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This document was approved by delegates at the 2021 World Congress of the International Marxist Tendency (full report here). It provides our general analysis of the main processes taking place in world politics, at a time marked by unprecedented crisis and turmoil. With dynamite in the foundations of the world economy and the COVID-19 pandemic still casting a shadow over the global situation, all roads lead to intensified class struggle.
“Taken all in all, the crisis has been burrowing away like the good old mole it is.”Marx to Engels, 22 February 1858
The nature of perspectives
The present document, which should be read in conjunction with the one we produced in September 2020, will be somewhat different to world perspectives documents that we have issued in the past.
In previous periods, when events were moving at a more leisurely pace, it was possible to deal, at least in outline, with many different countries. Now, however, the pace of events has accelerated to the point where in order to deal with everything, one would need a whole book. The purpose of perspectives is not to produce a catalogue of revolutionary events, but to uncover the fundamental underlying processes.
As Hegel explained in the Introduction to the Philosophy of History: “It is in fact, the wish for rational insight, not the ambition to amass a mere heap of acquisitions, that should be presupposed in every case as possessing the mind of the learner in the study of science.”
We are dealing here with general processes, and can only look at a few countries which serve to illustrate most clearly those processes at this stage. Other countries will, of course, be dealt with in separate articles.
The year 2021 commenced with dramatic events. The crisis of world capitalism is making waves that are spreading from one country and continent to another. On all sides, there is the same picture of chaos, economic dislocation and class polarisation.
The new year barely began before a far-right mob stormed the US Capitol Building in Washington at the urging of former US president, Donald Trump – giving the centre of Western imperialism the appearance of a failed state.
These events, coupled with the vastly larger Black Lives Matter protests last summer, show how deep the polarisation of US society has become.
In addition to this, big protests in India, Colombia, Chile, Belarus and Russia demonstrated the same process: the masses’ resentment is growing, and the ruling class is failing to govern in the old ways.
A global crisis like no other
These world perspectives are unlike any other we have dealt with in the past. They are enormously complicated by the pandemic that is hanging like a black cloud over the entire world, subjecting millions to misery, suffering and death.
The pandemic still rages out of control. At the moment of writing, there have been more than 100 million cases worldwide, and almost three million deaths. These figures are unprecedented outside a world war. And they continue to rise inexorably.
This terrible scourge has had a devastating effect in poor countries around the world and has also seriously affected some of the richest countries.
In the USA there are 30 million cases, and the number of deaths has gone over the half a million mark. And Britain has among the highest number of deaths per head of the population: over 4 million cases, and well over 100,000 deaths.
The present crisis is therefore not like an ordinary economic crisis. This is literally a life-and-death situation for millions of people. Many of these deaths could have been avoided with proper measures early on.
Capitalism cannot solve the problem
Capitalism cannot solve the problem: it is itself the problem.
This pandemic serves to expose the intolerable divisions between rich and poor. It has revealed the deep fault lines that divide society. The line between those who are condemned to get sick and die, and those who are not.
It has laid bare the wastefulness of capitalism, its chaos and inefficiency, and is preparing class struggle in every country in the world.
Bourgeois politicians like to use military analogies to describe the present situation. They say we are at war with an invisible enemy, this terrible virus. They conclude that all classes and parties must unite behind the existing government. But a yawning gulf separates words from deeds.
The case for a planned economy and international planning is unanswerable. The crisis is worldwide. The virus does not respect frontiers or border controls. The situation demands an international response, the pooling of all scientific knowledge and the mobilisation of all the resources of the planet to coordinate a genuine global plan of action.
Instead, we have the unedifying spectacle of the row between Britain and the EU over scarce vaccines, while some of the poorest countries are virtually denied access to any vaccines at all.
But why is there a scarcity of vaccines? The problems of vaccine production – to cite just one example – are a reflection of the contradiction between the urgent needs of society and the mechanisms of the market economy.
If we were really at war with the virus, governments would mobilise all their resources on this one task. From a purely rational point of view, the best policy would be to ramp up vaccine production as fast as possible.
Capacity needs to be expanded, which can only be done by setting up new factories. But the big private vaccine manufacturers have no interest in expanding production massively because they would be financially worse off if they did.
If they ramped up production capacity so that the whole world was supplied within six months, the newly built facilities would stand empty immediately afterwards. Profits would then be much lower compared with current scenarios, where existing plants produce at capacity for years to come.
Yet another obstacle to mass production of the vaccine is the refusal of Big Pharma to relinquish intellectual property rights over “their own” vaccines (in most cases developed with massive amounts of state funding) so that other companies would be able to produce them cheaply.
Pharmaceutical companies are making tens of billions in profits, but problems with both production and supply mean shortages everywhere. In the meantime, millions of lives are at risk.
Workers’ lives at risk
In their haste to get production (and therefore profits) moving again, politicians and capitalists resort to cutting corners. Workers are sent back to crowded workplaces without adequate protection. This is equivalent to passing a death sentence on many of these workers and their families.
All the hopes of the bourgeois politicians were based on the new vaccines. But the rollout of vaccines has been bungled, and the failure to control the spread of the virus – which increases the risk of new vaccine-resistant strains developing – has serious implications, not just for human lives and health, but also for the economy.
The present economic crisis is the most severe in 300 years, according to the Bank of England. In 2020, the equivalent of 255 million jobs were lost worldwide, four times more than in 2009.
The so-called emerging economies are being dragged down with the rest. India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey are all in crisis. South Korea’s economy shrank last year for the first time in 22 years. That was despite state subsidies worth about $283 billion. In South Africa, unemployment reached 32.5 percent and GDP contracted by 7.2 percent in 2020. This is a greater contraction than in 1931 during the Great Depression, and this in spite of spending the equivalent of 10 percent of GDP in a fiscal stimulus package.
The crisis is plunging millions of people ever deeper into poverty. In January 2021, the World Bank estimated that 90 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty. The Economist of 26 September 2020 wrote: “The United Nations is even gloomier. It defines people as poor if they do not have access to things like clean water, electricity, sufficient food and schools for their children.
“Working with researchers from Oxford University, it reckons the pandemic could cast 490 million in 70 countries into poverty, reversing almost a decade of gains.”
The United Nations’ World Food Programme put it in these terms: “Across 79 countries with WFP operational presence and where data are available, up to 270 million people are estimated to be acutely food insecure or at high risk in 2021, an unprecedented 82 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.”
This alone gives one an idea of the global scale of the crisis.
In addition to the effects of the pandemic, the global ecological crisis will likely aggravate this situation, fuelling poverty and food insecurity. Capitalist exploitation of the environment threatens to put key ecological systems on the edge of collapse. We have seen an increase in conflicts over scarce water resources and environmental destruction that will inevitably lead to social instability and massive climate migration.
The general instability around the world is organically linked to growing poverty. It is both cause and effect. It is the most fundamental underlying cause of many of the wars and civil wars taking place. Ethiopia is just one example of this.
Ethiopia was presented as a model. In the period of 2004 to 2014 its economy was growing by 11 percent a year, and it was seen as a country to invest in. Now it has been thrown into turmoil with the outbreak of fighting in Tigray province, where 3 million people are in need of emergency food relief.
This is not an isolated case. The list of countries affected by wars in the past period is very long, and the catalogue of human suffering appalling:
Afghanistan: two million deaths; Yemen: 100,000 deaths; the Mexican drug wars have led to over 250,000 killed; the war against the Kurds in Turkey, 45,000 deaths; Somalia, 500,000 deaths; Iraq, at least one million deaths; South Sudan around 400,000 deaths.
In Syria, the United Nations estimated the number of deaths at 400,000, but this seems too low. The real figure may never be known but is sure to be 600,000 at least. In the terrible civil wars in the Congo, probably over four million people perished. But there again, nobody knows the real figure. More recently we had the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
And so the list goes on and on. Such things are no longer considered suitable for the front pages of newspapers. But they express very clearly what Lenin once said: Capitalism is horror without end. The continued existence of capitalism threatens to create the conditions of barbarism in one country after another.
A crisis of the regime
From a Marxist point of view, the study of economics is not an abstract academic question. It has a profound effect on the development of consciousness of all classes.
Everywhere we look now there is a crisis, not just an economic crisis, but a crisis of the regime. There are clear indications that the crisis is so severe, so deep, that the ruling class is losing control of the traditional instruments they used in the past for running society.
As a result, the ruling class finds itself increasingly unable to control events. That is particularly clear in the case of the USA. But it also applies to many other countries. It is sufficient to mention the names of Trump, Boris Johnson and Bolsonaro to underline the point.
The USA now occupies a central place in world perspectives. For a very long time, revolution in the richest and most powerful nation on earth seemed to be a very distant prospect. But the USA was hit very hard by the world economic crisis and now everything has been turned upside down.
68 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, and as always it is the poorest and most vulnerable, especially the people of colour, who suffer most. The scourge of unemployment falls most heavily on the shoulders of the youth. A quarter of under-25s have been thrown out of work. Their future has suddenly been taken away. The American dream has become the American nightmare.
This dramatic change has forced many people, old and young, to reconsider views that they previously considered sacrosanct and question the very nature of the society in which they live. The rapid rise of Bernie Sanders at one end of the political spectrum and Donald Trump at the other set the red light flashing for the ruling class. This kind of thing was not supposed to happen!
Alarmed at the danger posed by this situation, the ruling class was compelled to take emergency measures. Let us remind ourselves that, according to the official dogma of bourgeois economists, the state was not supposed to play any part in economic life.
But faced with looming disaster, the ruling class was forced to throw all the accepted economic theories into the dustbin. The same state which, according to free-market theory, should play little or no role in economic life, has now become the only thing propping up the capitalist system.
In all countries, starting with the USA, the so-called free market economy is really on a life support system, like a coronavirus patient. Most of the money handed out by the state went straight into the pockets of the rich. But the ruling class feared the political consequences of yet another corporate bailout. They therefore gave grants to every resident and massively boosted unemployment benefits. This cushioned the impact of the crisis on the poorest layers. At some point, these supports will be cut back or withdrawn altogether.
We have the paradox of the most terrible poverty in the richest country in the world existing side by side with the most obscene wealth and luxury. By October 2020, more than one in five American households did not reliably have enough money for food. Food banks are proliferating.
Inequality and polarisation
Levels of inequality have broken all records. The gulf between rich and poor has become transformed into an unbridgeable abyss. In 2020 the wealth of the world’s billionaires grew by $3 .9 trillion. The Nasdaq 100 index is 40 percent higher than before the pandemic. Listed global equities, as of February 2021 had risen in value by $24 trillion since March of 2020.
The average chief executive of an S&P 500 company earns 357 times as much as the average non-supervisory worker. The ratio was around 20 in the mid-1960s. It was still 28 at the end of Ronald Reagan’s term in 1989.
To quote just one example, Jeff Bezos now makes more money per second than the typical US worker makes in a week. This takes America back to the times of the capitalist robber barons that Theodore Roosevelt denounced before the First World War.
And this has an effect. All the demagogy about the ‘national interest’, that ‘we must unite to fight the virus’, ‘we are all in the same boat’, stands exposed as the vilest hypocrisy.
The masses are prepared to make sacrifices under certain circumstances. In times of war, people are prepared to unite to fight a common enemy, that is true. They are prepared, at least temporarily, to accept lower living standards and also, to some extent, restrictions on democratic rights.
But the gulf separating the haves from the have-nots is deepening the social and political polarisation and creating an explosive mood in society. It undermines all the efforts to create a sensation of national unity and solidarity, which is the main line of defence for the ruling class.
Federal Reserve statistics show that the richest tenth in the US had a net worth of $80.7 trillion at the end of 2020. That means 375 percent of GDP and far above historical levels.
A five percent tax on that would yield $4 trillion, or one fifth of GDP. It would pay for all the costs of the pandemic. But the rich robber barons have no intention of sharing their plunder. Most of them (including Donald J Trump) show a marked disinclination to paying any tax at all, let alone five percent.
The only solution would be the expropriation of the bankers and capitalists. This idea will inevitably gain more and more support, sweeping away the remaining prejudices against socialism and communism, even among those layers of workers who have been bamboozled by the demagogy of Trump.
This is already causing concern among the serious strategists of capital. Mary Callaghan Erdoes, head of assets and wealth management for JP Morgan, drew the inevitable conclusion: “You’re going to get a very high risk of extremism coming out of this. We have to find some way to adapt, otherwise we’re in a very dangerous situation.”
The assault on the Capitol
The attack on the Capitol on 6 January was a graphic indication that what the USA now faces is not a crisis of government, but a crisis of the regime itself.
These events were neither a coup nor an insurrection, but they glaringly exposed the raw anger that exists in the depths of society and also the emergence of deep rifts in the state. At bottom, what they indicate is that the polarisation in society has reached a critical point. The institutions of bourgeois democracy are being tested to destruction.
There is a burning hatred of the rich and powerful, the bankers, Wall Street and the Washington establishment in general (“the swamp”). This hatred was skilfully channelled by the right-wing demagogue, Donald Trump.
Of course, Trump himself is only the most cunning and voracious alligator in the swamp. He is merely pursuing his own interests. But in doing so, he seriously damaged the interests of the ruling class as a whole. He has played with fire and conjured up forces that neither he, nor anyone else, can control.
By word and deed, Trump was destroying the legitimacy of bourgeois institutions and creating huge instability. That is why the ruling class and its political representatives everywhere are horrified by his conduct.
The Democrats tried to impeach Trump, accusing him of organising an insurrection. But they predictably failed to get the Senate to convict him, which would have barred him from standing for public office in future.
Most Republican senators would have been very glad to do this. They hate and fear this political upstart. And they knew very well who was behind the events of 6 January. The Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell delivered a damning verdict on the ex-President, after voting to acquit him.
In reality, he and the other Republican senators were terrified of the reaction of Trump’s angry followers if they took that fateful step. They decided that discretion is the better part of valour and, holding their noses, voted not guilty.
But if this was an attempted insurrection it was a very poor one. Rather than an insurrection, it resembled a large-scale riot. The mob of angry Trump supporters burst into the Capitol with the obvious connivance of at least some of the guards. But, having easily gained possession of the Holy of Holies of US bourgeois democracy, they had not the faintest idea of what to do with it.
The disorganized and leaderless mob milled around aimlessly, trashing anything they took a dislike to and shouting bloodthirsty threats against Democrat Nancy Pelosi, Republican vice-President Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell, who they accused of betraying Trump. Meanwhile, the insurrectionaries’ Commander-in-Chief had conveniently disappeared.
If history repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce, this was a farce of the purest water. In the end, nobody was hanged or sent to the guillotine. Tired out by so much shouting, the “insurrectionists” went home quietly or retired to the nearest bar to get drunk and boast of their courageous exploits, leaving behind nothing more threatening than a pile of rubbish and a few bruised egos.
Nevertheless, from the point of view of the ruling class, it set a dangerous precedent for the future. Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, had this to say: “We’re on the brink of a terrible civil war. The US is at a tipping point in which it could go from manageable internal tension to revolution.” The storming of the Capitol was a serious warning to the ruling class. And this will undoubtedly have consequences. Despite a barrage of media hostility, 45 percent of registered Republicans thought that it was justified.
But this has to be compared with the far more significant fact that 54 percent of all Americans thought that the burning down of the Minneapolis police precinct was justified. And 10 percent of the whole population took part in the Black Lives Matter protests – 20,000 times more than those who stormed the Capitol. All this shows the rapid growth of social and political polarisation in the United States.
The spontaneous uprisings that swept the USA from coast to coast following the murder of George Floyd, and the unparalleled events that preceded and followed the presidential elections marked a turning point in the entire situation.
Changes in consciousness
The stupid liberals and reformists naturally understand nothing of what is happening. They only see the surface of events, without understanding the deeper currents that are flowing strongly beneath the surface and impelling the waves.
They constantly shout about fascism, by which they mean anything they dislike or fear. About the real nature of fascism, they know absolutely nothing. That goes without saying. But by constantly harping on the “danger to democracy” (by which they mean formal bourgeois democracy) they sow confusion and prepare the ground for class collaboration under the flag of “the lesser evil”. Their support for Joe Biden in the USA is a very clear example of this.
What we have to take account of is that Trump’s base has a very heterogeneous and contradictory character. It contains a bourgeois wing, headed by Trump himself, and a large number of reactionary petty bourgeois, religious fanatics and openly fascist elements.
