The European Union



A critical juncture


The European Union is currently a major political issue, not just in European countries but across the world. The future of the EU has many implications in terms of living standards and working conditions. But there are also strong political forces on the right trying to gain traction amongst an increasingly disenchanted working population on the basis of their opposition to the EU. It is essential for Marxists and socialist activists to be principled and consistent in this volatile atmosphere.  It would constitute a serious error to underestimate the economic and political damage inherent in the Brexit process.


Today 510 million people live within the EU: 6% of the world”s population, which is more than the combined populations of the United States of America and Japan. The EU stretches from Helsinki to Lisbon and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. Together, the 28 countries of the EU represent the largest economy in the world, the biggest importer and exporter, the leading investor and recipient of foreign investment and the biggest aid donor. So the exit of Britain from the EU is no small question.


The EU is a product of political processes that span a period of more than sixty years. Article 2 of the Treaty of Rome in March 1957 set about establishing “a common market… and a harmonious development of economic activities” among the six countries involved – France, Italy, Belgium, Germany (West), Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Article 3 called for “the abolition… of obstacles to freedom of movement of persons, services and capital“. An earlier treaty agreed in Paris in 1951 merged the management of the coal and steel industries of these six countries to create the European Coal and Steel Community. Britain”s application in 1963 to join the Common Market, as the EU was then known, was rejected as a result of a French veto.


A series of treaties modified and developed the EU since its foundation: the Single European Act in 1986, the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, the Treaty of Nice in 2000 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007. A Court of Justice was established to ensure that member states abided by commitments in the treaties.


It is noteworthy that today’s champions of Brexit used to proclaim that because the EU had drifted from its original purpose as a Common Market – which they supported – and towards the creation of a “super state”, Britain was imperilled. Yet they now vehemently denounce the two components of the common market i.e. the customs union and the single market”.


Brexit is a reactionary movement in all its aspects. The leadership of the Brexit project are a combination of dangerous right-wing zealots from a bygone age: public school toffs like Rees-Mogg and Gove, failed aspiring Tory leaders like Davis and Duncan Smith, exhibitionists like Johnson, power-hungry thugs like Farage: forlorn has-beens of the British right.


The changing balance within the EU

The balance of forces within the countries of the EU has been changing since its foundation. Spain, Greece and Portugal were admitted in the 1980s, having spent decades under dictatorial rule. The structural funds that were allocated to these countries assisted them in the growth of their GNP. When Ireland – a country that since the creation of the Free State in 1922 had stagnated through mass emigration and underdevelopment – joined in 1973, it experienced a collapse in a number of its industries. Yet through the European Common Agricultural Policy and the Regional Fund and a policy of encouraging foreign investment, it experienced a general raising of living standards. Smaller countries were attracted towards the EU because of their increasing isolation in the face of the growing, globalised economic power of the multinationals.


A significant change in the composition of the EU occurred after 2003, when individual accession treaties were signed with a number of countries emerging from the Stalinist bloc: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia. The ruling elites of many of these countries were anxious to align themselves with NATO and the United States, to the extent that during the invasion of Iraq Donald Rumsfeld fondly referred to them collectively as “new Europe”. The balance of forces has thus shifted rightward for a period.


The EU had decided earlier to incorporate the Western European Union, a close ally of NATO, as a step towards building its military capabilities. Under the rules of the EU individual countries can opt out of any military actions; Denmark is the only EU country to have done so. But that does not alter the chosen current alignment of the EU in terms of global political and military activity. Recent calls by the EU for increased military spending under PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence) have set a target of 2% of GDP being devoted to military spending.


It is not alone in the area of defence that Europe’s right-wing leaders have asserted their will. The Fiscal Stability Treaty of 2009 placed obstacles in the way of governments wishing to rely on Keynesian-style budgets and borrowing in order to stimulate domestic economic activity.




The various component bodies of the EU – the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council – reflect the political position of the governments of the member countries.


Many key EU policies are right-wing because a majority of EU states have elected right-wing governments. The problems of the EU are the problems of the member states. Decisions by the ruling bodies of the EU need to be challenged in the individual countries. The European Parliament is directly elected by its citizens. Rather than cower in the shadows moaning about the right-ward shift in EU policies in the recent period, socialist activists should bring all EU decisions to centre stage in the member states and make the various national representatives on the EU governing bodies accountable.  The decision of the EU to humiliate Greece and its people in the negotiations with SYRIZA’s leaders was supported by the member states’ finance ministers.

The European Commission is composed of nominees of the various governments. The Commission has great power, as the executor of the EU budget and the originator of much legislation. But it is not a behemoth. It is in essence a type of civil service with a staff numbering something like that of a large local council in one of the member countries. In the often frenzied attack on the institutions of the EU, the Commission is sometimes singled out for particular opprobrium; yet it can be overthrown by a decision of the European Parliament. In 1999 the entire Commission was forced to resign following allegations of corruption and mismanagement.


The series of treaties that inform the corpus of EU law were agreed either by referendum or parliamentary decision within the member states. To that extent the EU is a site for conducting class struggle. In May 2005, the French people rejected an EU constitutional treaty. The following month the people of the Netherlands made a similar decision, and the treaty was dropped entirely. A referendum in Ireland in 2000 rejected the Nice treaty, which was then modified and subsequently adopted in a new referendum.


The EU is a construct of the capitalist system; how could it be otherwise? It was founded following agreement between capitalist states and encouraged by the USA. A number of European-American organisations came into being following World War Two, such as the Council of Europe, the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation and NATO. The European Economic Community emerged in that context. It is dominated by the interests of the banks and big business.


In order to facilitate free movement in commodities, services, labour and capital, and to prevent as far as possible any one capitalist enterprise from seeking unfair advantage over others, a series of international treaties was agreed. Over time the EU member states voluntarily surrendered aspects of their sovereignty in areas such as environmental protection, food safety, working conditions, agriculture, animal husbandry, consumer rights and health. EU laws in these areas have the same force as national laws in individual states. For example, the prohibition on discrimination, as set out in various EU directives, takes precedence over conflicting national law.


In addition, regional and structural funds were established to assist in such projects as vocational training and road and rail construction, particularly in the lesser developed countries.


Balance of class forces


The predominance of right-wing governments across Europe does not mean that all progressive measures at EU level are blocked off at source.


A Charter of Fundamental Rights was incorporated into the Treaty of Nice in 2000. A series of regulations, directives and decisions has been enacted by the EU – some beneficial to and others opposed to employees’ interests. That is no different from what happens in individual states. These questions are decided by the balance of forces in society, not by any legal or moral imperative.

Trade union pressure has led to the EU Commission taking action against “wage dumping”, which largely affects workers from Eastern Europe who are employed in areas such as construction and harvesting. In the past, these workers had been entitled only to the minimum wage in the host country, but now they are to be given the right to the same bonuses and allowances as “national” workers. This follows changes to the “posting of workers” directive. Fifty working-time related cases have been ruled on by the Court of Justice of the European Union since the Working Time Directive was adopted in 1993. Maximum weekly working time must not exceed forty eight hours on average, according to a directive in 2003. The directives also provide for rest breaks and rest periods.  A directive in 1997 established equal rights for part-time workers, and in 2008 equal treatment for temporary workers became the law. The Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that emergency workers fall within the scope of protection of the working-time directive. Equal treatment for men and women in employment became the law within in the EEC in 1976. Clearly, the European Union is a site for the contestation of class issues.


Although the EU is not designed to serve the interests of working people or the “ordinary consumer”, nevertheless, political pressure in 2016 led to the European Commission imposing a fine of nearly €3 billion on a lorry cartel involving Daimler, IVECO and VOLVO. Action is currently underway in the European Court of Justice against Apple Corporation over its failure to pay €13 billion owed in taxes. The giant multinational Volkswagen recently had to pay around $24bn in penalties and compensation over its manipulation of figures for diesel emissions following action taken by the European Union.


The Euro


The Euro was introduced following agreement on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. When it was established, there were no accompanying central funds that could be drawn upon to assist members. The banking systems remained national. There were no bail-out rules. Both Germany and France in 2003 broke the budget deficit rules that had been set by the Stability and Growth Pact, but neither country faced any sanction. The economic crisis of 2008 brought to the fore many of the contradictions of the capitalist system that had been building up. A bail-out fund was established, with the support of the International Monetary Fund and the so-called European Stability Mechanism. Bail-out measures involving austerity budgets and cuts in public sector spending were forced upon Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus. The approach of the leading bodies of the EU was to defend the assets of the big banks and finance houses at the expense of working families’ living standards.


