May Day 2022: Capitalism in crisis means falling living standards and war – Build a workers’ socialist movement to defend living standards and end capitalist chaos

May Day, historically the day on which the workers’ movement marks its internationalism and commitment to socialism, takes place this year with the world in turmoil: living standards falling in nearly all countries around the world, while the war in Ukraine is producing sharpening rhetoric and escalating polarisation between the big powers. In a matter of months, millions have been turned into refugees in Ukraine, joining the millions more refugees who have fled conflicts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Around the world, tens of millions are suffering and hundreds of millions are worried about the future.

Inflation is not just cutting living standards but, along with shortages and unemployment, means that millions, both in rich and poor countries, are not able to eat properly. And this while the super-rich get richer or, at worse, suffer slight losses but still live in luxury.

In this situation the challenge facing working people is, what can be done? What is the way out? It is clear that the capitalist leaders have no answer to falling living standards; at best they offer very limited partial relief. The world economy was already deteriorating before the fighting started in Ukraine, a development which again illustrates capitalism’s chaotic character and regular crises.

However, at the present time, there is generally an absence of the workers’ movement posing an alternative or even leading decisive action to stop living standards falling. This needs to be corrected so that the capitalist attacks can be defeated and, most importantly, a movement is built that can break the power of capitalism and start to establish the basis for a socialist society where the world’s resources, human and material, are used in the interests of the entire population and not private profit.

The capitalist leaders cannot be trusted and, in many cases, already are not trusted in their own countries. In their defence of their system and the interests of their own capitalist classes, these leaders just lie or speak hypocritically. A large part of Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine is the need to defend Russians in Ukraine from oppression while, within Russia itself, Putin’s regime is increasingly repressive. The western allies speak of defending Ukraine from invasion when many of them supported, at least initially, the 2003 US and British-led invasion of Iraq, a war which saw cities devastated, and today they have no problems with invasions and bombardments carried out by their allies like Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Right now, the war in Ukraine appears to be deepening with potentially international repercussions. The fears, especially in Europe, of the war expanding are being exploited by the western ruling classes not just to justify their current policies but also for rearmament programmes.

From the beginning of this conflict, the Committee for a Workers’ International opposed the Russian invasion while defending democratic rights, including the right to self-determination, in both Russia and Ukraine. We recognised that Ukrainian workers had the right to defend themselves but argued that there can be no trust in or support for the anti-trade union pro-oligarch Ukrainian government, and that there needed to be opposition to far-right and fascist elements within Ukraine and a socialist internationalist approach of appealing to Russian workers and youth to oppose Putin and this war.

As well as again demonstrating the hypocrisy of capitalist leaders, the war in Ukraine is another illustration of the vacuum created by the absence of independent workers’ organisations campaigning for a socialist transformation of society. The overthrow of the pro-oligarch governments in both Russia and Ukraine by working people in both countries is the only real starting point for removing the roots of the conflict. While in the future there can be ceasefires and treaties, as long as capitalism remains there will be the potential for future conflicts.

This is why it is ever more urgent that a socialist movement is built, both nationally and internationally, that battles to defend and improve living standards, fights oppression, opposes capitalist wars, and fights for an end to the capitalist system which cannot provide a stable and enjoyable life, threatens to wreck the environment, and whose whole history has been marked by wars of oppression and between rival gangs of capitalists.

In addition to inflation’s brutal attack on living standards, today the planet is plagued with wars; banditry and insecurity in different continents; growing tensions on a global scale like those between the US and China or between regional powers; an unstable world economic situation; worsening signs of climate change such as the recent devastating floods that killed over 400 people in South Africa; and the Covid pandemic, which has not disappeared. It is not accidental that last year, even before the Ukraine war, worldwide military spending reached a new record of two trillion US dollars, 40% of which was spent by US itself.

In past weeks, a series of reports issued by some key, pro-capitalist, international agencies have described the growing social and economic crises. The World Bank warned of a “human catastrophe” caused by a food crisis. It spoke of a possible “huge” 37% rise in food prices plus a “crisis within a crisis”, as developing countries became unable to service their large pandemic debts, amid rising food and energy prices. This situation has already developed in Sri Lanka. The World Bank added that the combination of the Covid pandemic, growing inflationary pressures and the war in Ukraine will lead to an additional 75-95 million people living in extreme poverty in 2022, compared to its pre-pandemic projections.

The UN confirmed this was happening, reporting that 77 million people slipped into poverty in 2021 as governments struggled to service debts and secure early vaccine access. The UN predicted that some 20% of countries will not return to pre-2019 levels of GDP per capita by the end of 2023 — and that was before taking into account the impact and costs of the Ukraine war.