But we must remember that Trump received 74 million votes in the last election and many of these were working-class people who previously voted for Obama but are disillusioned with the Democrats. When they are interviewed, they say: “Washington doesn’t care about us! We’re the forgotten people!”
There are violent swings to the left and also to the right. Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and because of the complete bankruptcy of the reformists, including the left reformists, this mood of anger and frustration has been capitalised upon by right-wing demagogues, so-called populists. In the USA we have the phenomenon of Trumpism. in Brazil we saw the rise of Bolsonaro.
But the appeal of right-wing demagogues soon evaporates when it comes into contact with the realities of government, as the case of Bolsonaro amply demonstrates. It is true that Trump maintained the support of millions, but he nevertheless has been removed.
It was interesting to note that around the date of the assault on the Capitol, Missouri senator Josh Hawley said: “Republicans in Washington are going to have a very hard time processing this… But the future is clear: we must be a working-class party, not a Wall Street party.” (The Guardian)
Lenin said that history knows all kinds of peculiar transformations. Marxists must be capable of distinguishing what is progressive from what is reactionary. We must understand that with all these events, in embryo, we have the outline of revolutionary developments in the USA in the future.
Of course, this reactionary Republican senator has no intention of organising a genuine working-class party in the USA and such a party will not emerge from a right-wing split from the Republicans. But the convulsions in the old two-party system are undoubtedly the harbinger of something entirely new: the emergence of a third party that will challenge both Republicans and Democrats.
Such a party will at first have an extremely confused and heterogeneous character. But the anti-capitalist element must sooner or later predominate. That is where the real threat to the system lies. When the masses begin to intervene directly in politics, when they decide that the time is come to take their destiny into their own hands, that itself is a symptom of impending revolutionary developments.
The serious strategists of Capital understand the dangerous implications in the present turbulence far more than the impressionistic and panicky petty bourgeois. On 30 December 2020, the Financial Times published a very interesting article, signed by the editorial board.
It painted a very different picture of the process, and where it would go, and the conclusions it drew from all this were very alarming from a bourgeois point of view:
“Groups left behind by economic change are increasingly concluding that those in charge do not care about their predicament – or worse, have rigged the economy for their own benefit against those on the margins.
“Slowly but surely, that is putting capitalism and democracy in tension with one another. Since the global financial crisis, this sense of betrayal has fuelled a political backlash against globalisation and the institutions of liberal democracy.
“Right-wing populism may thrive on this backlash while leaving capitalist markets in place.
“But as it cannot deliver on its promises to the economically frustrated, it is just a matter of time before the pitchforks come out for capitalism itself, and for the wealth of those who benefit from it.” [Our emphasis]
This article shows a perfect understanding of the dynamics of the class struggle. Even the language is significant. Armed with pitchforks suggests an analogy with the French Revolution, or the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, where the peasants seized London.
The authors of these lines understand perfectly well that a surge in the direction of so-called right-wing populism can be just the first stage before a revolutionary explosion. Violent swings of public opinion to the right can very easily be the preparation of even more violent swings to the left by the discontented masses who are seeking a way out of the crisis.
This is a highly perceptive prediction of how events will develop in the coming period. And not only in the USA. This tremendous volatility can be observed in many countries, if not in every country. Beneath the surface, a mood of anger, bitterness and resentment against the established order is developing.
Collapse of the Centre
The institutions of bourgeois democracy are based on the assumption that the gulf between rich and poor could be disguised and contained within manageable limits. But that is no longer the case.
The continued growth of class inequality has created a level of social polarisation not seen for decades. It is testing the traditional mechanisms of bourgeois democracy to their very limits, and beyond those limits.
The antagonism between rich and poor is growing more intense every day. It provides an irresistible impetus to the centrifugal forces that are driving the classes apart. That is precisely the reason for the collapse of the so-called Centre.
This is causing growing alarm in the ruling class, which feels power slipping out of its hands. Establishment parties everywhere are identified by the masses with austerity and attacks on living standards.
There is an angry mood in society. This mood expresses itself in the collapse of confidence in the official institutions, the parties, the governments, the political leaders, bankers, rich people, the police, the judiciary, existing laws, tradition, the religion and morality of the existing system. People no longer believe what they are told by the newspapers and the TV. They compare the huge difference between what is said and what happens, and they realise we are being told a pack of lies.
This was not always the case. In the past, most people did not pay much attention to politics. That goes for workers also. Conversations in the workplaces were usually about football, movies, television programmes. Politics were rarely mentioned, except maybe at election time.
Now, all that has changed. The masses are beginning to take an interest in politics, because they are beginning to realise this directly affects their lives, and the lives of their families. This in and of itself is an expression of a move in the direction of revolution.
In the past, if people bothered to vote in elections at all, they would usually vote for the same party that their parents and grandparents had voted for. Now, however, elections have become extremely unpredictable. The mood of the electorate is angry, mistrustful and volatile, swinging violently from the left to the right, and from right to left.
The perspectives for the Biden administration
The strategists of capital recognise the colossal dangers in this polarization and are striving desperately to rebuild the “Centre”. But objectively there is no real basis for this. In the person of Joe Biden, they are leaning on a broken reed.
Wall Street now places its hopes on the Biden administration and his vaccination campaign. But Biden now presides over a deep economic and political crisis in a divided and declining nation.
He is being pushed by the establishment to increase state intervention in the economy, and he has lost no time in unveiling his plans for a $1.9tn stimulus package for the US economy. If we add the $900 billion package previously agreed by Congress and the $3 trillion in relief passed at the start of the pandemic, this all adds up to a mountain of debt. The ruling class is desperately trying to restore political stability.
Harvard University Professor Kenneth Rogoff put it this way: “I’m very sympathetic to what Biden’s doing… Yes, there is some risk we have economic instability down the road, but we have political instability now.” All this is preparing a huge crisis down the line.
Meanwhile millions of disgruntled citizens do not even believe that Biden won the election. Whatever he does will be wrong for them. On the other hand, the exaggerated hopes of his many supporters will evaporate like a drop of water on a hot stove, once the initial sense of relief at the departure of Trump has dissipated. And although he will inevitably enjoy a honeymoon for a time, massive disillusionment will follow, preparing the way for new upheavals, turbulence and instability.
Latin America is one of the regions in the world hardest hit by COVID-19, from a public health point of view but also from the point of view of the economic crisis.
The region’s GDP fell by about 7.7 percent in 2020, the deepest collapse in 120 years. This came on the heels of a decade of stagnation, with 0.3 percent annual average growth in 2014-2019. The region is not expected to recover its pre-crisis GDP until 2024. Extreme poverty levels have gone back to what they were in 1990.
This was already producing social and political turbulence before the pandemic began. In Latin America, the uprisings in 2019 (Ecuador, Chile), which were part of a worldwide trend (Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, …), were temporarily cut across by the onset of the pandemic that swept the continent with devastating consequences.
Brazil has had one of the highest death tolls in the world and Peru was also hard hit. In Ecuador coffins were piling up in front of the overcrowded morgues and bodies were left unattended in the streets in some places.
However, in the second half of 2020, we saw a return to mass insurrectionary movements. In September 2020 there was an explosion of outrage in Colombia against a police murder, which saw the burning down of 40 police stations. In Perú the movement of the masses brought down two governments. And the protests in Guatemala led to the parliament building being set on fire. This has continued into 2021, and with important political consequences. In Colombia the movement re-emerged with a powerful National Strike movement that has reduced the social base of support for the Duque government to a minimum. In Peru, we had the unexpected election of the teacher-trade unionist Pedro Castillo in the presidential elections. Similarly, in Chile we had the electoral defeat of the right and the rise of candidates linked to the 2019 uprising, as well as the CP and the Broad Front, in the elections for the constituent assembly, mayors and regional governors.
In Brazil, where the Lefts and sectarians made a great noise about the alleged victory of “fascism”, Bolsonaro’s support is collapsing. The slogan originally launched by our Brazilian comrades “Fora Bolsonaro” (Bolsonaro out!), which was rejected as utopian by the Lefts, has now achieved general acceptance.
So weak is the “strong man” Bolsonaro that he has been unable even to launch his own party. Although he has been desperately trying to do so, he has so far failed miserably even to get sufficient signatures to register.
The problem is not the strength of Bolsonaro but the weakness of the Left. The PT, which once enjoyed the overwhelming support of the workers, has lost massively in recent elections. Here too, it is a question, not of objective difficulties, but of the weakness of the subjective factor.
The revolutionary and insurrectionary events that have taken place in different Latin American countries and the coming to power of “progressive” leaders with the support of workers and peasants (AMLO in Mexico, Arce in Bolivia, Castillo in Peru, etc.) serve as a refutation of all those (including sectarians) which argued there was a “conservative wave” in Latin America. Capitalism here is much weaker than in the developed capitalist countries, the effects of the pandemic have been devastating in health and economic terms, and the masses are gaining muscle in the impressive struggles we have seen recently. For all these reasons, Latin America is very likely to be one of the scenes of the forthcoming revolutionary events.
Cuba, meanwhile, is faced with a major economic crisis, unleashed by the pandemic and compounded by Trump’s sanctions and economic measures, none of which have been reversed by Biden. The island’s economy slumped by 11 percent in 2020.
This has pushed the leadership to implement a series of capitalist market measures, which had been discussed for 10 years but never fully implemented, including currency unification, market relations amongst state sector companies, closing down state sector companies that are not “profitable”, lifting of subsidies on the price of basic food staples, etc.
These measures are already having an impact in further increasing inequality and have generated discontent. It is a turning point in the process towards capitalist restoration.
These economic factors are the objective basis for the protests of July 11. These were the largest protests in Cuba since the 1994 “maleconazo”, and they came at a time of deep economic crisis and with a government that does not have the same authority as Fidel Castro had back then.
The movement had a genuine component of a protest against scarcity and hardship that working class people are suffering. There was, however, another component which responded to a constant campaign of propaganda on social media and provocations in the streets by openly counter-revolutionary elements which had been going on for months.
The protesters, which numbered about 2,000 in Havana, were composed of different layers: poor people from working class areas badly affected by the economic crisis and the measures taken by the bureaucracy; lumpen and criminal elements; petty bourgeois pro-capitalist elements that have flourished in the last 10 years of market reforms; artists, intellectuals and youth concerned about censorship and democratic rights in abstract.
It must be clearly explained that the protests took place under the slogans “Homeland and Life” (“Patria y vida”), “Down with the dictatorship” and “Down with Communism”, clearly of a counter-revolutionary character. The problems and hardships are real and genuine; there are confused elements participating; but in the midst of all the confusion, it is the counter-revolutionary elements who dominate these protests. These are organised, motivated and have clear objectives. It is therefore necessary to oppose them and to defend the revolution. If those who promote these protests, together with their mentors in Washington, were to achieve their goal – the overthrow of the government – this would inevitably accelerate the process of capitalist restoration and take Cuba back to its former status as a de facto colony of US imperialism. The economic and health problems suffered by the Cuban working class would not be solved, but on the contrary, would be aggravated. One only has to look at Bolsonaro’s Brazil or neighbouring Haiti to convince oneself of this. The defeat of the Cuban revolution would have a negative impact on the consciousness of workers across the continent and around the world.
In the struggle that is opening up, the International Marxist Tendency stands unconditionally for the defence of the Cuban revolution. The first point we have to make is that we are totally opposed to the blockade by US imperialism and we campaign against it. However, our unconditional defence of the revolution does not mean that we are uncritical. We must explain clearly that the methods of the bureaucracy are to a large extent responsible for creating the current situation. Bureaucratic planning leads to mismanagement, inefficiency, waste and indolence. Bureaucratic imposition and arbitrariness leads to alienation of the youth. Pro-capitalist measures lead to social differentiation and poverty.
Widespread questioning of the leadership has emerged amongst many workers and youth who consider themselves revolutionaries. We must explain that the only effective way to defend the revolution is by putting the working class in charge. Our model should be the workers’ democracy of the Paris Commune and Lenin’s State and Revolution. We stand for the broadest and freest political discussion among revolutionaries. The state media should be open to all shades of revolutionary opinion. In all workplaces the workers themselves should have full powers to re-organise production in order to make it more efficient. Furthermore, the privileges of the bureaucracy (special shops, preferential access to basic products) must be abolished. All state officials should be elected and recallable at any time.
The fate of the Cuban revolution will ultimately be decided in the sphere of the international class struggle. Cuban revolutionaries should adopt a socialist revolutionary internationalist position, as opposed to one based on geopolitics and diplomacy. We stand for workers’ democracy and international socialism.
Real GDP fell 7 percent across EU member states in 2020. This was the biggest decline in Europe since World War Two. Official figures show that 13.2 million are unemployed, but discounting furlough schemes, the true unemployment figure is closer to 12.6 percent (about 20 million). An additional 30 million are missing from the official figures, described as ‘hidden unemployment’.
The EU commission bungled the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, resulting in big shortages across Europe. Denmark initially only got 40,000, when it was expecting 300,000. The Netherlands initially received none.
The failure of the vaccine programme follows on from the disaster of last year’s PPE shortage crisis. When Italy was facing the worst of its crisis, European solidarity was entirely forgotten. It was every man for himself. The vaccine programme was an attempt to re-establish the solidarity inside the European Union, but it failed.
To make matters still worse, the escalation of restrictive measures (lockdowns, etc.) to tackle the coronavirus pandemic by 21 Eurozone nations significantly slowed economic activity, so that the bloc faced a double-dip recession.
Whereas last spring, when the pandemic first struck, the eurozone economy experienced a sudden, deep shock, the new surge in infections is dragging on for longer, causing a slower but even more debilitating decline in economic activity.
Travel, retail, hospitality, business confidence and consumer spending have all been hit in the first weeks of 2021. This threatens to produce a delayed wave of bankruptcies, unless the governments and central banks continue to support measures to prop up the economy.
As a result, economists anticipate that an estimated contraction of output in the eurozone of between 1.8 percent and 2.3 percent in the final three months of 2020 would be followed by another fall in the first quarter of 2021 in many of the bloc’s major economies, including Germany and Italy. That could leave the eurozone in its second recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth, in less than two years.
Following Brexit and Trump, who never bothered to disguise his contempt for all things European, the European bourgeoisie feels it can no longer rely on traditional allies. Emmanuel Macron’s foolish attempt to ingratiate himself with Trump was a spectacular failure.
Trump made it very clear that he saw Europe as a main enemy, whereas Russia was only a “competitor.” He followed up his words with actions. His protectionist policies were directed as much against Europe as China. And he maintained this belligerent attitude right to the dying days of his administration. On New Year’s Eve, the US announced a new hike in EU tariffs on plane parts and wines from France and Germany.
Biden is looking to renew ties with Europe. He has recommitted the US to multilateralism, including rejoining the WHO and the Paris climate agreement. He has also backed a new Director General for the WTO. The attitude on the Iranian nuclear deal has also changed. All these are welcome steps for the Europeans, desperate for a change of direction from the White House. Trump labels this new strategy “America Last”.
Yet, there are conflicts between the two sides that are much more difficult to resolve. The Europeans are not convinced about the US strategy on China. They are also keen to take advantage of the US trade war with China for their own purposes. The new Investment Treaty struck between China and the EU in the last weeks of Trump’s presidency was widely seen as an affront to Joe Biden, which the new president was forced to swallow.
There are more long-running disputes to resolve: the Airbus-Boeing state aid dispute has been smoldering for decades with no resolution in sight. The Nord Stream 2 Pipeline is also causing a major rift between the US and Germany, with the US insisting the pipeline will strengthen Russia’s influence in Europe. The new-found affection between Biden and the Europeans will be tested in the coming months as both blocs attempt to revive their exports in the post-pandemic crisis.
Germany has been Europe’s anchor, an island of stability in often stormy waters. Angela Merkel was seen as a safe pair of hands at the helm of Europe’s most important country. But with the pandemic came new problems.
Europe was already experiencing growing tensions between member states after the 2008 crisis. Brexit was a turning point in this dynamic, as was the pandemic crisis and the nationalism which prevailed in dealing with the health crisis. The deep global crisis will exert enormous pressure in this direction: the EU must compete with the other imperialist blocs while at the same time the different nations that make up the EU will compete with each other to export their own crises.
The German capitalists have recognised that they had to change their methods in order to try to halt the increasing centrifugal tendencies in the EU. This trend was further strengthened when the pandemic hit. Last autumn, Germany was compelled to underwrite a €750bn loan for the European Recovery fund in order to hold together the EU. This substantial package will provide temporary relief to the EU, but it is only a one-time subsidy. Calls to go further in this direction have been firmly blocked by Germany. In the end none of the problems have been resolved.
