The political earthquakes of Brexit and the attempted military coup in Turkey provided a dramatic backdrop to the discussion on world relations at the recent CWI Summer School. Robert Bechert from the International Secretariat, who opened the discussion, showed how these events illustrated the splits and divisions within the ruling classes given the precarious position of world capitalism today.
Growing poverty, economic stagnation and historic inequality have undermined support for the established political order and fuelled struggles of working-class people in many countries, but they have all been hamstrung by the absence of mass workers’ organisations armed with a socialist vision for a different society. Robert stressed that economic crisis alone does not result in struggle but can assist the masses draw more political conclusions and search for an alternative to capitalism. The ongoing wars, economic crisis and climatic disaster are knocking the confidence of the capitalist class in the future of their own system. Robert noted that May 2016 marked the thirteenth consecutive month where the average global temperature rose.
The ongoing wars in the Middle East, the developing inter-imperialist tensions in the South China Sea and also those on the borders of Europe between Ukraine and Russia are fuelling a massive increase in military spending.
While investment in arms, death and destruction has risen, investment in the productive forces has stagnated since the crisis began in 2008. For a long time the growth in the world economy had moderated the tensions between different nation states but now a different situation is emerging. There has been a slowdown of trade in goods between the world’s economies with no increase in trade since January 2015. A contradiction exists with enormous sources of wealth on the one hand, and a refusal to invest on the other. Due to the unwillingness to invest in production, there has been a policy of negative interest rates introduced by a number of the world’s central banks in order to attempt to force commercial banks to lend. Robert noted that in June, there was US$12 trillion invested in negative interest rate bonds. At the same time, there has been a massive increase in debt. In fact, it is now estimated that total world debt is equal to 280% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). So capitalism has trillions of uninvested dollars and rising levels of debt, but is refusing to invest in production for fear that profitable returns will not be possible.
The slowdown of the Chinese economy, the world’s leading manufacturer since 2010, proves that the fears of international capitalism that another major downturn is on the horizon are well founded. China’s economy has propped up world capitalism to a large extent since the crash of 2008. While the US economy has grown by 8% since 2007, China’s economy grew by 78% over the same period. But the past year has seen this rapid growth grind to a halt as China has experienced its slowest economic growth in over 25 years. The economy has also built up enormous levels of debt. Vincent Kolo noted that China’s debt-to-GDP level rose from 154 to 249 percent between 2008 and 2015. A Goldman Sachs report stated that only countries that have been at war have experienced anything as close. The regime has announced plans to lay-off five to six million workers in the coal and steel industry as a result of the decrease in demand for Chinese exports.
Many economies that rose by exporting raw materials to China are now plummeting. Brazil and Nigeria are just two of the countries experiencing political instability as a result of economic slowdown. In Brazil, political, social and economic turmoil exists. Even Australia has begun to be affected and has had five prime ministers in the last six years! Kat from Australia quoted billionaire Gerry Harvey who, despairing at the hesitancy of the government to expand austerity measures, argued that, “The only cure we’ve got is to have a dictator like in China or something like that. Our democracy at the ¬moment is not working.”
Programme and Strategy in the United States
The turmoil and drama in the US was highlighted in the discussion as representing one of the most important developments for the working class internationally. The support and openness towards socialist ideas in the United States represents a major advancement for the international working class. It can help open the way for an international revival in support for socialism.
Decades of economic stagnation, deindustrialisation and falling living standards have created a deep alienation from the political establishment. Countless opinion polls show a historic lack of confidence in all the major institutions in the US, including the media, the government and the police. There is also a growing distrust and antipathy towards big business, particularly amongst young people. The idea of the American Dream had an ideological hold, particularly for many white workers, in the post-war boom period but this has been eroded by the reality of low-paid, precarious work. A recent report indicated that one in ten students entering college this year expect to be involved in protests, and this generation who grew up through the recession are the most likely group to oppose military interventions abroad.
Philip Locker from Socialist Alternative (SA) explained that Clinton and Trump are the two most unpopular candidates in the last ten presidential election cycles. The millennial generation were to the forefront in supporting the candidature of Bernie Sanders. Socialist Alternative took a flexible approach to tactics while remaining firm on principles. The mass movement in support of Sanders was a tremendously positive development, in which Socialist Alternative intervened.
Socialist Alternative recognised the revolutionary potential of his supporters’ enthusiasm, rallying to Sanders’ call for a political revolution against the billionaire class, and their openness to socialist ideas while at the same time criticising Sanders’ rejection of public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, aspects of his foreign policy and his allegiance to the Democrats. While SA members understand that the growth in support for socialism doesn’t yet mean a solid, widespread support for a rounded-out, revolutionary socialist programme, it does indicate a significant openness to fight for an alternative and an anti-capitalist outlook.
