Declaration of the Tenth Congress of the League for the Fifth International Since 2008, global capitalism has entered a new period of historic crisis, characterised by weak recovery, stagnation and renewed recession. As well as economic, this has had political, environmental and ideological consequences, against which both the political and trade union organisations of the working class have proved powerless.
At heart, this impotence expressed a lack of any effective strategy, any political programme, that could resolve the crisis at the expense of the ruling and exploiting class, rather than the exploited and oppressed. In short, it revealed a crisis of leadership.
The measures taken by ruling classes to defend their own wealth and status have included both assaults on the living standards and conditions of the working class and attempts to force other nations to pay the cost of the crisis. This has increased friction and rivalry between nations, posing the threat of war, even war between Great Powers.
One hundred years after Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, the accuracy of his description of this as an epoch of “particularly intense struggle for the division and re-division of the world” is clearer than ever. The emergence of two new imperialist powers, Russia and China, in the new century has already destabilised the previous “world order”. For China in particular, further growth will challenge the dominance of other powers in more and more regions of the world.
None of the imperialist powers or their alliances represent anything historically progressive, and socialists can never side with one or another, no matter how “critically”. All have been guilty of at least colluding with barbaric repression in different parts of the world, and socialists must solidarise with all those who fight their intervention.
This is as true in Ukraine against the “Maidan Coup” led by fascist militia and instigated by the USA, as it is against Assad in Syria, where Russia hopes to draw a counterbalancing advantage for itself.
One hundred years of imperialism has also demonstrated the incompatibility of capitalist development with the maintenance of the natural environment upon which all life depends. Capital’s insatiable search for maximum profit drives its exploitation not only of people, but of natural resources, heedless of the long-term effects on either.
The catastrophic impact of climate change – desertification, flooding and other extreme weather events, and their attendant famines and epidemics – can only be mitigated, let alone in the long term reversed, if control over production is removed from the hands of the great capital formations who have brought humanity to the brink of disaster. Only socialist revolution will allow the planned optimum usage of resources under the control of the majority and a balancing of development between town and country, not only at national levels but globally.
Despite its attendant evils, capitalism’s continued dominance also ensures social change and even – partially – development. Not least of these has been the creation in China of the single biggest working class the world has ever seen. Although still denied its right to organise independently, this class has already demonstrated its ability to force major concessions from employers and the state alike, as it has fought for safer working conditions, higher wages and social rights in the mega-cities in which it labours.
No less important has been the drawing in of millions of women, generally young women, into modern industrial production in countries all around the world. Often facing almost slave-like conditions, they have nonetheless waged courageous struggles both against economic exploitation and against their social oppression, bringing a dynamic and vital force into the ranks of the world’s working class.
The crisis-wracked nature of modern capitalism is also reflected in sudden eruptions of social crisis and revolution, even in regimes long renowned for their repressive stability. The Arab Spring, more than any other movement, expressed not only the yearning for democracy and human rights but also the intrinsically international character of any thoroughgoing revolutionary movement.
Within all too short a time, it also demonstrated the crucial role of leadership. Lacking an established and organised working class party, committed to a strategy of breaking the power of the state apparatus and replacing it with its own class-based organisations, the key mass movement in Egypt ceded leadership to clerical forces who were subsequently removed by a military Bonapartist coup under El-Sisi.
In a world beset with economic uncertainty and national rivalry, a shock in one country is rapidly transmitted to others. The Arab Spring inspired mass movements, often dominated by youth, around the globe, leading to the occupation of Wall Street itself, as well as public squares in country after country. Yet these too were unable to maintain any forward direction as they confronted riot police with little more substantial than assertions of the rights of the “99 per cent”.
Elsewhere, in North Africa and the Middle East, instability prompted interventions by both global and regional powers, which in turn have spread instability even further afield. Nowhere is this more true than with Syria, whose revolution, counter-revolution and civil war have led to the emergence of ISIS and contributed not only to the mounting confrontation between the USA and Russia but also the internal disintegration of the European Union when faced with millions of desperate refugees.
The new period has also taken its toll on movements that were already in existence before 2008. This is especially visible in Latin America, where the Bolivarian, populist and social democratic regimes that rose to office in the last century and flourished in the early 2000s now have their backs to the wall. The economic models of (reformist) 21st Century Socialism, largely based on the export of raw materials, prove to have been strictly temporary advantages, dependent on China’s unsustainable double-digit growth rates.