Merkel has had to extend Germany’s lockdown. Her coalition is fighting over slow vaccination rates and inadequate supplies. The national mood has shifted from self-congratulatory to glum. The Financial Times commented that “the political landscape ahead of September’s election looks more fragmented and volatile.”
In France, the Macron government is now totally discredited, with a rate of 60 percent disapproval: some of the worst since the protests of the gilets jaunes. The official unemployment rate is 9 percent, but in reality, it is far higher.
The ‘National grand debate’ did nothing to restore public support for the government, nor did the sacking of the prime minister, Edouard Phillipe. And Macron’s repeated attempts to act the part of a “great statesman” on the international plane evokes nothing but sarcastic laughter at all levels.
Not long ago, Britain was probably the most stable country in Europe. Now it has become probably the most unstable.
The present crisis has cruelly exposed the weakness of British capitalism. The UK economy fell by 9.9 percent in 2020, twice as much as Germany and three times as much as the United States. Now, faced with the effects of the pandemic and the calamity of Brexit, a further recession is inevitable.
Brexit was an act of sheer madness on the part of the Conservative Party, which has now escaped the control of the ruling class. The government is controlled by a circus clown, who in turn is controlled by demented reactionary chauvinists.
Despite winning a decisive victory in the election of December 2019, the Tory party has been increasingly discredited, particularly by its mishandling of the pandemic with more deaths than any other country in Europe. The number of deaths (clearly understated in the official figures) is among the highest of any country proportionate to the size of the population. Yet the Tories have continually resisted taking the necessary measures until it was forced on them by the gravity of the situation.
These people are not interested in the lives and health of the population. Nor do they care about the lamentable state of the National Health Service (NHS), which they have brought about with decades of cuts. They are only motivated by one thing: profits.
The Tories wish to keep production going at all costs. That is why they were determined to re-open schools. That led in the first days of January to a mass protest and a 400,000 strong online meeting of teachers. Their threat of strike action forced the government to close the schools.
Yet despite the unpopularity of the government, the Labour Party and the right-wing leadership is still lagging behind the Tories. There is no real opposition from Labour.
The resignation of Corbyn and McDonnell following Labour’s defeat in December 2019 was a serious blow to the left and a gift to the right wing. The left had every opportunity to transform the Labour Party. They had the total backing of the rank and file. This would have meant carrying out a thorough purge of the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the bureaucracy. But they backed away from this and refused to support the slogan of deselection of MPs that the Marxists and others advocated and which had widespread support in the rank and file.
In the last analysis, the Lefts are afraid of carrying the struggle to its ultimate consequence, which would mean a complete break with the right wing. But the right wing shows no such kindness towards the Left. Encouraged by their weakness, they have carried out a purge of the Left – including the suspension of Corbyn himself. This weakness is not only a moral question. It is a political question. It is an organic characteristic of left reformism.
Big business is now calling the shots in Labour. Keir Starmer speaks not like the leader of the opposition, but like a servile member of Johnson’s cabinet. He waits for Johnson to act before saying “me too”.
But now the right wing has gone too far. By its actions, the right wing are pushing the lefts to come out fighting. The stage is set for a battle in the Labour Party.
Whatever happens, the Marxist tendency can make gains and many new doors will be opened for us. The art of politics is to seize every opportunity that arises.
Italy remains the weakest link in the chain of European capitalism. Its chronic weakness has been laid bare by the present crisis. Unable to compete with more powerful economies like Germany, it is falling further and further behind, and sinking ever deeper into debt.
Its banking system is constantly hovering on the edge of a collapse that could drag down the rest of Europe. The EU is obliged to prop it up for that very reason, but it does so cursing under its breath.
The German bankers, in particular, have become increasingly impatient and up until recently were demanding the adoption of serious measures to cut government spending and attack living standards. That is to say, they were pushing Italy towards the abyss. Their tune has somewhat changed since the pandemic has forced all of them to turn to the state for help. Once the pandemic is over, they will return to austerity with a vengeance.
In order to navigate through the present crisis, the Italian ruling class requires a strong government. But no strong government is possible in Italy. The political regime is rotten to the core. Lack of confidence in the politicians is expressed by a permanent crisis of government. One unstable coalition follows another, while at bottom, nothing changes. The masses are desperate and their search for a way out is expressed by violent swings to the right and left.
The crisis has been enormously exacerbated by the pandemic, which hit Italy sooner and harder than anywhere else. At the time of writing, the number of deaths from COVID-19 is getting close to the 100,000 mark.
The ruling class was hoping to maintain the Centre-Left coalition as long as possible to prevent a social explosion. But that became unfeasible, as one by one, the political options were being exhausted. Feeling the fire under its backside, Renzi’s party, Italia Viva pulled its three ministers out of Conte’s coalition over COVID-19 pandemic failures, leading to the collapse of the government and opening the door to the formation of the Draghi government.
The President of the Republic stepped in, and rather than call early elections, he invited Draghi, the ex-governor of the European Central Bank, to form a government. Here we have yet another example of a “technocrat” being imposed on the country as prime minister, elected by no one.
The bankruptcy of the “Centre-Left” provided an opportunity for far-right formations like the Brothers of Italy party. They have stayed out of the coalition that is backing Draghi, firstly because they are not needed, and secondly because they are hoping to make gains on the right at the expense of the Lega, which is now in the government.
Sooner or later, however, the parliamentary games will be replaced by an open battle between the classes. No stability is possible on the basis of the present system. In Italy, there is no mass workers’ party. But the mood of the masses grows ever angrier and impatient by the day. The militant actions of the workers in the first month of the pandemic was a warning of what is to come.
The repeated failures of governments are inevitably leading to an explosion of the class struggle. Ultimately, matters will not be solved in parliament and the day is fast approaching when the centre of gravity will pass from a discredited parliament to the factories and the streets.
The same turbulence and volatility can be seen everywhere. In Russia, the return and arrest of Alexei Navalny was the signal for a wave of protests all over the country. There were demonstrations of 40,000 people in Moscow, 10,000 in Petersburg and thousands more in 110 other cities, including Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.
These protests were not yet on the same massive scale that we saw in Belarus earlier, when millions took to the streets to overthrow Lukashenko. But these were big demonstrations in a Russian context. They were very heterogeneous in composition, with many middle-class people, intellectuals, liberals – but also a growing number of workers, especially young workers.
The police reacted with repression. Street fighting occurred in many cities. People broke through barricades, with about 40 officers sustaining injuries. Several thousand people were detained.
What did this represent? The protests were in part a reflection of indignation at the arrest of Navalny. But the question of Navalny is only one element in this situation, and not necessarily the most important one.
Alexei Navalny is portrayed in western media as a heroic defender of democracy. In reality, he is an ambitious opportunist with a dubious political past. In retrospect, he will be seen as an accidental figure.
But accidental figures also play a role in history at certain moments. Just as in chemistry, a catalyst is needed to bring about a particular reaction, so in the revolutionary process, a point of reference is required to act as a detonator to ignite the accumulated discontent of the masses. The precise nature of this catalyst is irrelevant. In this case, it was the arrest of Navalny. But it could have been any number of factors.
Falling living standards
The main thing is not the accident through which necessity expresses itself but the necessity itself. The real cause of this upheaval was the accumulated anger of the population at falling living standards, economic crisis and the abuses of a corrupt and repressive regime.
Everything indicates that Putin’s support is falling. At one point the polls regularly gave him above 70 percent support. At the time of the annexation of Crimea, this rose to over 80 percent. But now it hovers around 63 percent, and at its lowest point it was only just above 50 percent. These figures must have caused serious alarm in the Kremlin.
In the past Putin could boast of some success in the economic field, but not anymore. Between 2013 and 2018, before the pandemic, the annual economic growth was 0.7 percent, that is, it was basically stagnant. At the end of 2020, there was negative growth of about 5 percent. Unemployment is growing fast and many families are losing their homes.
For a time, notably following the annexation of Crimea, which has a majority of Russians, Putin played the nationalist card. That boosted his popularity, but the heady fumes of chauvinism have now been largely dissipated and Putin’s stock of credibility was seriously damaged by his pension reform.
There is growing indignation at the monstrous corruption and luxurious lifestyle of the ruling elite. Two days after his arrest, Navalny put out a video, seen by millions, exposing the personal corruption of Putin, showing a large palace he has erected on the Black Sea. All this is building up an explosive mood.
The base of the regime’s support is narrowing all the time. Outside the Kremlin clique of oligarchs who are notoriously corrupt, it mainly consists of state officials whose jobs and careers depend on the boss, a large number of cronies who depend on state contracts and business links with the Kremlin and others who have prospered under its favours.
Last but not least, he rests on the security apparatus and the army. The Putin regime is a bourgeois Bonapartist regime. In the last analysis, Bonapartism is rule by the sword. Putin is the “strong man” who stands at the apex of the state and balances between the classes, presenting himself as the embodiment of the Russian nation.
But this strong man has feet of clay. As he exhausts his mass base of support, he is increasingly reduced to maintaining himself through a mixture of swindling, shameless vote-rigging and naked repression.
Talleyrand is said to have once remarked to Napoleon that one can do many things with bayonets, but you cannot sit on them. Putin would do well to ponder on that sage advice. The arrest, imprisonment and poisoning of political opponents are not a sign of strength but of fear and weakness.
Moreover, terror is a weapon that can be used effectively for a time, but is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Sooner or later, people begin to lose their fear. That is the most dangerous moment for an authoritarian regime. The recent demonstrations are proof that this process has already begun.
In reality, the only thing that is maintaining the regime is the temporary inertia of the masses. It is impossible to say with certainty how long the present unstable equilibrium can last. For the present, massive repression has succeeded in putting the brakes on the protests. But none of the underlying problems have been solved.
The recent protests alarmed the regime, which is combining repression with concessions. They have announced a plan to help the poorest families. This may buy them some time. But the relatively low price of oil will continue to damage the Russian economy and the sanctions imposed by America will remain, and even be tightened.
The “Communist” Party
In Russia the role of the subjective factor is glaringly obvious. If the CPRF were a genuine Communist Party, it would now be preparing for power. But the Zyuganov clique has no interest in taking power. They have a very comfortable arrangement with Putin, who guarantees them their privileges on the condition that they do nothing to disturb his hold on power.
The attitude of the CPRF leaders has created a growing unease in the ranks of the party. There have been several local and regional revolts, which have been put down with purges and expulsions. Entire regional organisations have been destroyed in this way. Zyuganov fears the possibility of a rise in radical opposition sentiment within the party. And such an increase in opposition and the growth of the crisis in the Communist Party opens up the possibility of strengthening a genuine Marxist influence among rank-and-file communists.
The present uneasy truce may last for several months or even several years. But the delay will only mean that the contradictions will continue to grow, preparing the way for a far greater explosion in the future. The most decisive element in this equation is the Russian working class, which has yet to say the last word.
It is impossible to predict the precise timescale of events. Russia is not yet in a pre-revolutionary situation, but events are moving very fast. We must follow events in that country.
In India we have what amounts to an insurrectionary movement of the farmers, who staged a tractor march to disrupt the Republic Day Parade in Delhi on 26 January, where Modi was celebrating with a big military parade.
These events have to be placed in the context of the global crisis of capitalism. In the cut-throat competition of the agricultural sector, the big food multinational corporations are trying to push down the prices small and medium farmers receive for their products at the point of production.
The marketisation of Indian agriculture is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for years, as we saw under the previous Manmohan Singh government. Finance capital has entered Indian agriculture on a grand scale, forcing farmers to rely more and more on loans, to an intolerable degree, in order to buy essential agricultural resources, whose costs have been skyrocketing.
As soon as the new laws were introduced, the prices being paid to farmers were slashed by up to 50 percent, while retail food prices increased. It is this unbearable situation that has led to the huge movement of the Indian farmers. Their demand is that the new laws be repealed. But none of their demands have been met, and none of these questions have been resolved in the talks.
What started back in August 2020 as small-scale protests in the Punjab, when Modi’s Farm Bills were made public, escalated into a much bigger movement, spreading to other states. In September 2020 farmers’ unions across India called for a Bharat Bandh (a nation-wide shutdown). The movement continued to escalate, as never-ending talks with the government were giving no tangible results. Five million took part in protests across 20,000 locations in December 2020.
An important turning point in this movement came with the dramatic events on 26 January, when hundreds of thousands of farmers marched in Delhi to protest for their demands. The farmers forced their way from the outskirts of the city into the city’s historic Red Fort. These poor people showed tremendous courage, fighting heavily armed police, being attacked with whips, and kicked and beaten to the ground.
Despite heavy police repression, farmers stormed the Red Fort, occupying the ramparts. It took the police a lot of effort to drive them out. One protester died, and more than 300 police officers were injured. This only served to enrage the farmers even more, and pulled more into the movement from other states in solidarity.
The scale of this struggle also reflects ferment in the whole of society, where even what were considered relatively conservative layers in rural areas are moving into action and becoming radicalised under the impact of the economic crisis.
It was not so long ago, when Modi first won the elections, that the tired lefts and ex-lefts were lamenting the rise of “fascism” in India. Our tendency, however, understood that Modi in office would prepare the conditions for a backlash of immense proportions. Our perspectives have been confirmed by events on a grand scale. Far from fascism, what we have is class polarisation and intense class struggle.
Role of the Stalinists
Modi has clearly been shaken by the farmers’ uprising, which gave some idea of the pent-up fury of the masses. But the weakness of the movement in India is to be found in the leadership of the trade unions, who have failed to provide a serious response from the powerful Indian working class in support of the farmers.
All this comes after years in which we have seen massive mobilisations of the Indian proletariat, with several huge 24-hour general strikes, involving up to 200 million workers – the biggest general strikes in the history of the international working class.
In September 2016, between 150 and 180 million public sector workers went on a 24-hour general strike. In 2019 around 220 million workers participated in a general strike, and again in January 2020, 250 million workers took part in a 24-hour general strike.
These facts demonstrate the colossal revolutionary potential of the Indian proletariat. The workers are prepared to fight. However the Stalinists’ policy was not to mobilise the masses for a decisive showdown with the Modi regime, but only to lean on the mass movement to get concessions and reach deals with Modi.
In practice, they used the tactic of one-day general strikes to allow the workers to blow off steam, while diverting the mass movement into harmless channels. That was the same tactic the trade union leaders used in Greece, calling a series of one-day general strikes. This is a trick to wear out the workers, turning the general strike into a meaningless gesture, creating the illusion of decisive action, while undermining such action in practice.
The slogan of the general strike
In India, objectively speaking, all the conditions exist for an all-out general strike. The Communist parties and trade union leaders could have played an important role in this, but they are dragging their feet. They could have brought down the Modi government, and put an end to his reactionary policies. Instead, they make token statements, but issue no call for serious action.
This highlights the urgent need to build up the forces of Marxism in India. But we have to keep a sense of proportion. Our organisation in India is still at an early stage. It would be a fatal mistake to have an exaggerated idea of what we can achieve.
Our task is not to lead the movement or win over the masses, but to work patiently to win over the best and most revolutionary elements, who are becoming impatient with the endless prevarications and vacillations of the leadership.
We must advance timely transitional slogans that correspond to the urgent needs of the situation and push the movement forward, while exposing the pusillanimous conduct of the leadership.
The farmers’ struggle has had an echo in the factories. Feeling the flames under their backsides, the trade union leaders began talking about a four-day general strike. We would support such a demand, but what is needed is not words but deeds!
We should say: very well, let us have a four-day strike, but less talk and more action! Name the day! Start a campaign in the factories. Call mass protest meetings, set up strike committees. Draw in the farmers, the women, the youths, the unemployed and all oppressed sections of society. And link up these rank-and-file organs of struggle on a citywide, regional and national level. In other words, organise soviets for the purpose of transferring power to the workers and farmers.
Once the masses of India are organised for the conquest of power, no force on earth could stop them. A four-day strike would soon be transformed into an all-out indefinite general strike. But that poses the question of power.
That is the perspective that we must patiently explain to the Indian workers and farmers. By such means, even though we are very small, our message will strike a chord with the most advanced workers and youth who are seeking the revolutionary road.
Our task is to win and train a sufficient number of revolutionary cadres that will enable us to intervene effectively in the dramatic events that will unfold in the coming period.
