Some events become iconic when they are subsequently seen as a representative summation of a new turning point in social, economic or political developments. The fall of the Berlin Wall is one example. It symbolises the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War framing of world power relations as that between competing social systems: capitalism in the West, and the non-capitalist Stalinist states of the East.
The rotting of the Stalinist regimes under the internal contradictions of totalitarian rule – the mirror opposite of workers’ democracy – had been an extended process as the bureaucracy moved from being a relative to an absolute fetter on the economy and society. But that did not diminish the significance of the November 1989 drama. And while it too is the product of underlying and ongoing processes, the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 will also come to be seen as another pivotal moment in history.
Already the war, however it finishes, has upset the global architecture of treaty organisations, diplomatic conventions and so on built up over the past 30 years. This international machinery was either remoulded from institutions of the Cold War era (GATT became the World Trade Organisation, for example) or superseded them (the G7 and G20, the International Criminal Court, the COP climate summits). Together they constituted the means by which the conflicting interests of the world’s most powerful capitalist nation states (and the formally ‘non-market economy’ Chinese regime) were mediated in the post-Stalinist world.
March 17th 2022 will now always be synonymous with P&O as far as trade union activists are concerned, with the vicious assault on the workers’ jobs and contracts carried out on that day. The company informed 800 workers by zoom that they were being instantly made redundant, without notice or consultation. To back this up, they employed security guards to forcibly remove workers from ferries, consciously using brutal ‘shock and awe’ methods. There are reports that some of the hired security guards had handcuffs and were wearing balaclavas. P&O had already lined up a new workforce on exploitation wages of less than £2 per hour.
The sacked workers and their unions, the RMT and Nautilus International, launched an immediate campaign of protests and demonstrations, particularly at the ferry ports of Dover, Hull, Liverpool, Larne and Cairnryan. Most of the workers had signed up to the enhanced redundancy by the March 31 deadline. Nevertheless the struggle continues, for reinstatement and more generally against the super-exploitation of seafarers so that the industry bosses are not able to benefit from P&O’s brutal tactics.
But this is also a struggle for the whole trade union movement as the economy shows signs of faltering after the initial post-Covid recovery. The first stage of the Covid pandemic saw a severe contraction which was exploited by a whole series of companies to impose worse pay, terms and conditions through vicious ‘fire and rehire’, which rapidly became the favoured weapon of choice for the bosses during the pandemic. Disgracefully, this included the New Labour council of Tower Hamlets, which triggered a dispute with Unison members. British Gas workers took 43 days of strike action in a bruising battle which ended with their annual income cut by over £10,000.
HANNAH SELL assesses what impact the war in Ukraine will have for the already tenuous position of British capitalism internationally and domestically, faced with the prospect of economic recession and political representatives viewed with historic levels of distrust.
While the invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s regime has been watched in horror by working-class people in Britain as in other countries, the UK prime minister Boris Johnson has led the global charge by capitalist politicians to cynically use these events to try and consolidate his position. Before the invasion Johnson’s leadership of the Conservative Party was hanging by a thread as the Partygate revelations piled up. He has successfully used Ukraine to gain a little breathing space, but none of the problems facing Johnson, his party, or British capitalism have been solved.
Nor, other than the short term distraction they have so far provided, will events in Ukraine assist Johnson. His crass comparison between the Ukrainian resistance and the vote for Brexit is just one more example of his populist approach, where he is often prepared to disregard the interests of British capitalism, prioritising instead shoring up his own short-term base. In an increasingly fractious world, with a war taking place less than two thousand miles from Britain, the majority of the UK’s capitalist class would clearly rather have a more reliable representative than Johnson. Many would prefer the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who has used the war to once again demonstrate what an eminently safe pair of hands he is for British capitalism.
Putin’s brutal regime emerged in conditions of economic anarchy as a new capitalist class was forming amidst the collapse of the previously planned economy. PETER TAAFFE reviews a recent book that graphically describes what happened.
Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West
By Catherine Belton
Published by William Collins, 2021, £9-99
Catherine Belton, a former Financial Times journalist, has written a most devastating critique about the rise and consolidation of the state-capitalist Putin regime, following the collapse of Stalinism in the early nineties. This book is essential reading for all those who wish to understand exactly how Vladimir Putin, a very minor KGB official originally, with his roots in Stalinism, was able to construct what is now in effect a ‘mafia state’ – but on a gargantuan scale compared to the Italian mafia – and which has led to the terrible devastation in the Ukraine.
She correctly describes in the most lurid detail how the “original KGB” was able to transform itself from part of the rotten Stalinist bureaucracy into a capitalist state machine. In effect, the old KGB has been able, through Putin and his branch of the Stalinist secret police based in Leningrad-St Petersburg, to carry through the biggest robbery of productive forces in history after the collapse of Stalinism. This KGB state, grouped around the Leningrad siloviki (strong men), managed over a period to concentrate power and a considerable amount of the productive forces into their own hands.
The radical journalist Paul Mason has attempted to produce a left-wing defence of the NATO alliance of Western capitalist powers. TONY SAUNOIS, secretary of the Committee for a Workers’ International, responds.
The brutal war in Ukraine, like all wars, has posed crucial issues for the working class in the sharpest way.
Wars and revolutions are the greatest tests for Marxists and the working class. Unfortunately, many socialists, when confronted with either of these two historic processes, have failed the test. Many abandoned an independent programme for the working class and echo the ideas of the ruling class. The response by many on the left to the current bloody war being fought in Ukraine is no different.
In the first instalment in the new Introduction to Marxism series in Socialism Today, ROBIN CLAPP looks at the underlying fundamental philosophy of Marxism, the ideas of dialectical materialism.
The 21st century has not brought prosperity and security to the vast majority of people on planet earth. Capitalism, fuelled by the profit motive has led to an ever-spiralling wealth gap between mega-rich multi-billionaires and the rest of us, unsurpassed in modern human history. In an Oxfam report published in 2019, just 26 people owned as much as the poorest 50% of the world’s population.
Many millions know that capitalism isn’t working for them, but the question of whether there is an alternative and if so, how it can be built, is the burning issue. The pitiful response to capitalism’s failures from political parties that in the past claimed to support the working class and stand for socialism, means that the starting point for all those entering struggle today – to defend jobs and services, fight for genuinely affordable homes, oppose privatisation of health services, education and public utilities, and combat climate change, racism, sexism and all forms of oppression – is what ideas do we need to build the fightback and construct mass workers’ parties that can overthrow this system?
The purpose of this article is to examine and explain the philosophy of Marxism – dialectical materialism. It will demonstrate that being angry at all the injustices of capitalism is not enough. Having a philosophy that can correctly interpret world events and the stages of the class struggle is indispensable for channelling anger into effective action.
CHRISTINE THOMAS reviews two recent books by authors coming from different feminist perspectives and asks: what strategy is needed in the struggle to end violence against women, sexism and oppression in the new era?
Daring to Hope, by Sheila Rowbotham
Published by Verso, 2021, £20
Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation, by Julie Bindel
Published by Constable, 2021, £16-99
One effect of the Covid pandemic has been to shine a spotlight on gender inequality in capitalist society and on violence towards women in particular, one of the most extreme manifestations of women’s oppression today. Unfortunately, it is one that many women will face at some time in their lives. One in four will experience domestic abuse and one in seven will be raped. On average, two women a week are killed by a current or ex-partner. Most women don’t feel safe from violence, abuse or sexual harassment whether at home, at work or in public spaces, including on social media. A staggering 97% of women report that they have experienced sexual harassment. It is therefore no surprise that violence against women has been the catalyst for a whole number of movements recently; in Britain most notably following the murder of Sarah Everard in South London in 2021.
