By John Rees
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The Fight against Capital and War

This article is over 22 years, 3 months old
The anti-capitalist movement is back with a vengeance. Socialist politics are crucial to its success.
Issue 262

The anti-capitalist movement has taken a decisive step forward. In Rome last month three million people called onto the streets by the CGIL union federation formed the biggest demonstration in postwar Italian history. A one-day general strike is planned for April. In Barcelona half a million people poured onto the streets, including a substantial number of organised workers. This was ten times more than the organisers expected. The continuing uprising in Argentina has shown how unstable governments wedded to the neoliberal economic model can become.

There is now a great opportunity unfolding before the left, an opportunity to put nearly 20 years of defeat behind us. There is a chance to set the course for a renewed challenge to global capital. But will we be able to grasp this opportunity in time to make this challenge a reality? The answer to this question turns, in the first instance, on how we understand the global balance of forces that now confronts us.

The pessimists’ case and a reply

Many on the left do not see opportunity at all in present circumstances. The argument goes as follows. US imperialism is in the ascendant, victorious at every engagement. George Bush rides high in the opinion polls at home. In Europe the right is either in power, like Berlusconi in Italy, or else social democracy has capitulated to the neoliberal agenda, like Blair in Britain or Schröder in Germany. The unions, especially in Britain and the US, are still weakened by a prolonged era of defeats. Many former left wingers have been happy to provide further evidence for this pessimism. After the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre the ‘Financial Times’ John Lloyd argued that the anti-capitalist movement born in Seattle in 1999 could not survive the impact of this tragic event. By the time of the fall of Kabul in November this time the same voices, especially the ‘Independent’s David Aaronovitch, were saying that the anti-war movement was finished.

The reality is very different. But the first step in grasping this reality is, as Gramsci said, to recognise the grain of truth in your opponent’s argument. It is true, for instance, that the US is militarily powerful, George Bush is popular in the US, that the populist and far right are a threat in Europe, and that the social democratic parties are further to the right than at any time since the 1930s. But this is only one side of a more complex process of polarisation. In any social crisis the centre begins to rent and tear. This is what happened in the 1930s and, over a longer time scale, it has happened over recent decades in contemporary society.

The end of the long boom in the late 1960s and early 1970s marked the first postwar generalised revolt against the system. It was a massive and international polarisation that predominantly benefited the left. This was beaten back in the late 1970s, largely because the reformist parties carried sufficient weight within the working class to hold the line for the establishment. The result was a 20-year offensive against the welfare state and the unions waged in the name of privatisation and neoliberal economics. But this swing to the right reached its furthest extent in the Reagan-Thatcher years. In the 1990s a slow recovery took place. Early on this seemed mostly at the level of ideas–a rejection of privatisation, the ‘fat cat’ culture and cuts in the welfare state. The Labour and social democratic landslides in Europe were the electoral recognition of this changed consciousness.

This recovery leapt forward at the end of 1999 with the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement in Seattle. Suddenly a diffuse mood became a movement. Although a movement of a minority, the minority was large, highly politicised and international. In the two and a half years since Seattle this movement has grown in numbers, involving significantly greater layers of organised workers, and has deepened its critique of capitalism. Most notably it has ridden out the patriotic and nationalistic thrust of the ruling classes after 11 September and emerged with an anti-militarist consciousness wedded to the pre-existing anti-capitalist ideology.

In Europe, where there was never the patriotic support for the war that arose in the US, the anti-capitalist movement was not seriously discomfited by the ‘war on terrorism’. At the European Union summit in Brussels last December there were two huge demonstrations, one of 100,000 supported by the trade unions and another of 30,000 called by anti-capitalist organisations. In Britain the anti-war movement has built a durable organisation in the form of the Stop the War Coalition. It supported the first anti-war march of 50,000 called by CND last October, organised the November demonstration of 100,000, and in March, with just the prospect of a new war against Iraq, it organised a demonstration of 20,000.

