TONY SAUNIOS, secretary of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), asks, which forces will gain from the Covid crisis?
More than six months of the Covid-19 pandemic and global crisis have exposed everything that is rotten in this era of capitalist decline. Global capitalism is in a putrefying prolonged death agony, which is inflicting misery on millions of people on a scale not seen for an entire historical era.
Humankind’s productive forces stagnate, and the technological leaps forward made in recent years are failing to raise the material conditions of the mass of the global population. The environmental crisis reflected in recent fires and floods is causing additional suffering and dislocation. Internationally, an economic, political and social crisis not witnessed since the 1930s is unfolding at breakneck speed. The horrific consequences have demonstrated the crucial necessity for the working class to build mass socialist parties that offer an alternative to capitalism. “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by an historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat”, wrote Leon Trotsky in 1938, words that are apposite to the situation we face today.
The leaderships of the former social-democratic and ‘Communist’ Parties have embraced capitalism. Those donning the mask of the ‘left’ in the leadership of the newer organisations, like Podemos in the Spanish state, Die Linke in Germany, or the Portuguese Left Block, have tail-ended them and adapted to capitalism. They fail to pose even the idea that a socialist alternative is possible. In most countries, the majority of the trade union bureaucracy, even those on the left, have placed themselves in quarantine and have failed to lead a serious struggle to defend workers and the oppressed. The more the crisis has intensified, the further to the right the ‘left’ leaders have moved to accommodate and manage capitalism and buckled to the calls for ‘national unity’.
The need to build new mass parties and revolutionary parties of workers and youth with a socialist programme and transform the trade unions into combative fighting organisations is now globally an urgent historical task for the working class. The bitter class divisions opening up in society and increasing polarisation taking place within and between nations reveal that more acutely with each passing day. The absence of such organisations of the working class has left a vacuum. In some countries this has allowed the populist right and far right to partially step in, along with increasingly authoritarian measures being introduced by numerous governments, which pose a serious threat to the oppressed. The Covid crisis is posing the question – which forces will gain.
Deepest crisis since the 1930s
Capitalism is faced with its deepest crisis since the 1930s. The ‘great accelerator’, Covid, has speeded up all of the features which were present in the world economy prior to the onset of the pandemic.
There is no likely prospect in the immediate future of a return even to the ephemeral growth which eventually followed the 2007-08 crash. The economy never returned to its pre-crash levels of employment, real living standards, homeownership or business investment as a percentage of GDP. In the five years running up to the pandemic, the growth which did take place in the US economy was mainly driven by consumer spending and expanding debt. This is not going to be repeated in the 2020s following this crash and deep recession/depression which now exists.
The unprecedented stimulus packages which have been introduced globally by capitalism have failed to resolve the crisis. The reversion to Keynesian-type methods has, thus far, prevented a more catastrophic collapse taking place in the global economy. However, they have failed to avert recession or depression in most countries, revealing the limitations of Keynesianism. Global capitalism in the 2020s is poised to stumble from one crisis to the next like a drunk staggering down the street.
The economic crisis and consequences of the pandemic have produced turmoil on every continent. The process of de-globalisation which is taking place has resulted in an increase in tensions and the outbreak of a series of conflicts between the main imperialist powers, and also between different countries and regional blocks. They illustrate how unstable capitalism has become. The clash between China and US imperialism will not be resolved following the US elections. Indeed, Biden has denounced Trump for being ‘too soft’ on both China and Russia. The tensions between China and India over Kashmir continue to flare up. Putin has asserted Russia’s international interventions but with growing opposition at home. Now the clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh threatens to draw in Russia, Turkey and Iran. Tensions within the EU continue which can lead to its break up or reconfiguration, with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit threatening to aggravate tensions further in the short term.