Socialist Alternative built an independent campaign supporting Sanders but explained clearly and patiently to his supporters about the need to build a new party of the 99%, independent of the two parties of big business. The movement around Sanders showed the potential that now exists for a new mass workers’ party. Two and a half million people donated to his campaign and the campaign raised $230 million, proving that money is not an obstacle to building an independent, socialist political project. Socialist Alternative has recently been rallying Sanders’ supporters to back Jill Stein, the Green candidate. Although a Trump presidency cannot be ruled out, it is likely that Clinton will win as many women, people of colour and young people will vote for her to keep out the racist, anti-worker Trump. Whichever candidate wins, it is guaranteed there will be no extended honeymoon period, and even more significant movements of the working class are on the horizon. Socialist Alternative is well poised to make big gains for the forces of Marxism in the coming period.
Brazil is a major exporter of raw materials to China. The slowdown in China had a significant knock-on effect in Brazil, which is now experiencing its worst recession in over 100 years. Brazilian capitalism is intent on launching major attacks on public services and the conditions of workers to increase profitability. This was the reasoning behind supporting the parliamentary coup against the unpopular pro-austerity, Rousseff, Workers’ Party (PT) government. Despite the austerity policies and corruption scandals of the Rousseff government, there is very little support by working and middle class Brazilians for the traditional party of the right led by the installed President Temer. Tens of thousands mobilised in demonstrations in the streets against the impeachment of Rousseff, seeing it as an attack on democracy, and fully aware of this new government’s intentions to launch ‘shock doctrine’ levels of austerity.
The supporters of the CWI in Brazil – ‘Liberdade, Socialismo e Revolução’ (Freedom, Socialism and Revolution – LSR) – have skilfully intervened in the mass protests which have been organised against the Temer government. Harnessing the anger in relation to the new government, the LSR has raised the slogan of “Temer out! For general elections on a really democratic basis!” along with calls for mobilisations of the working class: “General strike against the attacks of the right! For a united front of the socialist left!” The LSR fosters no illusions in the PT and works as a revolutionary Marxist current within the ‘Partido Socialismo e Liberdade’ (Socialism and Freedom Party – PSOL). Maria Clara from the LSR explained how PSOL public representatives in the parliament have distinguished the organisation by attacking the anti-worker policies of the PT while voting against the impeachment of Rousseff, although many public figures from PSOL could have gone further in differentiating themselves from the PT. LSR members will fight tooth and nail to elect socialist representatives of the working class from PSOL in the local elections in October but we will argue uncompromisingly against any alliances with the PT, who were authors of their own downfall with their methods of class conciliation and their refusal to pose the need to break with capitalism.
The failure of the Maduro government in Venezuela graphically illustrates the results of a refusal to break with capitalism. With inflation at more than 500% and rising, and food shortages of basic staples such as rice and beans, the government has cut the social health and housing programmes introduced by Chavez. Falling oil prices, economic sabotage by the capitalist class and the top-down bureaucratic methods of the government are opening the door for the forces of counter-revolution there.
One of the highlights at the School was the number of representatives from African sections – including Nigeria, South Africa, Ivory Coast and others. The contributions from these comrades really enriched the discussion. The recent struggles of the youth and workers and the crisis facing the ANC, likely to be shown in August’s local elections, were highlighted by Trevor from South Africa. Nigeria is one of the many countries hit by the fall in prices of raw materials. One of the effects of falling oil prices has been that in 27 of Nigeria’s 36 federal states, wages have not been paid to public sector workers. And the value of the wages that were paid has been hit by rising inflation and the recent currency devaluation. Chinedu from Nigeria outlined how ethnic and religious tensions and conflict have also increased. There are movements in different states for independence from Nigeria and this process has accelerated since the Brexit referendum, with the Biafra Independence Movement and other groups calling for a referendum for secession of the Southeast region. Uniquely on the left in Nigeria, CWI supporters in the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) defend the right of the Igbo people and others to democratically determine whether they want to secede from Nigeria. However, the DSM also argues that the secession of Biafra within the constraints of capitalism will solve none of the problems facing the Igbo people, as the recent experience of South Sudan secession shows. The DSM argues that the only solution to the crushing domination of imperialism and capitalism over the working people of all ethnicities in Nigeria is socialism.
Working Class Fightback
Many positive examples that illustrated the power of the working class in action were reported. Venkatesh from India reported on the participation of 150 million workers in the general strike against the chauvinist Modi government last September. This turnout exceeded the expectations of the organisers and shows the potential that exists if that militancy is harnessed by a genuine mass workers’ organisation. This was the biggest nationwide strike seen in India since independence from direct colonial rule.
