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Rebecca Green, Eljeer Hawkins, Joshua Koritz, Keely Mullen, Calvin Priest, Tony Wilsdon
Biden’s Big Promises Down with the Tsar: For a New 1917
10 17 22 28 31
U.S.-China Conflict Enters New Phase Under Biden Vaccine Nationalism Threatens COVID Recovery The 2020s and the National Question Argentina Abortion Rights Victory Modern Monetary Theory
lessons of history
The Communist Party USA in the 1930s The Bitter Legacy of Margaret Thatcher
Winning the Green New Deal
Joe Biden delivers his inauguration speech on Jan. 20, 2021
Biden’s Big Promises:
We Can’t Rely on Democrats to Follow Through Rebecca Green
oe Biden entered the White House with big promises: a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, a flurry of executive orders to undo Trump’s most egregiously reactionary measures, and promises of a mass infrastructure jobs program focused on sustainability funded by taxing the rich. The stimulus plan carves out substantial sums of money to contain and vaccinate against COVID, reopen schools, and provides direct aid to the unemployed, families, and small businesses. On the campaign trail in the spring, Biden relentlessly attacked Bernie Sanders with a “how will you pay for that?” So why are his promises so big all of a sudden? How much will he actually deliver on? And what will actually be necessary to get out of this crisis and make sure we never return to the “normal” that got us here in the first place?
What’s Behind Biden’s Promises?
2021 is not 2009. Unemployment in the U.S. rose far higher in the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic than in two years of the Great Recession. As of the start of the year, a study by the Economic Policy Institute showed that a staggering 26.8 million were unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work, far more than official figures indicated. Since the Great Recession, average household debt has
increased, homeownership rates have decreased, and average family wealth has decreased significantly. None of the underlying issues of sluggish productivity growth, low investment and massive debt were solved during the anemic recovery. This led to the current economic crisis triggered by COVID-19. Twelve million renters now owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities. Fifty million people (and seventeen million children) face hunger. At the time of writing, over 514,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and 28.7 million have gotten sick. The Chamber of Commerce, figures like the Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren, and many economists support large elements of Biden’s stimulus plan. There is a consensus in key sections of the ruling class that stimulus was insufficient during the Great Recession and contributed to the weak recovery. Even the 2020 stimulus passed by Congress, which overwhelmingly went to big business, was on a far bigger scale compared to the 2009 stimulus bill. But it is recognized that the $1,200 stimulus checks and $600 unemployment top up played a key role in preventing an even more devastating economic collapse last spring. While Biden won’t say so, his stimulus proposal is an admission that the old neoliberal playbook isn’t going to get us out of this mess. There is also an important push from the left. U.S. capitalism was rocked this past year by the uprising following the murder of George Floyd. His death sparked the biggest
3 protest movement in U.S. history, drawing some involvement from the labor movement, taking up the demand to defund the police, and spreading to countries around the globe. The ruling class and the political establishment know that there is massive combustible material in U.S. society with young people especially no longer willing to put up with the same old crap. As part of regaining control they need to be seen to be doing something.
But Will He Keep Good on His Promises?
Well, it depends on which ones. Biden has already crossed some things off his list, including undoing a handful of Trump’s attacks on immigrants and transgender people. He has also reversed many of Trump’s attacks on the environment and promised investments in renewable energy. But undoing some of the damage done by Trump, while welcome, is still completely inadequate in the face of the challenges we face. In his first weeks in office, Biden talked a big game about needing bipartisan support for his stimulus plan, meeting with Senate Republicans who counterposed a bill one third the size. That same week, the January 2021 jobs report was released showing only 49,000 new jobs had been added in the previous month. Hundreds of thousands also gave up looking for work, signaling a sluggish economic recovery as restaurants and businesses struggle to stay open under COVID and winter conditions. Biden quickly pivoted, saying the Republican proposal was too small, and Democrats in the days following pushed a budget resolution through Congress. This cleared the way for Democrats to use a process called budget reconciliation, which allows them to pass the bill, as is, with a simple majority in the House and Senate (this means unanimous Democratic support is needed in the Senate, which is split 50-50). The pressures of the economic and COVID crises are driving the Democrats to likely make good on the $400 billion promised for COVID response, $1,400 checks, money for the unemployed and more using budget reconciliation instead of whittling the plan down in the name of bipartisanship as originally seemed possible. However, the debate developing around a federal $15 minimum wage provides important insight into how far they will go.
Democrats Will Likely Drop $15
Biden’s original $1.9 trillion stimulus plan included a $15 federal minimum wage. Supporting this was the only concession he made to Bernie Sanders after the self-described democratic socialist dropped out of the race. However, while big business is on board with stimulus checks and money to get COVID under control, these same figures are already warning against raising the minimum wage. In an interview, Josh Bolten, president and CEO of the Business Roundtable (a group of over 100 prominent CEOs), said that Republican efforts to whittle down Biden’s plan were not supported by the “busi-
ness community,” but that it was not the time for $15. Three days after his comments in an interview with CBS, Biden said $15 was “unlikely to survive” in his final stimulus bill, and he has doubled down on this since. Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are opposed to $15, and with the 50-50 balance in the Senate and all Republicans against, this would sink the entire bill. Now the Senate Parliamentarian, an obscure, unelected bureaucrat, says that raising the minimum wage does not meet the arcane criteria for budget reconciliation. Biden continues to say that he supports $15 but is clearly prepared to do nothing to get it passed. Despite the fact that Kamala Harris has the constitutional authority to overturn the Parliamentarian’s ruling in the Senate, the House passed a version of Biden’s stimulus with no $15, and it will undoubtedly be left out of the Senate bill as well. In reality, this approach reflects Biden’s true allegiances to big business. Like FDR in the 30s, he will do what is necessary in order to save the capitalist system and get the wheels of profit turning again, but will easily abandon structural changes like $15 unless he comes under mass pressure. Recently, Biden announced that he would not support cancelling $50,000 per person of student debt. Despite tremendous popularity, pressure from Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, and finding trillions for stimulus, he continues to call on Congress to pass legislation to cancel $10,000 per person, instead of using an executive order to do so immediately himself. Biden’s “Build Back Better” infrastructure plan, and especially the idea of raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for it also faces pushback from corporate interests. The administration has now shifted to saying that, like the stimulus, this could be financed through even more borrowing. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Federal Reserve chief Jerome Powell now say that inflation, the bugbear since the 70s, is no longer a threat, giving a green light to increase borrowing to World War II levels because of record low interest rates. But as we explain in our article on MMT (page 31), this is not a longterm solution under capitalism or a real way to win lasting gains for working people. At the end of the day, Joe Biden is a corporate Democrat who has spent his career attacking Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, allying himself with the banking and credit card industries, supporting imperialist wars, and supporting policies that have decimated communities of color, attacked women, LGBTQ+ people, the working class, and poor. The Democratic Party is the same. Democrats have a long history of making nice sounding promises to working people right before selling us out to big business. But now that they control the White House and both chambers of Congress, there is no Republican boogeyman to blame for failing to pass hugely popular, structural change policies like $15, a cancellation of student debt, and Medicare for All.
Do Biden’s Promises Go Far Enough?
Socialist World Issue 5, 2021
Even if the full $1.9 trillion stimulus passes, this can only temporarily stave off an even deeper crisis. But ordinary people want to know: if trillions can be spent to prevent collapse on Wall Street and in the financial markets, why can’t we start addressing the disastrous inequality, broken public healthcare system, and underfunded education that have been exposed and exacerbated by this crisis? Billionaires made over $1 trillion in 2020 while tens of millions went further in debt and struggled to pay rent and put food on the table. As one example, renters owe an estimated $70 billion in back rent and utilities, far more than the $25 billion being promised in the stimulus plan for rental assistance. We need a cancellation of rental debt accrued under the pandemic, universal rent control, and a massive investment in the construction of green, affordable housing. And what about healthcare? Propping up our healthcare system just enough to vaccinate the majority of the population against this one particular virus should only be the beginning. In 2019, 26.1 million people did not have health insurance at any point during the year. Millions more lost employer-based health insurance in 2020. Short staffing, hospital closures, and profit-driven management have all threatened the lives of healthcare workers and killed countless COVID patients who deserved care that a for-profit system wouldn’t give them. Many of those who survived will be haunted by chronic health conditions and medical debt. Add to that skyrocketing rates of mental illness, and it is clear that Americans are coming out of the pandemic with a massive ongoing mental and physical health crisis. According to election exit polls in November, 72% of people said they wanted government run healthcare. So no, Joe, money for COVID relief is not enough - we need an immediate transition to a Medicare for All system, a mass investment of funds to reopen closed hospitals and community healthcare centers, robust investment in mental health services, a mass, permanent hiring of healthcare workers with full union rights and living wages, and democratic public ownership over the pharmaceutical industry.
keep us under two degrees Celsius warming which still means devastating change. Biden’s list of climate executive orders is long, and includes important things like ending oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, pausing new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore waters, and conserving at least 30% of U.S. lands and oceans by 2030. But many of them are simply directives to form task forces, working groups, and climate conferences which will lack accountability, transparency, and teeth. In the face of the scale of the crisis, these largely symbolic and moderate promises of conservation are nowhere near enough. We need democratic public ownership of all the fossil fuel companies and utilities to transition them immediately to green energy with the goal of reaching 100% renewable energy in years not decades; democratic public ownership of Amtrak and a mass expansion of fully electric high-speed rail across the country; a mass Green New Deal jobs program that can put tens of millions of people back to work retrofitting and weatherizing buildings and modernizing infrastructure, reforesting the country, expanding and operating public transit systems, restructuring our agriculture system, and so much more. Falling far short of what’s needed, Biden’s plan is a death sentence.
if trillions can be spent to prevent collapse on Wall Street and in the financial markets, why can’t we start addressing the disastrous inequality, broken public healthcare system, and underfunded education that have been exposed and exacerbated by this crisis?
Biden’s Climate Plan is a Death Sentence
Biden has said we need a “wartime” footing to battle COVID - but why not to battle the environmental crisis that brought us the deadly virus in the first place? The Paris Climate Agreement, which Biden rejoined on his first day in office, is non binding, few countries have adhered to their promises, and even if every country met theirs it wouldn’t
AOC refused to block Pelosi’s re-election as Speaker to force a House floor vote on Medicare for All.
Seattle’s city councilmember and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant has won major victories like the Amazon Tax on big business and a ban on crowd control weapons using a class struggle approach.
Biden Will Stand in the Way of What We Really Need
There is no return to a pre-Trump, pre-COVID “normal,” but that’s where Biden wants to take us. If there has ever been a time to fight for seismic change, it is now. But that change will not happen if we sit back and wait for Biden to deliver it. We need real leadership, and figures like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Squad will need to be unwavering in their commitment to fight for what is needed, refusing to settle for what Biden and the Democratic establishment say is acceptable. Unfortunately, so far they have not lived up to this task. AOC came under fire for her opposition to blocking Pelosi’s re-election as Speaker in order to force a House floor vote on Medicare for All. Bernie Sanders and the Squad simply echoed the Democratic establishment’s calls to “rally around democracy” in the wake of the Capitol attacks. They failed to call for mass demonstrations to defeat the far right or to raise a program around economic relief and Medicare for All to rally working people and isolate the hardcore right, pursuing the failed impeachment strategy instead. Bernie and the Squad need to turn away from legislative maneuvering and instead bring direct opposition to weak compromises into the streets, to their supporters, and to the
movements that got them there in the first place. If they refuse to do this and compromise with the establishment, then they need to get out of the way, and our movement needs to be willing to go further. What won the $15 minimum wage in cities across the country, better wages for teachers and funding for schools, and appropriate PPE for healthcare workers fighting COVID was ordinary people getting organized, protesting and going on strike. What won a tax on Amazon in Seattle, rent control in NYC, police accountability measures and the partial defunding of some police departments were social movements. What will win Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, a cancellation of rental and student debt, and a Green New Deal will be healthcare workers, low wage workers, students, renters, oil rig workers, bus drivers, and anyone who has a stake in an economy based on human need, not profit, jumping into the fight. The battle for a better world has never played out in the Oval Office, it has always taken place in community center basements, union halls, campus centers, break rooms, and on the streets. It’s time to get organized like our lives depend on it, because they do. J
Thousands of protesters gather in St. Petersburgh on January 23
Down with the Tsar: For a New 1917 Rob Jones, Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa (ISA in Russia)
021 started with spectacular scenes as tens of thousands of protesters hit the streets, sometimes braving temperatures lower than -30 degrees Celsius in over a hundred cities across Russia. Beginning over seven time zones away in Vladivostok and other towns on Russia’s Pacific coast, they spread across Siberia and European Russia before ending up in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. After big turnouts on January 23 and 31, the latest phase culminated on the evening of February 2, the day a Moscow court sent Alexey Navalny to prison for nearly three years. The authorities acted with brutality and ruthless repression. Ten thousand demonstrators were detained, often violently, over the three protests. The vast majority were taken to emergency courts and given hefty fines; one member of Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa (Socialist Alternative - ISA in Russia) was fined 200,000 rubles (around $2,700) – about ten times his monthly wage. Dozens were imprisoned on criminal charges while many known activists were forced into exile. Even participants who were not arrested are now facing
repression at work or college. Students identified to have participated have been kicked out of universities, school students have been harassed for Tik-Tok posts, and even front-line COVID workers from Moscow’s emergency virus hospitals have been fired. In the far-northern city of Archangelsk, a young school student was arrested for “organising a mass picket.” She had built four snowmen with anti-Putin placards!
