During the World Congress of ISA held from 30 January to 5 February delegates and visitors held intense discussions on ‘World Perspectives’. As a consequence, the document “Epoch of multiple crises — we have a world to win” was passed. We publish here Part 1.
- In the space of merely 3 years, since the time of the last World Congress of ISA, the two historic earthquakes of Covid 19 and the Ukraine war have been overarching turning points, expressing and enormously exacerbating the contradictions of world capitalism. They effectively imprinted the marks of a new epoch on the early part of the 2020s, with the collapse of the globalized neoliberal accumulation regime of capital, and the retreat of capital to an enhanced reliance on the nation state. A long-gone unipolar system has given way to an increasingly bipolar system, with the sharp escalation of the US-China inter-imperialist conflict, in the “New Cold War”, overseeing the growing polarization in world relations and the growing dissection of the world between two dominant imperialist camps, with a partial, complex but insistent process of decoupling, as part of a major trend of de-globalization.
- The end of the third cycle of globalization, which has given way to geo-economic fragmentation and the “New Cold War”, has reflected not merely a new phase in the general crisis of neoliberal capitalism which opened up following the 2007–2009 financial crisis and Great Recession. The qualitative change in world relations with the retreat of national ruling classes desperate to balance their positions via re-convergence around the nation state and imperialist blocs, has reflected a qualitative break in the historic process of the neoliberal counter-revolution. The capitalist class war on the working class to deepen accumulation has brought the capitalist system to face ever-deepening instability in all spheres, ushering in mass disillusionment and radicalization, with growing class polarization in the context of the multitude of inter-related crises and deterioration in living conditions. Revolutionary processes have swept away political regimes and, again and again, forced ruling classes into a defensive position. Central strategic capitalist institutions have openly questioned “neoliberalism”, realizing that their historic offensive is unsustainable economically and in terms of social instability. The ruling classes cannot fundamentally restabilize their system with any alternative accumulation regime. Capitalist governments will be continuously pressed to manoeuvre between a mixture of “Keynesian” and “neoliberal” policies, including instances of austerity and privatization, secured by state repression. However, the main point is that the “markets” can no longer be the primary sacred consideration from the point of view of the overall interests of capitalism: State capitalist features will more often come to the fore.
- While fiscal and monetary capitalist measures to avoid a global depression at the height of the pandemic have resulted in a crisis of inflation and the end of zero-interest policy, the world economy is potentially en route to a new recession, with simultaneous slowdown in product growth in US, Europe and China. Capitalist governments, entangled with ever-expanding gigantic debts, are in a more precarious position to implement fiscal expansion measures in attempts to counter trends of recession, themselves reflecting long endured fundamental depressionary features in the world economy. An energy crisis, spurred by the effects of the Ukraine war, has increased capital’s thirst for fossil fuels, while the climate crisis, reflecting the fundamental ecological contradiction of capitalism, has entered a clearly more aggressive phase, and is already a major destabilizing factor, also threatening more acute water and food crises, wars, and explosive increases in the number of fleeing refugees.
- Faced with growing instability, the implosion of the social base of many traditional bourgeois parties at the political ‘centre’ — with the empty promises of liberalism exposed and losing their popular appeal — shifts towards Bonapartism by capitalist states have further asserted themselves. The success of capital in overcoming Stalinism on the one hand, and in disorientating, disorganizing and disarming the workers’ movement on the other, still presents serious challenges in terms of political confusion and disorganization in developing social movements. Formations and figures that have emerged as new left points of reference, elements of a new social-democracy, around a left-populist appeal and soft reformist programmes, have barely stepped into the vacuum left by the traditional social democratic parties which were integrated into the neoliberal counter-revolution — before they’ve been rapidly exposed for political weaknesses in the face of capitalist systemic crisis. The weaknesses of the Left, including in the workers’ unions, have meant a greater space for resurgent violent threats of reaction by hard-right and far-right forces, camouflaged by variants of right-wing populism.
- Nevertheless, this period has been characterised inevitably by sharpened processes of mass radicalization, with an important increase in working-class militancy, despite the enormous obstacles posed by the mostly class-collaborationist trade union bureaucracies. Particularly among broad sections of youth, a leftward and rebellious tendency has developed, challenging working and living conditions, and oppression by the state and in society at large, all while recognizing the dystopian future guaranteed on the basis of capitalism. The latter has got an echo not only with social movements that have turned in the direction of “anti-system” and “anti-capitalist” consciousness, but even in bourgeois commentators that have been playing with the vague idea of “post-capitalism”. We still see an historic gap between, on the one hand, the consciousness, organization and leadership of the working class and the youth and, on the other hand, the objective situation. There is a combined and uneven development of consciousness — while there is widespread hatred against “the system” and even resistance, there is little understanding of what an alternative could look like or how the fight for it could be organized. These factors present the underlying challenges in the rebuilding of the workers’ movement — but they also create the basis of sharp changes and explosive developments that we have seen in the last period.
- This is underpinned by radicalization in response to the special oppression of women and LGBTQ+ people, ethnic and national oppression, as well as to the climate and ecological crises. Movements have expressed a tendency to learn internationally from recent experience, and undoubtedly there’s a growing search also for assets of historical experience in striving to revive mass collective memory. In this “Age of Disorder”, the developing processes of polarization, and of revolution and counter-revolution in the world system, the forces of socialism and Marxism are faced with new challenges and opportunities.
Sharpening inter-imperialist conflict: War in Ukraine
- Russian imperialism’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has led to tens of thousands of casualties (both military and civilian), millions of refugees and massive destruction of infrastructure. The armed conflict that started in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the setting up of the Donetsk and Luhansk “Peoples’ republics” supported by the Putin regime escalated into an all-out war that looks set to continue well into 2023 and beyond. It is already far and away the most significant war in Europe since World War II and a major turning point in world relations.
- The Ukraine war, as we have pointed out from the start, cannot be properly understood outside the wider context of the New Cold War. Reflecting intense capitalist competition in the context of crisis, this conflict is centred on the struggle for dominance between US and Chinese imperialism. While Putin cooperated with Western imperialism in the early 2000s, increasingly cooperation turned into competition, with a continual struggle for influence across the former Soviet bloc between Russian and western imperialism, particularly as the EU and NATO encroached further and further eastwards. This frequently broke out in the form of uprisings — ‘coloured revolutions’ in which popular discontent was used by warring sections of the ruling elite to further their own interests and those of their preferred imperialist allies. Such conflicts, and their consequences were frequently the cause of sharper conflicts such as the Russo-Georgia war of 2008, and the annexation of Crimea and start of the war in Donbas in 2014.
- After a period of intensified sabre-rattling by western and Russian imperialism, in February 2022 Putin made his move. Seeing, on the one hand, stalemate in the conflict between the US and China, the weakening of US imperialism as illustrated in the withdrawal from Afghanistan and divisions within the EU, and, on the other hand, his own successes in maintaining the rule of Assad in Syria, Lukashenko in Belarus and Tokayev in Kazakhstan, as well as the apparent “No limits” agreement with Xi Jinping, Putin used the window of opportunity to attempt to reassert Russian dominance in its “sphere of influence”. What was planned as a new highpoint, this year’s invasion of Ukraine was a terrible blunder by Russian imperialism. The US pounced on the opportunity to reassert its “leadership” in NATO and to bind key European nations, as well as Australia, Japan and South Korea, closer into its Cold War “bloc.” It seeks to inflict a convincing defeat on Russia and in that way further isolate China on the world stage. In reality, the US is using the opportunity to wage its own proxy war against Russia in its own interests. By using vicious economic sanctions, and by arming the Ukrainian state and general Ukrainian resistance against the invasion the US aims to strike blows against Russia, and through this undermine China, alongside its escalating economic and technological warfare against China itself.
- Recent developments have confirmed our analysis of the inter-imperialist character being the central feature of the conflict, the danger of escalation and the weaknesses on the Russian side which could lead at a certain point to internal upheaval. At the same time, the war is also a war of national defence, with national self-determination in itself challenged. Putin even invoked and blamed Lenin and the Bolsheviks for the very existence of Ukraine as a modern nation, correctly counterposing their defence of the right of self-determination of oppressed nations with the counter-revolutionary social-chauvinist approach pursued by the Stalinist political counter-revolution — which Putin only regrets did not go even further in national oppression. Ultimately, Ukraine’s national self-determination would continue to be challenged and undermined by Russian imperialism, as well as dictations by Western imperialism. There are elements of a struggle for national self-determination, but also with elements of a war for a strong, competitive national state in Ukraine. Real self-determination cannot be achieved on a capitalist basis. Ukraine will, if it wins the war with NATO support, be an outpost of western imperialism. Within this context, the brutal invasion, oppression and occupation of Ukraine by Russian imperialism continues to stimulate mass opposition from the Ukrainian people fighting to defend their livelihoods and legitimate right to self-determination. This is marked by a dramatic change in attitude marked by a survey of those living in Ukraine [all territory except Crimea and pre-February DNR/LNR] in May. If before 24 February, 34% of Ukrainians viewed Russia ‘positively’, itself a dramatic drop from the 90% figure pre 2014, in May only 2% expressed a positive attitude. The central problem is the lack of an independent working-class force which opposes the reactionary pro-Western Zelensky regime and seeks to direct that mass sentiment into a struggle for real national independence which means breaking with capitalism and opposing all imperialist intervention. That there is not an independent working-class movement now does not mean that one or the beginnings of one could not be brought into being in the course of the undoubtedly tumultuous events that will take place in the region in the months and years ahead.
- After the Russian army made slow headway in Eastern and Southern Ukraine over the course of several months using siege warfare, the war has taken a dramatic turn in favour of the NATO-backed Ukrainian military. This began with a Ukrainian counter-offensive starting on September 6 which reclaimed a significant chunk of territory in the Northeast of the country around Kharkiv. This has now been followed up by further Ukrainian gains both in the East and the South.
- The causes of the success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive include overextended and demoralized Russian forces while Ukraine has a continual supply of new troops ready and eager to fight. There is absolutely no doubt that morale is far higher on the Ukrainian side. This stems in no small part from the fact that Ukrainian troops are motivated by the genuine desire to defend their homes, families, and communities against the Russian military aggression, which the Ukrainian population at large overwhelmingly rejects — while the military backing from NATO itself undoubtedly also boosts the resolve of the Ukrainian army. A recent Gallup poll has shown that close to three-quarters of Ukrainians believe the country should keep fighting until the Russian forces are defeated and pushed out of the country. This has also meant a large layer of volunteers, partisans and local informers are actively working to frustrate Russia’s war efforts on a daily basis.
- These are not the only factors in the Ukrainian advance. There is also the decisive military support to Ukrainian forces by US and NATO states, including the HIMARS systems and the use of US/UK intelligence which has allowed the Ukrainians to hit targets many miles behind the frontlines with a high degree of precision.
- Over 100 billion dollars/euros have been committed by Western governments to military, financial and “humanitarian” aid to the Ukrainian regime. This includes the biggest transfer of armaments by NATO countries to a non-NATO country in such a short period of time. The US alone has committed $24.9 billion in military aid since Biden entered office. As of December, overall aid from EU states now exceeds that from the U.S. It includes aid for a longer period reflecting Western imperialism’s long-term commitment to integrating Ukraine into the EU/NATO zone. Non-military support in the form of grants, loans and government guarantees are all tied to conditions, and much will have to be paid back over ten years.
- At a certain stage the current national unity behind Zelensky and his government may begin to weaken, particularly if the war drags out, western support wanes and the fighting returns to the 24 February borders. The war triggered an economic collapse comparable to that of the 1990s — it is estimated that GDP will have fallen by over 30% in 2022 and the unemployment rate is also close to 30%.
- In appealing to the western powers for military and financial assistance, Zelensky has turned Ukraine into a hostage to the debt repayments and loan conditions imposed by institutions such as the EU, IMF and others. Even before the horrific destruction of the electricity infrastructure, it was estimated that the cost of reconstruction would be $350 billion. Ukraine’s 2023 budget deficit is expected to exceed $38 billion. It has agreed loans and grants since the start of the war approaching $100 billion, the repayment of which is expected to last at least a decade. In return, the capitalist vultures are circling. To encourage western investments, the labour code has been revised, zero-hour contracts legalised, pension reforms progressed, and pay levels of government employed staff frozen when inflation is 23%.
- The privatization process suspended at the start of the war was relaunched in October, with 800 state-owned companies transferred to the state property fund, many of which will be privatized under “new simplified terms‘’. The decision in early November to effectively nationalize, by transferring into the control of the defence ministry, five industrial giants — manufacturers of military engines, vehicles, and electrical infrastructure, as well as two oil companies was described by Reuters as the “most dramatic intervention of the war into big business, touching companies linked to tycoons whose political power Zelenskiy’s team has long sought to curb.” Presented as necessary to support the war effort, without the intervention of the working class in the process, particularly through workers control, this move raises the prospect that the military becomes even stronger, with a significant foothold in the industrial economy.
- The launch of the war by the Putin regime has been a major miscalculation that exposed the isolation of the bonapartist clique in the Kremlin and the poor state of the armed forces. The initial protests, mainly of youth, quickly died down as a result of poor leadership and mass repression, with hundreds of thousands opposed to the war fleeing the country.
- The military reversals faced by Russia have increased pressure on the Kremlin. The loss of control of the Kharkiv region in mid-September increased the anger of the hard-line ‘party of war’, which led Putin to take the new, and desperate steps of militarized fake referenda in those areas under Russian occupation, their immediate annexation into Russia and the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of ‘reservists’.
- Mobilization marked a certain turning point, bringing the realities of war home to a much wider section of Russian society. New protests swept the country as mothers and wives opposed the call up of their ‘menfolk’, particularly in the regions with non-Russian populations such as Chechnya and Dagestan in the Caucasus and Buryatia in Siberia. Dozens of recruitment offices have been firebombed. There have been continuous protests by those mobilized, in some cases with mass desertion and refusals to fight. Although the regime succeeded in repressing the first wave of protests, this new wave is likely to grow with time. According to opinion polls conducted exclusively for the Kremlin, the number of Russians wanting the war to continue has fallen from 57% in July to 25% in November and the number wanting peace negotiations has risen from 32% to 55%.
- Discontent will be fuelled by the economic situation. Sanctions have largely cut Russia off from the global economy, at least that part dominated by the west. They have not, however, throttled Russia’s finances, and its ability to wage war. The collapse of imports, capital controls which strengthened the ruble, and the increase in hydrocarbon prices have seen Russia’s 2022 current account surplus grow by 86% to $227 billion. This has allowed the regime to replace at least some of the foreign companies who have departed, and step up trade with other countries, in particular, Turkey, India and, to some degree, China. Nevertheless, GDP fell by approximately 3% in 2022, and is not likely to grow in 2023. The trend of declining real wages which has seen them fall by over 15% since 2008 has sped up.
