have seen reactionary and authoritarian governments facing protests, challenges and even defeat. In Malaysia, the UMNO, which dominated the country’s political situation for its first 61 years of independence, was swept aside in 2018. The important setback inflicted on the Modi government in India by the yearlong mass farmers’ movement is extremely significant and can give confidence to other layers. In Sri Lanka, despite the continuing aftermath of the civil war and a repressive government, there have been important strikes of teachers, health and now power workers. Pakistan has also seen recent workers’ struggles and opposition to the increasing influence of Chinese imperialism. Similarly in the Middle East, there has been non-sectarian protests in Lebanon against corruption and the virtual collapse of the economy, while in Iraq there have been mass demonstrations against the government. Significantly in Tunisia the trade union movement, despite its reformist leadership that did not oppose President Saied’s constitutional coup, remains an important point of reference for struggle.
Most strikingly has been the unfolding movement in Myanmar and the revolution which began in Sudan at the end of 2018. Despite the Myanmar military’s repression, with at least 1,300 dead in 10 months, the mass opposition to the February 2021 coup has continued. While mass demonstrations have largely stopped for now there has been a growth of an insurgency against the military, partly based amongst national minorities, but also more widely based, something that is seen in the steady stream of defectors from the military joining the rebels. The December 2021 “silent strike”, a stay at home protest, was widely supported.
While in India the trade unions have called well supported general strikes – over 250 million workers participated in a November 2020 strike – these have not been called as part of a plan of action to mobilise the broadest layers, including poor farmers, in the struggle against both the government and capitalism itself. Again this is seen in the initial call for a two-day strike in February 2022.
However simply calling open-ended general strikes, as has often been the case in Nigeria, is not a programme in itself. The Nigerian trade union leaders have used general strikes as ‘safety valves’, determined to limit their impact and, in September 2020, actually called one-off at the last minute out of fear that once started, it would be difficult for them to control. The Nigerian leaders feared a repeat of January 2012 when a mass spontaneous protest movement led to an indefinite general strike. That movement, the biggest so far in Nigerian history, showed the power of mass action but also that such general strikes pose the question of power, of who runs the country. Unlimited general strikes cannot continue indefinitely and, if the old regime is allowed to continue in power, will result in a lost opportunity to change society even if concessions are won. Nevertheless, the trade union leaders are not immune from mass pressure as seen at the end of 2021 when the combination of multiple crises and rising anger forced the Nigerian union leaders to call for action against threatened price rises; while the protests were called off when the government retreated this development gave Marxists another opportunity to advance a concrete plan of action and programme to fight for along with the need for a fighting leadership.
While sometimes sustained mass protests can so undermine a regime that it loses its base or splits with a section of the rulers favouring concessions to buy time. This is what happened in Egypt in 2011. But in Myanmar the regime, with its military leaders also heavily involved in the economy, has so far remained largely intact and determined to sit the movement and rising insurgency out, increasingly using repression to maintain their power.
This poses the question of what next in the struggle against the Myanmar junta? It is not only a question of removing the military regime but what should then follow? Marxists argue that the question is not simply how to build a mass movement and prepare for an insurrection to remove the military. Just removing the existing military tops will not resolve the issues facing the Myanmar masses and, if no fundamental changes took place would leave the road open for a future repressive regime. The alternative is a conscious drive to mobilise mass support for a transitional programme that includes democratic demands, the call for a revolutionary constituent assembly and a programme to transform Myanmar by putting power into the hands of the working class, poor and oppressed.
At the same time, in a way similar to the situation in Algeria, at this point in the struggle, there are the questions of how to build the movement including what organisations can be built and maintained, whether it is in a ‘legal’, semi-legal or clandestine character, plus how to continue the mass mobilisations and defend the movement from attack, including the role of armed units. While the repression obviously can hinder the functioning of the mass movement it needs to be firmly established that the key to defeating the junta is the active involvement of the broadest layers around a clear socialist programme and plan of action.