Prior to the introduction of the Euro the EU had made a number of attempts to create currency stability, such as the Snake, the European Monetary System and the Exchange Rate Mechanism. For a variety of reasons, none fully succeeded. The Bretton Woods international monetary system had broken up in 1972. In a continuing endeavour to underpin the Single European Market and the free movement of capital, people, goods and services, the Euro was launched in 1999 and became fully operational in 2002. Despite the difficulties inherent in its structural base, the Euro remains the world’s second most-used currency and accounts for one quarter of the world’s foreign currency reserves. 340 million Europeans in nineteen member states use it on a daily basis. Clearly the use of the Euro greatly facilitates travel and trade.


Class Struggle


The serious forces that are now arraigned against the EU and calling for exit are of the far-right. Understandably, there is continuing criticism of EU policies coming from the left. But the drive for exit constitutes a uniformly reactionary, right-wing process. In Britain there is an attempt to regenerate a right-wing Tory party around xenophobia, racism and illusory imperial grandeur using Brexit as the rallying call. The Labour Party should take every opportunity to highlight the essential nature of this right-wing movement and to build up opposition around an internationalist alternative to Brexit and English nationalism.


Similarly in France, Marine Le Pen’s mobilisation of reactionary forces almost brought her and her Front National (now Rassemblement National) to the steps of the Elysee Palace. Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party in the Netherlands have a similar perspective. In Hungary the right is mobilising around an anti-EU campaign, as is the Alternativ fur Deutschland in Germany and the FPÖ of Austria. And Trump, along with Steve Bannon”s Breitbart and other racist and right-wing organisations within the US, have all openly opposed the EU.


The labour movement must do battle with these right-wing forces on the EU question. The outcome of the issue is not neutral. However, its approach has to be critical and based on class issues and demands. It is not the case that, just because it involves co-operation between a number of countries, the EU is in essence any more progressive than the countries considered separately. Politics is concrete. In football parlance, you play the team that faces you and not some imagined alternative.  Nor is the EU just a trade agreement like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)  or ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).


Socialist demands


The EU provides an opportunity for pursuing alternative socialist policies on an international scale. Trade unions and political parties within the EU operate in joint organisations across national boundaries. The primary requirement is to link policies that are being pursued within the EU with what is happening in the member countries. The EU will not be transformed into a socialist federation. But that does not mean that socialists should not pursue within the structures of the EU policies that serve the interests of workers and their families.


Disillusion with the EU is growing, and this facilitates the growth of right-wing forces. The failure of the trade union and socialist leaders to seriously confront austerity policies has significantly contributed to this process. Since the first direct election to the European Parliament in 1979, turnout has consistently fallen, so that in the last elections in 2014 only 42.6% of potential voters cast a ballot. Political disenchantment is always a token of danger.


The European Peoples’ Party, which brings together Merkel’s CDU, Hungary’s Fidesz, Spain’s Partido Popular and other conservative parties, is the largest political bloc in the European parliament. This was not always the case. For a long period the mass parties of the labour movement had a majority. Parties on the left must unite now around a programme of demands that represent the interests of working people. The self-styled Socialists and Democrats need to wake up from their long torpor and recognise their responsibility to their electors. Right-wing forces have to be confronted not just in the European Parliament but in national parliaments and in a European-wide movement on the streets also.


Trade unions throughout the EU should present a common programme and mobilise around that programme. The European Trade Union Confederation brings together trade unions from across the EU. The big employers are multinational and exploit divisions amongst workers along national lines. But just as the capitalists are united across national boundaries, so too should workers’ organisations be united.  Anything that weakens that unity should be resisted. Demands must be advanced for improvements in pay and working conditions, better health and safety provision, environmental protection, improved public services without cost at point of delivery, nationalisation of the banks and finance houses and publicly-owned industries run efficiently under workers’ control and management, and defence of migrant workers and minorities. Universal rates of pay and living standards for all workers in the EU should be fought for, and in particular a minimum living wage for all. Such an approach could combat the forced economic migration of workers who have to leave their own countries and families in order to secure a decent standard of living. This should form part of a Europe-wide campaign against the capitalist system, with the institutions of the EU the target as much as individual governments. Countries outside the EU should also be part of this campaign. There are 48 countries in Europe, 28 of which are in the EU (Britain has not yet left).


In addition to this action programme, the trade union and labour movement across Europe should also initiate a campaign to examine all the treaties of the EU with a view to creating conditions for a new treaty that would protect public services, expand public ownership of key industries and service provision, facilitate public control of banking and finance and expand educational and cultural provision on an equal basis for all. There is no legal provision within the EU that cannot be reversed. No European Treaty is set in stone. An international conference of the organisations of the European labour movement should be convened to examine this issue.


Instead of moaning and wailing about the evils of the EU, the left across Europe needs to unite in combat against the right-wing and conservative forces that dominate European institutions at the present time. The British labour movement cannot just wait passively to see what the Tories will throw up in terms of Brexit over the coming twelve months. The referendum of June 23rd 2016 resolved nothing. No vote is permanent. People change their minds when new information becomes available.


When the Tories present the final result of their negotiations, there must be a full public debate and a vote in Parliament and amongst the British people as to whether or not their package is acceptable. The response to Brexit has to be serious and creative, internationalist and socialist; it must be clearly infused with a class understanding of all the political issues involved, and present a clear socialist alternative programme before the British people, unlike the farcical plebiscite of two years ago.


The question is not whether the EU can be transformed into an organisation that represents workers’ interests. Clearly that is not possible, for the same reasons that the capitalist state cannot be transformed in that way. Nor can the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system be resolved through international cooperation between capitalist countries. This is an old debate that goes back over a hundred years. The issue of the European Union today presents an arena where the right-wing has to be confronted and defeated. Campaigns against the EU are led by the right; they foster nationalism and divisions amongst workers. Those left groups that also oppose the EU are largely unnoticed in the general melee.


In this critical climate, where jobs are being destroyed and living standards undermined, and where racism and xenophobia are securing roots, the organised labour movement has an opportunity to present an internationalist alternative: a Socialist Federation of Socialist States in Europe.






Its relationship with the world

The pre-eminent position of the USA as unrivalled global super-power is now threatened by the massive economic growth of China. All the strutting and fulminations of Trump have to be understood in this context.  The US has gradually been losing its capacity to pressurise and bully smaller nations at the same time as it has been losing its dominant economic position. The conflict between the USA and North Korea is a symptom of the changing balance of forces in the region. It reflects the declining capacity of the US to dominate.  Traditional “spheres of influence” are being challenged.  The rise of China mirrors the long -term decline of the USA. On present trends, China will eventually supersede the USA as the world’s dominant power.

relies on China for 90% of its international trade. The Chinese bureaucracy does not want a nuclear war, but it also does not intend to allow its neighbour to starve, because that would create massive unrest and instability, which in turn would pose a danger to the Chinese bureaucracy.

The Chinese military is modernising itself. China is staking out claims to more territorial waters with its construction of islands in the South China Sea, known to have significant oil reserves.

The USA has been unrivalled as the world’s “top dog” since the middle of the 20th Century.  One way or another, ultimately it will not let go of its position without war.

Economic growth

In stark contrast to other parts of the world economy, Chinese growth rates since the world financial crisis of 2008 have been phenomenal.  According to the World Bank, Chinese industrial production now exceeds the USA’s: it grew from 60% of the USA’s in 2007 to 121% by 2011. Chinese output continued to grow whilst that of the USA, Europe and Japan floundered at pre-2008 levels.

How did this happen? The Chinese economy is very different from the major capitalist economies of the rest of the world. The dominant sections of the economy are owned and controlled by the state, including all major banks.  This has facilitated the planning, finance and co-ordination of massive infrastructure projects to avert the threat of falling growth rates, which might otherwise have been the consequence of loss of exports due to the weaknesses of the world economy. The last five-year plan saw 100 million people supplied with low-cost housing by the state. This is not the paltry “pump priming” that some Western governments have resorted to when their economies stagnated. Every year public investment in China is around 16% of GDP, compared to levels of 3-4% in the USA and the UK.

From the early 1980s, the Chinese rulers began to look for ways of overcoming the weaknesses of a bureaucratically managed economy. They wanted to promote more sophisticated and innovative technology. By the 1990s, in an effort to avoid the sudden and total economic collapse that befell the former Soviet Union, the Stalinist bureaucrats of China tried to experiment with a gradual opening up of China to capitalism. They zigzagged, sometimes making more concessions to the market, sometimes clamping down on “excesses”. At a time of boom in the Western world, capitalism seemed to offer something.

Foreign firms have been encouraged to invest in Chinese free trade zones on China’s eastern seaboard. Here they have been able to take advantage of generous tax and customs concessions and a vast supply of cheap labour, denied trade union rights.

Chinese economic growth has been a key factor in propping up world capitalist markets since the financial crash of 2008. With a population of 1.4 billion, many of whose living standards have been rising, China has imported manufactured goods from Europe and raw materials from Latin America and Oceania. Chinese state-owned companies are engaged in projects in Argentina, Kenya, Pakistan and the UK. “One Belt One Road” is intended to expand China’s economic influence and create opportunities for China to obtain more natural resources and technology.