- Whatever the outcome of the war, Putin’s position has been dramatically undermined by the events of 2022. He is increasingly forced into rapid changes — the notorious General Armageddon he appointed to take command of the Russian forces in Ukraine in October was already replaced in January by his failed predecessor General Gerasimov. Increasingly the disputes between the hardliners and the army command, and between the Wagner mercenary force and official army structures, are coming into the open.
- Whether Putin survives as a ‘lame duck’ President will now depend on events. If the war drags on, and protests amongst the mobilised, relatives and general population grow, we could see an uprising of a more general character such as that in Belarus and Kazakhstan, or the breakout of more localised protests in the national republics, or in regions such as we saw in Khabarovsk in 2020–21. If there are further defeats on the front, it should not be excluded that within the regime there will be a move to remove Putin in order to change the course of the war (maybe conceding defeat), or to head off a new mass movement. With the central authorities dramatically weakened, it is quite possible that centrifugal tendencies will strengthen within Russia, with the re-emergence of struggles by the national republics and other groups. These possible perspectives make it all the more important that a strong working-class based, socialist alternative is built.
- As we pointed out from the start, the dynamic of the war has pointed towards escalation. Now that the two sides are dug in in Eastern Ukraine and looking to gain an advantage, the West is ramping up its commitments. There is concern about Ukraine maintaining momentum and that Russia could use its 300,000 new troops to regain some ground in a new offensive. Both sides have lost enormous numbers of soldiers in the fight for Bakhmut. From sending weapons systems which could be presented as “defensive” the Western imperialists are now moving to send clearly “offensive” weapons including “armoured fighting vehicles”, longer range missiles and possibly battle tanks (though the German and US leaderships governments are so far holding this up). And, according to the New York Times (1/19/23), the U.S. is seriously discussing supporting the Ukrainian military in an offensive against Russian positions in Crimea to at least cut off the land bridge between Crimea and Russia. This would represent a significant escalation in attacking a region that has been part of the Russian state since 2014 and whose population seems to have accepted this.
- The resolution on the war and its consequences adopted by the International Committee at its meeting in Vienna at the end of March stated: “The possibility of war between NATO and Russia is now greater than at any point in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.” This is even more true today. There is much discussion in the Western media about the possibility of Russia using “tactical” nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Though the Russian military is very much on the defensive this is still unlikely for several reasons. However, if Putin did take this step, depending on the exact character of such an attack, the response of NATO would likely not be to retaliate with nuclear weapons, but a combination of a massive “conventional” military response alongside diplomatic moves such as fast-tracking NATO membership for Ukraine and massively increasing the pressure on other governments to condemn Russia and support the US-led sanctions. The use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia as well as the likely Western military response — even if it is with conventional weapons — would make Russia and the Putin regime even more of an outcast. Even China would be forced to at least rhetorically distance itself and many halfway allies would have to step back. It would certainly trigger a wave of massive anti-war protests internationally. This is not just because of the horrible nature of nuclear weapons themselves and the incredible devastation that would be caused but also because the whole situation would represent a massive escalation. Clearly we cannot be definitive regarding how exactly consciousness would be affected, the extent of such a movement or how the different relations and alliances among the powers would be affected, but it couldn’t be ruled out that the response could be of such a magnitude that at least for a period it alters the balance of forces and opens up very important opportunities, in some of the regions, including in Russia itself, for young people and workers to get organised. At the same time, a chauvinist ‘anti-Russian’ mood cannot be excluded. The war would no longer have a “proxy” character but would become a direct conflict between US and Russian imperialism. But even if this scenario doesn’t happen, the logic of the conflict — with Russian forces in retreat and Putin desperate to change the direction of the war — points to further dangerous escalation.
- World War III in the sense of a full scale nuclear war is at this stage not considered likely in mass consciousness. It is surely something that has not featured so much as a possible scenario in a long time. But the war in Ukraine will be looked back on as the beginning of a wider conflict that will have many phases. It cannot be excluded that the next phase in the next few years could be the outbreak of war over Taiwan involving the US with allies such as Japan, Australia and NATO militaries against China. If the Taiwan conflict tips over into war, it could far exceed the scale of destruction and global ramifications even of the Ukraine war. Whether the US and its allies intervene directly or adopt the “Ukraine model” of an indirect proxy war in support of Taiwan would depend on many factors that cannot be fully predicted at this stage. But even direct conflict between imperialist powers, which the war in Ukraine could yet become, can be waged with conventional weapons.
The further evolution of the war
- Although widely discussed, a full-scale collapse of the Russian military, even a rebellion within the ranks as happened to the US military in Vietnam, which would pose an enormous crisis for the Putin regime, is not the most likely outcome. But with fighting now concentrating on, and intensifying in the Donbas region, it cannot be excluded that Russian forces can halt the retreat, and even go on the offensive in some areas. ”General Armageddon”, Sergei Surovikin, who led the Russian military to destroy power plants and energy infrastructure, hoping to demoralize the Ukrainian population, letting them freeze in the dark throughout the winter, has now been removed from office just three months after his appointment and replaced by the Chief of the General Staff. The reshuffle of the war’s top commander emphasised yet again the crisis atmosphere among the Russian forces. But unable to make any real advances on the battlefield, it will, as long as resources allow, continue its attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure in an attempt to wear down resistance. It does not appear that Russia now has the ability to win the war in the sense of holding and annexing a more substantial part of Ukrainian territory, including the whole of the Donbas and Black Sea coast.
- The negative consequences of the war for Russian imperialism are already accumulating. Being completely distracted in Ukraine, which was meant to increase its regional and global strength, Russian imperialism is also seeing its prized influence in Central Asia wane, mainly to China’s and Turkey’s advantage, but also the US, EU, and India. The government of Kazakhstan has openly criticised the invasion of Ukraine and obeys the US-led sanctions. Recent flare ups between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as between Azerbaijan and Armenia have been ignored by Russia and its Collective Security Treaty Organization. Now the Russian forces are moving troops out of Syria to shore up the Ukrainian front.
- Even the autocrat of Belarus, Lukaschenko, has been restricted in how much he can help his “big brother” Putin due to fear that this would trigger a new wave of protests in his own country. The 2020 uprising and the repression of the organised working class was supported by Russia. Economically, Belarus is dependent on China and Russia and, as a war party, is simultaneously affected by EU and US sanctions. However, it only functions as a deployment area for Russian war equipment. This is because Lukashenko could not enthuse his population for the war. Independent studies estimate that only about twenty per cent support the war, but only three per cent favour military participation. Despite threats and repression from the government, the Belarusian Independent Trade Union Congress voted a resolution against the war. Consequently, the Lukashenko regime declared a number of independent trade unions, like the railways, communications and electrical unions, as terrorist organisations. Several trade union leaders were sentenced to several years in prison. Between February and April 2022, railway workers, civilians, and other so-called “rail and cyber partisans‘’ in southern Belarus carried out over 80 acts of sabotage of the rail network to obstruct the Russian invasion of Northern Ukraine and the attack on Kyiv. Over 40 other people were arrested. Three activists have subsequently been sentenced to 20 and 22 years in prison for slowing down transport by over a week. Many leftists and trade unionists have left the country and are organising the opposition in exile. Lukashenko is sitting on a powder keg as inflation leads to severe poverty. The more the war weakens Russia, the more opportunities are seen by workers to rechallenge the regime.
- So far, Putin has had nothing to fear from the organised Russian labour movement. The leader of the larger of the two, the Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) Mikhail V. Shmakov was Deputy President of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Twenty million trade unionists of Russia left the international social democratic trade union family after the war began. They even organised car convoys throughout the country to support the war. The truce between the Russian trade unions and the ruling class has certainly paralysed and confused the workers’ movement in Russia. However, illegal strikes are still taking place in response to the closing of international companies in the face of economic repression. Anarchist collectives, like “Stop the Waggons”, who have learned about the sabotage of rail freight from Belarus, are also blocking railways. There have been cases of locomotive drivers putting fake homemade bombs on the tracks to justify an unexpected stop and delay war transport. Parallel, there are daily bomb threats, attacks on recruitment offices, cars with Z symbols, power lines, substations and granaries, among others. All these make clear that there is no tranquillity in the hinterland of the main war party.
- At a certain stage pressure will increase for negotiations in an attempt to end the war. Early rounds of negotiations were restricted to issues such as grain supplies and prisoner exchanges, and were largely organized by Erdogan. Pressure to negotiate increased when India and China renewed their calls following Russia’s missile attacks on Ukrainian cities in October. At the current time, negotiations will be acceptable to Ukraine only on the basis of the complete withdrawal of Russian troops. If Zelensky was, under western pressure, to agree at this stage to concessions, he would face a backlash, and possible replacement within Ukraine. Russia, for its part, increasingly with its back against the wall, is not yet prepared for serious negotiations — its only purpose is to delay Ukraine’s offensive, to give it time to regroup, sharpen divisions between the NATO countries, and rearm its forces for a new spring offensive.
- The US and other western powers definitely want to see a defeat of Russia, but they are concerned about a too rapid collapse of the Putin regime both because it could be replaced by an even more unpredictable regime but also because they fear the consequences of massive social upheaval in Russia that could spread outside its borders. This scenario would not automatically create a revolutionary situation but would certainly create a major opportunity for the formation of a clear working-class opposition within Russia. The US would prefer a more “controlled” outcome where the Russian military is crippled and has to cede large amounts of territory in Ukraine, underwritten by a negotiated settlement.
- At some stage pressure will be developing for a solution through negotiations. But negotiations conducted under the guise of the imperialist powers offer no way out of this situation. As the experience of the Minsk agreements following 2014 demonstrates, as long as the warmongers and oligarchs maintain control, they will continue to use military means to defend their interests. Any negotiations are likely to centre on security guarantees for Ukraine. Its wish to join NATO will, unless there is a dramatic change in the situation, be put off for some years, as NATO leaders see this as crossing Russia’s red line, and as importantly, it will mean they are committed to intervene directly if Russia acts aggressively again in the future. At the same time, any territorial concessions by Zelensky will only postpone the next stage of the conflict. In particular, if concessions are made under pressure from the west, many Ukrainians will feel they have been let down by imperialism.
- We can’t be definitive about the outcome which seems to be still some distance away. But it is important to ask what would be the effects of a full-scale defeat for Russia? In the context of the wider Cold War, it would represent a huge victory for Western and especially US imperialism. Of course, the US is concerned about a too rapid collapse of the Putin regime both because it could be replaced by an even more unpredictable regime but also because they fear the consequences of massive social upheaval in Russia that could also spread outside its borders. But they definitely want this crisis to result in a serious blow for Russian imperialism. It is true that France and Germany have preferred a negotiated solution that allows Russia to “save face.” This reflects the interests of French and German imperialism. But at this point, it is very much the US in the driving seat, with the EU forced to toe the line.
- For the Ukrainian population, the outcome — even if Russian forces are pushed out of most or even, although very unlikely, all of the territory they have seized, — will not be genuine independence, which is impossible on the basis of capitalism. Besides massive casualties, large parts of the country will have been reduced to rubble and the infrastructure will be shattered. Zelensky’s regime, if it is still in power, will try to continue to repress the working class, and the Russian speaking community, on behalf of the Ukrainian oligarchs and Western imperialism. The latter will seek to turn Ukraine into a client state and an armed forward camp defending their interests. Zelensky will face opposition from the working class, especially if the war ends with a treaty that involves the acceptance of Russia controlling parts of pre-2014 Ukrainian territory. This could spark mass opposition and even upheaval within Ukraine threatening the Zelensky regime. It is also due to the anti-working class policies of the Ukrainian government. Despite international protests, Zelensky has also signed anti-worker legislation that eliminates negotiations with trade unions in most workplaces, suspends the ban on night work for parents with young children, legalises overtime, and random dismissals. During the war, trade unionists have been mainly involved in distributing humanitarian aid and organising housing for internally displaced people. At the same time, the government has expropriated a number of trade union headquarters and buildings. Even before the war, Zelensky was dealing with miners at the state-owned mines, who were still on strike for better working conditions in December 2021. In West Ukraine, a recent miners’ strike occurred against local corruption and mismanagement. The government is using the war to carry out attacks on workers’ rights that it could not carry out before the war. This may lead to workers’ and trade union movements who have proven to be capable of self-organising their lives and sustaining infrastructures without the interference of a capitalist government. These points further underline the necessity of an independent working-class program, in contradistinction to any vague nationalist slogans that are put forward by the Ukrainian bourgeoisie and Western imperialism to camouflage their own disastrous program.
Tensions within the camps
- China distancing itself from Russia is not about breaking their alliance, which anyway is qualified — it does not extend to military support and mainly serves to present a common anti-US diplomatic front — but they are alarmed by Russia’s weak performance and the serious economic effects of the war and that it has strengthened and unified Western imperialism. We shouldn’t be surprised at tensions in the China-led camp just as there are significant tensions in the Western camp over how to conduct the war and the endgame. These can lead to more significant splits at a certain stage. If the Russian forces were to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, for example, this would undoubtedly pose a new level of problems for Xi Jinping’s regime, although even in this case it would in the first instance try to extricate itself by fudging with evasive calls for “peace” and “restraint”. A complete break between the Chinese and Russian regimes is very unlikely because they need each other. The logic of the New Cold War means they don’t have so many other options.
- The Modi regime in India has tried to balance between the two camps for economic and geopolitical reasons. The primary concern of the Indian ruling class is its many conflicts with China. India has moved into the US camp to contain China through participation in the QUAD, IPEF, closer cooperation with the US military, and even on issues like Taiwan, where Indian naval power could play a role. The Indian capitalists expect to profit from US-China decoupling and “friendshoring” — positioning themselves as the “next China” and swallowing up parts of the supply chain that are now leaving China. But over Ukraine, Modi’s hands are tied by his fears of a strengthening Russia-China axis in which Xi becomes stronger and Putin weaker the longer the war goes on. His support for Russia aims to prevent a shift in the Kremlin’s traditional support to India, especially military supplies, under Beijing’s pressure.
- We have already noted the divisions in the Western camp between Germany and France, the key EU powers, on one side and the US, UK, and the easternmost EU states such as Poland and the Baltic States on the other. But in the short term the key Western powers have moved closer together to present a common front in the war, with Macron in particular echoing the U.S. approach and sending light tanks to Ukraine. The more belligerent approach by the French (and to a degree the Germans) reflects in part that the full energy crunch did not materialize during a warmer winter.
