Contradictions of the international political situation

[This is the text of a talk to a forum organised by the People’s Liberation Party in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, on April 7.]

The central feature of the international political situation today is the extremely stark contradictions of capitalism internationally, combined with the severe limitations of working class leadership in nearly every country.

In the 1930s, during the years of the Great Depression and the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, Leon Trotsky wrote in The Transitional Program: “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership”. This crisis has actually been accentuated in the succeeding eight decades, with such developments as the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s especially acute today.

Why, at a moment of exceptional capitalist crisis, are anti-capitalist forces in crisis? And what sort of leadership, what sort of organisation, does the anti-capitalist movement need today?

We need a revolutionary Marxist party, a Leninist party, such as made the Russian Revolution. For workers' defensive economic struggles, a union-type organisation is sufficient; for taking power by the working class, a revolutionary party is needed.

Capitalism’s current economic crisis is not anything new; capitalist boom and bust is the nature of the beast. Capitalism’s declining rate of profit results in such periodic crises. The present global crisis is especially deep, and particularly revealing.

In recent decades capitalist economists and politicians have been pushing neoliberal “solutions” to the squeeze on their profits. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of Stalinism came the opportunity for resolving that decades-long crisis of leadership. With the end of the Soviet Union, capitalism felt less need to make concessions, and there was less space for reforms, less room for social democracy.

But the working class leadership crisis remained unresolved; the crisis should have been our time, but others were benefiting.

Earlier radicalisation

Before looking at the international political situation today, it’s worth stepping back 60-70 years, to look at the post-war anti-imperialist struggles and the youth radicalisation in the imperialist countries.

The outcome of World War II was the unchallenged hegemony of US imperialism — political, military and economic. Stalinism was consolidated, while in Europe revolutionary upsurges were defeated (often as a result of the conciliatory tactics of the Stalinists). The Cold War set in, with the clampdown of McCarthyism on left political activity in the US, and its imitators in countries like Australia.

The focus of struggle and world politics shifted to the anti-colonial revolution. The Chinese Revolution was successful, taking a fifth of the world’s people out of capitalist control. The Cuban Revolution succeeded, right in the US’s “back yard”. The Vietnamese Revolution triumphed, after a long and heroic resistance. In Asia, Africa and Latin America many revolutionary struggles were raging.

In the imperialist countries, radical sentiment and activity returned with a worldwide youth radicalisation, often sparked by the anti-colonial revolution. Students and young people were inspired by the Cuban revolutionaries, by the Algerian Revolution and especially by the Vietnamese Revolution, and organised in solidarity and opposition to the brutal war being waged by Washington and its allies.

In Indonesia at this time, in 1965, the dead hand of anti-communist terror clamped down on Indonesian society. Millions were killed, democratic possibilities were smashed, and Marxist political thinking was forced underground for more than 30 years.

In the US, Australia and Western Europe, anti-colonial solidarity was also matched by an anti-racism consciousness, challenging the backwardness and conservatism that had been dominant in the ’50s. This radicalisation spread to all other social issues — women’s rights, gay rights, defence of the environment.

We had come out of the ’50s doldrums, but still had not resolved that fundamental crisis of working class leadership. In large part the working class had not joined that awakening, although working class youth were affected, and the unions were still conservative.

Our experience in Australia was typical. We founded the socialist youth organisation Resistance in the ’60s, and the Socialist Workers Party/Democratic Socialist Party at the beginning of the ’70s, and took some steps forward, but have suffered from recent defeats and splits.

Stalinist parties lost their dominance and continued to decline, and Trotskyist currents such as the Fourth International developed, especially in Europe, but were still small. We were part of that tradition, but overall revolutionary parties were still small. These currents were beset by splits, diverted by cults, sectarianism and false positions.

Maoist currents grew briefly in the ’60s, often falsely inspired by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but lost support rapidly following Nixon’s invitation to Beijing at the same time as bombs were raining down on Vietnam.

In Indonesia, the overthrow of Suharto opened the door to a new political awakening, but still only small revolutionary groups have been established.

