World perspectives – New era of turmoil and upheaval not witnessed for generations

The presidential palace, Colombo, Sri Lanka, stormed by protesters

The following statement by the International Secretariat (IS) of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), looks at the main trends in the world today – economic, political, environmental, geopolitical and class relations – as a background to a forthcoming in-person CWI cadre summer school, which will be held in northern Europe, later in July.

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The world has entered a new era of turmoil and upheaval not witnessed for generations. It poses new tasks and challenges for the working class and Marxists. The revolutionary insurrectionary explosion which has taken place in Sri Lanka has illustrated the potential power of the masses to sweep old tyrants aside and show the prospects for big revolutionary movements to take place in this era. Similar uprisings can and will take place in other countries as we are beginning to see in Kenya and elsewhere. Imperialism is terrified by the events in Sri Lanka along with the ruling despots in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other regimes in the area alarmed that they can face the same fate.

New features of the capitalist crisis have emerged whilst others have intensified. Geopolitical relations are in a state of flux. The world situation is marked by increased polarisation and inequality which will have huge consequences for the class struggle and is already being reflected in many countries. These developments have major political consequences for capitalism and the working class. There is a crisis of political leadership and organisation of the working class globally. There is also a crisis of political leadership of the bourgeoisie reflected in many countries.

The 2020s mark an era of permanent crises: economic, political, environmental, geopolitical and class relations. At this stage capitalist equilibrium has broken down. The mainstays of capitalist equilibrium are economic, inter-class relations and interstate relations. The equilibriums of capitalism are complex. Capitalism establishes its equilibrium only to disrupt it anew. In the economic sphere, it takes the form of recessions and booms. In inter-class relations, it takes the form of strikes, lock-outs and revolutions when it breaks down. In inter-state relations, it takes the form of tariff war, blockades and war.

Today these are all being shaken to their very foundations and will not be repairable in the short term. Whilst it may be possible for capitalism to temporarily achieve short reprieves from crises in these spheres, new crises will rapidly erupt to bring them crashing down again. We are now living in the painful prolonged death agony of capitalism. The former Labour Party leader in Britain, Gordon Brown, a bourgeois adviser, has dubbed this era the ‘Devil’s Decade’. It is the capitalist system he defends which means that this is a time of monsters rising from the ashes of their protracted death agony.

It is prolonged because of the absence of mass revolutionary parties of the working class and the negative consequences on the political consciousness, and organisation of the working class, following the collapse of the former Stalinist states in the 1990s. The struggle between revolution and counterrevolution in this period is already taking a sharp and brutal form. The depth of the crisis which is unfolding can result in leaps in political consciousness and support for an end to capitalism in many countries. A crucial element in this is the unprecedented inequality and chasm between rich and poor that now exists. This process will be full of contradictions and will not be in a straight line. Features of revolution and counterrevolution will be present and a permanent component of this decade. Important mass movements and workers’ struggles are taking place. The substantial upturn in strikes in Britain and significant struggles in the US, Spain and some other countries represent a significant change. Alongside these, an increased sense of alienation and desperation exists among a layer, especially youth. Outbreaks of rioting and even terroristic methods of struggle can emerge given the desperate conditions that are being faced by millions.

Many features from a previous era, particularly pre-1914, the 1920s and 1930s are already emerging during this crisis. These include massive social and political polarisation, inequality, economic turmoil and inter-state conflict and war. However, they will take a different form, reflecting important differences which exist in these previous historical periods.

Inter-state relations and the war in Ukraine

The nature of the era in inter-state and geopolitical relations is epitomised by the bloody conflict raging in Ukraine. A protracted conflict is taking place which is of global importance. It has meant bloodshed and horror for those involved and reconfigured inter-state relations and had a crucial impact on the world economy, with dire consequences for millions, aggravating a global crisis in the food supply. It has compounded the crisis in food production, pushing millions to the brink of starvation, especially in Africa and Asia.