- What is actually more noteworthy is how far the EU has been pulled behind the US position, not just over Ukraine and independence from Russian energy, but also in the wider Cold War strategy against China. Until a couple years ago, the German and French ruling classes sought to occupy a middle position of “strategic autonomy”, continuing to “engage” with China. This began to change even prior to the Ukraine war with the EU declaring China a “systemic rival” in 2019 as a reaction to the Chinese infiltration into Europe with the Belt and Road Initiative, including investments in central and eastern Europe, as well as Italy and Greece. This process has accelerated since the war began, with an especially sharp change in Germany. According to a paper prepared for a meeting of EU foreign ministers, “China has become an even stronger global competitor for the EU, the US, and other like-minded partners. It is therefore essential to assess how best to respond to current and foreseeable challenges.” These are likely to “widen the divergence between China’s and our own political choices and positions”. (quoted in the Financial Times, October 18) This hardening anti-China stance is even clearer in NATO and all but four rather small EU members are part of NATO (Sweden and Finland, who are on the verge of joining, as well as Ireland and Austria).
- At the same time, the action of Saudi Arabia in strong-arming the OPEC+1 cartel into significantly cutting oil output (to the benefit of Russia but also Iran) against the express wishes of the Biden administration, has led to a furious reaction from the US political establishment, some of whom are threatening to cut off military and other aid to Saudi Arabia. The oil monarchies on the Arab peninsula are seizing on the energy crisis, making new profitable deals with powers like Germany, that are desperately searching for alternatives to Russian natural gas and oil. Erdoğan’s regime in Turkey has also sought to establish an independent position in the conflict.
The wider Cold War
- As we said several years ago, the New Cold War between US and Chinese imperialism, which is rooted in a deep crisis of global capitalism, has become the single most important element of world relations. Under Biden, the US presents the conflict as being part of a wider existential struggle between “democracy and autocracy” including within the US itself. An increasing number of Western commentators also argue that the Chinese form of state capitalism is incompatible with “open” economies and societies. The Chinese counter-narrative focuses on the West’s refusal to accept the legitimate rise of China. The CCP regime presents itself as the ally of developing nations against the old imperialist powers — a mask that drops from time to time such as when senior CCP official Yang Jiechi lectured southeast Asian governments: “China is a big country and you are small countries, and that is a fact”. Domestically, Xi’s regime has increasingly doubled down on a Han supremacist doctrine that all national minorities from Xinjiang to Tibet are inferior and for their own good should be assimilated into Han Chinese culture. All of these narratives on both sides of the New Cold War are attempts to mask the underlying imperialist nature of this conflict — for markets, resources and spheres of control — between the US and Chinese ruling classes. These inter-imperialist conflicts and the ruling classes’ narratives around them, are in and of themselves signs of capitalism’s weakness and decay as crises multiply.
- As we have explained it would be a mistake to think that the Ukraine war and the US response meant that it was focusing on Europe and away from the Indo-Pacific. This is clearly wrong. In reality, we are seeing, simultaneously to the Ukraine conflict, a significant escalation of the wider struggle for hegemony in the Indo-Pacific centred on the US and China. The war in Ukraine has accelerated this process and is also inextricably connected to it.
- Taiwan has become an ever-more central part of this conflict from which neither side can afford to back down. The CCP Congress has underlined how central so-called national reunification, the conquest of Taiwan in other words, is to the state’s nationalist and imperialist ideology. This echoes Putin’s obsession with restoring Russia’s “historic territories”. Xi has many times declared that, if necessary, this would be accomplished by force. There can be little doubt that Xi would launch a military attack on Taiwan if he felt confident of success. But this is not the case under today’s balance of military power vis-a-vis the US. There has been a series of warnings from US military circles that a Chinese attack could be imminent. In October, Secretary of State Blinken warned a Taiwan war could start “on a much faster timeline”. His remarks were backed up by Admiral Michael Gilday, the chief of US naval operations, who claimed China could launch an attack as early as 2023. But these claims seem unlikely, for the reason that China’s military still lags behind the US in certain key areas and because of the extremely difficult logistics of an amphibious invasion across the Taiwan Strait. As we have explained, Putin’s debacle in Ukraine has for the time being increased the Chinese regime’s hesitancy towards an attack on Taiwan.
- On the other hand, Biden has now declared no less than four times that the US would militarily come to the defence of Taiwan if it is invaded by China. And while each time his spokespeople walk it back, it is clearly a significant shift in US policy away from the “strategic ambiguity” of the past four decades. Of course, Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August also ratcheted up tensions. Biden has focused on developing the “Quad” security alliance including India, Japan, Australia as well as the US which is aimed at containing rising Chinese military power and preparing for the possibility of war over Taiwan or, on a smaller scale, over contested islands in the East and South China Seas. Meanwhile, the new NATO mission statement agreed at its Madrid summit (which included invites from Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand) for the first time declared China to be a systemic “challenge.” There is now open speculation about an “Asian NATO” but rather than a single bloc this is more likely to take the form of a series of separate but overlapping US-led military alliances against China such as the QUAD, AUKUS and the “VFA” pact with the Philippines.
- Of course, the Chinese regime is not standing idly by. Xi Jinping promoted his own “Global Security Initiative” at the 2022 meeting of BRICS which includes Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa, as well as China. BRICS however is little more than a talking shop and the GSI is mostly a propaganda exercise. More significantly, the CCP regime continues to push aggressively to develop security arrangements with Pacific island nations, a key example being a pact signed with the Solomon Islands located less than 2,000km from Australia’s coast. China has exploited a power vacuum in the region caused by years of neglect by the US and its allies, principally Australia, moving ahead with infrastructure deals under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and generous amounts of bribes for local elites. While the US has been caught napping in a region it dominated for decades it is now pushing to catch up and has signed its own pact with the Solomon Islands and has successfully blocked some Chinese initiatives in the region.
- Western imperialist powers and Japan in the G7 are also belatedly attempting to push back on China’s massive BRI by developing their own infrastructure investment plans to counter Chinese influence in “developing countries‘’. China is also using debt to reinforce neo-colonial dependency in various client states. This is only following what the IMF and World Bank have done on behalf of US imperialism for decades, but it underlines how the inter-imperialist conflict is finding its way into every corner of the globe.
Decoupling and deglobalization
- The Ukraine war has massively accelerated the trend towards deglobalization. The clearest expression of this is the radical decoupling between the West and Russia, the world’s 11th largest economy. The decoupling of the US and China which is on a completely different scale has also dramatically accelerated although has not yet come close to Russian extremes. After four years of trade war initiated by Donald Trump, China’s IT and electronics exports to the US have plummeted by nearly two-thirds, from 38 to 13 percent, with Taiwan and Mexico gaining market share at China’s expense. We have seen a significant shift of production out of China to countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, and Taiwan, both because of the increasingly uncertain environment created by the Cold War but also because of the chaos caused by China’s “zero COVID” policies. This is challenging the status of China as the “factory of the world”. There is also some evidence of “reshoring” and “nearshoring” production to the US and allied states, that is bringing critical sectors and resources back to where they can be more easily controlled.
- But the biggest development in the decoupling process is the escalation of the US tech war with the CHIPS Act passed signed into law in August providing $50 billion for the construction of microprocessor plants in the US followed by the new export controls announced by the Biden administration in October. These block the sale to China of advanced computer chips and the tools to make such chips. The measures from the US Commerce Department apply not only to US companies but also to foreign companies if their products contain US-made components or software. The aim is to hobble China’s economic development, its plans to achieve breakthroughs in key fields such as A.I., supercomputers, advanced robotics, and crucially next-generation weapons systems. A subsidiary concern is that US imperialism wants less reliance on Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, especially should that fall under China’s control in a war. In Germany, the biggest microchip factory of the world will be built — with large subsidies from the German state and possibly the EU, and with the goal to decrease dependency from imports from East Asia.
- One China expert, Paul Triolo, described this as a “major watershed” in US-China relations, saying, “The US has essentially declared war on China’s ability to advance the country’s use of high-performance computing for economic and security gains.” (New York Times, 10/12/22) That this is war by other means is confirmed by Biden’s newly-released 48 page national security strategy document which declares that the US goal is “outcompeting the People’s Republic of China in the technological, economic, political, military, intelligence and global government domains.” The document adds that the US and China would still “coexist peacefully.”
- These developments also demonstrate why Western propaganda aiming to show the fundamentally incompatible nature of Chinese state capitalism and Western “open” societies is overblown. The struggle is about imperialist control, not different systems. It certainly is true that under Xi Jinping there has been more restriction of private capital in China and stress on the role of the state sector. But the logic of deglobalization and the New Cold War points towards a turn to nationalist “industrial policy”, a form of state-driven capitalism, by all the key powers. This is something we have consistently pointed out.
- The ISA has also pointed out that the conflict between US and Chinese imperialism is a reflection of the impasse of global capitalism and would most likely tend over time to weaken them both. This, however, is not an even or straightforward process. In 2020/1, US imperialism seemed seriously weakened with the drastic mishandling of the COVID pandemic, massive social unrest and then Trump’s failed coup attempt.
- But today it is China that seems weakened by a profound economic and demographic crisis, including the self-imposed disaster of “zero COVID”, that has unleashed the most significant protest wave in the country since Tiananmen. Due to a stalled economy and the depreciation of the yuan, the gap between Chinese and US GDP will grow from $5.3 trillion in 2021 to an estimated $8.3 trillion in 2022. This breaks a more than 30-year trend of China year by year closing the gap with the US. It is one of many data points that indicate that China’s allegedly inexorable rise has in fact stalled. This can actually make the situation more dangerous as Xi’s regime sees itself pushed on the defensive and seeks to gain a more decisive advantage, for example through seizing control of Taiwan.
- It is worth asking whether there could be a pause in the conflict or some form of detente if, for example, Russian imperialism is forced into such a significant retreat that it would be considered a general defeat and China’s internal crisis worsens. This cannot be excluded but it seems unlikely unless in the context of Xi being removed from power or a similar major governmental crisis.
- For now, the New Cold War seems set to escalate further. The differences between this conflict and the original Cold War now seem increasingly more important than the similarities. The conflict between the US and the Soviet Union was of course between two competing social systems. It also developed, at its height, during the post-war boom, a phase of stable capitalist expansion and rapid growth of the Stalinist economies, very different to the era of disorder we have entered.
- What is comparable, however, is that the conflict will affect every country and conflict in the world to one degree or another which is not to say that all conflicts will be clearly inter-imperialist in character in the way the Ukraine war is. At different points there will be sections of the population and the working class which for some time and as a result of the weaknesses of the workers movement will succumb to nationalism and militarism and gravitate in the advanced capitalist countries and the neo-colonial world to support one side or the other — but this can be overcome by struggles that will develop. However, the overall effect over time will be to further expose the completely irrational, parasitic, and destructive nature of contemporary capitalism.
New phase of global economic, social, and political crisis
- 2022 saw one economic growth forecast after the other reduced. After the sharp downturn due to Covid there was a feeling of relief as economies seemed to recover in 2021. But the pandemic and the massive monetary and fiscal stimulus responses actually exposed fragile supply chains, deepened debt problems. Further amplified by the war in Ukraine and the New Cold War, this created a new problem in the form of inflation. In October 2022, the IMF predicted that “One-third of the world economy will likely contract this year or next amid shrinking real incomes and rising prices.” The world economy is facing major problems. It is a rather rare situation that all powerhouses — China, Japan, USA, Europe — are in or on the brink of recession. Most serious bourgeois commentators are very worried about this situation: for example, the American economist Nouriel Roubini is arguing that the predictions of a mild recession are “delusional” because a dangerous mix of low growth, high inflation and high debts could trigger a major financial crisis. The CEO of JP Morgan Jamie Dimon states that “something worse than a recession is on its way” in the US, pointing to low investor confidence “because of inflation, because of partisan politics, and a lot of leftover anger from COVID-19.” The IMF has signalled around the World Economic Forum summit in January that it considers upgrading its forecasts. A full global recession in 2023 is still an open question, but it is also the case, as the Ukraine war underlined, that global instability increases the potential for sudden developments that can only double-down on depressionary trends. The same IMF has also warned that geo-economic fragmentation in itself is bound to cost over time up to 7% of global output.
- One feature internationally is also the re-emergence and sharpening of various national questions as seen for example in Ukraine, Kashmir, Taiwan, Ireland and Scotland. In many cases this is connected to growing inter-imperialist tensions, but this factor also speaks to the deep rooted current crises of capitalism. The growing economic, social, and political tensions and contradictions expose the limitations of capitalism including its basis on the national state and illustrate how in this crisis-ridden phase, the capitalist system can be exposed as incapable of resolving outstanding national questions. This is strikingly illustrated by the way significant peace agreements reached in the 1990s and early 2000s, during an ascending phase of capitalism, are now coming apart, for example the 1998 peace agreement in Northern Ireland.
Towards a new recession
- At this moment, Europe and China are strongly affected. China is experiencing (beside the “corona year”, 2020) its lowest growth rates in 20 years, a drop in its production of food and an increase of weather extremes as well as problems with industrial production due to a strict zero-Covid strategy. Added to this is the catastrophic situation on the housing market: one out of three companies are bankrupt and 13 million houses are unfinished — a crisis which sparked an unprecedented mass boycott of mortgage payments. In the Chinese housing market alone, the losses are estimated to be up to 130 billion dollars. And this will affect nearly everybody as 78% of private wealth is invested in the housing market, compared to 35% in the US. It accounts for around 25% of the whole Chinese economy! It also leads to a drop of available money for the provinces which for their budgets depend largely on the sale of land. There are indications of serious economic problems including low growth and rising unemployment. In a desperate attempt to counter this, the regime decided to reduce the interest rates in the summer — which in turn further weakened the Chinese currency and could lead to capital flight. Another important factor is the demographic crisis, with China’s population shrinking in 2022 for the first time since 1961 making China number 2 in population after India. Although some other capitalist powers are faced with a declining and ageing population, the scale of the problem in China puts this issue on another level. The Chinese regime was forced to abolish the oppressive one-child policy in an attempt to counter this trend. Financial stimulus and propaganda aimed to encourage a higher birth rate have thus far failed to convince the masses, and a de facto “birth strike” has developed, with falling marriage and birth rates.
- Although Xi successfully used the CCP-congress in October to cement his rule, the economic crisis and simmering social crises will inevitably over time weaken what is in reality far from a stable regime. For sure Xi underestimates the explosive effects that his announcement regarding women’s rights and bodies might have in the future: “We will establish a policy system to boost birth rates and pursue a proactive national strategy in response to population ageing,” Xi is quoted having said at the CCP congress, which took place the same moment that the Iranian regime was in danger after the killing of Zhina Amini and the mass protests this triggered.
- The US economy is less dependent on Russian and Ukrainian imports than Europe and therefore less affected at this moment. But Biden’s comment that “The economy is strong as hell” is wishful thinking. Despite a relative slowdown in inflation, as fossil-fuel prices declined, and a still high official employment rate, the US economic slowdown, in the context of a global slowdown, is pointing towards a seemingly likely recession. After the US stock markets suffered from the worst first half year in half a century in 2022, after the summer they recovered slightly, only to then drop again. Upturns in the markets are driven mainly by speculation, not a bright perspective, and are accompanied with a highly risky housing market. The Federal Reserve’s attempts to bring down inflation by raising interest rates is strengthening the dollar internationally — with negative effects on a world scale for all countries who have their debts denominated in dollars, and the same is true for US-companies that try to sell abroad.