The economic and Covid crisis has also sharpened the national question in a series of countries, including increased support for independence in Scotland and Catalonia. The Hindu nationalist agenda being pursued by Narendra Modi in India is strengthening nationalist sentiment in Tamil Nadu and other states. In Africa, in some countries like Libya, Ethiopia and Cameroon, there is the tendency towards break-up taking place. Within other nation states, a series of conflicts have developed during the crisis. The Spanish government is in conflict with Madrid over the handling of the crisis, and Macron in France is in conflict with Marseille and other regions. The centrifugal tendency for some of the states in the US to act in opposition to Washington is likely to increase should Trump hunker down and remain in the White House.
Class battles and uprisings
We have already seen big class battles erupt, and even multiple uprisings break out, in a series of countries as a consequence of the health and economic crisis, and smaller but significant strike movements elsewhere. The tremendously inspiring unified uprising in Lebanon has continued for twelve months! Lebanon faces economic bankruptcy and recurring crisis. The mass mobilisation against the ruling class, corruption, the banks, and the sectarian political leaders, illustrates the processes of revolution at work. The ongoing movement in Belarus against the Lukashenko regime, the general strikes and or mass demonstrations in Bolivia, Ecuador, Algeria, Iraq and Hong Kong, together with the unprecedented youth protests in Thailand, and strikes and demos in Iran, illustrate the nature of the period that we are now in, and the demand for change and an end to the system as it is. The social uprisings of the Black Lives Matter movement, in particular in the US, Britain and elsewhere, were also a part of this process.
The bigger mass movements and revolts that have emerged developed spontaneously from below, in the main lacked organisation by the proletariat, and are marked by the absence of any mass parties of the working class. They have often raised the demand for ‘revolution’ or removal from power of the existing regimes. They have largely been marked by a sharp class polarisation and demand for change, greater equality and democracy, but without a rounded-out socialist programme for overthrowing capitalism.
Their spontaneous character in many of the countries allowed them to go forward for a period. Often, the reformist or Stalinist organisations were not in the leadership to act as a brake. This, of course, will not always be the case in future movements and social explosions. The spontaneous character they have assumed has, in that sense, been for a period the strength of these movements. This was reflected in the general strike in Bolivia, which the leadership of the trade unions and social movements were forced to convene because of the mass pressure from below. However, this massive movement was called off by the leadership and a rotten compromise reached, rather than taking the movement forward and allowing the working class and masses to take power into their own hands.
However, these struggles have now also demonstrated the limits of a spontaneous movement. The lack of an organisation or party with a clear programme and strategy to advance and overthrow the ruling regimes, and replace them with a workers’ democracy and a revolutionary socialist programme, is now acting as a major obstacle which needs to be overcome. This weakness poses a threat to these revolutionary upheavals.
It would be a mistake to think that spontaneous mass movements and struggles without a leadership and rounded-out programme – or even mass anger and pressure – have no effect. They can compel the ruling class to make some concessions for a period. This can have a crucial effect in boosting the confidence and mood of workers and youth in struggle. In Chile, following the mass movement, the regime of president Sebastián Piñera has been compelled to concede a referendum on changing the constitution, albeit on a fraudulent, undemocratic basis, and also allow workers to withdraw 25% of monies paid into their pension fund. These demands were originally implacably opposed by his regime. In some situations, spontaneous mass uprisings can overthrow the existing governments but then the question is starkly posed: what next? This is illustrated in the uprising in Kyrgyzstan. Without consolidating power into the hands of the working class and breaking the grip of the ruling class, capitalist counter-revolution can develop.
Concessions or U-turns by the ruling class can embolden the mass movement under certain conditions, especially when it is in the ascendancy. However, in this era of capitalist death agony, we are not in a period of sustained reforms being possible.
US a harbinger
The economic, social and political eruptions taking place in the US are a harbinger for the class and social upheavals that will rock every continent and country in the 2020s. The events in the most powerful imperialist country are having pronounced effects internationally, and will shape world events in the coming period along with developments in China. The most polarised presidential election for decades is currently taking place against the background of clashes, including armed clashes, in a number of states. The high level of social and class polarisation which includes elements of civil war, will not be resolved whoever wins the election.