The scale of production in China has grown gigantically. There are factories employing literally hundreds of thousands. Foxconn, manufacturer of electrical equipment in Shenzhen, employs nearly a quarter of a million.

Thus China has been able to capture world markets with ever-increasing quantities of low-cost goods. In 1990 China produced less than 3% of global manufacturing by value; today it produces over a quarter, including 70% of the world’s mobile phones and 60% of its shoes.

Limitations of the turn towards capitalism

A few years ago all the world’s economic “experts” believed that China was quite quickly going to become fully capitalist. They were rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of such a huge market opening to unfettered global trade.

Even if a Stalinist economy can grow spectacularly for a while, in the long run without the creative intelligent involvement of the workers it runs up against problems. However, the bureaucrats are utterly blind to the idea of workers’ control because, of necessity, it would end the justification for their own existence as a privileged caste. How then to stem the intractable problem of bureaucratic mismanagement and corruption?  In the stifling atmosphere of a command economy and the suppression of democracy, how to modernise? How to promote initiative and invention? How to raise the quality of production?  The Chinese bureaucrats hoped that somehow, gradually, a leavening of capitalist investment would act as a stimulus to bring about innovation.

Yet today they can see what is happening to capitalism globally. Therefore they are wary about moving too quickly in that direction. They have no strong ideological commitment to retaining a state-owned economy; they do, however, want to retain their position as a privileged caste, and they fear being dragged into a spiral of bad debt along with global markets. In China, debt has increased dramatically since 2008, especially with a 75% increase in the shadow banking sector.

Fears of the regime

Thus Xi Jinping at the recent party congress has enshrined “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” into the constitution. At least for the moment the ruling bureaucrats are shelving plans for further moves towards capitalism. Equally, any hints that there might be a gradual move towards democracy, free elections or the ending of the one party state have been dropped. This is a sign of fear on the part of the regime.

All over the country there is cynicism and hatred towards government officials because of their greed and corruption, Already, even under the existing brutal dictatorship, some communities have become so angry and desperate that there have been protests, demonstrations and riots. The slightest hint of freedom would open up the floodgates of protest.

Hong Kong protest No political link intended

There is huge discontent amongst national minorities who regard rule from Beijing as remote and alien. There have been protests and calls for independence for Tibet and Xinjiang. Hundreds of thousands in Hong Kong , especially of young people, have demonstrated against interference in elections by Beijing.

Chinese family No political link intended.

Migrant workers within China are treated as second-class citizens in the areas to which they have moved to find work. Rural communities are outraged about land grabs by gangster property speculators, often connected with the government or military. In urban areas too, prime land and property has been stolen from locals. Many communities are angered by police brutality. There have been major riots as police have clashed with street traders in several parts of South China. Many communities have demonstrated to show their concerns about environmental pollution.

To stem the simmering protest movement, the upper layers of government around Xi Jinping have cracked down on a few high-profile corruption cases of local leaders and managers. But this only makes examples of a few, without removing the root cause: namely, the bureaucratic system itself. The bureaucracy is incapable of solving the problem. Only a political revolution leading to workers’ control and management of industry can free Chinese society from the dead hand of Stalinism.

Living standards

Living standards for some in China have risen impressively over the past generation. There has been an increase in the quantity and quality of food consumed. More and more people own phones and cars. Consumer goods and health care are available to wider sections of the population. It is not surprising that one poll showed as much as 77% of the population wanting China to be “protected from foreign influence”.  These are reasons why the current rulers may hope to be able to cling on to power.

Capitalist commentators expected that China’s new middle class would provide an ever-increasing market for consumer goods. Xi Jinping hopes they will provide an element of social stability. It is possible that if the economy continues to grow, the Xi Jinping regime will be able to keep a tight lid on the nascent social unrest and delay the inevitable revolution for a while.

However, with economic development there has also been an intensification of exploitation and a growing disparity between rich and poor.

The Gini index shows levels of social inequality rising to the same levels as the United States. In particular there is a yawning gap between rural and urban areas, inland and coastal. Even in urban areas, many workers find it hard to afford decent accommodation, suffer long commutes, and work long hours at below their level of skill.

Workers, young people and the middle class are questioning more and more and demanding democratic rights.

The working class

With the growth of China as a major world super-power, the Chinese working class enters the stage as the new driving force of the world revolution.

Over the last thirty years, as industry has developed, some 300 million people, mostly from rural areas, have made their way to the big industrial centres. It is the biggest migration in human history. They speak different languages and come from over 50 different nationalities and a variety of cultural backgrounds. They are mostly young. Many have left children behind with grandparents or neighbours. They often live in accommodation akin to barracks provided by the factories where they work. Many send money back from their wages to those they have left behind. Because of the pressures of competition on world markets their employers are continually trying to cut costs and keep wages down. Jobs are dangerous. Conditions are harsh. Managers are often brutal and abusive.

It comes as no surprise to Marxists that with such vast concentrations of industry, where workers are ruthlessly exploited and denied even the most elementary rights, and where huge profits are being made through their labour, there are strikes and militancy.

In 2015 and 2016 there was a massive strike wave across the whole country, but especially on the east coast where industry is concentrated. Literally tens of thousands of strikes took place, involving in total millions of workers. In desperation and fear, the factory owners made massive concessions. Many groups of workers won significant wage increases, in some cases of 50% or more. When workers go on strike in China it is not unusual for them to go into the workplace to ensure that no-one else does the job: in effect an occupation.

The tactic of the authorities has been to make concessions, and then, when the mass of workers are back at work, have the leaders arrested and put on trial. In some cases protest leaders have even been illegally “disappeared”. Nevertheless, despite all the horrific repression and intimidation they face, the confidence of the Chinese working class is growing. As strike leader Meng Han, recently released from prison, put it:

The workers own this country… Workers’ protests are rooted in a great injustice: for years the government has strived for economic growth and prosperity, but has completely ignored the workers who created that prosperity.

In response to rising wage levels some industries, already having outsourced jobs from the West to China, have now outsourced again, this time within Asia to countries where they hope the workers will be more docile. Thus the populations of Vietnam and Malaysia are becoming drawn into the world proletariat.

A significant feature of the most recent strikes in China is that social media have been used by organisers to extend action across companies whose operations are geographically spread across vast distances within China. Despite all the efforts of the Chinese regime to clamp down and control this movement, it is resourceful, young, intelligent, literate and determined to resist exploitation.

We cannot say anything about timescales for the Chinese revolution. However, implicit in the situation is the possibility, as in Poland in the summer of 1980, of a new independent trade union exploding onto the scene. Such a movement would immediately find itself in a life-or-death confrontation with the authorities. They have the guns, the working class has the numbers. There are more industrial workers in China than in the whole of Europe and North America put together. Very rapidly it would transform into a revolutionary movement.

The situation today is not the same as 1990, when global capitalism was growing enough to pressurise the new governments of Eastern Europe to privatise the economy in return for loans.

What a bloody and long way round the revolution has taken in China! The Chinese workers of the 21st century will rediscover the traditions of their parents who made a stand for democracy in Tiananmen Square, and their great-grandparents in 1927 who rose up in revolution against both foreign and Chinese exploiters.  A revolution in China today would have an incomparably stronger base from which to establish workers’ democracy. It would transform political consciousness across the world.





The mersey


The prospect of a new global recession haunts the British ruling class. Historically they have neglected productive investment. For generations they have underinvested compared to their rivals and the result is that Britain is now unable to compete on global markets. They relied on empire and global domination in the 19th Century. The expansion of world trade in the 20th Century helped them continue as a major global power.

Over the past 30 years the British economy has become one of the most de-regulated in the world.  This has allowed British capitalists to exploit cheap labour rather than invest as a means of boosting profits.  Where there has been investment, it has been speculative in real estate, rather than in improving productivity. Large UK companies prefer to give profits to their shareholders or hold them in tax havens abroad. Small and medium-sized businesses cannot get loans to invest.

As the British economy has de-industrialised over the past 30 years, it has become more and more dependent on banking and services. Investment in production, the life-blood of economic progress in capitalist terms, has been woefully neglected.

As a result, productivity of labour has flat lined since the global recession of 2008 and is 13% below the average for the G7 countries.

Marx explained that when any economic system reaches the point where it is no longer able to develop productive forces, it faces the prospect of revolution. Just as the seemingly unconquerable slave empires of the ancient world and then feudal monarchies of medieval times eventually came up against their own economic limits and were overthrown, a similar fate now stalks capitalism.