This is also clearly posed in the Sudanese revolution although, at the time of writing, the regime in Khartoum is weaker than that in Myanmar and facing a more organised movement, especially in the Resistance Committees and on the streets. In 10 weeks between the October 25 counter-revolutionary coup and the end of 2021, there were 11 days of national mass protests against military rule. Repression could not stop this determined opposition to the military tops being in government. Now in Sudan the further strengthening of the Resistance Committees, while ensuring that they are democratic and involve wide layers of the population, is key to laying the basis not just for the ousting of the military but also the opportunity to transform the country.
Revolution and programme
In all revolutions the issue of a programme to answer the popular demands for change and propose concrete steps for its implementation is key. The October 2021 Sudanese counter-coup was based on the hope that the civilian government’s failure would lead to sizeable sections welcoming the return of the military. Despite military supporters denouncing the civilian ministers as the “hunger government” after they implemented an IMF austerity package in mid-2021, the military tops’ coup pushing aside their erstwhile civilian partners and once again openly ruling provoked a new revolutionary upsurge. But this does not always happen, disappointment with the results of revolution can, at a certain point, prepare the way for counter-revolution. That is why the question of a socialist action programme, like that which Lenin outlined in September 1917 in his “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It”, is vital to secure success.
The argument that simply “unity” is needed to defend revolutions is only partially true, the real question is the unity of whom and for what? The maximum unity of the working class and oppressed is absolutely vital. Joint, “united front” style actions with other forces against reaction are possible, as the Bolsheviks did against Kornilov’s August 1917 coup attempt. But that is not at all the same as accepting the continuation of capitalism as the basis of, for example, participation in government or other forms of joint action.
In Sudan, the call for “peoples’ power” has become widespread as a focal point against the continuation of military rule. That can be a starting point but Socialists give flesh to that demand, arguing that real “peoples’ power” can only be built on the basis of further building of popular and democratic organisations like the Resistance Committees, the removal of the military tops and the nationalisation under the democratic control of the key economic sectors by a government of workers’ and poor representatives. The absence of a political force arguing for the Resistance Committees to link together and form, with other genuinely popular forces, a revolutionary government that carries the above programme has given space to enemies of a genuine revolution. The so-called ‘Sudan Troika’ (Norway, Britain and the United States) and European Union, under the banner of the United Nations, are trying to set up a pro-capitalist government involving “a broad range of civilian stakeholders” that they hope will subdue the mass mobilisations. They desperately hope to get leaders of the Resistance Committees to join such a government and thereby act as a brake on the revolution. Participation in such a government must be opposed by activists and counterpoised by the idea of struggling for a real, social, revolution. While such an imperialist backed move may temporally succeed, it will not end the revolution. The revolution was not simply against repression and corruption, it was also about using the newly won rights to achieve a better life and that struggle will continue.
The rebirth of workers’ struggles in Iran since 2017 which has seen repeated strikes strike waves and demonstrations on industrial issues and questions like water supplies has seen a rising level of consciousness which has included demands for renationalisation, under workers’ control, of privatised companies. The joint 2021 May Day statement by 15 workers, pensioners and other organisations argued, among other points, that “today, the absence of workers’ organisations in all workplaces, regions and on a national level, is felt more than ever, and demands immediate and inclusive efforts to establish such independent organisations”. A two-day national teachers’ strike in December 2021 was a step in that direction.
Clearly in such structures, all organisations representing the interests of the Iranian working class could unite in order to organise, debate and coordinate the struggles together.
Many in Iran are looking for an alternative. Low election turnouts in times of struggle indicate widespread disappointment with ‘reformist’ wing of the regime. Undoubtedly the western imperialist powers will try to intervene and influence the opposition using the banners of “human rights” and “democracy”. They will hypocritically denounce President Raisi while keeping close ties with the brutal Saudi dictatorship and try to win influence within the opposition. The workers’ movement in Iran and internationally needs to be aware of ‘false friends’ and develop its own independent programme.
