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An historic crisis of capitalism Part 3: The world class struggle, the character of the situation and the tasks of communists

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The last part of this article surveys the world class struggle, in particular looking at the political physiognomy of the key countries and sectors and the prospects for radicalisation and militant struggle. We conclude by drawing on Trotsky’s method to characterise the current world situation and draw out the tasks of communists at this conjuncture. Part one is here and part two is here.

The new popular outrage
The huge state bailouts of the western financial houses testify to the dominant position of finance capital within late capitalism. It is the hegemonic sector within the imperialist system as a whole; the sheer size of investment portfolios, the dependency on credit of other sectors of capital, the functional role it plays in other spheres (insurance, etc), and the drive of capital into financial assets due to industrial stagnation, ensured that governments had to act, they could not just let the financial crisis rip through the system. That so many Republicans voted against the plan in the first instance was testimony to their commitment to neoliberal ideology and also, perhaps more importantly, to the unpopularity of the bailouts. Both of the American presidential candidates during the election race, underway at the time, gave complete support to the plan, although it was clearly a turning point in the race itself, with Obama being the principal beneficiary.

The support given to the bail out programme by both presidential candidates, opened up a serious gap between them and the US electorate. Nearly all opinion polls showed around 60 – 70 per cent of Americans were against the rescue of Wall St. Indeed, there has been widespread popular outrage against the bailout on the grounds of simple justice, even if this has combined both aspects of working class consciousness, opposing a bail out for the rich, with more right wing opposition from small businessmen on laissez faire grounds. The result of this amorphous trend in popular feeling is that we have seen radical and militant acts capture the imagination of previously apolitical layers; from the hundreds of thousands of people on Youtube who downloaded footage of the student protests which raised placards reading “JUMP” at the windows on Wall St; the outrage of both right and left wings of the bourgeois media at the bonus and pensions payments to the executives of bailed out and nationalised firms; to the large turn out of working and middle class people to the ‘stop the City’ protests in London against the G20.

There have been other indicators of anger at the corruption of the political and economic system, too. In the US, the Governor of Illinois who could appoint Obama’s replacement in the Senate was caught on tape discussing about how he was going to “sell it”, sparking tremendous anger against corrupt ‘Capitol Hill’ on Main St. A far more serious scandal damaged the entire British political establishment. A huge political crisis broke over MPs’ outrageous expenses claims, with all the main bourgeois parties left badly hurt by it. Had it not been for the depth of the economic crisis, it would never have become as serious as it did.

These scandals exposed the ultimate fragility of the political system; features that once appeared fixed for all time were suddenly thrown open to change by the logic of the political struggle to control the future.

Further political crises on this model are quite possible in other states, and will ultimately reflect social antagonisms between the classes and within the ruling class; the seriousness of the task facing the bourgeoisie, the re-ordering of their own system, will force different sections into conflict.

Hunger, poverty, joblessness, exploitation – the social crisis
The capitalists are attempting to drive down workers’ share of social value, which was, of course, already undermined by nearly three decades of neoliberal policies. Attacks on pay, job losses, recruitment freezes, cuts in public service provision and the return of mass unemployment are the norm in most states of the world. In the semi-colonial world, the impact of the crisis is not only impoverishing but, literally, deadly; the British charity Oxfam calculates that 1 billion people, one-sixth of humanity, are now suffering from hunger and malnutrition. The G20 have put more money into the IMF, boosting its funds from $250 billion to $1 trillion but, like all capitalist banks, its low interest, low conditionality lending is only for what it calls “strong performers”, that is, middle income, semi-industrialised countries. Desperately poor countries are forced to push through savage spending cuts. The health implications alone could be huge. Already, the World Bank has estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 people in the global south will die prematurely in the next year as a direct result of the global economic crisis. The World Bank report, Averting a Human Crisis in the Global Downturn, warned that the (already inadequate) measures taken in response to the AIDS crisis could be seriously affected with a third of countries surveyed, representing 61 per cent of people with HIV, planning cuts to antiretroviral programmes and 34 countries, representing 75 per cent of HIV sufferers, planning cuts to prevention programmes. With 2.1 million new people infected with HIV each year, the results could be catastrophic.

A jobs massacre is now battering the global working class. In the United States, since it went into recession in December 2007, unemployment has risen by 7 million to 14.5 million and is still rising with 9.4 per cent of the workforce now jobless. In Britain, unemployment now stands at 2.22 million (7.1 per cent) with the last six months seeing the sharpest increases since 1981. In Spain, the sick man of Europe, unemployment has hit a colossal 4 million, some 17.4 per cent of the workforce. In Germany, it has reached 8.1 per cent, 3.4 million people, and is still rising. In France, it is now 8.7 per cent and on the rise, too. In China, official figures put joblessness at just 4 per cent, but this excludes the informal economy and some 120 million migrant workers, millions of whom have lost jobs in the coastal provinces. In South Africa, where the unemployment rate has risen by a quarter since the end of apartheid, unemployment hit 23.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2009, up from 21.3 per cent previously although, according to The Municipal Outreach Project, the true figure comes to an astonishing 40 per cent once the long term unemployed, that is, those not actively looking for work, are included. No country in Latin America has escaped either, with unemployment in Brazil now exceeding 10 per cent, while in Mexico the bottom has fallen out of the economy in the worst crisis the country has faced since the collapse of 1995. The car industry has been particularly badly hit and job losses are rising sharply. According to the International Labour Organisation’s Global Employment Trends January 2009, the last year (2008) saw 10.7 million people join the ranks of the global unemployed, the biggest annual rise since the Asian crisis in 1998. They predict a further rise of between 20 and 40 million for 2009, depending on the severity of the crisis, taking global unemployment to between 6.5 and 7.1 per cent.

The situation is no better for the peasants. The influx of speculators into the world food markets last year led to an astronomical increase in food prices. The effect was not to boost peasant incomes but to encourage capitalist investment activity, with poor peasants consequently being driven off the land, joining the ranks of the world’s huge and growing landless peasant community. Even now, food prices are twice as high as they were a decade ago, and with world agriculture still relatively underdeveloped, multinational companies have identified it as a growth industry in a world economy otherwise marked by over-capacity and industrial decline. Chinese, Korean and Middle Eastern investors, in particular, who cannot meet the consumption needs of their domestic markets, are investing heavily in agriculture in the poorer Asian and African states. Walden Bello, of Focus on the Global South, points out that in the Philippines this has led to a situation where 7 out of 10 rural people no longer have access to land. In one of the biggest deals of its kind, South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics made a $6 billion agricultural investment into Madagascar, covering an area half the size of Belgium, to churn out exports for the world food market. Incredibly, Madagascar has widespread malnourishment and continues to receive aid from the World Food Programme.1

This picture of global social hardship, exploitation and suffering, flowing from the bourgeoisie’s aggressive and desperate defence of their own social wealth, is the general and defining feature of world politics. We can see increased stratification both within society as a whole and within each of the constituent classes. An increase in lumpenisation, the expansion of the informal economy, the immiseration and proletarianisation of the middle strata, and the protectionist impulses of the labour aristocracy, these factors will all have a particular impact on the ability of the bourgeoisie to secure stable class alliances with those below them. In the summer of 2008, as world commodity prices rose, we also saw how unstable the system becomes at a moment of transition between two stages, when food riots broke out across the south and east. Further unexpected, explosive outbursts, even full-scale pre, counter and revolutionary situations should be expected as the economic crisis deepens and creates a powerful imperative to struggle.