Teresa May is pleading with the leaders of British industry to do more to boost the confidence of the public in capitalism. For the first time in generations the British prime minister is warning that capitalism is under threat.  There could be no starker illustration of the nightmare the British ruling class is facing.

The pound is frequently under pressure because of uncertainties over Brexit, increasing the price of imports and thus cutting buying power. Yet despite the opportunity this should present to British industry to boost exports, Britain’s trade deficit with the rest of the world keeps widening.

Many jobs are in jeopardy due to Brexit. The Bank of England expects London to lose up to 75,000 jobs as a result of financial services moving elsewhere.

Brexit NHS busBrexit

From the point of view of Marxists, whether Britain remains in the EU or whether it leaves is not the fundamental question. This was always a distraction, reflecting attempts by the ruling class to whip up nationalism, xenophobia and the scapegoating of migrant workers.

The problem is capitalism. The EU is an institution of global capitalism. Britain without the EU represents a nostalgic hankering after the capitalism of a bygone era of Empire and Commonwealth. There are plenty of EU ministers who intend to humiliate Britain as they humiliated Greece.

The referendum was a massive blunder by David Cameron. For years there had been a deliberate whipping up of racism by sections of the media, leading to a big increase in votes for UKIP between 2011 and 2014 which the Conservatives saw as a threat to their own parliamentary careers.

The rise of UKIP and the issue of Brexit deflected debate about social justice into nationalistic channels. For Marxists, faced with a rising tide of nationalism, the question was which outcome would lead to less bad conditions for the advancement of socialist ideas? Young people were overwhelmingly against Brexit but less inclined to vote. The older generation, who felt betrayed by all establishment politicians including the Blairites, were more inclined to vote Brexit.

jo-coxWith the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a self-declared Nazi just days before the referendum, it should have been patently obvious to anyone on the left that a win for Brexit would be a boost to the far right. Racist persecution, including violence and murder, directly followed the Brexit victory. (

But the victory for Brexit also threw the British ruling class into disarray. They rely heavily on cheap migrant labour. 1.4 million Eastern European workers now live in the UK. Entire factories are staffed by migrant workers, with Polish being the main language on the shop floor in some workplaces.  The ruling class do not want to lose this supply of cheap labour. And they do not want to lose their trading links with EU countries. Current manufacturing systems require that some components cross the English Channel several times before a product is ready. Tariffs would decimate profits and customs checks would drastically reduce efficiency of trade, taking Europe back to a bygone era.

Change europeHowever, socialists reject the terms of the Brexit debate as they are posed by capitalist politicians.  Our task is to fight for workers’ rights and for a cleaner, greener world, whatever type of Brexit is negotiated. We support the free movement of people. The rights of workers from other countries working in the UK should be defended.   The free movement of money by the rich is not the same right as the freedom of working people to cross borders.

Political crisis

In the 19th century, when capitalism was still playing a progressive role, it was possible for the British ruling class to plan policies for years and even decades ahead.  It almost seemed as though everything their politicians did was right.

Today everything they do is wrong. Establishment politicians are out of touch, cocooned in Westminster and do not understand the mood of anger building up in the lowest depths of society.  Teresa May, following David Cameron, stumbles from one monumental blunder to another.

Leading politicians like Boris Johnson and Priti Patel make spectacular fools of themselves. Scandal and depravity are endemic in all parts of the establishment. Sexual abuse is everywhere including the church. Fiddling expenses, police corruption, phone tapping, theft of pension funds by billionaires, royal use of tax havens: we only see the tip of the iceberg. Almost daily, such outrageous news stories are not accidental nor are they purely moral questions. They are a reflection of the deep malaise of British capitalism.

Who knows how long Teresa May’s  government can cling on to power, propped up by the homophobic, misogynistic, anti-abortion, paramilitary sympathising, climate-change denying DUP?

Tory MP are falling out with one another as they begin to feel the discontent voiced by their constituents.  Universal credit is having an impact so cruel that even some Tory MPs, fearful of losing their seats in the next election, are forced by their constituents to speak out against it.

One of the first signs of an impending revolution is splits within the ruling class. The news agency Reuters has commented on relations among the top Tory hierarchy: “the upper reaches of the governing party are murderous”.

I danile blakeLiving standards

Living standards have flatlined since the global downturn of 2007-2008. For the poorest sections of the population, they have declined in real terms.  This is the longest and most significant period of impoverishment for the working class in Britain since the 1860s.

In the past, the British ruling class were able to hold on to power despite their cruelty: they may have sent children down the mines, forced workers to work a twelve or sixteen-hour day, neglected health and safety, let the unemployed starve, allow insanitary slums etc.; but they could justify the existence of their system because the productive forces were developing. It meant that progressively, over several generations, through trade union struggles, it was possible for the mass of the population to win improvements in their living standards. People were not wealthy, but they could at least hope that their children would be slightly better off than themselves. Thus, despite the horrors they inflicted, the ruling class were able to justify their rule.

Today the situation is different. The young people who are just leaving full-time education are much worse off than their parents and, if present trends continue, their children will be worse off than them. Such a disaster is unprecedented in the history of British capitalism.

Four million children live in poverty.  More than a million people are living off food banks.  Fewer homes are being built by this government than any since the 1920s. Students leave university with debts averaging £55,000. Public sector wages have been squeezed. Schools are starved of funds. Health services are stretched beyond breaking point.  According to The Independent, 120,000 deaths can be attributed to cuts implemented by the Tory government.

There is a profound burning anger at the injustices being perpetrated by the rich, the growing gap between rich and poor; a pent-up anger with no organisation through which

Grenfell fire fighters
Fire fighters line the  Silent march for Grenfell. photo Andrew Burgin

to express it.  Up until 2007 the ruling class were crowing; they thought they had the whole system firmly in their hands.  Now we see that, dialectically, this situation is far more dangerous for the ruling class than they could have possibly imagined.

Trades Unions

For thirty years after the defeat of the miners, we were told by editorial writers and learned sociologists that unions were “a thing of the past”.  Legislation was introduced to make it more difficult to organise strikes. Yet exploitation has continued and intensified, so it comes as no surprise to Marxists that there is a revival of union activity.

Public-sector unions have challenged the government’s attempt to cap wages. There has been a series of strikes in the railways to defend jobs and protect passenger safety. Post office workers have threatened action against privatisation. Over the summer of 2017 Birmingham bin workers struck to defend jobs and services. There has been a series of strikes by workers defending their pensions.

Furthermore, the “precariat” have begun to organise. Workers never previously organised, in industries difficult to organise, such as McDonald’s, have been on the picket line.

University staff and junior doctors have struck. In the past, many of these highly skilled workers would have considered themselves “middle class” and not identified with union methods of struggle.

Class consciousness may have dwindled with the collapse of the miners’ strike in 1985. Numbers in industrial unions with their traditions of militancy may have declined due to the de-industrialisation of the economy over the past 30 years.  But this is only half the picture.

There is a degree of scepticism on the part of workers towards trade unions. The trade union leaders have not always inspired confidence.  In 2011 there was a very significant trade union battle, involving health service workers, education staff and civil servants. A united front was developing of several big public sector trade unions in opposition to cuts, pushed by shop stewards and union activists at grass roots level and developed strategically by some unions with a left leadership such as the PCS. By the end of the year it was beginning to show the capacity to organise a general strike.  Hundreds of thousands of workers never involved in industrial action before, across all public services, picketed, demonstrated and felt their potential and their power as a class. But this movement was broken because one big union, UNISON, brokered a separate deal, letting the government off the hook. This resulted in the united front breaking down, with an inevitable dampening of the mood.

Temporarily blocked in trade union struggle, the class struggle develops along unforeseen lines. There is a degree of political maturity in the hesitation of some workers towards union action. Under such a reactionary government, surely any trade union action has to be prepared with the utmost recognition of what is at stake? This requires political awareness and a political alternative.

Diane Abbott at Grenfel anniversary
Diane Abbott MP on Silent March for Grenfell. Photo Andrew Burgin



The Labour Party

There is a new mood in Britain – a whiff of revolution in the air.  What has changed? Far away from London journalists and Westminster politicians, over several years a massive accumulation of anger had been building up on the estates and in the workplaces. At first the Blairites who headed the Labour Party were oblivious to this mood.


Young people’s frustration at their lack of hope erupted spectacularly, initially in 2010 in the form of student demonstrations following the betrayal of the Liberal Democrats’ promises over student loans, and later in 2011 in a forest fire of youth riots throughout Britain.


If any single event has given scope for the downtrodden to feel any hope, it was the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party. This followed a series of miscalculations by the New Labour parliamentary aristocracy cocooned in its parliamentary bubble, who were blissfully oblivious to the growing mood of rage within the working class. There has not been such ferment in Britain since the mass revolt against the hated poll tax in 1990, which led directly to the abolition of the tax and the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Discontent over indebtedness, job insecurity, rising prices, falling incomes, housing shortages have all been burning beneath the surface for decades. There is a complicated combination of moods, as literally hundreds of thousands of politically inexperienced working-class people and students have started to take an interest in politics.