The military coup in Myanmar is a confirmation that we live in a period of “sharp turns and sudden changes”. The coup came as a surprise to many. The military had drawn up a constitution that gives them a guaranteed 25 percent of MPs and control over key ministries. It also inserted a clause that allows the military to step in during an “emergency”.
But where was the emergency here? The military invented one by falsely claiming widespread electoral fraud during the huge landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, in November 2020.
What is really behind the coup is the ongoing conflict over who should benefit from the programme of privatisation that started in 1988. The military officers have been busy ever since then enriching themselves by grabbing state owned property at knockdown prices. On the other hand, the imperialists, in particular, the United States, are pushing for Myanmar to open up its market to the multinational corporations.
The problem the imperialists face is that the dominant external power in Myanmar is China. The largest quota of Myanmar’s exports and imports is with China. Thus, we have here a struggle over spheres of influence, fundamentally between China and the United States, where Aung San Suu Kyi is the agent of the latter.
The military chiefs have been transforming themselves into capitalist oligarchs, and saw the massive landslide victory of the NLD as a potential threat to their interests. The military are hated by the masses, and the officer caste feared that with such huge support, the new incoming government could move to curb their power and privileges.
The military also feared the growing confidence of the masses after the elections. Used to governing the country by command in the past, they thought they could intervene and dictate which direction the country is to go. However, they did not take into account how strong the opposition is to military rule. The masses have not forgotten what it was like under military rule, and they see the military caste as corrupt and money-grabbing.
Here we have an example of what Marx referred to as the “whip of the counter-revolution”. The coup, rather than terrorising and paralysing the masses, has spurred them on. The perspective for Myanmar is therefore one of intensified class struggle, not paralysis and demoralisation.
Previously, China was a big part of the solution for world capitalism, now it is a big part of the problem.
China was the only major economic power to experience growth in 2020. The Chinese state intervened very decisively to counteract both the pandemic and the economic crisis. This was effective from a capitalist point of view, but it has come at a high cost. China’s debt levels have skyrocketed since 2008, rising by 30% during the pandemic and reaching 285% in 2020. The country has now overtaken many of the advanced capitalist countries in its level of debt.
The World Bank is forecasting a growth of 8% this year. Since spring last year, China has been outperforming the rest of the world. But this very success will be its undoing since its recovery is export-led. The authorities in Beijing have for some time been attempting to modify the structure of the Chinese economy from its heavy reliance on investment and exports to boosting internal demand. They have also attempted to develop industries in new technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, 5G and solar power, which has a higher productivity of labour. They’re also attempting to develop alternative trade agreements to counter US attempts to isolate China.
None of these measures will resolve the developing contradictions in the Chinese economy. In fact, since the pandemic began, the economy has become even more dependent on exports. Furthermore, the debt is continuing to grow in an explosive fashion, the conflicts with neighbours and other imperial powers are intensifying, and the unevenness of the growth is continuing, with the coastal areas moving far ahead of the interior. All this will aggravate the already existing social contradictions.
It is no accident that, in its dying days, the Trump administration adopted a “scorched earth” approach to China, but under Biden, US policy towards China will not fundamentally change. Both Republicans and Democrats see China as the main threat to the USA on a world scale.
The conflict between the USA and China threatens to bring about an even more serious trade war. This is the greatest threat to world capitalism that exists, because it was the growth of world trade (so-called globalisation) that provided the necessary oxygen for capitalism in the last period.
This in turn will have an effect inside China. An economic crisis would constitute a serious threat to its social stability. There have already been factory closures and unemployment, which have been concealed, but they exist. Private companies shifted their problems onto their workers with sackings and attacks on wages. Wage payments are being delayed for months, building up colossal anger and resentment.
The ruling circles fear the possibility of social explosions as a result of the economic crisis and the growth of unemployment. That is the main reason why Xi Jinping was obliged to clamp down viciously on Hong Kong. This was not an expression of strength, but of fear and weakness. The Chinese ruling class was terrified that this kind of movement could spread to the mainland, and in the future it eventually will, as night follows day.
The regime has so far succeeded in keeping the lid on the seething discontent throughout China. But it can erupt at any time, and when that occurs it will not be possible to repress it as in Hong Kong. Even there, for a while the regime lost control of events. But faced with a hundred or a thousand Hong Kongs in mainland China, it would immediately find itself suspended in mid-air.
Great events are being prepared in China. And they will happen when nobody expects them, precisely because it is a totalitarian regime, where most of what is happening is hidden from view.
Changed balance of forces
What got the USA out of the Depression of the 1930s was not Roosevelt’s New Deal but the Second World War. But that avenue is now closed. The power of American imperialism has declined relative to other powers, and so has its ability to intervene militarily.
The need to conquer markets and sources of raw materials forces China to be more aggressive on the world market. It has been grabbing access to resources around the world. For example, it has taken control of a port and an airport in Sri Lanka; it has established a military base in Djibouti; building railways in Ethiopia; grabbing copper and cobalt in Congo; copper in Zambia; oil in Angola and so on. It also claims sovereignty over the South China Sea, which is the most important route for world trade.
This directly threatens the interests of US imperialism. All this inevitably means greater tension between China and the United States. In previous periods that would undoubtedly have led to war. But the balance of forces has now changed completely.
Trump was not able to get North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons. “Little Rocket Man” ran circles around him. So why does the USA not declare war on North Korea, which is after all a very small Asian country?
In the past the Americans waged a war in Korea that ended in a draw. But in Vietnam, after a tremendous drain of blood and gold, they were defeated for the first time. After that they suffered humiliation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Trump seemed to be preparing an air strike on Iran, but backed away at the last minute, fearing the consequences. All this serves to underline the fact that war is not an abstract question, but a very concrete one.
The USA was not able to defend Ukraine or Georgia against Russia, which has a very powerful army that demonstrated its effectiveness in Syria. The USA was compelled to retreat, leaving Russia and Iran as virtual masters of the country. The Americans sent a handful of troops to the Baltic states to “protect” them against Russia. But Putin has no intention of invading these small states and will lose no sleep over this.
The case with regards to China is clearer still. China today is no longer a poor, underdeveloped country as in the past. It is an economically developed state with a powerful army, it possesses nuclear weapons and sufficient intercontinental ballistic missiles to hit any US cities it chooses.
The fact that China recently put a satellite in orbit around the moon and sent a mission to Mars clearly made this point, which Washington has duly noted. There is therefore absolutely no question of war in the foreseeable future between the United States and China, or, for that matter, between the USA and Russia.
A general conflagration on the lines of 1914-18 or 1939-45 is ruled out because of the changed balance of forces. Under modern conditions, it would mean a nuclear war, which would be catastrophic for the entire world.
However, this does not mean that the next period will be one of peaceful tranquillity. Quite the contrary, in fact. There will be wars all the time – small but devastating local wars – in Africa and the Middle East in particular. The US imperialists, together with the other imperialist powers, have been involved in local wars backing proxy armies to wage war against their competitors, and this will also be the case with China in the future, but they are very averse to risking the lives of US soldiers in foreign wars to which US public opinion is now implacably opposed.
This situation can only change in the event of the victory of a Bonapartist military police regime in the USA. But that could only be achieved after a series of decisive defeats of the American working class, which is not at all our perspective. Long before that could arise, the working class will have many opportunities to take power. The constant bleating of the so-called lefts and the sects about the alleged fascism represented by Trump is mere childishness, to which we must pay absolutely no attention whatsoever.
At the present time, US imperialism uses its economic muscle to assert its global domination. The Trump administration repeatedly used the threat of economic sanctions to bully the rest of the world into slavishly following Washington’s policies in the field of foreign affairs. US imperialism has weaponised trade.
Having unilaterally broken the deal with Iran, which had been painfully put together by the previous US administration and its European allies, Trump tightened sanctions in order to throttle Iran’s economy, and then forced European companies and banks to follow, on pain of being excluded from US markets.
In the past, if the British imperialists had a problem with a semi-colonial country like Persia, they would send a gunboat. Nowadays, US imperialism sends a letter from the Board of Trade. In fact, the effects of the latter are far more devastating than a few shells launched from a battleship.
Clausewitz said that war is politics by other means. Nowadays we should add that trade is war by other means.
When the ruling class is faced with losing everything, it will resort to desperate measures to save the system. We see that right now. In their desperate search for solutions to the crisis, the bourgeois lurch like a drunken man from one lamppost to another.
They have rummaged about in the dustbin of history and fished out the old ideas of Keynesianism. The bourgeoisie has suddenly become drunk with its newly discovered illusions, which are merely old, discredited theories that they had previously contemptuously discarded.
Ted Grant used to describe Keynesianism as voodoo economics. That is a very fair description. The idea that the bourgeois can avoid crises or get out of them by injecting large sums of public money sounds attractive – especially to the left reformists, whom it absolves of the need of fighting to change society. But there is a slight problem.
The state is not a magical money tree. The idea that it can be a source of unlimited funds is complete nonsense. Yet this nonsense has been adopted by almost every government. It is really a policy born of desperation. And it has led to the piling up of astronomical debts that have no precedent except in time of war.
At the moment, governments everywhere are spending money like water. They talk about spending billions of dollars, pounds or euros as if they were spending small change on a box of matches.
As a result, there is a ticking time bomb of debt, which is built into the foundations of the economy. In the long term, the effects will be more devastating than any terrorist bomb. This is what Alan Greenspan once referred to as “the irrational exuberance of the market”.
A more accurate word would be “madness”. This madness must lead to a fall, which is euphemistically referred to as a “market correction”.
Role of the state in the economy
On 8 May 2020 the Financial Times published an Editorial Board statement in which we read the following:
“Short of a communist revolution, it is hard to imagine how governments could have intervened in private markets – for labour, for credit, for the exchange of goods and services – as quickly and deeply as in the past two months of lockdowns.
“Overnight, millions of private sector employees have been getting their pay cheques from public budgets and central banks have flooded financial markets with electronic money.”
But how can these statements be reconciled with the oft-repeated mantra that tells us that the state has no role whatsoever to play in a “free market economy?” To this question the Financial Times provides a most interesting answer:
(…) “But liberal democratic capitalism is not self-sufficient, and needs to be protected and maintained to be resilient.”
In other words, the “free market” is not free at all. Under present conditions it must lean on the state as a crutch. It can only exist thanks to massive and unprecedented handouts from the state. The IMF calculates the total amount of fiscal support worldwide at a staggering US$14tn. Global government debt has now reached 99 percent of GDP for the first time in history.
This is a confession of bankruptcy – in the most literal sense of the word. The central problem in this equation can be summed up with one word: debt. Total global debt (including government, households and corporations) at the end of 2020 reached 356 percent of GDP, up 35 percentage points from 2019, reaching a record $281 trillion. It is now even higher and rising. This is the greatest danger facing the capitalist system.
Japan spent about $3 trillion to cushion the economic blow from COVID-19, adding to its public debt, which is already 2.5 times the size of its economy. The problem is particularly severe in China, where total debt has surpassed 280 percent of GDP, which puts China level with most advanced capitalist countries, and it is rising rapidly in all sectors of the economy.
This January, the World Bank sounded the alarm about a “fourth wave of debt”, which is particularly severe outside of the advanced capitalist countries. They are seriously worried about a financial crash with long-term consequences.
The bourgeois are acting like an irresponsible gambler who is spending vast quantities of money which he does not possess. They suffer from the same delusions and experience the same kind of delirious ecstasy of squandering huge amounts of money in the confident belief that their luck will never run out… until the fatal moment arrives – as it always does – when the debts have to be paid.
Sooner or later, these debts will catch up with them. But in the short term, they are quite happy to continue this madness, printing vast sums of money that have no real backing and swamping the economy with eye-watering amounts of fictitious capital.
This is not simply a ‘debt crisis’, however, as some of the liberals and reformists argue. The real problem is the crisis of capitalism – a crisis of overproduction, of which these enormous debts are a symptom. Large debts are not necessarily a problem, in-and-of themselves. If there were strong economic growth in the long-term, as in the post-war period, then such debts could be managed and gradually eliminated. But such a perspective is ruled out. The capitalist system is not in an era of economic upswing, but one of stagnation and decline. As a result, the burden of debt will become an ever-more enormous drag on the world economy. The only way of reducing this problem is either through austerity; inflation, which in turn will end in collapse and a new period of austerity; or else by a direct default. But any one of these variants would lead to greater instability and a sharpening of the class struggle.
Is a recovery possible?
Carried away with this euphoria, they even publish articles confidently predicting a rebound – not just a recovery but a massive upswing. In the columns of the bourgeois press one can read confident predictions of a recovery. Such predictions are heavy on optimism but woefully light on facts.
The present crisis differs from the crises of the past in several respects. In the first place, it is inseparably entangled with the coronavirus pandemic, and nobody can predict with any degree of certainty how long that will last.
For all these reasons, the economic predictions of the IMF and the World Bank cannot be regarded as anything more than mere guesswork.
But does this mean that a recovery is ruled out? No, it would be a mistake to draw such a conclusion. In fact, at a certain point, some sort of recovery is inevitable. The capitalist system has always moved in booms and slumps. The pandemic has distorted the economic cycle, but has not abolished it.
Lenin explained that the capitalist system can always get out of even the deepest crisis. It will continue to exist until it is overthrown by the working class. Sooner or later, it will find a way out of this crisis also. But to say that is to say at once too much and too little.
The question must be posed concretely, on the basis of what we already know. The precise nature of these booms and slumps can vary very considerably. And the question that must be asked is: what kind of recovery are we talking about?
Will it signify the beginning of a prolonged period of growth and prosperity? Or will it be merely a temporary interlude between one crisis and another? The most optimistic claims are based on the existence (at least in the most advanced capitalist economies) of “pent-up demand”.
During the pandemic, people were unable to spend much money on goods, restaurants, cafes and bars or foreign travel. The end of the pandemic – so the theory runs – can serve to release these unspent funds, promoting a sharp upwards movement in the economy and a recovery of confidence. This fact, together with further huge injections of public money, could lead to a rapid recovery.
Recovery and the class struggle
Let us admit, for a moment, that such a scenario cannot be ruled out a priori. What would the consequence be? From our point of view, such a development would not be at all negative. The pandemic and the consequent rise of unemployment, shocked the working class and led to a certain amount of paralysis.
It acted as a deterrent to strikes and other forms of mass action and allowed governments to introduce anti-democratic measures under the pretext of “fighting Covid-19”.
But even a slight economic recovery, with falls in unemployment, combined with the effect of an ending of the pandemic, would reactivate the economic struggle, as workers strive to win back everything they lost in the previous period.
Such a recovery, however, would be temporary and extremely unstable, because it would be built upon a very artificial and unsound basis. It would contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction. And the higher it climbs, the more severe the fall will be.
Moreover, it would also be an uneven recovery, with China most likely surging ahead at the expense of the USA and with Europe lagging behind. This would further exacerbate tensions between China and the USA and also between China and Europe, leading to a further intensification of the trade war, with a scramble to seize scarce markets, further undermining world trade and depressing economic life.
This is the greatest threat of all to world capitalism. Let us recall that the Great Depression was caused, not by the stock market crash of 1929, but by the protectionist policies that followed it.
The “Roaring Twenties”
When the economists predict a sharp upturn following the pandemic, they often draw a parallel with the “Roaring Twenties”. But this parallel is extremely shaky and the conclusions we can draw from it are hardly encouraging from the capitalist point of view.
It is true that there was a recovery after 1924 that had quite a feverish character, with massive speculation in the stock exchange producing huge amounts of fictitious capital. But we must not forget that it ended in the Crash of 1929.
It is entirely possible that we will experience a similar situation. With one important difference. The unprecedented amounts of fictitious capital now being produced are vastly greater than in the “Roaring Twenties” – in fact, greater than at any time in history in peacetime. The fall when it comes – as it must – will therefore be correspondingly greater.
The bourgeois have forgotten one little detail. Money must represent real values, otherwise it is just bits of paper – promissory notes of which the promise will never be kept. Traditionally, the backing for paper money was gold. Every nation had to keep a stock of gold in its vaults and, in theory, anyone could demand the value of banknotes in gold.
In practice, however, this was not possible. Over time, people learned to accept that a dollar, pound or euro was “as good as gold”. Of course, it could be something else. Before gold, it was silver. Before that, it could be almost anything. It could be production. But unless it is based on some kind of material value, it is just worthless bits of paper.
