Statement of Solidarity from US Labor Activists to fellow workers in struggle in Iran
August 22, 2018
Dear Sisters and Brothers:
We union members and other workers and labor activists in the U.S. recognize that workers are one, all across the world. We support the struggles of Iranian workers as well as other struggles of women against sexism and the struggles of Kurds, Arabs and other persecuted minorities in Iran. (See partial list below)
We send you our greetings as sisters and brothers in the struggle. Our common enemy is the owners of capital and those who seek to divide us. In the United States, this means first and foremost the racist and misogynist Trump and all those around him. We condemn his war threats and his economic sanctions which hurt Iranian working people. Any move towards a US war against Iran will only mean the weakening of the workers’ movement and increased suffering of working class people in both countries.
We also oppose the authoritarianism of the Iranian government and its military interventions in the region… and its inhuman treatment of Afghan workers.
We look forward to setting up direct links with labor activists in Iran so that we can help each other in fighting our capitalist rulers and coming up with ideas for workers power and an alternative to oppression, exploitation, division, war and imperialist aggression.
Forward to international working class solidarity!
Partial list of recent struggles in Iran:
- Teachers in Yazd went on strike
- Steelworkers and hospital workers in Ahvaz struck
- Railway workers near Tabriz protested
- Bus drivers in Tehran struck
- Truck drivers nationwide struck
- Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane workers struck
- Railway workers nationwide struck
- Metalworkers organized along side their counterparts in Turkey
To this list should be included the struggles of women for their rights as well as of oppressed minorities in Iran such as the Kurds and the Arab Iranians.
A Nationalist cul-de-sac
( This is a snippet from a longer document; It should not be taken as an opposition to the right of small nations to self determination, nor opposition to the nationalism in small nations in Europe. A longer more detailed article will follow)
The rise of nationalism in a number of European countries at the present time poses a real threat to the international labour movement and represents an immediate challenge for socialists. In the context of developing a common internationalist approach to solving the problems faced by workers and their families, the various attempts to exacerbate national divisions have to be confronted. The most serious growth of nationalism at the present time is in the United States. Trump’s right-wing crusade is fomenting national and racial division across the globe. The leaders of Brexit have been attempting to supplant class politics with English nationalism. The recent electoral gains by the far-right League pose a threat, not just to the Italian labour movement, but to the unity of Italy itself. It dominates the regions of Lombardy and Veneto where quarter of Italy’s population live, and under its previous name the Northern League advocated secession for the north. The break-up of the EU along national lines would presage a major advance for right-wing nationalist forces, not just in Europe but across the world.
Division of people along national or religious lines in the modern epoch has had a disastrous record. The break-up of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism there and in its neighbouring states has led to a resurgence of nationalism. Yugoslavia shattered in 1991, leading to the separation of six different countries and a succession of civil wars and right-wing governments. Czechoslovakia divided into Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993. Age-old nationalist aspirations and a desire for hegemony have again begun to take root in these countries, dragging in their wake racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant prejudice. The Hungarian regime represents one of the worst examples in this regard.
In the ex-colonial world also, national and racial divisions are wreaking havoc amongst impoverished peoples. Nationalism has nothing to offer working people and their families.
The issue of nations and national demands is in constant flux. Capitalist society is riven by class divisions and the manner in which workers strike back against their oppressors depends on the balance of class forces and the political weapons available to them. However, the first questions in any consideration of political processes are whether they advance the struggle for socialism or retard it; whether they unite workers in struggle or create divisions; whether they increase confidence in labour organisations or create illusions in middle–class leaders; whether the process is in pursuit of concrete advances in working–class living standards and culture or of petit-bourgeois chimeras.
During Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy between 1975 and 1978, various regions sought autonomy under a new constitution. For the previous forty years, Franco had clamped down viciously on expressions of national independence. Yet the prime consideration amongst the people at the end of Franco’s rule was for a single unified and democratic Spain. Article 2 of the new Constitution referred to ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation’ and also guaranteed ‘the right to self-government of the nationalities’. The vote in 1977 on the new Constitution, or Magna Carta, secured an almost 70% turnout across all of Spain, and of these 90.46% voted in favour. Catalan nationalists campaigned then for a ‘yes’ vote.
A majority of Basque nationalists however were opposed to the Magna Carta. For some years after the fall of Franco Basque nationalists conducted a political and terrorist campaign in a quest for independence. The complete failure of this campaign was demonstrated recently when the Basque separatist group ETA announced its dissolution, handing over arms caches in the process and issuing an apology. Yet the desire for autonomy has not gone away. Tens of thousands of Basques took part in a protest on June 10th. Unless the organisations of the labour movement take up a campaign for the socialist transformation of society the issue of nationalism will continue to emerge.
Divisions that are being generated in the current conflict in Catalonia need to be addressed urgently by the international labour movement. It has been the attacks on Catalan autonomy by the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) led by Rajoy, the ex- Prime Minister of Spain,that gave the demand for Catalan independence a new vigour. In particular, the vicious attacks by riot police on people taking part in the Referendum on October 1st 2017 gave impetus to the demand for separation. Rajoy’s replacement by the Socialist Party leader Sánchez provides the new Spanish Government with an opportunity to row back the PP’s repressive measures and to strengthen links with the Catalan labour movement.
The right of nations to self-determination has long been a demand of the socialist movement. The question of whether or not to secede from Spain is a matter for Catalans. However, from the point of view of the Spanish labour movement as a whole, to follow a path to Catalan secession would be disastrous for Spain. The labour movement in Catalonia has a rich socialist tradition. In July 1936 the workers of Barcelona were to the forefront in the early confrontations with Francoist forces in defence of the Spanish Republic. A campaign for secession would strengthen the right-wing Parties in the Spanish Parliament – just as the rise in support for the Scottish National Party allowed the Tories to win a majority in Westminster in 2015, leading to the current political disasters across the UK. Scotland and England, countries that united in 1701, were almost sundered three years ago.
It has been the failure of socialist-led governments to effectively fight austerity that opened the way for this nationalist perspective. When class issues come to the fore, support for nationalism wanes. In the last British General Election the Scottish National Party lost 21 of its 56 MPs.
The only real alternative to capitalist society is socialism. Small independent capitalist States cannot solve the problems of their peoples. The fight for socialism is international and it requires the maximum unity of workers organisations across national boundaries.
Syria today is at the centre of the crisis of capitalism. Concentrated in the region and especially in Syria are all the tensions and rivalries of the different capitalist/imperialist powers and sub-powers, the economic and environmental crises of capitalism, the fragmentation of society and the naked brutality with which capitalist regimes hold onto power. Also concentrated there is the crisis of the working class, torn apart in extreme sectarian violence. Therefore an understanding of how these twin crises developed in Syria and in the region as a whole is vital, as is the need to figure out some way of linking up with working-class forces there – something that is impossible without a basic understanding of the present situation and what led up to it.
The Assad dynasty
The Assad dynasty originated with Hafez Assad, who seized power in a military coup against the left wing of his Ba’ath Party in 1971. On his death in 2000, his son Bashar inherited the reins of power. As was happening around the world, Bashar privatized and opened up the Syrian economy to the ravages of global capitalism. Politically, both based their rule on sectarianism, in this case on the Alawite ethnic group. Also, as opposed to much popular belief, they never were real supporters of Palestinian rights nor anti-US imperialists.
The Arab Spring
The economic crisis which started in 2007/08 had a profound impact around the world. No longer did it appear that the capitalists were in total control. Open, mass revolt was possible; in fact it became inevitable, starting in the Arab world with the Arab Spring of 2011. This was followed by the Occupy movement in the US, massive strike waves in China and South Africa, and a couple of years later the election of Syriza in Greece.
Revolt in Syria
In Syria the Arab Spring was felt later, due to a couple of reasons. First, the history of severe repression was stronger there. Secondly, unlike similar regimes elsewhere, Assad had managed to hold his base of support together. This was made possible because, rather than try to widen his base by bringing in representatives of different ethnicities, the Assads had always relied on the support of the Alawis alone.
That was insufficient to prevent the Arab Spring from spreading to Syria. But Assad fought back: “Thousands were kidnapped and over 300 detained, the majority tortured. In one instance, the mangled, tortured bodies of some scores of kidnapped school children were deposited at the doorsteps of their families. The regime also systematically tried to stir up sectarian conflict, hiring thugs posing as Alawis to attack Sunni neighborhoods, and vice versa…. The shabeeha (“ghost troops” – armed militia) scrawled it on the walls. ‘Either Assad or We’ll Burn the Country.’ In the countryside they killed livestock and burned crops. In the towns the army shelled bakeries, schools, hospitals and market places. Hundreds of barrel bombs dismantled Aleppo…. Women feared the roads lest they were raped by shabeeha at checkpoints; men feared detention or forced conscription…. (there was) mass expulsion of the population from the liberated areas…. The war stretched on, and the liberated areas became death zones. This was the vacuum in which jihadism would thrive.”
Local co-ordinating committees
If the Assad regime went further in repressing the revolution, so too did the revolution itself go further than in other countries. Most significant was the formation of the “Local Coordinating Committees” (LCC’s) to coordinate and advance the struggle in the different regions. As in nearly all such mass revolts, these LCC’s tended to take on the functions of a state power that rivaled Assad’s capitalist state, partly because Assad’s forces were driven out of one area after another.
“In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs… (In) the public-affairs committee, (of) one of the village’s revolutionary councils (meets). The moustached man slammed his hands on the floor and shouted, “This is a revolution of the poor! The rich will have to accept that.”’ 
This account seems to show how the class struggle naturally tended to emerge in the LCC’s. But this was not systematic, maybe because it seems that the working class played a less prominent role in the Syrian revolution than elsewhere. That, in turn, may be related to the fact that the industrial working class in Syria is relatively small, with the great majority working in small shops or working for the government.
So the dominant role of the youth seems to have been scattered and lacking in political clarity. A radical element did exist, as for example with the Syrian Revolutionary Youth, which called for free education and health care and gender equality and raised the Kurdish flag at protests. They were also anti-imperialist, calling for the liberation of the Golan Heights, Palestinian rights, and opposition to foreign intervention. They were viciously suppressed, and within a year their members had either been killed, captured and held in jail or fled the country.
The revolution marked a huge step towards women’s liberation. Yassin-Kassab/al-Shami quote one activist: “Men depended on women to carry supplies through the checkpoints. Now, women like these will call to inform their husbands they’re spending the night outside because, for example, they have to deliver aid. This was unthinkable before.”