An ad hoc grassroots organisation sprang up to support Corbyn in the course of two successive Labour leadership elections. Though led by a reformist leadership alarmed by the implications of mobilising what in its eyes could prove a dangerous mass movement, it has nevertheless played some role in organising and giving some expression to the hopes of this new generation. All the organisations involved in the emergence of a new movement on the left will change. As the movement matures they will keep re-inventing themselves.


The movement is brand new, naïve, untainted with the habits and preconceptions of the past.


The foundation for the reformism of the twentieth century has gone: the traditional loyalty to the social-democratic outlook of past Labour leaders, earned as a result of the real reforms introduced by past Labour governments which nationalised basic industries and established the National Health Service. Genuine reforms can only be wrested from the ruling class within a capitalist society which is prospering. The new generation of activists has grown up under the shadow of austerity and have never known a government implementing meaningful reforms. What reforms can they expect from a future Corbyn government? The most they will see is an attempt to begin reversing austerity – only to be met, as in Greece in 2015, with colossal pressure from the banks and big business. We can expect a run on the pound, a flight of capital possibly leading to spiralling inflation. Will the working class passively accept that Labour abandon its programme? Of course the Blairite politicians will advocate this; but they have been implementing not reforms but austerity for the last twenty years. The prevailing mood today is neither reformist nor explicitly revolutionary. It is one of undifferentiated anger at the establishment. This new movement has huge expectations of Corbyn. There will be dozens or even hundreds of oscillations as a new generation of workers tests out its leaders: bolder swings to the left, temporary defeats and reassertions of reaction. It is entirely possible that, as this movement gains experience, a growing section of politically aware workers and young people can move directly to revolutionary initiatives.


The only chance any left government has of defending its election promises would be to move immediately to take economic power out of the hands of the rich: to bring banking and finance into public ownership and take back ownership of the utilities, public transport, the recently privatised health and care services. Any section of the economy powerful enough to be used to blackmail a left government must be owned and run democratically by the working class. Such steps, combined with workers’ control and management of workplaces would provide the political and economic foundation for a government of the working people. It would then be possible to create millions of secure skilled jobs: the building of millions of homes; the development of low carbon energy; the expansion and full staffing of health services, social care and education.


A clip has been circulating on social media, showing a black person of about 30 speaking to a BBC journalist outside Grenfell Tower a couple of days after the fire. He is obviously not in any political organisation and he has a crowd around him. They are cheering and supporting him, so he is not just an isolated individual. The BBC journalist asks him: “So what do you want to happen now?He replies:


What do I want to happen? I want there to be a revolution in this country. Fuck the media. Fuck the mainstream. If it had been any other country there would have been a revolution by now. People need a revolution in this country. We have seen how you, the mainstream media, have reacted. For two years you have hounded and demonized Jeremy Corbyn. Said he was unelectable. And you created that narrative and people actually believed your bullshit for a while. But what this election has done it has shown that people are immune to that shit there. That is a vote of confidence, not in terms of Jeremy Corbyn but it dismisses May and it also stands up to you as the mainstream media.


The Grenfell Tower scandal reminded the ruling class just how dangerous the situation is for them. We are living in a brand new situation. We have to be prepared for huge movements that subvert the paradigms previous generations of Marxists developed. We cannot be categorical with perspectives.  There are clearly many conflicting moods within the working class. During the June 2017 election campaign, in some of the most deprived areas the most downtrodden people – people who had never uttered a single word about politics in their life – dared to start hoping that a more equal society might be possible. They were talking politics for the first time. There is a huge, profound change taking place at the very bottom of British society, posing huge dangers to the ruling class.


In France in 1968 ten million workers who had previously never been involved in politics – not members of any political party – within the space of two weeks threw the factory owners out of the factories, set up soviets, and began to organise distribution of food and to control prices. President de Gaulle fled the country. And what was it that diverted this movement back on to the road of parliamentary elections? It was the Communist Party.

We have to be ready for similar sudden explosions anywhere, including Britain.








On the Brink

red clouds.jpgON THE BRINK

World Perspectives 2018

In the age of globalisation more than ever, national horizons have been superseded by world perspectives. News is relayed instantaneously in real time via television news channels, the internet and mobile phone technology. Trading in shares, stocks, currencies and futures is conducted internationally in milliseconds. Capitalism is striving to transcend the barriers of the nation state through trade agreements like the EU, NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, etc.

It is now a decade since the economic catastrophe of 2008. Still today there is only sluggish growth. Despite quantitative easing amounting to $3.7 trillion in the USA and the equivalent of $640 billion in Britain, there is still a lack of productive investment, due to the fall in the rate of profit. Instead, a huge ballast of loose cash is sloshing around, salted away in land, property, art works and an orgy of predatory asset-stripping. The accumulated shortfall in the rise of world output, set against projections from the preceding growth rate, has been calculated at 8.4% – equivalent to the disappearance of the entire German economy.

Once a new recession comes, with interest rates already at little more than zero there are few options left to prop up the economy.

That is why the capitalists are bracing themselves for unpredictable political consequences. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence notesshocks like the Arab spring, the global financial crisis, and the global rise of populist anti-establishment politicsand predictsdeep shifts in the political landscape that portend a dark and difficult near future.

In the period up to 30 years ago, many observers thought that there was a “race between the social revolution in the West and the political revolution in the East”. There was a deepening dual crisis of capitalism and of Stalinism. Since then, two almighty cataclysms have shaken the planet: first, in 1989-91, the collapse of Stalinism, and then in 2008 the capitalist crisis, which has plunged the world into turmoil ever since.

That these events unfolded as they did is no accident. But just imagine if the order had been reversed! Is it conceivable that the uprisings in the East could possibly have led to a restoration of capitalism, in the context of a world economic crisis? And conversely, might workers’ uprisings for socialist democracy in the East not have fanned the fading embers of socialist traditions in the West?

Clear perspectives are crucial in mapping out a strategy, in this case anticipating the paroxysms of crisis that were about to bring to an end four decades of relative stability. And yet, as Lenin liked to quote from Goethe, “theory is grey but the tree of life is green“. It failed to warn and prepare us for crucial surprises and detours that posed unexpected new questions.


Today in most countries we are witnessing a sharp political polarisation: an eclipse of the postwar liberal settlement in developed countries; a hollowing out of the “centre” and the decline of traditional parties throughout Europe and beyond. There is no traditional party inherited from the preceding postwar liberal era, left or right, which is not today in crisis or terminal decline. The age of the liberal consensus has gone. Right-wing demagogues, populist and openly racist parties are gaining ground fast, while traditional or established workers’ parties like the French Socialist Party, PSOE and PASOK have been bypassed and outflanked. Hardly fragments survive today of the Italian Communist Party, which used to be the biggest in Europe outside the Stalinist bloc, with millions of supporters.

Other signs of this process of polarisation are the mortal challenges to the dying establishments of both Republican and Democrat parties in the USA by Trump and Sanders respectively; the eclipse of the alternative traditional bourgeois parties in France by le Pen and Macron; the loss of its majority by the CDU in Germany; separatist surges in Scotland, Catalonia and Italy; the rise of racist parties in the Netherlands, France, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Belgium,  Finland, Sweden and Greece, and of regimes peddling covertly coded anti-Semitism throughout central Europe; the collapse of left governments throughout Latin America; the rise of butchers like Modi in India, Dutarte in the Philippines, and the authoritarian Erdogan regime in Turkey… every one of them still nominally democratic parliamentary regimes.

Britain is only superficially an apparent exception, due to its peculiar electoral system. After an initial shrinkage of both traditional parties and the rise of eccentric alternatives (briefly the LibDems, SNP, UKIP, the Greens), what looks superficially like a dramatic reversion to the main parties has actually disguised a similar polarisation, in that the Tory Party has been in effect taken over by UKIP, while the Labour Party is becoming transformed by the influx of hundreds of thousands of previously alienated new or returning members who have now joined or rejoined it, staking out the ground for an impending split by the discredited remnants of the Blairite “centre”. There’s also of course in Britain a highly virulent British version of separatism: Brexit.

farooq's photo of womenIn the former colonial world, too, those previously unassailable dynastic parties of the post-colonial era which had previously basked in the glory of the liberation struggle for independence and democratic rights – parties like Congress in India, ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe and increasingly the ANC in South Africa – are now paying a heavy price for decades of corruption and moral decay.

Why are the old loyalties loosening? Because the social bases of both the ruling capitalist parties and the traditional workers’ parties are also crumbling. The rise of supra-national giant monopolies has left the old national conservative parties stranded and dependent upon an abandoned and disgruntled traditional electoral base, while the discredited former leaders of established workers’ parties, that due to their legacy of real historic past reforms had won the loyalty of previous generations, no longer have any promises to offer.