When the link with gold was broken by the abolition of the gold standard, governments and central bankers could issue as much paper money as they wished. But by pumping large amounts of what is really fictitious capital into the economy, the relation between the amount of money in circulation and the goods and services it can purchase becomes distorted. In the US economy, measured by M2, the money supply has increased by an astonishing $4 trillion in 2020. That is a one-year increase of 26 percent – the largest annual percentage increase since 1943. This must eventually be expressed in an explosion of inflation.
This fact is now being conveniently ignored by politicians, economists and central bankers. They point out that, so far, the fears of inflation have not materialised. That is quite true and it reflects a severe slump in demand – a symptom of the depth of the crisis. Not having an outlet in consumer prices, the inflationary pressure has inflated speculative bubbles in share prices, in cryptocurrencies, etc. But this situation cannot last. The initial euphoria of investors will then turn into its opposite.
In the period prior to the 2008 crisis, inflation was contained by other factors, including the growth of global trade, new technologies. and the search for low-cost labour in the so-called Third World. These elements, which have played a powerful role for almost 30 years, have to a large extent exhausted themselves in the more recent period. The growth of global trade has been declining considerably for several years and new technologies, which allowed for a significant reduction in production costs, have reached a point of saturation.
It is not a coincidence that all statistics on world trade seem to show a tendency towards insourcing, that is a return to production in the capitalist countries of origin. This tendency has affirmed itself spontaneously through the strategic choices of multinational corporations, but has also been objectively strengthened by the protectionist policies of Trump and other imperialist governments.
After the crisis in 2007, we saw a credit-based expansion within a regime of austerity, which had a very different character to that of today: in the past, money went into recapitalising banks, insurance companies and businesses that were on the brink of failure, or it went to the Stock Exchange or property speculation, but without widening the basis of mass consumption.
Today, the situation has changed: the combined effect of these new tendencies is a recipe for inflation, and poses a series of questions of extreme interest, which are also being discussed at the highest echelons of the ruling class. Most importantly, what will happen when central banks have to raise interest rates and stop buying junk bonds on the market to reign in rising inflation?
Paradoxically, inflation is a sort of capitalist “solution” to the debt crisis, insofar as a rise in inflation and prices would devalue debt. But it comes with enormous economical and social costs. And once it takes off, it becomes very difficult to get back under control. In the 1970s, Ted Grant explained that the bourgeoisie, alarmed by the rising inflation, were riding on the back of a tiger, and the problem was how to dismount without being eaten.
Today, such attempts to circumvent the most serious crisis of overproduction ever seen with what Marx called “the tricks of circulation” are a very dangerous game. Here, we have surpassed Keynes by far: Keynesianism calls for the State to take on debt by emitting bonds; what is being proposed today is qualitatively different, i.e., following the crazy suggestions of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and thus printing money in an unlimited way.
What represents a real qualitative shift in the capitalist system, is that a completely irrational theory like MMT finds itself in the privileged position of conditioning, if not determining, the economic choices of the world’s foremost imperialist power!
This question does not only concern the United States. This tendency is now global. Recently, the former vice-governor of the Bank of Japan (BoJ), Kikuo Iwata, claimed that Japan has to increase tax expenditure by increasing public sector debt, financed by the central bank. This proposal of “helicopter money” is identified as the solution to low growth and is based on the idea that demand should be stimulated simply by printing more money. These are exactly the claims of MMT, to which Draghi also gave credit in 2016, when he was President of the European Central Bank (ECB), although the EU’s internal contradictions don’t afford it the same manoeuvre margins as the US and Japan.
Although there is no way to know in advance precisely how the crisis will unfold, at a certain point, the strains brought about by the huge accumulated debts will cause a panic. Interest rates will have to rise sharply to combat inflation. Cheap credit, which has kept the system afloat until now, will dry up overnight. The banks will cease to lend to small and medium businesses, which will go bankrupt.
As in 1929, the economic realities will pour ice-cold water onto the “irrational exuberance” of the investors. As night follows day, there will be a panic in the stock exchanges of the world. Investors will sell their shares at a loss, creating a steep and unstoppable fall.
Already investors see the colossal debts that are being piled up in the USA, and are beginning to doubt that the dollar is really worth what they say it is worth. Later on, unless serious remedial action is taken, there will be a stampede to dump dollars, and a steep fall in the value of the dollar will have a domino effect on other currencies, with a resulting chaos in international money markets.
The capitalists will seek a safe refuge in gold, silver and platinum. This will be the prelude to a deep slump in the real economy, with a collapse of investment, a drying up of credit, and the resultant wave of bankruptcies, factory closures and unemployment.
Finally, the crisis will hit the banks themselves. The collapse of just one big bank can cause a general banking crisis. That is what occurred on May 11 1931, when the Austrian Creditanstalt bank announced that it had lost more than half of its capital, a criterion under Austrian law by which a bank was declared failed.
All this can happen again. The bourgeois economists try to soothe jittery nerves by repeating that this cannot happen because we have learned the lessons of history. But as Hegel pointed out: “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
The warning signs, however, are already flashing, and some of the more sober minded economists can see this. But despite all warnings, the bourgeois have no alternative but to follow the path they have already chosen.
Capitalism now displays all the symptoms of advanced senile decay. We can state with certainty that any recovery will not signify an improvement in the overall health of that system, but merely a cyclical upturn that prepares an even deeper crisis. And a depression even more severe than that of the 1930s is being prepared. This will be the inevitable result of the policies that are now being pursued. That is the real perspective, and the social and political consequences will be incalculable.
Social and political consequences
For Marxists, the study of economics only has importance insofar as it expresses itself in the consciousness of the masses. The scenario we have outlined has clear similarities with the 1930s, but there are also important differences.
At that time, the contradictions in society were resolved in a relatively short space of time, and could end only either in the victory of the proletarian revolution, or reaction in the form of fascism or Bonapartism. Today, such a rapid solution is ruled out by the changed balance of forces.
The working class today is much more numerous than in the 1930s. Its specific weight in society is far greater, while the social reserves of reaction (the peasantry and other small property owners etc.) have been sharply reduced.
The bourgeoisie finds itself faced with the most serious crisis in its history, but is unable to quickly move in the direction of reaction. On the other hand, the working class, despite its objective strength, is constantly held back by the leadership, which is even more degenerate now than what it was in the 1930s.
For all these reasons, the present crisis will be prolonged in time. It can last years, or even decades, with ups and downs, due to the absence of the subjective factor. However, this is only one side of the coin. The fact that it will be long and drawn out does not mean it will be any less turbulent. Quite the opposite: the perspective is one of sharp and sudden changes.
The development of consciousness in the working class cannot be mechanically reduced to the number of strikes and mass demonstrations. This is the false idea of the sectarians and ultra-lefts who base themselves entirely on mindless activism, and fail to see the deeper processes of radicalisation that are occurring quietly beneath the surface all the time. This is what Trotsky called the molecular process of socialist revolution.
Superficial empirics are only able to see the surface of events, but the real processes escape their attention entirely. Consequently, they are immediately thrown off-balance by temporary lulls in the class struggle. They become disheartened and pessimistic, and are taken completely off-guard when the movement suddenly bursts onto the surface.
The combination of the pandemic and mass unemployment have acted as a brake on the economic struggle. There has been a sharp decline in the number of strikes when conditions were unfavourable for mass demonstrations, although they sometimes occurred. But the absence of mass struggles does not signify in the slightest degree that the development of consciousness has been brought to a halt. Quite the contrary, in fact.
The depth of the crisis is transforming the psychology of millions of men and women. The youth, in particular, are wide open to revolutionary ideas. The crying contradictions in society, the frightful suffering of the masses – all these things are creating a colossal build-up of anger and bitterness, which is silently accumulating in the depth of society.
The working class was temporarily disoriented at the beginning of the pandemic, although in Italy there was an important strike wave in March and April 2020.
Using the excuse of the pandemic, the ruling class has been piling enormous pressure onto the workers for over a year. But this has created a mood of bitterness and resentment, which is laying the basis for an explosion of the class struggle.
With the decrease in cases of the virus, the conditions will be created for serious mobilizations of the working class on both economic and political issues.
We are no longer in 2008-2009, when the workers were taken by surprise by the crisis and by mostly unexpected restructuring, which contributed to temporarily paralyse the initiative of the labour movement.
Having recovered from the initial impact of the crisis, the workers are now recovering confidence and believe that struggle can win tangible results, leading to a greater willingness to mobilize for action.
This process will be strengthened by the reopening of the economy, as well as recent experiences during the pandemic, which laid bare the essential role of the working class in society, particularly in the sectors that never shut down (healthcare, transport, trade, industry) but were nevertheless subjected to intolerable pressure and a merciless increase in the pace of work.
The workers have paid an extremely high price in terms of deaths and sacrifice in the fight against Covid, and consequently today they are not only more aware of the role they occupy in society, but also they want this to be compensated by increasing their wages and improvements in their working conditions. This is a decisive factor in the development of class consciousness.
The trade union bureaucracies remain an obstacle, putting the brakes on the movement as much as they can. But they no longer possess the same authority that allowed them to control the workers as they did in the past. They rest on the strength of the bureaucratic apparatus and the bourgeois state, but that authority has never been so low as it is right now.
The bourgeoisie will try to use coercive and repressive measures to limit the class struggle, introducing new anti-strike laws and limitations of the right to demonstrate everywhere, but history teaches us that, once the masses begin to move, no laws will stop them. These methods can delay the process, but they will only make it even more explosive further down the line.
In the first instance, the workers’ mobilizations will have a predominantly economic character. But in the process they will become radicalized because of the depth of the crisis and the enormous frustrations that have accumulated over the years, eventually taking on a political character. A new “May ‘68”, or “hot autumn”, will be on the order of the day in one country after another.
In a context like this, far from holding the movement back, inflation will have the effect of stimulating it, as we have seen many times in history. The generalized pressure on wages for the vast majority of workers, combined with the scandalous transfer of wealth from wage labour to capital, means that the growth of inflation will push the workers to defend their purchasing power.
It is on this far more fertile ground that the ideas of the Marxists will flourish. The unions will enter into crisis and the old bankrupt leadership will be challenged. Of course, we must maintain a sense of proportion. We are not yet in a position to be able to challenge the reformists’ hegemony in the labour movement. But by skillfully applying the united front tactic, we can make progress in the unions. It is necessary to fight against opportunism but also against sectarian and anarcho-syndicalist deviations (like in the Italian Cobas trade union), which in this crisis have been exposed as bankrupt.
Sectarianism and adventurism play the most negative role in the trade unions, leading the vanguard of the class into a blind alley, separating them from the mass movement. By combining firmness on principles with flexible tactics, we can demonstrate the superiority of Marxism, gradually raise our profile and begin to emerge as a serious force within the labour movement.
The longer this goes on, the more violent and elemental will be the explosion when it finally comes. And come it will, as night follows day. As Marx wrote to Engels:
“Taken all in all, the crisis has been burrowing away like the good old mole it is.”
The trade unions
Trotsky once wrote that theory is the superiority of foresight over astonishment. The reformists and sectarians are always astonished when the workers begin to move after a period of apparent inertia.
At the beginning of 1968, the Mandelites and other sectarians had written off the French working class entirely. They said that the workers were bourgeoisified and Americanised. One of these gentlemen wrote that there was no possibility of a general strike in any European country at that time. A few weeks later, the French workers launched the greatest revolutionary general strike in history.
They were completely misled by the absence of big movements of the class in the preceding period. Today also, many of the activists in the trade union and labour movement have been disoriented by past events. They have lost confidence in the ability of the workers to struggle and have become pessimistic, sceptical and cynical. They themselves have become an obstacle, blocking the road to struggle. It would be fatal for us to be guided by their jaundiced and defeatist views.
As we have explained, even a relatively weak economic revival will be the signal for an explosion of the class struggle, which will shake the trade unions to their foundations. Already the reformist trade union leaders are completely out of their depth. They reflect the past, the days when they had an easy life and good relations with the bosses, who could grant concessions to the workers without eating into their profits.
Now things are very different. The bosses are attempting to place all the burden of the crisis onto the shoulders of the workers, who find themselves in an intolerable position, where even their lives and those of their families are put in danger.
The depth of the crisis rules out any kind of meaningful and long-lasting concessions. The workers will have to fight for every demand – not to gain new concessions but to preserve the gains made in the past.
But even where they succeed, their gains will be wiped out by inflation, which must re-emerge as a consequence of the vast amounts of fictitious capital that have been put in circulation. What the bosses give with the right hand, they will take back with the left.
This means that the unions will come under pressure from the workers who will demand action to defend their rights, working conditions and living standards. The union leaders will either bend to this pressure, or else will find themselves removed and replaced by others who are prepared to fight. The unions will be transformed in the course of struggle.
When blocked in the official unions and without the immediate perspective of change of leadership, in some conditions workers will also develop their own rank and file initiatives. The emergence of such rank-and-file organisations of workers in struggle, like the Mareas in Spain, Santé en Lutte, Collective of 1000 Bus drivers in Belgium and Collectives in Hospitals in France etc. is a result of accumulated anger of workers, the need for immediate collective action and the passivity of the official unions leaders.
Dialectics tells us things can change into their opposites, and we must be prepared for this. Even the most reactionary and apparently inert unions will be drawn into this struggle. This process has already begun in countries such as Britain. One by one, the old right-wing leaders are dying or retiring, or being replaced.
A new generation of younger class fighters is beginning to challenge the leadership. The stage is set for the transformation of the unions into organisations of struggle. And we Marxists must be at the front ranks of this struggle, upon which ultimately the success of the socialist revolution depends.
The task before us
The year 2021 will be like no other, the working class has entered a very harsh school, there will be many defeats and setbacks, but from that school the workers will draw the necessary lessons.
The accumulation of tension over many years can lead to sudden overnight changes, posing very serious questions before us. And we must be prepared! In the coming period, new layers will be drawn into the struggle. We saw that in France with the gilets jaunes. We now see it in India with the movement of the farmers. In the US, we saw the massive demonstrations after George Floyd’s murder, which included an estimated 26 million people in 2,000 cities and towns in all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, sending Trump scurrying into his bunker.
The main problem is one of leadership. The angry mood of the masses exists but finds no expression in the official organisations. The trade union leaders are trying to hold the movement back. But with or without them, the movement will somehow find a way of expressing itself.
The masses can only learn from one thing, that is experience. As Lenin used to say: “Life teaches.” The workers are learning from their experience of the crisis. But it is a slow and painful learning process. It takes time for the masses to draw the same conclusions that we drew, for theoretical reasons, years ago.
This learning process would be greatly expedited if there existed a mass revolutionary organisation with sufficient numbers present and with sufficient authority to be listened to by the workers. Such a party exists potentially in the ranks of the IMT. But at present it exists only as an embryo. And as old Hegel wrote: “When we wish to see an oak with its powerful trunk, its spreading branches, and its mass of foliage, we are not satisfied if instead we are shown an acorn.”
We have made great advances, and we expect to make many more. But we must honestly admit that at the present time we lack the necessary numbers. We lack the necessary roots in the working class and its organisations to make a substantial difference.
However, with correct ideas and timely slogans, we can reach the most advanced workers and youth, and through them we can later reach greater numbers. Here or there we can be in a position to lead particular struggles. But in general, we have to aim for small successes, since modest success and small victories will provide us with the stepping stones for greater successes in future.
Our International has shown tremendous resilience and audacity, facing up to the difficulties and discovering new methods of work. As a result, in the last 12 months, we have made tremendous progress, while other groups have experienced crises and splits, and are rapidly falling into a well-deserved oblivion.
We have far fewer competitors than in the past. The sects are falling to pieces and the Stalinists, who were a serious obstacle in the past, are a mere shadow of their former selves. They still cling to some positions in the unions that they inherited from the past. But they invariably act as a “left” cover for the right wing of the bureaucracy. They will be swept aside together with it as soon as the workers begin to move.
The main trend that will emerge in the next period are the left reformists, who have no clear political perspective. Many of them no longer stand even in words for the socialist transformation of society, and therefore constantly vacillate between the pressures of the bourgeois and the right reformists, and the pressure of the working-class rank-and-file. This is an international phenomenon.
But despite their lack of clear ideas (and partly because of it), they will inevitably come to the fore on the basis of mass radicalisation. Being politically unstable and lacking in any clear ideology, they will occasionally mouth very radical, even “revolutionary” slogans. But that will only be a question of words, and they can swing back to the right just as quickly as they swing to the left. We will give the Lefts critical support, backing them whenever they fight the right wing, but criticising any tendency to backsliding, concessions and capitulation.