Why So Much Anger?
The spark for these protests was the return of Alexey Navalny to Russia. He had been in Germany recovering from an attempt by the Russian secret police to assassinate him using a nerve agent spread into his underpants. Hundreds of supporters went to the airport to meet him, only to find that his flight was diverted to another airfield at the last minute. There he was immediately arrested for breaking his bail conditions from a previous trumped-up charge and sent to jail. This is despite the fact he had been sent to Germany with Kremlin agreement while still in a coma. The following day, Navalny released a video exposing a palace built on Russia’s Black Sea coast and apparently owned by Putin, or at least someone very close to him. This
7 showed incredible extravagance, including toilet brushes that cost $800, more than twice what an ordinary Russian can earn in a month. The video was viewed over 100 million times!
Who is Alexey Navalny?
quickly arrested anyone seen to be taking initiatives. Understandably, consciousness focused on anti-corruption, in favor of democratic freedoms and was generally progressive, but the ideas were not fully formulated nor given organizational expression. Practically the only political organization to intervene was SA, which smuggled in leaflets in rucksacks and up jacket sleeves, and distributed them whenever there were no police around. Of course, we are now four years on from this. COVID has ravaged Russia – it still holds fourth place in the world league of infections and deaths. As elsewhere, the economic situation has considerably worsened – the latest statistics show a fall in GDP of over 3% in 2020. Family incomes have fallen back to the level of ten years ago. This period has also seen a stepping up of authoritarian methods. Just one example: the first COVID lockdown was monitored in Moscow using facial recognition technology to ensure people were observing quarantine. Now the same system is being used to identify and arrest participants in the protests. For these reasons, Navalny’s new calls for protests fell on fertile ground. The three months of protests in neighboring Belarus also played a role in raising confidence.
Navalny has built a reputation as a fighter against corruption. There is, of course, more to him than that. He is really the only leader still active from the last wave of protests in Russia in 2012 against election rigging. Others, mainly pro-western liberals, are either in exile, too old, or have been assassinated. At the time, the “left,” personified by Sergey Udaltsov, who came from a Stalinist tradition, worked in a block with the liberals and the far right. After a period in prison, Udaltsov has now joined the Communist Party – loyal to the Kremlin. But Navalny, who was then a liberal with far-right leanings has moved in a populist way towards a more “left” position. He talks of the need for a minimum wage, for nationalization of resources stolen by government bureaucrats (implying this also means the country’s oil and gas companies), and he even said recently he was disappointed that Bernie Sanders had given up his campaign – he would have supported him. After this comment the other liberal leaders and organizations – which are already seen as a hangover from the horrific days New Mood of the 1990s, when neoliberal shock therapy combined with capitalist restoration led to a massive collapse in the economy No longer do the protests move along in silence. Now the – have distanced themselves from Navalny, accusing him of chants “Free Navalny,” “Free all political prisoners,” “Putin is making concessions to “socialism.” a thief,” and “Down with the Tsar” are widely heard. Though Navalny’s rebranding (though he is still in essence a liberal there are still few handmade placards, and again practically no pro-capitalist) is not so much to do with him rethinking his political banners – this means that Sotsialisticheskaya Alterideas, but because there has been a signifnativa becomes very noticeable. But there icant shift leftwards particularly of Rusare other important differences to 2012. there has been a sia’s youth. Anyone under thirty has lived Then, the protests were mostly restricted to their whole life under capitalism, anyone significant shift leftwards Moscow and St Petersburg, and although younger than 20 under Putin’s increasa large part of those demonstrations was particularly of Russia’s ingly authoritarian regime. They are fed made up of young workers, there was the up with high education costs, precarious youth. Anyone under thirty active participation of liberal pro-capitalist wages, the reactionary political position and Stalinist parties, with a fair smattering has lived their whole life of the ruling elite, and the so-called “sysof the far right and speakers’ platforms full tematic parties” including the Commu- under capitalism, anyone of “status politicians.” nist Party that maintain Putin in power. This year’s protests have been without younger than 20 under The discontent has been compounded, the participation of such political organizabecause in the period following the 2008 Putin’s increasingly tions. Significantly, they spread across RusGreat Recession, Russia had another resia. The median age of protestors was in the authoritarian regime. cession in 2014. Already low living stanmid-twenties, with a significant number of dards have been stagnating. school students. Half of the participants are female. It is clear from discussions and the people who have now come into contact with SA that there is the involvement Socialists Intervene of a large layer of young workers and working-class youth. Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa understood the changes in In such a situation, socialists clearly need to not just parmood taking place particularly amongst the youth, so when ticipate, but play an active role in agitating for socialist ideas Navalny first made his call to come out onto the streets in and organization. In an authoritarian regime like Russia’s, of 2017, we were prepared. Tens of thousands of youth came course, this is not easy. There is always the risk of arrest. Last out onto illegal demonstrations to walk around the main city week, women activists established a “peace chain” in one of center streets – without placards, banners, chants or speechMoscow’s pedestrian areas only to be met with online and es. The robocop like riot police, popularly called cosmonauts,
Socialist World Issue 5, 2021
physical threats, including against activists of Sotsialisticheskaya Feministicheskaya Alternativa, our Feminist platform, from the Kremlin-backed far right. Social networks also play a big role – well-designed Instagram posts are a good way to contact youth. Although we cannot claim to have reached the fifty million viewers that have seen Navalny’s film this week, our publications have been viewed by thousands, and in one case by 17,000 people. But there are plenty of online “revolutionaries” in Russia who sit at home when people are out on the streets. Some say we shouldn’t participate, because Navalny is a liberal. But in those former Stalinist states where “colored revolutions” have occurred, it is critically important that the left intervene precisely so that the liberals cannot seize the leadership by default. The key is to be at the center of events with well-designed placards and banners, leaflets for distribution, and most important of all, with a clear program and strategy. Particularly effective has been our banner “A New Tsar needs a New 1917.” Not only were participants applauding as we marched, it was widely covered in the national and even international press.
Need for Organization
Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa argues that a firm base for this movement needs to be established by setting up democratically elected action committees that can decide strategy and demands. Although the main support for this movement
currently comes from school students and youth in the universities and in precarious jobs, it is necessary to establish a firm link with the wider working class. Our demand for a 300 rubles an hour ($4) minimum wage, and for free health care and education will be of critical importance here. We also argue for a constituent assembly in which all layers of the working class are represented, so that we can ensure the complete dismantling of the Putin regime and its replacement by a genuinely free and democratic socialist society. Our call for establishing a democratic structure for the movement is in direct contrast to the top-down methods of Navalny’s team. Many of those who had participated in this year’s protests at considerable risk were shocked when his office declared that the protests were being wound down to prepare for September’s elections. Clearly under pressure, a bit later Navalny’s office called a protest for a Sunday evening, asking supporters to gather in their courtyards to shine lights from their telephones. SA used this call to meet up with activists in our own courtyards. As if to underline that these protests were more working class, the more active regions were on the poorer outskirts of Moscow. Of course, our intervention was not without difficulties. In Kazan – a city with a population of over a million, capital of the Tatarstan, one of the Russian Federation’s internal republics – the authorities allowed a small protest against political repression. We used the chance of a legal protest to send a delegation to the city, where we organized a meeting with lo-
Members of ISA in Russia participate in protests, with banners calling for a new 1917.
9 cal activists, took part with our banners in the protest, and were allowed to speak. The local police, however, were not friendly. Nine were arrested, with two fined and one comrade sent to prison for seven days. Nevertheless, our visit was a success. We were covered widely in the local press, a YouTube video of our intervention was viewed by 49,000 people, and in the following week we recruited our first member in Kazan.
For a Successful International Womens’ Day
Navalny’s team believes that it should spend the next six months training observers for this fall’s parliamentary election, in which the tactic of “smart voting” will be used. This means that all the opposition parties unite behind the candidate with the best chance in each constituency of defeating
Putin’s “United Russia” candidate. This has already been tried, and more often than not, when elected such “opposition” candidates (usually from one of the Kremlin-approved “opposition parties”) have shown no real determination to actually oppose the regime in any meaningful way. But the Kremlin is already preparing to change the election law so independent observers will no longer be allowed. At the same time anger is growing. Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa and Sotsialisticheskaya Feministicheskaya Alternativa are growing and confidently preparing to mark International Womens’ Day with a two-hour strike on March 5. We have already had interest in joining in from people in 30 cities. The more we can build our forces now, the better we will be prepared for the coming explosions, not just of the youth but the wider working class too. J
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Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021.
U.S./China Conflict Enters New Phase Under Biden Tom Crean and Vincent Kolo The following article is based on a discussion at a meeting of the China/Hong Kong/Taiwan section of International Socialist Alternative (ISA) on February 7.
he COVID pandemic has utterly exposed the rot and decay of global capitalism. The United States. and the European Union (EU), allegedly “advanced” capitalist powers, have completely failed to contain the virus leading to massive and completely unnecessary loss of life. But the virus was also the trigger of the deepest global economic crisis since the 1930s which has been particularly devastating in the neocolonial world. Underlying this is a crisis of productivity with capitalists generally refusing to invest in expanding production but rather plowing the bulk of their superprofits back into the global financial casino. Global economic perspectives for 2021 and 2022 are very much linked to progress in vaccinating the world population. There is increasing vaccine nationalism from all the key powers. They use the vaccines as a tool of foreign policy, like China and Russia, or take a protectionist approach and hoard their supplies like the U.S. and the U.K. or even threaten, as the EU has done, to refuse the export of vaccines produced in their territory. China is delivering its vaccines from Sinopharm and
Sinovac to dozens of countries especially in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and even to Eastern European countries excluded from the EU’s vaccine plans. China’s propaganda has lauded its “vaccine diplomacy” and attacked the Western vaccines as “unsafe.” An article in Business Insider (2/6/21) made the following points: The fundamental problem is that there is not enough manufacturing capacity to vaccinate the entire global population this year or even next year. A report published by UBS found that - at current rates - only 10% of the world will be immunized against COVID-19 by the end of this year, rising to just 21% at the end of 2022. That limited supply will almost exclusively be used to immunize wealthy countries’ populations, which have bought almost the entire forward supply of vaccines. But a nationalistic approach will carry an enormous public health cost by prolonging the pandemic and increasing the chance of a new, vaccine-resistant strain emerging. Business Insider goes on to point out that the International
International Chamber of Commerce found that unequal distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine could cost the global economy $9 trillion by extending the pandemic. They conclude that “in a global vaccine war, all sides would ultimately lose out.” Here we have a big business publication pointing towards key contradictions in contemporary capitalism. Technical breakthroughs, like the rapid production of new vaccines, continue to be made. But the capitalist elite, imprisoned in the political form of the nation state within an imperialist world order, is increasingly unable to produce any meaningful cooperation to deal with global crises. This is even the case when their own economic interests are threatened, in this case by the continuing pandemic. Instead there is growing inter-imperialist rivalry and protectionism reminiscent of the 1930s. The decay of the system is even more pronounced than during the Great Recession of 2008-9 when the key powers, led by the U.S. under Obama, coordinated their response to the crisis. In the past twelve years, global capitalist institutions have come under increasing strain, and the conflict between U.S. imperialism and the rising power of Chinese imperialism has grown much sharper. The neoliberal order has broken down. The ISA has pointed out that China and the U.S., having been key drivers of globalization in the previous historical period, are now driving the process of deglobalization. This is not primarily due to Trump, Biden, or Xi Jinping, but is the logic of imperialism which, as Leon Trotsky explained in 1940, “abhors any division of power.” Trade has gone from
being a key contributor to economic growth in the 1990s and 2000s to being a net drag on growth. Global supply chains are fracturing into several regional supply chains. The U.S. and China are engaged in a process of economic “decoupling” with far-reaching consequences. In addition to vaccine nationalism threatening economic recovery, there is also a looming financial crisis with massive overvaluation on U.S. stock markets as well as a huge debt crisis. The unprecedented bubble on stock markets is exemplified by the relentless rise of Tesla, which produces less than one percent of the world’s cars, but is now worth more than the nine largest global car manufacturers combined. According to the IMF about half of low income economies worldwide are in danger of debt default. There is also a massive corporate debt bubble. aThe pandemic lockdowns in early 2020 initially cut across the massive wave of struggles in 2019 against neoliberal capitalism and reactionary policies from Ecuador and Iran to India and Hong Kong. But the wave of struggles has now decisively resumed, with the BLM uprising in the U.S.; the movement against the monarchy in Thailand; the youth led struggle against police brutality in Nigeria; the defeat of a right wing coup in Bolivia; the struggle against dictatorship in Belarus; the struggles for abortion rights in Poland and Argentina; the struggle of farmers against pro-corporate “reforms” in India; and now the resistance to the military coup in Myanmar. International Socialist Alternative has participated in many of these struggles. In the continuing protests in Russia against Putin, our comrades heroically intervened calling to bring down the new tsar and for a new 1917. Comparing the situation today to the Great Recession in 2008-9, in country after country there is a broadly more developed consciousness among key sections of youth and the working class. All the mass movements against corruption, dictatorship, and austerity are driven by young people and in most cases, young women are playing a key role. During the pandemic, health care workers and teachers have been at the fore in fighting dangerous working conditions and the desperate lack of necessary resources. It is very significant that the mass protests in Myanmar against the generals’ coup were initiated by hospital workers – in one of the Asian
Protesters outside the Minneapolis 1st police precinct, June 2020.