The revolution in the rest of Syria was accompanied by an upsurge in the struggle for Kurdish rights in the Afrin region, also known as Rojava. Many of the steps taken there were great advances, including towards women’s liberation. However, questions remain. Soon after the revolution broke out, Assad withdrew his forces from Rojava and the PYD took over. According to Yassin-Kassab/al-Shami, this appears to have been coordinated between the two forces. They also report on criticisms from within Rojava about PYD’s repressing groups that weren’t controlled by them.
Aleppo and Damascus
Another weakness of the revolution was that it was not as powerful in Syria’s two main cities – Aleppo and Damascus – as in the less urban areas. Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami explain this as being due to the sectarian basis of Assad’s rule linked with the fact that both those cities had large Alawi populations.
The twin developments – a brutal crack-down and a deepening of the revolution – led to increased splits in the military as more and more soldiers defected. In a few instances, groups of soldiers were integrated into the LCC’s; however, there was no systematic effort to bring them in.
A layer of mid- and even upper-level officers maintained control over the defecting troops by defecting themselves. So by 2012, as the revolution became militarized, these officers became key, apparently pushing the revolutionary youth into the background. Among other things, in the process the role of women also became minimized.
The militarization of the revolution, the rise of former Assad career officers, the pushing into the background of the LCC’s (although they still live on) – all of this represents a major setback for the revolution. This is the basis on which the Sunni sectarian terrorist groups were able to impose themselves in the revolt against the Assad dictatorship.
A loose military coalition was formed: the Free Syrian Army. However, it was never one unified army. Although it did receive some aid from the Obama administration, that was very little. In addition, the Islamists started to organize, the main one being the Nusra Front, the Syrian representative of al-Qaeda, from which it received funding and supplies. A layer of fighters from Iraq entered Nusra in Syria and then split from them to form what became “Islamic State”. Another group that formed was Arar al-Sham, a broader alliance of Islamisists, both hard liners as well as “pragmatists”. In many cases, young fighters joined these groups not because they were necessarily Islamic fundamentalists but because these were the best armed and most determined fighters.
From 2012 to 2014 the opposition was on the attack, and by the end of 2014 it seemed that Assad was about to be overthrown. Then Russia intervened. It sent arms and troops to the regime and, most important, started a vicious bombing campaign. Both the Russian and the Syrian air forces relentlessly bombed residential neighborhoods, public markets and hospitals. Iran and its proxy – Hezbollah – also sent ground troops to bolster Assad’s army, which had become decimated by desertions. This turned the tide, and it now seems that these forces are on the verge of military victory.
Much media attention has been given to the brutality of the Islamic State – public beheadings, mass executions, stoning women to death. But the Assad regime matched the Islamic state, brutality for brutality. Amnesty International reported that up to 13,000 political prisoners were hanged in Assad’s prisons from the start of the revolution until 2016. Just one instance might serve to show the lengths that this regime will go: in 2011, Ahmed al-Musalmani was 14 years old when he was arrested by the Syrian police for having a song on his cell phone which mocked Assad. Two years later, his body was returned. He’d been tortured to death.
Another aspect of these war crimes was what amounted to ethnic cleansing. Amnesty International conducted a major study of the sieges of the entire population of certain areas. Civilian populations were systematically starved into submission, while the population was subjected to merciless bombardments until ultimately they would agree to leave the region.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, this has led to the forced displacement of 6.5 million Syrian people within Syria (as of July 2017) and an additional 4.8 million who fled the country entirely. This is out of a total population of 18.43 million in 2010; in other words almost 2/3 of the Syrian population! Add to this the estimated death toll of between 332,000 and 475,000 and you have a disaster of epic proportions. Since the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers have the majority of the fire power (including a monopoly of air power), they are responsible for the great majority of these deaths, as for most of the civilian displacement.
The United States
More recently, US military forces have become more directly involved, in particular including air attacks in support of their Kurdish allies. In March of 2017, it is reported that these attacks by the US forces killed 260 civilians.
The main consideration behind the policy of US imperialism has been to advance the influence of US capitalism in Syria and in the region as a whole. For this, stability is necessary. This means blocking the rise of Islamist jihadis, first and foremost the Islamic State.
Initially, Obama did call for the removal of Assad, just as he called for Mubarak to step down. In both cases he saw the continued rule of these dictators as destabilizing factors. However, his administration did little or nothing to remove Assad. The US basically cut off any serious effort to arm the FSA. In one instance the US regime and its Jordanian agents prohibited the FSA’s Southern Army from attacking Assad’s forces, and the Jordanian regime actually collaborated with Russia and Assad to retake southern Syria. According to Michael Karadjis, who reported on this, the Southern Army is the most anti-sectarian of all the anti-Assad forces in Syria.
The Trump administration
Donald Trump has openly expressed what Obama was already doing. For example, shortly before he was inaugurated, the New York Times reported Trump as saying “that the United States should focus on defeating the Islamic State, and find common ground with the Syrians and their Russian backers.” Since he came into office, time and again he has expressed a similar point of view.
Some point to the US bombing of al-Shayrat air field, from which Assad’s planes dropped sarin gas on Khan Sheikhoun, as evidence that the US is still trying to accomplish “regime change” in Syria. In fact, it may have been reassurances by the US that had led Assad to commit this war crime; just a few days before, on March 30, both US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US ambassador to the UN, Niki Haley had said that removing Assad was “not a priority”. And just two days after the US bombed the air field, Rex Tillerson repeated that position.
The bombing of al-Shayrat air field was conducted in order to pretend to the world that the “humane” US government could not tolerate this war crime. Having warned Assad in advance (through his Russian sponsors) of the attack, it did not seriously damage the airfield or Assad’s air force. Within 24 hours the air field was back up and running.
We are not arguing that Trump & Co. should have launched a more effective attack; socialists should oppose any US military intervention there. But we have to be clear on the real nature of that “attack”.
Now that the war seems to be winding down, the outlines of a new situation seems to be developing:
The Iranian regime is seeking a permanent presence in Syria, as it has in Lebanon through Hezbollah. Meanwhile, within Iran there seems to be tension developing between Rouhani and the Revolutionary Guard. In any case, their overall goal is to turn Syria into a Lebanon Mark II. Their Russian allies, on the other hand, are seeking a settlement which would maintain stability while expanding their influence there. Meanwhile, both the Saudis and Israel will vehemently oppose any further expansion of Iranian influence. As for the Kurds, the SDF has offered to become part of Assad’s army if Rojava is granted autonomy. This is unrealistic, and their national dreams are likely to be crushed again.
As for the peace negotiations between the different belligerent powers and the Assad regime – they can be compared to the Sykes-Picot Accord on a smaller scale. These negotiations are for the purpose of deciding which powers will exert what influence in Syria and through what means. It may result in the Lebanonization of Syria. What it will not result in is any sort of democratic elections, which are impossible as long as Assad remains in power.
Left Assad supporters
A special word must be given to the confusion – and in some cases outright abandonment of the principle of international working class solidarity – among much of the “anti-imperialist” left, including in Britain the Stop The War coalition and even Jeremy Corbyn. There is also a whole layer of “left” journalists such as Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald and Robert Fisk who to one degree or another defend Assad. In the case of Fisk, he has become little but an Assad spokesperson.
When much of this left raised a hue and cry about Trump’s bombing of the Shayrat air field, this was pure hypocrisy; just a few weeks earlier US war planes had attacked a mosque in Syria, killing 40 or 50 men, women and children. These same “anti-imperialists” never said a word about that. Implicitly they are providing cover for the crimes of Assad and Putin. They also ignore the war crimes of the US forces in Raqqa and Mosul and ignore the mass war crimes against the civilian population in Syria, because these were carried out in effect in alliance with these reactionary regimes. They have forgotten the most fundamental issue: the role of the working class in history. Having forgotten that, they look for an already existing force that can stand up to US imperialism. Many also refuse to recognize the fundamental difference between capitalist and imperialist Russia of today as opposed to the old Soviet Union. They have lost sight of reality and abandoned the working class.
Putin and Trump join hands
On November 11, the US State Department issued a joint statement from Putin and Trump, who had just met in Vietnam. The statement made clear that their common goal was to defeat ISIS. They offered the fig leaf that there is no military solution and called for “free and fair elections”, without mentioning that Assad would remain in power until such elections. In these circumstances, any free elections are impossible. They call for a non-sectarian government in Syria, but the Assad dynasty has always been based on sectarianism.
While US and Russian imperialism share the common goal of opposing Islamic State in Syria, they are also rivals. As the war against the fundamentalists winds down, we may see an increased tendency for this rivalry to come to the fore.
The future of the revolution?
To summarise: what has taken place in Syria is…
* A revolutionary wave that swept the country, even to some extent establishing dual power;
* After that wave had stalled, a counter revolution in the form of attacks by Islamic State and the Assad regime;
* A major impact on the consciousness of the working class globally, both from the original revolutionary wave and the following counter-revolution;
From the outside, it’s unclear what remains of the original revolutionary wave there. Clearly, it’s been set back massively, but on several occasions, most recently in October of 2017, hundreds and even thousands of Syrians in rebel-held territory have come out on the street to protest against both Assad and the fundamentalists. Will Assad, Putin and Rouhani be able to stabilize the Assad dictatorship? Will a new revolt break out there, or possibly in some other country, including Iran? Only closer contact with those actually living and fighting there can answer these questions. Such contact is impossible if we give even the slightest hint of support to the Assad dictatorship.
The socialist position
Socialists should explain that the rise of religious fundamentalism in Syria is based on what is at least a partial defeat of the revolution there. This rise is part of a global process from India to the United States and beyond. Far from being a bulwark against such forces, Assad & Co. have contributed to them.
Any tendency to overlook the brutality of the Assad regime and of his sponsors – Putin, Rouhani and the Hezbollah – is a betrayal of socialism. Explaining this will not be easy, as in their confusion even such respected figures as Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, and John Pilger have overtly or covertly covered for Assad and company. Even Jeremy Corbyn has been far from clear on the issue.
Socialists should seek to link up with the Syrian revolutionaries, first and foremost to try to understand what has happened there. What, exactly, were the Local Coordinating Committees? What was their composition, what concrete role did they play and what, exactly, was their potential? Such a deeper understanding, which can only be gained by contact with those who built the LCC’s, will be impossible without complete and total opposition to Assad’s regime.
We should link such an educational campaign with a campaign for immigrant rights as well as a campaign on behalf of the political prisoners in Iran, Syria and in the region as a whole.
Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami
 For those who doubt it was Assad, read this analysis of the alternate explanations: https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/10/26/investigating-march-30-2017-sarin-attack-al-lataminah/
The total population of South Asia is about 1.749 billion. While it houses 22 per cent of the world’s population, the region has only 1.3% of the world’s income, and houses 60% of the poor.
The entire region of South Asia is in turmoil. There have been multiple military conflicts during the last decade, and any prospects of cooperation among the eight countries of the region are in shreds.
All the ingredients of the new liberal agenda are being implemented in all the South Asian countries, and the devastating results are no different than other countries of the world where this suicidal recipe of economic growth has failed miserably. Nearly a quarter-century after neo-liberal reforms were introduced in many South Asian countries, growing right-wing extremism is the new challenge faced today.
Reactionary developments in the rest of the world – Brexit, the refugee crisis, the Syrian war and its consequences, the growing incidents of religious terrorism in Europe and the USA – have also had a negative influence on relationships among the South Asian states. Right-wing ideology, Islamophobia, hostile xenophobic tendencies, and discriminatory and racist discourses are all re-emerging from some of the more “advanced” countries. This has adversely affected the political and economic development of the underdeveloped countries in the region.
The economic intervention from a “rising” China has also been a source of unease. The uneven relationship of China with some countries in the region has aggravated the situation. China is playing an emerging imperialist role in South Asia. Road and ports are the real target of investment by the Chinese bureaucracy. In Pakistan and Sri Lanka it has taken over already existing ports or built new ones. However, significant capitalist growth under Chinese investment seems a far-off dream.
The normalcy of relations that the countries have been working at for the best part of the last decade has come to a seeming halt. For example, state-level relations between India and Pakistan have been at their worst in recent times, as also between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and India and Bangladesh. There are several cases of counter-terrorism strategy, resource sharing, industrial and infrastructure development and trade that require bilateral and often multilateral cooperation. The minor trade relationship which was established among these nations over time is now at its lowest ebb, and visas to ordinary citizens of these countries have been revoked. In this context, a sense of “nationalism” that puts “nation first and foremost” has been strengthened in many countries in a way that goes against the grain of universality of experience, commonality of problems and the necessity of regional cooperation.
The idea that the market will correct imbalances through demand and supply has led to the gradual withdrawal of the state from publicly providing services like education and health. Depleting investment and state support has resulted in a crisis in agriculture, compromising food sovereignty and farmer’s livelihood. The growing informalisation of labour has added to the misery of the people.
The failure of the state in addressing popular discontents around basic social security concerns has strengthened fundamentalist ideas in all the South Asian countries, breeding an “us versus them” narrative. This is at the heart of violence and repression that minorities of all kinds are subjected to.
With the exception of Nepal, various forms of religious fundamentalism are finding considerable social and political support in all the countries of South Asia. The rise of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist religious fundamentalism has made the lives of the millions miserable and pushed them further to chronic poverty and ignorance. This is a dangerous feature in all the countries of the sub-continent apart from Nepal, resulting in such outrages as the communal slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat in 2001, the long civil war in Sri Lanka, the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, etc. It has emerged as one of the major challenges confronting the people of South Asia. The spread of fundamentalism has resulted in the lynchings of religious minorities, mass migration and terrorist attacks on a regular basis, both in Asia and Europe.
Religious fundamentalism is not just a phenomenon spread by individuals, groups, mosques, madrassas or clusters of these groups: they had the assistance of state powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, and have consolidated their grip on state structures. The aim of the Islamists is to continue the struggle for implementation of their political agenda until “judgment day”.
Islamic fundamentalism is a reactionary movement aimed at returning society to a centuries-old social set-up, defying all material and historical factors. It is an attempt to roll back the wheel of history. Fundamentalism finds its roots in the backwardness of society, social deprivation, a low level of consciousness, poverty, and ignorance. Religious fundamentalism is a new form of fascism which has carried out some of the worst atrocities. Suicidal attacks have become the norm. These fundamentalist groups have a political agenda – an Islamic world.
The persecution of Rohingya Muslims by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar (Burma) is another instance of violent fundamentalism. Thousands have migrated to Bangladesh in the most inhuman conditions in one of the world’s worst migration crises.
There is no short cut to end religious fundamentalism. It has to be a political fight with dramatic reforms in education, health and working realities throughout the South Asian countries. Starting from nationalization of the madrassas, socialist governments would have to provide free education, health, social security and transport as the only means to counter fundamentalism.
Despite the absence of a clear political leadership, the working class movement in the region has lived up to its best traditions. There have been repeated though sporadic movements of the working class against privatization and for labour rights, but these have largely been met with state repression, and for lack of a political strategy have tended to become dissipated.
In Nepal, the Communists won a landslide victory in elections in December 2017. This event was like a refreshing wave of cool air in the sweltering heat of the Indian subcontinent. The real challenge begins now. This victory has raised massive expectations. Reforms are on the agenda. However, reforms under capitalism can never be of permanent nature. The capitalist path is a road to distraction and could lead to disillusion and a loss of mass support.
Capitalism has failed miserably throughout the countries of South Asia.
The world’s big capitalists have for decades been greedily eyeing the massive internal markets of India as one desperately needed potential outlet for profitable investment. Huge reserves of capital are swilling around the world economy searching for a profitable niche; outlets are becoming exhausted. The emergence of the so-called BRICS economies seemed to offer a new route to profitable investment. Already, however, these expectations have sunk.
In India, the election of the free-market bandit Narendra Modi appeared to them a godsend. The draconic so-called “reforms” that started in 1991, involving privatisations and cuts in subsidies and protectionism, had stumbled to a halt; but world capitalism now salivated with hungry expectations of the prospects that might open up in an India under the rule of Modi, with his well-earned reputation for gangster ruthlessness.
For big business, the justification for the euphoria lay in Modi’s record as chief minister of the state of Gujarat between 2002 and 2010, when he presided over an average growth rate of 16.6% a year. The truth, however, is that Gujarat’s rapid growth actually pre-dated Modi by a whole decade: it had already been the fastest-growing of India’s fourteen major states between 1991 and 1998. Moreover, even during Modi’s tenure of office, Gujarat was not in fact India’s fastest-growing state: its record was exceeded by Uttarkhand and Sikkim.
Gujarat’s rapid rate of development was based mainly on Modi’s policy of sweeping away the few remaining vestiges of state regulation to attract foreign direct investment. Modi called his state the “global gateway to India”. But even by the measure of FDI inflows, Gujarat’s economy remained dwarfed by other traditional havens for foreign investment, such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.
Since coming to office, Modi’s policies have actually proved capricious and impulsive.
Last year, without warning, in what was called “the biggest path-breaking and the most radical changes in the FDI regime ever undertaken”, he suddenly opened up a dozen new industries to foreign direct investment (FDI). And yet the effects have been unspectacular. While India is “the most open economy in the world for FDI”, according to Modi, investors still complain that bureaucratic red tape and a miserable infrastructure put India 130th out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” rankings; that getting a permit to build a warehouse in Mumbai involves forty steps and costs more than 25% of its value, compared with less than 2% in the more streamlined countries; and that it takes 1,420 days, on average, to enforce a contract. And still today – after successive grandiose proclamations stretching over a quarter century of free-market liberalisation by successive prime ministers Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh, Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, India’s nationalised banks still hold 70% of banking assets (according to the Economist, “stuffed with bad loans”), and the state still owns insurance companies, an airline, a chain of hotels, and several industrial enterprises.
A more glaring example still of Modi’s unpredictably volatile performance came last year with his sudden announcement without warning that all Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes – 86% of all cash in circulation! – were to be demonetised overnight. This was proclaimed a strike against the proliferation of counterfeit notes (blamed, of course, on Pakistan) which was allegedly “fuelling the drug trade” and “funding terrorism”. Its real target was the untold circulation of “black money” still swilling around the economy.
However, while this measure hit the small-time cheats who still buy gold or expensive properties with suitcases stuffed with illicit cash, it left scot-free Modi’s billionaire friends who have always stashed their loot away in numbered foreign bank accounts, or who can afford to hire middlemen to deposit dodgy banknotes into their own accounts for a tip. Meanwhile it caused havoc to those too poor to have bank accounts: low-paid workers, small farmers, casual labourers, street traders, etc., who suddenly found themselves holding worthless scraps of paper. After all, informal wages represent just a tenth of those in the formal sector. India has just 49 million income-tax payers out of a population of 1.2 billion.
India and China are often bracketed together as the powerhouse of the world economy. However, this coupling is deceptive. Both countries offer huge reserves of cheap labour; but India cannot match the incomparably more developed and efficient infrastructure provided in China by decades of state investment and planning. The fact is that India’s economy is still only one-fifth the size of China’s, and falling fast behind it.
From a high point in 2010-11, when GDP rose by 9.3%, India’s growth rate slumped in just three years to 4.4% (though there was a slight jump in the last year) and inflation is running above 8%. Despite its huge reserves of cheap labour and its enthusiastic adoption of deregulation, the truth is that India with its rickety infrastructure and unstable administration is still an unattractive proposition for international investors. To take one aspect: half of all manufacturers suffer at least five hours of power cuts every week. In World Bank league tables, India ranks 60th in the world in terms of productivity and competitiveness (China is 29th), 134th for “ease of doing business”, and 179th for “suitability for inward investment”.
Information technology and business process outsourcing are among the fastest growing sectors of the economy, contributing 25% of the country’s total exports in 2007–08. The growth in the IT and software sector – and especially the proliferation of call centres – are largely attributable to the availability of a huge pool of cheap, skilled, English-speaking workers. What this amounts to, however, is that whereas Indians had in the past largely performed the menial services of cooks, housemaids and washerwomen for the British raj, globalisation and digitalisation had now elevated them to the world’s typists, receptionists and filing clerks. By 2009, seven Indian firms were listed among the top fifteen technology outsourcing companies in the world.
As for India’s manufacturing industry, it relies on a combination of cheap labour and new technology, with its textile industries especially dependent upon child labour, from the fields to the mills to the clothing and carpet workshops.
While accounting for only a quarter of India’s total population, India has a “middle-class” now estimated at 300 million, thus offering a perfectly viable domestic consumer market capable of sustaining the booming growth of recent years. However, the economic “miracle” still leaves a vast majority of peasants and urban poor destitute and living at subsistence level, with about 400 million people in India – one third of India’s population, and one-third also of the world’s total poor – barely surviving below the poverty line of $1.25 per day. Under capitalism it is inconceivable that India can avoid a descent into unimaginable want and despair. Every month, 1.1 million Indians join the labour market. Over the next decade, this will amount to more than 115 million young people, most of them still poorly educated.
