7. The situation in the imperialist countries
The overall orientation of the imperialist bourgeoisies has already been described above. However the capitalist class in the imperialist countries is such a small section of the population that it cannot maintain its rule without gaining support from wider layers of society. Undermining the position of the imperialist bourgeoisies therefore requires severing them from their wider layers of social support. This must be achieved in a very specific and concrete political situation.
The petty-bourgeoisie of the imperialist states
One of the consequences of the process of globalisation is that significant sections of small business in a number of imperialist countries are being eliminated or crushed by large capital. However, due to the major victories achieved by the imperialists in the period since the 1980s, and the failure of the leadership of the mass social democratic and communist parties to protect them, sections of small capital lash out not against their real oppressors but against other countries and in particular against ethnic and racial minorities. These forces are given a further space to operate by the need of the imperialist bourgeoisies to attempt to align their population behind them for various reactionary projects and in inter-imperialist competition. A substantial resurgence of racist, fascist, and reactionary nationalist political movements and ideologies has therefore taken place in most imperialist countries – Le Pen serving as the leading international symbol of this.
These currents, overtly or implicitly harking back to the fascist regimes of the 1930s, are utterly reactionary. While the dominant sections of the imperialist bourgeoisie are today not compelled to seek, and are not actively seeking, the establishment of fascist regimes within their own countries they find such movements useful and therefore give them significant aid through the mass media and other means at their disposal. Root and branch struggle against such forces, with their attempt to degrade the majority of humanity to sub-human status, and their goal of crushing all movements of the exploited and oppressed, will be a permanent field of activity in the coming years and one around which the maximum unity in struggle must be developed.
Liberalism and social democracy
Liberalism and social democracy within the imperialist countries had analysed the former Cold War as a struggle between a totalitarian/aggressive ‘communist’ system, and ‘democratic’, ‘peace-loving’, ‘defensively’ oriented, and ‘pro-free enterprise/mixed economy’ forces under the leadership of US. The political conclusion of this, if true, would therefore have been that the victory of the latter group was a step forward for humanity that would open up an era of greater peace and social and political progress. Therefore it was argued it was necessary to support the fundamental policy of the imperialist powers while engaging in criticism of ‘excesses’ in their methods or of individual actions.
Such an analysis has been entirely refuted by events. Far from demonstrating a ‘peace loving’, ‘defensive’, and ‘liberal’ character, the victory of the US in the Cold War was followed by its heightened military aggression, the launching of repeated wars, attempts to put in place systems such as National Missile Defence which would allow it to stage nuclear aggression against other states, attacks on the social and political gains of the most oppressed and exploited sections of the population, and a resurgence of racism and reactionary nationalism in numerous countries. Events since the collapse of the USSR confirm that the real character of the Cold War was that of imperialist aggression by the US and its allies against a Soviet Union that acted as a certain military and political counterbalance to this. The leadership of the former USSR was not engaged in ‘aggression’ but, on the contrary, failed to pursue a resolute enough struggle against imperialism – sacrificing both other struggles and the population of its own country to its narrow bureaucratic interest. This bureaucratic leadership of the Soviet Union, in alliance with imperialism, took this tendency to its logical conclusion by being the main force that restored capitalism in the territory of the former USSR – thereby condemning the population of these countries to worse economic, social and political conditions than those which had existed prior to 1991.
Following the victories of imperialism from the 1980s onwards, sections of the leadership of social democracy pursued right wing neo-liberal positions, of the Blair type, while most others pursued right wing social democratic policies (Jospin, Schröder). In most countries the Communist parties were marginalized.
Despite its bureaucratic leadership, the disintegration of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism on its territory represented a huge setback and defeat both domestically and internationally. Within the former USSR living standards and social protection plunged precipitately, male life expectancy in Russia fell by 10 years, millions of women were forced into poverty and prostitution, tens of thousands were killed in wars in Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Georgia, and the population of Russia is today two million lower than it would have been on previous trends. Internationally the most powerful state that had been able to provide material aid against imperialism, greatly aiding for example the victory of the Vietnam National Liberation Front against the US, was eliminated. The destruction of the USSR was followed by a wave of reaction on a world scale that still continues.