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Xi Jingping, president of the People’s Republic of China and head of the Chinese Communist Party. countries worst hit by the pandemic. But there is also massive political polarization in many countries. Given the weakness, or in some cases, the complete lack of leadership on the left and the labor movement this can create openings for the populist right and the far right. Facing mass anger and a much deeper crisis than in 20089, bourgeois governments in the West are moving away from standard neoliberal responses; they are prepared to spend large sums to shore up demand and are intervening more aggressively in the economy. But such policies, while they will be welcomed by large sections of the population, will not solve the underlying issues which created this crisis. We are truly in a period of depression with many features that are similar to the 1930s when capitalism’s crisis was only “solved” with the massive destruction of World War II. Today, that avenue to rebooting the system is closed. In the middle of the pandemic last fall came the devastating wave of wildfires on the West Coast of the U.S. This was a terrible reminder that even when the pandemic comes to an end, a much greater existential threat faces humanity, and capitalism, which created climate change, has no answer for this either.
Crisis of U.S. Imperialism
The situation in the U.S. is a very sharp expression of the multifaceted crisis facing capitalism globally. Over 500,000 have died from COVID due to massive cuts to public healthcare over decades and the complete incompetence of the Trump regime. The pandemic has brought to the fore all the accumulated
problems caused by capitalism and neoliberalism in the U.S., including the massive growth of inequality, as well as the undermining of public education and the public healthcare system. In what is still the most powerful capitalist power on earth, tens of millions of people are having difficulty getting enough to eat. Millions face the threat of eviction. A study in January by the Economic Policy Institute estimated that 26 million people remain unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work. While the 651 American billionaires, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, increased their wealth by over $1 trillion last year, 12 million people accumulated an average of $5,800 in debt each for rent and utilities. In the 2016 presidential election, the support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both expressed, in very different ways, the revolt against neoliberalism. At the beginning of 2020, Sanders’ second campaign for president – which had a bold pro-working class program calling for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, the cancellation of student debt and a $15 an hour minimum wage – was attracting millions. But the Democratic Party establishment managed to cut across Sanders and unite around Biden. When Sanders capitulated and backed Biden, it was a real setback for the left. This was rapidly followed, however, by the mass Black Lives Matter revolt, triggered by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the biggest protest movement in U.S. history. It was multiracial and overwhelmingly youthful. It was a revolt against structural racism but more broadly against the dismal future for young people in capitalist America. The movement temporarily put the reactionaries including Trump
13 on the defensive, but it also ran up against real limits due to the lack of a clear strategy, program and democratic structure. Despite all its weaknesses, it pointed in a revolutionary direction towards a mass, multiracial, working class-centered struggle to end racism and capitalism. After the November election when Biden won and the Democrats took control of Congress, we witnessed the other side of the dynamic of polarization, the growth of a reactionary, counterrevolutionary threat which culminated in the far-right led assault on Congress on January 6. This is a very serious warning about the price that will be paid in this period for not building a mass movement of the working class with a fighting anti-capitalist leadership. The goal of Trump and a wing of the Republican Party, using the far right as shock troops, was to overturn the result of the election, in other words to carry out a coup, even if it was poorly organized and executed. There was also massive underestimation by the state forces of the clearly signalled intent to storm the Capitol, compounded by elements of collusion. In the wake of scrambling to stop the coup, the political establishment, reflecting the interests of the ruling class, drew conclusions. They saw January 6 as an assault on the institutions of capitalist democracy which have served them well and which they are not prepared to dispense with at this point. More broadly, they saw January 6 as further undermining the interests of U.S. imperialism globally versus its rivals, first and foremost China. It compounded the perception of chaos and social breakdown in the U.S and “America’s irreversible decline,” a key tenet of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. The establishment and the state have gone on an “anti-extremism” offensive, rounding up and charging many on the far right with various crimes. Trump and others have been removed from social media platforms. Corporate backers have deserted the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party, at least for now. But this anti-extremism campaign will also be directed against the left, including socialists. In Seattle, Socialist Alternative faces a right wing, corporate financed attempt to remove Kshama Sawant from office, the only elected Marxist in the U.S. And while some on the left echo the anti-extremism campaign of the ruling class, seeing it as a way to defeat reaction, it will not in any way end the threat of the populist right or the far right which are a by-product of capitalism’s decay. The only way to defeat these forces is to build a mass movement that fights for the change working class people need including the demands raised by Bernie Sanders, many of which are enormously popular including with millions who voted for Trump. At the moment, the new Biden administration is taking a more aggressive approach to stimulus spending. Biden has proposed $1.9 trillion in further stimulus, including $1,400 payments to individuals, a continuing $400 top-up to unemployment benefits, and significant resources to scale up vaccination. The Federal Reserve and the U.S. Chamber of
Commerce support this. At the same time, the Democrats look likely not to deliver on promises to implement a $15 federal minimum wage, a doubling of the current figure. Hence, while being prepared to “spend big” to address the crisis they will not take steps to really improve the lives of working people in an ongoing way unless they come under mass pressure. The Democratic establishment and the Federal Reserve see the depth of the economic crisis and the danger it could get much worse. They are trying to learn the lesson of 2008-9, when inadequate stimulus spending during the Great Recession contributed to a very slow recovery. They also see the need to retake control of the situation before the next wave of mass upheaval sweeps the U.S. Again this is a fundamentally different situation to 2008-9 and the standard neoliberal playbook of using monetary policy and letting “the market” solve the problem simply won’t work.
Chinese Imperialism’s Strengthened Position
The situation in China appears on the surface very different. It is the only major power to experience economic growth in 2020 even if the growth statistics are inflated by the regime. Key to this is the relatively successful containment of COVID, using authoritarian and sometimes quite brutal measures, compared to most other key powers. This is despite the disastrous failure by the regime when they covered up the initial outbreak in Wuhan and dealt heavily with whistleblowers, thus directly contributing to turning COVID into a global pandemic. The Chinese economy, with its enormous manufacturing capacity, benefited from massive global demand for laptops and PPE. China exported 224 billion face masks in 2020 – 40 for every person on the planet. Its exports of medical equipment rose 31% from the year before. There has also been extensive state intervention in the economy with big infrastructure spending and big investment in the production of vaccines. And while there is a growing trend towards state intervention in the economy internationally, Chinese state capitalism remains far more developed in this approach. The creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade bloc of 15 countries dominated by China last November and China’s investment deal with the EU announced in December have been propaganda coups for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime. However, the economic substance of these deals should not be exaggerated. For example, the Japanese government which is a signatory to the RCEP is at the same time giving financial incentives to Japanese companies to relocate production out of China back to Japan. Australia, another signatory, has been engaged in a very bruising trade war with China which cost it $3 billion in lost exports last year. The situation of Australian imperialism is particularly revealing because while they are closely aligned with the U.S. in a geo-strategic sense, they are also very dependent economically on China.
14 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 and 4.7% for the year as a whole. But this is a significant underestimate as only those with “urban” registration papers are included. The vast migrant workforce of 270 million – who comprise the majority of China’s blue collar workforce – are not included in unemployment figures because they are legally classified as “rural.” The Chinese regime has also suffered setbacks in the global competition with the U.S., particularly with a number of key countries moving to partially or completely ban telecom infrastructure giant Huawei. This means shutting China out of the 5G market in these countries, a key battleground in new technology. The Trump administration Workers at Jasic Technologies fighting for a union in Shenzhen in 2018. blacklisted more than 100 Chinese tech companies and While the Chinese economy has grown enormously in the in most cases these bans are unlikely to be reversed by Biden. past twenty years the real picture is far more complicated. Internally, the regime’s massive propaganda offensive, If measured by purchasing power parity rather than internacombined with relative success in dealing with the pandemtional exchange rates, it is now one-sixth bigger than the U.S. ic compared to Western powers, has undoubtedly had an efeconomy, according to the IMF, though still smaller by a third fect in pushing back against mass anger within China over in dollar terms and by even more in per capita terms. But the economic crisis which has befallen large sections of the growth in 2020, while far better than in the EU or the U.S., working class and rural poor who are left out of the regime’s was still at its slowest pace since 1976. alleged “V-shaped recovery.” Furthermore, the regime’s aim to break the economy’s But none of the underlying issues in Chinese society have unsustainable dependence on exports and debt-driven infrabeen addressed and it is only a matter of time before the instructure investments by increasing consumption suffered a creasingly brutal dictatorship faces more serious challenges, huge reverse last year. Consumer spending shrank 3.9% in including from the working class. Even under the conditions 2020 and “total social financing,” the broadest measure of of a massive surveillance state, the global radicalization of new credit throughout the economy, jumped by 13.3%. Chiyoung people is also affecting China. The number of young na’s consumer spending occupies a stubbornly low share of people identifying with left-wing ideas has become a mass total GDP at just 39%, which is far lower than other large phenomenon, with the biggest layer calling themselves developing economies including Brazil (61%), India (58%), “Maoists” but others identifying with Trotskyism, anarchism, and South Africa (59%). and other anti-capitalist trends. Even the young “Maoists” in There has been a massive increase in inequality with Chimany cases use that label more as a cover for opposing state na’s super-rich elite experiencing their best ever year for capitalism and CCP rule rather than expressing actual supwealth accumulation, a combined gain of $1.5 trillion for the port for a return to Stalinism. Unlike some Maoists in westcountry’s 800-odd billionaires – outstripping even the gains ern countries, the new brand of Chinese Maoists see the CCP of their U.S. counterparts. Meanwhile large sections of the regime as a counter-revolutionary capitalist regime. Many working class and rural population struggle to make ends of them embrace internationalism and identify strongly with meet. Median disposable income fell in the first half of 2020 feminism and LGBTQ rights. and then staged a modest recovery in the second half. None On social media, the only and very limited outlet for proof China’s 31 provinces increased the minimum wage last test in China currently, there have been major outbreaks of the year for the first time since 2009. Official statistics showed #MeToo movement and feminism in China. 2020 saw several unemployment reaching a 20 year high of 6.2% in February
15 brutal murders of women by their partners in a society where one in four married women have suffered domestic violence according to official data. In December, a song by Mandopop artist Tan Weiwei about violence against women triggered intense debate on social media with the hashtag “brave lyrics of Tan Weiwei” being shared 300 million times. Xi Jinping in January spoke online to the annual gathering of the super-rich at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The speech was an attempt to claim the mantle of global leadership. Xi declared China was ready to “work with other countries to build an open, inclusive, clean, and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security, and common prosperity.” We can say confidently that these worthy goals will never be reached through the so-called leadership of the CCP dictatorship. But Xi’s speeches at home strike a radically different tone from the “good cop” who spoke at Davos. Addressing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in November at a Guangdong military base on the 40th anniversary of the founding of Shenzhen, China’s richest city, he urged them to “put all (their) minds and energy on preparing for war.” This and many similarly militaristic speeches have been widely broadcast in Chinese media. In a speech in October, on the 70th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War, the only time it has directly fought the U.S., Xi said China is not afraid of war, adding that “we should speak to the invaders in a language they understand.” Rather than real preparations for war at this stage, Xi’s regime is whipping up nationalism as a means to check the growth of social and political discontent. This is also an important element in the internal CCP power struggle, which is sharper today than at any time since 1989. Xi is magnifying external threats and using nationalism to blunt challenges from factional rivals who want to block him from extending his rule after the next CCP Congress in 2022. In reality, Xi’s soothing rhetoric tailored for overseas financial markets and governments is combined with an increasingly aggressive, strongarm approach on many fronts internally and internationally including in relation to the debts of neocolonial countries to Chinese imperialism. However, even here the regime has benefited from the disastrous approach of the EU and the U.S. to the pandemic by promoting Chinese vaccines to developing countries as the West hoards their supplies.
