Peter Taaffe - Socialist Party England and Wales, general secretary
Tories torn apart, French workers and youth in revolt, ‘populism’ on the rise … revolution in the air?
“I have never been more ashamed to be a Conservative. We continue to be led by a mule flogging a dead horse” (Allison Pearson, Daily Telegraph columnist). This blistering attack on Prime Minister Theresa May and the Tory government – before the leadership challenge was called – from its own side is a fitting epitaph on their futile attempts to effect an ‘orderly’ withdrawal from the EU.
This issue that has dominated the past year has resulted in the defeat of May and her government in parliament, and possibly her exit as Tory party leader. She nevertheless hopes to drag out her political death agony for a while longer yet, after having survived, weakened, the recent ‘vote of confidence’ by Tory MPs.
This completely bears out our contention that the Tories will suffer the biggest split in their ranks for over 170 years, since the Corn Laws of the early 19th century.
However, all capitalist parties in Britain, Europe and the world are split in the teeth of mounting mass opposition to their policies of brutal austerity. So too are many social democratic and other left parties within the labour movements.
What should be our approach to the capitalist EU, which is a vehicle for carrying out that policy on a European scale? The mass revolt of the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) in France is the most visible pointer to what is likely to come in 2019 in many European and other countries.
Revolt in France
This spontaneous revolt of the French workers and middle class against the semi-dictatorial regime of Macron has many lessons for workers elsewhere.
An arrogant overlord – hitherto contemptuous of the masses – has employed brutal methods to forcibly disperse demonstrators, including even rounding up school children who were then compelled to sit on the floor with their hands behind their heads like prisoners of war.
This is a thinly veiled civil war and all of this was broadcast on TV throughout the world.
The leaderless ‘yellow vests’ then forced Macron to make some concessions which has not quelled the revolt but, on the contrary, led them to demand more concessions and organise further demonstrations to pursue them.
Imagine what would have been gained if the trade union leaders had put themselves at the head of this movement, then called for and organised a general strike? This would have led not only to the total defeat of Macron and driven him from office but also prepared the ground for the idea of working-class power, of socialism in France. As one French worker commented: “We don’t want the crumbs, we want the whole baguette.”
All the downtrodden, the victims of the social war against the rights and living standards carried out by the capitalists throughout Europe, have generated a mood of ‘let’s act like the French’. Socialist Party sellers on the streets in Britain have found a thirst above all for action, not just words, against the bosses and their rotten system.
The Egyptian dictatorship has even banned the sale of yellow vests, for fear that the Egyptian masses will return to the streets and try to complete the 2011 revolution, thereby setting off a new movement throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
Indeed, the underlying crisis of world capitalism, as we predicted, has intensified in the past year.
A new crisis also looms in world relations. Trump has enormously ratcheted up tensions with the repudiation of the Iran nuclear deal and its political fallout, increased conflict with China both economically and militarily and now with Russia in a proposed new ‘great power’ nuclear arms race, in relations with the EU and practically the whole of the rest of the world.
This was reflected in the general outburst of laughter and jeering which greeted Trump’s speech at the recent United Nations General Assembly where he nakedly reasserted US imperialism’s doctrine of unilateralism to “make America great again”. This was in place of the previous so-called ‘rules-based’ international ‘cooperation’ – a softer form of US capitalism’s power and domination.
Moreover, his repudiation of the Paris agreement on climate change flies in the teeth of increased worldwide concern. This concern is reflected in significant mass movements and heightened consciousness in some of the countries and continents most immediately affected by the likely terrible repercussions of an increase in the world’s temperature, which is indisputable and can lead to a world climate catastrophe.
This will only be completely avoided through the ultimate replacement of uncontrolled and ruinous capitalism by a new democratic socialist world. This in turn is only possible through the methods of revolutionary and socialist struggle for which we stand.
The capitalist economic ‘experts’ claim that in 2017 there was a ‘synchronised economic acceleration’ – with every major advanced economy except Britain on a ‘growth path’, signified by a drop in official levels of unemployment not seen for decades.
However, the reality is that this ‘boom’ is very uneven – not all countries have experienced it, even some of the economically developed countries. It was based on unprecedented levels of part-time and casual workers – very often cheated out of wages for weeks and months – and therefore was extremely lopsided.
It was also founded on a continuation of low wages and generalised wage repression, with little real substantial long-term benefit accruing to the working class. In Britain, for instance, wage stagnation is the worst since the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the 19th century. Elsewhere austerity is still continuing in Europe and for the majority of the working class in the US.