Nowhere has this crisis of revolutionary leadership been resolved.

New opportunities

Today, with this deep capitalist economic crisis, now lasting five years, do we have another opportunity to resolve it?

Some capitalist journalists like to refer to the crisis as the “sub-prime crisis”, but it was much more than shoddy housing loans; that was just a trigger. This is the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the ’30s.

It’s been a worldwide crisis, but especially acute in Europe. The “debt crisis” is threatening the euro and the breakup of the European Union. There’s a push by the banks to shore up the capitalists’ rate of profit by enforcing austerity drives, preserving the profits of the few through savage cuts in workers’ wages and services and conditions for the majority of the population.

Countries of southern Europe have been especially hard hit — Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain — the PIIGS. In Greece and Italy bankers have been installed to run the countries directly. This might wake up more people about the nature of capitalist “democracy”, but there’s also the danger of nationalist diversions, southern against northern Europe, as well as the usual racist and anti-migrant scapegoating that is often used by right-wing forces.

Mobilisations have been big in some countries, but not yet sufficient. Especially in Spain, hundreds of thousands have mobilised repeatedly in many cities. A general strike on March 29 had rallies in 111 cities and towns. In Greece there have been massive rallies, with 17 general strikes so far, and 2 million people mobilised.

But these have not yet stopped the capitalists’ austerity drives; they’re determined to make the workers and poor pay. And it’s not yet led to the growth of strong revolutionary Marxist parties.

There’s also the danger of the development of the far-right, neo-fascist parties or outright fascist groups, if the left can’t provide leadership. We’re already seeing this in northern Europe, in Norway, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, eastern Europe, and southern Europe as well.

Another important feature of the international political situation today has been the Arab Spring, itself a partial response to the global capitalist economic crisis. There has been a big upsurge in consciousness and political activity in the whole Arab world.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the first steps were taken ousting the dictators, but they haven’t yet been able to establish people’s governments. Elections have led to stabilisation with Islamicist currents such as the Muslim Brotherhood coming out on top, and the old armies still holding considerable power.

In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen, imperialism doesn’t seem so happy about “democracy.” There’s been minimal publicity in the West about the violent measures to suppress protests in “good” dictatorships.

The Libyan events were quite contradictory. The Gaddafi regime was initially anti-imperialist, although in recent years it had made its accommodations with imperialism. But imperialism used the Benghazi revolt to intervene further, with its “no fly zone” hypocrisy dominating the situation militarily. Very soon the reactionary and racist nature of the rebellion and its leadership was apparent.

In Syria, unfortunately, it looks like a similar dynamic, with imperialism able to get a handle on the rebellion. Assad and the Baathists certainly run a dictatorial regime, but were not clear allies of imperialism. Imperialism and the Arab monarchies are arming and supporting the rebellion to overthrow the regime to prepare an assault on Iran, although they haven’t yet found a way to intervene directly militarily as they did in Libya.

So the Arab Spring has a contradictory nature. It’s an upsurge of democratic activity and consciousness, and a big potential threat to Zionist Israel, imperialism’s main bulwark in the Arab world. But it has not yet gone the whole way, to a consciousness of the need for establishing an anti-imperialist government and building revolutionary Marxist, socialist parties. So imperialism has been able to jump on the movement and divert, capture and direct it.

Occupy

In the imperialist heartlands, the capitalist economic crisis has increasingly exposed the role of the banks and their governments, leading to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Five years of economic crisis have prompted massive upsurges by workers and “the precarious ones” in southern Europe, and indirectly also led to the Arab Spring. In the US it led to Occupy Wall Street, starkly highlighting the 1% versus the 99% (which was in turn inspired by the massive mobilisations of the Arab Spring such as in Cairo’s Tahrir Square). The movement quickly spread to hundreds of cities in the US, and to other imperialist countries.