The US capitalist class in the main want Trump out. They are mobilising to try and ensure he is defeated. The leaking of his tax returns, the declaration by hundreds of retired generals in support of Biden, and the attacks on him in the media, are all indications of this. The national polls point to his defeat. However, the narrow lead for Biden in many swing states, the weakness of Biden’s campaign and programme, and the totally undemocratic nature of the US electoral college system, all mean that a second term for Trump cannot be excluded.
Moreover, the unprecedented declarations of Trump and his machine that he may refuse to accept defeat mean that a contested result could erupt into a massive social conflict including armed clashes. Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists and urging the Proud Boys militia to “stand down and stand by” indicate that he is preparing to make a fight of it. He clearly has a game plan to contest the result: challenging mail-in ballots; the use of voter suppression; passing the election of Electoral College delegates from the popular vote to state legislatures or governors; and ultimately passing the election of the president to Congress. Trump’s dash to get the Supreme Court vacancy filled by the arch-reactionary Amy Coney Barrett is part of his schema.
Whether he could get away with his game plan is another question but, should he try, a massively polarised situation will erupt. The majority of the ruling class is desperate to avoid this and may resort to using sections of the state to oust Trump if necessary. A section of the Republican Party has come out against Trump and fears a backlash. The drama being played out in this election makes the presidency of Francis Underwood in the House of Cards TV series seem like a model of calm, consensual, honest government!
Should events move in this direction it will provoke massive upheavals within the US, including the possible invoking of the Anti-Insurgency Act and deployment of the army. Pro-Trump right-wing militias have emerged in a number of states – with the nod or tweet of approval by Trump. Such militias have existed before in the US. Prior to Obama’s election it was estimated that up to fifty were in existence and subsequently the number rose to more than 200. Today even more have been formed. In response to these, and the brutal killings by the police, more recently black militias have also been formed, like the Minnesota Freedom Fighters, who see their role as ‘defending the community’.
The objective situation in the US is crying out for the formation of a new mass workers’ party. The capitulation of Bernie Sanders to the Democratic Party and his refusal to take the steps necessary to form such a party in 2016 was a lost opportunity. The deepened social and economic crisis since then makes this task even more urgent now. An independent party of the working class would win the support of millions today. More than 50% of young people in the US now view the idea of socialism favourably. This represents a sea change in US society, even if many will not yet grasp fully what socialism is. Whereas in the past socialism was a conversation stopper, today it is a conversation starter, as Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate in the presidential elections, put it.
The understandable sentiment of millions to get Trump out and a mood of ‘lesser evilism’ in the elections will inevitably lead to a squeezing of the vote potential for Howie Hawkins’ campaign. But the need for a mass workers’ party in the US will be posed even more acutely post-election, whoever wins the presidency. Some of the forces drawn to Hawkins’ campaign, along with others, especially rank-and-file trade unionists and activists from BLM, could become a point of reference for a campaign to build a new workers’ party after the election.
The character of the right-wing forces
The polarisation within US society poses important questions about the nature of the right-wing forces which have emerged around Trump. This is part of an international process taking place in many countries. The desperate social conditions and absence of a mass socialist alternative have left a vacuum. The far right and populist right in some countries have made significant inroads and increased support, mainly electorally. It is important to distinguish between the populist right parties such as the Lega in Italy, the FPÖ Freedom Party in Austria and National Rally in France, and the far-right parties and organisations with a stronger fascistic element or core.
In Europe, the far right Vox in the Spanish state, with its origins in the fascist Falange, is now the third largest party in parliament. Its base at the moment is mainly amongst the middle class, security forces and far-right Roman Catholic groups. In Italy, the fascistic Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) has recently won control of a second region. In Germany, the far-right populist AfD became the largest opposition party to Merkel’s coalition but has lost ground during the pandemic. The far-right parties use populist rhetoric which has been incorporated in some countries by the traditional right-wing bourgeois parties.