This makes it more urgent to start a discussion on the foundation of an independent workers’ party and on what its programme should be. Such a party is necessary to unite the struggles of the workers and youth and keep them independent from capitalist forces. But to do this successfully it would need to argue for a socialist programme that can mobilise the working class and poor to break with the capitalist system.
Revolutionaries see that a key task is building independent, mass revolutionary organisations, something which is linked to the general development of the workers’ movement. Where workers are unorganised, whether in trade unions or in political parties, we seek to help them organise both to be able to struggle against employers and also to begin to politically organise separately from capitalist forces. In countries with large numbers of day labourers, casual workers, small traders and unemployed the question of organising them in support of wider struggle is of great importance. But, at the same time as helping in the basic organisation of the working class, revolutionaries also argue for a programme linking immediate struggles with the need to overthrow capitalism.
As the CWI has previously explained the development of workers’ parties does not happen in the same way. In some cases clearly, revolutionary parties have built themselves as mass forces at the same time as the workers’ movement grew. In other cases, broader organisations, like trade unions and union-sponsored parties, developed in which Marxists played a role and argued for their programme. A mixture of these trends was seen in the history of the German social democracy from its 1875 unification on a non-Marxist programme to the adoption of a fundamentally Marxist programme at its 1891 Erfurt congress. Obviously, Marxists have learnt lessons from social democracy’s initial growth and later degeneration. We do not aim to simply repeat history which is why the revolutionaries themselves have to be organised from the beginning. The combination of building specifically working class organisations and political struggle for a Marxist programme is what we call the “dual tasks” that revolutionary organisations face today.
The political struggle to build an independent workers’ party is currently key in most countries. Such parties may initially develop via different routes – for example, the growth of workers’ political organisations, structures built during mass struggles or, in some countries, the trade unions directly or indirectly sponsoring their formation. However, a common factor is that often today trade union leaders attempt to block such political developments while being in alliance with bourgeois political forces or trying to maintain a “non-political” posture. The root of these sorts of policies is the pro-capitalist trade union leaders’ fears of challenging the local ruling classes, breaking alliances with existing political forces which serve them well or because of their anxiety of where such parties, when formed, will politically go.
Thus in Nigeria, the trade union leaders have repeatedly blocked such a development, even once forming a Labour Party, but then refusing to let it develop as a genuine party and losing control of it to opportunist bourgeois elements. Now in the run-up to the 2023 elections, they would like to get back control of it both in order to possibly make deals with political leaders and to make it easier for them to head off calls – initiated by CWI comrades and the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) which they launched that now have been taken up by some others – for a real workers’ party to be built.
In South Africa, the ongoing decline of the ANC, seen in its vote falling below 50% in the 2021 local government elections, has posed more sharply the question of a workers’ party. Faced with the reality of the ANC’s pro-capitalist policies and massive corruption the then newly formed South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) convened a Working Class Summit (WCS) in 2018 where a thousand youth, community and trade union delegates adopted a declaration to form a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. CWI comrades in South Africa, who ensured that the workers’ party issue was discussed at Saftu’s 2017 founding Congress, have consistently argued for this decision to be implemented. However, all factions of the Saftu leadership have ultimately tried to ignore the resolution, aided by petty-bourgeois academics and NGOs within the WCS. The Stalinist grouping leading the metalworkers’ union Numsa, who also dominate the Saftu leadership, tried to block the implementation of the WCS decision by suddenly forming the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party in 2018. They falsely claimed the SRWP is the party the working class has been waiting for. However, the SRWP failed abysmally in the 2019 elections and a leaked internal report shows it has less than 900 paid-up members. SRWP’s extremely top-down manner, stifling initiative, is already leading to internal crises while also unattractive to Numsa and Saftu members. The reconvened WCS has been postponed several times over the past year, but the Steering Committee, on which our comrades are represented, is preparing to hold it early in 2022 and our comrades call for it set a date for the launch of a workers’ party. It is not a certainty that the reconvened WCS will agree to this. Whether what is established is a movement or a party will of course determine our tactics, but that would nonetheless represent an important step forward.