Marxists used to insist quite rightly on the “iron law” that workers would always and inevitably return to their traditional organisations. That was a necessary and healthy corrective to the frivolous sectarianism of the ultra-left fringe elements. And yet even in those days, as with all iron laws there were exceptions. For instance, they had always had difficulty explaining the emergence of PASOK in Greece – a new party arising seemingly from nowhere. Forty years later, that too collapsed, to be replaced out of the blue by SYRIZA.

solidarity of labourWhat is the explanation? Does it invalidate the fundamental laws of proletarian solidarity and cohesion? No, it reflected the special physiognomy of the Greek working class, 80% of whom are either unemployed, self-employed, or scattered in small workshops.

But so too has the industrial base of the working class now been eroded throughout most of the old “industrial” countries, where there has been a “Greekification” of the proletariat, bringing a new element of volatility. In Britain, the old concentrated industrial communities have been largely liquidated in the new age of deindustrialisation, the gig economy and zero-hour contracts.

direct action 2.jpgMany left activists have been thrown into confusion, sectarianism and opportunism, ending up on the wrong side of events: celebrating the wave of xenophobia represented by the Brexit referendum and finding themselves at a complete loss how to react to the Corbyn surge and the influx of hundreds of thousands into the Labour Party. Rather than the euphoric line from Wordsworth quoted by one of their former leading members – “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven“, a more appropriate description was offered by Yeats: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…” This was the preamble to his horrifying vision of the “rough beast” of fascism “slouching” with “a pitiless gaze” through the desert waste. The decisive conflict is yet to come.


For all their limitations, we always tend to look for parallels and historical templates. The depth of today’s crisis brings to mind irresistibly the 1930s: sudden shocks, mass poverty, abortive workers’ strikes and protests, the melting of old political allegiances, splits and spurts of new parties and sudden realignments in the workers’ movement, the shocking reappearance of old spectres of long-buried reactionary nationalist dreams, a resurgence of fascist movements…

Acorn.jpgIn case this sounds unduly fatalistic, let’s not forget that there is also another side of the picture: huge and in some cases unprecedented manifestations of workers’ resistance. In country after country governments have been overthrown by mass uprisings. November 2014 saw the first ever general strike which transcended national barriers, throughout southern Europe. In 2017 alone about 200 million workers in India participated in the biggest general strike in world history! Also last year, 35 million workers in Brazil staged the biggest general strike in Latin America in living memory… And in April 2018 there was a general strike in South Africa. And that’s before we come to the massive strike wave in China (see below).

It is only in retrospect that historical epochs can be neatly classified. The First World War ended in revolutions throughout Europe, retying the knot with the pre-war years of radicalisation. Armies mutinied, monarchies were toppled, and in Russia and even beyond, Soviets took power. And yet in August 1917 it was only by the will of the Bolsheviks that a terrible defeat was avoided at the hands of General Kornilov. Fascism would have acquired a Russian rather than an Italian name. Conversely, the 1930s witnessed crushing defeats throughout Europe… and yet the workers of Barcelona came within an inch of power.

Even at this preliminary stage, in Britain we are witnessing paradoxical swings and lurches to left and right: since the crash in Britain, student demos, a wave of youth riots, an unpredicted Tory victory, the shock of the Brexit referendum, the completely unforeseen Corbyn surge, the sudden calling of a new election and the unexpected loss of the Tory majority…

.well burrowedAll we can say with certainty is that a new era has started. After decades of relative stagnation, history is catching up with a vengeance. Marx once quoted Hamlet: “well burrowed, old mole“, likening revolution to the mole which burrows deep for decades before unexpectedly poking its nose through and breaking the surface of the earth. Processes develop over decades before erupting in sudden crisis. What are the underlying historic tensions that have now blasted to the surface? (pictureFrom Control of Field Rodents in California (1949). via Wikimedia Commons)

There is no longer a neat tripartite division of the world into a stable equilibrium of separate mutually balanced sectors: advanced capitalism, Stalinism and the Third World. We are all finding ourselves sucked ever more rapidly into a common vortex of crisis and horror.

Albeit in a hideously distorted form, the Stalinist states in their day had demonstrated the potential for a society freed from the dictates of the market and private profit. The downfall of the USSR and its satellites, for all their decay, monstrous corruption and stagnation, still dealt a blow to the morale of the labour movement; while the removal of an alternative power bloc to imperialism, which had previously allowed them a certain scope to play off rival power blocs, meant a material and political defeat for resistance movements in the colonial world. All that is left is the wreckage of the Soviet legacy.

Other factors too have weakened proletarian cohesion in the old metropolitan countries. Above all, Europe and the USA represent a dying power, increasingly peripheral to future historical progress. The new technology created the conditions for an era of globalisation in which the old industrial proletariat was decimated. This led to an erosion of the gains of the postwar era: deep cuts in wages and in welfare (the “social wage”).

TGI fridayIn Britain and many traditional industrial countries of the so-called “gig economy”, the old concentrated proletarian communities have become largely replaced by a “precariat”, living from hand to mouth in self-employment or casual temporary employment on zero-hours contracts. Trade union cohesion has been severely weakened and the instinctive socialist consciousness that had taken root in the labour movement is almost extinguished. Faith in a mission to assume power and reorganise production comes easier to car workers and miners than to parcel couriers and fast food workers. The working class has become dislocated and its combativity accordingly weakened. And yet even in these conditions a new generation is learning to organise. Office cleaners and MacDonalds workers have staged exemplary and often successful strikes. And while the trade unions survive today mostly within a rapidly shrinking public sector, this still vital sector mobilises to resist intolerable austerity cuts. Their traditions of struggle have reached layers of the population which had formerly classed themselves as “professionals” considering themselves above such practices. In Britain, the most militant strikes in recent times have been those of school teachers, hospital doctors, and university lecturers.

In the USA, one third of industrial jobs have been lost since 2001. In Britain, the number of manufacturing jobs has fallen below 3 million for the first time since 1841. For every one worker in the west, there are now five based in China, Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia. It is this above all which explains the diminished consciousness of workers in the West; but overall it is an overwhelmingly positive factor. There are 100 million industrial workers in China – more than double the number in all the G7 countries put together – and 3 billion wage workers worldwide. The working class is now a majority of the population worldwide, and it has extended its reach to every continent. Women now constitute a majority of this class and are at the forefront of struggle, both as militant workers and, in their role as traditional custodians of the family, leading the resistance to cuts both in wages and in welfare


strikeThe “American century” is drawing to a close. Despite the premature jubilation of 1991, when their ideologues were crowing triumphantly about “the end of history”, we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of the postwar ascendancy of US capitalism, its unremitting relative decline.

Following the end of the 25-year postwar upswing in 1974, the boom was maintained by a combination of military investment and the rise of new technology, together with an orgy of privatisation, followed by the bubble, and then an era of increasingly complex speculative gambling. This culminated in the crash of 2008 and the subsequent long recession.

At the same time, the supremacy of the dollar, which had enjoyed a booming recovery from the Vietnam war and the shocks of the 1970s, is now once again foundering. Due to the falling rate of profit, there is a massive surplus of capital, a huge ballast swilling around in search of a profitable niche. It found temporary expedients in grotesque arms expenditure; then in the bubble; in a wave of economically senseless privatisations stripping the state bare; then finally in a further descent into rampant gambling and speculation, ending in a gigantic crash, prompting a massive redistribution of wealth to the super-rich. Now outlets are becoming exhausted. This has always in the past heralded slumps and wars.

The decline of US imperialism has aggravated tensions and brought to imminent crisis long-running pressure points throughout the world from the Middle East to the Korean peninsula. The USA found itself standing by helplessly when Russia won the Georgian war, annexed the Crimean peninsula and took control of eastern Ukraine. Despite its expenditure of $1.6 trillion on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it ended up ceding effective control of Iraq to Iran, and a predominant influence in Afghanistan to the Taliban. Throughout the Middle East – a seething cauldron like the Balkans before the First World War – the USA has proved in effect impotent to impose its interests. That explains why, in sharp contrast to its interventions in Iraq and Libya, the USA is now meekly standing by and allowing Assad a free hand to destroy civilised life in Syria.

The ruling class is alarmed at the wayward and corrupt nature of the Trump regime, but its effete liberal remonstrations reflect their fear of the consequences of using their reserve powers to replace it.

The current administration in Washington, fronted by a cartoon buffoon, reflects in a concentrated form the nihilism and bankruptcy of capitalism. This regime is deranged, brutal and crude: more overtly aggressive, but also more attuned to the harsh realities of the new era than the old inbred hypocritical establishment, which itself surreptitiously carried out dirty wars and weekly drone strikes.