Far from bringing prosperity to the people, India’s boom has been confined to a small affluent minority. On the contrary: there has been a substantial widening of the gap between rich and poor, dating from the demolition of price controls and subsidies along with the rest of the economic “reforms” dictated at gunpoint by the IMF and the World Bank in 1991.
It should always be remembered that before colonisation, in 1700 India’s share of world income had equalled that of all Europe combined, at almost a quarter. By the time it had emerged from the “civilising” benefits of British rule in 1947, India was among the very poorest countries in the world in terms of per capita income.
From independence in 1947 to the new economic turn in 1991, India’s economy had been based upon a high level of state ownership; protectionism; high tariff walls; import and exchange controls; import substitution; interventionist policies; a system of state rationing; and a dependence on favourable trade terms with the Soviet Union. There were even nominal “five-year plans”. At one point, income tax levels – which were always treated in practice as purely hypothetical – were fixed at a maximum of 97.5%. The inevitable outcome was cheating on a massive scale, smuggling, and a wholesale evasion of regulations, exchange controls and taxation – a carnival of rampant bureaucratism, corruption and inefficiency, in which the ruling class routinely violated the rules of its own administration.
The USSR had been India’s major trading partner, and its collapse in 1991, together with the spike in oil prices precipitated by the first Gulf War, created an immediate balance-of-payments crisis for India. Teetering on the brink of an outright overnight default on its loans, India was forced to beg the IMF for a $1.8 billion bailout. The price was instant de-regulation.
There followed a bonfire of state controls. Whether under the Congress governments of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, or the BJP government of Vajpayee, regulations and subsidies were demolished and India thrown wide open to penetration by the multinationals. An influx of hot money flowed into India, and for a few years it became one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. On the basis of purely abstract fantastical hypothetical projections, it was predicted that India could overtake France and Italy by 2020, Germany, UK and Russia by 2025 and Japan by 2035. It was even projected that India was on course to overtake the USA!
Under the patronage of the British raj, a narrowly-based indigenous capitalist class had already begun to take root in the decades prior to independence. Today such families as the Tatas, Birlas and Mittals are world-stage tycoons. But in the early period of independence, it had suited the Indian ruling class to shelter behind a political aristocracy posing as protector of the minorities; champion of the poor; secular, democratic and even “socialist”. The flimsy pretext for this was its dependence on nationalisation, protectionism, state subsidies, friendly relations with the USSR, and above all its need to secure a home market safe from the constant risk of communal disintegration and national fragmentation.
This was always largely a cynical and hollow facade, though, long abandoned in practice even by Congress. Congress was little more than the cynical political exploiter of the insecurities of the minorities. This can be seen in its true criminal record: the formal and legal institutionalising of caste rivalries in job reservations and the designation of “scheduled castes”; the dictatorial Emergency regime; the regular dismissal of opposition state governments; suppression of national revolts; tolerance of caste atrocities; periodic fostering of communal riots; brutal military repression in Kashmir; successive wars with Pakistan; explicit endorsement of the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, etc…
Narendra Modi’s political vehicle the Bharatiya Janata Party is an explicitly communal Hindu outfit, the political voice of a conglomerate of reactionary and sinister forces. These include the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Hindu communal movement which provoked conflict throughout India in 1992 by mobilising 150,000 rioters to storm the Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya; Shiv Sena, an overtly fascist party modelled on the Nazis and based in Maharashtra, which in early 1993 perpetrated a massacre of 3,000 Muslims in Mumbai in a pre-planned act of ethnic cleansing; and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a five-million strong paramilitary Hindu communal mass movement of which Modi is a lifelong member.
The RSS has five to six million members and over a million organised “volunteers” who hold regular public paramilitary drills. It was founded in 1925 as a conscious counter-weight to the growing influence of socialist ideas within India’s national liberation movement. It openly praised the ideology of Mussolini and Hitler and identified the Nazi holocaust as its model in its mission to destroy the Muslim community. (India has the second largest Muslim population in the world: more numerous than Pakistan or Bangladesh, and exceeded only by Indonesia.) In the words of one of the founders of the RSS, Golwalkar: “To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here.” It was an RSS member who assassinated Gandhi in 1948.
Modi’s electoral victory in 2014 aroused panic among the crores of India’s minorities and lower castes, and above all by India’s 176 million Muslims. There was ample justification for their alarm in the horror of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, which was orchestrated by Modi’s government. Up to 2,000 Muslim men, women and children were hacked, burned or bludgeoned to death in an orgy of communal rioting, and 200,000 made homeless, while the police stood aside. Modi’s considered response to this bloodbath was that he felt the same level of regret as he would “if a puppy had been run over by a car”.
For the BJP, a combination of communalism and neoliberalism is nothing new. The previous BJP government under Vajpayee (from 1998 to 2004) had presided over wholesale privatisation of state enterprises. Meanwhile, along with the VHP and RSS, BJP cadres had instigated the provocative destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya and the subsequent pogrom in Mumbai in 1993, prior to the Gujarat massacre.
However, the hands of India’s traditional ruling party Congress are hardly much cleaner. The IMF-imposed programme of privatisation and budget cuts was first introduced under the Congress administration of Narasimha Rao and further promoted under the world banker Manmohan Singh. Congress had meanwhile long abandoned in practice its always at best ambiguous and hypocritical secular stance. To take just one glaring example: in 1984 it was Congress politicians who had ordered the assault on the Golden Temple at Amritsar and then deliberately orchestrated the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in Delhi and throughout India.
There is a difference in the rhetoric of the two rival parties; but hardly nowadays a trace of difference in policy. The process of wholesale privatisation gained momentum under Congress and BJP governments alike. Similarly, the storming of the mosque at Ayodhya, the worst communal riots since 1947, and the pogrom in Mumbai all took place under the Congress government of Narasimha Rao.
In a society graphically polarised between a narrow plutocracy and the destitute masses, a class so manifestly parasitic as the Indian capitalist class has somehow to whip up an artificial mass base. Like every ruling class in its epoch of decay, ultimately its survival depends upon the magical power of myth. Today the symbol of homespun self-sufficiency represented on India’s flag by the spinning wheel is giving way to age-old epic Hindu mythology. True, riots and massacres are messy affairs that tend to get in the way of business. But such passions have a momentum of their own; they can’t be simply switched on and off. It is unfortunate that random eruptions of communal violence may sometimes destabilise order and discipline, but these are the political price paid by the ruling class to stay afloat.
Under capitalism, the population of India faces horror without end: the daily rape and slaughter of women; discrimination and pogroms against religious minorities; the degradation of lower castes and “untouchables”; the constant threat of communal violence, police brutality and victimisation.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its precursor the Communist Party of India have discredited themselves over decades of unprincipled political manoeuvring with the respective rival reactionary parties of the ruling class.
The workers in India are not defeated. In September2016, an estimated 180 million workers staged a one-day strike against privatisation – the biggest single strike in world history. If their heroic reserves of solidarity and militancy were only to be channelled into an independent political challenge, they could blaze a trail for the oppressed of the entire sub-continent.
For India, Pakistan and all the countries of the sub-continent, there can be no way forward out of the torture of poverty, repression and war until the birth of a new mass party ready to march, strike and mobilise the power of the workers from call centres to textile mills, the landless peasants and farm labourers, the women and the downtrodden, the exploited and unemployed of the shanty towns, linking arms across the entire sub-continent towards the goal of a socialist federation.
The mass parties
The question as to what attitude Marxists should adopt to the traditional mass parties of the working class is complex and multi-faceted. There is no single approach and no universal path of development. The situation varies depending on the particular country, the historical period and the ever-changing balance of class forces and political processes. The separate social democratic parties in each individual country have different traditions and different trajectories of policy and strategic development. Some of these parties such as the British Labour Party were built by the trade unions, with little emphasis at the time on specific policies. Others, such as the German SPD, were formed around a socialist policy platform and went on to gain influence within the unions. The French, Spanish and Italian Socialist Parties for many years competed with Communist Parties for influence amongst organised workers.
Political developments over the past century demonstrate that organised workers in many cases maintain an attachment to their own traditional organisations, especially those that have been forged in the heat of battle. Organisations that took decades to build are not discarded at a whim. On the other hand, some mass workers” parties, such as PASOK in Greece or the PCI and PSI in Italy, have been pushed off the stage. Declamations from on high do not create new forms of organisation. Social crises put all traditional organisations of the labour movement to the test. That is not to say that the present mass organisations are the best possible, or even the only, organisations capable of meeting the present needs of workers. But we cannot rely just on spontaneity or on vague expectations.
Most of these mass parties in Europe have been in government several times since the second world war, either alone or as the majority party in a coalition government. Spain, Austria, France, Sweden, Portugal and Germany have all had so-called socialist governments. The British Labour Party was elected to government eleven times since the 1920s. At the end of the 1990s so-called social democratic governments were in power in most Western European countries. In addition some of the old Communist Parties of Eastern Europe have transformed themselves into similar models and made electoral gains.
Yet today it is generally not alternative socialist parties that are dominating the political skyline but rather right-wing movements, such as in Austria, the Netherlands, Poland and Hungary. And on a global scale the emergence of reactionary nationalist movements under leaders such as Modi, Erdogan, Trump and the British Tory party provides further evidence of the failure of so-called socialist leaders to achieve lasting reforms or to present a real political alternative to austerity for workers and their families. The emergence of Macron from obscurity in France only confirms the complete bankruptcy of the old labour leaders and their continuing attachment to a policy of incremental change, switching with alacrity between advance and retreat i.e. reformism. The experience of governments that promised reforms in Brazil, Argentina, South Africa or Zambia is no different. In fact the New Zealand Labour government forty years ago was one of the first to lead the assault on nationalised industry.
Reform and revolution
The argument about reformism and revolution is not new, and for most of the peoples of the world the matter has still not been resolved. For more than a hundred years Marxists have debated this question which has its origins at the foundation of the socialist movement. Marx himself engaged in debates about social democracy in Germany. He opposed the opportunist followers of Lassalle and defended the Social Democratic Workers” Party of Wilhelm Liebknecht that was founded at Eisenach in 1869. In preparation for the Congress at Gotha in 1875, when the Lassalleans and Eisenachers came together in a single united Socialist Workers” Party of Germany, Marx published a critique of the Party programme. He also debated with the anarchist Bakunin in the First International about issues such the role of elections and campaigns for social reforms. In 1882 the Workers Party of France split into two parties, one led by Guesde and Lafargue representing the Marxist tendency, the other a petty-bourgeois reformist group opposed to revolutionary forms of struggle.