- So while the US labour market was still relatively strong at the end of 2022, this situation might end quicker than expected. Working-class people and unions see and use this window of opportunity which was reflected as a first reaction in the “Great Resignation” in 2021 followed by an organizing drive and strike actions. This can change with the start of a recession. But what is here to stay is a changed view towards “work”: the neoliberal ideology of “live to work” has been dramatically undermined. Although many in the health, education and other social services may feel a sense of “social duty”, this turned from being a brake to struggle to a motivation to struggle. Even working-class people from more stable strata have become more alienated with work. This has led to the phenomenon of “quiet quitting” with some leaving the jobs, others just doing the minimum necessary. Added to this is a growing awareness of working people who due to Covid and its aftermath saw more explicitly who makes society and the world function.
- Latin America, Asia and Africa face ongoing economic problems that are accompanied by serious social consequences. Mass migration due to climate change and its effects, skyrocketing food prices, wars and desperation are just some of the effects. The combination of inflation, the strong dollar and increasing inter-imperialist tensions is a deadly cocktail for the poorer parts of the world. The increase in interest rates and the increased value of the US dollar will both increase the amount of debt (as this is often denoted in dollars) and the cost of servicing the debt. After the US jacked up interest rates in the late 1970s, the “Volker shock,” Latin America and Africa experienced a decade of crisis often called a “lost decade.” The national governments have even less room to manoeuvre while the strong imperialist nations intensify their political, economic, and military grip on regions they strive to control. Part of this is the process of “near-shoring”, or “friend-shoring” as the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, Janet Yellen, called it because of geopolitical interests. More and more countries have become an economic, but also military battlefield over resources and influence. This is most obvious in the Pacific, but the same processes can be seen in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
- The rush for access to Lithium is just one example: for an electric car, depending on its size, 5–10 kilos of lithium, now also called ”white gold”, is needed. The biggest known reserves are in Australia, Chile, Argentina, and China. This might give an idea why at a 2022 meeting of the BRICS states they were flirting with the idea of bringing Argentina on board. The era of geopolitics with the formation of two blocs also means less space for national politics in weaker economies. While they try to manoeuvre between China and the US (for example 11 countries are members of the US dominated IPEF economic alliance as well as the Chinese dominated RCEP) this does not give them more resources. This is a process that has serious social effects and will further increase the exploitation of the neo-colonial countries; a process that at the same time can provoke resistance and uprisings fueled by desperation. The events in Sri Lanka in 2022 were a glimpse of what can happen in the future — and became a threat to ruling elites all over the world when ordinary people took a bath in the president’s pool.
End of the neoliberal era
- All this is adding to the effects of former crises. The one of 2007‒2009 (which the ruling classes attempted to portray as merely a financial one) was not yet overcome before new crises were added with Covid and then the Ukraine war. Well over 20 million people probably died in this pandemic which was so seriously mishandled by the ruling classes. While it is no longer a central factor shaping world relations, it is far from gone, as the last mass eruption in China demonstrated, and with new variants arriving. At the same time, in poor countries less than 20% have received even one shot. The war in Ukraine added another dangerous dimension to the situation: war, involving nuclear threats.
- All the indications point towards a global downturn at least as, or possibly more, severe than in 2008–9 or 2020. During the 2008–9 crisis there was a significant degree of international coordination in containing the financial crisis and China acted as the engine pulling the world economy. Neither of these factors are possible today. In 2020, the central banks and key governments were able to deploy massive monetary and fiscal firepower to address the collapse in demand. But this was done in the context of low interest rates and low inflation. The central banks and bourgeois governments are now far more constrained by the need to try to stop inflation, public sector indebtedness which was greatly exacerbated by the pandemic and now by the (even bigger in some cases) spending packages to address the energy crisis and the significant increase in arms expenditure (that will also boost inflation).
- All of these crises, with their specific causes and triggers are also rooted in a deeper set of problems which undermined the neoliberal era. As we have pointed out in past material, the emergence of the neoliberal era itself was rooted in the crisis of profitability at the end of the post-war boom. Neoliberalism restored profit levels to a degree, mainly through the deepened exploitation of labour, speculation, and fiscal transfers of wealth from the working class to the capitalists, along with the expansion of accumulation due to the restoration of capitalism in the former Stalinist countries. Today, profit levels in some sectors are high but productivity growth has remained stubbornly low. Debt levels are also extremely high. In general, the capitalists in the advanced capitalist countries have not reinvested profits in expanding productive capacity. Far more capital has been sunk into stock buybacks and the financial markets, fuelling the speculative bubbles that blew up in 2008 and are getting ready to do so again. Capitalism’s parasitic features, its complete inability to develop the world economy in a balanced way or point towards a better future, are now far more evident.
- The end of the post-war boom led to the era of neoliberal globalization characterized by privatizations and financialization. We saw the plundering privatisation of national industries in the former planned economies of the Stalinist states and their incorporation into the capitalist world market. We saw an increasing exploitation of the neo-colonial world as well as nature, the working class as a whole and women especially. None of these could solve the fundamental contradictions of capitalism so again and again, economic crises are triggered.
- Since the last World Congress of ISA, the features of a new period that started to become obvious at that time are much clearer now. We explained then that the era of neoliberalism is coming to an end. This does not stop the ruling class from attacking the living standards, working conditions or even the lives of working-class people if it is necessary to accumulate profit. But it means that those features that boosted the economy in the first decades of neoliberalism have now turned into the source of the problem: the high degree of financialization of the whole economy creating volatility in the finance sector, and long supply chains leading to shortages in the process of production. The crisis in Britain triggered by the tax cut package of Truss and Kwarteng is a good example of the changed needs of the capitalist system. “The markets” went wild over a measure that could be characterized as “typical neoliberalism” and would have been welcomed some years ago by the same “markets”.
- The return of the state and its involvement in the economy does not represent a turn to the left but is simply due to the needs of each respective national capital to get the best possible conditions. This is a good example of how Engels characterised the bourgeois state, which he called the “ideal personification of the total national capital”, i.e. a state that is not simply “bought off” by large corporations, but acts in the interest of the capitalist class as a whole, which sometimes means acting against individual capitalists, or even apparently a majority of the capitalist class, when strategical questions (like the dependency on Russian energy) make it necessary in the interests of that ruling class and its system. Measures can include cancelling of international long-term deals like Nord Stream, but also the nationalization of companies and banks to keep the economy running (as is already happening, to some extent, with energy companies in France and Germany). But this also includes the defence of the markets, resources, and areas of influence of each respective national capital including its military defence.
- Capitalist growth is reaching its limits. The collapse of Stalinism led to a wave of capitalist globalisation, with new profitable investments, new markets to conquer and new productive forces to privatize. This single use boost of capitalist restoration is now depleted. Meanwhile, capitalism’s unquenchable thirst for profit has ruined even further the sources of its profits: labour and nature. In the attempt to increase relative surplus value, it increased the pressure on working people to work more, with less staff, in longer working weeks, up to the point of human breakdown. Exhaustion and the rise in depression and chronic fatigue increases the danger of (fatal) accidents. Burn out, stress induced illnesses and mental health issues become endemic. The “great resignation”, “lying flat“ or “quiet quitting” are all signs that human labour is not unlimited. This was increased by Covid-19 which killed workers on the front line. As a consequence, we see a surge in labour struggles about physical and mental survival — for more staff, less workload, less overtime.
- The other source of wealth, nature, is literally burning. The climate catastrophe is only the most dramatic indicator of the overreach of planetary exploitation. Natural resources like sand, gravel, lumber, lithium, rare earths are getting scarcer, and like the necessities for human survival (fertile soil, food and freshwater) are not unlimited. Costs for extraction are increasing, and the uneven distribution of resources (e.g. 90 % of deposits of rare earths are in China) is a recipe for further global conflicts. The need of capitalism to grow indefinitely is hitting natural limits as well as political borders, further destabilizing international relations. The metabolic rift, already described by Marx, the rule of the blind power of the market over nature, is concretely undermining the profitability of capitalism today.
- Central characteristics of this new era are: capitalism is in decay as limits of growth of the productive forces and capital expansion are being reached, leading to an increasingly unstable economic situation with recurring recessions and slumps; the formation of blocs around the USA and China and increasing military tensions leading to escalations including proxy wars; a more central role of the state economically but also politically; protectionism and increasing elements of national industrial policy, at least in the main imperialist powers; a deepening political crisis and polarization, and regimes using repression to push through their politics — all this answered by explosive protests by youth, women, LGBTQ+ people, migrants and other oppressed groups and increasingly by working-class struggle.
Polarisation — threat of reaction — struggles of the oppressed
- The present uprising in Iran following the death of Zhina Amini brings forward in a concentrated way elements that were central in the last decade, both in terms of consciousness and the development of struggles. First, the tenacity of the struggle against women’s oppression, springing back up even after defeat, and its potential to gather support among the working class and poor masses; second, the tendency to see the “whole system” as being guilty; and third, the international solidarity and the instinctive element of internationalism. This instinctive element of internationalism is also present in other movements, especially the climate movement.
- While movements against oppression have brought forward an understanding of the systemic nature of oppression, and even anti-capitalist conclusions among broad layers, the role the working class could play in creating a perspective of fundamental change is not widely understood at this stage. This isn’t surprising seeing the lack of points of reference, both in bureaucratic trade unions and left formations’ leaderships worldwide, which are not taking up these struggles and in certain cases even opposing central demands of these movements. The most recent example is Lula, who did not support abortion rights in his election campaign. The majority of votes among women, black and indigenous people were still cast for Lula, but mainly as a vote against Bolsonaro. This happened also in the recent French presidential elections, where immigrant communities who voted in the first round for Mélanchon voted in the second for Macron, as a rejection of Le Pen.
- However, there is growing potential for the development of a working-class and socialist feminism, that seeks to build the widest possible solidarity of all those exploited and oppressed. In the past decade feminist struggles have re-embraced the idea of the strike; more and more disputes developed in sectors dominated by women workers, increasingly underpaid and understaffed due to neoliberal attacks. Workers in various workplaces around the world have picked up demands to end sexism and gender-based violence. Moreover, the instinctive connections between feminist struggles and struggles against other types of oppression and exploitation, including struggles against racism, against climate change, and against war, highlight the potential for a revolutionary programme, addressing specific types of oppression while linking them to the struggle for the whole of the working class and poor. While feminist movements can and will achieve gains, to cement them against reactionary attacks, reach their full potential and guarantee true feminist liberation, a revolutionary socialist programme is necessary. Such a programme could convince broader layers of the working class that struggles against different types of oppression are in fact tied to the struggle for emancipation for all.
A decade of revolts against oppression and inequality
- The period since the 2008–2009 recession up to the last World Congress was characterized by growing revolt in which the struggle of mainly youth and young workers against inequality and oppression played a central role. From the Chilean youth and feminist mass movements from 2011 to 2019, the BLM revolts in 2014–5 and 2020, the mass explosion of the Catalan independence movement around the referendum and again against the imprisonment of leading figures in 2019 to the 2019–2020 revolts in Lebanon and Iraq against all parties in the power-sharing establishment — all of them had the fight against inequality and oppression at their heart and young women played a frontline role in them. We also saw a growing support in the broader population for struggles against oppression, with majorities voting in favour of women’s or LGBTQ+ rights, but also and more importantly a growing involvement of at least layers of rank and file trade unionists — a growing active solidarity.
- In this period the new women’s movement — meant in a broad way encompassing the women’s movement itself, the struggles of women workers and the role women played in other movements — was a remarkable feature. We saw recurring mass outbreaks of rage against sexual violence in India, movements like Ni Una Menos, Me Too and the growth of the women’s and feminist strike in Latin America and the Spanish State for bodily autonomy and against daily sexism, gender based violence and femicide and for abortion rights, but also the equal pay strikes in Iceland, Glasgow and Switzerland. If the movement did not reach the same high peaks everywhere, a radicalized mood among young women and LGBTQ+ people became and remains a universal feature of the objective situation.
- Underlying the new feminist wave that emerged in the 2010s was the mass entry of women in the workforce in most of the world, which went together with the proliferation of low paid and precarious work in which mostly women, youth and oppressed minorities were employed — forced into struggle because their wages don’t cover the cost of basic necessities. Since 2008–09 we see an increasing tendency of a fightback of workers in essential services like health care and education in a number of countries. In particular, the difficult field of industrial action and striking in hospitals developed into a hotspot of class struggle, with impressive movements in Germany, Britain, Belgium, Spain, India, Russia and Ukraine, Israel/Palestine, Brasil, South Korea and USA. The pandemic, the war and the cost of living crisis all hit the most oppressed layers of the working class and poor the hardest. The wave of feminist struggle, the leading role of female workers and a broader radicalization has deep objective roots flowing from the contradiction between increased self-confidence and greater role in society (for example increasing participation in the workforce and education) clashing with increasing exploitation and oppression. This presents a long term trend in the current period of capitalism which makes the struggle of young and working-class women a strategic task for socialists as part of our orientation to the most advanced layers of the working class. A prime example for this process is Iran where the proportion of women in the workforce and especially in education had been steadily rising until the 2008 crisis (with more women in higher education than men at some points). This was cut across both by the economic crisis and the ruling class relying on the most reactionary layers of the regime resulting in the mass explosions we have seen in the last year.
- The pandemic first cut across this wave of revolts and mass protests, but only briefly. They came back in full force, also because the pandemic aggravated all forms of oppression and inequality. The loss of jobs and income had a disproportionate impact on the most oppressed, with the informal sectors of the economy hit hard by the lockdowns, especially in the neo-colonial world where state support such as temporary unemployment schemes and economic support for small businesses was absent. All over the world it was the workers with precarious contracts — women, youth, Black and immigrant people, LGBTQ+ — who suffered most job losses, with women in the lead as they were also hit in another way: essential services were cut that relieved some pressures for women workers burdened with caring responsibilities. The effects were most pronounced among women of colour, Black and immigrant women. Today these services are still in deep crisis leading even in advanced capitalist countries to a partial collapse of these systems.