One common feature of all our political rivals – including the Lefts – is their inability to win the youth. Our obvious success in winning the best of the youth fills the sceptics with rage and indignation. Above all it perplexes them. How can the IMT win so many young people in the present situation, when everything is so black and hopeless? They shake their heads in disbelief and carry on moaning about the sad state of the world.
As Lenin pointed out: he who has the youth has the future. The reason for our success is not hard to see. The youth are naturally revolutionary. They demand a serious struggle against capitalism and are impatient of timidity and theoretical confusion.
Our strength is based on two things: Marxist theory and a firm orientation to the youth. We have proved this in practice to be a winning combination. These successes provide confidence and optimism for the future. But we must at all times preserve a sense of proportion. We are as yet only in the beginning of the beginning.
Far greater challenges lie before us that will put us to the test. There is no room for complacency. If we ask ourselves whether we are ready to take advantage of the great opportunities that exist, what is the answer? If we are absolutely honest, we should answer in the negative. No, we are not ready – not yet, at least. But we must get ready, as soon as possible. And that in the final analysis means growth.
We must always start with quality, winning the ones and twos and educating and training cadres. But we must then transform quality into quantity: building a bigger and more effective organisation. In turn, quantity becomes quality. With a hundred cadres one can do things that are impossible for a dozen. And just think what we could do in Britain or Pakistan or Russia with a thousand cadres. It is a qualitative difference!
Cadre building must go hand in hand with growth. There is no contradiction. The organisation must develop as the situation changes. And it must change as the situation changes, becoming more professional, more disciplined, and more mature.
We have the correct ideas, methods and perspectives. However, we need far more than this. Our task is now to turn this into growth and to create a powerful revolutionary army of cadres, capable of leading workers in the struggle. We are already making impressive strides in this direction.
In the beginning, it seemed that the pandemic would create insurmountable difficulties for the Marxists. It has certainly shipwrecked all those pseudo-Marxist sects who based themselves on mindless activism. But the IMT has the wind in its sails, winning over 1,000 new members in the past year. And this is only the beginning.
Comrades of the international! We are in a race against the clock. Our task can be simply stated: it is to make conscious the unconscious (or semi-conscious) will of the working class to change society.
Great events are being prepared. In order to raise up to the immense tasks, we require an internal revolution, beginning with a revolution of our own mentality. We cannot think in the same way as in the past. All traces of the small circle mentality and routine must be rooted out. What is needed is a professional approach to party building. There is nothing more important in our lives. And if we continue to pursue the correct ideas, tactics and methods, we will certainly achieve it.
Capitalism has ceased to take humanity forward. It should long ago have been overthrown by the working class. Why hasn’t it then? The key to answering that question lies in the role of leadership and of the revolutionary party. This article, based on a talk at the 2021 Montreal Marxist Winter School, looks at the different sides of this question and the rich lessons of the world working-class movement.
The year 2020 has turned the world upside down. COVID-19 has exposed the complete bankruptcy of the capitalist system in the eyes of millions of people. The mantra that we are “all in this together” has been exposed for the lie that it is. All over the world, profits have come before needs. While millions of people have lost their jobs, the rich are richer than ever. In the United States, the richest country in human history, millions of people go hungry.
The economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 adds to what has been a lost decade. Since the previous crisis in 2008, austerity has ravaged public services, workers have seen their real wages stagnate or fall, while youth are the first generation to be poorer than their parents since World War II.
It is on this basis that socialist ideas are making a comeback. This year, the Victims of Communism Foundation, which cannot be accused of a favourable bias toward Marxism, released its annual survey and found that 49 percent of 16 to 23-year-olds (Gen Z) have a favorable view of socialism, up nine points from 2019. Among Americans as a whole, that number has risen from 36 percent to 40 percent. In the land of McCarthyism, 18 percent of Gen Z think communism is a fairer system than capitalism!
These numbers are not as surprising as one might think. The younger generation in particular has experienced nothing but austerity, declining living standards, terrorism, imperialist interventions and environmental destruction. The golden age of capitalism, the 1960s and 70s, is dead and buried. More people than ever before want to see the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
The conditions are ripe
The reality is that the capitalist system has long been a brake on human development. It could have been overthrown long ago by a revolution led by the working class. Why hasn’t this happened yet?
It is certainly not because the objective conditions to build a socialist society based on super-abundance are lacking. There is no doubt that from the economic point of view, all the conditions are there to satisfy human needs. We have the means to feed the entire human population. The technology and knowledge exist to produce the necessities of life in harmony with nature. Large companies like Amazon and Walmart show that it is possible to organize production and distribution on a global scale. Many difficult or dangerous jobs could be replaced by machines.
Marx explained that the capitalist system “creates its own gravediggers” by creating the working class – the class that builds the buildings around us, produces the consumer items we need, and distributes goods and services. He also explained that socialism was not just a good idea that appeared in the heads of a few thinkers. He showed that under capitalism, it is the working class that can lead the struggle to establish a socialist society by taking control of the means of production. Marx explained that this class had to organize to overcome the resistance of the bosses, bankers, CEOs and their politicians. This class today (unlike in Marx’s time) forms the overwhelming majority of society. Once mobilized and determined to overthrow capitalism, nothing can stop it.
So why hasn’t the working class overthrown the capitalist system with a revolution yet?
Blame the workers?
Leon Trotsky, the leader of the Russian revolution alongside Lenin, wrote a fantastic essay shortly before his death entitled “The Class, the Party and the Leadership—Why was the Spanish Proletariat Defeated?”
As the title suggests, the text looks at the Spanish revolution of 1931-39, and the reasons for its defeat. We will go into some of the details of this revolution later. Suffice it to say for now that despite numerous uprisings, spontaneous initiatives by workers to take control of factories, and by peasants to take control of their land, despite strong trade union organizations and a rich tradition of struggle, the Spanish working class did not take power. A fascist regime led by Francisco Franco was established in 1939, and lasted until the 1970s.
Trotsky’s text, though short (Trotsky was assassinated before he could finish it), is a gold mine of lessons, explaining such revolutionary defeats – and how to prepare for victories. This text should be required reading for every socialist today.
“The Class, the Party and the Leadership” opens with a polemic against a small, allegedly Marxist journal, Que faire? In one article, Que faire? explained the defeat of the Spanish revolution by the “immaturity” of the working class. If the Spanish revolution failed, then the fault lies with the masses themselves.
This idea of blaming the masses is very common in the labour movement today. Indeed, for many on the left, the fault lies with the working class itself for not having already overthrown capitalism.
The working class is allegedly “too weak” to change the world. This was one of the explanations of some leftists for the failure to complete the Venezuelan revolution, which has been ongoing since the early 2000s. Despite a historic mobilization during the 2002 coup, despite repeatedly voting for Hugo Chavez’s Socialist Party (PSUV), despite workers taking control of their workplaces, and despite resisting further coups since 2019, there are still people who say the Venezuelan working class is too weak.
For example, in “The Political Economy of the Transition to Socialism” Jesús Farías, a leading member of the PSUV, stated, “We can say without fear of being mistaken, that one of the main obstacles for a more accelerated development of the social transformations in the country lies in the organisational, political and ideological weakness of the working class, unable to play today its role as the main motor force of social progress.”
Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister in the 2015 Syriza government, is another example of this trend. In a 2013 article, amusingly titled “Confessions of an Erratic Marxist,” he explained that the crisis in Europe is “pregnant not with a progressive alternative but with radically regressive forces.” He was saying this just as the Greek working class had staged 30 general strikes since 2008! Having no confidence in the working class and seeing only the possibility of “regression,” he claimed that the only option was to create a broad coalition “including right-wingers” in order to save the European Union, and “save capitalism from itself.”
Other journalists, intellectuals and supposedly left-wing personalities say that the working class does not want change, and is not attracted by a “left” program. This is the case with Paul Mason, a well-known British left-wing journalist.
In Britain, hundreds of thousands of people enthusiastically joined the Labour Party in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn, a self-proclaimed socialist, becoming party leader in 2015. Since his 2019 election defeat, Corbyn is no longer leader; the party’s right wing has regained control under Sir Keir Starmer, who has begun the dirty work of purging the party’s left.
Mason, following Corbyn’s defeat, argues that for the “traditional working class” in Britain, certain “parts of the left’s agenda turn them off: open immigration policies, the defense of human rights, universal welfare policies, and above all anti-militarism and anti-imperialism.” Universal welfare policies, how horrible! He adds, “Does it help tell a story of hope to an electorate that has become terrified of change?”
So the problem here is that working people supposedly don’t want change—are terrified of change. The logical conclusion for Mason is to support Keir Starmer, the moderate leader of the British Labour Party. Mason has completely lost faith in the ability of the working class to change society—assuming he ever had that faith.
What all these individuals express is the idea that it is the workers themselves who are unwilling or unable to change society.
These ideas betray the fact that these people have no confidence in the working class to make a revolution, to change society and to run it themselves. These ideas are promoted by various journalists, liberals and academics. However, they also infiltrate the labour movement through the union bureaucracy. More often than not, union leaders blame the workers they were elected to lead because the workers supposedly “don’t want to fight”.
A crisis of leadership
How do Marxists respond to these arguments? Why hasn’t the working class overthrown capitalism yet?
The starting point for Marxists is the fundamental role of the working class in changing society. Marxists have nothing in common with the pessimism and cynicism of those intellectuals and journalists who have contempt for the working class. It is not true that the working class is “too weak” to overthrow capitalism. The reality is that on countless occasions over the last 100 years, workers have risen up to overthrow their exploiters and change society. They’ve done everything in their power to do so, on multiple occasions.
But almost every time, it was the leaders of the workers’ movement – either of the unions or the workers’ parties – who put a stop to the movement. They make compromises with the capitalist class, rather than trying to take power. Dozens of revolutions have been held back in this way by the leadership of the movement. In his Transitional Program, Leon Trotsky correctly explains that “the historical crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.”
However, we must be careful not to fall into a caricature of this position. Marxists do not defend the idea that workers are always ready for a revolution, that they are simply waiting for socialist leaders to show the way. To say that the leadership of the workers’ movement acts as a brake does not mean that if we had socialists at the head of the unions, that if only we had a revolutionary organization at the head of the workers’ movement, then a revolution would break out immediately and automatically succeed in overthrowing capitalism.
It is not true that the workers are always ready to fight and are just waiting for good leaders. A mass movement does not come about with the snap of a finger. However, history shows that there are critical moments in history when the masses enter into struggle: revolutions. The important questions for any activist who wants to change the world are: how can we organize our class, the working class, to overthrow capitalism? What is the role of socialists to achieve this? How can we prepare for it?
The class consciousness of workers does not evolve in a straight line.
It is through a long historical process that workers have come to understand the necessity of organizing themselves. Trade unions were created to defend the workers in the ongoing struggle against the bosses. Eventually, workers created organizations, parties, to express their political aspirations. Marx explained that without organization, the working class is only raw material for exploitation. Through its history of struggle, the working class comes to participate in politics, through unions or other organizations. This process is uneven and different from country to country.
Coming to the conclusion that it is necessary to organize is one thing; coming to the conclusion that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is necessary is another thing entirely. The working class, when it enters into struggle, does not automatically come to revolutionary conclusions.
In fact, consciousness is not revolutionary. Consciousness is generally very conservative. People cling to old ideas, to traditions, to the comfort of what is known. For the most part, people just want to be able to live in peace under decent conditions. Who can blame them? No one wants major upheaval in their lives. Workers don’t take jobs to go on strike.
Revolutions are inevitable exceptions in history. Workers are not constantly in struggle; on the contrary.
However, there are times when the status quo is simply no longer sustainable. Millions of people are fed up. Austerity falls on workers. The cost of living rises while wages stagnate. Public services are privatized. The rich are getting richer, in plain sight.
It is not revolutionaries or socialists who create revolutions. It is capitalism that creates the conditions that force millions to revolt. Millions of workers, apathetic one day, are in the streets the next day. Yesterday’s consciousness, which was lagging behind events, catches up with reality with a bang. And that’s when revolutions happen.
Very often, it is an “accident” that starts a revolution. The Arab revolutions of 2010-2011 started in Tunisia when a young street vendor who immolated himself outside the local governor’s office. This was the spark that lit the fire. A mass movement followed, culminating in the overthrow of the dictatorship in Tunisia. The movement then spread to Egypt and then to the entire Arab world. The anger that had been building up for decades just needed a spark. In almost every revolution, you can find a similar event.
What is a revolution? Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, explains it thus:
The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.
This quote perfectly sums up the essence of a revolution. It is above all the entry of the masses – today composed overwhelmingly of workers – onto the stage of history.
If we look at the last 100 years and more, there has been no lack of revolutions. In fact, not a decade has passed without at least one major revolution.
The Russian revolution of 1905 and 1917; the German revolution of 1923 and the Chinese revolution of 1925-27; the Spanish revolution of 1931-37, the mass strikes in France in 1936; the revolutionary wave in Italy, Greece, France between 1943 and 1945 and the Chinese revolution of 1949; the revolution in Hungary in 1956; May ‘68 in France; the Chilean revolution of 1970-73, the revolution in Portugal in 1974; the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua of 1980-83, the revolution in Burkina Faso of 1983-87; the revolutionary overthrow of the dictatorship in Indonesia in 1998; the revolution in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez in the 2000s; the Arab revolutions of 2011.
The list could go on. History is punctuated by moments when the masses can’t take it anymore, take to the streets, and take their destiny into their own hands.
Revolutions can be compared to earthquakes. No one can predict exactly when an earthquake will occur. And earthquakes are generally rare. But we can study tectonic plates. We can know where the conditions for earthquakes occur. Earthquakes don’t happen all the time, but they are ultimately inevitable.
It is the same with revolutions. No one can predict exactly when a revolution will come. But we can study economic conditions, see the rising anger among workers, and predict a revolutionary epoch.
The difference is that a revolution is made by human beings. We can prepare for it, and we can play a role in making sure it ends in victory. But how can we do this?
How are revolutions carried out in practice? If workers could simply overthrow capitalism in one fell swoop, there would be no need to theorize about revolution. There would be no need to debate ideas, programs, concrete measures, etc. in the workers’ movement. There would be no need to create organizations that defend one program or another.
Among the anarchists, there is a lot of talk about the spontaneity of mass movements. The various anarchist theories almost all come back to the idea that the masses can somehow spontaneously achieve a classless society. Kropotkin, for example, in his most famous article on anarchism, explains that his contribution was “to indicate how, during a revolutionary period, a large city – if its inhabitants have accepted the idea – could organize itself on the lines of free communism.” He thus implies that the workers could spontaneously overthrow capitalism with a revolution. Kropotkin does not, however, explain how the inhabitants “accept the idea” of communism.
There is no doubt that there is an element of spontaneity in all mass movements, in all revolutions. It is even a strength at the beginning. Spontaneously, millions of people who were not involved in politics pour into the streets, and take the ruling class by surprise. More often than not, the outbreak of a revolution surprises even hardened revolutionaries. At the time of the February Revolution in Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd were so far behind events that, on the first day of the demonstrations, they advised the workers not to go out into the streets!
But is spontaneity enough to overthrow capitalism? History shows us that it is not.
And in fact, the reality is that in every movement, every struggle, every revolution, no matter how spontaneous these events may seem, there are groups or individuals who play a leadership role.
Whether we like it or not, the masses of workers express themselves through organizations, or at least through individuals who play the role of leaders after having won the confidence of their peers.
Even in a seemingly spontaneous movement, someone gives the speech that convinces their colleagues to go on strike at a general assembly. An organization or an individual writes the leaflet that puts the arguments to the workers for a strike. An organization or individuals come up with the idea of occupying the workplace. These ideas don’t come from nowhere.
Conversely, in the workers’ movement, organizations or individuals may also exercise their authority to put the brakes on a struggle. People or organizations may argue for an end to the strike. Some people will say that you can’t occupy a workplace because that would be a violation of the property rights of the bosses.
This battle of ideas and methods is not decided in advance. Not all workers draw the same conclusions at the same time. A minority will realize the necessity of a factory occupation, a general strike, etc., before the rest. In a revolution, a minority will understand that the possibility exists for workers to take control of the economy. Their job is to organize to convince the rest of the workers.
Even in a movement that seems spontaneous, organizations will eventually play a leading role.
As Trotsky explains in “The Class, the Party and the Leadership”:
History is a process of the class struggle. But classes do not bring their full weight to bear automatically and simultaneously. In the process of struggle the classes create various organs which play an important and independent role and are subject to deformations…Political leadership in the crucial moments of historical turns can become just as decisive a factor as is the role of the chief command during the critical moments of war. History is not an automatic process. Otherwise, why leaders? Why parties? Why programs? Why theoretical struggles?
