Stormy times. That’s almost an understatement of the situation the world is in this May Day.
The last year has seen a continuation of rapid developments that characterise the unstable era we are living in.
The opening lines of the 2022 Committee for a Workers’ International’s May Day appeal almost exactly apply to the situation today, only that many things have worsened:
“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.”
Rapidly one crisis has followed after another, whether they were economic, political, social, climatic or environmental.
A result is a deepening of popular questioning of the future, of established institutions and parties which in the last year has expressed itself in struggles and unrest in many countries.
Amongst other countries France, Iran and Sri Lanka have been shaken by huge and ongoing protests. While also there have been significant increases in strikes on economic issues in countries like Brazil, Britain, Canada, Germany, Portugal and, to a lesser extent in the US as workers fight back.
Political polarisation continues in many countries, fuelled by the crisis. In Italy the coming to power of a far right government has not yet led to a counter-movement, something which has rapidly taken place in Israel. However in Israel the leadership of the massive counter-movement to the new far right government is currently in the hands of pro-capitalists, something which limits the protests politically. Alongside the political polarisation has often been a strengthening of state power and increased repression often, as in Sri Lanka, under the banner of ‘fighting terrorism’ but in reality repressing serious opposition.
At the start of this year the Committee for a Workers’ International described the situation as one where “capitalist equilibrium is broken in all its aspects: economic, geo-political, social and class relations. Convulsions and turmoil are consequent on this and are reflected in sharp polarisation on all continents. There is an upturn in the class struggle in some countries, but also national and ethnic conflicts, wars (both military and tariff) and, in some, strong features of social disintegration and even collapse. Such is the era we are now living in.”
This is what has been happening. Practically all aspects of life are in question. With real living standards being cut around the world while wealth is becoming even more concentrated in the hands of a small elite and, for example, there is an increasingly visible impact of climate change – with weather extremes, changing local climates and rises in sea levels – resulting in a growing questioning of capitalism itself.
Hardly any capitalist leader is offering concrete prospects of a better life in future. Usually leaders speak in general terms of “progress” and vague aspirations. This really reflects that capitalism is in a blind alley, the capitalist leaders defend their system but most are not confident of the future.
Science is developing rapidly, especially in life sciences and technology. The technology is available to at least provide the essentials for life. But in this capitalist system there is a contradiction between these advances and reality. That was shown in contrast between the successful rapid research to find ways to limit the impact of the Covid pandemic and the uneven distribution of vaccines and treatments. Even when scientific advances are applied they are either used to increase profits not generally improve life, or are simply available to those who can afford to pay.
This year has seen a further sharpening and growing destabilising effect of the deepening fundamental rivalry between the US and China. US imperialism, seeing its world dominance threatened by China’s rise, has stepped up its attempts to undermine China’s economic growth and limit its growing global influence. There are attempts at creating an alternative to China’s ‘Belt and Road’ programme and competition for influence in Africa and elsewhere. However China’s integration into the world economy and control of some key raw materials, like lithium, makes disengagement difficult. Nevertheless, alongside the general increase in protectionism, there is a redrawing of global economic supply and manufacturing chains, with the so-called ‘Friendshoring’ taking place on largely strategic and not economic grounds.
The growing friction between the US and China has given rise to increasing talk and natural fears of the threat of war between the world’s two biggest powers. While future skirmishes, for example in the coastal areas off China, or even a conflict over Taiwan, cannot be ruled out a world war is something different.
With nuclear weapons, and other WMD, a worldwide conflict would threaten the destruction of much of humanity, something which would undermine the very basis of capitalism by wiping out much of the working class. This means that the threat of such a war would only be posed when a ruling class, or section of a ruling class, thought it had the means to avoid the “Mutually Assured Destruction” that has prevented a world war since 1945 and could win a war by lunching a pre-emptive first WMD strike. This is not posed at this stage both because the tensions have not reached such a peak and in terms of the appalling outcome. Furthermore the threat of such action would provoke large scale popular opposition, something which the ruling classes would attempt to counter by presenting their offensive plans as being ‘defensive’.
But it is not a peaceful period right now, the incipient civil war in Sudan is only the latest example of the growing number of conflicts. The war in Ukraine has developed into a serious contest between Russian imperialism and the western imperialists, although attempts are being made to limit the conflict. Conflicts and wars rage in different parts of Africa, often on an ethnic basis linked to struggle for resources. At the same time a civil war has developed in Myanmar as masses fight the military regime. Since 2020 the worldwide number of people needing emergency aid has doubled to 340 million, and 80% of the increase has been caused by conflicts.
These numbers include the millions forced to flee the war in Ukraine. As the CWI has explained “Putin made a massive miscalculation in his underestimation of the degree of resistance the Ukrainians would put up and then the resolve of western imperialism to seize the opportunity to undermine and weaken his regime.”
The CWI opposed Putin’s invasion and his lies, supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, that the very idea of a Ukrainian nation was an invention of Lenin and the Bolsheviks to weaken Russia. We stand for the right to self-determination for Ukrainians and for all minorities within Ukraine. The CWI opposes the completely pro-capitalist Ukrainian government which, both before the war and during it, has taken measures to sharply weaken the trade unions and now has concentrated power in its hands. The tragedy in Ukraine is that there is no independent working class movement that can fight in its own interests, separate from those of capitalism, in fighting against the invasion and at the same time making an appeal to the Russian working class and the ranks of Russian military to oppose the Putin clique and the oligarchs ruling Russia.