- After additional “emergency” funding was initially won in health care in many places through the struggles of workers with high public support — although what was won was mostly temporary and limited — today we see the first attempts at new rounds of austerity. Nevertheless, at different phases the ruling classes will also be concerned with a potential slump, and with social explosions, not least against cuts in health and social services. The catastrophic repercussions of such measures were sharply exposed over the course of the pandemic. Depending on the concrete situation in some countries, a feeling of resignation can be temporarily dominant, with an increased level of people leaving the sector. But in many countries the struggle is ongoing as working conditions have reached a physical limit (clear from the high rate of job-related long-term disease such as depression and burnout, but also physical signs of overwork such as chronic back pain). Any wage increases won through the pandemic (which often came in one-time bonuses) are already lost through high inflation, and workers feel that conditions mean that they are pushed into mistreating patients, pupils, children in childcare, elderly people in residential care. At the same time the care crisis is continuing and in many places accelerating, driving back a key aspect of women’s emancipation, that is financial independence through paid work.
- The health care revolt is clearly continuing with strikes hardening, as shown by the 11 week strike in the university hospitals of North-Rhine Westphalia last summer, or by the first UK-wide strike initiated by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in the union’s 106-year long history. As the energy crisis is leading to (partial) nationalizations in a number of countries, the fight for public education and health care will continue. High state expenses in combating the energy crisis, in armaments, etc. show that the means are available. Combined with the return of austerity, this will continue to force teachers and care workers to fight for even the tiniest improvement.
- The prominent role of care workers in class struggle is neither accidental nor a result mainly of the pandemic; it represents a long-term crisis of reproduction jobs. The capitalist system in crisis at the same time increases the demand for reproduction work and all forms of care work (more poverty and mental illness, sickening working conditions, higher volume of refugees) and at the same time limits the possibilities for that kind of work (slashing public services to fund profits and war, increasing working hours and flexibility). Care workers and women are placed at the frontline of this contradiction that will continue to drive struggle and the development of consciousness. While the sector has limited direct economic power it can trigger wider protests especially because sympathy and support for these “essential workers” is widespread. The systematic nature of the crisis in these sectors also provide the basis for the workers to be amongst the first getting into action, draw systematic conclusions that leads to openness to socialist ideas and become a leading force in the rebuilding of the workers’ movement in general.
- Today the war in Ukraine is a key factor in the objective situation. Even in war, gender determines how different workers are affected. Regular reports are given about the rape of Ukrainian women by Russian soldiers. The situation of women refugees is also very vulnerable as the reports from even the first days of the wave of refugees showed, with reports of requests for sexual services, rock bottom wages, and the sex industry preying on them. On the other hand, people between the ages of 18 and 60 who have “male” written in their passport, were forced to stay in the country and participate in the war. The right to refuse military service and instead accept other civilian services has been abolished since September 2022. Men who flee from military service are arrested and face repression. In addition, trans women, who have not yet been able to change their passports accordingly, have also been forced to participate in military service.
- Since the war began, in Belarus 20,000 men fled the country and in Russia about 300,000 men escaped military service. At the same time the resistance against the mobilization of conscripts in Russia comes at the moment mostly from women and oppressed minorities/nations. It is there we should look in the short and medium term for more emboldened opposition against the regime, beginning with an opposition against the mobilization. History also shows us that poor and working-class women can, in the longer term, also play an outsized role in the fight against the economic consequences of the war, against hunger and misery. In October and November 2022 more than 20 female relatives of mobilised people from Voronezh, Kursk and Belgorod regions came to a military unit in the city of Valuiki and demanded that representatives of the unit return them to the territory of the Russian Federation. Women are ready to go to the front line themselves to rescue the soldiers if they are not helped. On a smaller scale, in Russia, groups like Feminists Against War organise sticker and street art campaigns, psychological counselling, help activists and deserters to leave the country, draw attention to the situation of political prisoners, write anti-war propaganda, and also repeatedly try to organise smaller street protests. That these actions immediately lead to arrests and heavy fines has not stopped women from carrying them out. Since the war, the number of female political prisoners has risen rapidly — 2.2 for every male.
- With the growing cost of living crisis and a recession on the horizon, refugees will be brutally treated by state forces and used as scapegoats by growing far-right forces, while at the same time we should expect new migration waves flowing from the economic and climate crisis and growing military conflict. In the past this has proven to be a favourable breeding ground for far-right forces. In the absence of left and working-class organizations offering a way out of the crises, the far right can show a pretend “social face” by taking over — and generally deforming — necessary social demands, but only for “our people”. The variants of right-wing populism are used ultimately to conceal the fundamentally pro-capitalist program of these reactionary forces.
- Far-right forces are not just focusing on immigration and racism, but also, in many cases, presenting themselves against women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, building a base by focusing on the lowest forms of consciousness among layers of the working class, the poor and the lower middle class layers. However, these attacks carry a serious risk of overreach for the right, particularly given the mass feminist movements of the past decade. In many elections it is shown that women vote in far lower numbers for these parties, but more importantly in attacking women’s rights up front, the potential is opened for mass resistance developing into struggle and thereby playing a role in the resurgence of class struggle. It is not a coincidence that Meloni in Italy stated in her election campaign that she doesn’t want to ban abortion or attack LGBTQ+ rights, even if attacks in the form of support to “pro-life” organisations and starving abortion services of resources will continue. After all, the first demonstration since her election was in defence of abortion rights organized by the women’s movement. Women’s organizations in Italy continue protesting the ongoing cuts to funding for abortion access.
- In the Spanish State, despite the limited social reforms and COVID-19 measures of the, in reality, pro-market PSOE/Podemos government, initial enthusiasm and support from the working class for the coalition has gradually declined and left space for the right to grow. The coalition is being punished for not going far enough in taking measures in favour of the working class. With parliamentary elections set for December 2023, a future conservative right-wing government, either including the far right and Spanish nationalist Vox party in parliament, or supported by it from the outside, is increasingly a possibility. Such a government however, would have to confront a powerful and active women’s movement as well as Catalan and Basque opposition. The risk of such a (far) right government overreaching itself and provoking massive opposition in the streets, is huge.
- The cost of living crisis is again felt in the most painful way by those already on lower wages and with no reserves. This comes in a period when profits have just been hitting new record heights. Inflation is however touching the whole class, with more perspectives for generalized working-class struggle against high prices and for higher wages, which offers the potential for this struggle and struggles against oppression to flow together if a lead is seen to be given.
- The official leadership of the left and working-class organizations in most cases gives no lead in the face of growing despair but also anger against high prices. The radicalised layers are not yet strong enough to present an alternative leadership. This creates the space for the far right to grow, on the basis of appearing to offer a “radical” change to address security concerns and social plight as seen in Brazil or Italy. There are limits to the victories of the far right even where they present themselves with a “social face”. Most of these far-right variants are openly anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ+ rights, anti-immigration and full of climate change deniers. They have no majority in society and in most cases their successes (e.g. getting into government) will provoke reactions and may act as the whip of counter-revolution.
- In the past decade, important gains were made by trans people, thanks to persistent struggles. The extreme right has responded with a backlash with transphobia becoming a main calling card in far-right movements in a number of countries. Increasingly, transphobia is propagated also by establishment capitalist parties and the mainstream media. Trans people have responded to such vicious attacks in protests defending themselves, as shown in the case of the self-ID bill approved by the Scottish parliament, vetoed by the British Parliament. In the Spanish State, protests have erupted to speed up approval of a similar bill before the 2023 elections, to cement rights in case a conservative government comes into power.
- In recent years, trans people have also played an important role in social movements: feminist struggles, anti-racist struggles such as Black Lives Matter and climate movements. Since trans people suffer from severe discrimination, for many there is an instinctive consciousness linking their oppression to other types of oppression and exploitation. Moreover, as trans people are discriminated against in the job market, and more likely to earn low pay, they have also been increasingly involved in trade unions. For example, trans workers have been an important force in Starbucks organising efforts in the US. Transphobic tropes and policies re-enforce rigid gender roles and norms, and therefore harm cisgender women and the LGBTQ+ community in general. The involvement of trans people in these struggles pushes such issues onto the agenda. However, as an issue that affects large parts of the working class, defence and promotion of trans rights and interests should be taken up by broad social movements and trade unions.
- In the situation of a growing economic crisis, reactionary forces will do all they can to divide and to divert attention. As in the labour market, the last to find a job is generally the first to lose it. Growing unemployment will again hit the most vulnerable sections first, sections who have been central in the struggles of the last decade. Unemployment in OECD economies is generally still relatively low. Whereas long term structural unemployment puts a brake on workers’ struggle, a sharp and rapid growth of joblessness, as may occur in the context of a recession, has led to struggles of the unemployed often being the first fights of the working masses during an economic slump. The cost of living crisis points in the direction of the demand for a sliding scale of wages and unemployment points in the direction of the demand for a sliding scale of working hours.
The threat of reaction and the far right
- The implosion of the political centre and the crumbling of the traditional parties, including the bourgeoisified social-democracy, does not only lead to new and more radical right-wing parties, but also pushes traditional parties to lean on the far right, in order to stay in power. The overturning of Roe v Wade is the price Trump promised to the small minority of organized Christian fundamentalist forces in return for their support, thereby however pushing through a counter reform that doesn’t have the support of the majority. This move could be followed by other conservative or reactionary regimes, but even the Brothers of Italy shy away from such open attacks, and in France the Macron government plans to bring forward a proposal to put abortion rights in the constitution. In the advanced capitalist world, a repeat of this defeat is not immediately on the agenda —and if it was, it would be met with resistance.
- That is not to understate the dangers of the far right, whose growth is an important feature of the world situation, something which demands greater attention from ISA. The deepening crisis of capitalism, the accumulated hatred of the political establishment most associated with the devastation of the neoliberal era, and the enduring weakness of the labour movement and the Left has led to right-wing populism of varying shades being able to consolidate and deepen its influence amongst an important minority of middle-class and working-class people. Part of the explanation of the rise of the right is they offer simplistic and appealing solutions to complex problems. They also can offer a feeling of community in a world dominated by alienation; this is reinforced by the weakening of the “community” of unions and former left and workers’ parties. This process which is reflected in the growth of “new” or more radical right-wing forces as in the US, the Spanish state and Brazil, and in the populist, Bonapartist turn of traditional right-wing parties as in Britain, Canada, Israel etc, is likely to continue to develop in the coming years. Even where the right has been knocked back electorally, as in the US and Brazil, this has obscured their strengthening in terms of the consolidation of their social base. In many countries the right has been more capable of actively mobilizing than in the recent past, as was clear in Brazil, in Italy, but more broadly by orienting itself against Covid restrictions. In Brazil, right-wing terror has been used against black people, women, LGBTQ+ people, indigenous communities and environmentalists —a clear warning that this will also be turned against working class-struggle if such attacks are left unanswered and thereby boosting the confidence of far-right forces. Where these forces are on the rise, this immediately becomes a priority for revolutionary socialists. While very dangerous, in most places extreme right terror would lead to resistance. With the potential of these forces serving as a whip of counter revolution on the movement of youth, workers and women, the ruling classes will remain careful in using them, preferring to rely on state forces and state-linked paramilitaries for outright repression and, where possible, use the TU leaderships and traditional reformist centre-left forces to economically police and demobilise the working class. This is however not indefinitely possible and new austerity by these latter forces in power will drive more extreme polarisation, giving new opportunities for the populist and far right, but also for new left forces. Military dictatorships will be met with struggle and therefore will find it hard to stabilize.
- There is an increasing trend of ”traditional” parties copying the rhetoric and policies of racist parties in order to “gain points” and to further whip up a frenzy against refugees in particular, but also all who are not “originally” from the country. Painting “them” as the enemy vs “us” is a very valuable tool for the capitalist state to split working-class unity. This ties into the void left by the left parties and the labour movement, failing to provide a way forward and a fightback against the brutal attacks of capitalism on all of society. In Europe, Fortress Europe has raised its walls higher, with more barbed wire. The EU is funding countries like Libya to detain refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and are increasingly criminalising people who are helping refugees. 24 volunteer and aid workers are now facing up to 25 years in prison for providing refugees with water and blankets off the coast of the Greek island Lesbos in 2018! As a result of imperialist wars, exploitation and, increasingly, the climate crisis, there are more refugees than ever before. According to the latest UNHCR figures, over 100 million people were displaced in 2022, a new bleak milestone and an increase from around 40 million 2011. The Ukraine war alone has displaced almost 15 million people.
- Trump’s strength — like the strength of like-minded authoritarian and populist right-wing figures like Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Putin and Modi — derives to a great degree from the (organizational and political) weaknesses of the new left formations or leaders, and the weaknesses of working-class organizations, primarily the trade unions. Instead of mobilizing all forces around demands that benefit the large majority, the right-wing bureaucracies and official leaderships hold back struggle and refuse to take up issues of oppression in a decisive way. This has been further magnified by the capitulations and desertions by reformist leaders like Sanders. If a lead had been given to defeat the threat against Roe v Wade through mass struggle, the potential was there, even though this did not develop spontaneously, for a massive response. This was shown by the response to our initiatives, but also the pro-choice victories in all state referendums so far. However, the established women’s organizations, linked to the Democrats, defended a defeatist position, which had an effect also in view of the lack of substantial victories of earlier mass action (Women’s March, BLM, Me Too with the Kavanaugh trial). The lack of a lead given by the left Democrats, including the DSA, added to that potential not being reached. The electoral backlash against the Dobbs decision has pushed back Republican ambitions for a national ban, at least temporarily. At this stage, abortion battles are primarily being fought on a state-by-state basis, with a Wisconsin judicial election in April set to be the next major battleground. Abortion pill usage has dramatically increased since Dobbs, and the Biden administration, pro-choice advocates, and one of the pill manufacturers are all pursuing different legal and legislative avenues to increase availability of abortion pills. Possibly a campaign in the streets can develop around one of these legal fights, but more likely, a case like the death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland or children being forced to give birth or dying in unsafe abortions could see the movement in the streets flare up.
- The movement that broke out in Iran after the death of Zhina Amini shows the tenacity of these struggles, shows how defeat can lead to temporary retreat, only to pop up again with greater strength and bigger support in society. The perspective should not be that these struggles disappear once the working class starts moving, but that this question is part and parcel of the working-class movement, in which women are far more integrated than in past feminist waves, and moreover a strong precursor and activator. The fact that the protests didn’t remain limited to the Kurdish region in Iran also shows its potential to become a unified movement, strengthened now (mid-October) by strikes in the oil and petro-chemical sector which is a key part of the Iranian economy. Although at the moment it does not look like the revolutionary movement in Iran will succeed immediately in overthrowing the regime, the changes in consciousness caused by the movement — especially around national and gender oppression — will infuse future explosions that will be triggered by catastrophic living conditions and create the conditions to finally overthrow the regime and for the development of the leadership needed. The most important task for Marxists at the moment is to gather the core of such a future revolutionary leadership with first and foremost building the forces of revolutionary Marxism in the diaspora and on the ground but also with those forces taking part in broader structures developing to discuss and develop a programme and the next steps in the revolutionary process.