The different tendencies of the workers’ movement express themselves through different organizations. Marxists, too, want to organize—and create a revolutionary party.
What is a revolutionary party?
The term “party” has a negative connotation among some layers of the labour movement and the youth. And for good reason! The existing political parties do everything to push these layers away. Even the so-called ‘left-wing’ parties, once in power, bow to the dictates of the banks and do the dirty work of the capitalists, sometimes even more viciously than the right. This was the case with one of the most recent left governments, Syriza, in Greece in 2015.
When Marxists talk about the need for a revolutionary party, we do not have an electoral machine in mind. A party is first and foremost ideas, a program based on those ideas, methods to implement the program, and only then a structure and an organization that can spread the program throughout the movement and win people over.
As we have already explained, the tendency to organize is already present within the working class, leading to the formation of trade unions and parties. The different tendencies of the labour movement are expressed through different organizations or groupings.
Trade unions, by their very nature, aim to gather as many workers as possible. Who would propose that unions should include only revolutionary workers? These would be weak unions indeed. But a revolutionary party is composed differently from trade unions.
In “A Letter to a French Syndicalist about the Communist Party,” Trotsky explains:
How should this initiative group [the party] be composed? It is clear that it cannot be constituted by a professional or territorial grouping. It is not a question of metal workers, railway workers, nor advanced carpenters, but of the most conscious members of the proletariat of a whole country. They must group together, elaborate a well-defined program of action, cement their unity by a rigorous internal discipline, and thus assure themselves of a guiding influence on all the militant action of the working class, on all the organs of this class, and above all on the unions.
Not all layers of the working class and the youth draw the same conclusions at the same time. Some workers believe that capitalism is the best system. Others don’t like capitalism, but don’t believe it can be overthrown. Others are simply indifferent. But others come to the conclusion that the struggle for socialism is necessary. Having understood this, these people will necessarily want to steer the labour movement in that direction.
Naturally, the task of this socialist minority (what Trotsky calls “cadres”) will be to organize to win the confidence of the other layers of the working class in the struggle. This task will be all the more effective if this minority is grouped in an organization with a common program.
In “Discussion on the Transitional Program,” Trotsky explains:
Now, what is the party? In what does the cohesion consist? This cohesion is a common understanding of the events, of the tasks, and this common understanding – that is the program of the party. Just as modern workers more than the barbarian cannot work without tools so in the party the program is the instrument. Without the program every worker must improvise his tool, find improvised tools, and one contradicts another.
A program and organization need to be built in advance of a revolution, just like a worker must equip themselves with tools ahead of getting on with a given task.
The Spanish Revolution: a class without a party or leadership
What happens when there is no revolutionary leadership, when there is no revolutionary organization? Or when the organizations that do exist hold back the movement?
Trotsky’s “The Class, the Party and the Leadership” talks about the defeat of the Spanish revolution of 1931-39. This inspiring event is perhaps the most tragic example of what happens when a class does everything to overthrow capitalism while there is no revolutionary leadership, or when the organizations that exist refuse to take power.
The crisis of the 1930s hit Spain hard. The working class and peasants were crushed by overwhelming poverty. Landowners and capitalists (often the same individuals) had reduced living conditions to a miserable state in order to maintain profits. In 1931, faced with the rising anger of the masses, the ruling class was forced to sacrifice the monarchy and a Republic was proclaimed. But in itself, the transition to a democratic republic had done nothing to solve the problems of the working class and the poor peasants.
In February 1936, after two years of right-wing government, the masses brought the Popular Front to power. This government was composed of socialists, communists, the POUM (a supposedly Marxist party, but which constantly oscillated between revolution and reformism) and even the anarchists who led the main trade union federation, the CNT. These workers’ organizations also included the bourgeois Republicans in the Popular Front. The presence of capitalist parties forced the government to moderate its program, to slow down reforms in favour of the peasants and workers, to leave bourgeois property intact. The Popular Front government even went so far as to repress the workers in struggle.
Without waiting for the reforms promised by the Popular Front, the workers implemented the 44-hour work week and wage increases on their own, and freed the political prisoners imprisoned under the previous right-wing government. Between February and July 1936, every major Spanish city saw at least one general strike. One million workers were on strike in early July 1936.
The workers’ movement was going too far for the capitalists. On 17 July 1936, General Francisco Franco began a fascist uprising, with the full support of Spain’s industrialists and landowners. The goal was to overthrow the government, destroy the unions and workers’ parties, and build a strong government so that the capitalists could perpetuate the exploitation of the workers and peasants without their constant struggle. Faced with the fascist coup, the Popular Front parties refused to arm the workers to resist.
In spite of the passivity of these parties, the workers spontaneously did everything in their power to repel the fascists. They took sticks, kitchen knives and other weapons at hand, fraternized with soldiers, and invaded barracks to find real weapons. The workers built militias, which took the place of the bourgeois police. In addition to these measures of “military” defense against fascism, the workers took economic measures. In Catalonia, transportation and industries were brought almost completely into the hands of workers’ committees and factory committees. Next to the central government in Madrid and the government of Catalonia, a second power – that of the workers – was emerging.
But what followed? The leadership of all organizations – the socialists, communists, the POUM, and the anarchist CNT – put a brake on the movement. In Catalonia, they participated in dismantling the workers’ committees. The socialists and communists were at the vanguard in telling workers to go home, not to seize the factories, and to let the bourgeois government lead the fight against fascism. The POUM tail-ended the other organizations, and entered the Catalan bourgeois government in the fall of 1936, sanctioning policies aimed at curbing the revolution.
Of particular interest is the attitude of the anarchist leaders of the CNT. During this period, the CNT leaders even boasted that it could have taken power: “If we had wished to take power, we could have accomplished it in May  with certainty. But we are against dictatorship.”
Because they were anarchists, and therefore against power in general, the leaders of the CNT refused to consolidate the workers’ democracy that was being born. The opportunity was missed. But these same anarchists, who refused to take power in the name of the working class, were happy to join the bourgeois government of Catalonia! You cannot make this up.
The workers were completely demoralized. This tragic story ends with the victory of Franco and the fascists in the civil war of 1936-39.
Why was the Spanish Revolution defeated?
The workers spontaneously pushed back the fascists and took control of the workplaces, especially in Catalonia. The workers were moving in the right direction. But the leaders of the working class organizations all put a stop to the movement of the masses. As Trotsky explains in “The Class, the Party and the Leadership,” in such a situation it is not easy for the working class to overcome the conservatism of its leaders. An alternative must already exist:
One must understand exactly nothing in the sphere of the inter-relationships between the class and the party, between the masses and the leaders in order to repeat the hollow statement that the Spanish masses merely followed their leaders. The only thing that can be said is that the masses who sought at all times to blast their way to the correct road found it beyond their strength to produce in the very fire of battle a new leadership corresponding to the demands of the revolution. Before us is a profoundly dynamic process, with the various stages of the revolution shifting swiftly, with the leadership or various sections of the leadership quickly deserting to the side of the class enemy.
But even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilizing the collapse of the old leading party.
Not ancient history
The Spanish Revolution is far from an isolated example or one that belongs to the past.
As recently as 2019, a revolutionary wave swept through Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East. Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and Sudan all experienced general strikes, mass movements or revolutions. And everywhere, the same question of revolutionary leadership was posed, and its absence left its mark on events.
The case of Sudan is particularly striking. In December 2018, a mass movement broke out against the dictator Omar al-Bashir. Extreme poverty, IMF-imposed austerity, and massive unemployment drove the masses to the streets. A mass sit-in was even organized by the revolutionaries in the capital, Khartoum.
An article in the Financial Times explained:
“One cannot know for sure what Russia felt like in 1917 as the tsar was being toppled, or France in 1871 in the heady, idealistic days of the short-lived Paris Commune. But it must have felt something like Khartoum in April 2019.”
This was a true revolution! In April, the ruling class was forced to remove the dictator. A Military Transitional Committee was formed to ensure that the army retained power.
The main organization behind the protests was the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA). This organization called for demonstrations, and even called for a general strike towards the end of May, to demand that the army relinquish power. This strike completely paralyzed the country.
In early June, the regime sent militias to suppress the Khartoum sit-in. Instead of scaring Sudanese workers, another general strike was organized by the SPA, paralyzing the country once again. Resistance committees were created.
Here we had a real opportunity for the workers to take power, to take control of the economy. But instead, the SPA called for an end to the strike. Then it negotiated an agreement with the military council for a three-year transition before holding elections. As a result, two years later, the army is still in power and the misery continues.
What was missing in Sudan? The workers went on two general strikes, held a sit-in despite the repression, and formed grassroots committees to organize the movement. The workers did everything they could. They could have taken power.
But the main organization that had authority among the masses compromised with the army rather than take power. As we have already explained, in such a situation you cannot invent a new organization on the spot.
Like it or not, leadership is a fact of life. One cannot escape the need to organize. While the workers’ movement is being led by the wrong leadership, while working class organizations are holding the movement back, the task at hand is to build an alternative in advance – a genuine revolutionary party.
The Russian Revolution of 1917
In a discussion of the role of a revolutionary party, it is impossible to ignore the Russian Revolution of 1917.
It is not for nothing that Marxists devote so much time to the study of this revolution. For the first time in history, except for the brief episode of the Paris Commune of 1871, the workers and the oppressed took power, overthrew capitalism, and took the first steps toward establishing a workers’ democracy and a socialist society. To build the victories of the future, revolutionaries must study the victories of the past.
The victory of the Russian workers in October 1917 did not happen on its own.
In February 1917, World War was ravaging Russia. The workers and peasants in uniform at the front no longer wanted to fight for another man’s cause. The workers in the factories and their families were starving. The status quo was no longer tenable. On the initiative of the women workers of Petrograd, the workers of the city went on strike, and after a week of mass mobilization, the tsar was forced to abdicate.
In the midst of the struggle, the Petrograd soviet was formed, and soviets mushroomed throughout Russia. The soviets were enlarged strike committees, which began taking the functioning of society into their hands. In fact, they held power.
But alongside the soviets, the bourgeoisie formed what it called a ‘provisional government’, anxious to keep capitalism in place. This situation of “dual power” lasted until October 1917.
Between February and October, through the ups and downs of the revolution, the provisional government demonstrated that it had no intention of satisfying the demands of the masses: peace, bread for the workers, and land for the peasants.
Within the soviets the reformist parties of the time, the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs) and the Mensheviks, had the confidence of the majority of the workers and peasants during the first months of the revolution, and used their position to make the soviets support the bourgeois provisional government. Their leaders even entered this government. The Mensheviks and SRs believed that it was “too early” for the working class to take power, that the bourgeoisie should be allowed to rule, and that the struggle for socialism would come later.
As the months went by, the Mensheviks and the SRs found themselves completely discredited in the eyes of the workers, the soldiers and the peasants. But thankfully, there was an alternative. It is towards the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, that the masses turned. Having spent months patiently explaining that it was necessary and possible to take power from the hands of the bourgeoisie, and having won their confidence, the Bolsheviks were able to channel the immense energy and initiative of the masses towards victory in October 1917.
The Bolshevik Party and Lenin
With the Russian Revolution, for the first time in history, workers took power and managed to keep it. Why did they succeed where so many other movements have failed?
The explanation cannot be in the “maturity” of the Russian workers compared, for example, to the Spanish workers of the 1930s. It is not that the Russian workers were more combative than the Spanish. Nor was it that the Russian workers were particularly more intelligent, or anything like that. The difference was the presence of the Bolshevik Party.
The Bolsheviks had not created the Russian Revolution. Although Bolshevik activists had played a role in February, the fighting mood of the masses had been created by capitalism, by the disastrous situation of the country. Trotsky explains this in his History of the Russian Revolution: “They accuse us of creating the mood of the masses; that is wrong, we only tried to formulate it.”
This is precisely the role of a Marxist organization: to formulate consciously what the workers come to understand in a semi-conscious or unconscious way.
But the Bolshevik Party did not appear spontaneously in 1917. You can’t change the world overnight. Building a revolutionary party takes time and energy.
The Russian Marxists had begun their work in the 1880s and 1890s by creating small isolated groups that organized discussion circles on the basics of Marxism. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was created officially in 1898. The Bolshevik and Menshevik split occurred in 1903, where they became factions of the RSDLP. The Bolsheviks were implacable in their defence of Marxism, and parted ways for good with the Mensheviks in 1912, to become an independent party.
We sometimes hear today that the left should simply unite and put aside its differences. Why are there so many socialist or left-wing organizations, we are asked? Why does the IMT insist so much on Marxist theory? The reality is that if groups unite without really agreeing, it is a recipe for paralysis. Theoretical differences will come out on every important issue, and the “united” organization will not be able to move forward. A kayak with two people rowing in opposite directions will turn in circles, while a single person in a kayak will move forward.
Any political group must be based on some theory. This is one of the most valuable lessons of the history of Bolshevism. As Lenin explained as early as 1900:
Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation. Otherwise, our unity will be purely fictitious, it will conceal the prevailing confusion and binder its radical elimination. It is understandable, therefore, that we do not intend to make our publication a mere storehouse of various views. On the contrary, we shall conduct it in the spirit of a strictly defined tendency. This tendency can be expressed by the word Marxism.
For 20 years before the revolution, the Marxists of the Bolshevik party patiently built an organization based on a common program, educating activists in advance in the ideas of Marxism, with the aim of playing a leading role in the workers’ movement. The study of theory and history is essential for building a revolutionary organization today.
Left to their own devices, the Mensheviks and SRs would have led the revolution to defeat. Fortunately, there was an alternative with the Bolsheviks, who won over the workers during 1917, based on the very experience of the masses between February and October. This is what Trotsky explains in “The Class, the Party and the Leadership”:
Only gradually, only on the basis of their own experience through several stages can the broad layers of the masses become convinced that a new leadership is firmer, more reliable, more loyal than the old. To be sure, during a revolution, i.e., when events move swiftly, a weak party can quickly grow into a mighty one provided it lucidly understands the course of the revolution and possesses staunch cadres that do not become intoxicated with phrases and are not terrorized by persecution. But such a party must be available prior to the revolution inasmuch as the process of educating the cadres requires a considerable period of time and the revolution does not afford this time.
In Russia, this party existed ahead of time. There were 8,000 Bolsheviks in February 1917. By the time of their seizure of power in October, based on a correct political perspective, they had grown to 250,000 members.
The role of leadership within the party
But how did the Bolsheviks come up with a correct political perspective? Is the existence of the party, in itself, sufficient?
The rise of the Bolsheviks to power was not a straight line. It is not a commonly known fact that between March and April 1917, the leaders at the head of the Bolshevik Party inside Russia at that time had no intention of fighting for power. With Lenin and Trotsky still trying to make their way from exile back to Russia, the main Bolshevik leaders present in Petrograd at that time were Stalin and Kamenev. Under their leadership, the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, essentially defended the policy of the Mensheviks: that it was “too early” for the workers to seize power.
Some rank-and-file activists in the Bolshevik Party rejected these ideas. Being active on the ground, they saw that it was entirely possible and necessary for the workers to take power through the soviets. In fact, it was the soviets that ruled the country, but they still had to consolidate their power. What could they answer to the argument that it was “too early” to take power?
As Trotsky explains in his History of the Russian Revolution: “These worker-revolutionists only lacked the theoretical resources to defend their position. But they were ready to respond to the first clear call.”
This call came with Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917. At that moment, Lenin was categorical: the working class, allied with the poor peasantry, could take power through the soviets, and not only liberate the peasants, bring peace and bread to the workers, but begin the socialist tasks and start the international socialist revolution.
In April 1917, Lenin was the only leader of the Bolshevik Party to defend this perspective (Trotsky had not yet arrived in Russia, and joined the party only in July). But due to his immense personal authority, and especially the fact that his policy corresponded to the experience of the Bolshevik militants at the base, Lenin succeeded in having his perspective adopted at the Bolshevik party conference held in late April. From that moment on, the Bolshevik Party, under Lenin’s leadership, set itself the goal of patiently explaining to the workers the necessity of the soviets taking power.