In the US Trump has largely been able to take control of the Republican Party and shift it dramatically to the right. Whilst the Republican Party has shifted to the right before, the depth of the crisis and the political characteristics of Trump give it a different magnitude. The militias and growth of previously obscure conspiracy theory groups such as QAnon are measures of the desperation layers of society are being driven to as a consequence of the crisis. While not overstating its growth, QAnon is gaining influence even within the Republican Party, with some QAnon supporters likely to enter Congress. There are echoes of the growth of mysticism and religious ideas around Rasputin in Russia prior to the revolution in 1917. It illustrates the dead end that capitalist society now finds itself in.
Involved in some of the militias are groups like the Michigan Freedom Fund which was created in 2012 by employers to lobby for anti-union legislation, a clearly right-wing agenda. Yet some drawn to the anti-lockdown protests in the US and elsewhere are attracted in a confused way by opposition to the lock down and the desperate consequences it has had on millions of workers and the poor. This is also fuelled by a lack of trust and confidence in the government, or that its measures will be effective. Far right forces have intervened and got a certain echo, amongst a relatively small layer at this stage.
In the neo-colonial world, brutal repression has been enacted and even gone further. Modi in India enacted a vicious, draconian wave of repression before and during the lockdown period. Sri Lanka, following the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has in place the template for a de-facto military dictatorial regime. Brazil now has more military personnel running government offices than existed under the military dictatorship! In Bolivia and Ecuador, former presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa have been barred from running in the forthcoming elections after spurious legal cases were taken out against them. However, it seems likely that Morales’ MAS party will win the election in Bolivia, reflecting the weak social basis of the right-wing government which was installed after the de-facto coup against him. Whether the right wing will accept this probable defeat is another question.
The growth of the far right and the tendency towards more authoritarian methods of rule represent important threats to the working class, and urgently pose the need for the working class to take the necessary steps to combat it. Understandably, some youth and activists see in these trends the prospect of a fascist threat similar to that which developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Some have even dubbed Trump and his supporters as fascists. In Brazil Bolsonaro and Modi in India are often denounced as being fascist. This sentiment is an understandable reaction from those wishing to fight these reactionary repressive regimes.
However, in order to combat the threat posed by the far right and the introduction of increased authoritarian rule, it is important for Marxists and the working class to have an accurate estimation and assessment of these regimes and developments. This does not mean underestimating their threat but being able to face up to what they represent and combat them.
Fascism in the 1920s and 30s
Fascism, as developed in the 1920s and 1930s, had very specific characteristics and objectives, although in each case it represented a special form of reaction. In the conditions which developed it rapidly acquired a mass base amongst the petty bourgeois, the most oppressed and downtrodden sections of the working class, and some demoralized workers. The term ‘fascist’ originated in Italy under Mussolini’s leadership and then developed in Germany and Spain. Fascism had the very specific objective of destroying and atomising the organisations of the working class. As Trotsky pointed out, the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in Spain (1923-30), despite its reactionary repressive nature, was not the same as the mass fascist movements and regimes which later came to power.
Fascism arose as a consequence of the social crisis which had developed and the threat of the working class taking power. It was the failure of the working class in those countries to take power as a result of the wrong policies and programme of the mass workers’ parties which then existed that allowed the fascists to triumph: in particular in Germany, the refusal of the Communist and SPD leaders to form a united front to combat the fascists.
The depth of the political and social crisis, and the fear of further revolutionary explosions, meant that for the bourgeoisie in those countries, parliamentary democracy was no longer a reliable system of rule for capitalism. The capitalist class therefore eventually threw their weight and support behind the fascists and allowed them to come to power.