- In Latin America, regional counter-revolution has seen some gains with the right-wing coup against Castillo in Peru, the far-right street mobilizations of Bolsonaro supporters in Brazil, and the defeat in the referendum for a new constitution in Chile. Despite the latter’s deep limitations, it is an important conjunctural victory for the reactionary right. It shows how stepping away from struggle and leaving things over to institutional talks is immediately punished by the right-wing taking back control. The rejection of the constitution did not prevent struggle by youth breaking out quickly afterwards, and wider struggles are on the agenda, even if the Chilean masses are momentarily licking their wounds. The mass anger has not disappeared, nor have the underlying material reasons for struggle, nor the political instability within the ruling class. Whereas the leadership of the left is lukewarm, to say the least, in taking up women’s rights, the constitutional assembly with its radical proposals (on paper) regarding women’s rights reflected the burning social pressure that remains which can be channelled into new mass upsurges. Any attempt of the official right — traditional or far right — to go back to austerity and to continue to impose an oppressive and reactionary policy in this sphere will be met with struggle. The far right and populist right-wing leaders can easily overreach and provoke widespread resistance.
- On the basis of reformism, any improvement, legal and material, will however be limited and constantly undermined, unless the struggle takes on mass forms and uses radical working-class methods. The reformist left, that pursues a gradualist approach and looks for “solutions” within the system, will inevitably disappoint as it is objectively incapable of addressing the multi-faceted generalized capitalist crisis. Although reformism may play a dual role, as seen over the last years, on the one hand, in popularizing demands and ideas in the direction of working-class and socialist conclusions, it would also act to cement dangerous mass illusions, as was underlined in particular with the role of Sanders, and the rightward shift of the enlarged Squad. In many phases, these forces also lag behind the consciousness of broad layers that recognize, as a basic conclusion, that what stands in the way of general improvement of the living standards of the majority of the population is the massive amounts of wealth going to the bosses and the rich.
- The failure of reformism can lead at times to “doomerism”, to the idea that nothing can be done, but that mood will give way to new movements at a later stage, with most movements growing or exploding from below with the trade union leadership running behind them, as we have seen all through the pandemic. The development of ad hoc grass roots structures such as SEL/CIU (Belgium, France) and committees of defence (Sudan) is poised to continue — in some countries because of the absence or near absence of trade union structures, in others because the bureaucratization blocks pressure from below to lead to decisive action. Fighting for democratic structures and a fighting program, but also for trade unions and left formations to take up the struggle against oppression and organize the unorganized is a key question for Marxist worker cadres — as important as defending basic socialist ideas in the movements against oppression and orienting them to the working class and its organizations.
- The strengthening of far-right forces is an important development for activists and Marxists. We need to understand its roots but also that there is no automatism and no straight line of development. With the absence or weakness of working-class organizations and activity, the far right can fill the vacuum and influence the consciousness of layers of the working class — especially with racist and sexist ideas that are deepening and creating divisions in the working class and serve as a barrier to struggle. But we need to stress that this is not the dominant trend. Amongst young people there is a predominantly internationalist consciousness, linked to the climate crisis and rejection of sexism, part of an instinctively anti-system and generally left outlook. We also need to stress that when the working class moves into struggle, this lays the basis to overcome racist and sexist ideas — by experience and by actively being challenged within these struggles. The defence of a programme for the working class to take up the struggle against all forms of oppression and barbarism — and thereby fight against its internal division and competition — is an important part of the struggle for the class to become a class for itself, for a class that can show itself a leader in the fight for a socialist society, for a class that in Marx’s words becomes “fit to rule”.
Mass struggle and class struggle
- A defining factor of this new era is the global resurgence of the working class as a visible social force and a more central agent of struggle.
- Over the past decades of neoliberalism, the working class underwent a process politically dominated by disenfranchisement, the bourgeoisification of its once traditional parties, generally unsuccessful attempts to overcome this problem as well as a weakening of the trade union movement in many countries. However, from an objective point of view the working class has grown significantly on a global scale during the same period, both in its comparative size in society and in its overall economic weight, and it is today more educated and technologically advanced and more internationally connected than ever before. The material basis for the class struggle has sharpened considerably, in the form of a large proportional transfer of value from labour to capital and a historic explosion of inequalities.
- The current era has brought all these contradictions to the fore: on the one hand, there is a qualitative increase and expansion of struggles, mass revolts and strikes on an international scale (although inevitably uneven across the world), and in many countries the working class is rediscovering its social strength and regaining confidence to fight; on the other hand, its experience, consciousness, level of organization and leadership still bear some of the marks of the past period and obstruct the road towards decisive breakthroughs and victories.
- ISA’s last world congress came in the wake of a year of mass social upheavals against neoliberalism, elite corruption and enormous inequalities, in which women and young people played an especially prominent part. The global Covid-19 pandemic, and then the war in Ukraine, have since dramatically exacerbated all existing inequalities, and shattered the already eroded beliefs in the system as a vector of progress and stability. Importantly, the pandemic also shone an unprecedented and global spotlight on the role of the working class in holding society together. In a general sense, these successive global events have oiled the wheels of the class struggle far more than the opposite. Less than a year into the pandemic, India, for example, witnessed, once more, the numerically largest strike in human history, involving over 250 million workers.
- The mass revolts, after a brief pause, came back to the fore with renewed spread and intensity, at times breaking out into insurrectionary explosions, as was most vividly the case in Sri Lanka and Ecuador in the course of 2022.
- It is in the neo-colonial world that such explosions for now have mostly been concentrated; the structural weaknesses of these economies and their dependence and subjection to imperialism have meant that the fallouts from the global events of the last years have descended upon the workers and poor with particularly brutal force. The same countries which had scant margin for fiscal interventions in the first place are experiencing a huge surge of their debt burden and import costs, and are now re-embarking on mass austerity programmes, shattering society’s equilibriums and sharpening the features of both revolution and counter-revolution. The global recession is bound to sharpen them further. This comes after a period which saw some —very little but still— improvements regarding poverty. It is the fact that again all promises for a better future are proven to be wrong that fire the masses. They were prepared to wait, to accept small improvements step by step but now even this is gone.
- Significantly, in many of the most recent revolts, the methods of struggle of the working class have become a more pronounced feature; in some cases, as with the climate strike, only the term was used, pointing to an understanding of the power of this measure. In other cases, such methods were their most immediate detonators. The response to the military coups in Myanmar and Sudan in 2021, which both promptly took the form of mass, days-long strike actions, have been highly significant from that point of view.
- It is noteworthy that the recent eruption of the working class in mass struggles has also affected countries where the labour movement had either been historically weak (like in Myanmar —where the formation of an independent trade union movement is very recent — and Belarus — where decades of Stalinism had nipped workers’ self-organization in the bud) or had suffered profound setbacks in recent times (like in Sri Lanka, where the trade unions took a heavy blow under decades of civil war and communal politics; in Sudan, where unions had been subjugated or crushed under al Bashir’s dictatorship; and in Kazakhstan, where workers went through a decade of retreat after the 2011 Zhanaozen massacre).
- Revolutionary upheavals and social explosions in which the working class is at the forefront are not a fully new phenomenon in this century. Such episodes did occur in the preceding decade. However, they were constrained to some countries (like in Greece between 2011–2014 or in the early phases of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions) and broad class consciousness in society was at a comparatively lower level than it is today. Since 2019, but even more so since the pandemic, this phenomenon has taken a new dimension, and while the working class’s political outlook and level of organization continues to lag behind, the recognition of its methods as needed to fight back has unevenly but undoubtedly grown, inspiring and seeping through larger layers. Whether through organized or de facto general strikes, total shutdowns, all-out strikes, strike waves engulfing several sectors at once, “hartals”, millions of people have witnessed mass working-class action on a scale unseen in generations.
- In parallel, the frequency, depth and scale of strike actions has substantially increased across all continents, as has the public sympathy and support for such actions. What were once the citadels of neoliberalism, the US and Britain, have been shaken by important waves of strikes and labour organizing, which have included significant victories to win union recognition by new, previously unorganized sections of the working class, particularly in the US. The level of support for trade unions in both countries is now at a level not reached since the 1960s. Many other countries (Iran, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Sudan) have experienced in recent years some of their highest levels of strikes in decades. All of this points to the potential for the renewal and growth of a radical working-class trade union activism and class consciousness after decades of retreat, a process that is still in its early stages that will contain many contradictions and setbacks, but also potential leaps forward fuelled by the conditions of capitalism’s age of catastrophe.
- These strikes have at times affected strategic powerhouses and arteries of the capitalist economy, as illustrated by the strikes of oil and petrochemical workers in Iran, the oil refineries strikes in France, the strikes at the Felixstowe and Liverpool ports in Britain or at the Durban port in South Africa (the second largest container port on the continent).
- The labour shortages in some sectors, the deeper discrediting of the capitalist establishment, the enhanced self-confidence of so-called essential workers resulting from their vital role during the lockdowns (in sectors like healthcare, education, logistics) and, above all, the huge inflationary pressures on workers’ incomes in a period of gluttonous profits for the super-rich are all feeding this new cycle of struggles, rising working-class ferment and industrial disputes. The cost-of-living crisis, in particular, is recognised by many bourgeois analysts as a major combustible for social explosions. According to the rating agency S&P Global, the global food shock will “stir up social unrest for years to come”. It is difficult to disagree with that.
- The economic crisis is the main background to the developments in the working class and its organizations. The crisis as such limits the space for reformist policies typical for the trade union bureaucracies. Developments in and around the trade unions are and will be different in different countries depending on the role and structures of the unions and especially depending on how strong they are linked to the state and the ruling classes. The closer these links are the more they will try to block class struggles. The other side of the coin is a working class that increasingly looks for ways to organize and fight back, where possible, using existing trade unions and their structures, where not, trying to build them. This also puts pressure on the bureaucracies which for the most part are still socially dependent on the membership. They therefore react to pressure from below and at least sections of the bureaucracy will be pushed to take action that goes further than they themselves would want. This understanding of the necessity to get organized and fight collectively is an important step forward in the development of working-class consciousness, the form it will take will differ from country to country and needs a flexible approach of the forces of the ISA on the ground. In between these two poles — union leaderships completely blocking struggle due to their links to the ruling classes, and the formation of new fighting structures on the ground — we will see various developments including unions becoming more competitive instruments of the working class and conflicts within the unions between different parts of the bureaucracy and the rank-and-file. In many cases the ability for the trade union official apparatuses to hold things back and maintain business-as-usual is being increasingly tested and challenged. While adopting varied expressions and tempos, the tendency towards a breakdown and exposure of piecemeal or class-pacifying trade unionism is set to accelerate. The important tumults and changes in the leadership of some unions, the more militant stance or demands adopted by individual union leaders, the union bureaucrats being bypassed by their base, the formation of new unions, the launch of broad-based campaigns by sectors of the union movement to reach out to people outside union structures etc, are all different manifestations of that same general process. The strike wave in Britain has also shown how serious illusions can develop in sections of the union bureaucracy, which has been far from popular in most of the world over the past period. The launch of Enough is Enough and radicalized rhetoric of the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), Mick Lynch and others is rooted both in the increased ferocity of class relations and in the consequent need for union bureaucrats to act. While this example shows a move to the left under pressure from below, in other cases the bureaucracy will not move and the need to organize against and/or independent from them will be necessary. Some examples for these are especially developing in the health and care sector where in many countries the union is weaker and a barrier to the necessary struggles with rank-and-file initiatives developing like “Sozial aber nicht blöd” in Austria, Saint etienne lutte in Belgium or the inter-paramedics collective CIH in France. A Marxist method on this question, which combines wholehearted support for everything that union leaders do which is positive, with a consistent promotion of the independent organization of the rank and file within, across and beyond union structures in a flexible way, is crucial to reestablish going forward.
Complications and limitations
- The trajectory of workers’ struggles is unequal across countries and sectors, and features significant exceptions (Sweden, for example, registered no strikes in 2020 and only 11 working days lost to strikes in 2021, a historic low). It could also be negatively altered in the case of a major slump in the world economy — although considering the “baggage” with which the working masses are entering this new period and the already low level of faith in the capitalist bosses and establishment, a freezing effect on struggles would most likely be of a very limited and temporary nature.
- The new wave of working-class militancy is a global and unmistakably positive trend of the new period we have entered, and one whose lasting effects on world politics, as well as on the consciousness and forms of organization of the working class itself, are likely to be profound. But this, of course, should not lead us to minimize the contradictions, limits, and complications inherent to this process. While historic, it is still incipient, and many of the recent strikes are still of a defensive nature, i.e. to restore living standards in a context of the surging cost of living. In many countries, the working class is waking up from a long period of slumber, which means there is an inevitable gap of inexperience among new generations of workers entering the struggle. The curve of union drives in the Starbucks coffee chain in the US, for example, has slowed down as the tactical shortcomings of the new unions involved have come more to the fore.
- To varying degrees, the working class the world over continues to grapple with a serious crisis of political organization and leadership, and in mass consciousness, the perception that a viable alternative exists to capitalism remains weak, let alone what alternative that might be and how it could come about. From that point of view, it is clear that whilst mass rejection of the current order and radicalization of a more “systemic” nature are key features of the new era, the lingering effects of the rightward galloping and complete integration of former workers’ parties in the neoliberal counter-revolution, and the decisive collapse of Stalinism, have not been fully overcome. As a general rule, the readiness of the working class to fight has no match in terms of leaders, trade unions and parties able to seize the potential expressed, and equipped with the program and strategy needed to deliver enduring victories. In the revolutionary outbursts that have occurred, reformist, liberal and middle-class leaders, guided by their propensity to water down the struggle and to drive it towards safe institutional channels, have often occupied the vacuum, with disastrous results.
- The struggles and demands of the masses tend to come up very quickly against “the system”, but the crisis of the subjective factor, i.e. the lack of a politically independent working-class movement and a weak understanding on how to carry movements through to a structural conclusion, has remained an important line of defence for the ruling class.
- The recent period has witnessed very explosive struggles which have at times snatched important concessions; the ruling class has taken blows and some of these elementary explosions have even forced some heads to roll. The storming of the Presidential Palace in Colombo and the occupation of key state buildings by the masses, in the context of the humiliating overthrow of Rajapaksa’s rule, even briefly brought the question of power on the table, allowing the masses for a short while to flirt with the idea of them being in charge. However, the leaders of the movement did not know what to do with their conquest, apart from handing it over back to the bourgeois state. The masses now have a President completely reliant on the parliamentary support of Rajapaksa’s party, and a government stuffed up with the ex-President supporters. The “Omnibus law”, against which three days of mass labour unrest erupted in Indonesia in 2020, is still in effect, as is Pinochet’s old constitution in Chile. In Tunisia, more than ten years after the fall of Ben Ali, the democratic space that had been conquered by the 2010–2011 revolution is trampled upon by the rise of a new Bonapartist regime.