The social position of the social democratic and communist parties
The social democratic parties, and to a much lesser extent the communist parties, between them nevertheless continue to enjoy the support of the large majority of the working class. Forces to their left enjoy the support of only five to ten per cent of the population, frequently less, in most economically advanced countries. Far greater forces splitting from traditional parties have gone to the extreme right than to the left – an indication of the real and currently adverse relation of forces in the imperialist countries.
As long as the majority of the working population continue to support the social democratic and communist parties, those fighting for social justice cannot set in action the majority of the population without practical agreements with either the social democratic and communist parties as a whole or currents within them. Those fighting for social justice must therefore attempt to enter into united action with these forces against imperialism and capitalism, while at the same time struggling against the right wing policies of the social democratic and communist leaderships.
The emergence of left wings within the reformist parties
Due to the mass character of the social democratic, and to a lesser extent communist, organisations, a revival of the popular struggle will not simply bypass them. On the contrary it will produce left wings within them, with which united action must be conducted both in the fight against the imperialists and against the right wing of these parties. The general weakness of the left wings within the social democratic and communist parties is not a sign that they will be entirely bypassed in struggle – Labour for example will not disappear as the mass party of the working class in Britain in the present period – but reflects the adverse relation of social forces.
The definition of the character of each specific situation, and therefore the key struggles and demands within it, which defines the appropriate bases on which it is necessary to fight for united action, is one of the most important issues of practical tactical questions facing the movement for social justice.
8. The ESF and the WSF
The victories won by imperialism from the 1980s onwards disoriented the working population of most countries and all those resisting the capitalist offensive, and in many cases severely weakened their organisations. Trade union membership fell sharply in almost all countries, right wing capitalist parties reduced formerly mass parties of the working class to relatively marginal groups in Japan, the trade unions in the US have become almost marginalised in most cases outside the public sector, most communist parties were severely reduced with in some cases, as in France, an important part of their social base in the most oppressed parts of the population being won over by fascist and racist organisations. The leadership of social democratic parties was generally taken by the most right wing currents within them, and privatisation and attacks on the social gains of the population were universal as shown vividly by the Blair government.
Following such large scale defeats, the vigorous resistance to imperialism by a number of important, but minority, layers of the population, which started from the mid-1990s onwards, inevitably developed around a number of diverse issues. These naturally generated and reflected different ideologies, different strategies and different tactics based on these experiences. A prolonged period of struggle, which is inevitable given the deepening character of the imperialist offensive, will therefore occur before an agreed strategy will be widely adopted that is capable of inflicting a sustained defeat on the capitalists. The international movement against the Iraq war, the ESF and the WSF are important steps in that development.
In the numerous current and coming struggles the key criteria by which all forces must be judged is not ideology or proclaimed theoretical views, but the practical position they take on the most immediate and important matters of the social struggle. The tone taken in discussing differences and tactics must reflect this. Socialist Action wants to engage in both debate and united action with the whole range of forces in the struggle. That is why it supported the holding of the 2004 ESF in London. The necessary and inevitable discussion that will take place must not cut across unity in struggle against a common capitalist enemy. Broad masses of the population, and even the most advanced and militant layers, will not – and should not – judge views within the movement for social justice in the first place by their ideology but by their practical views and proposals for the social struggle. It is the ability to lead large social forces in struggle, not the ability to produce theories or analyses, that is the primary condition for political leadership. Analysis and theory is important because it leads to, and is not a substitute for, the most effective conduct of political struggle.
Within that framework there are a number of key issues for the movement to consider.
9. Some key issues
Within the framework outlined above a number of key issues for the ESF have to be gradually discussed and clarified in order to take it forward in the most successful and practical way.