In Germany the Nazi party won its strongest base of support in the rural areas and smaller towns where the working class and its parties were weaker. In general in the large industrial areas, fascist dominance was only achieved after Hitler came to power in 1933, through brutal intimidation by the state and the fascist auxiliary forces. In Germany the working-class parties still won 13 million votes in November 1932. The votes for the fascists had rocketed in elections in July 1932 to 13.7 million, but fell to 11.7 million four months later. The Nazis never won an absolute majority and in November the workers’ parties won over 1.5 million more votes than the fascists. The increase in the Nazi vote was mainly the result of the collapse of the middle-class liberals, moderate nationalists and the unemployed into the arms of the fascists, who were desperate as a result of the economic collapse.
The ‘anti-capitalist’ slant of fascist propaganda in both Germany and Italy, which was necessary to win support amongst those who were driven by desperation and the failure of the working-class parties to offer an alternative, was jettisoned once in power. The fascist club of the SA Stormtroopers was used to crush and atomise the working class and its organisations. However, the purge of the SA in 1934 in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ signified a change as the regime evolved into a reactionary bourgeois dictatorship. As a result, its mass base began to ebb away. The dictatorship then rested on the effects and consequences of the victory of the fascists on political consciousness, and the fear of the repressive apparatus.
The threat today
In general today the social basis for mass fascist movements as seen in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s does not exist as it did then. Big layers of the previously petty bourgeois layers are in the process of being proletarianised and often politically radicalised towards the left. Moreover, the more farsighted sections of the capitalist class also have learned from history and the experience of the fascists in power. The bourgeois politicians lost power to the fascist state for a period and the ruling class paid a heavy price both economically and, in Germany and Italy, through defeat in the war. The prospect of such an outcome being repeated in one form or another will make the capitalist class in general draw back from facilitating mass fascist forces to come to power.
Yet this does not mean that the ruling class when threatened will not be prepared to resort to drastic measures if they have no alternative. In the 1970s throughout Latin America they turned to rule by the sword in a series of brutal military-police dictatorships. In the main, these lacked the mass base that the fascists enjoyed, although they rested on the support especially of the middle class and lumpenised sections of the urban poor. In Chile, the Pinochet regime also enjoyed the support of a substantial fascist auxiliary, Patria y Liberdad.
Today, the scale of the economic and social crisis is having a devastating effect on sections of the middle class, and is also resulting in a mass reserve army of the unemployed in many countries. From this, it is possible that in some countries more substantial far-right or even fascistic forces can develop on a larger basis than has been seen in recent decades. These can be used as an auxiliary weapon by the ruling class against the working class. How far this develops depends on the ability of the working class and socialists to build parties and organisations which can offer an alternative. The recent emergence of far-right parties, groups and militias is a warning to the working class.
The brutal regime of Modi in India illustrates the danger that exists in some countries. Modi leads the Bharatiya Janata Party – the largest party in the world with more than 100 million members – and is supported by the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (‘National Volunteer Organisation’) with a large fascistic core from which Modi himself originates. The Hindu nationalist mood that his regime is whipping up, and the brutal attacks especially against Muslims and other minorities, are now being followed by savage attacks on workers’ and labour and farmers’ rights.
These developments reflect the highly polarised nature of the period we have now entered. A struggle between the elements of revolution and counter-revolution is unfolding globally. The rhythm of this conflict may vary from country to country but it is present globally and extremely rapid changes can take place. As new social explosions erupt, we need to be prepared for new forms of organisation, assemblies and action committees to be thrown up during the struggle.
Revolutionary socialist groups and parties enter this period of upheaval with relatively small forces. However, this does not mean they will remain so. With the right tactics, strategy, slogans and programme – and audacious interventions – small organisations can experience an explosive growth and win the most advanced and combative sections of the working class and youth who are searching for a road to escape from the dystopian era of capitalism we have now entered.
An historic responsibility and opportunity confronts the CWI and revolutionary socialists to actively intervene in the stormy events which are taking place and build a more powerful socialist alternative.