The neocolonial world has in general suffered a severe crisis, with an economic contraction in Brazil unprecedented since World War Two, and a significant dimming of economic prospects in Argentina, Turkey and South Africa. However, where there has been even a slight economic upturn in some countries this has encouraged the working class to move to ‘take back’ some of what they lost in the ‘great recession’ and its aftermath.
In the US there has been a powerful re-emergence of the working class in a series of strikes, including militant teachers’ strikes in West Virginia and elsewhere. In logistics giant UPS there has been a rank-and-file revolt against a contract negotiated by the union leadership. These and other disputes are leading towards the biggest number of workers taking strike action since the 1980s.
This ‘boom’ is founded on a massive extension of debt, including household debt, which has risen in general in the advanced industrial countries. Global government debt skyrocketed to 60% of gross world product and total world debt has soared from $173 trillion in 2010 to over $250 trillion today.
Moreover, a continual and colossal increase of inequality, together with intensified geopolitical factors have contributed to the highly unstable character of this ‘boom’.
Regarding the colossal further growth of inequality: “Billionaires made more money in 2017 than in any year in recorded history … The past 30 years have seen far greater wealth creation than in the Gilded Age” of the late 19th century, comments the UBS Billionaires Report.
This period was, as we know, a prelude to the mass discontent which ultimately led to the Russian Revolution and, following this, the prospect of world revolution.
This is before the fallout from the effects of the incipient trade war between the US and China, Canada and Mexico is felt. Retaliation will undoubtedly be undertaken by China to a larger extent than at present if this ‘war’ continues. Farmers in the US Midwest and elsewhere – an important base for Trump – will be seriously affected by counter-measures against US agricultural exports, particularly soya, to China.
In order to mollify his base, Trump claims “it is easy to win a trade war” but that is not the experience of the 1930s with the Smoot-Hawley Act which aggravated the depression.
The mid-term elections represented a big rebuff to Trump. In Britain, it would have been a ‘landslide’ in electoral terms for the Democrats, who scored an 8.5% lead over the Republicans in the popular vote for the House of Representatives.
Most alarming for the capitalists is the likely fallout from an “open-ended trade war with China”.
No area of the world is now free from the threat of hunger, economic collapse and war. A serious head-on confrontation, small or even ‘accidental’ military clashes are rooted in the situation. Increased tensions have been deliberately ramped up by the US between the major imperialist powers, including Russia.
The Chinese elite and regime have gone from being a ‘strategic partner’ of the US to a ‘strategic rival’, while Russia has recently come in for the same treatment on the military front. Trump and his spokespersons have called into question the 1987 nuclear treaty signed by Gorbachev and Reagan to freeze strategic nuclear weapons. However, the overall result was to ratchet up conflict between the US and its rivals in the rest of the world.
Populism in general, right-wing populism in particular as well as the new left formations, is on the rise across the transatlantic world, highlighted by the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil.
They supposedly ‘delivered’ the vote in favour of Brexit in the UK, the election of La Lega and other right-wing forces in Italy, and the authoritarian populists in control of Hungary and Poland. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) is on the rise. Right-wing populists are also well entrenched in Austria, France, the Netherlands and Sweden.
The talk of a new ‘civil war’ developing in the US is not far from reality, but this will be a class war.
The rise of this politically nebulous populism is rooted in the enduring legacy of the world economic crisis of 2007-08. Capitalist analysts, including Francis Fukuyama and an array of commentators, in effect jeer that it was not the left but the right who mostly gained from the political fallout from this crisis. This turns reality completely on its head.
The working class did initially, in many countries, turn towards the labour movement and the left for an explanation and solutions to the crisis. The left could have gained substantially given the severity of the recession, which led to the economic discrediting of capitalism and its political agents.
Some commentators described this crisis as worse in its lasting economic effects than even the depression of the 1930s. Huge layers of the population, not just the working class but swathes of the middle class, confronted with the impossibility of them and their children acquiring even modest wealth, and the decimation through austerity of decent housing, education and social services, initially inclined then towards the left. New left formations have also grown in this period, as shown by the initial support for Bernie Sanders, then Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, and others.
However, they were confronted mainly by the spectacle of social democracy in Europe and elsewhere pursuing the same policies of austerity, as did the Democrats in the US under Obama. With Hillary Clinton as candidate, their programme in the last US presidential elections amounted to ‘more of the same’. It was this that provided the opening for Trump and the variegated populist forces internationally of the right to gain a significant foothold.