Putin massively miscalculated the situation and anticipated a rapid victory, including occupying the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. The failure of the Russian forces to achieve this has forced the Russian military to change tactics and concentrate their objectives on seizing the whole of eastern Ukraine, including taking Donetsk where much of the Ukrainian industry is concentrated. Even in the east, Russian advance has been glacial, advancing only by 10 kilometres per month – comparable to some of the battles in the 1914-18 war. Now, however, Russia has taken the whole of Luhansk and aims to take the whole of the Donbas.  At the same time elsewhere, the Russian forces have continued to encounter some difficulties, such as the loss of the crucial Snake Island in the Black Sea.

Should Putin succeed in seizing the whole of the Donbas, some sort of ceasefire is possible. However, any such agreement will not prevent the continuation of possibly lower intensity fighting in the east and possibly elsewhere. However, reaching an agreement on terms for a ceasefire would not be easy for the Ukrainian regime. Any attempt to reach a ceasefire could also trigger divisions amongst the western capitalist powers and ruling classes. Some of these want to drive forward and hopefully secure the removal of the Putin regime, by provoking unrest within Russia as a result of mounting casualties and as the economic crisis and sanctions hit the Russian population. The exact outcome of this conflict remains uncertain. Russia has a massive advantage in weapons and ammunition. Yet it also has problems with morale and troop deployment. Ukraine, despite massive arming from the western powers, still has insufficient weapons and ammunition. The western powers have withheld some powerful weaponry and have limited arsenals of munitions.

This is a protracted conflict which has shaped world relations since February 2022. Putin’s slow but gradual advances in eastern Ukraine have now reduced the possibility of him attempting to deploy tactical nuclear warheads or chemical weapons out of desperation. This could change should he encounter more severe problems. However, his implicit threat to use them has put this issue on the agenda in other future conflicts involving despotic regimes. It is a reflection of the febrile multipolar world which now exists.

Hopes for economic growth dashed and the new world order

US imperialism has used this conflict to try and reassert itself as the ‘world leader’. Yet underlying the apparent ‘unity’ between the western powers, sharp divisions remain unresolved and have been revealed during the crisis. Hungary, Poland and others have revealed the divisions which exist within the EU. These tensions are certain to break out on a higher level as the unfolding economic recession hits.

The hopes of the ruling class for a period of economic upturn and growth following the collapse which took place during the pandemic have been dashed. Economic slowdown, recession or economic depression confronts all countries. The cost-of-living crisis and fall or collapse in living standards are affecting all of the western imperialist countries with horrific consequences for the neo-colonial world. Capitalism since the 2007-08 crash, despite a short interlude, has been in one of its longest crises throughout its existence. Now, the surge in inflation which is taking place is adding an additional dimension to the systemic crisis of the world economy. The stagnation and fall in wages in real terms which has taken place refutes the propaganda of the ruling class that wage increases are the main cause of inflation.

The ruling classes and their economists are split and uncertain about how to respond to the current crisis. A majority of the central banks at this stage want to raise interest rates, which would depress the market and the economy further. They are uncertain how to proceed with Quantitative Easing and other issues. Others argue for reflationary steps, which would add to the inflationary spiral and aggravate the inflationary pressures, with the consequences which flow from this. In this situation, it is unlikely that a uniform approach will be applied by western capitalism and zig-zags will take place, depending on the short-term political and social situation which exists in each country.

The massive surge in world debt is a time bomb globally, which has already exploded in some countries. The $51 billion debt in Sri Lanka and the inability to repay it has been a crucial factor in the total implosion and collapse of the economy, with inflation at over 100%, only surpassed by Zimbabwe. This catastrophic scenario is set to be repeated in other countries of the neo-colonial world. Russia has recently defaulted on its debt repayment, partly as a result of western sanctions being imposed on it. The demand to cancel the debt is one of the most important aspects of the programme needed, especially in the neo-colonial world.