Biden: A Change of Form Not Substance
The Biden administration will not return to the policy of “constructive engagement” with the goal of making China a “responsible stakeholder” in the global capitalist order. This was an approach Biden previously supported when he was part of the Obama administration but the situation has now radically changed. As the ISA has said, the shift of U.S. policy was not just about Trump; there is a broad consensus in the American ruling class that they need to challenge the rise of Chinese pow-
er. The new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, said at his Senate confirmation hearing that the Trump administration was right to stand up to China. He has also said he agreed with Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, calling CCP policy in Xinjiang “genocide” against the Uyghur people, a term that has been used by imperialist powers in the past as a pretext for war and regime change. The ISA supports the legitimate struggle of the Uighurs and other oppressed people against vicious state repression and widespread use of forced labor. But we warn that the struggle against repressive regimes, which raises the need to overthrow capitalism and imperialism, is not strengthened but rather fatally weakened if it allows itself to be hijacked by any capitalist government or ruling class. U.S. imperialism has a long history of propping up dictatorial regimes when this serves its geopolitical interests. Of 49 countries identified as dictatorships in 2015 by pro-U.S. think-tank Freedom House, the U.S. government provided military support to 36 of them – that’s 73%. International working class solidarity, with active engagement by labor movement organizations globally, is the most powerful weapon to defeat repressive regimes. There will be a shift in rhetoric more than a shift in content under Biden. He is talking about convening a “democracy summit” of key countries, effectively an anti-China summit. This approach poses challenges. As the New York Times (2/3/21) pointed out, “The sense of a dysfunctional, if not entirely broken, democratic system in the United States has foreign rivals crowing — and suggesting that it has no business lecturing other nations.” But there is a way for the Biden regime to take a slightly more humble approach, at least by the standards of U.S. imperialism. On February 4, Biden gave a speech at the State Department where he said: “the American people are going to emerge from this moment stronger, more determined and better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy because we have fought for it ourselves.” This is a clear reference to putting down Trump’s threatened coup on January 6. Biden is taking a sharper approach to Putin and using alleged sympathy with the masses in the streets of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other cities as cover for reasserting the interests of US imperialism. The U.S. will also claim rather half-heartedly to be on the side of the people against the coup in Myanmar, although key regional allies of the U.S. such as Japan and Australia are urging a light-handed approach to the military regime lest it should “join the league of China.” Can Biden use this approach with success to regain the initiative in the conflict with China? We can’t exclude that for a period this will have an effect and we must be clear that while U.S. imperialism is down, it is not out. Also we certainly can’t exclude that if the vaccination drive proves reasonably successful, that there could be a significant temporary economic rebound in the U.S. later this year which would certainly benefit Biden.
16 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021
Down With All Imperialism!
While the reactionary, anti-working class nature of the “communist” dictatorship in China is very clear as it attacks trade unions, suppresses any element of democratic rights in Hong Kong and puts hundred of thousands into “reeducation camps” in Xinjiang, socialists must also expose what lies behind the democratic pretensions of U.S. imperialism. From dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, to the carpet bombing of Southeast Asia in the 70s, to the endless military interventions in Latin America and the Middle East, the American ruling class has always been ruthless in pursuit of its interests. This will continue to be the case. The elite are only committed to “democratic norms” insofar as they serve to maintain capitalist rule inside the U.S. and as a cover for the assertion of their economic and strategic interests globally. They will not hesitate to support dictatorships and slaughter as in Indonesia in 1965, Thailand 1976, and South Korea 1980 when this is seen as necessary to stop revolution. It is important for the ISA to address illusions in U.S. imperialism which have emerged among some activists in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan, and to a lesser extent in Thailand and Myanmar, who are looking for an ally in the fight against dictatorship. At the same time, we also have to take on illusions in sections of the left and the labor movement in some countries in the Chinese regime, seeing it as an ally in opposing U.S. imperialism. These are both deeply mistaken positions.
How the Conflict Will Develop
Xi has adopted an aggressive posture to test Biden. For example, the Chinese air force recently simulated an attack on the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in a military exercise in Taiwanese waters. The logic of Xi’s factional struggle within the CCP leadership drives these moves more than a rational calculation of China’s interests. Of course we cannot exclude a truce being reached at some point between the U.S. and Chinese regimes but the underlying dynamic of this conflict points to it playing out over decades, not years. It can, under certain circumstances, also heat up and lead to actual military conflict although a full scale war remains very unlikely due to the massive nuclear arsenals of both countries. What will certainly continue is the tendency towards decoupling and a breakdown of global supply chains in favor of regional supply chains centered on China, the U.S. and Germany. The U.S. will be forced to adopt a much more aggressive state-driven industrial policy to compete effective-
ly with Chinese state capitalism. This is foreshadowed by Biden’s talk of massive infrastructure spending. The whole world will be dragged into this conflict with countries forced to take sides. At the same time the internal crisis in both China and the U.S. will go on, driven by the crisis of global capitalism. The attempt of U.S. imperialism to reassert itself globally and push back against the rising power of China, while it may produce some results, definitely has limitations. The U.S. is still the strongest power globally in economic and military terms. But it has been in decline since the 1970s. There is no road back to the hegemonic position it held at the end of World War II when other capitalist powers lay in ruins. Nor will the U.S. be able to defeat China the way it stopped the rise of Japan 30 years ago. China presents a much bigger challenge. However, China is much poorer and has a much weaker welfare safety net than Japan had when it began its long period of stagnation in the 1990s. Should a similar process befall the Chinese economy this would trigger massive social unrest and revolutionary upheavals, which would confront U.S. imperialism with a different type of “China problem.” While one side could “win” in the end, it will only be at enormous cost to itself. The likely perspective is that the longer this conflict goes, the more it will weaken and undermine both superpowers. This will in turn exacerbate the crisis of capitalism in both countries and strengthen both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary dynamics. The situation is in some ways comparable to the rise of Germany in the late 19th century, challenging the domination of Britain in Europe. This led to World War I whose outcome weakened them both. What is critical is to forge internationalist unity between the working class of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan and the working class of the United States and to build strong revolutionary parties in these areas. We must oppose the poison of great power nationalism and chauvinism. This is used by the ruling class to distract and divide workers. Trump talked about the “China virus” to distract from his criminal negligence during the pandemic. This contributed directly to a wave of racist attacks on Asians in the U.S. in the spring. There are now reports of a new wave of attacks. Likewise we oppose both free trade and protectionist policies which harm and divide working people in different ways. The main enemy, as German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht, said during World War I, is the capitalist class at home. There is another road than continuing the constant and destructive conflict between capitalist powers. But that requires ending capitalism and creating a worldwide democratic planned economy that can rationally address the challenges facing our species. J
A volunteer receives a vaccine as part of a clinical trial in South Africa, June 24 2020.
Vaccine Nationalism Threatens COVID Recovery Keely Mullen
he COVID pandemic has laid bare the disastrous failures of Western capitalism. A new study has concluded that 40% of U.S. COVID deaths were avoidable. That’s hundreds of thousands of people who did not need to die. The E.U., U.S., and U.K. governments have all completely failed to contain the virus. Their overarching priority has been to restart the gas of global profit making for their own domestic capitalist class, which has led to a crazed loop of lockdowns and rushed reopenings. They have resorted to nationalistic resource hoarding, which has only made the crisis worse, allowing the virus to circulate and mutate in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, this is not the only pandemic we will see in our life times. Scientists predict that future pandemics will happen more often, spread faster, and kill more people. The exploitation of the planet due to capitalist “development” is what gave us COVID in the first place: deforestation and the disruption of wild habitats (always in the name of profit) increases contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people and is a key driver of the spread of infection diseases. If ever there was a doubt that capitalism has outlived its usefulness, this crisis should clear that right up.
A move toward deglobalization has meant the narrow interests of national capitalist classes have taken precedence over a globally coordinated response to the pandemic. Early in the pandemic, the U.S. chose to forgo the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVID testing technology in favor of a homemade Centers for Disease Control (CDC) test which was later recalled. This trend has only been exacerbated with the vaccination campaign where Western capitalist powers have hoarded vaccines, leaving much of the neocolonial world unprotected. The consequences of this approach are completely counter-productive. As much as national governments may want to, it is almost impossible to seal off your borders to the COVID threat. If the virus is allowed to circulate in any one part of the globe, acquiring dangerous new mutations, the rest of the world is at risk. Already the coronavirus variant in South Africa seems to be evading the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was heralded as the silver bullet for resolving outbreaks in the neocolonial world because it’s less expensive per dose than other vaccines. Bloomberg estimates that, at the current pace, it will take 6.6 years for the world to reach 75% immunity to COVID. Delivering vaccines to cover the 7.8 billion global population will be one of the greatest logistical challenges hu-
18 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 manity has ever undertaken. Despite all the hype about capitalist innovation, this system is completely failing to meet this challenge. The consequence? Death and disease for the global working class and poor and mega profits for healthcare profiteers. Rather than innovating, the capitalist system is serving as a fetter on innovation. The normal neoliberal plays from the capitalist class, such as leaning on NGOs to pick up the slack, are failing them now. Short of central planning and bringing an end to big pharma’s profit making, this virus will continue to make its way through the global population. The capitalists are between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, solving this crisis would enable them to resume profit making. But on the other, doing what’s necessary to solve the crisis requires suspending profit making for big pharma and perhaps certain sections of the logistics industry. They are desperate to return to business as usual, but the question is: will they be able to?
Global Vaccine Inequality
Early on in the pandemic, wealthy Western countries including the E.U., U.S., Canada, and Britain placed their bets on a number of vaccines in development, preordering billions of doses of the Pfizer and Moderna shots in particular. They reserved enough doses to cover their own populations multiple times over, leaving poor countries at the back of the line. Before vaccines were even approved by regulators, it was a foregone conclusion that wealthier countries would clear the shelves of available vaccines, leaving poor countries defenseless against COVID-19. In fact, it was written into “Operation
Warp Speed” contracts in the U.S. that any vaccine developed with American dollars had to go first into American arms. It was the anticipation of this inequity that drove the creation of the COVAX program, a partnership between WHO and GAVI, a public-private “global health alliance.” GAVI, a 20-year-old initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, brings together pharmaceutical giants and national and international governing bodies to “bring vaccines to poor countries.” The intention of the COVAX program was to financially back the development of certain vaccines in exchange for billions of doses earmarked for poor countries. But even the most far reaching of COVAX’s goals would not bring an end to the pandemic. The program aims to deliver two billion doses by the end of 2021. This would cover only 20% of the population in 91 poor and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And they are far from reaching even this most modest goal, as they’ve struggled to get sufficient backing from major capitalist powers worldwide. The COVAX program is now in free fall and its failure could mean poor countries will not even gain access to the vaccines until 2024.
The road to mass vaccinations in poor countries is littered with speed bumps put in place by big pharma. Speed bumps that not even the wealthiest philanthropist can overcome. According to internal COVAX documents obtained by Reuters, the COVAX program faces a “very high-risk” of failure.
Workers seal vaccines in plastic bags at a manufacturing plant of the leading Chinese vaccine producer, Sinovac.
19 Reuters reports, ”the scheme’s promoters say the program is struggling from a lack of funds, supply risks, and complex contractual arrangements which could make it impossible to achieve its goals.” The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which rely on brand new, revolutionary mRNA technology, have been proven highly effective. Reportedly, while they both elicit a lower antibody response to the South African variant, they’ll be generally effective if combined with a booster shot. These vaccines are faster and cheaper to produce than traditional vaccines and are laboratory developed, meaning production can be scaled up with relative ease. Despite all this, COVAX has only meager contracts with Pfizer and Moderna and billions of people around the world who live in poor countries will never get access to these life saving vaccines. Why? Profit, plain and simple. Despite being cheaper to produce, Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines cost four times more than the less effective AstraZeneca vaccine. Ryan Richardson, Chief Strategy Officer for BioNTech, the German company that developed the Pfizer vaccine, said that the product price “would partly reflect the risks taken by its investors.” Pfizer executives refuse to release detailed information on how they came to these pricing decisions or what they intend to do with the profits they make. Will they invest back into research and development? Highly doubtful considering Pfizer spends twice as much on advertising, executive salaries and benefits, etc. than it does on research. Given all this, the COVAX program will barely have access to the new mRNA vaccines and will have to rely on cheaper traditional vaccines like those from AstraZeneca and Novavax. Disturbingly, this is despite the fact that Pfizer is a GAVI partner. COVAX made a nonbinding agreement with AstraZeneca, Novavax, and Sanofi to earmark 400 million doses. Yet these three companies have all faced delays, and the AstraZeneca vaccine trials in South Africa were recently halted because it was proving ineffective against the dangerous new variant known as B.1.351. COVAX is in such a dire position that they’ve hired CitiGroup to advise them on how to navigate financial landmines.