But the long-term growth of the right is very tenuous, as witnessed in Germany at the present time. It is true that the right and far right have gained electorally but so did the Greens in regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse. Moreover, as our German comrades have pointed out, at the same time as the right was chalking up these successes, gaining massive publicity for their demonstrations, even larger left demonstrations – for instance of 250,000 in Berlin – marched opposing the far right and the racist attacks on immigrants.
So already the whip of counter-revolution has moved significant sections of workers, women and young people into action. Trump will be undermined by these revolts which will grow and have been brewing for a long time in the US. Trump is preparing the ground for a huge political radicalisation. He warns: ‘If you don’t vote for me socialism looms’, which can only further popularise socialism for millions!
Of course capitalist politicians systematically lie but Trump outdoes them all. In one recent rally it was estimated that there were 74 verifiable falsehoods! This obscene, pampered bourgeois, who was officially a millionaire at the age of eight (!), managed to scrape the presidential election win with 3 million less votes than Hillary Clinton because of the built-in bias and gerrymandering of the American constitution.
The conflict over the Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh opened up colossal social divisions, which massively alienated women but also produced a sense of revulsion throughout the US. This act of stuffing his toadies into the Supreme Court is the first step of Trump to restrict the right to abortion in the US.
The magnificent pro-choice revolt of the Irish working class, with the Socialist Party in Ireland playing an important role, against the relics of Catholic feudal and semi-feudal reaction, particularly in the social field, can be repeated in the US, as it has already in Argentina and Spain, and win mass support from other sectors of the working class. However, the recent strike of women workers in Glasgow, Scotland, for equal pay also led to the active support of their brothers, the male refuse workers.
Revolutions can often begin with the movement of the most oppressed layers, particularly indicated by the women in the Russian Revolution. They can act before the heavy battalions of the working class as a whole move into struggle and indeed can become a beacon and catalyst for them.
In this sense the current movements of women can be powerful precursors for a period of revolution, even and particularly in the US. There is pent-up anger and frustration which have accumulated over decades among women, the working class, and young people moving into struggle over student debt.
The neocolonial world – Latin America, Africa and Asia – faces in the next period even more intensified economic and social upheaval. This arises from the generalised character of this crisis which does not allow for one significant region to escape the maladies of crisis-ridden capitalism.
It is symbolised by the desperate surge of refugees from all these continents, be it from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, or now from drugs-riven countries in Latin America with millions desperately searching for ‘peace’ and a ‘better life’ for them and their families.
Following the world crisis of 2007-08 there was a certain relocation of capital investment from the crisis-ridden developed capitalist world to the ’emerging’ – now submerging – countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia, raising expectations of a substantial economic ‘bounce’. That has now dissipated in the neocolonial world.
No country typifies this more than Brazil, the biggest and most industrialised country in Latin America. The victory of Bolsonaro in the recent presidential elections represents a new form of right-wing populism clearly intending to rule through a form of militarised parliamentary Bonapartism.
Unfortunately, the ground has been prepared for this regime by the failure of Lula Da Silva’s PT (Workers’ Party). The massive corruption which scars Brazilian society came to be symbolised, for significant sections of the masses, by the PT regime of Lula and Dilma Rouseff.
One measure of this terrifying collapse is that Brazil in 2018 has experienced as many murders, most of them drug-related, as the annualised average deaths in the Syrian civil war. Bolsonaro has openly supported the last military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985. He has lauded ‘torture’ and intends to extirpate ‘communism’ – by which he means democracy and workers’ rights – including measures against the trade unions.
The rapacious Brazilian capitalists have wistfully looked back to the military regime which only ended in 1985 in Brazil. In the last few years they have in effect tested out the water by engaging in a ‘slow coup’, largely parliamentary, achieved through stages: first, the removal of PT president Dilma and then the imprisonment of Lula himself, one of the founders of the party, on the grounds of corruption. Without excusing the PT’s corruption, its accusers were in fact up to their necks in even greater corruption themselves!
The lessons of Brazil must be absorbed by all workers. Many will no doubt be legitimately fearful about the imminent imposition of a military regime, and some of even ‘fascism’ in Brazil. There are undoubtedly elements of this in the situation, where the new regime could lean primarily on extra-parliamentary and military measures in order to attack and weaken the left.