The new world situation is marked by the decline of US imperialism and the rise of China. This is despite the current crisis being centred on Russia and Ukraine. The strategists of capital are aware of the decisive changes in the world situation and are preparing to attempt to face up to what this new world situation entails. Some strategists of capital, like the former US Ambassador to NATO, Ivo H Daalder, are proposing the need to expand the G7 to a G12 to include Australia, New Zealand and South Korea plus NATO and the EU. A G12 would have a population of nearly one billion and account for more than 60% of global GDP and military spending. China and Russia together are more populous but constitute 20% of world economic output and 17% of military spending. However, China’s expanding military expenditure has been dramatic as the arms build-up in the South China Sea continues, raising the prospect of a clash between US imperialism and western forces at some stage.

Behind the ideas raised by Daalder is an attempt to form a western imperialist bloc prepared to challenge China and those in its orbit. Two main blocs are in the process of developing but they and all other groupings are not stable. This, Daalder argues, is the “last best hope” to avoid the “world unravelling”, as he says it was during the COVID pandemic. “The rules-based order created after World War II is at risk of collapse,” he warned. He correctly argues that a ‘new world order’ is in the process of being born. However, the exact form this will take is uncertain and it will pass through many mutations and will be inherently unstable. The open divisions at the recent G20 summit reflect the splits and turmoil which exist in inter-state relations.

The marked tendency toward two blocs emerging is pronounced, and reflected in the Russia-Ukraine conflict as countries such as China, South Africa, India, Brazil and others have not been prepared simply to march to the drumbeat of US imperialism and NATO. As the NATO summit opened in Madrid, and announced major strategic changes, the summit of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) was meeting to work out its own plans. Argentina and Iran are now also queuing up to join this smaller but significant economic and political alliance.

Needs must! India, for its own economic and strategic reasons, has increased imports of Russian oil. Sri Lanka, facing a desperate situation, is turning to Putin to try and obtain cheaper Russian oil imports. Russian oil revenue has returned to the levels prior to the invasion of Ukraine as it has increased exports to China, India and elsewhere.

NATO has agreed on a major strategic deployment of 300,000 rapid response troops to Eastern Europe and adopted its new ‘Strategic Concept’. This explicitly declares “the Russian Federation to be the most significant and direct threat to allies”, and China posing “systemic challenges” to Euro-Atlantic security. This clearly illustrates how the imperialist western powers are preparing for the era ahead. However, holding this western alliance together as the economic and political tsunamis hit is another question. The same applies to the allies grouped around any Russia-China bloc which emerges. All of the emerging blocs are inherently unstable. Nowhere is this more so than in the Arab world and the Middle East. Israel’s developing links with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and other countries in opposition to Iran is a major historic shift. The strategic shifts taking place throughout the area will mean that the Palestinian, Kurdish and other peoples will pay a heavy price. How this realignment develops is far from certain.

A feature of this multipolar world is the explosion of military expenditure which has taken place and which has accelerated during the Russia-Ukraine war. The historic change in Germany, which now has the third-largest armaments programme in the world, illustrates the changes taking place. Japan is also discussing doubling its military expenditure. The assassination of former prime minister Abe and the election victory of his Liberal Democratic Party raise the possibility of his protégé, Kishida, revising Japan’s ‘pacifist’ constitution. Total global military spending increased by 0.7% in 2021 to reach over $2.113 trillion. This is unprecedented and reflects the dramatic increases in the national rivalry between the capitalist states.

The new era that has begun means that it is necessary to be prepared for upheavals on all fronts; economic, inter-state relations (with conflicts both economic and military), and class and social relations. In an era of such uncertainty and turmoil, it is essential not to simply repeat ‘old formulas’ which do not fit the new situation. This is illustrated by the political and social situation which has erupted in a series of countries. What was in a previous era was considered unthinkable now becomes possible or even probable.