Instability of class alliances in Europe and America
The crisis will certainly put existing class alliances between the bourgeoisie and the popular classes under strain. How they stand at the moment is partly based on the severity of the specific national crises and the stage of the political cycle in any given country. Bush and the Republicans took the main responsibility for the crisis; they had sponsored unregulated, speculative capitalism and it was they who were forced to act against their neoliberal principles and nationalise large parts of the banking system. However, the election of Barack Obama brought into power an untainted figure capable of generating mass illusions and tying the masses to the bourgeoisie. His campaign clearly expressed desires for social change and an end to foreign wars among wide layers of youth, the black and Latino communities and American workers. The major trade union federations, Change to Win and the AFL-CIO, put an astonishing amount of resources into the Democratic election campaign, contributing some $450 million in cash and 250,000 activists, according to the New York Times.2

Once again, labour was probably the most generous single constituency in the Democratic Party but they, once again, have far less influence than the bourgeoisie. The annihilation of jobs in the Rust Belt, with the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies leading to massive lay offs, two dozen plant closures, and the shutting down of 3,000 dealerships across the US, illustrates how little workers got for their money. This is not say that the bureaucracies have not had a high profile in selling their members’ jobs; the union even took a significant shareholding in the ‘new GM’. Since his election, Obama has been careful to play down his radicalism in both economic and foreign policy, positioning himself very much as a centrist on the Clinton model. This was largely consistent with his policy announcements throughout the campaign. John Edwards had actually been the more “social democratic” candidate but received far less support from the major unions, with the exception of the old progressive industrial sections of the CIO (mineworkers, steelworkers, carpenters). The big unions preferred to throw their weight behind the candidate they believed was the most likely to win.3

Despite the sharp social suffering the crisis has brought to American workers already, this, on its own, is unlikely to be enough to undermine the considerable illusions of US workers in the Obama presidency. While this could change with a major economic catastrophe, for example, if the inflation of the money supply were to lead to hyperinflation, in the absence of that or any major acts of workers’ resistance, Obama can still position himself to the left of the Republican alternative. At the current conjuncture, the downturn is affecting every section of US society and this provides a material underpinning to Obama’s argument (“one nation, one people”) that all Americans must share the pain of the recession. If a cyclical recovery develops amidst continued industrial stagnation and without significantly reducing unemployment, that is, if it increases social stratification and inequality with some sections of the middle class and bourgeoisie plainly benefiting at the expense of others, then this argument will be much harder to sustain.

At the same time, Obama’s position is aided by the appalling state of the US unions. Consider the agreement struck by the United Autoworkers over General Motors: with the union assenting to massive plant closures and job cuts and the abandonment of health insurance commitments in return for a 17 per cent stake in a new, smaller, restructured company. This agreement is symbolic of the intensification, through the course of the crisis, of the longer term trend to the disintegration of the old industrial US labour aristocracy. More and more sections of it are being pushed into precarité, without permanent contracts, pensions, etc, leaving a shrinking layer firmly embedded in the middle strata and with highly commerce-orientated union structures.

The rebuilding of the fighting capacity and strength of the US unions amongst the huge, precarious, low paid, and often immigrant, working class clearly remains a strategic task. It will undoubtedly require a new initiative, maybe new unions on the model of the IWW in 1907-18 or the CIO 1935-39. A prolongation of the crisis, the continuing rise of unemployment and the effects of Obama’s stepping up of the Afghanistan and Pakistan conflicts will eventually wear down the illusions, which have less substance than those in Roosevelt, just as the US unions are far less dynamic and socially powerful allies than the CIO was for Roosevelt in the second half of the ‘30s.

In Europe, we see a similar trend to both rupture and recomposition of class alliances between the bourgeoisie and other social layers, but in a markedly divergent form. The European elections saw a massive collapse in the social democratic vote across the continent. Whereas Obama has built up illusions in his capacity to bring about social change amongst US workers, no similar “radical” figure or tendency, able to undo the damage of their pushing through neoliberal attacks over the last decade, emerged in European social democracy. Significantly, the social democracy also suffered serious defeats where they were not in power, or not solely so.

The centre right won in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Poland, Austria, and Hungary, where it is in power. In Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia, and Cyprus, the parties of the right also came first. There were also big far right votes in Austria, Britain, Hungary, Finland and Greece. But turnout also collapsed. Many social democratic voters, clearly choose to stay at home, just 40 per cent of the European electorate went to the polls. In Britain, Labour was forced into third place, behind the far right UKIP, winning just 15 per cent of the vote. In France, the Socialist Party won only 16 per cent of the vote, and only narrowly beat the Green Party. In Germany, the social democracy also scored badly, returning 20 per cent, barely half the score achieved by Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The results clearly illustrated a profound weakening of the ties between the social democrats and their mass working class base in most countries of Europe. Whilst financial crises can, on occasion, be a favourable terrain for the social democratic left, this one came at a time when it was the social democracy that had been aggressively pushing the agenda of free market liberalisation.

The offensive against the working class in Europe over the last decade was pushed forward as an essential component of the European Union project. Neo-liberals colonised the European Commission while European agreements, notably the Lisbon Agenda and later the Constitution and its successor the Lisbon Treaty, upheld the new neoliberal consensus. It is difficult to overestimate the role social democracy has played in pushing forward this agenda over the last decade. Consider, for instance, the political origins of the leaders and forces behind the Lisbon strategy (2000 – 2004): it was drawn up by Romano Prodi, former leader of the ruling centre-left coalition in Italy, when head of the European Commission; it was backed by Lionel Jospin’s Socialist Party in France, by Blair’s Labour Government in Britain, and was pushed aggressively by Gerhard Schroeder’s SPD in Germany.

The result of this process of social democratic neo-liberalisation has been a profound undermining of illusions in social democracy within vanguard sections of the working class. The historic decline and marginalisation of the left wing of social democracy at the hands of the Blairs, Zapateros and Schroeders, and the consequent inability of activists to use channels within their parties to overturn the neoliberal agenda, was the key to this process. Whereas, in the past, the social democratic left had helped to revive working class illusions in social democracy, they were now no longer strong enough to provide a politically viable challenge to the dominant right wing.4

The move to the right of European social democracy took many specific, concrete forms; the “Third Way” in Britain, the “Neue Mitte” in Germany, “social liberalism” in France, but it was, nonetheless, a general process and one that shows few signs of reversing, despite the crisis. No wonder, then, that the British newspaper, The Financial Times, was to comment on 9 June: “At a time when ‘the end of capitalism’ is raised as a serious prospect, the parties whose historical mission was to replace capitalism with socialism offer no governing philosophy. Their anti-crisis policies are barely distinguishable from those of their rivals.”5 Indeed.

In class terms, insofar as social democracy is an organised alliance between a section of the bourgeoisie and the working class, we have borne witness over several decades to a profound strengthening of its already dominant, hegemonic bourgeois pole. In some cases, the shift to the right appeared to point towards the constitution of openly bourgeois parties with an explicitly capitalist programme, in which the working class was considered, at best, as only one interest group amongst many. But only in Italy, and relatively recently, have we seen this process taken to its logical conclusion with the creation of the Democratic Party. (Though the bourgeois workers’ party that dissolved itself into the new formation was the Democratic Socialists, which originated in the Italian Communist Party, not the social democracy as such.)6 Given the severity of the downturn, the future of European social democracy is far from guaranteed; bourgeois splits from social democracy, fusions into new openly bourgeois political parties, as in Italy, or splits from the left wing and working class forces, are clearly all possible features of the period ahead.

The working class and the left in Europe
The European elections were notable not only for the collapse of the social democracy and the rise of the far right, but also for the failure of the new left parties and alliances to win significant support from those voters who were abandoning their traditional parties. With the exception of Portugal, Ireland and Greece, the left either retained their position but could not claim a breakthrough (for example, France and Germany) or lost substantial ground (for example, Italy). In France, two new parties contested the elections. The Left Front (formed by a split from the Socialist Party and the CP) scored 6.5 per cent, winning 4 MEPs, while the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), scored just under 5 per cent. In Germany, the Left Party won 7 per cent of the vote, returning 8 MEPs. In Portugal, the Left Block did make a breakthrough, winning nearly 11 per cent of the vote and 3 MEPs, while in Ireland the Socialist Party won an MEP in Dublin with 12 per cent of the constituency vote, beating Sinn Fein.

Given the crisis of social democracy, it is of course disappointing that new left parties standing against them did not make more headway. Disappointing not because their strengthening is a necessary or inevitable part of a process of revolution but because it would have been some measure of radicalisation and would have indicated a fruitful terrain for revolutionary intervention. There are, however, objective reasons for this lack of progress. There has not yet been a sustained and generalised wave of workers’ resistance to the crisis in Europe. There have been large demonstrations. In May, the call of the ETUC for a European Day of Action saw demonstrations in Berlin (100,000), Prague (30,000), Madrid (150,000) and Brussels (50,000) whilst, back in March, sizeable workers’ demonstrations marched for jobs in London, Berlin and Paris during the meeting of the G20. It is only in Greece, Ireland and France that protests against the crisis have threatened to destabilise the ruling order. In Greece, last autumn, huge youth protests coincided with large public sector strikes, paralysing the country in a pre-revolutionary situation. France, this spring, saw huge one-day strikes by the trade unions against job losses, which included important private sector workers and were the biggest since the CPE movement. However, under the misleadership of the trade union leaders, they did not spiral into a real challenge to Sarkozy’s authority (more on which later). Meanwhile, the massive offensive of the Irish government against the public sector, to pay for their financial bail out, saw a huge demonstration, in Irish terms, of 150,000 people in Dublin.

