To say 2020 was dramatic would be an understatement. The world situation has been completely transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the inadequacy of governmental and state responses. As we head into 2021 it feels like we are entering uncharted territory. To make specific predictions would be unwise. But the Covid-19 crisis raises fundamental questions about the nature of capitalism and how the left should organise.
It is clear capitalism faces deep crises. Covid-19 has created a public health emergency which has already seen over one-and-half-million deaths globally and over 70 million cases at the time of writing. The glimmer of hope offered by the vaccine will not offer an immediate solution. Not only will it take time to roll-out but there are questions of access.
Over half of the pre-orders for vaccines will go to high-income countries despite them accounting for just 14 percent of the world’s population, a recent British Medical Journal study found. A quarter or more of the global population would likely be left without vaccines until 2022.
Ecological destruction has continued, despite the fact it was the practices of capitalist agriculture and agribusiness which led to such a deadly virus emerging in the first place. And the economic consequences have already been devastating. Recent figures concluded that the British economy will contract by 11 percent this year — the biggest decline in three centuries.
Economic output is not expected to return to pre-crisis levels until the end of 2022 at least. No one can be sure just how bad the slump will be. What we do know is that the jobs crisis has already begun to hit. A surge of redundancies in the last three months has put the number of unemployed at the highest in a decade.
Such social and economic crises have provoked a political one. Ruling classes and politicians have been caught between the contradictory pressures of unprecedented economic collapse and a public health disaster; trapped between their desire to open up their economies and return to the business of profit making and the cold reality of rising death rates.
Across the globe governments have veered between lockdown followed by rapid reopening of sections of the economy, only to be forced to shut them down after another spike in the infection rate.
Such an approach is exemplified by Boris Johnson in Britain, with disastrous results. Having spent much of the year appealing to notions of national unity the Tories have now made clear their intention to make workers pay for the crisis with the resumption of the public sector pay freeze.
At the same time, their scapegoating of refugees and migrants has been ratcheted up as they try to deflect blame for the problems.
In a year of momentous and extraordinary events, the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party was another earthquake moment. The act and the timing by Labour leader Keir Starmer were outrageous. Rather than taking on the Tories and providing opposition to their deadly policies he picked a fight with the left in his own party.
In suspending Corbyn, and then intervening to prevent him sitting as a Labour MP once allowed back, Starmer has thrown down the gauntlet to the left. He wants to drive the left out of the Labour Party or force them into humiliating submission.
Starmer used the terrain of allegations of antisemitism on which to attack Corbyn. Antisemitism is a real and growing threat and must be challenged and opposed. But its growth has been fuelled by the advances of the far right, not by a principled anti-racist such as Corbyn.
The left must insist that it is right to stand for Palestinian rights and be clear that it is not antisemitic to be anti-Zionist and against the state of Israel.
Such allegations are being used by the right to smear the whole Corbyn project of the last five years. In part, Starmer’s aim is to demonstrate a break with Corbynism and prove his credentials to the ruling class. But it is also to toxify the left: to ensure that the Corbyn years are so contaminated that such a left project will never be attempted again. It is an attempt to humiliate and intimidate the left both inside and outside the Labour Party.
This could have grave and disastrous consequences for the wider left. Millions of people were inspired by Corbyn and his radical message. Thousands flocked to join Labour after he became leader in 2015, making it the biggest political party in Europe with over 600,000 members.
As the right wing, aided by liberal commentators, argue for an interpretation that Corbyn was unelectable we should remember that Labour’s election result in 2017 bucked the trend of its declining vote at general elections over many years. Indeed, Corbyn won more votes than Blair did in the last two elections he fought.
The hopes that a Corbyn government could be achieved have been shattered. There is now a real danger of despondency and despair among sections of the left. Many Labour members may simply drift away from the party. The rumour is that already 50,000 have left since Starmer became leader.
In the process they may become more cynical about politics and the ability to enact change. Others may stay but focus all their energies on internal battles within the party. Both approaches are mistaken and miss a wider part of the picture. Explosions of resistance also rocked the world during the last year.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) was the defining movement of 2020 with protests raging across the globe in response to the police killing of George Floyd. They followed the mass climate change rebellion of 2019.