- The absence of a developed workers movement, or repeated frustration with official movement and union leaders and with the lack of tangible results following important struggles, can bring its own set of problems, particularly in a context in which millions are thrown into desperate conditions. This can include the outburst of rioting, anarchistic or individual terrorist actions. An example is the wave of bank robberies witnessed in Lebanon, where banks are imposing harsh limits on the number of dollars a depositor can withdraw and refusing ordinary people their own money. These are desperate individual actions as a result of deepening economic crisis and dramatic poverty where the banks are trying to save themselves, against the background of deep economic and social collapse and years of inconclusive struggle. In Myanmar, there has been a turn to guerilla warfare by many young people after the mass struggle was driven into a blind alley by the liberal opposition.
- However, bar the situation in Hong Kong — where the once-mass movement has been defeated through a thorough and ongoing reactionary counter-offensive — it has to be stressed that no historical defeat has been imposed on the working class globally. The world situation remains a very open battleground between the forces of revolution and the forces of counter-revolution, in which opportunities for qualitative breakthroughs in consciousness, in the shaping of new political organizations for the working class, and in the growth of Marxist forces, are bound to be posed.
- The re-eruption of the masses in Iran barely three years after the last uprising was crushed in blood at the cost of over 1,500 dead, points to a simple but fundamental reality: the workers and the oppressed struggle because they have no other alternative. Of course, their resilience is not limitless, and phases of retreats, setbacks, exhaustion, demoralization, as well as sharper forms of reaction will be an integral part of things to come. But so will be phases of sudden acceleration and explosive outbursts of mass anger, rendered all the more likely by the limited control bureaucratic and reformist apparatuses have on the masses, particularly on young people.
- The profound crisis affecting capitalism’s superstructure, and the difficulties to replenish stable social reserves for the ruling class in the context of the organic and multi-sided crisis of capitalism mean that the period of revolution and counter-revolution that opened up a decade ago is likely to be of a very drawn-out character. It is difficult to see where and how the basis for a new equilibrium in inter-class relations could come about.
- Importantly, from the smallest strike to a revolutionary uprising, mass consciousness develops the most in the midst of action, and the coming era will be full of it. Movements which came back after suffering a setback have tended to do so on a higher plane than before. The example of the thousands of grassroots Resistance Committees that have sprung up throughout Sudan, and the fresh debates that have erupted within them to enhance their coordination and define their exact political role; or the fact that in Iran, various local revolutionary councils have emerged, and calls to that effect have been raised, show that workers and young people will tend to renew with the need for independent self-organization, and draw more mature political conclusions from their experiences.
- Lenin once observed that “At revolutionary moments, the enemy always forces correct conclusions upon us in a particularly instructive and speedy manner.” This is certainly the case as regards the capitalist state’s more nakedly repressive role, which millions are bitterly experiencing, drawing lessons from, and testing new methods of resistance against. As seen on many occasions, the reaction of the state itself, and attacks against democratic rights more generally, can be a spark for igniting movements, or for propelling them to the next level. For example, the French government’s decision to force striking oil refinery workers back to work in October prompted the call for an “inter-professional” strike by the CGT and other unions in response. This will continue to be a very important feature in the struggles to come.
- Discontent is so wide in society, and the crisis so multifaceted and global, that struggles can break out on any one of a multitude of issues. For the same reasons, the layers involved in them will likely tend to be more open to a generalized questioning of the system and to an all-round, international alternative than in the period we are leaving behind us. That is why, perhaps even more so than at any historical period before, championing the struggle against all forms of oppression, imperialist war, the climate crisis, far-right violence, etc, and sharpening our transitional program on all those questions to make them flow into the strategic task for the working class to lead the revolutionary transformation of society, will be paramount to build our forces.
Deep political crises
- The new period feels extremely turbulent. This is rooted in the fact that given the character of the period the ruling elites have no solutions. Every measure creates new problems instead of solving them. The political expression of this is the lack of support or trust in the various parties and governments. Governments that don’t complete their full terms are becoming increasingly common. Ministers change as well as Chairmen/women. The main motive in elections is anger at the incumbents.
- Even old traditional bourgeois parties try to re-invent themselves to overcome this crisis — and fail quickly as with Boris Johnson. New formations pop up and can get huge electoral support but also fail quickly and split into wings and factions — like the 5-Star-Movement in Italy. Populism is filling a vacuum following the bourgeoisification of social democracy and the general discontent with establishment parties.
- In this scenario the strengthening of far-right forces is a remarkable and dangerous development: the transformation of the Republicans under Trump and tack towards the right of several traditional centre-right parties, the formation of a solid base for Bolsonarism evident in his performance in the Brazilian election (and the far-right mobilization in its aftermath), the electoral successes of the Italian far right, led by Meloni, or the Sweden Democrats becoming 2nd in the 2022 elections. The continued failure to offer a real, mass alternative to the bankrupt capitalist political establishment from the left offers a dangerous opportunity for the growth of far-right ideas. The mobilisation for the cause of electoral lesser-evilism has not been very successful in recent years and at the expense of some left forces pulling back politically and organizationally by supporting seemingly “progressive” bourgeois parties. The low participation in the French election despite the clear danger from the extreme right and Lula’s victory by a small margin demonstrate this. The danger of victories for the extreme right on a parliamentary level cannot be mitigated by such a method in the middle and long term. However, the experience of these far-right figures in power will mean this strategy will not work forever. Even though these forces got their strength positioning themselves as “anti-establishment” and do not represent the majority of the ruling class, they do represent the concrete danger of future Bonapartist rule, when liberal bourgeois rule comes to its limits in capitalist democracy in decay.
- The various far-right forces gained under Covid, basing themselves on conspiracy theories and the anger about the government measures including bumbling its ability to contain the virus and the crisis. It illustrates how the growth of the far-right is not just an electoral phenomenon. Already there is a small but expanding base of those now more open to adopting its full agenda. The reactionaries are also increasingly calling for a return to traditional gender roles as part of a backlash against the wave of women and feminist struggles representing increased self-confidence. This orientation meets an already existing revolt and will provoke more. The recent developments in Iran show the extremely explosive nature of such issues that are taken up by big parts of the population and can bring regimes to their knees. Depending on the developments in Iran, the coming months in Afghanistan as well as the parliamentary elections in Turkey can be further examples of how seemingly strong regimes could be finished.
- The strengthening of the far right, while worrying as this includes violent and terrorist elements as we saw under Bolsonaro’s rule and especially in the election campaign, also has its limits. Until now they have not fully profited from the cost-of-living crises although it was part of right-wing populism in Le Pen’s campaign as well as in Bolsonaro’s election campaign. While taking it up in some countries, even mobilizing against it like in the Czech Republic or in Germany, they could not fully profit from it as their main answer is, in Europe, sort of “pro-Putin” and there is only limited space for fiscal expansion to fund populist economic measures. The promises from new Italian Prime Minister Meloni to act along the line of EU interests reflect the limitations of far-right parties once they are in government. The Austrian far-right FPÖ failed twice when they were in government. Both times they implemented a brutal neoliberal agenda but also came out of the government severely weakened for a period. The debates over national sovereignty vs EU influence will certainly increase in the coming period, fueled not only by various far-right organizations but also by traditional bourgeois parties. Although bourgeois parties are inherently nationalist and would always generally employ nationalism, nowadays, even in countries where in the past it had a more restrained expression, they’re increasingly shifting towards more aggressive nationalist rhetoric.
- The main pro-EU parties are the various social democratic parties. Where they are in power like in Germany, Norway or Spain there is no enthusiasm or mass support. When there is no left, fighting, working-class alternative on offer, these parties can receive electoral support mainly on the basis of “lesser evilism”, but also in an attempt of especially middle-class layers of voters to return to a more stable situation.
- The ISA and previously the CWI [CWI became ISA at the previous World Congress] developed the analyses and fought for the development of new workers’ parties since the 1990’s. The bureaucratization of the traditional workers organization left the working class without mass organizations and we identified the need to build new ones as an important task of revolutionaries. Also, because consciousness was pushed back, not least by the collapse of Stalinism, this process turned out to be much more complicated than we expected and, on most occasions, what developed were new left formations, often short lived, orientated towards elections and without roots in the working class.
- As a rule, with exceptions, the new left formations or figures in Europe in the past historical period have entered into major crisis or decline. This is especially due to the timid reformist politics of their leaderships as well as their lack of roots in the labour movement and the working class. Their main focus was parliamentarism, joining governments and supporting “necessary” cuts. There are important lessons to be learned from this for the coming period. There are also important exceptions including France Insoumise and the PTB in Belgium which have not been tested in power. New formations will develop. It is important to bring the lessons from the previous ones, of the dangers and limitations of orienting towards positions and seats, of the need to lean on the working class and its struggles, of the necessity of a socialist program and a class-struggle strategy to overcome capitalism. Especially in periods of economic crisis, the space for reformism is smaller: one of the main reasons why all reformist projects and concepts quickly reach their limit and surrender to the logic of capitalism.
- DIE LINKE, former flagship of new left formations in Europe, is a prime example of how to fall into the traps and dangers that have to be circumnavigated in the process of formation of new mass workers’ parties. As a collection of all kinds of different right and left-reformist ideas, it lacked clarity in programme from its foundation on. Even though anticapitalist ideas could win majorities within the party in some instances, there was no strategy if and how to overcome capitalism. Instead, a majority strived for participation in state and federal governments, where the party failed to deliver any meaningful change, but lost its image as an anti-establishment party. Years of stagnation lead to a crisis that is set to split the party into a more populist but also social-chauvinist party under Sahra Wagenknecht, and a more “progressive”, but less rebellious party, the latter being the majority. The result will be less unity, but not more clarity. In that sense the destructive split will be a major defeat for the whole left in Germany, even if the further perspectives of the two parties are still open, and thus it is the task of Marxists to intervene among the more progressive elements with the aim of assisting to clarify the lessons and point the necessary way forward, in the context of the general class struggle and the left opposition to the capitalist SPD-Greens-FDP government.
- The balance sheet of the development of new left formations and especially of new workers’ parties is important although not too favourable. The need for mass organizations of the working class and youth is still there but we understand that the process of how this will develop will not be linear. Although new parties can play an important role, there are strong factors (no room for reformism, crisis of parliamentarianism) that make it unlikely that long term stable formations are on the agenda. Moreover, the process of the reorganization of the working class will take different forms: short lived new left parties, entering unions, creating new fighting structures, various feminist or climate initiatives or the neighbourhood committees that have been the heart of revolutionary struggles in Chile, Sudan and Catalonia. For socialists this means we need to have a flexible approach to organizing where struggle is developing, using tactics like banners, working partly in other formations but in all this always keeping and building the revolutionary party as the stable factor in these processes.
Growing climate catastrophe
- The climate catastrophe proves the inability of capitalism to provide humanity with a future — let alone a good future. After a summer of fires (Spain, France) and droughts (with the drying up of some of the main rivers and lakes in Europe and China) this was followed by floods (Pakistan, Nigeria) and other weather extremes (like hurricanes in the Americas). Different from the past, the effects are noticeable now for everyone. One shocking new report or study follows the last.
- Thirty years after the Rio summit agreed to tackle climate change, CO2 emissions are still rising. The 2022 UN Emissions Gap Report states that there is “no credible pathway to 1.5OC in place”. Emissions are projected to rise by 14% until 2030 and, according to the World Meteorological Organization, there is a 50% risk that we will temporarily cross the critical 1.5°C mark of global heating within the next five years. There are growing concerns about tipping points that lead to irreversible changes to earth systems, often reinforcing global heating, such as the melting of the arctic permafrost releasing large quantities of the greenhouse gas methane, or the melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice caps. “Exceeding 1.5°C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points”, a study published by Science finds.
- The continued failure to address climate change and other looming ecological disasters is not simply due to ignorance or even greed. The primary goal of the political-economic system of capitalism is to produce profits. These profits come from expropriating nature and exploiting labour. On a treadmill of completely unsustainable ever-expanding growth, the earth’s ecosystems and natural resources are treated as free resources, where raw materials, food products and other resources are vacuumed up from nature while pollution is being vomited back out into the ground, sea, and air. Capitalist corporations compete for profits, seeking to cut corners and reduce costs — slashing wages and causing environmental damage. Nation states defend the interests of “their” national capitalists.
- With capitalism, the “ecological rift” between humans and nature has exploded, causing an escalating breakdown of the current dynamic equilibrium of the earth systems (the earth system is not in a static equilibrium, but in a constant flux within certain boundaries), which causes climate crisis and loss of biodiversity among other things. Capitalism is an absolute barrier to the international planning and cooperation needed to integrate humanity and nature. Instead, all “solutions” that stay within the rationale of capitalism will generally further widen the “ecological rift,” since they are based on a mode of production that treats nature as an infinite resource and continues the super-exploitation of the working class, creating extremely damaging conditions not only to billions of workers, but to the planet as a whole.
- And it’s not just the climate crisis that is threatening the future of humankind. Some estimate that in the next decades over one million species will disappear — more than half of the known species on the planet! Soil is disappearing due to erosion and/or salinization and oceans are overfished with severe consequences for food production. Water scarcity already affects around 40% of the world’s population and, according to figures from the United Nations and the World Bank the effects of increasing droughts could by 2030 force up to 700 million to leave their homes. Water has been and will increasingly be a reason for several conflicts including China/India/Pakistan/Kashmir, Ethiopia/Egypt, Turkey/Iraq and the whole Middle East including Israel/Palestine to name just a few. While several national states, including Saudi Arabia, Israel and Malta, already rely on seawater desal technology for half to all of the drinkable water supply, this is still an expensive, energy intensive and potentially highly polluting solution. Despite some progress in tackling ozone depletion, with a recent UN report estimating that 1980s levels could be restored within 2–4 decades over the Arctic, Antarctic and elsewhere, it is far from guaranteed, and the same report warns against potential measures of solar geo-engineering against global warming, that could reverse any progress. Plastic is everywhere, destroying the oceans and microplastics are to be found in all parts of the human body, including the placenta — with effects not yet fully known. And this list of destruction is not even close to complete: it’s not just an accumulation of problems but how they reinforce each other.
- The effects of this destruction are to be felt in all aspects of life. And, the poorer you are, the harder you’re hit. The lack of food we see today will be small compared to what is to come: a study estimates that “each degree-Celsius increase in global mean temperature would, on average, reduce global yields of wheat by 6.0%, rice by 3.2%, maize by 7.4%, and soybean by 3.1%”. Skyrocketing prices for food due to speculation but also the loss in cultivable land will drive millions and even billions into hunger and starvation, endless numbers will have to escape from their former homes as they turn into areas where no human being can live. In addition to agricultural export subsidies from imperialist countries and the monopolization of the seed industry especially via GMO hybrid seeds, lower crop yields due to higher temperatures, soil erosion, water scarcity and salinization will make it easier for agribusiness corporations to drive local farmers off their land, further adding to the monopolization of the sector overall. However, the increased use of mechanized agriculture and fertilisers by agribusiness, will exacerbate soil erosion, salinization and overfertilization, further deepening and accelerating the metabolic rift. At the same time, these developments will also fuel struggles of small peasants against multinational food companies and governments acting on their behalf.