This resistance took place, of course, in the context of a sustained onslaught by capital against jobs and pay in the first few months of the crash phase of the cycle, which was happening simultaneously in every single European country. Even where there was mass resistance in the three countries stated, the first phase of the offensive was successfully carried through and in some instances, like Britain, there were historically low levels (for a six month period) of resistance, registered in terms of the number of work days the bosses lost to strike action. There was, thus, a conjunctural strengthening of capital against labour, in the balance of class forces. The European election results reflected this reality; high levels of abstention amongst youth and workers, the abandonment of social democratic parties tarnished by a neoliberal record, and a fairly strong showing for governing conservative parties. If this is irrefutable as a characterisation of historical events, the political situation in Europe is highly uneven, different countries are more advanced, others less so but, in any case, it can change very sharply in the course of the crisis. A perspective that predicted either a generalised Europe-wide upsurge or a profound and lasting ‘shift to the right’, would be quite useless for revolutionary Marxists. Even in Britain, a backward country vis-à-vis the rest of Western Europe, there is now a clear industrial upsurge evident over the summer months with a rash of strikes and demonstrations in blue-collar sectors.

The high level of unevenness in levels of class struggle resistance and political radicalisation in Europe is a reality that can be explained historically. Today, the situation still does not have the same combined, radical character it took on at the high point of the anticapitalist movement and the European Social Forum between five and eight years ago. Not only was there the famous international day of action against war (February 2003), but also several large generalised strike movements against attacks flowing from the Lisbon Agenda and the high levels of structural unemployment (2000 – 2004). In France, Italy, Spain and Germany (the Monday Demonstrations), and the European Social Forums (Florence and Paris) succeeded in attracting a significant section of the European working class vanguard involved in these struggles. Given that the Lisbon Agenda was being driven through by social democrats in a number of countries at the same time, the questions of political organisation/new parties, and, at the least, a programme for the international coordination of these struggles, was posed very sharply. The movement had at this stage gone beyond the radical, ‘innocent’ anticapitalism of the earlier period and drawn in significant sections of the left wing of the European working class, a huge step forward in itself, but they had brought with them their own bureaucratic machines and Stalinised left parties. The failure of the ESF “far left” (the Fourth International and the IST) to challenge their leaderships, once sharper tasks were posed, proved fatal to its future development.

The reformist/centrist leadership led the social forums into paralysis and irrelevance. Refusing to develop a programme of action that went beyond occasional days of protest, they confined the forums to what they were comfortable with; a policy discussion around the idea of a ‘social Europe’ and the minimalist co-ordination of disparate and apolitical social justice campaigns. The high point of the European class struggle (2001 – 2004) gave way to a relative stabilisation in the years that followed. Lack of fighting leaderships, at both a national and European level, meant that important defeats associated with the Lisbon Agenda were pushed through, while at the same time there was a cyclical upswing in the world economy, which even Germany, Italy and France felt by 2005. This meant that the following years were marked by a more uneven level of political radicalisation and class struggle in Europe. Very radical developments in some countries (for example, France and Greece) which included the defeat of the European Constitution and the great CPE mass movement, went alongside important defeats and setbacks in other states.

The development of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France and the Left Party in Germany both bore witness to the general crisis of social democracy across Europe. They were both responses to a similar set of conditions. In both countries, there was a crisis of social democracy with mass disillusionment following their neoliberal attacks. In both countries, there were already parties to the left of the social democracy from the official Communist Party tradition. This did not stop moves towards new formations. Another similarity was the development of the class struggle, both countries saw significant movements against the Lisbon Agenda, which spurred on the drive to new formations. However, despite these similarities in conditions, the methods of formation of the new parties were very different, resulting in parties with quite different politics.

In France, the Communist Party had governed with the Socialist Party and had a strategic orientation to doing so again, something against which the far left current, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) to their credit, took a principled stand. When the LCR candidate scored higher than the CP in the presidential elections, they went on to found the NPA around the principle “no coalition with the Socialist Party”. In Germany, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), had a similar orientation as the French CP and in certain Länder they were already in power with the social democrats, even implementing the Agenda 2010 reforms. Only a minority of activists on the left of the new party movement opposed them. This alliance, the Network Left Opposition in the WASG, even organised to stand against the PDS in Berlin state elections following the anti-Agenda 2010 movement. The Left Party (now DIE LINKE) was in the end consolidated as a resolutely social democratic party as regards its membership figures and core apparatus. Unlike the PDS, which was always a miniscule party in the West, DIE LINKE is a bourgeois workers’ party with organic links to the organised working class in the whole of Germany, East and West. Unlike the PDS, DIE LINKE has significant and growing support from sections of the German trade union bureaucracy.

Consequently, the NPA today has at least the potential to give revolutionary leadership to the French working class. The Left Party, in contrast, is focused on the parliamentary terrain seeking to direct all radical developments in the class towards boosting its electoral position in the hope of one day securing a coalition government with the German social democracy. Nevertheless, like the union leaders and the SPD itself, DIE LINKE will come under massive pressure from the newly elected CDU/FDP-government.

France: key to the international situation?
Two factors give France a particular importance for revolutionaries in the current world situation: (1) its working class remains one of the most combative and has this year launched one of the few rounds of truly mass action against the crisis; (2) its social democracy is in an advanced state of decomposition and a new left party has the potential, only the potential, to act as revolutionary leadership in the struggles ahead. Officially founded in January, the NPA now has 10,000 members and passed several fighting programmatic documents at its conference, which included a series of transitional demands raised around the crisis, a rejection of the French tradition of syndicalist trade unionism, and a clear statement of solidarity with all forces fighting imperialist war, occupation and national oppression.

As in the rest of Europe, the recent elections saw a very high abstention rate, nearly 60 per cent, which is unusual for France, with particularly high levels amongst the working class and youth, which hurt the NPA more than others. While Sarkozy can claim the mantle of the first incumbent president to win a European Election for thirty years, his level of support was just 18 per cent with only 40 per cent of the electorate voting. Nonetheless, the result was clearly an outcome of the development of the French class struggle over the previous year. Pushed by the rank and file, the trade unions called two days of action in January and March against both Sarkozy and the impact of the crisis, raising the slogan, ‘we won’t pay for their crisis’ that the Italian students had raised in the autumn of 2008. On top of this development, in November, a movement in the Lycées forced the government to make some concessions on education reform, fearing the events of Greece, where pitched battles of the students were being fought at just this time. For three months, students and university workers were mobilised against another attack against the public sector. Health workers were also on the streets. The example of Guadeloupe, where an indefinite general strike had forced major democratic and social concessions from the French colonial administration, was in forefront of the masses’ consciousness. Unfortunately, owing to the lack of leadership with a clear perspective on how to conduct the fight, the concrete possibility of a general strike never materialised.

This resulted in a lot of bitterness and fatigue for the workers’ vanguard. It was on the back of this situation that the campaign for the elections began. After years of inaction in the struggles against Sarkozy, the Socialist Party (PS) tried to capitalise on the hate against him with purely passive propaganda (“use your vote” to stop Sarkozy). As many on the left commented, the PS were speaking the language of “the dead” without any positive political platform. Indeed, the PS lacked any coherent project. It was, and remains, torn between two solutions to its current malaise. Either to propose a new left reformist project (but even its leaders are not convinced of this) or transform itself into a new, openly bourgeois party. For instance, Segolene Royale advocates a closer alliance with Francois Bayrou (of the “Democracy Movement”, a bourgeois liberal party, split off from the French right wing, claiming to be “the centre”). This debate will become even more intense now that the PS fears that its position could be undermined by the energised Greens, not to mention the two new left formations. The crisis of the Socialist Party, of course, has a broader historical context in the paralysis and collapse of European social democracy more generally, and we should not think people like Royale are unaware of this.