Deirdre from Québec described the monumental general strike by 400,000 public sector workers back in December. Half a million workers rocked the government when they took to the streets to demonstrate against austerity policies; especially significant when you consider that the population of Québec is eight million!
There has been a substantial rise in what the Chinese regime calls ‘labour incidents’ in the past four years. According to the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), Chinese workers engaged in around 185 strikes in 2011. In 2015, the CLB reported 2,944 strikes – 16 times as many. Jaco from Hong Kong, Socialist Action, detailed the current activities of the newly formed Walmart Chinese Workers Association (WCWA) in mainland China; 20,000 of the 100,000 Walmart workers in China engaged in a series of wildcat strikes over the month of July. The WCWA was formed in 2014 and is completely independent of the state-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions. It organised the strike and built their organisation using the ‘WeChat’ mobile messaging system. More than 40 WeChat WCWA chat groups were established and indicate the beginning of the reorganisation of the Chinese working class. This is just a foretaste of the social explosions that are looming in China, where the regime is anxious to stamp out any conscious development of the world’s largest working class.
Robert pointed out that the class struggle never develops in a straight line: “That’s impossible.” He touched on the developments of counter-revolution in some parts of North Africa and the Middle East with the breakup of Libya, Syria and Iraq. Despite the vicious wars raging across this region there are still significant working classes in existence. Even with an authoritarian regime in Egypt, in the first four months of this year there was a 25% increase in the number of strikes taking place there. We know that the working class Egypt and beyond will move into action, but Robert stated that it is not just a question of moving into action but what programme and ideas the action is organised around.
The setbacks in this region following the waning of the Arab Spring were not due to an inherent weakness in the revolutions which began in 2011. The potential certainly existed in Egypt, for instance, to really break the power of capitalism. Robert argued that what was missing was not just a socialist leadership but also a wide-scale, broadly-based socialist consciousness within the working class and clarity of what concretely needed to be done. The leaders of the so-called independent trade unions in Egypt who initially joined the government bear a responsibility for the defeat. But the fact that these leaders were able to do this with initially only limited resistance from below reflected the current state of consciousness of the Egyptian working class at that time. For the CWI, the experiences of struggles and revolutions are absolutely key. The question is also how they are linked to the development of a socialist consciousness and of an organised movement which can lay the basis for winning a majority of the working class to that programme. The growth of interest in socialism in the US is an important sign of how that consciousness can develop.
In replying to the discussion, Tony Saunois from the International Secretariat emphasised that turmoil, conflict and the crisis of global capitalism today is not going to end. The prospect of capitalism going back to the stability it had in the post-Second World War period is over. The elements of both revolution and counter-revolution are contained in the situation today. Many of the struggles, many of the humanitarian catastrophes, in many respects display the worst of humanity and the best of humanity.
Again, Tony emphasised the importance of events unfolding the US for the international working class. This crisis will not end after the elections in November. The depth of the crisis is reflected with elements of ‘urban guerrillaism’ reflected in some of the recent shootings in the US. Whoever wins the presidential elections, the next administration will be a crisis presidency. Despite the betrayal of Sanders the issue of a new party for the working class is now present in US society.
The apparent victory of the right in Latin America in recent changes of government does not simply reflect a swing to the right in Latin America. The right have won elections as a protest vote against the failure of the ‘centre-left’ and ‘left governments’ such as Rousseff in Brazil and Chávez in Venezuela. These parties and governments do not have the same social base as in the past. The open programme of neo-liberalism is unpopular throughout the continent. The massive movement of the Chilean youth reflects this. The failure of these ‘left’ governments to break with capitalism has warnings for the left in Europe should it come to power and fail to break with capitalism. Venezuela has elements of a failed state now.
Tony also took up the question of the prospects for war which had been raised in the discussion. While regional conflicts have and will develop, the class balance of forces and threat of mutual destruction through a nuclear exchange will check how far these conflicts can develop. Even in the South China Sea where China and the US are adopting a bellicose stance, the Chinese regime has to be cautious. An all-out conflict in that area with US imperialism would result in a defeat for the Chinese regime which would lead to its eventual overthrow.
Events in China are also crucial. The prospect of a massive social explosion is posed. Although the regime at this stage has adopted a policy of brutal repression, faced with the threat of a revolutionary uprising it may be compelled to partially concede a ‘democratic’ opening for a period.
Our task is to build organisations internationally with a genuine socialist alternative, to ensure that the best of humanity is harnessed to put an end to the carnage and misery of conflict and war, and raise the banner and struggles of the working class for a socialist world to end the carnage of capitalism and imperialism.