• Many different groups fighting against many different oppressions and crimes participate in the ESF. This is extremely positive. But capitalism also lives by dividing and conquering – setting the population of the imperialist countries against the population of semi-colonial countries, and utilising racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious and other discriminations. The power of the capitalist class can itself be relatively centralised through the capitalist state. If the capitalist class is united in organisation and those fighting against it divided, capitalism will win. In the same way that the capitalist class can centralise its power on the political level, so must those fighting for social justice. This does not mean that the ESF and WSF should become a political party. But it means that political parties fighting for the oppressed and exploited must be built alongside them.
• Most currents within the ESF and WSF believe that the imperialist and capitalist system can be reformed until it fundamentally changes its character. Therefore, large numbers of those in the ESF and WSF either believe that it is undesirable or impossible to eliminate the international capitalist system, or that changes can be made which make such a goal unnecessary. Even the bulk of those who believe that it is no more possible to create a humane capitalist system than it is possible to teach a tiger vegetarianism, and therefore believe that the international capitalist system must be ended, do not accept that this can only be done by taking state political power out of the hands of the capitalists.
Socialist Action very much wishes these views were true. The major struggles against capitalism involve large losses, almost all of which are borne by those fighting for social justice. Nothing would be better than if these struggles could be reduced to a minimal level or eliminated. But experience shows that this would be a utopian assessment.
Reforms or concessions can undoubtedly be obtained from capitalism in certain circumstances. Wherever this can be done there must be a constant fight to achieve such reforms, both for their own sake and as points of development for further advances. But the dynamic of the capitalist system, as shown over several centuries, increases international and domestic inequality and exploitation; it is inherently expansionary; in order to attempt to prevent the inevitable rebellions against such effects the imperialists necessarily resort to extreme violence and oppression; periodically deep crises within the capitalist system compel it to resort to the most extreme solutions – imperialist conquest, racism, and in extremis fascism. History confirms there is no level of violence to which the imperialists will not sink in order to defend and implement their interests. Capitalism will readily step outside the bounds of legality and democracy to maintain its power – using for this a control of the state that is not confined to formal government but extends deep into the bureaucracy and armed forces.
Reforms wrested from the imperialists are therefore necessarily unstable and constitute points of struggle, based on relations of forces that the capitalists constantly seek to overturn. Thus, for the last 20 years, imperialism has been mounting a sustained offensive to reverse many of the social gains made by the majority of the world’s population in the period 1942–79 and in particular, in Western Europe, to eliminate the welfare state. This offensive will deepen with a further rise of inequality, social attacks, racist movements, imperialist wars, etc.
Only the elimination of the capitalist system will create an economic base to begin the construction of a just society. Even that will not, by itself, achieve social justice, but merely create a more stable basis for it. Many decades, or even centuries, of social reconstruction and struggle will be required before all residues of imperialism, racism, sexism, inequality, national chauvinism and other discriminations are eliminated.
If it is understood that it is necessary to eliminate the capitalist economy in order to achieve social justice then the centrality of the working class in a new social order is evident. Only the organisation of large-scale production can potentially eliminate poverty on a world scale or even maintain current living standards. The only alternative to the organisation of production by the capitalists is one by the working class. This does not mean that other social groups do not play a large or even decisive role in the struggle, as shown in a number of countries, but that such a struggle against capitalism, to be successful, must culminate in the transfer of state power to the working class and the organisation of the most powerful elements of production on its basis.
The working class, in turn, is all those who live by wage labour. It is not confined simply to industrial workers, nor is it defined by income level or similar secondary characteristics. Indeed, one of the main features of modern capitalist society is that many occupations that were previously self-employed are becoming becoming transformed into wage labour (retail sector, finance, lawyers, accountants, scientific workers etc). Most of what are referred to as the middle-class are now highly paid workers not ‘petty-bourgeois’. Only those living on surplus value created by exploitation are capitalists.
It is a key aim of the struggle, and a precondition for victory, to narrow to the greatest possible extent the layers of social support of the capitalist class and to seek to win all others to the side of the working class and oppressed.