Rosa Luxemburg”s major work Reform or Revolution was first published in 1900 during the debate within the German SPD around the reformist tendency led by Eduard Bernstein. This controversy raged at the end of the 19th century. Lenin made a significant intervention in 1902 with his pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Defending the revolutionary traditions of social democracy, Lenin insisted that “social democracy” must not be allowed to “change from a party of social revolution into a democratic party of social reforms”. Reformists argued then that social reforms could lead to socialism in a piecemeal fashion. Their equivalents today don”t even put that case anymore, but have settled instead for the continuation of capitalism. Marxists within the social democratic parties at the time were not opposed to reforms but rather viewed the achievement of reforms as preparation for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. That is still the view of Marxists today. Capitalism cannot just be reformed out of existence.
The necessity for revolutionary forms of struggle and revolutionary parties was again sharply posed in the aftermath of World War One, where millions of workers had been encouraged by their leaders to engage in fratricidal slaughter in the interests of their national capitalist classes. The Second International was founded in 1889 at a congress in Paris, on the centenary of the storming of the Bastille. The new organisation of mass parties described itself as the heir of the International Workingmen”s Association, the First International. The large mass parties of the working class grew rapidly within the Second International: the German SPD, French SFIO, Italian PSI, British Labour Party, Norwegian DNA and other social democratic parties from a range of countries including Austria-Hungary and the United States.
But the outbreak of war in 1914 created havoc within the parties of the Second International. The major parties, such as in Germany, France and Britain, supported the war efforts of the separate capitalist interests. The Bolshevik Party opposed participation in the war, as did a number of smaller parties such as in Bulgaria and Serbia.
Following the war there were revolutionary developments in many countries. The Bolsheviks played a key role in this, and the October Revolution of 1917 continues to offer many insights and lessons for today. There were major splits within the parties of the Second International as the Communist International was formed in 1919. In the immediate postwar years a number of mass parties discussed whether to join the new Communist International. The executive of the Italian Socialist Party recommended affiliation to the new International, and a party congress supported that proposal with a large majority. A similar process took place in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Romania. The Spanish syndicalist trade union CGT voted for affiliation, as did the Norwegian Labour Party, and the French socialist party SFIO voted to affiliate by a three to one majority. In January 1920 the National Shop Stewards Movement in Britain also affiliated to the new revolutionary International.
But the argument about the difficulty of winning a majority of workers to a revolutionary perspective continued. At the Second Congress of the Communist International in August 1920, Lenin spoke in favour of the newly-formed British Communist Party affiliating to the British Labour Party. Lenin returned to the issue of how to win workers to a revolutionary perspective in his wide-ranging pamphlet Left-wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder, which he wrote in 1920. Lenin emphasised the necessity of fighting within the mass organisations in a systematic endeavour to win the advanced layers of workers to the principles of Marxism and the socialist transformation of society. He discussed the role that the newly-emerging Communist Parties in a number of countries should play in the mass socialist and labour parties in such countries as Britain, Germany and Italy.
This question again rose to prominence during the so-called “third period” in the late 1920s during Stalin”s vicious attacks on those parties that were not subject to domination by his Comintern. In the 1930s Trotsky wrote extensively about the importance of work inside the mass organisations when he discussed the tactic of “entrism” and later during the period of the emergence of Popular Front Governments in France and Spain. These Popular Fronts brought into sharp focus a series of betrayals by the right-wing leaderships of these parties. Trotsky in particular discussed methods of intervention by Marxists during the emerging splits in the British Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party during the 1930s.
Following the Second World War the United States made a major intervention in the European labour movement aimed at developing a right-wing leadership. At the end of the war a serious division in the international labour movement was fomented by American imperialism in an attempt to create a dichotomy between Stalinist parties and those other workers’ organisations that the bourgeoisie were happy to now describe as “social democratic”. It was then that the term “social democrat” was shorn of all its revolutionary traditions, so that today all manner of spivs and opportunists are happy to adopt the term. The model of such a managed capitalism was adopted wholesale by the leaders of a number of European socialist and labour parties in the 1950s. The revolutionary traditions of social democracy were abrogated in an attempt to create a false dichotomy and division within the labour movement. Fearing the advance of socialist upheaval across Europe, such as occurred following World War 1, capitalist propagandists in the late 1940s, financed largely by the CIA, presented European socialists with a false choice: Stalinism or a managed “mixed economy”. Stalinism colonised the revolutionary traditions of the socialist movement. In the colonial world revolutions were carried through in a distorted form in countries such as China, Cuba, Ethiopia and Syria. Reformists on the other hand colonised social democracy.
Political commentators now even speak of “social-democratic-type” policies being pursued by openly capitalist political parties. One might just as well refer to the Saint Vincent DePaul charity or some local housing agency as “social democratic”. The term has become completely twisted from its original revolutionary meaning, just as modern discourse speaks of “neo-liberalism”, an obscure and ill-defined term, rather than use its true name, capitalism.
Modern reformist politics has its origin in the years of rapid and sustained post-War economic growth that lasted from 1945 until 1975. During these years the notion was reinforced that the problems inherent in the capitalist system could be eliminated by the application of Keynesian economics and a clever use of labour market policies. This, the greatest boom in history, created a temporary basis for reformism and strengthened the influence of conservative labour leaders. Jobs were created in the public sector and some social inequalities were ameliorated through forms of redistribution of national income. A number of industries and finance houses were nationalised as assistance to productive capacity, but also in response to public demand.
Yet Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht called themselves social democrats. So too did the revolutionary founders of the socialist parties of France, Spain, Italy and other countries. The expression “bourgeois democracy” was originally understood as giving political power to the bourgeoisie; “social democracy” on the other hand originally meant power being won by the working class and society being transformed in their interest. Although his later career moved in a different trajectory, nevertheless even Kautsky in 1909 described the German SPD as a revolutionary party, and argued that with electoral victories for social democrats parliamentarianism would thus cease to be a tool of the ruling class. Leaders of Chartism in Britain spoke of their objective as being socialism and of the necessity to become “social democratic”. In her pamphlet The Mass Strike, Rosa Luxemburg wrote: “The social democrats are the most enlightened, the most class conscious, vanguard of the proletariat“. Lenin wrote of the working class as being “instinctively…..social democratic“.
During the rightward drift after World War 2 the German SPD abandoned its revolutionary traditions at its Bad Godesburg conference in 1959. European labour leaders of the modern period, from Brandt, Palme and Kreitsky to Blair and Hollande in more recent times, have stretched ever wider the boundaries for betrayal. In the early 1980s, even the pretence of reformism was jettisoned. Reduction of inflation and management of balance of payments became the new objectives of these reformist leaders. Austerity, financial deregulation and privatisation of public assets became the mechanisms.
The early reformists had believed that through reforms socialism would gradually be achieved. Today’s reformists no longer even seek reforms. They rather strive towards some amelioration of austerity at best, and at worst carry through some of the harshest attacks on social services and the public sector that were won through decades of struggle.
This shift to the right was principally driven by the United States. This process was most pronounced in the United States itself, where trade union leaders were co-opted by the CIA and the Democratic Party as defenders of the capitalist system, allocated the role of cooperating with management with the sole object of making industry more profitable.
The Bad Godesburg programme was mirrored in a number of other European socialist parties. In Germany, Scandinavia and Austria for example the aim of creating a socialist society was abandoned for what came to be called a “mixed economy”. The new paradigm involves collaboration between the leaders of labour and those of capital. But this process was never straightforward or universal. Significant battles to maintain broad socialist principles were fought within the socialist parties of France, Italy, Britain and Greece. Yet the attempt to hide from the class struggle could not prevent major class confrontations in a number of European countries and in the US. In Britain in 1959 the Labour Party was convulsed by the failed attempt of the right-wing leader Gaitskell to jettison Clause IV of the Party Constitution, and it was not until the end of the 1990s that Blair eventually succeeded in ridding the constitution of the clause that called for “public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. Similarly an attempt by the Wilson Government in 1969 to place legal shackles on the trade union movement was defeated by mass trade union opposition.
Material basis for reformism
There is no longer any material base for the belief that the problems of society can be resolved by piecemeal measures or programmes of public investment. The welfare state, so enamoured of reformist leaders, is now itself under constant pressure.
The policies that were advocated by Keynes in the period immediately following World War 2 are often looked upon by labour leaders as a panacea for the economic problems of capitalism. Keynes believed that by clever adjustment and with state support, the capitalist system could be made to function efficiently. For him, the major flaw in the functioning of capitalism was recurring unemployment; in terms of resource allocation capitalism did not pose any problems. Mass unemployment, he argued, created a basis for the appeal of socialism, or as he himself expressed it, made it easier for demagogues to win support. Keynes was not a socialist. Were governments to directly invest in socially desirable projects and supplement private investment, he argued, then full employment could be attained. In addition, the capitalist system could be stimulated by such a programme of public investment, because it in turn would create new jobs and thus more income and spending.
But the goal of private investors is not the economic welfare of the community; their only raison d’etre is private profit. Capitalists do not operate on the basis of the needs of the system as a whole; they are concerned only about generating profit in their own particular spheres. They will oppose any measure that they perceive to be damaging to their own particular interests. For example US banking associations opposed the Bretton Woods proposals in July 1944 because they saw such measures as ceding power to an outside body.
The defenders of Keynes seem to believe that money for public projects can be plucked out of the air. Taxes, and the spending generated by tax, is paid for either from the surplus value generated by labour engaged in production (profit) or from variable capital (wages). Ultimately the tendency of the rate of profit to decline, which is inherent in the capitalist system, leads to intermittent crises, and if wages fall then commodities remain unsold and surplus value is not returned to the capitalist – itself a further cause of crises.
Marxists are not opposed to Keynesian measures that would stimulate the economy. What needs to be explained is that pump-priming measures cannot resolve the problems inherent in the capitalist system itself. And further, by creating the illusion that hardship and austerity can be removed on a permanent basis from the capitalist system, reformists create conditions for the growth of disillusionment in politics and thus open the way to right-wing reaction.