The result of the NPA was reasonable for a first election (nearly 5 per cent) but the campaign did see some worrying signs for its future development. Like the LCR’s presidential campaign of 2007, it was heavily focused on leader Olivier Besancenot and based upon a platform of reformist demands such as defence of public services, a ban on redundancies and the minimum wage. There was no stress on the need for an emergency plan that should include, for example, nationalisation (under workers’ control) of firms facing bankruptcy. In this respect, it showed little change from a typical LCR campaign. The role of the NPA in the struggles in the past and those coming in the future was never the focus (or one of the subjects) of the campaign. There is also an unfortunate background to this. The actual intervention of the NPA in the class struggle since its founding conference has not been as strong as it could have been. There are also signs that the attraction and excitement around the NPA is diminishing, with activists in the NPA reporting that turn out has not been good at meetings and sales of membership cards nationally are also falling.

The major political challenge to the NPA now comes from the Left Front (PCF and Parti de Gauche), which accused it of being sectarian and dividing the marvellous unity of anti-neoliberal forces. While the Left Front are brazen social democratic reformists, whose model is the Left Party in Germany, the NPA have had difficulty fighting off this accusation because the programme they stood on in the elections was indeed very similar to that of the Left Front. Not only did this make it difficult for the masses to distinguish between the two parties at the election, it also meant the Left Front’s charge of sectarianism gained a hearing in the working class because they also could not understand why the two parties had not united. The excuse that the Left Front will not renounce in advance a coalition with the Socialist Party now looks rather threadbare since the latter is getting ever weaker. The NPA should have used the election campaign to address the key issues of strategy to defeat Sarkozy; to denounce the union leaders for letting him off the hook, to call for a return to struggle led by rank and file committees, for a really anticapitalist emergency plan that put to the fore attacks on the private property of the capitalists and militant tactics to win these proposals (strikes, occupations). While, the class struggle may well once again boost the NPA’s popularity and standing, winning it further new recruits, and this is to be hoped for, it is also the case that the party now faces major questions over its intervention in the class struggle in the future. If it does not fight consistently for a revolutionary action programme in the class struggle, the Left Front could well marginalise it.

Instability in south Asia
In India Congress won a landslide, in Indian terms, election victory, with the Hindu Nationalists losing ground, and the Stalinist Communist Parties suffering an historic defeat. The bourgeoisie saw Congress’ victory and the defeat of the communists, as an opportunity to push through a major offensive against the working class and poor. But in the incoming government’s first budget the big bourgeoisie and foreign investors were disappointed. The Bombay stock exchange had risen sharply since the election but on news of the budget it fell 6 per cent. So why were the bosses angry? They had been looking for attacks on labour protection laws, for the government to privatise its shareholdings in major industries to raise $5 billion, for more incentives for foreign investment, and for the liberalisation of the energy sector. In the budget, they got unspecified promises of privatisation and some tax reforms that would favour the rich but that was all. The highest profile measures were social welfare orientated, with big promises in particular for India’s peasants. Even the privatisation that was announced is referred to by Congress with the euphemism ‘disinvestment’, referring to state divestment from its stakes in industry, plainly seen as a useful term to disguise policies of market liberalisation.

Though it was disappointing to India’s new big bourgeoisie, the caution of the Congress in the budget was understandable given the social unrest already afflicting the country and the potential for much more in the face of the crisis. Even before the world economic crisis broke, the masses of the Indian population had not felt the boom. According to a World Bank estimate, 452 million Indians, around 42 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line, which it sets at just $1.25 dollars per day, while beyond that a staggering 80 per cent live below 2 dollars a day. The boom has also been highly uneven and has not touched whole swathes of the country, with regions like Bihar (5.1%), Uttar Pradesh (4.4%), or Madhya Pradesh (3.5%) seeing nothing like the growth rates experienced by Gujarat, West Bengal and Delhi. The World Bank’s Development Policy Review considers the poverty rates in rural Orissa (43%) and rural Bihar (41%) to be among the most extreme in the world.

Some of the most shocking statistics concern child poverty. Of the 27 million Indians born this year, 2 million will die before the Congress completes this term of office, while 40 per cent of them will suffer malnourishment. Statistics like these have been ‘ten a penny’ in India for decades. What is relatively new is the astonishing wealth accrued to the industrial and financial bourgeoisies over the last ten years. In 2009, India could claim 57 billionaires and even had 4 in the Forbes top ten-list of the richest individuals in the world. The combined wealth of its top 40 billionaires is $170 billion, considerably larger than the entire economy of New Zealand ($115 billion). The Indian bourgeoisie has prided itself on its service sector, IT, telecoms and relatively consumer-led economic model with booming urban developments and sharply rising consumption for the urban middle and upper classes, and has often contrasted this with more export dependent models in other parts of Asia. But the level of inequality this model has engendered is clearly hugely destabilising. Indeed, while the right wing press gloat at the collapse of the Communist vote in the elections, even they concede that it was not because of ‘obstruction’ of labour legislation in the last government but was largely due to the enthusiasm the CP has shown towards market liberalisation. In the historic CPI(M) heartland of West Bengal, the Communist vote collapsed because they had used violent repression against peasant and social movements that opposed the clearing out of peasant land for urban capitalist developments.

Given the huge levels of poverty (urban and rural) and the fact that 60 per cent of Indians work in agriculture, it is hardly surprising that these social conditions have proven ripe for a major intensification in activity of the Maoist insurgents, the Naxhalites. The media now openly speaks of a “Maoist insurrection”. No wonder: around a third of India’s 604 districts have seen battles between their guerrilla fighters and the police. The Naxhalites are gaining particular ground in West Bengal, where the rebellion started in the 1960s. Until recently, their growth and support was kept at bay by the CPI(M) who prided themselves on having branches in even the smallest tribal villages. Now, with the CPI(M) in crisis, the Naxhalites are taking advantage and could gain further.

The rebellion in India has also been helped in its advance by the events of the last few years in Nepal. Following the overthrow of the Nepalese monarchy, the Maoists called a halt to their insurgency, participated in the elections and won a historic victory. Once in power, following the classic Stalinist strategy of the Popular Front, they have pursued only democratic and minimal social reforms through the constituent assembly, refusing to make any inroads into capitalist property. They are also actively seeking to merge their standing army into the Nepalese state. Unsurprisingly, they were not rewarded for this by the Nepalese ruling classes, who launched a semi-coup against them. An army commander refused to stand down and a new government, based on a realigned majority from the constituent assembly, took the Maoists’ place. The army is resisting the merger of the Maoists into their ranks, so the situation remains far from stable.

Pakistan remains one of the world’s most unstable countries. Obama has imposed a war drive on the country, which is far more serious than any of the conflicts with the Islamic insurgents that took place during the Musharraf and Bush years. Obama reacted against a peace-deal agreed between the Pakistani government and the insurgents last autumn following big demonstrations against the army in Swat. The August-September period saw fierce fighting, but it was to prove a mere skirmish compared to the army offensive of the spring of this year. Huge artillery bombardments by the Pakistan army devastated Swat’s main cities, driving out militants but at a devastating human cost. In an astonishing admission by a pro-war journal, The Economist, said of the fighting: “the army’s action has been devastating. Over 2m have been displaced, in what may be the biggest unplanned movement of people since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Hundreds are reported to have been killed.”7

A conflict on this scale is clearly extremely polarising, but the level of public support for the army offensive has been far higher than in previous conflicts. A turning point was the circulation of footage of a young girl being beaten by Pakistan Taliban militants last autumn following the deal with the government that ended the fighting. Naturally, this shocked and angered secularists of all classes but the enormously destructive offensive of the army, like all oppressive acts, will only drive more youth into the arms of those that fight and resist it. There are two dimensions to the conflict. The first is its plainly imperialist character, it was clearly the result of the insistence of both the present and former US regimes to fight the insurgents. Secondly, the Pakistani state has always been highly centralised, with the army at its core. They recruit principally amongst the Punjabi peasants, with the second largest constituency being Pashtuns. Sindhi and Balochi national rights have always been viciously fought against by military means as and when necessary. Now the same method is being applied to the Pashtuns in the Afghan border areas.