The movement had an initial consciousness about capitalist society, its divisions, but not necessarily the class nature of the power. It had an understanding of the need for action and organisation, but not of the role and need for a revolutionary party (thus simplistic anarchistic nostrums and organisational “solutions” were touted). Thus it was able to be smashed and dispersed by strong police action, and dwindle and degenerate through limited political perspectives, some groups being taken over by lumpen and violent elements influenced by drugs.

It shows the potential to rebel of a layer of youth, especially unemployed graduates. But again it shows the problem of weakness in the absence of revolutionary Marxist parties, the problem of mass action without continuity, without strengthening the revolutionary organisation of the working class.

US decline

Another important global factor is the declining economic power of US imperialism. The OWS slogan highlights the stark opposition between the billionaires and the people of the world.

The US is still the strongest, most economically powerful imperialist country, but has a declining percentage of the world’s production, from about 50% of world GDP at the end of World War II to 25% today. They’re very worried by the rising Chinese economy, fearful of the political and military challenges it could bring. Much of the production in China might be done by imperialist companies taking advantage of cheaper Chinese labour, but China has now developed its own billionaires. It’s reverted to capitalism, but it’s not so simple, and certainly not an imperialist power itself, as some on the left maintain. US economic power is also challenged by the other BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India.

But Washington is insisting on maintaining its political power and military might despite big changes in economic relations. Its military assaults on Iraq and Afghanistan have been increasingly exposed as failures. There was an enormous worldwide outpouring of opposition just prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, although unfortunately the antiwar movement is minimal today.

It’s clear Washington and Israel are trying to clear the way for a military attack on Iran. Washington is also beefing up its military encirclement of China, with threats and aggressive mobilisations off Japan and Korea and in the South China Sea, and setting up its marine base in Darwin. There’s a big danger of new wars from an imperialism in decline, and because they have thousands of nuclear bombs and missiles, and increasingly use unmanned drones, there’s a danger to the planet as a whole.

Environmental crisis

The fifth feature of the world political situation is capitalism’s threat to the planet through the environmental crisis, especially global warming. The climate change threat is an increasing danger, a reality, which the capitalist talk-fests in Copenhagen and Durban refused to take seriously.

The greenhouse effect, by raising sea levels, is a direct threat to the existence of many Pacific nations, and millions of people in Bangladesh. But the threat posed to food production is a threat to the planet’s population as a whole.

Is a solution possible under capitalism? No, but capitalists don’t care; their only consideration is their profits and their power. Hopes that the capitalist system can be modified to solve the climate change crisis, such as “carbon tax” proposals, are futile. Solar, wind power and other renewable energy sources are all financially and technically feasible, but they’re not profitable for capitalists. Thus they’ll still promote carbon fuels — coal, oil, coal seam gas — for their profits.

Nuclear madness is still being promoted by capitalism, but has been dealt a big blow by the Fukushima disaster. In Japan, 52 out of 54 nuclear power plants have suspended production, though the capitalists want to reopen them. Resistance to this madness is strong. But in France, still more than 50% of electricity is generated by nuclear plants. And Australia decides to export more uranium!

Possibilities blocked

Time and again in all the major crises in the last few years, we see campaigns and possibilities held back by the crisis of working class leadership:

  • The deep capitalist economic crisis, with the working class being forced to pay for the crisis with austerity or destitution.
  • The Arab Spring, with an inspiring initial uprising being able to be hijacked and diverted by imperialism.
  • The Occupy Wall Street movement and similar campaigns in imperialist countries able to be countered and blocked by lack of a clear leadership.
  • The war dangers of imperialist capitalism in its death throes, including possible nuclear annihilation.
  • The threat to the planet and humanity posed by climate change, when we don’t yet have revolutionary parties able to respond adequately.

Elections

What’s needed to respond adequately to all or any of these crises thrown up by capitalism? Can parliamentary elections deliver power to the working class?

Generally, no. Some exceptional situations, such as with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, can make an initial tear in the system of capitalist control, but further mobilisations and struggles are needed to consolidate those initial gains.