Across the world there has been resistance to this onslaught. In recent weeks Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Peru have seen widespread protests over inflation and shortages. Peru is the latest illustration that attempts by ‘lefts’ to work within capitalism inevitably lead, at the very least, to disappointment and, at worse, to severe defeats for the workers’ movement. Peru has been in almost continuous crisis since ‘left’ President Castillo assumed office. Elected in the middle of last year, Castillo faces a parliament dominated by pro-capitalist forces, but he has not attempted to mobilise mass support outside parliament and strives to work within the capitalist system. The result is disappointment for his supporters and the opportunity for the right to exploit the current chaos in order to remove him from office.

But this was not inevitable. Castillo’s election was, to use the words of the New York Times, “however narrow the margin … the clearest repudiation of the country’s establishment in 30 years”, in other words a rejection of the ruling class. But the only way that such an electoral victory could lead to the country’s transformation was to use Castillo’s popular base to build a movement that challenged and broke with capitalism. The political decision not to pursue this path can open the way to a resurgence of the right, unless activists draw the conclusions from this experience that it is necessary to have a clear socialist programme and organisations, in particular a party, which fights for it.

In Peru, this process is developing very quickly but it is not unique; it has been seen before in Peru and other countries, and now in Chile, given the similar decision by the new president Boric to work within capitalism, it will be repeated there. While these questions are generally posed sharply in Latin America, they also apply internationally where we have seen ‘left’ parties join governments which attempt to administer capitalism. In this time of crisis such policies which lead to abandonment of promised reforms and even attacks on working people which can create an opening for right populism to exploit if new, genuinely socialist, forces do not develop.

The “repudiation of the country’s establishment”, which was the basis of Castillo’s election victory, is not by any means limited to Peru. It is a worldwide phenomenon of alienation and anger driven by the rottenness, particularly corruption and repression, of traditional institutions and parties alongside the huge polarisation of wealth both internationally and within individual countries.

It is striking how many of the world’s ruling classes and their parties are bitterly divided. This was seen in the recent French presidential election, which saw a collapse of the parties that had dominated French politics for decades. Even if in future they somewhat recover electorally, this would not be on a stable basis. This collapse of old parties has already been seen in a number of countries and can happen in more. It reflects the widespread disappointment and distrust in political systems. A survey this year found that a third of all Germans believe they live in a “sham democracy” in which “citizens have no say”. The fact that a majority of Republicans in the US believe Trump won the 2020 election both reflects this mistrust and is also an indication of the tensions and potential struggles which will surround future US elections.

Despite Macron’s re-election, he is not popular. The French presidential election’s first round showed a polarised society, with the ‘far left’ and far right gaining 58% of the vote compared with Macron’s 27.8%. If the ‘far left’ had stood together on a clear, principled programme not only would it have been likely to get into the second round but also could have appealed to some of those attracted by Le Pen’s economic and social promises. Despite Le Pen’s defeat, the growth of both Le Pen’s RN and Zemmour’s votes is a warning of how far-right and right-populist forces can grow as a result of the failure of left forces. Mélenchon’s vote showed the potential, but now this opportunity must not be thrown away; instead, it must be used as a basis for building a democratically run, genuinely socialist party. 20 years ago, such an opportunity was thrown away after over 10% voted for Trotskyist candidates in the first round of that year’s presidential election but no initiatives were then taken to organise that support.

Today many votes in elections are for ‘lesser evils’, which can appear to revive old forces. Thus, many voted for Biden in 2020 simply to stop Trump. However, Biden’s support has now collapsed and currently it seems probable that the Democrats will suffer defeats in this year’s mid-term elections, something which could open the way for Trump’s return in 2024. This cycle has been seen in many countries.

Later this year Lula stands a good chance of regaining the presidency in Brazil given the unpopularity of the incumbent Bolsonaro, the Brazilian Trump. But Lula’s victory is not certain; Bolsonaro retains a popular base and Lula’s choice of running mate, the right-wing conservative Geraldo Alckmin, can act as a brake. Lula’s pick of Alckmin was designed, alongside other steps, to reassure the Brazilian ruling class that he continues to be ‘reliable’ and will not succumb to popular pressure. But should Lula win, his administration will be one of crisis and, if no socialist alternative is built, there is the danger of a new right-populist later coming into office. For socialists in this situation, it is necessary to understand the popular mood against Bolsonaro, while explaining in advance that Lula will disappoint, and to campaign for socialist policies along with the building of organisations that can implement them.