The ‘Dis-United States of America’ central to world events

The political and social crisis unfolding in the ‘Dis-United’ States of America is central to world events in the coming months and years. The magnitude of the political and social crisis unfolding reflects the ongoing demise of US imperialism. A deep class polarisation exists coupled with a profound social alienation, reflected in the series of shootings which took place on ‘Independence Day’. The drama of the 6 January hearings in Congress is not comparable with other historic political power struggles which have taken place in the US. Trump’s desperate attempts to cling to power and his failed attempted coup make Nixon’s Watergate break-in and subsequent removal from office look like a petty crime by comparison. Trump’s last stand set a template for right-wing, populist, nationalist regimes like Bolsonaro, Rajapaksa, Modi and Johnson. The unprecedented political crisis in Britain surrounding the implosion of the government reflected this. Johnson, however, lacked the social base which Trump had and could not mobilise support like him, although that was not sufficient for Trump to carry through his attempted coup. However, the open warfare within the Tory party is of historic significance, reflecting the long-term decline of the party and of British imperialism.

Trump was out of control for the main sections of the ruling class. This phenomenon is seen in other countries where right-wing nationalist populists have stumbled into the vacuum and power, but who do not reliably represent the interests of the bourgeoisie. The collapse in some countries of the base of the traditional bourgeois parties facilitated this process, for example, Bolsonaro in Brazil. The explosive drama of the hearings reflects the political civil war which is taking place in the US. It seems that the Democrats and the ruling class are determined to remove Trump from the political battlefield. Within the Republican Party, other far-right populists like DeSantis in Florida are jockeying to position themselves as a right-wing alternative to Trump. A section of the ruling class, reflected by Cheney, is also attempting to wage a struggle to reclaim control of the Republican Party, which they have largely lost control of. However, it is far from certain they will be able to achieve this.

The massive polarization which exists in the Dis-United States has been deepened by the recent explosive decisions of the Trumpista-rigged Supreme Court on abortion, arms controls and the environment. The implications of these decisions are potentially devastating. Up to half of the states in the US are now poised to ban abortion or make it more difficult. These rulings may now be followed by others, possibly covering gay marriage, voter registration and election boundaries, handing control of the election process to the states, all of which would favour the Republicans. These decisions can provoke massive social movements. They have already undermined the credibility of the Supreme Court. Potentially they open the way for the US to become two countries in one, an element of which already exists.

The prospect of a Trumpista Republican candidate losing the popular vote but winning through the Electoral College and rigged election registration threatens the prospect of an even bigger upheaval than that which rocked the country on 6 January 2021. It would plunge the US into a political and constitutional crisis.

The entire situation cries out for a new mass party of the working class. However, the ‘left’ Democrats show no sign of moving in this direction. Sanders has made clear he will not run against Biden and supports him in running for a second term. Biden, despite the fiasco surrounding Trump, has failed to satisfy the aspirations of millions and has falling approval ratings. The Republicans could take control of the House of Representatives and Senate in the midterm elections. However, the rulings of the Supreme Court may cut across this.

This crisis has been accompanied by a significant increase in strikes and industrial struggles by the working class. It has also seen significant victories by new sections of the working class to win union recognition: in Starbucks, Amazon and Apple. Some of these have seen workers going around the official trade union apparatus and forming new unions as a result of initiatives taken by workers themselves. This process has important lessons internationally.

Accumulating contradictions in China

The social and political crisis in the major imperialist power will have an increasing impact on global events including the class struggle. In that respect, it is one of the most important areas of struggle for the working class. This can be mirrored in western imperialism’s main rival – China. Big social contradictions are accumulating throughout China. Xi is strengthening the state and concentrating more and greater power around his faction which controls the party and state apparatus. A massive state apparatus that is brutally repressive has been constructed. A revolt against this can erupt at a certain stage. This could begin initially amongst sections of the vast petty-bourgeois layers which exist in the cities on democratic, social issues. This can be a precursor to battles by the potentially most powerful working class. The protests against the utopian ‘Zero-COVID’ measures taken by the regime are anticipation of bigger upheavals which will erupt.