The re-emergence of mass unemployment in the 1970s in a number of European countries, particularly amongst the youth, as well as rapidly-rising inflationary pressures, completely undermined the theoretical foundations of Keynesianism. Policies of state intervention began to decay. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s gave new confidence to capitalist propagandists in their sustained attack on socialism. Right-wing leaders made more and more concessions to big business and the banks, and as their policy platforms crumbled, these “social democratic” leaders found less and less room for manoeuvre. They moved further to the right, leaving in their wake confusion and disillusionment throughout the organised labour movement. Nostalgia for the welfare state is not a credible policy. Workers began to move away from their own mass parties as it became clear that reformist leaders were acting as disciplinarians for capitalism within the labour movement.
Yet the same dilemma remains: how can socialists influence the discussion about reformism and revolution which of necessity permeates every struggle? Reforms can still be won through struggle but the gains are not long-lasting. Whether it be wage rises or improved working conditions or improvements in social welfare, every step forward can be undermined in a myriad of ways. Every reform has to be fought for and defended. The fundamental problem lies in “reformism”, the belief that small gains can be won incrementally and then stacked up until capitalism itself is transformed into a humane system responsive to the needs of society.
But a programme to improve workers’ living standards is part of the campaign for a socialist transformation of society. Such a programme would include public works projects, public transport systems, the provision of decent housing, schools, hospitals, recreation areas and community buildings. These are not areas in which capitalists are interested, motivated as they are only by short-term profit. Clearly, a direct public labour and employment agency is central to carrying through such a programme.
The easy approach is to denounce the self-styled “social democrats” as traitors and their parties as vehicles for maintaining capitalism. Both statements ring true and have been reiterated throughout the past one hundred and fifty years. But in themselves they take us no nearer a resolution of the problem. When it comes to betrayals by labour leaders, the list would be perhaps the longest in all of historiography. The Second International brought its members into the slaughter of World War One. French labour leaders supported the war against the FLN in Algeria just as British labour leaders defended British colonial interests. The wave of privatisation that swept across Europe in the past four decades was often carried through by Labour and Social Democratic governments, together with cuts to public services and increasing austerity measures.
“Reformism” as a system has failed. One of the consequences of the long post-war boom is a deeply entrenched labour and trade union bureaucracy, which together, inside and outside parliament constitute a major obstacle to the advancement of socialism. How to diminish the influence of reformism and enhance the standing of Marxism is a question that just will not go away.
Yet such rightward shifts are not simple or straightforward. The growth of socialist consciousness within the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, or the temporary leftward shift within the French Socialist Party under Mitterrand during the 1980s, or the episodic emergence of socialist trends within other mass socialist parties, all illustrate that the battle to maintain the best revolutionary traditions of the labour movement is not readily abandoned by organised workers. There are several examples where workers have turned back to their traditional parties in periods of turmoil, transforming them into weapons of struggle. The Spanish Socialist Party in 1934, the British Labour Party in 1945 and the rapid emergence of PASOK in Greece in the 1980s all illustrate the necessity of avoiding dogmatism in any consideration of perspectives for mass parties of the left. PASOK was not itself a traditional mass party but its explosive growth in its early years reflected the association of its leadership with the struggles against the colonels’ dictatorship.
Of course Marxists cannot afford to have a fetish about these mass parties. The emergence of SYRIZA in Greece highlighted the abandonment of PASOK by workers in Greece. Similar processes in Italy, France or Ireland could open up avenues for the emergence of new mass parties. However it is also important to maintain a sense of perspective. SYRIZA has become the new PASOK. Non-revolutionary trends on the left come and go all the time: PODEMOS in Spain, Die Linke in Germany, Front de Gauche in France, Left Unity in Britain, the Socialist Labour Party in Ireland, Rifondazione in Italy, Bloco de Esquierda in Portugal. Every advance in socialist conscientiousness, however short-lived, has to be welcomed and work has to be directed towards building on these processes. But it essential not to indulge any illusions. There is no one easy answer. The same question persists. Arising from these developments, are we any closer to creating a mass socialist party that will lead organised workers towards the revolutionary transformation of society? It is almost eighty years since the founding conference of the Fourth International. But where now are the Trotskyist parties that emerged during that period? There have been Trotskyist MPs in France and Britain, in Peru and Sri Lanka, and there are eight in Ireland’s Parliament today. The election of Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, to Seattle City Council reflects the support that she won from labour and community activists and her involvement in the campaign for $15-per-hour minimum wage. But in term of electoral gains taken as a whole, is not all of that quite a poor return over such a long period?
For socialists the task ahead is not one of denunciation but rather one of patiently explaining the processes within society and the revolutionary alternative. An honest appraisal of the balance of class forces at home and internationally is essential in any discussion of perspectives. The objective is to win a majority of workers to a socialist viewpoint by bringing Marxist theory to bear on events. This can only happen through active intervention in workers’ struggles. Activity has to be maintained through periods of reaction as much as through periods of advance. There is an unrelenting battle of different tendencies in all the organisations of the labour movement, even those in decline. All the major reforms that have been carried through by social democratic parties are now being undermined, in many cases by the active participation of labour leaders. The contest of ideas centres on the limits of reformism and the expectations of workers and their families. The battle is not about terminology. But socialists should not surrender the term social democracy to those who have no affinity to social democracy.
Workers will continue to make use of the organisations that they have built in their efforts to find a resolution of their problems. But there is no variety of reformism that can resolve society’s problems. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters amongst the leadership of the British Labour Party have played a positive role in raising again the possibility of socialism in Britain. The capitalists in Britain and internationally are terrified at the prospect of a Labour victory under Corbyn at the next general election. Working people and the youth have become enlivened by the prospect. A similar process developed in the United States where Bernie Sanders continues to be the most popular public political figure, due to his opposition to the wealthy elite. A century ago the Socialist Party of America polled 6% nationally, had two representatives in Congress and hundreds of elected state and local representatives. However, Sanders squandered the opportunity of building a lasting socialist movement. At two key moments in his presidential campaign he rowed in behind the Democratic Party when an alternative perspective presented itself. In the early stages of his campaign his movement was split between those who argued that he should run as an independent candidate and those who thought that he should seek the Democratic Party nomination. He opted for the latter without any open, democratic discussion amongst his supporters. Later at the Democratic Party convention he threw his support enthusiastically behind Hilary Clinton even while his supporters were voicing their objections to the rigged selection procedure.
But Marxists cannot allow themselves to be swept along with the popular mood. Corbyn and McDonnell present a platform that, they say, would transform the state “in the interests of the many, not the few”. Socialism can be brought about, they argue, by increasing the Labour electoral vote. This was the argument advanced by Kautsky more than a hundred years. If that is all that is required, why then has socialism not already been achieved in many European countries? The capitalist state cannot be adapted to represent the interests of the working class. Yet nevertheless there now exists within the British Labour Party a climate where the discussion of alternative ideas and programmes allows for the growth of Marxist influence.
There are those on the left who attribute every defeat to betrayals by the workers’ leaders. Instead of examining their own effectiveness in creating an alternative focus for socialist leadership, they derive sustenance simply from condemnation of others.
It is through effective organisation that socialist ideas develop from the theoretical sphere and are put into practice. A so-called revolutionary party, or any other type of party that substitutes itself for the working class, severs itself from the idea put forward by Marx that working people must themselves achieve their own emancipation.
The necessary organisational forms through which the class struggle is expressed are not always obvious or clear-cut. After all, at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903, Trotsky opposed Lenin’s concept of the vanguard Party and sided with the Menshevik position. He did not join the Bolshevik Party until 1917. Similarly Rosa Luxemburg, a revolutionary Polish Social Democrat, disagreed with some of the measures of the Russian Bolshevik Party. It is worth noting that after the so-called “split” of 1903 the various protagonists remained as members of a single RSDLP, and Rosa still described herself as a “social democrat” even after the multivariate betrayals of Kautsky, Noske and Scheidemann during World War One and its immediate aftermath.
Trotsky expressed the view that the mass European Social Democratic Parties, particularly the German SPD, developed a certain inertia as they grew in strength over a long period. Their mode of organisation gave too much power to the central bodies, he claimed, thus inhibiting the capacity of the Party to be honed into effective weapons for intensifying class conflict. The German SPD and its associated trade unions owned a huge portfolio of property and employed an army of full-time officials, functionaries and bureaucrats of all kinds, making it difficult for its working-class membership to determine party policy and strategy. A somewhat similar process can be seen today within the British Labour Party as the mass membership strives to exercise control over its officials and transform it into an effective organisation for the advancement of socialism. The class can be to the left of the Party, and this may be as true of a revolutionary party as it is of a mass reformist party.
How the working class develops the consciousness to overthrow capitalism is the central question in this discussion. The level of consciousness in the working class is never uniform and does not move always in a single direction. What is clear to advanced layers of workers is not always clear to the general mass of workers.
A mass party representing the working class is but one weapon in the advancement towards socialism. Other forms of organisation outside the Party – trade union action, mobilisation of minorities or the fight for equality – cannot all be subservient to the parliamentary party. When the Russian working class rose in revolt in the early part of the last century, they were organised through the Soviets of Workers and Soldiers Deputies, but the leadership of the movement was in the hands of the Bolshevik Party, a mass democratic workers’ Party. By way of comparison, the revolutionary situations that developed in Spain in the mid-1930s were not seized upon by the POUM, or by the small Trotskyist movement in the country. Likewise in post-World War One Britain the Independent Labour Party and the newly-formed Communist Party threw away the opportunity of leading the increasingly combative British labour movement towards socialism. Perhaps the starkest demonstration in modern times of an abject failure of leadership was in France in May 1968, when the conjuncture of a popular workers’ uprising and a mobilised student population in tandem caused de Gaulle to flee the country in panic, only to be restored to power through the complicity of the Communist Party and the isolation and ineffectiveness of the small Trotskyist parties. Political leadership at critical historical junctures is as decisive a factor in victory or defeat as are the objective economic or social situations.
The process of transforming society is not just confined to an argument about party programmes. Nor does an increase in trade union militancy or mobilisation of communities by themselves supplant reformism with revolution. While it is real events that decide the direction of workers’ consciousness, the task of defeating right-wing leaders and replacing reformism with revolution requires consistent intervention, flexibility in tactics and clarity of programme and strategy. Separated from this context, discussion of socialist democracy is mere abstraction.
There are those who ignore the lessons of the past, or who believe so fervently in their own personal discovery of the failure of “social democracy” that they ignore history. Such people are doomed to wander forever around the seven concentric circles of Hell as depicted by Dante in his Inferno.
The Environmental Crisis.