The bureaucratic behaviour of Stalinists and sometimes other groups are not the only barriers to the development of truly democratic, sizeable workers’ parties. Although having a lesser effect than in the past, where they still exist the Communist Parties continue to defend the Menshevik rooted ‘stages’ theory adopted by the Stalinists internationally in the 1930s. They use this as a justification for the workers’ movement not being politically independent and linking together campaigning for immediate demands linked to the need for the working class to lead the movement to break with capitalism and begin a socialist transformation. This method, summed up in two of the main slogans of the Bolsheviks in Russia 1917, namely “Peace, Land, Bread” and “All Power to the Soviets”, started to be dropped in the 1920s as the ideas and methods of Stalinism began to transform both the Soviet Union and Communist Parties internationally. Thus in India, both the CPI and CPM repeatedly form alliances and coalitions with bourgeois forces, work within capitalism and never raise the idea of a workers’ front that could mobilise the mass of the population not just against the Modi government but to fight for socialist change.
This approach is also a factor in the ‘lesser evil’ mood commonly seen in elections. Obviously, as the 2021 Chilean presidential election showed, in a polarised situation there can be both huge pressures to cast a “useful vote” and sometimes the election result can be a serious question. In Chile, there can have been no doubt that a victory for the far-right Kast would have been a defeat which probably would have led to a serious attack on youth, women, indigenous peoples and the working class. In the first round of voting the CWI comrades in Chile did not advocate a vote for any candidate and argued for preparation for a continuation of struggles after the election, they did not call for a vote for Boric, the eventual winner, as he represented the pro-capitalist elements within the Frente Amplio electoral coalition. But the surprise victory for Kast in the first round changed the situation, Kast represented a serious threat and provoked a further polarisation and mobilisation that produced a big, nearly 1.25 million, increase in the numbers voting, from 47.33% in the first round to 55.65% in the second, to block the Pinochet apologist Kast. This was not the second-round contest that the majority of the Chilean ruling class wanted, in fact, the election was another example of “traditional” parties collapsing. Immediately after the first round, the Chilean CWI called for a vote against Kast in the second round while continuing to call for building a movement for a real, socialist alternative.
Now a similar situation is developing in Brazil in the run-up to the October 2022 Brazilian elections for the President, vice-President and National Congress. As in other Latin American countries, there is a tremendous polarisation, a result both of history and the current Bolsonaro presidency. The far-right, populist Bolsonaro is attempting to be re-elected through a combination of new social measures, demagogy and Trump-style threats to not accept an election defeat by mobilising his base and supporters within the military.
The pressure to defeat Bolsonaro is immense and Lula, currently the leading candidate, could win. This poses a dilemma for the Brazilian ruling class as they are not confident that Lula can repeat the relative stabilisation he brought during his first time as president. While the ex-workers leader, Lula, has for a very long time willingly adopted a pro-capitalist course, the ruling class fear that Lula, notwithstanding his support for capitalism, would come under pressure from below to carry out reforms. This would be different from the situation after he first became President when, a few months into his first term in office, Lula moved to consolidate his position and weaken the left by launching a pre-emptive strike against left-wing critics, expelling 4 national congress members from the PT (Workers Party) after they opposed a worsening of public sector pensions.