The conflict takes place in the framework of a major of crisis of the Pakistani economy, which forced it into the arms of the IMF last autumn. Major inflationary pressures plagued the Pakistani economy throughout 2008, as it was hit by rising global energy prices. This forced a huge flight of capital out of the economy and a 25 per cent drop in the value of the rupee to the dollar. The government has responded with an aggressive anti-inflationary policy with interest rate hikes to 20 per cent, fuelling the destruction of capital within the economy as businesses go bust in tight credit conditions. This year the economy is expected to grow by just 2 per cent, its lowest level in a decade. A vast programme of privatisation is also being pushed through, already planned by Zardari prior to the IMF bail out, which has led to a spate of strikes and social movement campaigns. More aid has been solicited from the United States, nominally ear-marked for social welfare, as a reward for the huge onslaught carried out by the army against the people of Swat. Tensions with India also mounted following the Mumbai terrorist attacks. These were carried out by Islamic militants based in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), with historic links to the army and the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. Whilst Zardari plans to bring to trial five terrorists linked to the attacks, he has yet to close down the group’s facilities in the country, which are based on the border with Kashmir, and this contrasts quite sharply with the offensive being waged on the Afghan border.

In Sri Lanka the military defeat of the LTTE and the genocidal onslaught against the Tamil people has ushered in a period of sharp reaction in Sri Lankan politics. The government of Rajapakse is showing signs of increasing bonapartism and, though it makes hypocritical references to a just peace for the sake of the international community and world public opinion, it has forcibly incarcerated 300,000 Tamils in concentration camps under the pretext of screening for LTTE militants. The total victory of the Sri Lankan government against the Tamils has massively boosted the popularity of the Rajapakse government and led to a wave of Sinhalese chauvinism. Nonetheless, the government has to move from being a government of war to one which is expected to deal with Sri Lanka’s many and multifaceted social problems. In relation to the Tamil question they will look to capitulationist forces within the Tamil community willing to be co-opted as representatives of the Tamils into a political system in which they are systematically denied their political, social and cultural rights. One possibility is that a system will emerge that is analogous in form to apartheid South Africa. The internment of 300,000 Tamils is, in this respect, a clear statement of intent.

Even before the economic crisis, Sri Lanka had already been suffering under the impact of inflation caused by the massive military spending in the war against the Tamils. Export industries in commodities and manufactured goods have been hit hard with 50,000 private sector employees being laid off. Now that the war is over, Sri Lanka’s relatively large, for a semi-colonial country, public sector, also faces a massive programme of cuts in order to pay off the war debt accumulated by the Rajapakse government. This, in Sri Lankan terms, fairly well organised sector could be an important front for resistance in the future. Though the reactionary wave and the strengthening of bonapartism is not of course favourable to trade union activity, the popularity of the regime will at some point be undermined by the deepening social crisis. At the same time, it is imperative that Sri Lankan socialists and trade unionists link the economic struggle with the fight to liberate the Tamil people, defending their right to self-determination while also seeking to foster revolutionary unity by bringing Sinhala and Tamil workers into class struggle organisations.

Democratic and workers’ struggles in Middle East
In the Middle East, this year has seen a revival in popular mobilisation and mass struggle. In Egypt, the summer saw a wave of workers’ struggles. In the post office 50,000 workers, some of whom are on a monthly wage of just £30, launched a major struggle over pay and conditions with thousands of picket lines forming. Elsewhere, 1,000 oil workers went on strike, as did workers in the cotton industry. While steel workers launched a sit in, civil servants in the tax collectors’ union battled back against state repression following a successful strike for higher pay in 2008. This is part of a wave of industrial struggles that Egypt has seen in the last two years. These struggles have tended to be led by new independent unions or ‘associations’, legal, formally non-political, social forum bodies, taken together they constitute a real challenge to the corrupt, pro-regime General Federation of Trade Unions. This is clearly a source of instability for the Mubarak regime as it is hit by the economic crisis, with declining revenue from remittances from foreign workers, tourism and the Suez Canal, leading to a drop in GDP growth.

The democratic struggle in Iran of June-July this year was the biggest challenge to the theocratic regime since its birth and sent shockwaves through the whole Middle East region. The scale of the mass mobilisation and the splits that became pronounced within the ruling theocratic elite resulted in a shifting of the issues beyond merely the stolen elections and towards the questioning by wide layers of the theocratic system. In the run up to the elections, this split in the ruling coalition was already evident with the dramatic rise of Mousavi, who became a symbol of opposition to the ruling status quo and gave an expression to popular discontent with the regime.

The resulting mass movement, however, was not under the absolute control of Mousavi and his clique but took on its own dynamic, with students playing a particularly prominent role. Many were keen to insist they were not simply fighting for Mousavi but for fundamental democratic change. The movement thus represented a profound challenge to the Islamic regime. Though the state reacted with brutal violence, massacring hundreds of protesters, the scale of reaction and repression did not constitute a fundamental reversal in the balance of forces or a strategic defeat, that is, one that consolidated dictatorial rule for several decades to come. The contradictions of the Islamic Regime itself, which embodies both democratic and dictatorial elements owing to its origins in a revolution, mean that there has always been a degree of public political space in Iran, but the movement has forced open this terrain much wider.

Despite the historic importance of these protests they were, nonetheless, weakened by the absence of the organised proletariat. Winning this crucial force will be difficult insofar as the movement is associated with Mousavi, as he is a committed neoliberal reformer who has no fundamental difference with the regime’s economic policies, which have included the opening up of the country to foreign investment, deregulation of labour laws and privatisation. The attendant issue here is the relationship between the competing democratic and theocratic factions of the ruling class and the imperialist powers. The entry of the working class onto the stage of the democratic struggle could decisively shift the balance of forces against the regime. The movement is now in an interregnum and preparatory stage. The task of socialists is to draw the working class into a leading position within the democratic struggle, challenging the hegemony of bourgeois forces and advancing a policy for working class power.

Left populism and the crisis in Latin America
In Latin America, no major economy has escaped the crisis; all see negative GDP growth, rising unemployment (into the double digits) and sharp industrial collapse. The last decade has seen left populist and social democratic governments take power across the continent on the back of anger with the neoliberal economic policies, which had been imposed on the continent’s people since the 1980s debt crisis. Now, the global economic downturn, with its intensification of class contradictions, is a serious test of these regimes, as capital, like it does everywhere, demands attacks on the working class to restore conditions for profitable accumulation. We have started to see working class resistance, too. In Brazil, in late March and early April, a coalition of trade unions, the landless workers’ movement and social movement organisations, built mass demonstrations against unemployment. They were significant for the participation of the CUT federation, closely allied to Lula’s Workers’ Party. Argentina, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru have all seen strikes and protests against the crisis. In early June, Peruvian President Alan García, closely allied to Obama, sent the military in to break up demonstrations of indigenous peoples’ organisations, protesting against multinational mining of indigenous homelands, with many demonstrators killed or missing.

In Brazil, the Lula government has, since it came to power in 2002, been careful to meet the country’s debt obligations, and develop a growth strategy where social needs are thoroughly subordinated to the demands of multinational investors and creditors. Strangely, given Brazil’s close links to the US not only through trade but also banking and finance, Lula argued until very recently that the financial crisis would not affect the economy. He said on 4 October 2008 last year, “Up there [in the US] the crisis is a veritable tsunami. If it arrives here it will only be a little wave, not even big enough to surf on.”8 But over the next six months, the bottom fell out of the economy. The first three months of 2009 saw 0.2 per cent contraction and Morgan Stanley has even predicted the economy as a whole will contract by 1.5 per cent this year, which would be its biggest fall in growth since 1948. At the G20 meeting in London, Lula made hypocritical recourse to the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, arguing that the G8 countries should introduce a bail out fund to help those countries hit by a crisis that was not of their making. The G20, of course, put more money into the IMF, not a special fund, so those large economies that suffer the ignominy of asking for money, will be subject to its conditions.

As the largest regional economy, and with a centre left government, Brazil was the centre of the Santiago conference of left Latin American regimes (plus the United States) in March, which agreed a package of measures similar in emphasis to the British and American stimulus plans; limited deficit spending, low interest rates and bail outs for the financial sector. There was little mention of any policies to stop job losses, either through public works programmes or nationalising firms facing bankruptcy. Serious antagonisms are likely to develop between the industrial working class, the rural and urban poor, on the one hand, that succeeded in putting many of the regimes in Latin America into power, and those regimes now in government. In the first instance, however, the left wing illusions in these governments is likely to have a pacifying effect on resistance. The breaking down of illusions in these regimes will be a process co-determined by levels of class struggle and the development of the economic crisis.
This is likely to be the principal reason why we have not yet seen a repeat of the major upsurges in struggle, which in many instances (Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, etc) precipitated the left populists’ rise to power.