The crisis has already had a devastating effect on the neo-colonial world. Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Arab world are being ravaged by multiple tsunamis. On top of the COVID pandemic these economies are being devastated and in some cases have collapsed. Not only inflation but features of hyperinflation blight many. A food and agricultural crisis in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is being compounded by the effects of an accelerating climatic shock wave. Millions are now facing famine on a scale not witnessed for generations. The consequences are devastating. The UN warns of an “unprecedented wave of hunger and destitution”. This, together with the environmental crisis, places on the agenda the prospect of wars breaking out over access to food and water. The horrific situation unfolding in these countries will have global consequences, one of which is a growing migration catastrophe.

The collapse that has taken place underlines the correctness of the theory of the permanent revolution and the impossibility of countries in the neo-colonial world developing into major, industrialised imperialist powers. On the contrary, the combined and uneven development which did take place in Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa is being reversed in some countries. Some societies are going backwards and plunged into an ethnic and religious conflict, collapse and disintegration. Elements of this are present in Nigeria, Yemen, and elsewhere, although Nigeria, like many other countries, also sees growing hatred towards its corrupt, looting elite.

The development of China, which is now challenging the western imperialist powers, has taken place as a consequence of the state ownership and distorted planned economy that existed in the former deformed workers’ state and was followed by the special form of state capitalism which it morphed into. As one Chinese bourgeois rather crudely put it: “In the west the capitalists control the state. In China the state controls the capitalists”. India and other countries will not be able to repeat Chinese development, as some have argued are possible.

Revolution and counter-revolution in the neo-colonial world

The crisis in the neo-colonial world has led to two pronounced features unfolding: features of revolution and of counterrevolution. A strong and potentially powerful working class exists. At the same time, in many of these countries, a large petty bourgeoisie exists together with a lumpenised layer of society. These forces can provide a certain social reserve for capitalism and the far right. In the 1930s these layers were the main base for fascism. Today they can be a base for the far-right populist movements, which can include fascistic elements. This is especially the case when no powerful mass working-class socialist alternative exists.

The repressive, Bonapartist trends are also seen in the western imperialist countries as the ruling class prepares for the social explosions they know are impending. The working class in all countries needs to be prepared for the struggle to assume a more brutal character.

Mass uprisings have taken place in a series of countries with powerful elements of a revolutionary character, the most recent of which has been the massive revolutionary upsurge in Sri Lanka. This above all has demonstrated the power of the masses. Prior to the social explosion in Sri Lanka, the other movements had the potential to overthrow the respective regimes. However, the lack of an organised movement, with a clear political objective, programme and party in general has allowed some of the regimes to defy gravity and cling on to power with some rearranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic. However, the movements which erupted have tended to take important steps forward relative to the movements which preceded them in other countries. The existence of ‘Resistance Committees’ in Sudan represents an important step forward. Events in Sri Lanka have gone further and overthrown two governments.

The incapacity of bourgeois democracy in these countries to correspond to the economic and political situation is reflected in a sharp militarization of the state and powerful Bonapartist tendencies. India, Pakistan, Brazil and now Sri Lanka all reflect this trend. The extremely limited bourgeois-democratic systems in many countries have resulted in the demand for a constituent assembly or new constitution being raised. Where relevant, it is important that this sentiment is given a revolutionary expression through the demand for a revolutionary constituent assembly and a government of the workers and the poor.

Support for ‘lesser evilism’, (in Sri Lanka for an ‘interim government’) and the absence of a mass socialist alternative has allowed capitalist and pro-capitalist parties and individuals to step in. However, during mass uprisings leaps in political consciousness can and have taken place. In Sri Lanka, the movement has gone from demanding the resignation of Rajapaksa to demanding the ousting of the government. The demand for the cancellation of the debt, something which the comrades of the USP continuously advocated, has now been taken up widely within the mass movement.

The mass movements which erupted, inevitably, without being carried through to a conclusion, can go into a low ebb and fracture, as we saw in Lebanon.