The need to build working class movements that are independent from the capitalist class and supporters of capitalism is worldwide and especially at this moment.
Alongside the increasing world polarisation, rivalries, struggles for influence, international and internal conflicts, including civil wars, there is also a worldwide fall in living standards in most countries, real wages fall and unemployment increases. In many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America the situation is worsened by the continuing impact of underdevelopment, lack of work opportunities and functioning infrastructure.
Right now the ruling classes and their governments have limited confidence and generally offer no genuine prospects to their populations, just vague aspirations or ‘promises’ which no-one expects to be kept.
The lack of confidence is rooted in the unstable economic situation which results in so-called economic “specialists” making contradictory and rapidly changing forecasts and predictions.
Certainly they see the economic threats which are partly a result of measures taken in the 2007/9 “Great Recession” to shore up financial institutions and prevent a depression developing, but they are at sixes and sevens when it comes to what can be done. A current capitalist fear is financial instability. A top IMF official recently warned of ‘acute’ risks in global financial system. The panic surrounding the collapse of SVB, Silicon Valley Bank, in the US and a rapid Swiss government enforced UBS takeover of Credit Suisse were seen as warning signs of a new wave of failures and shock at the speed of the first ever electronic run on a bank. Right now these fears are being confirmed as First Republic, a leading regional bank in the US, has gone into crisis.
The general increase in interest rates as capitalist governments attempt to deal with inflation, along with the slowdown in the world economy, has started a new global debt crisis. The Financial Times (London) explained that “The poorest countries … face the largest bills for servicing foreign debts in 25 years.” Already Sri Lanka, Ghana and Pakistan, amongst others, have been severely hit. Currently it is estimated that 56 countries are in debt distress or at risk of it. High debt burdens complicate the issues facing neo-colonial countries which need over $2tn a year by 2030 just to cut emissions that harm the environment and deal with damage from climate change. In the worst cases multiple crises can led to the breakdown and collapse of societies, as seen in Haiti. Such situations lead to increased attempts, especially by youth, to migrate.
Falling living standards under authoritarian or dictatorial regimes has seen a revival of struggle or opposition in various forms and strengths in different countries.
Iran witnessed a wave of mass opposition, spearheaded by young people and women, against oppression and increasingly the regime itself and now sees a movement of the working class against falling living standards which can threaten the regime.
Similarly Sri Lanka last year saw the largest mass movement in its history against austerity which ousted the President but, as the movement did not itself come to power, the new President is using emergency powers to push through cuts and cancelling elections on the grounds that they cost too much money. These developments show how vital it is that mass movements have clear objectives including the replacement of capitalist governments by ones based upon, and accountable to, the working masses.
Without such a programme mass movements can stall and allow the ruling elites to hang onto power and, sooner or later, seek to re-establish their full control. The new civil war in Sudan led by different factions of the ruling military clique is a tragic illustration of that process. A revolutionary movement led to the downfall of the old military dictator but did not have a programme for itself to come to power and begin the transformation of the country.
In Latin America a series of mass uprisings and protests took place which led to the election of a series of “left” governments in Chile, Colombia, Peru and now Brazil. However, from the start, these governments have accommodated themselves to capitalism. This failure to break with capitalism is creating the conditions for further polarisation and complications highlighting the need to build a revolutionary socialist alternative to break the cycle of advances followed by reaction.
This issue of power, of who is in control and what is the alternative, is a key question to achieve socialist change.
This question of a willingness to challenge the ruling class and capitalism is generally posed. We have seen an increase in strikes as workers have pushed for action to defend their living standards. In some cases, like in Britain and Germany, there was pressure from the rank and file for wage demands to match inflation, an increased willingness to strike and a growth in union membership all of which put union leaders under pressure. However in many cases most of the current union leaders were unwilling to lead struggles, hoping to maintain their comfortable relations with the employers, and sought to settle as quickly as they could, resulting in their members suffering real wage cuts. This is posed sharper in countries which are deeper in crisis. In Nigeria the main trade union federation, the NLC, now has a more radical leadership which will soon be put to the test as it faces a regime led by a new President who already has a record of harshly confronting trade unions.
Against this background the question of transforming trade unions into democratic organisations which seriously fight for workers by building rank and file based movements will be sharply posed.
Alongside the need to transform, and rebuild, the trade unions there is in most countries no political party which represents the working class and poor. In most countries where there once were such parties, or at least parties based in the workers’ movement, they have been taken over by pro-capitalist forces and even if, for now, sections of workers still vote for them. Such parties can still win elections, as Lula did last year in Brazil and as Starmer may do in Britain; but that does not change their character of these parties or the need for creating new workers’ parties.
However experience over the last decades has shown that new left formations without a socialist programme and determination to build an independent socialist force will, over time, either not develop or will become embroiled in the forlorn task of trying to make capitalism work ‘fairer’, in Europe we have seen this in Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain amongst others.
As we argued last year there “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.
As we concluded in our 2022 May Day statement, “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.”
The past year has confirmed our analysis and the urgency of the need to build the forces of socialism worldwide.
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