Intellectual Property Rights
There’s a world not so far off from our own in which the revolutionary mRNA vaccine technology could be exported around the world, enabling countries who currently lack access to any vaccine to use the Pfizer and Moderna blueprint to make vaccines at home. A group of countries has proposed that the World Trade Organization (WTO) waive traditional intellectual property restrictions and allow them to do exactly this. But the WTO requires consensus, and the U.S., Britain, and the E.U. cut this effort off at the knees, doing the bidding of their big pharma masters. Pharmaceutical giants use typical capitalist talking points
to say that patent protections are essential to innovation. How? Because allegedly patent protections enable them to make a profit, and profits enable them to innovate. Well, considering the actual innovation for these vaccines was done using public money and resources—as is the case with the vast majority of medical breakthroughs—this argument is a complete farce. The truth is that patent protections enable them to make a profit, and profits enable them to dole out fat checks to shareholders.
Vaccine Diplomacy and Vaccine Protectionism
The race for vaccinations is a tableau of inter-imperialist rivalries the world over. On the one hand, we’ve seen a sinister and ruthless protectionism from the U.S., E.U., and U.K., who hoard their supplies. But there’s been an equally sinister false diplomacy from China and Russia, who are giving free shipments of domestically produced vaccines to poor countries whom they are courting in their global competition with Western powers, especially the U.S. Both of these approaches, vaccine diplomacy and vaccine protectionism, can ultimately be categorized as vaccine nationalism in that they both promote narrow national interests. Biden has generally pursued the same “America first” vaccine policy championed by Trump, minus the nationalist rhetoric, and the E.U. has taken a similar approach. In late January, the E.U. imposed vaccine export controls, instructing customs authorities to block all vaccine exports to 100 countries worldwide unless they receive explicit authorization from E.U. officials. Beyond this, there has been an ongoing battle between the E.U. and U.K. over their vaccine supplies. The New York Times commented on this, saying, “Not only are vaccine supplies too scarce for many poorer countries to begin inoculations, but wealthy countries cannot figure out how to share the available doses among themselves.” The E.U.’s vaccine rollout has been a total disaster, with only 5% of the population having received a dose as of early 2021. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was forced to admit as much when she said, “We were late in getting approval, we were too optimistic about mass production, and perhaps we were too sure that the orders would be delivered on time.” The criminal approach of vaccine protectionism will have dire consequences for the entire world. The longer it takes for us to battle this virus globally, the longer we’ll be fighting it at home. In contrast to this approach, and with the COVAX program falling apart, the Russian and Chinese ruling classes have leapt into action. In a “soft power” move, China and Russia are offering their home grown vaccines—Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinovec and Sinopharm—to large parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. In some cases they are sending hundreds of thousands of doses for “free.” While dressed up as diplomacy, this is an attempt to cement alliances in their ongoing rivalry with U.S. imperialism. The Chinese and Rus-
20 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 sian ruling classes are far more concerned with reinforcing the dependence of poor countries on them than they are with guaranteeing global public health.
Rollout Mess in the U.S.
Trump made big promises at the end of his presidency, including that 20 million Americans would get their first vaccine dose by the start of January. In reality, as the new year rolled in, less than three million doses had been administered. The news that Joe Biden would “move heaven and earth” to administer 100 million vaccines within his first 100 days in office was music to the ears of millions of Americans. The vaccine infrastructure as Joe Biden entered the White House was abysmal, sloppy, and largely unfunded. His administration has managed to ramp the pace of vaccinations up to 1.6 million a day which, while a serious improvement from the start of the year, is still insufficient as we’re racing to outpace the coronavirus variants.
Trump’s Vaccine Failure
As Socialist Alternative warned in an early December article: One tremendous challenge we now face is getting the vaccine from the lab’s loading dock to your upper arm. This is no easy feat, especially on the basis of capitalism where logical planning is thrown out the window in the pursuit of maximizing profits. And indeed, logical planning was thrown out the window right from the start. When the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the CDC had yet to release vaccine guidelines and no money had been sent to the states to build up vaccine infrastructure. COVID cases continued to climb dramatically. It’s impossible to understate the mammoth pressures that have been put on American healthcare workers in this crisis. COVID cases piled up while hospital workers made makeshift ICUs in ambulance bays with dangerous patient-staff ratios. And then the vaccine arrived. With no additional staff, training, or funding, healthcare workers were expected to administer thousands of vaccine doses to as yet unidentified priority groups. This contributed immensely to the expiration of many of the vaccine doses that were shipped out. Even now, across the country, around 20% are still going to waste, which is an absolute scandal. This can be contrasted to the U.K., where, despite horrific failures in dealing with the pandemic, their public health system (the National Health Service) has enabled them to administer at least one dose to 25% of the population. Contributing to the chaos was the complete lack of guidance from the federal government. The CDC released a tiered plan for prioritization on December 20. But before that, no two states had the same priority groups or timing estimates
for distributing the vaccine. Because the CDC guidelines were just that, guidelines with no mandate, states generally stuck to their original plans and operated under a patchwork of different rules. The coordination between federal and state governments has been a total joke. Throughout the pandemic, governors have reported a “wild west” scenario where states compete against one another on the market for PPE and other needed supplies. This chaos has been replicated in many ways with the vaccine campaign.
Enter Stage Left: Joe Biden
Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20 and has declared a “wartime effort” to bring COVID under control. This includes using the Defense Production Act to speed up manufacturing, giving billions in direct aid to states to build up their infrastructure, launching a public health jobs program and hiring hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers, expanding vaccination sites, and launching a public education campaign about the benefits of the COVID vaccine. The pace of vaccinations has indeed picked up, though some portion of that is not due to any intervention from the Biden administration directly but rather to state systems becoming more efficient. One thing that can be credited to the Biden administration is the increase in production due to their use of the wartime Defense Production Act, which allows the federal government to centrally control production of necessary supplies. The remaining components of Biden’s “wartime effort” which have yet to be passed are completely within reach for the Democrats, who now control both houses of Congress. They can drive through desperately needed aid using budget reconciliation or by abolishing the undemocratic filibuster rules. It seems they are moving forward with this process, though with insufficient speed and determination. And even using budget reconciliation, it is Democrats themselves who could be the obstacle. If just one Democratic senator refuses to support Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan, it’s dead in the water.
Big Business Intervention
It’s important to underline that the scale of Biden’s proposals has nothing to do with his benevolence. This scale of spending and intervention is in service of big business, who are desperate to get people back to work and restart their profit-making machine. It’s for this exact same reason that big business is stepping into the vacuum to drive vaccination efforts in states across the country. In North Carolina, Honeywell International, Atrium Health, and Tepper Sports & Entertainment are combining their vast networks to launch a big business–driven vaccination pilot program. They are turning the Charlotte Motor Speedway into a privately run and operated drive-through vaccination site. In Washington state, Starbucks is stepping into the game. And at the national level, Amazon’s vice pres-
In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Motor Speedway has been repurposed as a vaccination center. ident of worldwide operations sent a letter to Biden offering the corporation’s “operations, information technology, and communications capabilities” to the national vaccination effort. Biden has signaled enthusiasm about private sector intervention. This is the opposite of what we need. While the massive resources of corporations may help in this situation because it’s in their interests, in general, when big business is substituted for public institutions, the end result is a race to the bottom. The logic of private ownership is that profits have to be paid out to shareholders rather than invested in expanding and improving service. We need to take the vast resources of these major corporations, like Amazon, into democratic public ownership and integrate them to build a high-quality, transparent public healthcare system. The profits of billionaires like Jeff Bezos have no place in our COVID escape route.
The Need for a Socialist World
Global capitalism is in total crisis. We have seen a clear degeneration of the system even as compared to twelve years ago with the 2008-9 crash. The response of the ruling class at that time was wholly insufficient, which they now broadly accept with their temporary adoption of Keynesian measures. However, in contrast to today, at the very least the global ruling class was somewhat united in 2008-9. The Obama administration coordinated moves with China and the E.U., as compared to the “everyone for themselves” nationalism we’ve seen this past year. This approach will be ever more disastrous in years to come as we face more and possibly worse
pandemics, as well as the far broader challenge of climate change. The challenge facing ruling classes around the world, including the American ruling class, cannot be understated. In acknowledgment of this, they are being forced to use state intervention into the economy on a scale we haven’t seen since the 1930s. This can be seen with the massive stimulus spending in the U.S. as well as plans for major investment in infrastructure. Of course, at the same time, the bulk of the aid they’re giving ordinary people will run out in the not too distant future and they will then, in predictable fashion, seek to make the working class pay the bill for the crisis they have created. The tasks ahead for the world working class are mammoth. In the short term, we need to demand a global, public plan for mass vaccinations. This means immediately waiving all patent and “intellectual property” protections on the COVID vaccines and bringing Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and all of big pharma into democratic public ownership. This would enable us to combine their vast resources and technology and rapidly scale up producing and distributing the vaccines around the world. In a much broader sense, we need to intervene decisively to prevent even worse and further disasters. This means building and developing fighting, mass, left-wing organizations of the working class around the world. It means building an international socialist movement to fight for a world built around solidarity rather than the narrow nationalist interests of the global capitalist class. J
Scotland held a referendum on independence from the UK in 2014.
The 2020s and the Reemergence of the National Question Danny Byrne , ISA International Executive
orld capitalism is entering an epoch of crisis, which in many respects is unique in history. With an economic depression triggered by a capitalist-driven global pandemic amid an unfolding climate catastrophe there has perhaps never been a crisis which is deeper, more global, or more multi-faceted. However, this crisis is also a very classical one, rooted in the same contradictions — primarily the inability to develop the world economy further on the basis of private property and the nation state — which have plagued capitalism for over a century. One feature of all such crises is the interaction between the modern-day problems of capitalism and the age-old intractable problems which have been built into the system during its historical development. One such complication is what Marxists call the “national question,” essentially unresolved issues and disputes over the rights, borders, and status of national peoples. Hundreds of such unresolved problems exist around the world, in both “advanced” capitalist countries and in the so-called “developing” world. “National questions” have been the source of countless political conflicts, wars, and mass movements throughout the last century. Capitalist crises almost inevitably sharpen and bring to the
surface previously dormant national questions. This was the case following the 2007/8 financial crisis, which, among other examples, gave birth to a new mass movement for national independence in Catalonia in 2017 and the historic independence referendum in Scotland in 2014. Already in 2021, we could see that this crisis is no different. Socialists around the world need to pay renewed attention to this crucial issue and reaffirm the fundamentals of a principled Marxist approach, which is essential to the success of the struggle for socialism. Lenin, the foremost leader of the Russian socialist revolution in 1917 and the Bolshevik Party which led it, explained on more than one occasion that without a correct policy on this complex question, the working class would never have triumphed in the “prison-house of nations” that was the Russian Tsarist empire. Today, a correct approach to the national question remains essential to the building of the necessary unity of the working class and all oppressed in the fight for our collective liberation, while at the same time standing steadfastly for the democratic rights of all peoples. Indeed, much more recently in Britain and the Spanish state with Corbynism and Podemos, we have seen how a mistaken position on the national question in Scotland and Catalonia respectively did decisive damage to new projects
23 on the Left.
The national question — which today is largely manifested in tendencies towards the breakup of existing states — is part of a bigger picture of “centrifugal” processes (pointing towards fragmentation) which dominate world events in the 2020s. This includes a process of partial de-globalization, driven by the New Cold War between U.S. and Chinese imperialism. Brexit, itself a powerful new factor in the UK national question, especially in relation to Scotland and Northern Ireland, is another expression of this process. This crisis is undermining the pillars of capitalist stability, and weakening the foundations of what for many years have seemed to be unshakeable aspects of the status quo, including the sacrosanct integrity of some of the world’s most established states.
Game Over for the “United Kingdom?”