As a general rule, the political impact of the new period has been to undermine and sometimes eradicate the popular base of established parties and unions while radicalising society on both the Left and the Right. In Europe, this has taken the form of, on the Right, the Alternative für Deutschland, Ciudadanos, the Five Star movement in Italy, the Front National, UKIP and chauvinist governments in Hungary and Poland, while, on the Left, we have seen the rise of Syriza, Podemos and Bloco.
In quite different forms, the same dynamic can be seen in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in Britain, and in the growth of the Black Lives Matter and $15 minimum wage movements and the unexpected successes of Bernie Sanders in the Democrat primaries in the USA. Clearly, Donald Trump represents the US version of the rise of the populist right, while the rise of Hindu nationalism and the Modi government in India makes clear that this is not limited to the established “metropolitan” countries.
By comparison with the “anti-capitalism” of the early years of the century, and the “Occupy” movement inspired by the Arab Spring, activists like those of Syriza, Podemos and the Corbyn movement show a much greater recognition of the need for action and answers at the governmental level and, in that respect, a greater political maturity. The strengths, but also the dangers, of their rapid rise and of the left’s response to them are best illustrated by the fate of Syriza.
Propelled to the left by the defection of its own right wing, Syriza drew support from the mass mobilisations of the Greek working class because it openly declared its refusal to collaborate with the Troika’s austerity programmes. Unsurprisingly, given its origin as a coalition of different tendencies, Syriza had no developed programme for combatting the impositions of the Troika. In particular, it was not committed to transforming the ad hoc organisations of the mass movement into democratically controlled bodies that could implement measures against austerity.
Many on the left, led by the Fourth International, saw Syriza’s rapid rise as confirmation of their own rejection of the “Leninist” model of party building in favour of “broad” alliances that encompassed both revolutionary and reformist currents. While it was certainly right to relate positively to formations such as Syriza, and revolutionaries who stood aside anticipating its failure contributed nothing to the preparation of the working class for the battles that lay ahead, it was utterly wrong to fail to criticise in advance the fundamental weaknesses of the Syriza project.
The abrupt surrender of the Syriza government, despite majority support in the Oxi referendum, did not just prove an abstract point of political theory; it proved to be a turning point in the fortunes of the Greek working class, a strategic defeat.
Reform and revolution
Ironically, given the plethora of recent centenaries related to the outbreak of the First World War, the lessons to be drawn from Syriza and elsewhere are precisely those drawn by the left at that time; the party the working class needs cannot be an alliance of reformists and revolutionaries. As Luxemburg observed, the two tendencies are not just different routes to the same goal; their two goals are counterposed.
Equally, the government the working class needs cannot be dependent on the existing institutions of the state, as Syriza’s was, but must be based on the fighting organisations of the class, organised and prepared to impose their programme of expropriation and control on the agencies of capital.
Whatever the differences in the severity of its impact in different countries, the capitalist crisis is international and so too must be the working class solution to it. In this respect, the more recent movements have represented a step back compared to the internationalism of earlier movements with their summit sieges, social forums and internationally coordinated actions.
The Greek working class was, essentially, left to fight on its own. Confusion over the international background to both Syria and Ukraine ensured little international solidarity with the progressive forces in either country and, more generally, no international opposition to the War on Terror or organised working class solidarity with the victims of the “refugee crisis” in Europe.
The inability of capitalism to overcome its crisis and regain any kind of sustained economic growth, combined with the attempts of the most powerful states to strengthen themselves at the cost of others, will ensure repeated episodes of political, economic and even military confrontation. In this situation, the tasks of the small numbers of revolutionaries are essentially those of propagandists; the presentation of the many ideas of the revolutionary programme to the most advanced activists, at first no doubt a minority, within the ranks of those fighting austerity, social oppression and military repression.
Nevertheless the sudden rise of movements indicates that revolutionary propagandists can be called to action and indeed to leadership at remarkably short notice. Then the sharp axe of a programme which meets the situation can cut through heavy obstacles, as Trotsky said.
This programme must focus on the need for the working class and oppressed to create their own democratically controlled fighting organisations. It insists that, while the fight against capitalism and imperialism may begin with immediate economic or political demands, it must not limit itself to their achievement.
Rather, it must become “permanent” in the sense used first by Marx and Engels and popularised by Trotsky. It must go further and further in defeating capitalism’s defences, stopping neither at the institutions of the state nor at the frontiers of the country in which it begins. That is the programme that must be taken into the living struggles of the great majority of humanity; but for that, the advocates of this programme must themselves be organised.
That is why the primary task of all revolutionaries today is the struggle to build revolutionary organisations comparable to those founded by the Communists against the background of the First World War and its aftermath – the fight for the Fifth International.
Reposted from fifthinternational.org