Latin America  – a second ‘pink wave’

However, all of the underlying social contradictions which resulted in the mass uprisings in all countries remain unresolved. New social explosions and political struggles inevitably emerge. In Latin America, the mass movements and uprisings which took place in 2019-20 in Chile, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador did not result in the overthrow of the regimes, despite being objectively possible. These movements took place against right-wing governments and illustrated the lack of a solid base of support they had following election victories.

Yet the product of the mass movements was the election victories of a series of left governments: Boric in Chile, Castillo in Peru and, more recently, Petro in Colombia. A second ‘pink wave’ is washing over Latin America following a series of mass uprisings. The election victories for the left in these countries represented a big blow to the ruling class. These governments have come to power during a much deeper crisis than when the first ‘pink wave’ swept the continent. Yet their programme is far weaker. Despite the weakness of Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia, under the pressure from the mass movement, they went in a more radical direction and encroached on capitalism. The new governments have not so far been radicalised in this way. Betrayal is inherent in reformism. Yet rarely so rapidly has the swing to the right and accommodation with capitalism by Boric in Chile and Castillo in Peru. As a result, their approval ratings have plunged; Petro in Colombia is walking down the same road.

One of the features of this era is the absence of a radical socialist alternative being raised by the new forces on the left. In general, as the crisis has deepened, they have accommodated themselves to ‘lesser evilism’ and failed to pose the need for a systemic break with capitalism and the need for socialism. This is reflected in Europe by the crisis of PODEMOS in Spain, Die Linke in Germany and PSOL in Brazil. The electoral success of the Mélenchon alliance, NUPES, in the French elections potentially represented a big step forward. However, the programme of NUPES was a very pale reflection of Mitterrand’s programme when heading the Socialist-Communist government in 1981. Moreover, Mélenchon’s refusal to use the election to transform France Insoumise into a party of struggle for the working class but to maintain it as a loose ‘movement’ is a lost opportunity.

A general feature of the situation is now the particularly low participation in elections – including in France, where less than 50% voted in the National Assembly elections. There are some exceptions to this but it is a feature of the situation. It reflects the absence of a mass socialist alternative and a deep mistrust of all established parties and capitalist institutions in general. The combative mood that is developing in some countries can initially be reflected in a syndicalist mood in trade unions and amongst sections of the working class and youth.

The struggle for socialism in this era

In many countries, the objective conditions cry out for a new mass workers’ party. There is growing opposition to the ‘system’. However, the forces have not yet emerged that have led to the forming of new workers’ parties. The absence of such parties has been an obstacle and held back the movements which have developed. It is a mistake to conclude from this that the absence of a party at this stage will result in the mass movements remaining ‘static’ or ‘frozen’ in terms of political consciousness. The experience of a series of waves of struggle coupled with the effects of the multiple crises which exist can result in profound changes in political consciousness.

During this process leaps forward in political consciousness can and will take place even without a mass party. The movements themselves can throw up the forces and individuals around which new mass parties can emerge. This process can also mean that in some countries substantial sections of workers can reach revolutionary socialist conclusions and come straight to a revolutionary socialist party or group. Small revolutionary socialist groups under such conditions can be transformed into large groups or parties in a short period and, on this basis, fight to win majority support for a socialist transformation within the working class and poor. Support for the idea of socialism as an alternative to the ashes of putrefying capitalism can and will be taken up, especially by the new younger generation. The rhythm by which events unfolded in the previous era will not be the rhythm of what is unfolding in this era.

Marxists must be ready for shocks and social explosions, the likes of which have not been seen for generations. The CWI can have a big impact and will support such events by boldly intervening and defending our programme and ideas. This does not mean a routine and rigid repetition of formulas but audaciously defending the Marxist programme and method in a way that corresponds to the era. The CWI can play a pivotal role in intervening in these events and re-building support for the ideas and methods of revolutionary socialism, which are the ultimate way to end the protracted death agony of capitalism.

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