What would have happened if Lenin had not been able to reach Russia? In a revolution, time is a key factor. The Bolshevik leaders might have come to understand the need for soviet power, but there is no indication that they would have understood it while the workers were still mobilized. The working class cannot remain constantly in struggle. At some point, either the revolution wins, or doubt and apathy begin to set in. If Lenin had not intervened in 1917, the Bolshevik Party leadership would most likely have missed the chance to take power. So it is not enough to have a party; that party must have a leadership that knows where it is going.
A victorious socialist revolution cannot be made without the participation of the working class. But this class must have a party. And that party must have a leadership that knows what it is doing. These three ingredients are the key to the success of future revolutions.
The role of the individual in history
Comparing Spain and Russia, one might ask: isn’t it mere luck that the Russian working class could count on an individual like Lenin? Wouldn’t it just have taken a Spanish Lenin, and everything would have been fine?
First of all, Lenin himself was not born Lenin: he was, in a certain sense, a creation of the Russian workers’ movement. Lenin was the result of the work of building a revolutionary party, which he had greatly contributed to building. Without the party, Lenin could not have disseminated his ideas in 1917 and played the role he did. But conversely, Lenin’s authority in his party came from the fact that he had spent nearly 25 years patiently building it.
Trotsky summarizes these ideas perfectly in “The Class, the Party and the Leadership”:
A colossal factor in the maturity of the Russian proletariat in February or March 1917 was Lenin. He did not fall from the skies. He personified the revolutionary tradition of the working class. For Lenin’s slogans to find their way to the masses there had to exist cadres, even though numerically small at the beginning; there had to exist the confidence of the cadres in the leadership, a confidence based on the entire experience of the past…The role and the responsibility of the leadership in a revolutionary epoch is colossal.
Similarly in the History of the Russian Revolution:
Lenin was not an accidental element in the historic development, but a product of the whole past of Russian history. He was embedded in it with deepest roots. Along with the vanguard of the workers, he had lived through their struggle in the course of the preceding quarter century…Lenin did not oppose the party from outside, but was himself its most complete expression. In educating it he had educated himself in it.
The revolutionary leadership provided by Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not come out of nowhere. It was the result of a quarter century of patient work in building an organization. In building the party, Lenin became Lenin. Thousands of other Bolsheviks, by building the party, also became leaders of the workers’ movement. This fact is summarized in the anecdote that in 1917, a single Bolshevik in a factory could win all his colleagues to the party program. This authority came from all the previous work of party building. Dialectically, party building built these individuals who played such a great role.
The Russian Revolution is a striking example of the role of the individual in history. The construction of a revolutionary organization, a collective endeavor, makes it possible to form individuals who can play a decisive role in the movement. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts; and building the whole strengthens the parts! We must learn from this for today, and repeat what the Bolsheviks did.
Tragically, a different fate awaited the great Marxist and contemporary of the Bolsheviks, Rosa Luxemburg. While she spent her life fighting the reformist bureaucracy in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), Luxemburg did not build an organized revolutionary faction in the party, as Lenin had done in the RSDLP with the Bolsheviks. It was not until 1916 that the Spartacist League was founded, which was more of a decentralized network than a revolutionary organization.
When the German Revolution broke out in November 1918, the League had little connection with the masses. In December, the League transformed itself into the Communist Party. However, from the outset, the party was permeated by a sectarianism that seriously handicapped it. Party activists refused to work in the trade unions, and the party boycotted the elections to the National Assembly, which would have given it a chance to have a platform to spread its ideas. In this young communist party, Rosa Luxemburg opposed this ultra-leftism. But she did not have a group of cadres who understood the political situation as well as she did and who could carry her ideas. The Communist Party made one mistake after another.
In January 1919, the Social Democratic government provoked an uprising of the working class in Berlin in order to isolate and repress the advanced workers, and above all the Communist Party. The inexperience and weakness of the Communist Party’s influence over the workers, meant that they were unable to forestall the provocation. During those events, Luxemburg herself, along with the other outstanding leader, Karl Liebknecht, were murdered. Thus, the fact that Luxemburg did not build a revolutionary party in advance led to a tragic defeat and her own death, decapitating the leadership of the German working class. From then on until 1923, the Communist Party, deprived of the leadership of its two main figures, was unable to lead the German working class to power. The Russian and the German revolutions serve to underline the same point, although from two different angles: the vital need of a revolutionary leadership.
A few days before her assassination, Rosa Luxemburg drew conclusions from the first months of the German revolution. Her conclusion is far removed from the “spontaneism” that her alleged followers attribute to her:
The absence of leadership, the non-existence of a center responsible for organizing the Berlin working class, cannot continue. If the cause of the revolution is to advance, if the victory of the proletariat, if socialism is to be anything more than a dream, the revolutionary workers must set up leading organizations capable of guiding and using the fighting energy of the masses.
The leadership of the movement today
It is no secret that all over the world the Marxist movement has been thrown back for a whole historical period. The post-war boom laid the foundations for reformism in the West, while the fall of the Soviet Union was accompanied by an unprecedented ideological offensive against Marxism. The most pretentious, like Francis Fukuyama, even proclaimed the “end of history,” which would have found its achievement in liberal democracy.
The labour movement also experienced setbacks during the 1980s and 1990s, whereas the 1970s had been a time of mass movements and revolutions. It was during the following decades that the leadership of the labour movement shifted far to the right.
In Quebec, for example, it was in the 1980s that the FTQ, the province’s largest trade union central, stopped talking about “democratic socialism” and the second largest, the CSN, abandoned the anti-capitalist ideas expressed in the manifesto Ne comptons que sur nos propres moyens. Too often, leaders are found at the top of the labour movement today who collaborate with the bosses rather than mobilizing their members. The current president of the CSN, for example, said for the 50th anniversary of the Conseil du patronat (the bosses’ union), the headquarters of the Quebec bourgeoisie: “We sometimes clash and have different points of view, but we get along very well when it comes to promoting employment, fostering good working conditions and ensuring Quebec’s economic growth.” This is far from an isolated example. This is the state of the leadership of the labour movement today.
In the labour movement, one of the main attacks on Marxists is the caricature which has us claim that if there were a revolutionary leadership, then the workers would always be in struggle, always ready for action. According to these people, we criticize the union leaders as if it were possible for the leaders to magically bring about mass movements.
This idea is a complete caricature of the Marxist analysis of the relationship between the working class and its leadership.
As we have already explained, workers are not constantly in struggle. Revolutions are historical exceptions that inevitably arise from the class struggle itself. But what happens before a revolution? What should be the role of the leadership of the labour movement when the situation is not revolutionary—that is, most of the time?
At the risk of sounding repetitive, the working class is not homogeneous. Until the day of the revolution, there will be apathetic layers, skeptical layers, while others will want to fight against the attacks of the bosses. The contradictory and heterogeneous character of class consciousness is a fact that we have no choice but to deal with.
Union leaders do not have the power to magically bring about a movement. But the role that a good leadership can play in the class struggle is to prepare the rank-and-file, establish a plan of action, and educate the union members in order to bring about a mass movement. No, it is not possible to magically organize a movement. But yes, it is possible to educate workers about the need for this or that demand, for this or that method of struggle.
An excellent example of what good political leadership can accomplish can be found in the 2012 student strike in Quebec. In 2010, the Quebec Liberal government hinted that tuition fees would be raised. Already, student activists were beginning to organize. In March 2011, the 75 percent tuition increase was officially announced, to be implemented in the fall of 2012.
The leadership of ASSÉ, the most radical student union at the time, spent the year 2011 educating the students about what the increase in tuition meant, mobilizing students with the conscious plan to organize an unlimited general strike. Some ASSÉ activists, many of whom had anarchist tendencies, would certainly not like the terms “leadership” or “leaders” attached to them, but you can’t change reality by changing the name—they were most certainly playing a leadership role, and a good one at that!
With the conscious plan to organize the strike, and because these methods of struggle were what the movement needed in the face of an inflexible government, the ASSÉ leadership organized the largest student strike in North American history.
Playing a leadership role is in no way contradictory to full grassroots participation. On the contrary—it was because the ASSÉ leadership provided direction, educating thousands of activists on the need to fight the hike, that it unleashed the fighting spirit and creativity of the hundreds of thousands of students involved in the movement across Quebec.
The example of the student strike shows the role of good leadership. Showing the way forward creates the conditions for thousands of people to actively participate in the struggle. To be sure, the ASSÉ leaders did make some mistakes. In the summer of 2012, when the Liberals announced an election, they refused to support Québec solidaire, the only main party supporting free education, and instead essentially ignored the election, while most students ended the strike to fight to kick out the Liberals. We have analyzed the whole process elsewhere. But this mistake doesn’t take away from the main lesson: the need for leadership.
The question of leadership is a burning issue in the workers’ movement and in the trade unions around the world. How often do we hear that workers supposedly do not want to struggle? That you can’t organize a strike by snapping your fingers? In Quebec, public sector unions have been in negotiations for over a year. The right-wing CAQ government won’t budge and is offering ridiculous conditions to its workers. While some teachers’ unions are moving towards an all-out strike, other teachers’ unions have voted on five-day mandates only, to be implemented “at the appropriate time.” We have criticized this situation elsewhere. In a public meeting organized by Labour Fightback in Quebec, a local president of one of these unions with a five-day strike mandate explained his view of the role of the union leadership thus:
It’s not on us [the union leadership] to decide [on a strike], it’s on our members, and they can decide if we inform them…at the FSE [the union] we could have called for the all-out strike, but in the ‘plateaux’ [union locals] I don’t see any delegates saying ‘Let’s go, all-out strike’… We have to share information, we’re puppets when we’re union [leaders], we’re not the ones who have to tell people what to do… In my local general assembly, if someone would come and say ‘I want an all-out strike,’ I’d like that, I think I would burst with joy.
This logic, taken to its extreme here, is found throughout the movement. According to this logic, if workers are not talking about an all-out strike, it is not the job of union leaders to propose one. This logic is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the leaders don’t do anything and don’t propose a bold solution to the members (which is deemed “telling people what to do”), then it is normal that workers don’t have confidence that we can fight and win, and won’t propose militant ways of fighting themselves!
We are not saying that you can organize a mass movement by snapping your fingers. But what we are saying is that the role of union leaders is to provide leadership, not just to be an information office and wait for the members themselves to come to radical conclusions. The union leadership needs to set a plan, educate the membership, give them confidence, and thereby create the conditions for the membership to be prepared to take the road of uncompromising class struggle – just like the student movement leadership did in 2012.
Building a socialist leadership for the movement
Right now, the labour movement is led by people who believe in the capitalist system, and who don’t believe it can be overthrown. Union leaders have become detached from the conditions of the workers. They prefer the status quo to fighting the bosses. They are skeptical and do not believe in the creativity and fighting spirit of their members.
The current leadership of the labour movement will increasingly come into conflict with the reality of capitalism. Austerity will very soon be on the order of the day. Capitalism will show itself more and more for what it really is: horror without end for working people. We are already starting to see this with COVID-19.
But what will happen if the leaders of the labour movement allow workers to be attacked and do nothing? They will be discredited in the eyes of the workers they are supposed to represent. Trotsky explains how this process develops:
A leadership is shaped in the process of clashes between the different classes or the friction between the different layers within a given class. Having once arisen, the leadership invariably arises above its class and thereby becomes predisposed to the pressure and influence of other classes. The proletariat may “tolerate” for a long time a leadership that has already suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events. A great historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between the leadership and the class.
COVID-19 and the economic crisis that is just beginning are one of these historic shocks. All over the world, the anger of the masses is building up. The workers are suffering from unemployment, from the reduction of their living and working conditions, while the rich are amassing fortunes that are rising day by day. As we are entering an epoch of revolutions all over the world, the leadership of the workers’ movement is still stuck in the past.
So what can socialists do?
In a recent piece entitled “Socialist Leaders Won’t Save the Unions,” an activist with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) states:
People think that leadership is a matter of having the sash and the tiara, that by virtue of getting elected to a position, you have all this credibility, and everybody’s going to listen to you—and it’s simply not true.
You need to actually, simply organize the floor. And it’s not that you can’t do it as a union officer, but it[‘s] also not the case that being a union officer contributes to it.
In a sense, we agree with our anarcho-syndicalist comrades. They are attacking a tendency for individual socialists to parachute themselves into leading positions in a union with no base in the rank-and-file to enact militant socialist policies. There are numerous instances of good activists taking shortcuts only to get isolated in leadership structures and swallowed up by the bureaucracy. Marxist are totally opposed to taking leadership positions without first building a base.
But this dichotomy between grassroots organizing and union leadership is fundamentally flawed and only sees one half of the problem. In fact, many reformist union leaders would agree with the idea that elected leaders can’t organize at the grassroots, because it absolves them from having to act! Moreover, mobilizing at the base is itself an act of leadership—it means leading your colleagues toward a certain course of action. But once you’ve organized at the base, what happens next? What if the people in union leadership positions seek to actively disorganize the floor? They will need to be prevented from doing so. How? If you are not prepared to replace these people with union leaders that want to fight, this means leaving control in the hands of the bad leaders. Whether we like it or not, we come back to the need for good leadership in the movement, for counterposing militant class fighters to union leaders that are detached from the workers.
What, therefore, is the role of socialists in the labour movement? We say that, yes, we must organize among the rank-and-file, defend methods of class struggle, educate the workers on the need to fight capitalism. And on this basis, we can gain the confidence and authority of other workers to take leadership positions in the unions, and lead the movement. And the best way to do that is to be in the same revolutionary organization.
The reality is that there are some individuals on union executives who call themselves socialists in Quebec, and they are indeed not “saving the unions.” The problem is that they are isolated, they don’t have an organization that allows them to really apply socialist policies against the resistance of other leaders of the movement who don’t want to fight. To have real weight in the movement, it is necessary to unite in the same organization those who have understood the necessity of socialism.
History has shown more than once, and not just in the labour movement as such, what happens to socialist or radical individuals who do not build a revolutionary organization. Inevitably, these people will capitulate to the existing organizations. For example, Angela Davis, a highly respected former communist activist, long ago gave up on the idea of building a revolutionary party. She ended up supporting the Democratic Party and Joe Biden in the last election. The same goes for the anarchist Noam Chomsky or the supposedly-Marxist academic David Harvey. Politics is done through organizations. When you don’t build an alternative, you will inevitably fall for the “lesser evil” of what exists.
Class consciousness is something that develops very quickly. How many participants in the 2012 student struggle knew nothing about tuition hikes just months before the strike? How many of these students were apathetic and disinterested before a campaign was waged to prepare for the movement? The same questions could be asked of every mass movement or revolution. Consciousness is conservative, but has the potential to become radical and revolutionary.
Skeptics base themselves on the weak side of the working class, on its apathetic and demoralized layers, and conclude that a revolution is not possible. Marxists, on the contrary, base themselves on the immense revolutionary potential of our class.
No, the workers are not always ready to lead a revolution. But by fighting now for socialist ideas to gain authority in the workers’ movement, we can contribute to a victorious revolution when the masses move.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented misery is setting in for millions of workers everywhere. But out of this chaos is emerging a new generation of young people who want to fight against the capitalist system.
The wonderful mass movement in the US triggered by the murder of George Floyd has shown that even the greatest imperialist power cannot escape the rising anger. The conditions are being created for revolutionary movements all over the world. It is on this potential that the unshakable revolutionary optimism of the Marxists is based.
The socialist revolution will not happen automatically. It requires activists to consciously defend a socialist program within the movement. As an isolated socialist activist, you can accomplish nothing. But united under a common banner, with a common program and common ideas, we can have an infinitely greater impact than any individual activist can have. By joining a revolutionary organization, you build yourself up and help build others. By joining a revolutionary organization, you build an alternative to existing organizations that lead the working class from defeat to defeat, instead of accepting them and capitulating to them. By joining a revolutionary organization, you help bring the ideas of Marxism to the working class in a way no individual can do on their own. This is what the International Marxist Tendency offers to workers and youth. We invite you to join this project which is bigger than all of us.
We will leave the last word to Trotsky, who left us these inspiring lines a few months before his assassination:
The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars, and new uprisings. A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective. History will provide it with enough opportunities and possibilities to test itself, to accumulate experience, and to mature. The swifter the ranks of the vanguard are fused the more the epoch of bloody convulsions will be shortened, the less destruction will our planet suffer. But the great historical problem will not be solved in any case until a revolutionary party stands at the head of the proletariat. The question of tempos and time intervals is of enormous importance; but it alters neither the general historical perspective nor the direction of our policy. The conclusion is a simple one: it is necessary to carry on the work of educating and organizing the proletarian vanguard with tenfold energy.