Elsewhere in Europe, there have been anti-capitalist demonstrations of 300,000 last summer in Genoa, followed by hundreds of thousands pouring onto the streets of nearly every major Italian city in the weeks after the killing of Carlo Giuliani outside the G8 summit. There were anti-war demonstrations throughout Italy in the autumn, one of the largest being 250,000 in Assisi. This year in Rome, on successive weekends in March alone, 120,000 marched against Berlusconi, 100,000 in solidarity with the Palestinians, and three million at the end of the month. Most unexpectedly of all in Barcelona last month an anti-capitalist demonstration at which a 50,000 turnout was expected became a demonstration of 500,000. Organised labour marched in tens of thousands both on their own demonstration in the days before the final demonstration and, significantly, on the 500,000-strong demonstration as well. Even in the US, where the after-effect of 11 September did take its toll on the movement, recovery is under way. Some 20,000 protested against the World Economic Forum meeting in New York in February, despite heavy media and police intimidation. The demonstration was at least as much anti-war as anti-capitalist. Local radio stations called it the biggest New York demonstration for a decade. Inspired by this success, activists are now organising an anti-war demonstration in Washington itself on 20 April.

George Bush has need to be concerned at these signs of organised opposition because although he is getting very high approval ratings over the war he is much more vulnerable on other issues. The latest ‘Time/CNN’ poll shows 51 percent believe Bush ‘cares more about big business than he does about regular people’, and that although 50 percent give Bush an ‘A’ for handling Afghanistan, only 13 percent give him an ‘A’ for the economy. Ultimately these figures reflect the fact that, although the US is militarily powerful, its economic strength has declined relative to some of its key competititors in the postwar period.

Growing US isolation

In Britain the erosion of support for the Blair government is reaching critical levels. George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech, coupled with the preparations for an attack on Iraq, have isolated the US from important supporters of the Afghan war among rulers in Europe and the Middle East. Blair’s decision to support Bush has further isolated him in his own party. Some hitherto loyal MPs have signed the early day motion opposing war against Iraq. Discontent among ministers is said to have moved beyond Clare Short to arch-Blairites like David Blunkett. Now 51 percent of voters oppose war in Iraq.

But discontent with Blair goes much deeper than opposition to war on Iraq. Blair’s decision to ally himself with Berlusconi and Spain’s Aznar in favour of ‘flexible labour markets’ at the European summit in Barcelona has given pro-European social democrats cause for dismay. TUC general secretary John Monks, for instance, wants a return to a stable labour market and a degree of welfare provision, but he doesn’t want to fight for it. He wants the European Union to deliver it through regulatory laws. Blair’s alliance with the far right of the European establishment is a huge blow to this dream.

The discontent already felt by union leaders with New Labour’s refusal to address their concerns over privatisation is the real bone of contention here. Monks and TGWU leader Bill Morris now threaten talks with the Tories and the Liberals as a means of trying to discipline Blair. They look to the right because the ground to the left is already occupied by the Socialist Alliance led campaign over democratising the trade union political fund.

Only a few years ago the right dominated the trade union bureaucracy. This is no longer the case. The shift to the left in working class consciousness has been reflected in a series of victories for left wing candidates in union elections. At the same time the industrial struggle, the lagging indicator in the British scene, is showing consistent signs of recovery. Strike votes, particularly on the railways, are now regularly won by ten to one, though only ScotRail workers have so far voted 100 percent for strike action. There are still setbacks, like those on South West Trains and in the civil service, but there have also been impressive victories, like those over pay on the London tube and Docklands Light Railway, and for the NUJ against local papers in Yorkshire. This all takes place in the context of union membership and union recognition both showing increases for the first time in many years. So, looking back over the last few years, how can we assess the strengths and weaknesses of our position?

How do we catch the tide?

It isn’t good enough simply to say that society is polarising. All contradictions develop over time whether we consciously shape them or not. But whether they develop toward destructive or progressive conclusions depends on whether we understand the direction in which they are developing and what we then do to shape them. Contemporary social polarisation has, so far, run to the left. There are counter-currents in the stream, some so powerful that they threaten to reverse the whole direction of flow. The failure of social democratic governments in Europe is already undoing some of the electoral gains of the 1990s. Italy and Portugal are examples. But the movement from below has not suffered a serious reverse yet. And the fact that it has not is partly a result of what tens of thousands of activists have achieved in shaping the movement so far.

