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How can we take back the wealth from the rich?

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Issue 2443
Protesters in Athens last week
Protesters in Athens last week (Pic: Workers’ Solidarity)

The world’s rich have plenty of wealth that we could use to end austerity. Yet if people elected a left wing government committed to breaking with austerity, the rich wouldn’t willingly surrender their wealth. 

Europe’s leaders and the bankers put massive pressure on the radical left Syriza party in Greece, pushing it to drop some of its radical policies. 

Greek banks lost almost 40 percent of their value in the first three days after Syriza’s election as investors pulled their money out.  

It’s said that “the markets” are turning against Greece because it’s abandoning austerity. But “the markets” aren’t some force of nature—the ruling class will actively try to thwart any challenge to its wealth or social position. 

That’s why the European Central Bank (ECB) cut off its “lifeline” just as negotiations about restructuring Greece’s debt were taking place. 

It’s clear that governments alone don’t hold all the power—but does that mean we can’t beat the rich? 

While the crisis makes Syriza’s predicament much more acute, it’s nothing new. There was also a sense of optimism when the 1974 miners’ strike brought down Edward Heath’s Tory government. 

The Labour Party was elected on a left wing programme, which promised a “fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth”.

But the bosses engineered a run on the pound and two years later Labour went “cap in hand” to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout. In return, it pushed through free market reforms and the biggest attack on living standards since the 1930s.


The rich had been prepared to go further. The then head of CBI bosses’ federation Campbell Adamson later admitted that bosses had discussed measures that “would not have been legal”.

The bosses’ power became an alibi for left wingers who wanted to make compromises and push through right wing policies. 

But left wing governments can force back bosses’ efforts. Revolutionaries in Greece argue that its necessary to challenge the bosses’ control over the economy. 

They’re arguing that nationalising banks under workers’ control could stop the threat of a bank run. 

Many Syriza supporters say this isn’t realistic—and for the government alone that may be true. But what’s often missed out is the power that’s greater still—that of the working class. Workers are in a uniquely powerful position, because their labour creates the bosses’ wealth. 

Venezuela’s rulers tried to overthrow the left wing president Hugo Chavez in 2002. But the urban poor surrounded the presidential palace and blocked the coup. Then bosses tried to wreck the oil industry—and organised workers defeated their “strike”.

But demoralising workers can weaken resistance and help the bosses’ offensive. That’s what Labour and the union leaders did after 1974.

This doesn’t mean that workers mobilising in support of a left wing government is enough to permanently take back our rulers’ wealth. 

The bosses are back on the offensive in Venezuela. And Syriza has been pressured into making a deal. To beat the bosses, workers have to confront them over who runs society. 

That’s why revolutionaries argue it’s also necessary to always deepen workers’ struggle and spread it internationally. 

Those struggles can also develop into something much bigger—a revolutionary transformation that gets rid of the bosses and puts workers in the saddle. 

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