States don’t get much older or more established than the British one. In particular, the unity of “Great Britain,” as distinct from the “UK and Northern Ireland,” was perceived to be unquestionable until very recently. Bringing together England, Scotland, and Wales, the British state was consolidated over centuries at the center of what became the biggest territorial empire in history. But in the aftermath of World War II, as Britain was decisively displaced by the United States as the world’s foremost capitalist power, the empire began to disintegrate, driven by Britain’s economic weakening and the power of the “colonial revolution” which was sweeping the world. Eventually, Britain’s decline began to undermine the glue holding its own multinational state together. In particular, the deindustrialization and privatization which came with Thatcher’s neoliberal counter revolution in the 1980s (see article on page 45) bred devastation and resentment among the Scottish working class. Thatcher’s defeat of the miners following the heroic 1984-5 strike had a massive impact in Wales too, with communities in large stretches of the country dependent on the industry. These processes coincided with the rightward shift beginning in the 1980s of the leadership of the Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress, organizations which had been powerful factors in binding together the working class in Scotland, Wales, and England. In Scotland in particular, this combination of factors set in motion a change in the outlook of millions, centered on the youth and the working class, whose outlook began to shift from fighting for change as part of an all-British movement to the idea that Scotland could chart a better path independently, if it could dislodge itself from the Thatcherite juggernaut of British capitalism. From what had been marginal levels of support for decades concentrated in the middle class, opinion polls began to show increasing support for independence. Ini-
tially a majority among young people and the most downtrodden working-class communities, support for independence began to approach an overall majority in the 2000s. The key factor in this change in consciousness was opposition to neoliberal austerity. A Labour heartland for decades, Scotland found itself ruled for almost 20 years by London based Thatcherite Tory (right wing Conservative Party) governments it had not voted for, which were ruining the lives of working people. In response to this situation, the Scottish National Party (SNP), a traditionally rural middle-class party which had been dubbed the “tartan Tories” by the Scottish working class, shifted its rhetoric significantly to the left. It began to openly campaign for independence for the first time in its history, linked to a program to undo some of the worst aspects of Tory austerity. It won power in the Scottish parliament in 2007, overwhelmingly at the expense of the Labour Party. For Labour, Scotland was transformed from stronghold to weak link. The Great Recession of 2008-9 and the brutal austerity inflicted by the Tory-led government which came to power in 2010, sent this process into overdrive. The culmination was the independence referendum of 2014, in which the British ruling class had to mobilize every tool at its disposal to narrowly defeat the pro-independence campaign. In the face of an unprecedented “project fear” backed by the Tories, Labour and the entire British establishment, 45% voted for independence, including most working-class people and a big majority of the youth. Since then, the impact of great political events has added fuel to the flames. Scotland voted overwhelmingly against Brexit in 2016, which has deepened the desire for a different path from the British capitalist roadmap. Then came the murderous mismanagement of the pandemic by Boris Johnson’s government, and the onset of the deepest economic downturn in Britain in over 300 years. Six years after the referendum, opinion polls are showing consistent majorities — up to 58%! — for independence, in the run-up to elections for the devolved Scottish Parliament on May 6, in which demands for a new referendum will take center stage. Though at a much more incipient stage, there are some echoes of a similar process taking place in Wales, where as much as one third have supported independence in some opinion polls, with a more powerful expression among the youth. As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, just over 100 years since its establishment as part of British imperialism’s partition of Ireland, the pillars of its foundation have never been more insecure. It also voted to oppose Brexit in 2016, and the untenable compromise agreed between Boris Johnson and the EU poses significant economic challenges. This leaves Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union, hence creating a de facto border between it and Britain. This is seen by many Protestants, one of the two communities in the North which overwhelmingly favors remaining in the UK, as a step
24 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 towards an “economic united Ireland.” Added to this is the impact of demographic changes which appear to point towards the Catholic population — which has generally tended to favor a united Ireland — becoming a majority. With Scottish independence on the cards and the main nationalist party in Ireland, Sinn Fein, demanding a referendum on Irish reunification, events will continue to undermine the ever fragile status quo. Any move towards imposing a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which could result from further conflict between the EU and the UK. would lead to a massive growth in support among Catholics for an immediate referendum on a united Ireland. The post-Brexit situation has already seen an increased threat of sectarian violence, and the situation continues to demand the building of a united working-class movement which can stand in the way of a return to sectarian conflict.
Spanish State: “Regime of 1978” Crumbles
Spain’s Franco dictatorship came to power in 1939 after a bloody Civil War which defeated a developing socialist revolution. Francoism’s mission was to crush the opposition of the working class and the threat of socialism, and within this, a major task was to put out the embers of resistance from oppressed nationalities — especially in the Basque Country, Catalonia and, to a lesser degree, Galicia. The struggle of the working class and peasantry of these peoples for self-determination and freedom from Castilian Spanish domination, was
Protesters in support of Catalan independence.
a crucial aspect of the revolutionary wave which swept the Spanish state in the 1930s. Franco’s regime was one of murderous suppression of the working-class movement, but also of brutal Spanish nationalist terror and oppression. Languages spoken by millions were banned and all autonomous regional institutions dissolved. When a revolutionary upsurge of the working class brought the dictatorship to an end in 1975, those oppressed nationalities again occupied an heroic place in the struggle against the dictatorship, especially in the Basque Country. The capitalist class, desperate to avoid socialist revolution, which was rapidly developing in neighboring Portugal, turned to the bureaucratic leaderships of the workers’ parties, particularly the Stalinist Communist Party, for assistance. A famous “Transition” was agreed in 1978 by the representatives of the dictatorship and the “Communist” and “Socialist” leaders. It established capitalist parliamentary democracy — with Franco’s designated successor, King Juan Carlos, as the symbolic head of state — while maintaining the fundamentals of the capitalist system which Francoism was put in place to protect. The national question was a crucial part of this betrayal. The new Constitution — which the Basque people voted to reject but was foisted upon them anyway — explicitly rejected the right of nations to self-determination, enshrining the single and indivisible “Spanish nation.” The historic nationalities were granted limited autonomy on the basis of redrawing their borders to exclude much of their historic territory, and as just another three out of 17 “autonomous regions.” The pillars of this system, what became known as the “regime of 1978” in the mass movements that followed the 2007/8 financial crisis, enter the 2020s in a very undermined state. This includes the national/territorial model. The epicenter of this crisis is Catalonia, where support for independence surged during the 2000s. Unlike in Britain, the Spanish state refused to allow for a legal referendum. This led to the development of an heroic mass movement which forced the nationalist leaders of the Catalan
25 government to organize an “illegal” referendum in October 2017, which saw more than two million people defy police brutality to cast votes, often going toe to toe with military police in order to do so. This was followed by an authoritarian clampdown and draconian attacks on the Catalan government’s leaders, most of whom remain in prison or in exile today. The working class and youth responded with general strikes, student strikes, and three more electoral victories for the pro-independence parties (most recently in February 2021), despite the intimidation of the state. The impasse generated by these events remains unresolved as we enter a new explosive period. In the 2020s, amid inevitable ebbs and flows, new fronts of national rebellion can be added to the Spanish capitalists’ nightmare, in particular in the Basque Country, which has a far more established and organized pro-independence movement than Catalonia, including a significant left and trade union tradition.
Nagorno-Karabakh - Stalinism’s Crimes Unravelling
Last year’s two-month war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both part of the former Soviet Union, over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which killed thousands of soldiers and civilians, gives a glimpse of how hundreds of age-old national quagmires can be set alight in coming years. This region, with a largely Armenian population, within the territory of Azerbaijan, has long been denied the right to determine its own future and used as a football in clashes between rival capitalist elites, at a great human cost. The region also gives an example of the crimes of Stalinism — the dictatorship which came to dominate in the Soviet Union when a bureaucratic counter revolution wiped out workers’ democracy following the death of Lenin — which were also significant in relation to the national question. The Bolsheviks’ support of the right to self-determination, which was the basis for uniting, on a voluntary basis, dozens of nationalities in the Soviet Union, was applied to Nagorno-Karabakh after the October Revolution where a series of referendums were held to determine the region’s future, with a clear majority expressing the will to be part of Armenia. But as well as eliminating workers’ democracy, and rolling back massive gains made by women and LGBTQ people, Stalinism also wound back the clock in relation to the rights of nations. Indeed, an important part of Lenin’s last political battle, against Stalin himself, centered on this issue. The Stalinist regime refused to implement the will of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, and cemented the region’s status as an enclave within Azerbaijan. The brutal repression of the Stalinist state machine, together with unprecedented economic development in the first decades of Soviet power, kept a plethora of national quagmires largely papered over for a whole period. But the collapse of the Stalinist bloc in the 1990s saw old wounds reopen, most disastrously in the bitter ethnic conflict which developed in
the former Yugoslavia. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, taken together with the war in East Ukraine which followed the last global crisis, is a reminder of the sheer gravity and quantity of unresolved national questions in that part of the world, all and any of which can be aggravated by the unfolding global crisis and explode in new bloodbaths.
A Principled Marxist Approach
For Marxists, the national question is among the most complex and challenging issues to navigate. It arises from the unevenness of capitalist development, and the capitalist class’ failure to complete the tasks of its own revolution which abolished feudalism. One of these tasks was the establishment of nation states, which united geographical areas into unified economic and political entities, facilitating capitalist economic development. Trotsky’s theory of “Permanent Revolution,” which is an essential part of the modern Marxist program, explains how only the working class can resolve the leftover problems of the capitalist revolution, as part of the socialist transformation of society. This is the starting point for a socialist approach to the national question today— that it cannot be solved on the basis of capitalist “solutions.” Capitalist reforms or constitutional makeovers, many of which may be attempted in the coming period to try to paper over the cracks, will not resolve these age-old problems. They can only be resolved by multinational, multiethnic working-class movements, as part of the fight for socialism. The national question has a contradictory nature in another sense too. On the one hand, Marxists see the revolutionary potential inherent in mass struggles for national rights and against oppression, and fight to win the leadership of such struggles. To this end, we have often quoted Trotsky’s words, when discussing the role of the national aspirations of many nationalities under the yoke of the Tsarist empire in the Russian revolution: that “their nationalism was only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism.” This progressive element of the national question has tended to predominate in the situation in Scotland and Catalonia in recent years, where workers and youth have taken to the road of national independence as a way to fight against capitalist austerity and for fundamental change. However, also crucial is the other side of the coin: the reactionary and counter-revolutionary impact of all national divisions, which cut across the potential for united class struggle and internationalism. In many countries around the world, national divisions appear not primarily as avenues to advance revolutionary struggle but, on the contrary, as factors which complicate the building of workers’ unity and struggle. National and ethnic divisions have already been exploited by ruling elites to wage bloody and murderous wars in 2020, such as in Ethiopia.
26 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 The key to a Marxist approach to the national question lies in understanding this contradiction, which is manifested in different ways, in different parts of the world, at different times. Marxists must be flexible in their approach. We analyze each national question in its context, striving to understand what factors are driving movements, their composition, and the consciousness of different layers involved. Marxists are consistent defenders of the democratic rights of all oppressed peoples including their right to use their language and express their culture and also to a separate state if they so wish. This is what Lenin meant by the “right of nations to self-determination.” But while upholding the right of self-determination, we do not automatically support the call for independence in each situation. Lenin was very clear that “The bourgeoisie always places its national demands to the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle.” Where we do support movements fighting for independence, we do so on the basis of a clear class and internationalist approach, including advocating the voluntary unity of independent socialist states in regional socialist federations. We fight for the greatest possible unity of the working class in struggle across borders and nationalities, and for a socialist, internationalist alternative to petit bourgeois and bourgeois nationalism. We reject the bourgeois lie of “national unity,” point towards class divisions which exist in all nations and emphasize the common interests of the working class and oppressed across borders.