The great strength of the revival of the movement, and of the left within the movement, has been the desire for unity. After so long in the wilderness this is not surprising. And this is not on the bankrupt model of the ‘rainbow coalitions’ of the 1980s where different ‘identities’ only came together to force their separate programmes on each other. What activists now most want is to lay down the fundamental principles on which most people can agree and on this basis to get to work on mobilising the greatest possible numbers in the most effective actions.

The left is like a river delta. When the tide is on the ebb it falls back into isolated channels. When the tide is rising it begins to form a single, powerful stream. What has produced this effect? Partly it is a rise in workers’ struggle, most marked in France since the public sector general strikes of 1995. But mainly it is the renewed understanding that it is capitalism which stands between all of us and a different world. The great corporations, the political establishments and their armed retainers are the common enemy of workers and the poor, whether they are men or women, African, European, Asian or Latin American, of whatever religion or none. The first task of revolutionaries is to assist this movement. Any other response is simple sectarianism in the sense that Marx defined it: ‘The sect seeks its point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement, but in the particular shibboleth distinguishing it from that movement.’ Those individuals and organisations who have stood aside from this great principle of renewal, who have counterposed themselves to the wider movement, have been, as Lenin used to say, punished by life.

But being part of the movement is only the beginning. There have already been great crises in the movement. And each crisis occasions a crucial battle of ideas, strategies and tactics. After the state resorted to live ammunition in Gothenburg and Genoa, for instance, some argued that the movement should retire from the streets and desist from the great international mobilisations. Others insisted that this was wrong–and were proved right by New York, Brussels and Barcelona. Some on the Italian left, like the White Overalls movement, have toyed with the imagery of anarchism. Others, the supporters of the Black Bloc internationally, have done more than toy with such notions. The revolutionary left has replied that such strategies are elitist and exclusive, preclude a serious orientation on the organised working class, and open the door to state repression. Sadly the revolutionaries were proved right in Genoa and New York where the Black Bloc pushed their way through a steel workers’ contingent and provoked the only police charge of the day. In the anti-war movement there have sometimes been attempts to minimise the participation of Muslim organisations on Enlightenment-rationalist grounds. This is a minority current in Britain but has been a large part of the reason why the French left has yet to mobilise a demonstration against the war of more than 5,000.

The role of the revolutionary left in holding together the unity of the movement depends on its ability to win a majority of the movement in each case to its strategic orientation. This does not mean that a majority of the movement agrees with the full programme of the revolutionaries, merely that it agrees with the revolutionaries on the key tactical or strategic issue of the day. In the course of these discussions there will be many who have come to the same strategic conclusions as the revolutionaries quite independently. The task of the revolutionaries is to ally with them in order to win a majority for a position that can advance a unified campaign.

But there is also one other key requirement for effective action: the greater the movement becomes, the greater the number of revolutionaries must be if they are to continue to play an effective role. Only if we show how our ideas can guide a wider movement, how our opposition to the system can enrich that of the movement, our internationalism can deepen that of the movement, will we be able to secure such support.

Activists are not resistant to hearing the Marxist analysis of the world around them. They know from their own experience that we have to explain the world effectively if we are to convince others to join the movement. Clear and compelling analysis is precisely what they value. As people enter a mass movement they are sometimes swayed by arguments that insist that unity can only be achieved by avoiding serious political discussion or ‘abstruse’ theoretical ideas. Easy popularity sometimes attends those who put this case.

But in the longer term those who address themselves to the fundamental questions which face the movement, who bring to bear on current problems the history and traditions of the past, are likely to win the majority. The activists at the core of the movement will listen, repeat and develop with other people the arguments put by socialists. They will find that unity achieved on the basis of principled political analysis is more durable and effective than the kind of unity built on superficial calls to ‘put our differences aside’. This is what a revolutionary organisation is for–to act and to argue in such a way that effective unity is forged inside the working class.

This is the dual task that now faces us. Polarisation is proceeding apace. Our side is growing in strength, but their side is regrouping and making counterthrusts. The field of battle is more fluid than before. We must act before we are punished for moving too slowly.

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