However for all the reasons that we have explained previously, this regime does not have a sufficient social base – a mass middle class that could be mobilised to atomise the working class – for the consolidation of this government or even a strong military regime equivalent to the last military junta, let alone fascism.
Moreover, its coming to power can act like a crack of thunder to awaken the Brazilian masses – and not just them but in the whole of Latin America – to the real danger that they confront. Events in the biggest and most important country in Latin America, Brazil, will be watched avidly both in the rest of the continent and internationally. We must do everything, both politically and materially, to assist our comrades in this crucial struggle.
Argentina is not far behind Brazil in terms of a conflict between the classes. In March of this year what appeared to be the whole of Argentina took to the streets in Buenos Aires and elsewhere. This was a protest against the neoliberal policies of the reactionary Macri government.
Once the ninth richest country in the world, Argentina has gone through a process of collapse and instability. Macri came to power as a capitalist solution to the chronic instability which has plagued the country. Within months he faced a general strike in protest against his cuts but he still continued with counter-reforms although seeking to soften their impact. At any time there can be a social explosion.
The failures of other left governments in Venezuela, Brazil, etc, are a warning for the Mexican masses who have just elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador as president. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, who largely remained within the framework of Venezuelan and world capitalist markets, did not clearly call for the spreading of the revolution to the region and internationally.
Trump, the British capitalists and the capitalists in general seek to utilise the current chaos in Venezuela in order to discredit socialism: “Corbyn embodies the same approach as Chavez and will create the same disastrous results”, say the British Tories.
The Trump regime with its repudiation of the Iran nuclear deal and further sanctions, both against Iran and those who dare to trade with the country, guarantees a further period of chronic instability and a poisoning of relations between the US and Iran.
This will spill over into the Middle East as a whole. It will not, as Trump seems to believe, encourage the ‘liberal’ capitalist opposition in Iran – let alone the working class who have also moved independently against the regime – to step up their opposition to the enriched ruling group of mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards.
It is now more likely that the opponents of the regime will be reluctant to open the door to Trump with his support for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the ‘Sunni bloc’ in opposition to predominantly Shia Iran.
The militarist, interventionist neocon John Bolton, Trump’s national security secretary, has revealed that his real plans for Iran are regime change and the turning back of the clock to the times of the Shah!
Worldwide capitalist crisis
There is now no area of the world, including Britain, where there are not political or social upheavals either taking place or expected. There is huge churning in the ranks of the working class, with millions looking for answers to the multitude of problems which the crisis of capitalism has created for them.
Many times in history, small groups have been rapidly transformed into significant large propaganda groups which can then form the basis for a small party and mass forces at a later stage. Preparing for this in the next period is an urgent task for us and the world working class.
The current position in Britain is also pregnant with many kinds of possibilities. Given the stalemate that exists, the May government could collapse at any time. Each proffered ‘solution’ from the different wings of the Tory party and all other parties becomes a colossal problem, as no soon as it is mentioned than it is kicked into the long grass.
One Tory MP neatly summed this up: “All our options are shit so we keep making shit decision after shit decision, in the hope that it’s less shit than the other alternative.”
If the government or even Labour accedes to a new EU referendum, Britain will enter unknown territory with the possibility of widespread mass outrage and violence at the spectacle that the ruling class just changes the rules of ‘democracy’ whenever they think it is convenient. This could lay the basis for widespread clashes between the different camps over the EU, which would call into question whether a democratic referendum could be re-run.
Those Labour voices, erstwhile lefts such as Paul Mason who are now clearly advocating another referendum and remaining in the EU, do not have a class and internationalist approach. The European Union was conceived as a neoliberal pro-capitalist construction right from its inception and that remains the same with the outlawing, at least on paper, of nationalisation by a left government.
Of course this hallowed constitution is merely a piece of paper which could be brushed aside by an insurgent mass movement behind a left socialist Labour government determined to take measures in the interests of the working class.
But why put forward a false prospectus that the EU is ‘progressive’? There is not an iota of this in either the original idea of the EU or the current support for the EU’s practices. Its anti-working class character is clear.
Fight this bosses’ club with socialist and internationalist policies. Oppose the capitalist EU, not with a narrow nationalist ‘Britain first’ policy, but a socialist and internationalist approach which links together the struggles of the working class of the continent in action for a socialist confederation of Europe.
At its heart would be the socialist planning of the resources of the continent for the benefit of the many – the working class – and not the handful of capitalists who presently control industry and wealth.