Mostly it’s a two-party con game, a fake fight between two sides, both supporting the capitalist status quo. Sometimes one side pretends to represent the workers, or “the battlers”, more than the other, sometimes such parties have even called themselves social democratic, or socialist. But they have a place in the system of capitalist rule, to derail struggles, to sow confusion in the working class. (It’s a step toward clarity that in the current crisis in Europe, governments are getting thrown out decisively for implementing austerity policies of the troika and the banks, whether they’re formally from the left or the right.)

So should we reject elections, not stand or intervene? No, we should use capitalist elections for our own purposes, to raise the profile of a revolutionary, anti-capitalist alternative, to educate workers and win support for our own party. But we should have absolutely no illusions that capitalist elections will be able to change things, or that they’re actually democratic.

By themselves, elections are nothing but one aspect of the struggle. But elections have so often been the graveyard of struggles. We shouldn’t put our hopes in elections, even when left forces have success: for example, George Galloway’s victory in the British by-election, or the strong gains for the reformist New Democratic Party in Quebec, or the rising support for left reformists like the Socialist Party in Holland, or Die Linke in Germany. We can welcome such votes as indications of what workers want, but reliance on parties that just have an electoralist perspective or relying on capitalist parliaments will not deliver the wants of those workers.

What about the tactic of coalitions, alliances, united fronts? For certain struggles, for specific campaigns around an issue, to win a specific demand, they’re essential. But for taking working class power, for overthrowing the ruling class, they’re not enough. For that we need a clear political perspective, a program based on the experience of previous working class struggles, the organisation provided by a revolutionary Marxist party.

And for a successful united front, alliance or coalition, we also need the participation of a revolutionary Marxist party. A united front only of reformists and liberals will be weaker. A coalition of non-revolutionary parties can achieve at most only the lowest common denominator of the components of the coalition.

Agitation and propaganda

A revolutionary Marxist party needs to go to the masses with its program, with its ideas and with its line of march, to mobilise them. It needs both agitation and propaganda. It’s not a choice of one or the other.

And especially at the early stages of building a revolutionary party, when we’re small, it probably is more accurate to describe ourselves as a revolutionary propaganda group, with the goal of becoming a revolutionary party, with a base in the working class, able to mobilise the working class and other layers of the working people and the oppressed.

We should never be just an inward-looking circle, but always have a perspective for the masses, attempting to reach out to workers, students, women etc, attempting to build the party, recruit them to the party. But this can’t be done, and nothing will come of it, without programmatic clarity, so at the early stages it’s inevitable that there will be an emphasis on propaganda; the balance will be shifted in that direction.

So a publication is important at every stage, even when we’re small, and a combination paper will address the need to reach out to people at different levels of understanding and commitment, the new readers and not very political workers, as well as the more experienced activists and the close supporters of the party. And often the most important beneficiaries of a publication will be the party members who are encouraged and trained to write and think and understand.

What kind of party?

Do we need a revolutionary Marxist party, with a clear program, or a broader socialist party with a minimally defined program? This choice has arisen many times in the history of the workers movement, and has been raised again in recent years as activists fret at the slow progress of the revolutionary workers movement, or overestimate the stage of the struggle.

There are many tactics that we need in our arsenal, depending on the circumstances — elections, entry into other parties, united fronts, oganising broad alliances — but we should never make the mistake of converting these tactics into a permanent strategy. Our strategy is to build a revolutionary Marxist party.

Frustration, impatience, the search for short cuts can derail the building of a revolutionary party. There have been many examples, some of which we’ve seen recently in both countries — the People’s Democratic Party in Indonesia, and the Democratic Socialist Party with its Socialist Alliance strategy in Australia.

So even though we’re going through an acute capitalist crisis, and revolutionary Marxist parties aren’t benefiting much yet, with mostly no major growth, we have to persist and avoid the many dead ends, the false roads that are seen as short cuts.

There’s no other choice. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote nearly a century ago, it’s either “socialism or barbarism”. That choice has today become even more acute with climate change and the danger of nuclear weapons. History and Marxist analysis indicate that revolution is both necessary and possible, and the experience of Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution points the way: building a revolutionary Marxist party.

Direct Action — May 19, 2012