It has recklessly torn up the nuclear treaty with Iran, provocatively moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and blundered into the risk of direct confrontation on the Korean peninsula. The first shots have been fired in a potential trade war, as the US slaps punitive tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, including from its “allies” in Canada and Europe, and seeks to suppress Chinese advanced manufacturing in robotics, aerospace, electric vehicles, artificial intelligence and biotech. It is preparing domestic repression by whipping up confrontations with minorities and wilfully inciting both terrorist atrocities at home and foreign wars, initially with Iran or North Korea, with the distant implied threat of war with China.

The most formidable advantage that the USA still retains is its overwhelming military superiority; and by the new regime’s calculations, it needs to be deployed soon. The USA and Russia remain rivals, but new and bigger fault lines have developed. US imperialism needs to clear away the debris of the old conflicts to prepare for those that lie ahead.

Looming ahead is the prospect of an inevitable future confrontation with China. Whenever one dominant empire is challenged by another, it means war. Ever since the collapse of Stalinism there have been wars after wars: in the former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria… And while the USA still has such overwhelming military supremacy, isn’t it in its interests to engage sooner rather than later? And yet the spectre of Vietnam still haunts the ruling class, when the world’s strongest superpower found itself humbled and defeated by a country of ragged peasant guerrillas and helpless in the face of a mutinous army and mass anti-war protests at home.


The USA has manipulated popular outrage at the terror tactics of al-Qaida and later even more effectively the barbarous antics of ISIS to legitimise its attempts to wrest control of the Middle Eastern oilfields. Terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism have served as a useful diversion for capitalist politicians. For all the hysteria whipped up against it, Islamic terrorism represents little more than a symbolic gesture of impotent defiance against decades of imperialist plunder. The idea that it constitutes a mortal threat to “democracy” and “Western values” is an exaggerated xenophobic claim exploited by imperialist politicians. This phenomenon suits the ruling class perfectly, enabling it to rally support, promote racism and divert attention from the real cause of the crisis in society.

Nevertheless, religious fundamentalism and communalism pose a crucial danger in that they split the working class and poison the minds of youth in revolt, from Hungary to India. In its most virulent guise, it constitutes a variant of fascism. Fascism always drapes itself in the costume of its national myths: Mussolini’s Fascists in Caesarism and the Roman Empire; Hitler’s Nazis in Aryan Nordic sagas; Franco’s clerical fascists in the Catholic Church and the Inquisition; the Indian Shiv Sena in Hindu epics, gods and princes; and the various Islamic fascist groups (ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Jamaat-e-Islam) in seventh-century Mecca, Medina and the early caliphates. Successive British fascist groups have cloaked themselves in the paraphernalia of the British Empire, and their American counterparts in the folklore of the American revolution, the frontier pioneers, and the civil war Confederate states.

What all fascist groups have in common is their active mobilisation of militant supporters, their violent bigotry against vulnerable minorities, and their common prime target: the labour movement.


The USA now has a far more formidable enemy to contend with. The new US Defence Secretary has announced that “Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security.

The Chinese GDP has grown by nearly 1200% in the last twenty years. It is now the largest trading nation in the world. In 12-15 years the Chinese economy overall will overtake that of the USA.

Chinese economic power is now asserting itself on the world stage. It is developing in eastern Asia – supplanting US influence in the Philippines, east and central Asia, with its ambitious “Belt and Road” initiative; and its influence is growing fast in Latin America and throughout Africa, constructing railways and ports and establishing a naval base in Djibouti.

The meteoric rise of China on the basis of a bureaucratically managed economy was made possible by a unique combination of factors: a revolution that had swept aside landlordism and released almost inexhaustible labour reserves; globalisation, which created the material basis to facilitate enormous industrial investment; and strictly administered state planning. The result is a society resembling a projection of Russia’s New Economic Policy on to a massively higher plane: “state capitalism” in its original sense. Ultimately the contradiction of Stalinist state control and a rapidly growing capitalist class must eventually be resolved one way or the other, and that can only mean by violent upheavals.

The meteoric growth of the Chinese proletariat and the consequent rise in labour combativity (a phenomenon hardly even noticed by most of the left groups) are the most positive factor in the world situation. China now has well over 100 million industrial workers – more than twice as many as in all the G7 countries put together. Hundreds of millions of former peasants are now urban workers. By 2020 the urban population will reach 60% of the population.

The current underground strike wave in China recalls the 1890s in Russia: a period of rapid industrialisation in which millions of young peasants were being uprooted overnight from remote and scattered farmlands handling the primitive wooden plough and transplanted overnight into high-tech modern factories operating state-of-the-art industrial technology, concentrated in vast numbers, learning industrial skills and flexing for the first time their collective strength, with corresponding effects on their consciousness and combativity. That economic boom in Russia ended in strikes, a general strike, full-scale insurrection, the birth of Soviets and the 1905 revolution, and paving the way to the revolution of 1917 – an event that transformed the international working class and ushered in an era of world revolution.

The impending entry of the Chinese working class as a political force could transform the face of the world labour movement. Just as it was the British trade unions which provided the foundation for the 1st International, the German labour movement the 2nd, and the Russian workers the 3rd, so today the Chinese are busily and silently creating the foundations for a new international.

In 2014-5 alone there were 4,000 public protests recorded in China, including nearly 1,000 strikes. In the six months September 2017 to February 2018 there were over 900 industrial disputes, in construction, mining, transport, manufacturing, services, education and retail, including sit-ins, workplace blockades and demonstrations, and the wave of unrest has continued without pause, reaching for the first time to national strikes of crane operators and van drivers in May 2018 .

According to Michael Schuman, writing in TIME magazine in 2013, “The rich-poor divide is perhaps most volatile in China“. In a Chinese opinion poll, 80% of respondents agreed that the “rich just get richer while the poor get poorer”. Factory workers in Shenzhen have been reported saying: “All the workers should be united…The way the rich get money is through exploiting the workers… Communism is what we are looking forward to.


The consequences of climate change and the depletion of natural resources constitute an existential threat to human society, which can only be resolved by socialist revolution. Within the last two decades, we have experienced the hottest fifteen years on record. Droughts and heatwaves now cause more deaths in Africa than malaria, yellow fever and typhoid. Capitalism now poses a looming threat of human annihilation.

Meanwhile, these environmental catastrophes have wreaked unprecedented turmoil: major wars for the control of diminishing oil reserves, local wars and civil wars, natural disasters, mass migration and a massive refugee crisis. The UNHCR reports that 65.3 million people have been forced from their homes, including nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. In 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively, 11 million, 14 million and more than 16 million refugees migrated abroad.

These factors have also tended to undermine the appeal of socialist ideas. As earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions and forest fires engulf the planet, the environmental threat has now become as urgent and imminent as the threat of nuclear annihilation. The old intrinsic faith in the boundless potential of technology has faded, replaced by the spectre of environmental devastation; the fear that the world is reaching the limits of its finite resources, that capitalism has despoiled the planet and civilisation is in peril. It is necessary to counter a fatalistic resignation to Armageddon. The rationality of socialism needs to be demonstrated all over again and the ideological case argued all over again. Only then can socialism once more become a living force – a “material force gripping the minds of the millions”.

The challenge of the age is to restore confidence in the ability of the working class to harness science, industry and technology to the task of saving humanity.

And yet science has now accumulated limitless potential to transform human existence: using 3D printing, robots, renewable energy sources, synthetic meat, electric cars, energy efficiency, new battery technology, etc., all these problems could be solved within a generation.


Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has voiced the fears of his class:

For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in    Europe. I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like        widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual          but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for          revolutions.

There is a restlessness in the air. It started at the turn of the millennium with the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Seattle, Prague, Gothenburg and Genoa, and gathered pace in 2003 when 30 million demonstrators marched in protest at the impending Iraq war. Then in quick succession came the Arab spring; the Occupy movement; the Greek uprising; the Spanish indignados; general strikes in India, Brazil, South Africa and throughout Europe; the Corbyn surge in Britain; in the USA, organised revolts among the black population, women and youth; the overnight rise of new parties, both right and left… After decades of setbacks, the first stirrings of a new awakening are beginning to shake the ground.

There is an abiding and growing aspiration towards a new society, especially among the youth. Despite the eclipse of the former industrial concentration in the Western countries and deepening cuts in workers’ living standards, nevertheless the working class has not suffered a definitive and crushing defeat in three quarters of a century. The general mood of discontent may be soft and disorganised, reflecting the deproletarianisation of Western society and the naivete and inexperience of youth, but there is a broader understanding throughout society than ever before of the brutal realities of capitalism.