Our international socialist organization, International Socialist Alternative, is building on a proud tradition of revolutionary theory and action in this field. Basing themselves on the method of analysis of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and the great Irish revolutionary James Connolly, new generations of Marxist fighters in ISA applied this method in new and challenging circumstances in the late 20th century as global capitalism fell further into decadence and degeneration. Peter Hadden, an important Irish Marxist and founding member of ISA and the Socialist Party (ISA in Ireland), published Troubled Times in 1995, a book analyzing the evolution of the Irish national question which the Socialist Party in Ireland is in the process of republishing. In Troubled Times, he writes of the national question more globally: “Broadly the tendency to assimilation of peoples into nations, apparent in the last century, and even then most often by the most brutal methods, has, in the present epoch, been replaced by the opposite tendency – to the accentuation of division, even to separation.” This tendency — with inevitable exceptions – has been generally dominant throughout the 20th century, and been boosted by each wave of capitalist crisis since. This situation exerted great pressures on Marxists, with
many falling into political traps and adopting one-sided positions. Often, this was expressed in a dismissal of the importance of movements for democratic and national rights, or against national oppression. Rather than wage a principled struggle to link these movements to the struggles of the international working class, led by a socialist political program, many left organizations merely dismissed national questions as “reactionary” or “divisive,” standing aside from — or worse, denouncing — movements of people fighting against an oppressive status quo. For example, this has historically been the case in the Spanish left. At decisive moments in the state’s revolutionary history, the Socialist and Communist parties, and more recently Podemos, have failed to energetically take up the demands of historically oppressed nationalities, amongst whom tremendous upheavals have taken place, as part of every major crisis of the Spanish capitalist system. Without a clear struggle by left and workers’ organizations to link the movements of the Catalan, Basque or Galician workers for their democratic rights with the overall struggle of the working class and oppressed to end capitalism, revolutionary opportunities have been lost. Moreover, right wing nationalist political forces have often been allowed to remain as the primary political “representatives” of these movements, despite deep class contradictions. The opposite pole of a mistaken approach to the national question is a “one size fits all” position of socialists acting as uncritical cheerleaders and champions of all movements for national independence or separation. While in many cases, Marxists should support demands for national independence on a clear internationalist, socialist basis, this must be based on an overall analysis of the needs of the class struggle. For example, there is a world of difference between a mass movement for national liberation which is expressing a revolt against the system, and a process of national and ethnic division in a region, which is expressing a reactionary trend, and leads to the fragmentation and undermining of the working class’ ability to struggle together against the system. Moreover, in every movement for national rights or independence, socialists must promote an approach of class struggle, and conduct a clear battle against pro-capitalist forces of all nationalities. Throughout the past decades, we have seen a plethora of so-called socialist organizations uncritically cheerlead national liberation movements, including those which have been based on methods not of class struggle but of “individual terrorism,” which sees no role for the organized working class and bases itself on an elitist strategy of small armed bands “liberating” society. In addition, despite often brandishing leftist rhetoric in the past, many of these political forces have been responsible for implementing pro-capitalist policies once in power, and often politically represent aspirational capitalist elites, keen to enjoy the benefits of statehood from their own class point of view. Many left organizations inter-
A sniper with Nagorno-Karabakh’s militia during a battle with Azerbaijani forces near Hadrut in October 2020. nationally gave uncritical support to the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Hezbollah or Hamas in the Middle East. While socialists support the right of all oppressed peoples to resist occupation and oppression, we do so while maintaining an independent position, and openly criticize failed strategies and pro-capitalist politics. In the case of Ireland, the IRA campaign of terrorist attacks during the 70s and 80s, often on civilians from a Protestant background, far from being able to defeat British imperialism, only served to deepen division among the working class, in fact cementing the opposition of the majority of the population to the idea of a united Ireland. Following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and beginning of the “peace process,” Sinn Fein (the political party linked to the IRA) was in government for over a decade, and presided over brutal cuts to public spending at the behest of the bosses. The Socialist Party (ISA) in Northern Ireland stands for the unity of the working class in struggle against “orange and green” (unionist and nationalist) sectarians. We fight to build united movements around a program for socialist change, which can undermine the basis for division and open up a viable perspective for a shared socialist future for the working class in Ireland, as part of a free and voluntary socialist feder-
ation with Scotland, Wales and England in a socialist Europe.
International Organization Key
Crucial to avoiding the twin pitfalls which have befallen many on the left is not only serious and sharp Marxist analysis but the role of an international Marxist organization. An issue as complex and varied as the national question cannot be navigated from the standpoint of an isolated national grouping. Moreover, developing an approach based only on a single “case study” will inevitably lead to serious imbalances and attempts to transplant features of one national question onto another. ISA’s approach has been developed not in the abstract but via living interventions in varying, changing, and challenging situations. From Israel/Palestine, to Scotland, to Nigeria, to Quebec and beyond, ISA sections have put the Marxist method into practice and added valuable armor to the arsenal of international socialism. Drawing the full lessons from these experiences remains a crucial task for Marxists today. This is part of the reason why, for socialists — the most internationalist of all political trends — the international form of organization is fundamental. J
Abortion rights activists in Buenos Aires, Argentina celebrate the legalization of abortion.
Abortion Legalized! A Triumph for the “Green Tide” Movement Now we need organization and socialist feminism!
Marcos Ariel, ISA supporter in Argentina
n a historic day, on the morning of December 30 and after 12 hours of debate, the archaic Argentine Senate approved the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy Act (IVE) by 38 votes to 29. Thousands of “Green Tide” activists — the mass feminist movement which has fought for abortion rights for years — were attending vigils outside the Congress building and in more than 120 plazas in all the provinces of the country. When the result of the vote was announced, they burst into a joyful chant “it’s law!” as if they were one person, amid celebrations, tears and hugs. Condensed in that moment were decades of struggle by the feminist movement for the recognition of the elementary human right to be able to decide about one’s own body. This struggle passed an important milestone in 2005, with the creation of the National Campaign for Safe and Free Legal Abortion (La Campaña) as a space for coordination of the majority of feminist organizations in the country. But the real explosive development came in 2018, when the issue was debated in congress and in the whole of society. This saw the entrance
onto the scene of a whole generation of teenage women: the “pibas” who are now the engine of this huge movement. The use of the green handkerchief as a symbol of the struggle for legal abortion was a tribute to the handkerchiefs of the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” who fought for the 30,000 people who “disappeared” during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s. This victory is the product of the collective struggle of three feminist generations that give life to the Green Tide. The movement will continue to spread because there remains the struggle for the effective implementation of the law against the limitations that the legal text itself contains and against the obstacles that the reactionary sectors opposed to womens’ rights will attempt to put in place. Furthermore, this huge triumph not only impacts every corner of Argentina but also the rest of Latin America, as has already been seen in Chile where the Congress will begin debating a bill decriminalizing abortion. Thus, it will be important to organize protests in support of the struggle of women in all of Latin America, until the feminist movement shakes the entire continent
Major Defeat for the Catholic Church
Throughout Latin America, religion — and particularly in
29 Argentina, the Catholic Church, strongly linked to the state — has much power. It receives millions in state funding. With our taxes we pay the salaries of priests and subsidize their private schools. All while they themselves are exempt from taxes! The Catholic Church historically has consistently opposed the extension of the rights of the oppressed. They were against the law that prohibited slavery, against the law of compulsory schooling, against the law on women voting, divorce, marriage for same-sex couples, against sex education. Now all its sectors, from the most reactionary to the progressive “priests for the poor,” are opposed to the legalization of abortion. With the Argentine Pope Francis at their head, they lobbied strongly against it and were defeated. But it was also the other churches, especially the evangelical ones, which were defeated. Particularly following the exposure of terrible child abuse by Catholic priests, which was then covered up by the hierarchy, these churches have gained a lot of influence, especially among the poorest sectors. This victory strengthens us for the next struggle we have before us: the separation of church and state.
Concessions to the Reactionaries
Celebrating this triumph should not make us lose sight of the fact that the new law is not the one that was collectively drafted by La Campaña, but one drawn up by President Alberto Fernandez which contains several negative aspects that were reinforced at each stage of the bill’s passage. In the face of the massive Green Tide, with the population increasingly in favor of abortion rights and his opponent for the presidency, Mauricio Macri, against it, Alberto Fernandez was forced to include legal abortion in his campaign promises in 2019. This was a promise he tried to break all the way through 2020. First, he cast aside the bill drafted by La Campaña, and produced his own. To reassure the reactionaries, he linked the bill for the right to abortion to a law for the “protection of maternity” by which the state will subsidize for a thousand days any mother who decides to have her child. He used the advent of the pandemic as an excuse to avoid discussing the bill in Congress because, according to him, there were other more important issues. Once the quarantine was decreed, he said that the abortion bill could not proceed because this issue generates discord and we, the Argentines, must be united against the virus. And besides, thousands of people would mobilize in the streets, breaking the quarantine. In the middle of the year and when the quarantine was being relaxed, his new excuse was that the health system was not prepared. His final excuse was to say that in 2020 there was no time to deal with the issue. But, as December approached, and with the need to vote on the pension adjustment requested by the IMF, he decided to allow the abortion law to be discussed at the same time as the pension adjustment law. The focus of the debate thus shifted from something regressive to something
progressive. Once the bill was presented, more negative modifications were made to it, the most serious being to facilitate “conscientious objection.” This allows clinics and private health institutions to refuse to carry out the termination of a pregnancy if all their professionals, protected by their religious beliefs, declare themselves to be objectors. This is very serious, especially in the villages in the interior of the country where there is a shortage of doctors. This is already being used by anti-choice groups to mobilize non-compliance with the law, as happened recently in the province of San Juan, where one of the two largest public hospitals said they would not perform terminations because all of their gynecologists are conscientious objectors. La Campaña’s original proposal not only did not include conscientious objection but prohibited it. On the other hand, the approved law penalizes any pregnant person who receives an abortion after the 14th week of pregnancy with prison sentences of three months to one year. The La Campaña proposal did not include any penalties. Then, at the last moment and when no more modifications could be made, the President committed himself to remove from Article 4(b) the “integral health” of the pregnant person as a legitimate cause for abortion after 14 weeks. This casts aside, for example, psychological or social health and violates the concept of integral health established by the WHO and ratified by Argentina in the international conventions on human rights. Unfortunately, the leadership of La Campaña, politically connected to the ruling Frente de Todos party, let all these setbacks pass by without calling for mobilization throughout the year. Mobilization was necessary to put pressure on the government and, with the proper social distancing and in compliance with health protocols, it was possible, as demonstrated by other sectors that took to the streets for their rights. In this way, the government, only feeling the active pressure of the anti-choice sectors and with the excuse that concessions were necessary to obtain the votes in Congress, gave in more and more. This is a false argument anyway, since the Frente de Todos has a majority in the Senate. If they really had political will they could have voted on the full La Campaña bill as a bloc, as they did on the pension adjustment law to obey the IMF!
We Need Organization and Socialist Feminism
Regardless of the limitations of the law which was passed, this triumph strengthens the Green Tide that continues to spread and is gaining the support of more people who were previously against abortion and now have changed their position. This was demonstrated by the small numbers of people who have been mobilized by the anti-abortion sector, and even in the provinces where the church has the most weight, these sectors are increasingly in retreat. The base of the movement is aware that this victory is not a gift from the government, but a result of mobilization and
30 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 the struggle and that the fight for the effective implementation of the right to legal, safe, and free abortion must continue. We must fight every time a hospital refuses to perform a procedure, or every time a judge wants to put a woman in jail for abortions performed after the 14th week. To continue to move forward, it is also necessary to organize politically in a combative feminist movement, that does not fall into Kirchnerist Peronist (the political tradition which Alberto Fernandez belongs to) opportunism, or sectarian “feminism” based on a perspective of individual action rather than the need for mass struggle. While these feminist currents have influence, the great vanguard that emerged in the fight for legal abortion naturally overlaps with those of us in the working-class movement, who have for decades upheld these rights in our program. This new generation of young activists joins the struggle without political prejudices, free of the ties and rigid discipline imposed by Peronist and other bureaucracies. They are
quickly turning to the left and are part of other struggles like that against climate change. As the daughters of the working class and the increasingly impoverished middle class, they will also be fighting in the streets to ensure that the economic crisis will not be paid for by the workers. The Left Front, an electoral alliance of left organizations with representation in parliament, failed to intervene in the movement in a united manner and with a common policy. This prevented it from taking full advantage of the new space which has opened up. This great political space is conducive to the emergence of a feminist, socialist and internationalist banner like ROSA — the initiative launched by ISA. That is why we invite you to get active with us to build large feminist and socialist organizations in Argentina and in the rest of the world for the colossal task we have: to throw out this capitalist and patriarchal system. To build a socialist society in which, as Rosa Luxemburg said, we are socially equal, humanly different, and totally free. J
Modern Monetary Theory vs. Marxism How do Working People Win Lasting Gains?
he global economic crisis has made clearer than ever the need for social spending. Workers, students, and youth in the U.S. are rallying behind Medicare for All (M4A), cancellation of student debt, and a Green New Deal (GND). Yet whenever these proposals are raised, corporate Democrats and Republicans always ask, “who’s going to pay for it?” This question, though disingenuous, deserves an honest answer from socialists. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – a school of thought that is enjoying rising popularity on the left – says that social spending can be fully funded through monetary policy (i.e. “printing money”) without fear of inflation. As evidence, MMT proponents point to the trillions in government stimulus spending on COVID-19 relief as proof that the capitalist state can fully fund employment and social programs. It is striking that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez believes MMT “absolutely” needs to be “a larger part of our conversation,” and that Bernie Sanders had MMT champion economist Stephanie Kelton serving as senior economic advisor to both his presidential campaigns. But capitalism has never achieved long-term full employment, and gains for working people are never permanent and always reversible. Capitalists have always used the threat of unemployment to drive down wages and keep workers in line. Bosses resist social spending tooth-and-nail in order to lower the share of wealth going to working people, and to keep workers from developing the confidence to fight for more gains. Will MMT really be able to both uphold the capitalist system and cure the ills it generates? Unfortunately, MMT’s reliance on capitalism hobbles it at every step. MMT does not look to the working class, which is the only force that can lead the fight for serious change, to win the GND and M4A. Instead, it believes these programs can be won through technocratic compromises with big business, which would water down these programs and weaken the movement. As a bourgeois theory, MMT ultimately sees social spending as a way to pull U.S. businesses out of the current depression, not as a good in itself. But printing money, as the past decade of quantitative easing has shown, does not mean that capitalists will fruitfully invest that money to “fix”
the depression. Moreover, printing money is really an option for only a few rich imperialist countries. In the current crisis that grips the entire world, MMT is an insufficient answer for working people all around the globe looking for a way out.