Internationally, working people, the poor and youth are not silent in the face of this situation. Protests in different forms take place; there has hardly been a month without mass protests or movements taking place somewhere in the world. They can achieve at least partial victories as the Indian farmers’ movement did.

Inflation is already opening the door to struggles to defend living standards. In the US, the victory of the new Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in its first recognition ballot at a depot in New York is a very significant step forward. Like in the 1930s, it is noteworthy that it was a new union that involved rank-and-file workers which won recognition; the ALU was not linked to the ‘business unionism’ of some US labour unions. In a different situation, the past year has seen a continuation of the growth, despite repression, of independent trade unions in Iran, which now face the challenge of building a movement capable of acting nationally both to win its demands and challenge the regime.

Victories like that of the ALU in New York City are the sort of successes which can help build the workers’ movement, both by organising new workers and helping to stimulate movements for change within existing unions. The CWI, which has a long record of activity in workplaces and trade unions, argues that for this to be successful it is necessary to have a programme for democracy within the unions, including fully accountable, regularly elected leaders, combined with a class-struggle approach instead of believing that it is possible for unions to be equal partners with bosses or capitalist governments.

This is an essential question as we see again and again examples of trade union leaders not being prepared to struggle, or making radical speeches and organising token actions without a willingness to seriously campaign for demands.

While struggles in workplaces are vital in defending and advancing the interests of working people, they are limited. In the face of the power of ruling classes and capitalist governments it is essential that workers and the poor have their own political instrument, their own party rooted in the workers’ movement which fights for them.

Generally today, such parties do not exist, with most of the former socialist, communist, or labour parties either no longer functioning or having become completely pro-capitalist formations.

Even where left organisations exist most do not make opposition to capitalism and campaigning for socialist policies the basis of their activity, even where they formally have programmes which mention socialism. While, in such parties, efforts can be made to change course, in most countries socialists face the task of building new workers’ parties that will combine these two political tasks. Mélenchon’s vote in France indicates the support it is possible to build, but then it has to be consolidated on a socialist basis. The experience of DIE LINKE in Germany shows how opportunities can be lost, and now its own existence is open to question as a result of increasingly working within capitalism and not using the support it gained to both win reforms and consistently argue the case for socialism.

The work to build such new parties often means struggling against those leaders, sometimes in the trade unions, who resist the idea of their formation. In South Africa, divisions within the leadership of the new Saftu trade union federation have effectively blocked the formation of a new workers’ party, even though there is wide support for that idea. In Nigeria, the trade union leaders once formed a party but kept it small, wanting to use it as a bargaining tool with the pro-capitalist parties. However, they then lost control of this party to careerist politicians.

Rebuilding the workers’ movement is not only the key to defending living standards and challenging capitalism but also to reducing the ground on which right populist, racist, xenophobic, and far-right movements can develop. Such movements thrive on the absence of a mass socialist alternative, but one is needed if such reactionary ideas and movements are going to be undermined by socialists both taking up the basic economic and social issues while campaigning for united struggle. The combination of the weakness of the socialist movement, disappointment with traditional ‘politics’ or failed ‘progressives’ may fuel these moods for a time, but reactionary movements can also disappoint and provide new opportunities for the workers’ movement to undermine them.

While the threat of reactionary movements, and repressive governments, is real, the general trend at present is a deep questioning of what is happening, anger at the falling or stagnating living standards while the rich get richer, and alienation from official structures. In some countries, like the US, there is widespread questioning of and hostility to capitalism alongside a broad sympathy for a general, undefined, idea of socialism. This worries the ruling class, which is why in the western media’s coverage of Ukraine there are repeated hints that Putin is some kind of ‘communist,’ i.e. linked to the 1917 revolution; something that is not only untrue but also ignores the fact that Putin openly ‘blames’ Lenin, the leader of the Russian revolution, for the modern existence of Ukraine.

This sympathy for the idea of socialism is rooted in the experience of capitalist society, its injustices, contradictions, failure to avoid crises and wars, plus the struggles which take place under it. This is the historic basis upon which the workers’ and socialist movement was built. It is on this experience that the CWI bases itself today, while being involved in struggles and striving not just to rebuild the socialist movement but also to ensure it has parties with a fighting programme, which can lead to the ending of the capitalist period of history and open a new era where scarcity, oppression and war no longer exist.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) invites discussion on our ideas and what can be done now to build support for a programme of socialist change. At the same we welcome those who want to become active alongside us and financial backing for our activity from those who are in a position to donate.

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April 2022