- The practice of industrialised animal production is a large contributor to global warming as animal agriculture is responsible “for at least 16.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and causes significant environmental degradation, from biodiversity loss to deforestation” (Humane Society International). Over a third of the world’s agricultural production and as much as 90% of the world’s soy production goes to feed livestock in the livestock industry, which is evidence of the waste of resources. Around 75% of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock or livestock feed. Large areas of rainforest are being cleared every year to make way for grazing and large-scale agriculture, as in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Profit interests push the industrialised animal production which is completely unsustainable. A socialist plan of food production would be based on sustainability and the needs of all parts of nature which will include working towards more plant-based food production and consumption.
- All this human catastrophe does not move the ruling elites. But even they are frightened of the unrest and political consequences, as well as the economic effects. While some will gain from speculation in food, water, and weapons, in general this will shrink the world economy. According to a S&P Global study of this year, estimated climate impacts (under the current trajectory of commitments) could reduce annual global GDP by 4% by 2050. Poorer regions will be disproportionately hard hit with some Asian economies shrinking 10–18% — and that was before the Ukraine war. But major capitalist centres are already hard hit. Hurricane Ian that hit the Caribbean and the US in 2022 caused damage of up to $100 billion in the US alone (7% of Florida’s GDP), the economic losses due to the floods in China’s Henan province in 2021 are estimated to be around $20 billion, and the floodings in central Europe the same year caused damage costing $42 billion. With rising temperatures extreme weather events will become more frequent and even more violent. These fears are the background for the desperate, but mainly fruitless, attempts of the ruling classes to somehow deal with the crisis. This includes summits, resolutions, and some half-hearted decisions. It also includes the effort, against scientific evidence, to use deceiving capitalist-market mechanisms and new techniques to “buy time” for further fossil fuel reliance (via carbon capture, geo-engineering, etc.).
- Fueled by the energy crisis we see a combination of turning back to fossils like coal (the survey Global Coal Exit List shows that 46% of coal companies are expanding) and nuclear energy plus some initiatives from the ruling classes to push investments in renewables. The shift from Russian gas to electric heating, coal, and wood, as many households hope to escape the price rises, has negative effects on the climate and people’s health. According to a recent Harvard study, fossil fuel air pollution is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. The nuclear industry tried from the beginning of the climate movement to present itself as a “green” alternative. With the backing of the EU and with the Ukraine war this means that not only nuclear power plants overdue to be retired will stay open longer, but even more will be built. All this in a destabilised world, prone to more weather extremes and wars, which, as demonstrated around the Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine, only increase security concerns over nuclear facilities. The plants were built to run 30 years. On a world scale their average age is 30.9 years, in the US even 40.6 years. The technical problems in French nuclear power plants deepen the energy crisis in 2022. Many old plants will be kept running, leading to all sorts of dangerous situations and serious accidents. New plants will be built including “Mini” plants (Small Modular Reactors). The costs for all this will be put onto the working class. Due to their long building time none of these will solve the current energy crisis — but they will add to the long-term problems of nuclear waste and can trigger resistance from communities.
- The gap between the propaganda about shifting towards renewables and the truth is enormous. Merely 30% of the world’s electricity generation and less than 10% of the total world’s energy consumption comes from renewables. To get even close to net-zero emissions by 2050 and to limit warming to 1.5OC, investments in renewables would need to quadruple by 2030. But in 2022 investments went up in fossils instead! For every $0.9 invested in renewables, $1 is invested in fossil fuels. There is no lack of ideas, motivation by working-class people and actually working systems to reduce energy consumption, to produce eco-friendly, to reduce plastic, waste etc — but the implementation of these ideas on a large scale is made impossible due to the logic of capitalism, based on private ownership and the narrow nation state, competition, and driven by the need to expand and create profit at any cost.
- State investments into green markets are growing. US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm expects the clean energy market to reach $23 trillion by 2030. According to her, the newly enacted Inflation Reduction Act, Infrastructure Law and CHIPS and Science Act collectively provide over half a trillion dollars towards investments in the environment and clean energy. A large part of such state investments will be done in the form of public-private partnerships — e.g. to decarbonize fossil sectors or to pay for the clean-up of nuclear reactors — also as protectionist measures aimed at boosting the competitiveness and profitability of domestic companies. The push for building up the carbon capture and storage industry for example, can serve to increase productive investment opportunities as well as being an ideological tool to continue fossil fuel production and thereby avoid so-called “stranded assets‘’.
- The climate movement is evolving. Before COVID, the dominant outlook was to build ever bigger demonstrations, culminating in a huge wave of international marches and rallies in September 2019. This was cut across both by COVID and a growing realization that the demos had not changed government and corporate policies. This gave rise to small groups doing individual actions to grab attention such as Extinction Rebellion. Now a growing process of differentiation is taking place. There is a growing anti-capitalist wing of the movement, which, while not yet socialist, is a huge step forward from the illusions in individual actions, green capitalism, market “reforms’ and hopes that governments will act. Extinction Rebellion changing tactics is significant. The mass demos in Germany may be the sign of return to mass protest on a higher level. All this offers an increasingly favourable opportunity for our class-based approach.
- Even where seemingly eco-friendly technology is used this creates new problems. Like the production of biodiesel that leads to land-grabbing, deforestation, and mono-cultures in Latin America. The race to secure “new” minerals, such as lithium (necessary for batteries) and rare earths, includes neo-colonial exploitation and geopolitical risks. Europe, for example, is heavily investing in natural gas projects in African countries. The growth in renewables under capitalism will also increase inter-imperialist tensions and the exploitation of indigenous people, the local population and nature. The potential for local and regional protests against extraction is getting bigger. And while the coming economic crisis with mass unemployment increases the power of companies, on the other hand the consciousness of the devastating effects of the climate crisis increases as well. That opens a space for community and workers’ struggle to link up and neutralize the “climate vs jobs” argument.
- The Inflation Reduction Act in the US is already viewed by governments of other advanced capitalist countries as a packet of subsidies to the so-called “zero carbon” industry. Similar legislation is likely to follow elsewhere. For example, in their 2022 Fall Financial Statement the government of Canada outlined a program of tax credits and subsidies that aim to meet Canada’s “investment and productivity challenges.” The goal of the program is to attract investments in the so-called “net-zero economy” with the emphasis on investments in electric vehicles, advanced manufacturing, “clean technologies”, mining of “critical minerals”, further deregulation of the transportation industry etc.
- Similar programs in several advanced countries may create favourable conditions for important technical advances. However, like the development of the COVID vaccines this economic activity will rely on public funds, both directly in subsidies and indirectly in publicly funded research. For some successful companies, but not the capitalist system overall, this could offer favourable conditions for renewed and reinvigorated capital accumulation and a source of capitalist profits.
- Capitalists will invest, with public support, in green technology both to be seen to be doing something on climate and in search of profits. However, it will be insufficient to tackle the climate disaster and cannot deal with the inherent contradiction that capitalism relies on robbing nature for some of its profits.
- A “green capitalism,” promoted as a government-led solution to the climate crisis, may slow some of the impacts of climate change and for a time, undermine parts of the climate movement. There is a wing of the environmental movement desperate to avoid struggle, and certainly avoid any critique of capitalism. They will grasp at any straws and pull people behind them. Wide swathes of the movement had hope in COP conferences a few years ago, but it is getting smaller — experience can be a hard and bitter teacher. However, just as the many COP events promised much but delivered little, the inevitable failures of “green capitalism” will push the movement to a deeper analysis of the connection between capitalism and the ecological crises.
What way forward for the climate movement?
- The climate crisis has become a permanent feature, it accelerates and adds on to the various other crises which capitalism can’t solve. So while the climate movement had its highpoint up until now in 2019 with millions of youth worldwide on the street, the topic has come to stay. Some activists hope to win improvements by working within “the structures”. But increasingly it is understood that this does not work and many are looking for more fundamental, radical solutions. Consciousness has developed with a wider understanding that individual solutions around consumption are not sufficient but even where there is an understanding that capitalism is to blame there is confusion about how to overcome it. As a result of the lack of success of the mass demonstrations in bringing about effective climate protection measures and the growing disillusionment with the capitalist system that is completely incapable of delivering, the climate movement is testing out different methods of direct action, many of which have an individualist approach.
- The desperation of a layer of activists is reflected in names like “last generation” and methods including risking their own health and lives. Alongside other forms of “nonviolent direct action”, including road and private jet terminal blockades, and publicity stunts, small activist layers have become attracted to sabotage actions like slicing tires of SUVs or spray painting buildings that are seen as symbolic for “the fossil system”. Parts of the ruling class are happily using this opportunity to suggest climate activists are on the path to terrorism and to justify harsh state repression. While socialists should push back against state repression, we should also point out the limitations of the individualistic forms of direct action that are not oriented towards engaging the wider working class. Our main task is to show the way forward by explaining that a strategy to win needs to be connected with the working class and can include “direct action” if it is connected and coordinated with struggles of workers in polluting industries, not least, underlining the decisive necessity of building up for mass actions, and particularly for strongly effective direct actions in the form of workers’ mobilizations and labour strikes, that could give teeth to the idea of ‘climate strikes’.
- The main trend is one of resistance to destruction and those getting active trying to develop rank-and-file structures to fight back. Working-class people are part of the movement as they are affected as citizens, neighbours etc — but the fight against the climate crisis is not taken up by the organized labour movement in a genuine way beyond symbolic actions. This is mainly due to the trade union right-wing bureaucracies and official leadership, integrated with the capitalist establishment and locked in a nationalist/chauvinist and often short-sighted view. The most advanced activists understand the need to link up with workers, a feature that will increase in prominence as strike waves grow. While some attempts by activists to link up with trade unions and workers will be perceived as “coming from the outside”, more and more groups support workers on strike and visit picket lines. We can help with developing a program and understanding of the common interests and demands, as well as by putting those into practice (see building document). Also the school-students of the “Fridays for Future” generation are getting older and will start to work. A younger generation of workers with a higher consciousness regarding gender and climate issues is entering workplaces and unions. This cannot erase the social pressure that will increase with the evolving crises, but increases the possibility of workers’ struggles and campaigns that would be led by a layer of workers rejecting the “jobs vs climate” argument and creates a bigger opening for solutions “outside of the capitalist box”.
- The energy crisis is a chance to link the climate movement with the labour movement. The capitalist mode of production needs to push for more energy consumption and production. While working-class people can’t afford heating, the energy companies make record profits. It is obvious that private energy production is a barrier to affordable and green energy. But it is also becoming clear that nationalization is insufficient as long as bourgeois governments and institutions rule. The democratic planning of a nationalized energy sector, combined with planning of transportation and production does sound increasingly logical to many people. To change energy production to renewables, to look for ways to reduce the unnecessary use of energy, to save jobs while changing production and consumption — the common interests of labour and the climate movement are more visible than before. Socialist solutions are a necessary answer to bring into the existing and developing movements and will get an echo that is much bigger than in the past.
- This document is a continuation of a consistent political struggle waged by ISA, especially since our 12th World Congress in 2020. In an Age of Disorder of sharp turns and sudden changes — “the age of the polycrisis” according to Financial Times contributing editor Adam Tooze — the hammer blow of events can prove disorientating if viewed through an empirical lens. The task of Marxist perspectives is to tie the many threads of events, all rooted in the deep systemic crisis of the capitalist system, together in a coherent framework which allows us to see things more clearly, unlocking the benefit of “foresight over astonishment”.
- While this work can only be improved by means of successive approximations, in general it can be said that the framework we have laid out to understand the new era and its chief characteristics has raised the level of our understanding, leaving us well prepared for the events to come. While this framework — including concepts like the end of neoliberalism, the New Cold War, deglobalization, dynamic trends of both revolution and counter-revolution, the enduring global feminist wave etc, etc — has been subjected to important challenges, both by events themselves and through internal discussion and debate, its relevance and usefulness has ultimately been underlined further.
- A cursory look at events following the drafting of this text paints a similar picture. At the time of drafting this conclusion, a new escalation is underway between the US and China, following the shooting down of suspected Chinese surveillance aircraft by the US and Canadian military. The war in Ukraine has escalated further, with a new Russian offensive beginning and Western powers crossing one “red line” after another in beefing up their indirect participation. The provision of tanks was almost immediately followed by a chorus demanding fighter jets.
- In Iran, the heroic movement of the masses, although at a lower level at the moment, has still not been defeated and could bounce back quickly. The revolt of the Peruvian masses against the coup continues on an upward trajectory. Massive protests and strikes in France and Britain show the willingness and capability of the working class to fight back. In Israel/Palestine, while the new government of Netanyahu and the far-right is heading for a further escalation of bloody attacks on the Palestinians and a generalized escalation of the national conflict, its rabid reactionary agenda and an attempt to grab more power have unleashed mass protests. Political crisis knows no boundaries, dominating the scene ahead of elections in Nigeria and Turkey amid governmental crises and collapses in Moldova, Scotland, Pakistan and elsewhere. Facing such crises, we will continue to see attempts by the ruling class to turn towards more repressive measures — which in turn can trigger more revolts.
- While each twist and turn can never accurately be predicted, we can be sure that capitalism and imperialism will struggle in vain for any new equilibrium in this Age of Disorder. Frequent, catastrophic and converging episodes of crisis on multiple fronts are quickly becoming the “new normal” for workers and youth worldwide. While this reality will fuel the process of radicalisation which is already apace, especially among the youth, Marxists understand that there is no inevitability that capitalism’s polycrisis will give way to progress. Rosa Luxemburg’s horizon of “socialism or barbarism” (visible in Turkey and Syria after the earthquake to name just the most recent example) looms large in an epoch whose outcome will ultimately be determined by a living struggle between revolution and counter-revolution.
- While ISA can be proud of its political achievements to date in developing our World Perspectives, we must humbly remind ourselves that much greater challenges are yet to come. For revolutionary Marxists, even the best and clearest ideas are insufficient if not channelled into organization and action. Now is the time for revolutionaries around the world to redouble our efforts, reaffirm our commitment to smash obstacles and look forward audaciously to the task of contributing to resolve history’s great enduring task: the building of a mass revolutionary party on an international scale to end the horror without end of capitalism and imperialism. In 2023, on the 100th anniversary of the first “Trotskyist” organization (the Left Opposition), the time has never been more ripe for our movement’s ideas, strategy, and programme. We appeal to workers and youth internationally to join us in fighting for Trotskyist ideas in the 2020s.