At the same time, the new technology has made for an unprecedented awareness of events, instant mass communication and a spontaneity that make politics more volatile than ever before, with mass mobilisations appearing almost from nowhere. There is a new universal moral outrage at the grotesque polarisation of wealth and power.

In the USA there are innumerable signs that the ground is shaking in anticipation of a massive upheaval: Black Lives Matter, Me Too, the school students’ gun laws revolt, the Sanders phenomenon. In the 1960s the racism endemic in American society brought forth an aspiring revolutionary party (the Black Panthers), and the war in Vietnam was brought to an end by a huge anti-war movement, with thousands of youth burning their draft cards and a rash of army mutinies. These are memories which haunt the US establishment.

In his exploitation of the thirst among the youth for change, Sanders captured their imagination by toying with radical slogans, calling for a revolution against the rule of the billionaires. He had no intention of taking action to that end, but 13 million people voted for that programme. Last year in the USA, 54% of respondents voted yes to the idea of a “political revolution to redistribute money from the wealthiest Americans”. That included 68% of Afro-Americans, 65% of Hispanics, and 68% of 18-29 year-olds.


In his great work Capital, Marx predicted: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”

It used to be said that Marx’s law of polarisation of wealth had been proved wrong. Today we see the grossest inequality in history. More than 3 billion people (half the world population) live on less than $2-50 a day, including 1.3 billion who live on less than half that. Meanwhile, in the last year 1,542 dollar billionaires increased their combined wealth to six trillion dollars – around one sixth of world GDP. By the calculations of Oxfam, while in 2016 half the world’s wealth was held by 62 individuals, by 2017 this number had shrunk to eight. Of all the new wealth created in 2017, 82% of it went to the 1%. By the calculation of the Guardian, by 2030 two-thirds of the world’s wealth will be concentrated in the hands of the 1%.

People can tolerate the most acute poverty, so long as they see some prospect of future relief, of a better life for their children and grandchildren. It is when they feel that their suffering and sacrifice is futile, when all hope is gone… that puts revolution on the agenda.

Most alarmed are the more far-sighted capitalists themselves. Christine Lagard of the IMF has expressed her concerns, and Joseph Stadler, UBS’ head of Global Ultra High Net Worth has commented: “This is something billionaires are concerned about… The question is to what extent is that sustainable and at what point will society intervene and strike back?

One of these plutocrats, Nick Hanauer, has even published an open letter headed to “my fellow zillionaires”:

Like you, I am one of those .01%ers, a proud and unapologetic          capitalist… Like you, I have been rewarded obscenely for my success,      with a life that the other 99.99 percent of Americans can’t even          imagine… But let’s speak frankly to each other… What do I see in our         future now? I see pitchforks. At the same time that people like you and     me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest      of the country—the 99.99 percent—is lagging far behind. The divide             between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast…           Inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day… Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will       disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the             revolution.


The workers’ movement is on the cusp of change. Let’s remember: the proletariat is for the first time ever a majority of the world population. The USA and Europe are on the brink of explosions which will shake society to its foundations; and these will be only a prelude to the entry of the working class of Asia, Africa and Latin America on to the world stage. The centre of the world proletariat has shifted: for every worker in the old metropolitan countries, there are now five spread across the globe. China has twice as many industrial workers as all the G7 countries put together. While the socialist consciousness of the old proletariat has faded, that of the new proletariat has yet to flourish.


Workers everywhere are beginning to rise to their feet; but their struggles are diffuse and unco-ordinated. Now more than ever we need a single party of the working class. Civilised life and environmental survival depend upon it. Nationalism, racism, bigotry, fascism, fundamentalism and nihilistic terror stalk the world. Rosa Luxemburg’s aphorism “socialism or barbarism” is less than ever today a mere rhetorical flourish, but literally the nightmare choice posed before humanity.


By its very nature, the working class strains instinctively towards solidarity. The struggle to build an international workers’ party goes back almost to the beginnings of capitalism. It is the elementary task of socialists to stress the common interest of all working people, and to fight against demagogic attempts to divide the workers along the lines of craft, gender, nationalism, racism or chauvinism.

As with its precursors, the new International will be built on the basis of mass organisations, numbering in today’s conditions millions. It will not simply grow ready-made out of any single self-styled “vanguard” organization. The pretensions of any existing group that it and it alone is building the future mass workers’ international completely misses the mark and risks rendering it ineffectual. Even among experienced activists, there is a profound scepticism of any hint of these groups’ exclusivist messianic postures.


We should be especially wary of the word “vanguard”. Like all metaphors, it has its limitations. It is a delusion to imagine that the relationship between “leaders” and “led” flows only in one direction. It was the workers of Paris in the Commune of 1871 who taught Marx the necessity of smashing the bourgeois state rather than simply commandeering it; and it was the workers of St Petersburg in 1905 who in the course of their struggles spontaneously improvised their own organs of combat, Soviets, against the Bolsheviks’ initial distrust of what they perceived as a threat precisely to their own “leading role”. In times of turmoil and revolution, workers in action are capable of brilliant feats of improvisation. The role of a revolutionary in those days is to listen and learn; to grasp and assimilate and recycle the lessons.


The actual course of revolution is always more flexible, imaginative, and daring than can be predicted by any dry theory. The forms of struggle that have erupted largely outside the traditional organisations – in the occupy movement, the “Arab spring”, the Greek uprising, the South African strikes, the demonstrations of the Spanish “indignados”, etc. – confront socialists with new challenges. What is necessary today is to draw together the forces fighting capitalism the world over into a new broad anti-capitalist front; to build an international forum in which programmes, strategies and tactics can be thrashed out democratically.


A new international today will not conform at the outset to anyone’s pre-conceived prescriptions. Like the First International, which initially, as Engels put it, “could not set out from the principles laid down in the Communist Manifesto”,  it will nevertheless “weld together into one huge army the whole militant working class“. It too will be a broad anti-capitalist forum in which rival schools of thought fight a battle of ideas in the search for a strategy for victory.


It took just seven years for the ideas of Marx and Engels to triumph over the quack panaceas of the political snake-oil salesmen and charlatans of their day. By the eve of May Day 1890, the day of the first worldwide general strike, Engels could proclaim: “Today’s spectacle will open the eyes of the capitalists and landlords of all countries to the fact that today the proletarians of all countries are united indeed. If only Marx were still by my side to see this with his own eyes!


The creation of a worldwide party of the working class is not at all an abstract or unreal idea. Every day, in every continent, we see new evidence that such a party is straining at every nerve to be born. Mass communications and the “information revolution” have made the present generation incomparably better informed than their grandparents. The world has drawn together and a new global consciousness has arisen. The size and reach and specific weight of the proletariat have grown everywhere.


Our role is not to preach. Yes, we are keen to place at the disposal of the new generation of fighters whatever theoretical lessons we think might be learned from history. And yet in recent years, from Athens to Cairo to Santiago to Seoul to South Africa, millions have been marching, mobilising, striking… and talking. For weeks on end, tens of thousands of people were crammed together in Tahrir Square in Cairo; all across Spain tens of thousands of students were packed together in the public squares in Madrid and the other cities; in Athens again, thousands of people occupied Syntagma Square and other squares throughout the country; there were similar occupations from Wisconsin to Hong Kong to Santiago.  What a hothouse of political debate! We can be sure that the heated debates they have had will have at least as much to teach us as whatever abstract lessons we may have gleaned from our study of the textbooks. Our first duty is to listen, mingle, talk, interact, exchange ideas, learn from their experience and draw conclusions about the way forward.


Where are the forces for a new international today? In workplaces, on street corners and in shanty towns across the continents. Its first birth pangs are stirring in the debates raging in workplaces, shanty towns and occupied public spaces across the world. A new, stronger, more cohesive international class is being built, bestriding every continent, and rapidly learning afresh the strategy and tactics of class struggle.


When tens of millions protest – on the same issues, with the same slogans, often on the same day in internationally synchronised action – then the world party of the future is already beginning to materialise. When demonstrators travel across continents in their thousands to besiege the secret sessions of the oligarchs; when tens of millions worldwide take to the streets to protest at their war plans; when public squares are occupied from Wall Street to Puerta del Sol, from Tahrir to Syntagma; when workers stage cross-border general strikes and mass uprisings topple governments from Iceland to Armenia, then in all but formal structure, the international exists. It is high time to give it substance.


Above all, it is in the factories of China, and their nascent underground trade unions, that the future salvation of humankind is being forged right now. They will need common mobilisation with their fellow workers internationally, to create new bonds of solidarity stretching between assembly line workers in China, software engineers in India, service workers in Europe, financial workers in New York, miners, agricultural workers and radicalised youth in South Africa. Workers in the old industrial countries will have a crucial part to play. It will be the task of those who embody the old labour traditions in the West to promote class solidarity with the new proletariat and share with it a century of rich experience across a vast geographical and cultural chasm.