The coup in Honduras is yet another warning to the Latin American masses of just how intolerant the continent’s ruling classes are of even the mildest social welfare and redistributive measures. The elected President, Jose Manuel Zelaya, had called a referendum on the formation of a constituent assembly. The elite knew that, as in Venezuela and Bolivia, a constituent assembly would be a focus for demands to end the power, privileges and wealth of the plantation owners, the big business interests, the hierarchies of the armed forces and the church. They were terrified that Honduras might follow the path of social reform taken in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Workers, youth and social movement activists are now fighting the coup. A ‘National Front Against the Coup’ comprising trades unions, peasants, students’ and teachers’ unions, plus human rights andenvironmental organisations, has extended roadblocks across vast regions in the country, including the roads that link Tegucigalpa with San Pedro Sula, the country’s second city, and lead north to the country’s main industrial zone. Juan Barahona, the president of the United Federation of Honduran Workers and one of the Front’s leaders, has stated: “We will continue protests until the de facto government abandons the power it has usurped.” The teachers’ union too launched an indefinite strike. The military regime has responded with ruthless repression, including reviving the infamous death squads used by the military regime of the 1970 and 80s, with opposition activists now claiming 68 activists have been assassinated.

US intervention in the region has again come under the spotlight after it announced plans to massively increase its presence in Columbia with seven bases opened up fully to its military, significantly increasing its capacity to launch operations in Latin America. It is clearly designed as an aggressive declaration of intent by both the American and Columbian regimes against Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. The latter has responded by announcing a new military arms deal with Russia for the purchasing of missiles with a range of 300 Kilometres. This comes on top of the joint military exercises between the two countries, previous arms deals reported to be worth around $4 billion and Venezuela’s formal diplomatic recognition of the independence of the disputed Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Columbia has organised “anti-Chavez” protests across Latin America. The scope for the Columbia-Venezuela conflict to lead to a realignment of regional international relations, and even a fulcrum for inter-imperialist rivalries between the US and Russia, is plainly very real.

In Venezuelan domestic politics, the sharp economic collapse, the Honduras coup and US intervention into Columbia have encouraged a revival of activity on the part of the right wing, anti-Chávez opposition. They mobilised against the new education reform, which gives an increased role for socialist ideas in the curriculum, in greater numbers than they had been able to achieve for many years. With elections to the national assembly due this year, the right is expected to win a significant number of MPs (having boycotted the elections in 2005 they only have MPs thanks to the joining of the PODEMOS social democratic party with the opposition in 2007). The Reimpulso Productivo, a range of subsidies and de-regulative measures designed to help the financial and industrial bourgeoisie, which Chavez promised would boost private investment, completely failed with the first two quarters of 2009 seeing sharp declines as the bourgeoisie hoarded money during the downturn. The result has been divisions within the PSUV over Chávez’s policy, with the national conference, now delayed until December, likely to see the playing out of these arguments. Even the previously fiercely pro-Chavez International Marxist Tendency recently conceded “many of Chávez’s supporters are getting tired of the slow pace of the revolution, of the talk about socialism, but with no decisive action to back it up and with the lack of any real radical change.”9

The centrality of the conjuncture
Above, we identified the crisis as more than a cyclical crisis, arguing that it was an historic crisis of the system and defining this as a coming together of several contradictions in the global accumulation regime of the last two decades that threaten the continued survival of the economic and political ordering of the world. We noted the political struggle now underway on the world stage as each of the great powers vies to re-establish a world order most favourable to its interests. Given the strategic obstacles that stand in the way of a restoration of the ordering principles of the globalisation order, we noted that this analysis pointed towards a new phase within the imperialist epoch, a new segment of the curve of development, and argued that, overall, it would have, to use Trotsky’s terms, a descending character because the over accumulation of capital would prevent adequate valorisation and, therefore, sustained expanded reproduction.

This method of approaching the problem was developed from Trotsky’s writings and it is important to note he also identified the capitalist system in the inter-war years as being beset by an historic crisis, in which the great powers were unable to establish a stable regime of accumulation and capital was beset by a valorisation problem. In discussions in the Communist International, Trotsky many times emphasised the point that these strategic problems did not mean there was no movement of the business cycle. On the contrary, such a movement was part of the very essence of capital’s reproduction. Nonetheless, its intensity, whether the booms were expansive and the declines sharp, would tell you a lot about the general direction of development of the capitalist system, that is, the direction of the “general curve of capitalist development”. In 1930, Trotsky referred directly to the debates from the Third Congress of the Comintern, underlining the continuity of his approach:

“A considerable part of my report was devoted to proving that in the epoch of imperialism the laws determining industrial cycles remain in effect and that conjunctural fluctuations will be characteristic of capitalism as long as it exists: the pulse stops only with death. But from the state of the pulse, in connection with other symptoms, a doctor can determine whether he is dealing with a strong or weak organism, a healthy or a sick one.”10

Trotsky’s focus on the relationship between the upward and downward phases of the cycle as the indicator of the direction of the capitalist curve gives us a means with which to test the prognosis of the downward direction of capitalist development as a whole. If the recovery is uniformly sharp and any cyclical downturn brief and shallow (very unlikely indeed) then the curve will clearly be expansionary. By the same token, if recovery from the present recession is weak and temporary and followed by a further downturn, then this would indicate at least stagnation, potentially an absolute decline. At the same time, we must take into account the uneven character of development; even if the overall curve is downward, there may be emerging states able to achieve an expansion of their surplus-realising productive forces or to appropriate value from others. These would be in a better position vis-à-vis rivals, but would also have to defend their surpluses from appropriation by the finance capitalists of the more parasitic, less industrially dynamic, imperialist states. The beginnings of such a struggle can already be seen behind the diplomatic curtains at the gatherings of the G8 and G20.

What is the relationship of this analysis to the radicalisation of the masses and the class struggle? This is clearly a question of tremendous importance. In the same article from 1930, Trotsky warns against a mechanical conception. He points out that there is no automatic relationship between capitalist decline and working class radicalisation. We should neither demand an all out offensive before seeing a radicalisation nor veil defensive struggles in the language of a revolutionary putsch. Rather, Trotsky argues, one must make a “concrete evaluation of the extent, depth and intensity of the radicalisation” and “adapt one’s tactics to it.”11 He concludes:

“Meantime one must not even for a moment lose sight of the general nature of our epoch, which has proved more than once and will prove again that, between the first symptoms of revival and the stormy upsurge that creates a revolutionary situation, not forty years but perhaps only a fifth or a tenth of that are required.”12

Here, Trotsky reminds us that assessments of revolutionary possibility have to be made regarding conjunctures of development, situations, to elicit the tactics and strategy that can unlock that potential. Once it is successfully unlocked, or even if revolutionaries “only” successfully use the situation to educate a layer of the workers’ vanguard for the future, then the pattern and direction of future developments and their possibilities will undergo marked change. The uneven and combined nature of capitalist development means that just one situation, in one country, can powerfully affect the whole gamut of world politics. Even where revolutionaries have no impact whatsoever on a situation, we constantly renew the analysis of the concrete conjuncture to come to the most refined assessment of revolutionary tactics and programme.

Of course, projections of future developments can and must be made; the point is to understand the dialectic between the necessary and contingent determinations. In the current world situation, it is necessary for governments that serve capitalist class interests to carry out attacks on workers to restore profitable accumulation. It is likewise necessary that these governments defend their own capital stocks and seek to push the crisis onto others. Beyond this, a whole number of political and tactical considerations determine their choices: how hard and when to strike, when to offer compromise or concessions, when to push for full victory, how to assess the workers’ leaders, etc. The contingent nature of such choices means prognoses must have an alternate character; with each possible scenario identifying the conditions that would have to be met for it occur and then surveying the likelihood of the various alternative possibilities.