These expulsions helped form the basis for the creation of the Brazilian left party Psol, Party of Socialism and Liberty, in 2004. From its foundation, there have been debates in Psol on the questions of programme, strategy and its relations with other political forces. Now in the run-up to the 2022 elections, a debate is taking place on whether Psol should run a candidate in the first round of the presidential vote. Psol’s September 2021 Congress voted, by 56% to 44%, to postpone to April 2022 taking a decision on whether to run a presidential candidate. As the minority wanted Psol to present a candidate this postponement was clearly an attempt not simply to delay taking a decision but preparing not to run. It represented a rightward trend towards ‘lesser evilism’ similarly seen in many other left formations in other countries, but this time in the first round where there is practically no chance of Bolsonaro winning. Clearly, if Bolsonaro is in the second round then it would be correct to call for a ‘vote against Bolsonaro’ while, drawing on the lessons of the PT presidencies, arguing the need to prepare to struggle after the elections. In this sense it would be a kind of ‘united front’ tactic on the electoral plain, striking a common blow against the far rightist Bolsonaro but keeping political independence from the pro-capitalist Lula.
Repeatedly, and understandably, the defeat of right wing regimes, the overthrow of dictators and even the defeat of right candidates by what is seen to be the left in elections produce enthusiasm. 2021 saw that with the victories of Castillo in Peru, Xiomara Castro in Honduras and Boric in Chile. Marxists understand that enthusiasm – share in the joy at the defeat of the right but at the same time resist being “intoxicated” by an initial victory that is still incomplete. In Russia in 1917 Lenin repeatedly warned against being “intoxicated” by the success of the February victory when the revolution was still not completed and the danger of counter-revolution was still present.
In such situations, it is necessary to clearly say what needs to be the next steps to avoid such victories not leading to eventual defeat rather than fundamental change. Conclusions need to be drawn from the rich history of struggle and revolutions in Latin America and elsewhere of the necessity of having a clear programme and using all means, including electoral positions, to win support for it.
That means being prepared not to make unprincipled concessions and to strive to build an active mass movement. Popular Unity in Chile was handicapped from the beginning by its domination by Communist Party leaders and the right wing of the Socialist Party who, ruling out breaking with capitalism ‘at this stage’, acted as a brake on the movement. Increasingly this was opposed by those who reflected the growing revolutionary sentiments of increasing sections of workers and youth as the objective situation polarised between revolution and counter-revolution between 1970 and 1973.
The years since then have seen mighty movements, lost opportunities and severe defeats for the workers’ movements in Latin America. While Cuba maintained a largely nationalised economy it has been through different crises since the early 1990s. Now Covid had a big impact as tourism fell while the Biden administration maintained the tougher sanctions introduced by Trump. Although there is international sympathy for Cuba it is not seen as such an alternative as it was before. Despite limited debate within Cuba, including criticisms of the openings towards capitalism, the regime’s harsh response to the July 2021 protests shows that it is fearful. There is no doubt that there is the danger of a full capitalist counter-revolution. The CWI has argued that this can only be countered by a programme that combines genuine workers’ democracy, an end to a privileged elite, a democratically controlled emergency economic programme and a genuinely internationalist appeal not just for solidarity but for workers and youth in other countries to carry through a break with capitalism and start to construct a genuine socialist democracy.
However, although in Latin America there are now some forces that mention ‘socialism’ in words, a combination of the failure of previous ‘left’ governments like Allende’s in Chile, the collapse of most Stalinist states and the deep crisis in Venezuela helped push many left leaders further down the road of working within capitalism. In many cases this was the result of workers’ or left leaders not being prepared to break with capitalism and, linked to that, being in alliances with pro-capitalist elements and forces. This is the basis for the crises that frequently hit so-called ‘left’ or ‘progressive’ governments trying to work within capitalism. In Honduras, the first crisis struck Xiomara Castro even before she was sworn in as president when her Libre party split with a section of its parliamentarians making a deal with the corrupt traditional parties that is likely to block any meaningful reforms. The only way to defeat such sabotage is to mobilise a mass movement around a clear programme of breaking with capitalism. But a refusal of what is seen as left governments to take this step inevitably leads, especially in times of crisis, disappointment and can open the door to right wing governments and even counter-revolution. However such right wing governments often do not have a secure basis, having come into office on the basis of disappointment with previous ‘left’ governments.