‘Living in the Capitalocene’
The environmental harms of capitalism do not simply result from greed and lack of effective environmental regulation, or indifference, on the part of capital, though these undoubtedly exacerbate the situation. Environmental degradation and destruction through pollution of the atmosphere, oceans, fresh waters, and land, the disruption and destruction of ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, and the threats to species persistence posed by the current ongoing mass extinction event, are not incidental to the running of a globalised capitalist economy. Environmental destruction is inherent to the functioning of globalised capitalism. There can be no ‘Green’, ‘environmentally benign’ capitalism (the efforts of ‘Greens’ to bring this fantasy to fruition notwithstanding), just as there can be no ‘kinder, softer’ socially and economically benign capitalism: capitalism threatens the functioning of global ecosystems due to the nature and functioning of the system itself.
Recognition of this has led to the coining of the term ‘Capitalocene’ – juxtaposed to the widely accepted term ‘Anthropocene’ – coined to highlight the human origins of the latest and current ‘mass extinction’, and the dominance of human activity in defining a new geological era. Capitalism threatens the global ecosystem through harms of addition (industrial pollution, consumption related waste, carbon and other ‘greenhouse’ gas emissions from transport, energy generation, industrial production and intensive ‘industrialised’ agriculture), and withdrawal (extractive industries such as mining, logging and hydrocarbon extraction, both ‘conventional’ and extreme). Capitalism’s need for constant growth and expansion is inbuilt.
These processes of ecological withdrawal and addition disrupt and disorganise ecological systems at every level, from the local to the global. Much of the waste and pollution generated, and almost all the harmful environmental effects, are treated as ‘externalities’ – somebody else’s problem. For much of the history of capitalism, the consequences of this were not readily apparent but now, at the start of the 21st century, they cannot be ignored, despite being often denied.
Atmospheric pollution and global warming, due mainly to gross overuse of fossil fuels, has reached the stage where even professional government and corporate liars admit that a world catastrophe involving the destruction of whole countries and populations is now inevitable, unless overall emissions reduce by at least 80%, from 1990 levels. Yet capitalism’s drive to growth, and resultant demand for energy, is intensifying ‘unconventional’ or ‘extreme’ energy production (e.g. tar sands, hydraulic fracturing, coal seam gasification).
We are told we are about to run out of usable stocks of silver, indium, platinum, antimony, zinc and many more essential elements. As the ‘New Scientist’ puts it: “Virgin stocks of several metals appear inadequate to sustain the modern ‘developed world’ quality of life for all of Earth’s people under contemporary technology.” This has already led to wars in the Congo and to a new ‘scramble for Africa’ involving China and other imperialist powers.
Especially in the context of neoliberalism and it’s destruction of even the meagre environmental regulation developed in the latter half of the twentieth century, the consequences for ecosystem functioning, biodiversity, species survival, and the quality of ‘environmental goods and services’ (e.g. clean air and water, stable and fertile soils etc.) upon which human society relies, look increasingly dire. Global climate change presents a real and present threat to the lives and livelihoods of millions, and will increase to affect billions. It seems likely that several crucial ‘tipping points’ have already been passed which will now, whatever inadequate responses are cobbled together, inevitably result in significant sea level rise, and possibly irreversible changes in weather patterns and climate regimes. Projections for sea level rise by the end of the century continue to be revised upwards, with current estimates based on a 3o average temperature rise showing at least 275 million people worldwide living in coastal cities liable to be flooded (the impact is very uneven, with 4 in 5 of these people in Asia). Migration of climate belts and rainfall patterns will result in more severe and more frequent extreme weather events (such as droughts, and flooding) and disruption to food production. Forced migration of people resulting from the effects of climate change is with us now and, along with climate related conflict, is set to increase, even if carbon emissions could be reduced to zero immediately.
Coal powered the industrial revolution, and oil powered its ‘highest stage’: imperialism. Oil reserves are of course limited, and reaching the point where extraction becomes increasingly uneconomic. The ‘Peak Oil’ concept, often credited to oil geologist M. King Hubbert, who presented the idea as far back as 1956, is in essence a simple one – after reserves are discovered, extraction commences. Technologies for extraction improve and both supply and demand increase in ‘runaway’ exponential growth. However, oil is a finite reserve regionally and globally, so eventually there is a peak, in both the discovery of new reserves and economic and technical viability of extraction, and so extraction rate and total extraction peaks, then enters terminal decline. Based on consumption rates, reserves and technology available at the time, Hubbert accurately predicted the US would hit ‘peak oil’ in the 1970s – production has only exceeded these predictions significantly with the advent of unconventional technologies this century. Worldwide, the rate of discovery of new deposits peaked in the 1960s, falling in 2017 to the lowest level since the 1940s. Technologies for detection of deposits advanced more quickly than for economic extraction, so known reserves have still expanded. In its short reign, oil has been responsible for untold human misery: the key to world economic and military domination. Enmeshed with banking, the military, espionage and industry, it has been at the root of two world wars and innumerable ‘minor’ wars and imperialist escapades, inflation and economic collapse, right up to the present.
The constant drive of capitalism for increased production, economic globalisation and the rapid development of ‘emerging’ economies such as China and India, combined with renewed drives for ‘strategic energy self-sufficiency’ in the ‘global north’, have resulted in pressures to develop new ‘unconventional’ extraction technologies to exploit ever more marginal resources. ‘Extreme Energy’ describes resource exploitation increasingly on the margins of hitherto economic extraction – Tar Sands, Deep Water Drilling, Coalbed Methane and Shale Gas – to meet these increasing demands of economies for energy, and states for strategic energy security. In addition to the kilotons of additional greenhouse gasses generated by this increased production of fossil fuel better left in the ground, each of these technologies carry with them intensified direct environmental impacts. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the worst environmental disaster in US history for example, was no ‘accident’. In a drive to increase both production and revenue by merging the services responsible for regulating the safety of offshore drilling (US Geological Survey), and raking in the revenue generated by it (Bureau of Land management), thereby creating the hopelessly ineffective Minerals management Service, the US government paved the way. The criminal failure by the effectively unregulated BP and Transocean to implement safety measures and maintain equipment, all to save money while drilling at the very edge of technical capability, simply provided the immediate cause. The environmental degradation associated with Extreme Energy technologies and their associated infrastructure, has sparked global resistance, in Australia and the USA (notable recently, the DAPL protests at Standing Rock), Britain and across Europe. The response of capitalism has been criminalisation of environmental protest, and para-militarisation of its policing.
Steered by the massive wealth, power and political influence of the fossil fuel industry, global capitalism is taking a colossal and complacent gamble on developing sufficient renewable energy production to replace hydrocarbons, while still maximising profit from exploiting remaining fossil resources. Yet there is no shortage of alternatives to fossil fuels. Science journals regularly report new breakthroughs in carbon reduction or capture, alternative forms of electricity generation etc.: cars that run on compressed air or hydrogen, ultra-rapid charging and high storage batteries, sewage to fertiliser and ethanol fuel etc. Every day it becomes clearer that the problem does not lie in technology, but in the ability of the economic and social system to manage it. A massive worldwide infrastructure and a range of powerful global industries has crystallised around oil. Climate change and peak oil are beginning to suggest even to the capitalist class that such alternatives may be the only way they can survive and continue profiteering. The benefits to society of efficient modern public transport systems have never had serious consideration by the capitalist class and much information about their potential is ignored or suppressed. The question remains whether a system based on private profit is capable of handling an energy delivery programme where the interests of the whole of society and of future generations have to be the decisive factors, above private profit.
There are a plethora of studies which present global solutions to climate change based solely on combinations of proven or immediately developable technologies, and on actual practical business experience of countless small-scale (and some very large-scale) operations across the world. Apart from minor disagreements about the effectiveness of this or that particular solution, they are in broad agreement. For example, they confirm spectacular claims that with the use of existing modern CSP solar panels a mere 0.3% of the North African desert could supply all the energy needs of Africa, the Middle East and Europe. A cross-continental grid could store and carry this together with wind- and wave-generated electricity from Britain and Scandinavia across high voltage DC undersea cables. They agree on the viability and surprising effectiveness of thorough home-insulation and emission-neutral housing, on combined heat and power plants, electric vehicle development, carbon capture and storage, reforestation and anti-deforestation, cellulose ethanol fuels and much else.
From the end of 2004, renewable energy capacity grew globally at rates between 10% and 60%. Global investment in renewables (excluding hydro-electricity) accounted for 53% of all new power capacity in 2015, outstripping non-renewables for the first time. Renewable technologies are becoming cheaper with economies of scale and technical improvements. Also for the first time in 2015, investment in renewables was highest in ‘developing’ countries – mainly China, India and Brazil. Even under capitalism, barriers to 100% renewable energy generation are primarily political – the influence of the fossil fuel lobby and short term security considerations – rather than technical and economic. Increasingly, the ‘one million climate jobs’ campaign, based on the report produced by the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade union Group seems an eminently achievable, even minimalist, demand. The creation of a million jobs in the production of renewable energy technology and energy generation, increasing the energy efficiency of homes and public buildings, hugely expanding and improving the quality of cheap public transport and developing skills in these areas is a demand that Socialist should be taking up and expanding upon. Exceeding this minimal demand, and addressing realistically the needs of both energy production and demand, and of climate change reduction, will require, however, massive investment and planning. This in turn demands the (re)nationalisation, under new models of social ownership and control, involving worker and consumer democracy, of the energy generation and transport sectors, and a massive planned building and renovation program.
Capitalism could deliver these industrial, economic and technical reforms. In fact, they represent a central interest of a new layer of big eco-business. Sophisticated and detailed global cost-analyses have been commissioned. The business journal, McKinsey Quarterly, for example, in 2007 published “a cost-curve for greenhouse gas reduction” which lists many alternatives such as those above and provides assessments for which of these would provide net savings and which losses. If all were used to their fullest potential they calculated the cost, by 2030, as just 0.6% of world GDP ($54.62 trillion at 2007 estimates) and if less efficiently, no more than 1.4% – perhaps 1.8% for ‘rich countries’. For comparison, this represents the approximate worth of the world’s top 100 billionaires, or the cost to the USA of the Afghan and Iraq wars. The returns on investment, however, are not immediate or guaranteed, and the benefits tend to be spread among people too poor to create any effective demand, or extended to future generations only. The authors were also canny enough to recognise that a time-span of 21 years to take us to 2030 is perhaps too long for capitalism even to contemplate in its present degenerate state. So they suggest looking at such investment as a form of life insurance, comforting the ruling class with the thought that, after all, the global insurance industry’s turnover amounted to more: 3.3% of world GDP.