The cyclical nature of the capitalist economy and the dialectic of the class struggle mean that even in a downward curve of development there remains a dynamic (upsetting and re-establishing) of equilibrium and disequilibrium, between stabilisation and breakdown. However, there is a more frequent and deeper tendency to breakdown. Tactics and strategy must be constantly re-evaluated in the light of these concrete changes. Trotsky once pointed out that the interregnum phase between situations, revolutionary, non-revolutionary, is the typical one for the imperialist epoch. He also argued that this phase of preparation is often of decisive importance for political strategy. He wrote:

“In the processes of history we find stable situations which are altogether non-revolutionary. We find likewise situations which are obviously revolutionary. And again, there are counter-revolutionary situations… But the most striking features of our epoch of capitalism in decay are intermediate and transitional: situations between the non-revolutionary and the pre-revolutionary, between the pre-revolutionary and the revolutionary or the counter-revolutionary. It is precisely these transitional stages which have a decisive importance from the point of view of political strategy.”13

On the nature of the world situation
Now we need to pose the question more concretely: what is the character of the world situation and what political tasks flow from it? The chief determining feature in the current world situation is the global and synchronised recession. We see the desperate and aggressive dash by the capitalists to defend their wealth from the wave of capital destruction ripping through the system. Workers, poor peasants, the urban poor, and the middle classes find their share of social value under attack from capital. In some countries and regions, they face the most appalling immiseration as the drive to make the popular classes pay the costs of the crisis brings hunger, super-exploitation, precarité, homelessness, poverty and insecurity to every corner of the globe.

World politics, meanwhile, is in a profound state of flux as the major powers are torn between their longing for a restoration of equilibrium and a stable world order for capital accumulation, and the imperative to protect their own industries and markets, thereby aggravating further internal social contradictions and external rivalries.

These features of the economy, state and bourgeoisie are the elements of a social crisis characteristic of a pre-revolutionary state of world society.14 However, we are only at the beginning of the new period and such tensions have not yet been transmitted onto the international terrain. Indeed, by establishing the G20, which includes the major “emergent economies” such as China, India and Brazil, the imperialist powers have opted for a “collaborative” strategy, rather than open confrontation, and this reflects not so much their peaceful intentions as their relative weakness. At the same time, despite the depth of the social crisis, the level of radicalisation and mobilisation of the popular classes has not been at a level Marxists associate with a ‘pre-revolutionary situation’, that is, defensive or offensive struggles that create a generalised political crisis, undermining the authority of bourgeois governments. On the whole, the working class remains on a defensive footing, with sharper outbreaks of resistance highly uneven between states. Thus, Trotsky’s words about in Britain 1931 have, to a degree, a general bearing on the world situation today:

“The economic and social prerequisites exist and are becoming more compelling and acute… The bridge, however, from these economic prerequisites to a psychological response [of the contending classes] has not yet been crossed. It is not a change in the economic conditions, already unbearable, that is required but changes in the attitude of the different classes to this unbearable catastrophic situation.”15

The situation, though, is marked by tremendous dynamism: this year we have seen how quickly patterns of political and economic development can change at the current conjuncture. The first phase of the world crisis, the shock and the sharp slump, has probably now passed and with it the opportunity to defeat the first wave of attacks. The weakness of the resistance underlines the importance of political leadership, of preparing the working class for struggle and the hopelessness of relying on some sort of disembodied “revolutionary process.” Trotsky commented, again in the debates around the Third Period, that cyclical booms, however short, were an opportunity to prepare the working class, to use the time to build strong organisations, while always also warning of the coming downturn. In the current situation, preparation has been badly lacking. The working class has entered this crisis, this most historic, global and serious crisis, woefully under prepared for the vicious attacks of capital.

In every country, the leadership of the workers’ movement, their traditional parties and unions, were all caught in a state of total un-preparedness by the severity of the crisis. None of them expected it and when it came they were terrified by it. They rushed to play the role of servants of the bourgeoisie, negotiating an ever smaller share of a shrinking economy whilst, of course, ensuring their own bureaucratic interests, rather than fighting intransigently for the defence of their members. Even the most radical political forces in the international working class did not anticipate and prepare for the crisis. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez built a “socialist revolution” on the back of high demand for oil in the boom times. The LCR in France (now the NPA) constructed a strategy for change that was based on a long steady period of radicalisation. They even discussed amongst themselves whether it would be legitimate to enter capitalist governments for a time,16 which followed from their conception of the revolutionary process.

The lack of preparation and the paralysis in the face of the attacks of capital, are the main contours we see in the crisis of working class leadership. A starting point in overcoming it is the simple recognition of the actuality of the socialist revolution; our strategic starting point is the living possibility of revolutionary change in the midst of the social crisis and our actions have always to be defined by their relationship to the revolution itself. As Lukacs put it, “the actuality of the revolution therefore implies study of each individual daily problem in concrete association with the socio-historic whole”.17 Only in this way can we develop the strategy and tactics that can realise the socialist revolution: the urgent task of the global working class.

Despite the crisis of working class leadership, the current situation is full of the most tremendous revolutionary potential. The severity of the social crisis, those features of the world situation that have a thoroughly pre-revolutionary character, will have a particular impact on the ability of the bourgeoisie to secure stable class alliances with those below them. We already see signs of the disintegration of social democracy across Europe, of great political instability and outbursts of popular anger and indignation. Revolutionary situations, sharp outbursts of struggle, as the popular classes are compelled to take action to defend themselves against the crisis, are to be expected as the world situation develops.

In some countries this will come during the slump, in others it will come during the first recovery stage, in some countries, the economic questions will be to the fore, in others, the social crisis will reignite democratic aspirations. The class struggle will sharpen from above and below, with both progressive and reactionary outbursts. In short, a powerful objective imperative to struggle exists in the current world crisis.

The tasks of communists
In the words of the Transitional Programme, workers entering the road of struggle time and again find their way “blocked by their own conservative bureaucratic machines”. Without in any way underestimating the treachery of this leadership, we should remember Trotsky’s maxim that the ‘laws of history are stronger than the bureaucratic apparatus.’ The discrediting of capitalism as the best and only social system imaginable, even amongst the labour aristocracies and the middle classes of the imperialist heartlands; the fading of the American dream not only within the US itself but all over the world (that is, the failure of the American road to development via unfettered markets) will hugely discredit capitalism and open the road to revolutionary communism, providing the communists know how to seize the opportunity and realise the potential.

Growing pressure on working class leaderships to fight will create the potential to shift the balance of forces within the working class movements. The social explosions ahead of us, however, will not always have progressive results. As society polarises, there will inevitably be a strengthening of reactionary ideas within the working class. In short, we face a situation that is full of opportunities and dangers. How then should revolutionaries respond programmatically to these new circumstances?

Our starting point is the urgent and pressing need for the working class to resist the attacks flowing from the crisis: across the working class movement, organised and unorganised, we must promote resistance. Fighting for a united front of resistance will be of decisive importance. We need to call for action from ‘above and below’. That is, at the same time as demanding the leaders use all their resources to lead the fight against job losses, attacks on pay, working hours, and for the right to work, we also argue the need for the workers themselves to take up that fight, creating their own ad hoc forms of organisation as necessary. Calls to action on the leadership of the working class movement are important for two reasons. Firstly, they bring pressure to bear on the reformist leaders of the workers’ movement to take action in the interests of their working class memberships. Secondly, it is through practical class struggle that workers can see in practice the limitations of the reformist politics of compromise, the fundamentally opposed interests of capital and labour and the need for revolutionary change.

Action alone, however, will not lead workers to these conclusions spontaneously. Revolutionaries, fighting at all times for a concrete policy to develop the struggle, must illustrate how we are the best fighters for reforms by arguing for methods of struggle and forms of organisation quite different from those favoured by the reformist bureaucracy at the head of the labour movements which, especially in pre-revolutionary or in counterrevolutionary situations, will yield no significant or lasting results. For example, when reformists limit disputes to stop-start strike action, we fight for indefinite action as the surest way to win. When reformists say nothing can be done against factory closures, we say occupy the factory, demand nationalisation and run it under workers’ control.

Developing fighting organs of struggle from below will also be the key to challenging the bureaucratic forms of organisation under the hegemony of the reformist union leaderships. Fighting for the union leaders to take action must never mean dropping our criticisms or limiting our arguments to what they will accept. Rather, we act as strategists for the class and fight for what is necessary, regardless of whether it is popular. This will not only mean arguments with trade union bureaucrats but also with reformist workers. Being true to our ideas and politics is of course essential, but so too is learning the art of agitation and pedagogy, speaking a language workers understand and not being patronising. The most revolutionary of programme will be useless if it cannot be translated into clear proposals for working class action.