There were many factors that combined together to generate the outpouring of outrage when Sarah was killed: the fact that her murderer was a serving police officer; that she was killed following a Covid lockdown which had seen a significant increase in domestic killings of women and calls to police and helplines – exposing just how prevalent domestic abuse is in society and how escape routes have been undermined by austerity; and the fears of young women that they are unsafe, and that society doesn’t take their safety seriously, even blaming the way they look or behave for the violence and harassment they experience.
The Welsh Labour governments could have rallied a whole nation behind the Welsh working class in struggle against austerity but instead, over 22 years of devolved government, have implemented essentially just a different variant of neo-liberal policies. DAVE REID reviews a new book revealing the truth about ‘the Welsh Way’.
The Welsh Way: Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution
Edited by Daniel Evans, Kieron Smith and Huw Williams
Published by Parthian Books, 2021, £10
Ever since the first devolved Welsh assembly in 1999 the idea has been promoted by many on the left that Welsh Labour, and the Welsh governments led by it, were in some way different and more left wing than the UK Labour Party and UK Labour government.
This idea was most clearly expressed in 2002 by first minister Rhodri Morgan who declared that there was “clear red water” separating Welsh Labour from Blairite UK Labour – that Welsh Labour was pursuing more socialistic polices than the Blairites. He claimed he was implementing “21st century socialism – a Welsh recipe”. The ‘Welsh Way’.
Many times trade union leaders and the UK Labour left have pointed to the Welsh Labour governments as an example of ‘another way’ for a Labour government to operate. Even Jeremy Corbyn regularly extolled the achievements of the Welsh Labour government under the current first minister Mark Drakeford, deepening the illusion that in some way Wales was not as afflicted with austerity and privatisation as England. John McDonnell said of the recent co-operation agreement agreed between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru: “Labour’s Mark Drakeford secures a radical programme for Wales that contains many of the policies set out in Labour’s 2019 election Manifesto, charting clear red water between Welsh Labour and the Tories”.
The mass revolt in Kazakhstan at the beginning of this year is unprecedented in this vast Central Asian country. But the explosion of anger did not come out of a clear blue sky, argues CLARE DOYLE. In recent years, workers’ struggles and mass protests against falling living standards have become bolder and more frequent. Further explosions of anger against the oligarchic elite that rules this mineral-rich country are inevitable.
The current president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, was a grey figure appointed in 2019 by veteran dictator Nursultan Nazarbaev to succeed him. It was widely understood that Tokaev was little more than a puppet of ‘the old man’. But January’s events were to open up deep divisions at the top.
Confronted with a wave of mass protest against the doubling of fuel prices that swept the country, Tokaev moved rapidly to reverse the measure. When there was no sign of the mass movement abating, he switched tack. On 5 January, Tokaev declared a state of emergency. He removed the prime minister from office, suspended the government and arrested the head of security, accusing him of treason.
On the same day, Tokaev called on his erstwhile ‘comrade’, Vladimir Putin, to come to his aid with armed contingents of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Tokaev alleged that the uprising had been provoked by tens of thousands of ‘international terrorists’ (by implication linked with Islamic State) and issued the blood-curdling order to his forces to ‘shoot to kill’ without warning.
In coming issues, Socialism Today will be publishing the content of five new Introduction to Marxism pamphlets being produced by the Socialist Party. They are based on a series first printed in 2003, but take into account the context of the present period; and a fresh approach has been taken in some sections to the way the ideas are presented. Here we begin with the introduction to the new series, written by JUDY BEISHON.
The Marxist ideas contained in this series of short pamphlets are just as vital today as when they were first brilliantly put forward by Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels in the nineteenth century.
Since then, their clear explanation of the failures of capitalism as a system and why it can’t deliver a decent future for humanity and the planet has stood the test of time. Recent decades have seen worsening economic crises, increased inequality, massive levels of displacement and the growing impact of climate change. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the failure of capitalist governments to put sufficient resources into public health, whether for preventative measures or treatments.
None of the systemic fault lines that existed at the time of Marx and Engels have been solved. On the contrary, they have further developed and taken a sharper form in many respects. Today we live in a time of immense turmoil, rapidly moving events and great tensions between the world’s ruling classes.