Even this, however, seems to be more than the system can take. The Stern report described climate change as “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen.” Some suggested a tax on carbon emissions, but no agreement on the rate to be charged could be achieved. Attempts to impose a universal rate failed as an impossible step towards an unthinkable world government. Hence, the well-known cap and trade schemes whereby high polluters can buy excess pollution-rights from those under the set limit. In 2006 this collapsed, since the market demand for carbon emissions had been over-estimated and the price plummeted! (However, ‘good’ news was announced the following year when CO2 emissions rose, allowing the market to climb back up from $10 billion to $30 billion). Rising emissions have created a flourishing global business in carbon offset trading, and new ‘carbon crimes’ in fraudulent trading and accounting.
Agriculture and Food
Food production is largely divorced from the human need for sustenance, and driven almost entirely by profit. Intensive agriculture and globalised agri-business dominate food production – four companies control 58% of all seed production, 62% of Agri-chemical production, 24% of fertiliser production, 53% of animal pharmaceuticals, 97% of poultry and 66% of pig genetic research. Across the food industry, six companies (including the four above) control 75% of all plant breeding research, 60% of the commercial seed market and 76% of global agrochemical sales.
There is enough food produced, and enough land available for agricultural production, to feed the world’s population, and feed it well. The problem is not one of food production, but of food distribution and availability. The food crisis is predominantly a problem of the market. As recently as 2005, the WHO was warning of the dangers of overproduction! It is the result of measures taken to reduce past surpluses such as the famous European ‘grain mountains’, to reduce subsidies and to open agribusiness to ‘free market forces’, to domination by supermarkets and by traders and speculators. The consequence is food surplus and massive waste in the rich developed world, and shortage and famine in the ‘mal-developed’ world. Industrialised, intensive agriculture has resulted overgrazing, deforestation, desertification, over-ploughing, over-reliance on petroleum-based fertilisers and pesticides – causing soil erosion and depletion. All of this is a boon to the speculators.
The only values capitalism recognises are monetary values. Measured by energy input and output, pre-capitalist farming methods yielded 10kcal for each 1kcal spent: present day over-mechanised agribusiness gives just 1kcal for each 10kal. In other words, in energy terms – in rational terms – it is 100 times less economic! Colin Tudge, made the same observations as Marx: “All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility.” (Capital Vol I). Some NGOs and the United Nations still talk in terms such as these: “Turning resource access into wealth requires good commercial models. The poor need assistance in commercializing their ecosystem assets. This means better marketing.” Yet more and more people are coming to the same conclusions as Marx: “The capitalist system works against a rational agriculture,” and that “a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (although the latter promotes technical improvements in agriculture), and needs either the hand of the small farmer living by his own labour or the control of associated producers.” (Capital, Vol III). Increase in agricultural productivity since WW2 has outstripped increases in productivity in every other area – but at the cost of the destruction of whole societies, the driving of millions from the land into poverty and precariousness on the edges of megacities in the mal-developed ex-colonial global south.
Tudge is not the only one to point out that “the economic system that is now so enthusiastically embraced by the world’s most powerful governments and corporates cannot work in the field of agriculture, which is where it matters most: and it would very bad indeed if it did work. Meanwhile the efforts to make it work are destroying what’s there.” He says that, to survive “we have to re-invent democracy, or rather to make it work almost for the first time in the history of civilisation.” Meanwhile “nothing except farming can even begin to employ….the majority of the human species,” (while even industrialised Britain continues to lose more than 1000 farmers a month!). Apart from the depredations of world agribusiness, a combination of high fuel prices, low farm gate prices, and soil depletion has forced many small farmers off the land, and 20% of US wheat farmers to turn to more productive no-till farming. Tudge’s “enlightened agriculture” would use the human resources at hand and combine the knowledge gathered over countless generations with continued efforts at enhancing soil productivity through scientific advances. Today’s scientific method is more holistic than the mechanistic science of the era of Imperialism: one that takes account of the dialectical interplay of existing natural processes and distant consequences. Within agronomy, such an approach can allow for many systems of arable, horticultural and pastoral agriculture – from large-scale wheat and rice fields to smaller varied forest horticulture and ‘permaculture’. Such diversity of systems could restore lost micronutrients and guarantee the diet of “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety” which corresponds to the nutritional needs humans acquired during their million-year evolution (and, as it happens, to the world’s great traditional cuisines!).
Meat production is a major contributor to global environmental degradation. Fossil fuel use in animal agriculture is vast, and meat production, particularly intensive indoor production such as that of poultry and pigs, is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas production. Pollution arising from animal waste is a common problem on land, of fresh waters, and coastal areas. High density mono-culture in ‘factory farm’ units, of poultry, pigs and cattle demands preventive use of pharmaceuticals and particularly of antibiotics if disease is not to rip through entire populations, as has been demonstrated with Swine fever and ‘Bird Flu’. Over use of antibiotics in animal agriculture has been the major contributor to the problem of antibiotic resistance, which is seriously imperilling the continued usefulness of antibiotics as a whole. Over consumption of meat, and particularly animal fats, is a driver of obesity and associated diseases and health disorders. This over intensification is as well only possible on the basis of massive compromise to animal welfare and the ethical treatment of animals in agriculture. The way a society views and treats animals, in agriculture as in daily life, is a fair indicator of the nature of that society. High on the ‘hit list’ of regulatory measures in the Tory government’s Repeal Bill was all of the regulation relating to animal welfare in agriculture. In particular, Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), stating that member States “ shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals” was removed, with Tory MPs whipped to vote against an amendment which would have incorporated an equivalent statement into UK law. In the UK, 80% of animal welfare legislation derived from the EU. How this will develop with Brexit remains unclear, but it seems likely that to enable trade deals with the US and other producers, restrictions on imports produced under lower animal welfare standards may well be lifted, although this would be at the risk of UK producers being undercut – another downward pressure on UK animal welfare standards.
Marxism has always looked at nature as a network of dynamic processes of which human life was a part. It arose partly in answer to Malthus’ gloomy calculations that food production could never catch up with population growth. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation’s predictions of population growth are often misquoted. They state specifically: “Perceptions of a continuing population explosion are false. In fact it is more than 30 years since the world passed its peak population growth rate.” They predict that world human population will grow and by 2050 or so stabilise at around nine billion.
‘Overpopulation’ is a relative term. There are ecological limits to the population a given area can support within a certain technology, however, from the Palaeolithic age onwards, the development of society is precisely defined by the new technologies it devises to modify such limits. The development of agriculture (the Neolithic ‘revolution’) brought with it a relative explosion in population. Urbanisation, industrialisation and developments in agricultural technology in the era of capitalism produced the explosion in population which we have seen particularly since the early 20th Century. Yet with developed economies, education, increasing likelihood of any individual reaching maturity, and particularly access for women to the means to control their own fertility, has come release from the drive for a high birth rate to compensate for high death rates. The birth rates among populations of developed economies tend naturally to stabilise at around the rate of replacement. High national birth rates are today a sign of poverty and mal-developed economies. ‘Over population’ is not a Malthusian absolute, but a symptom of capitalisms unequal distribution of the benefits of productive society. For a society to view new members as an additional burden is a sure sign of its degeneration and imminent collapse.
‘Sustainability’, ‘Democracy’ or Socialism?
Capitalism would not be the first society that had exhausted its resources, ruined its environment and moved on or perished. Under capitalism though, there is nowhere for humans to move on to.
“We must act quickly” the ‘experts’ say, “Can we afford to do what it takes?” they ask. “Can we afford not to?” they answer, using the ‘we’ word as though they not only accepted the need to ‘reinvent democracy’ but imagined that it had already been done! If they were prepared to follow the consequences of their own thoughts to their conclusion, they would ask themselves just who they mean by “we” ? Who it is that has to ‘act now’? In their various ways they have drafted rational plans for the drastic measures that have to be taken for the survival of civilisation. In doing so they are, more than they know, testing the system to its limits. The global market place has its own laws. Profit-maximisation is the life-force of capitalism. None of the measures governments have taken to rescue the system for the capitalists can be expected to take away their life-support. Already in 2004, 0.13% of the world’s population had gained control of 25% of the world’s financial assets. It is not reasonable to expect that any knowledge and science placed at the disposal of a class which only exists by force of the profits it can extract from others is ever going to be used in the interests of the remaining 99.87%, who for them cannot possibly be anything more than customers, rivals or workers.
A system founded on individual profit-maximisation was, in its time, the only conceivably effective motivating force to set up extraction and production industries, and create the worldwide infrastructures to accommodate them. This system not only transformed the world; it gave rise to a technology and science of transformation, which is not only part of education, but has become assimilated into our general human culture. There are more scientists alive today than there have been in the rest of human history. However, the system of private profiteering cannot complete the process. It cannot even secure human survival. To ask it now to clear up the mess it has left us all in – to start all over again and to implement humane and rational plans in the interests of the whole world – is asking it to do something it was never designed to do.
For there to be the slightest hope of avoiding a catastrophic global rise in temperature, will require a coordinated global energy plan on a scale never before seen, which crosses national boundaries and is applied consistently over a considerable period of time. This needs to be launched right now. Some steps have been taken, but the profits are too uncertain or too distant in time, or the outlay too gigantic; or else the level of international cooperation appears to be beyond the reach of nation states and world institutions which are themselves crystallisations of the worldwide onslaught of capitalism. At a time when companies cannot look beyond the next bail-out, any such grand plan looks unlikely. To succeed, the plan would have to be able to call upon the combined knowledge, initiative, skill, imagination and enthusiasm of the countless millions of people who have no material interest in profiteering and world despoliation: the working class. The capitalists, as a class, are no longer on the side of the future. They are now a threat to the future of humanity.
The great achievements of bourgeois science have been perverted into pseudo-science and outright superstition. Capitalism’s rationalisation of its catastrophic environmental consequences is that it is ‘our’ folly in over-consuming and over-reproducing which has brought the world to the brink of disaster, rather than the wastefulness, destructiveness and venality of the capitalists, and of capitalism itself. In its youth, bourgeois science took delight in the discovery of nature’s operating mechanisms. This was to be a tool of human liberation. How crabbed, shabby and mean the great age of reason has become now, in its senility! Capitalism is now fighting all that is progressive in modern dialectical and materialist science. The formerly somewhat remote warning “socialism or barbarism” – perhaps better said now as “socialism or barbarism and environmental destruction” is now closer to hand than ever.