At first, building the resistance to the crisis will mean developing only limited and ‘preparatory’ organs of workers’ struggle, for example, solidarity committees with specific strikes or occupations, coordinations between struggles, revived trades councils and unemployed workers’ groups. By achieving ‘organisational’ not just ‘agitational’ results in the course of struggle, the class can be better prepared for future conflicts with capital. That is why we propose:
• Committees in workplaces, schools, colleges and universities which, at a certain point, by fusing with union and workplace organisations (shop stewards/strike committees), we fight to turn into…
• Committees of action to unite the mass struggles of trades unionists, youth, the unemployed, immigrants and workers into a common struggle.
• An unemployed workers’ movement.
• A rank and file movement in the unions, fighting with the union leaders where possible, against them where necessary.
• For new, anticapitalist, revolutionary parties – for a Fifth International

These should be combined with calls on trade unions for days of strike action. Of course, we hold out no illusions that one-day actions, even by millions, will break the will of the capitalists to resist. France, where one-day general strikes are relatively common, proves this. As we saw this year, isolated or widely separated days of action can be used as a safety valve by the union leaderships and may ultimately demoralise the rank and file if they do not deliver any tangible results. However, if one day actions or general strikes are understood as demonstrations, like military exercises, then they can play a useful role in assessing the size of our forces, addressing hundreds of thousands with agitation and propaganda about the further steps, the goals and objectives, the organs of struggle needed to take things forward. In the current social crisis, the need for a class wide response will become more and more urgent. Workers’ struggles that emerge and really challenge the vicious attacks flowing from the
crisis, will meet fierce resistance. Whilst repeated calls for a ‘general strike now’ are useless in situations where its necessity is not posed by the scale and seriousness of the struggle, we need to be equally clear that a general strike will be put on the agenda by any major acts of workers’ resistance. The fact is that a generalised attack of the bosses against workers is already underway and a united fightback by the whole class is needed. That means the call for a general strike can be popularised amongst wide layers of workers.

Fighting to develop class struggle organisation and militant methods of resistance would be hopeless without clear goals and demands on the government. The whole working class movement must be organised in a ‘we won’t pay for the crisis’ campaign, demanding the government introduce an immediate set of measures to make the bosses, not the workers, pay for the crisis in the system. Key goals and demands of this movement should be:
• Reject all redundancies – for factory occupations or all out indefinite strikes to stop job cuts and closure.
• Organise mass demonstrations and industrial action against all job losses.
• The nationalisation under workers’ control and without compensation of all firms attempting to sack workers.
• A sliding scale of hours with no loss of pay.
• A programme of public works under trade union control to absorb all the unemployed.
• The immediate and total repeal of all the anti-union laws.
• Nationalise the banks without compensation. Merge them into a single state bank to plan investment for social need, not private greed.
• Strike against job losses, against closures, compulsory cuts in hours and pay.
• Defend public and welfare services
• Smash the fascists. Fight racism against black and Asian people. Fight Islamophobia. Stop the scapegoating of migrants for the economic crisis
• Make the rich pay for the crisis – for a punitive tax on the rich to fund a programme of public works and social welfare.

The intensified struggle over the distribution of social value, within classes, between classes, and for political power, will have a particularly destabilising effect on politics in the semi-colonial world. It will undermine bourgeois democratic regimes, particularly those like the populist regimes in Latin America with a left bonapartist character, and may lead to a new round of military coups; Honduras serves, of course, as a warning of this. At the same time, Iran shows how previously stable dictatorial regimes can also come under challenge. Revolutionary socialists must link the struggle to improve the conditions and economic power of the workers and peasants with a complete defence and extension of democratic rights. The call for a constituent assembly can play a role in developing a democratic struggle towards the formation of a workers’ and peasants’ government. Socialists must always seek to give the call for an election of this highest form of bourgeois parliament a ‘transitional form’ that is, one that increases, not decreases, working class power in society as a whole, by fighting, for example, for the election of delegates by local workers’ councils. In the semi-colonial world, it is plainly imperative to bring the subaltern classes, the peasants, the urban and rural poor and the impoverished middle strata, under the leadership of the socialist proletariat. The explosion of food riots powerfully illustrated the potential radicalism of these layers across the globe in 2007 – 08. The fight for agrarian revolution, that is, the redistribution of the land to those who till it, against feudal landlordism and agricultural capital remains key to the mobilisation of these layers behind the working class.

The last period shows the continuing centrality of anti-imperialist struggle in the fight for socialism. Despite the beginnings of US withdrawal from Iraq, we have seen the horrific Israeli offensive on Gaza, the genocidal end of the Sinhalese war against the Tamils, and the potentially explosive intensification of the Af-Pak war. Just as we link the fight against repression and for democratic rights to the struggle for a workers’ government, so too must revolutionaries fight to turn military struggles against imperialism and for the liberation of all oppressed nationalities into a struggle for socialism. Only the operation of an anti-imperialist united front policy, the proposal for common action by all forces opposed to the given occupation or war, can develop the prestige and influence of the working class over the anti-imperialist masses and expose the weakness of alternative leaderships. Only this can allow the working class to come to the head of the movement and turn it towards working class power. While never subordinating the independent programme and organisation of socialists to bourgeois and petit bourgeois forces, the support of socialists for anti-imperialist, democratic struggles must be unconditional.

In the present situation, we can expect more pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations. This means the indefinite general strike, councils of action, workers’ self defence and the workers’ government should be posed as much more immediate and pressing aspects of our strategy. As Trotsky said, the programme ‘must correspond to the situation’ and in the current period we expect these slogans to become immediate necessities for the class struggle if, that is, sharp defeats for the class are to be avoided. We must connect all partial, immediate and sectional demands that arise, all the limited or embryonic organisational forms that develop, to the more general answers contained in our programme, Protest to Power. Without mass political organisation, however, no programme can, in the final analysis, be won. In the resistance ahead of us, lies socialism’s historic opportunity. Seizing that opportunity will mean fusing revolutionary socialist politics with the most militant sections of the working class in new revolutionary communist parties and a Fifth International.

1 Focus on the Global South, ‘Global trends driving ‘land grab’ in poor nations: activists’,
2 cited in Davis, M, op cit (see part 2), p.34
3 ibid, pp. 34 – 35
4 See Cooper, L., spring 2009, ‘Neoliberalism, social democracy and new left parties in Europe’, Fifth International, vol. 3, no. 2,
5 Editorial, Financial Times, 9 June
6 Cooper, L., spring 2009, op cit
7 The Economist, 23 July 2009
8 Lambert, R. 12 June ‘Brazil: more dependent than ever’
9 Larsen, P. 10 September 2009 ‘Venezuela: Economic crisis and imperialist attacks pose new challenges for the revolution’,
10 Trotsky, L., 1975 (1930), ‘The Third Period of the Comintern’s Errors’, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1930), Pathfinder: New York
11 ibid
12 ibid
13 Trotsky, L. ‘Once Again Whither France (part 1)’ in the Workers Power reading pack Trotsky and the French Crisis of the 1930s p.55 available from Workers Power: London also on MIA
14 This paraphrases Trotsky’s formula from The Transitional Programme with the exception that he had identified international relations as a key feature of the world crisis – given, of course, that he was writing on the eve of a World War. He wrote, “The economy, the state, the politics of the bourgeoisie and its international relations are completely blighted by a social crisis, characteristic of a pre-revolutionary state of society. The chief obstacle in the path of transforming the pre-revolutionary into a revolutionary state is the opportunist character of proletarian leadership: its petty bourgeois cowardice before the big bourgeoisie and its perfidious connection with it even in its death agony.” While we can identify a social crisis characteristic in some respects of a ‘pre-revolutionary state of society’, inter-imperialist rivalries and conflict are of course at nothing like the level Trotsky had identified. Another similarity with Trotsky’s position from 1938 is the historic weakness of revolutionary communist forces – in 1938 the Communist International had thoroughly collapsed into Stalinism, social democracy and trade unionist politics were strong in the imperialist countries, and Trotsky’s supporters were tiny – we similarly face a ‘crisis of leadership’ on this kind of scale. This can naturally have a pacifying effect on the class struggle but it can also – and again the 1930s gives us a warning on this score – embolden and strengthen reactionary political forces of the far right.
15 Trotsky, L. 17 November 1931 ‘What is a Revolutionary Situation?’
16 See Cooper, L. ‘Daniel Bensaïd and the Return of Strategy’
17 ­Lukacs, G. 1924 Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought available on Marxist Internet Archive