The situation facing Castillo in Peru after his June 2021 election as President was, in some ways, similar to Xiomara Castro’s. He faced an overwhelmingly hostile parliament, something which could only be overcome by using the Presidency and an independent movement outside parliament to build active mass support for socialist change. But this has not happened. Initially, Castillo tried to balance between different forces – appointing a prime minister from Peru Libre, a party that describes itself as Marxist and under whose banner he stood for the presidency while making a pro-capitalist former World Bank economist economics minister. This lasted 69 days before Castillo replaced the prime minister, a rightward move criticised by a special Peru Libre party congress. Disappointment with Castillo is mounting, his popularity fell to just 25% last December. While Castillo might zigzag under pressure, this situation cannot last indefinitely. Without revolutionaries building a mass movement that has a clear socialist programme and strategy to break with capitalism, there is the danger, sooner or later, of a return of reaction.
The challenge of building outside parliaments also faces the now four-party Workers’ Left Front – Unity (FIT-U) in Argentine. In the November 2021 election, it won 1,373,548 votes (5.91%) and doubled its number of national Chamber of Deputies seats from 2 to 4, thus surpassing its previous high of 1,211,252 votes (5.36%) and three seats in 2013. Clearly, this is a significant vote for these parties, which describe themselves as Trotskyists, and needs to be a base from which to challenge Peronism and build wider support within the working class. With such a base the key question facing any Marxist party is how to win a majority within the working class, the same question which faced the Bolsheviks after the February revolution.
But developments will not take place in a straight line. Given the scale of the crisis it is possible that, as Trotsky wrote in the Transitional Programme, in “completely exceptional circumstances” governments “may go further than they wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie”. This is why sections of the Brazilian ruling class fear a new Lula presidency that could be pushed by mass movements to take measures they oppose. A challenge facing Marxists is how to respond to such developments?
This question can also arise where, for example, military coups like Mali, have at least some initial backing as they are believed to be against corrupt rulers. In a different form, the Tunisian president’s move against the government and parliament gathered some popular support and faced no immediate large scale opposition. Where, for example, real reforms or even limited action against the corrupt were being offered Marxists in dialogue with broader layers would be sensitive to the mood. Any positive steps would be welcomed while from the outset Marxists would stress the need for the working class to play an independent role, defend democratic rights and, with a socialist programme, argue for a government of the workers and poor based on popular organisations.
Clearly, the details depend upon the exact circumstances. In Egypt, in February 2011 the military intervention was clearly aimed at safeguarding the system by sacrificing the Mubarak clique. On the day Mubarak resigned the CWI warned about the military’s possible future role in a statement distributed in Cairo and argued that “The demands of the workers, poor and youth cannot be met unless all the elements of the old regime are completely removed. Capitalism cannot offer a way forward for Egyptian society. The Left must not join any coalition government with pro-capitalists; for a government of the representatives of workers, small farmers and the poor that carries out a genuine socialist transformation of Egypt.”
In today’s stormy period the struggle to build support for the ideas of socialism and the means to achieve that goal remains the number one priority for revolutionaries. This is linked to the need to rebuild or build the workers’ movement as a genuine fighting force. Some NGOs have played roles in struggles and in countries like India NGOs are now under attack and need to be defended. However socialists, especially in the neo-colonial world, need to fight against the political influence of those NGOs and government ‘developmental’ agencies which attempt to keep struggles “non-political”, i.e. working within the system, while limiting attempts to build genuine independent, campaigning workers’ organisations. The NGO-isation of activists, groups and struggles can only be resisted by not allowing any “non-political” approach to cut across campaigning for support for socialist ideas and building workers’ organisations.
Every continent can give examples of mighty struggles; the challenge is to build the political support and organisations that can give the movements a programme and strategy not just to win the immediate demands but to change society. There can be no doubt that a victory in one country would have a rapid international impact, greater in scale than the revolutionary wave, the “days that shook the world”, that followed the 1917 Russian revolution. That is the perspective for getting out of the horrendous situation much of the world faces right now and as long as capitalism remains.