Such protests, and many others, have come almost entirely from outside the sphere of the traditional social democratic parties and trade union leaders. There is now a revival of the global processes of revolt we saw in 2019. From workers’ strikes in Belarus to student protests in Thailand; from mass demonstrations against police violence in Nigeria to protests against the government and inequality in Guatemala.
Mass protest has returned to the streets of France with hundreds of thousands joining demonstrations against the new global security law. The proposed legislation will increase the power of the police and make illegal the publication of images of police officers, including those of them acting violently against protesters.
In India up to 250 million people joined a recent general strike which gained militant support from farmers.
Resistance to oppression is to the fore in many of these movements, whether it’s challenging institutional racism as part of BLM, the mass demos for abortion rights in Poland and the ongoing fight for trans rights in Britain and elsewhere.
An emphasis on struggle outside parliament is crucial. This is not just because socialists see such struggles as giving inspiration. It is because a focus on struggle is a strategic orientation offering a way forward for how change can be brought about in society by mass collective action on the streets and in the workplaces.
All the great advances of the working class have been fought for and won by such struggle from below.
Corbyn’s success in becoming leader was in part born out of mass movements against war, racism and austerity. However, his leadership was double edged. On the one hand it lifted the whole left, popularised the notion of socialism and gave confidence to those challenging oppression and inequality. But ironically, protests on the streets, for example in defence of the NHS or against austerity, were smaller and fewer under his leadership as efforts were transferred into getting him elected.
This points to the limitations of the Labour Party as a vehicle for transformational change. As an electoral party it is completely fixated on parliament. That means winning elections, and so it is obsessed with electoral calculation. It always prioritises parliamentary struggle over struggle in the streets and workplaces.
Despite claims during the Corbyn years that it would combine fighting elections with extra-parliamentary activity, elections came to dominate completely. This emphasis meant that the focus of activists became electioneering rather than strengthening and deepening the movements outside parliament.
The Labour Party is sometimes positively described as a “broad church” to show how many different people can be part of the same organisation. In reality it means that it contains contradictory elements and often irreconcilable differences.
The same party could be home to both Tony Blair, who as PM took Britain into the Iraq war which left one million Iraqis dead, and Corbyn who completely opposed that war and helped head up the Stop the War Coalition.
But because the absolute focus is parliament and the priority is to win elections, it means there is a constant stress on the need for “unity” in the Labour Party. Throughout its history this has meant pressure being exerted on the left to concede and unite with the right wing in order for the party to be “electable”.
The right wing has always been more ruthless in its determination to force the left to make concessions. Contrast Starmer’s brutal approach with Corbyn’s policy when leader of not even supporting deselections of right wingers. Indeed Starmer was able to use the allegation of antisemitism against Corbyn so successfully precisely because the left never stood up to the accusations when they were first made when Corbyn was leader.
Therefore we must look beyond parliament, and outside the confines of the Labour Party.
It would be an immense step forward if the thousands of Corbyn supporters broke with the party and formed a different organisation, one orientated on struggle. At present this seems unlikely although Corbyn’s new project for Peace and Justice, which is not a new party, could provide a focus for some of the left.
But the new movements we have seen show the potential for mass resistance and change. And while the current level of strikes is relatively low, what strikes do happen can become a focus for all those who want to see a fightback.
Socialists should help build and be part of the resistance but should also find ways to bring together different struggles. Most immediately, this means building for the COP26 climate protests and for the Stand Up to Racism demonstrations on the UN international day of action on 20 March with Black Lives Matter activists, trade unionists and workers.
What we do makes a difference: from the teachers who have closed their schools due to Covid-19 safety fears to the students in Manchester whose occupation and rent strike won all students a 30 percent rent reduction. In the current crisis we need to be bold and have more audacity.
The left needs to work to build and deepen these movements, but the depth of the capitalist crisis and the end of Corbynism mean we must also offer political clarity.
Covid-19 has laid bare the inequality and oppression rooted in capitalism. Capitalism in “normal times” fails the vast majority of people. We face an unpredictable future, but there should be no going back.
Instead we must seize every opportunity for struggle, work alongside all those who also want to resist and put forward a strategy to take struggles forward. But we must also fight for revolutionary ideas and for socialist organisation not fixated on parliament but one that is committed to challenging the system itself.
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