10. The transition to socialism
It is worth placing all these trends in a long term perspective. History demonstrates that the overall struggle for social justice is inseparably tied to the progress or defeats of the international working class. The exploitation of wage labour is very far from being the only oppression or injustice perpetrated by capitalist society – the oppression of women, racism and homophobia touch even greater numbers of people. But only the working class is strong enough to defeat capitalism and create a new productive system based on itself. Victories for the working class are followed by victories for all the oppressed, and defeats for the working class by reaction and setbacks for all.
The Russian revolution of 1917 was the first time in history that the working class of any country succeeded in taking state power and holding onto it for a significant period. The imperialist assault on this state was therefore without precedent – up to 20 million killed due to imperialist intervention in the civil war and 27 million killed in the Nazi invasion. Similarly, the victory of the USSR over fascism unleashed a revolutionary and progressive wave without precedent that lasted for almost four decades. The colonial empires were demolished. The welfare state was created in Western Europe. The social democratic and communist parties were strengthened in numerous countries against conservative and openly capitalist parties. An unprecedented series of social gains were gained in many fields – abortion and divorce rights, equal pay for women, lesbian and gay rights, the elimination of the death penalty in a large number of countries, the marginalisation of doctrines such as open support for imperialism and empire, and the marginalisation of forces of the extreme and fascist right. The destruction of the USSR was followed by a wave of reaction on all fronts.
Those who failed to understand this, and were led simply by justified repugnance at the crimes of the leadership of the USSR, did not comprehend the inevitable international and domestic reaction, and the changed relation of forces and international dynamic, that started after 1989–91. An analysis that the USSR was a ‘state capitalist’ society, qualitatively no different to capitalism, not only violated any Marxist theoretical analysis of that society, but led to the view that there had been no deterioration in the world relation of forces following the destruction of the USSR. The destruction of the latter was held to be irrelevant or progressive.
This analysis led to the view that the new mobilisations around such issues as the US attack on Iraq, or against capitalist globalisation, represented a new social upturn of a fundamentally offensive character of the type that took place after 1968 with the victory of Vietnam in the war against the US and with the major wave of struggles that unfolded in Europe and Latin America. Such an offensive would place the achievement of a socialist solution to society’s problems on the agenda in a relatively short-term sense. Slogans and alliances would reflect this relatively short term perspective of struggle for socialism, rather than understanding the defensive position of the working class and oppressed, and putting forward immediate demands, and constituting alliances, accordingly. Such an analysis leads to putting forward proposals within the movement that are ultra-left as regards slogans and sectarian as regards alliances. Whatever the intention behind such an approach, which is often honourable, it therefore fails in practice to maximise the strength of the movement and imposes unnecessary defeats upon it.
These errors on the USSR are reproduced in relation to China, Cuba and Vietnam – remaining countries in which capitalism has been overthrown. Innumerable criticisms could be made of the leadership of these countries. But the social systems on which they rest are superior both domestically for their own population and internationally to any capitalist alternative. They, therefore, have to be defended against imperialist attacks.
11. The overall trajectory of the struggle
Marxists see all the movements and trends outlined above in the long-term transition to socialism. Capitalism is a system of generalised commodity production. This system is made possible, and was created, by the commodification – that is the production for sale and the market – of both the means of production and labour power. The whole of society is brought under the dominant sway of production for exchange value, rather than usefulness to humans. This also determines the relation between the capitalist and working classes (exploitation) and between the elements of the capitalist class (competition). The competitive dynamic of capitalism forces it to continuously reproduce and expand itself, bringing the maximum areas of society within the framework of production for exchange value, and therefore the potential for profit creation. This dynamic of expansion, both geographical and social, penetrates all spheres of social life, culture, personal relations, politics, and ideology. In addition to its numerous crimes, such a society debases all aspects of human life through their reduction to monetary relations – as may be seen every day in the alienated vision of society and relations between human beings pumped out by the Sun and other mass media.
It gives to every human being on the planet the following objective choice. To participate in promoting this debased society and its system of exploitation, oppression, violence, war, corruption and lies, or to fight against it for the truth and a society based on human solidarity and values. Socialist Action unequivocally stands for the latter. That is why it supports and champions the ESF and the WSF.