What is Modern Monetary Theory?
MMT is both a heterodox (non-mainstream) view of how a capitalist economy works, and a slate of policy recommendations. According to MMT, money did not originate from bartering but from the state, which uses its authority to issue currency and dictate demand for it. Anything, whether gold or digital bits, would be made into money when the state accepts that thing as payment for obligations (taxes, debt, fines) to itself. All of the state’s subjects (e.g. taxpayers) are compelled to use this money by force of law, and so it becomes the most acceptable money for commerce. Those outside the state will also accept this money because they know the state’s subjects will accept it. MMT economists bolster their case that money originated from obligations to the state with their interpretation of anthropological research into a wide range of monies, from the development of Sumerian currency in tax collection, to the ancient Germanic tribes’ practice of weregild (restitution for injury or death), to the monetization of colonial African economies through British imperial taxation. If money begins with the state, MMT reasons, then the national government can create and destroy money at will. This assertion contradicts the idea that government spending is funded by tax collection. Instead, MMT argues that the government effectively creates money at the moment of spending – and tax collection comes months later. Stephanie Kelton explains in a seminal MMT paper “Can Taxes and Bonds Finance Government Spending?” that “it is not money but bridges, armies, satellites, etc. that the government wants and that it acquires them by encouraging the population to provide them in exchange for government money.” In other words, the state uses compulsory tax collection to impart value to newly printed money, which in turn is exchanged for private sector production. This analysis has an intellectual history rooted in Chartalism, an early 20th century economic theory that “taxes drive
32 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 money.” Chartalism influenced John Maynard Keynes in the development of his theory, which in turn influenced MMT in both economic and political conclusions. MMT itself was born in the 1990s out of a post-Keynesian online forum discussion between hedge fund millionaire Warren Mosler and a group of economists.
MMT’s Political Program, the Job Guarantee, and Inflation
MMT proponents, who are generally left-leaning, have eagerly taken up the cause of programs like the Green New Deal. They are right to compare fighting climate change, ending mass incarceration, and universal healthcare to the desperate challenges of the Great Depression and World War II. Drawing parallels to the New Deal, MMT economists see the GND as providing social value and as counter-cyclical, i.e. able to counteract the economic downturn by boosting investment and spending. While the cost of social programs will be tremendous, Kelton argues that funding is not an issue because “[i]f Congress authorizes… a few hundred billion dollars, then the Fed’s job is to make sure that those checks don’t bounce.” MMT sidesteps the question of who pays for the Green New Deal by pointing out the Federal Reserve (Fed) can simply print money for the program. To answer concerns around the inflationary effect of increasing the money supply, MMT builds on Keynes’s ideas around full employment. MMT proponents claim that as long as money creation is matched with increased production, there will be no inflation. A country at full employment would be at maximum output, beyond which additional money creation would cause inflation. At anything less than full employment, however, MMT proponents argue that money creation would not lead to inflation, and also that the government itself should sign up to full employment through a program called the Job Guarantee. This way, during downturns, the economy can maintain consumer spending, continue producing at maximum output, and reduce the social pain of unemployment. This theory of inflation is heavily colored by the experience of the past decade. The Fed has effectively printed a lot of money through “quantitative easing,” but inflation remained low because the 2008 financial crisis laid bare a long-running crisis of profitability. Without good avenues for investment, capitalists refused to spend the newly-created money on offices, wages, plants, and so on – but instead poured it into speculative assets. For the past two decades, the general economy also faced deflationary pressures due to overproduction and the decreasing share of wealth going to the working class while certain assets, like housing and stocks, became speculative and inflated to sky-high prices. Prominent bourgeois economist Larry Summers begrudgingly describes this phenomenon as “secular stagnation.” It is not economic laws discovered by MMT, but the lack of profitable investments combined with deflationary pressure in the capitalist economy, that has held down general inflation in the
previous period of money-printing. True to its Keynesian roots, MMT proposes to make up for the ongoing lack of private investment with large-scale public spending through programs like the Job Guarantee (JG). The JG would create $15-an-hour living-wage jobs for anyone who wants work, which is an excellent starting point. However, according to prominent JG advocate Pavlina Tcherneva in “The Job Guarantee: Design, Jobs, and Implementation,” these jobs are intended for ”transitioning to private sector employment opportunities,” “without competing with the private sector.” The JG is meant to bring the private sector back to profitability, so the jobs it offers are intentionally worse than private sector employment to avoid competition. The JG wage would be fixed to $15 an hour and not be indexed to inflation. MMT economists argue this is necessary to prevent more inflation. Taking a JG job would mean leaving behind other welfare assistance. If the private sector expands, the JG program will shrink in response so as to keep capitalists as the primary employers. The jobs are designed to be low-skill and labor-intensive with minimal use of capital. All this adds up to a program where the initial decent wage will be eroded through inflation, just like the minimum wage, and where business interests take precedence over the welfare of workers. The JG is not a government program for good jobs – it is closer to a form of welfare that requires work. The reason MMT theorists are compelled to weaken the JG is that as bourgeois theorists, they cannot threaten the power of the bosses, who they believe should be the primary employers in an economy. The unemployed form what Marx called a “reserve army of labor” that capitalists can call upon to replace those who are currently working. This threat of unemployment and replaceability acts as downward pressure on wages, and helps capitalists to make profits. If MMT removes the threat of unemployment, then it must offer another way to cut costs – such as dooming JG jobs to eventually be undesirable, with wages eroded by inflation – to protect the interests of the capitalists. Without strong social pressure defending the JG program and making it better, corporate lobbies can easily twist the JG into workfare. Rather than weaken the Job Guarantee to accommodate capitalism, socialists fight for good jobs for everyone, even if that means changing the economic system. A strong working-class movement can win social spending without prematurely conceding to business interests. Social demands will always conflict with the demands of big business under capitalism, and economists have to choose which side they are on. Unfortunately, MMT proponents have backed down and yielded to the interests of profit – and not just on the JG.
Is MMT the Right Strategy for Social Spending?
MMT is concerned first and foremost with saving capitalism and sees the path to social welfare strictly through cooperation with business interests. Its central thesis is that social programs can be funded through money creation, and not
Janet Yellen, the new Secretary of the Treasury, says inflation concerns should not get in the way of major spending. additional taxation which would cut into profits. However, the fight for social spending is class warfare, while MMT is trying to appease the capitalist class with a shortcut to paying for social programs that avoids taxing the rich. But can the Federal Reserve really be turned into a radical left-wing institution that prints trillions of dollars for social welfare programs? How will MMT mobilize the forces that will carry out this transformation? Marxists do not see the state as a neutral arbiter between classes, but as an instrument of the ruling class – the capitalist class. This does not mean workers can never win victories against the state, but there are serious limits to the ability to reform the system. If tomorrow the Fed were to start funding social programs, the corporate-controlled Congress could just rewrite the Fed’s charter. Just because financial markets skyrocketed in response to central banks printing money for corporations doesn’t mean they will stay friendly if central banks print money for social programs, which the markets broadly oppose. And if corporations find it unprofitable to invest in the GND or M4A, they will not produce the necessary numbers of turbines or medicines, and instead just pocket the newly printed money. We already saw this when the coronavirus stimulus measures in 2020, which largely went to corporate cash hoards
while only one-fifth went to workers, helped increase the wealth of U.S. billionaires by $1 trillion. At the same time, American workers lost $1.3 trillion in earnings in just the first two months of the pandemic. One in four households in the U.S. have experienced job loss and millions of people face evictions – all while the Fed printed an unprecedented $3.5 trillion for corporate shareholders. To guarantee the success of serious reforms like the GND or M4A, we can’t just give money to the big manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies. Even after receiving $2.5 billion in government funding for COVID-19 vaccine research and billions more for the first hundreds of millions of doses, U.S. big pharma delivered only 68 million of the 300 million vaccines promised by the end of January. While vaccine production is ramping up, its rollout has been a disaster. We need to take all major corporations under democratic public ownership so that competition and trade secrets don’t hamper cooperation, production can be directed toward necessary goods, and prices can be set affordably. In the fight for social spending and real gains for working people, our opponent is not theories of inflation or money circulation but the capitalist class. The fight for social programs is part of the struggle over the social product – namely what share of the wealth produced by workers goes to the working
34 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 class and what share goes to the capitalists. During the postwar boom, facing a powerful labor movement and the threat of the USSR, the capitalists in the West temporarily conceded to extensive social spending. The massive expansion of production after the destruction wrought by WWII allowed profitability to be maintained even while social welfare increased the share of wealth going to the working class. But as profitability declined and the capitalists turned to neoliberalism, social programs became a target of cost-cutting and privatization. Capitalists restored profitability by muscling into the workers’ share of the wealth and increasing the rate of exploitation. The working class, with its strength in numbers and potential power in the workplace, is the force that can win social spending without concessions, not MMT technocrats working within the capitalist state machinery. To build the strongest possible movement, social spending demands must mobilize workers and squarely face our enemy. That means taxing the rich to pay for social programs and bringing key corporations into public ownership under workers’ control. Unfortunately, taxing the rich is anathema to many MMT theorists. In the Levy Economics Institute working paper, “How to Pay for the Green New Deal,” MMT proponents state that they “do not agree with [Sanders’s] goal of raising revenue” through taxing employers and the rich to pay for M4A. Instead, they “propose to impose a surcharge of 4.6 percent on the employee portion of the payroll tax” to “allay fears of inflation” by “[reducing] consumption demand by the less fortunate bottom 90 percent of Americans.” Despite MMT’s rhetorical concern for ordinary people, this would shift the tax burden further to the working class! Such a tax would not
only be regressive, but also give ammunition to the right wing to attack social programs. Founding MMT theorist Randall Wray recently co-authored a paper, “Is It Time to Eliminate Federal Corporate Income Taxes?” where he claims “corporate taxation… is inefficient and largely borne by consumers and employees, not shareholders” and “prefer[s] the elimination of the corporate profits tax.” This is a shocking rehash of the right-wing myth that corporate taxes get passed on to consumers and workers, so we shouldn’t tax them. Winning social programs is an uphill battle and the political needs of the movement cannot be hindered by the economic theories that support them. MMT’s technocratic approach, which relies on bureaucratic maneuvers and shifts taxes from the rich to the working class, will demobilize workers and progressives fighting in their workplaces and the streets for social spending. The only way to defeat corporate opposition is through industrial actions and mass movements, united around a program of taxing the rich and taking major corporations into democratic public ownership.
MMT vs. Marxist Economics
MMT’s weaknesses can be traced to a fundamental misunderstanding of money, value, and the sources of the crises of capitalism. Historically, the origin of money arises from one set of social conditions and its universal adoption arises from another. The state may invent and issue currency to quantify taxes, but it ultimately seeks to collect real value and not money. Feudal lords, for example, were more than happy to collect non-money taxes from their subjects in the form of corvée, or labor in lieu of money or crop payment. Yet the same fiefdom a few centuries prior might have been Roman lands that saw more ubiquitous use of money because of widespread trading and production of goods for sale. How much an economy uses money depends on the production of commodities, their exchange, and the need to quantify and build fortunes. Under capitalism – which Marx described as “generalized commodity production” – it is not the state’s taxes that drive demand for money, but commodity circulation and movement of capital. Marxists understand that a commodity has a value based on how much labor, on average, is used to make it (the socially Congressional Budget Office data on federal debt, 1900 - 2060.
35 necessary labor time). For markets to function, the quantity of money and its circulation needs to reflect the socially necessary labor time of commodities, and can’t be determined arbitrarily by feudal kings or capitalist states without causing economic disruption. Excessive money supply, all things being equal, is inflationary. MMT, lacking a theory of value, struggles to explain the general movement of prices. Instead, it assumes the state can set prices (control inflation) by manipulating the amount of money in the economy. But the control over the quantity of money is not the same as control over the value of money. Under capitalism it is the capitalist market, not the state, that ultimately determines what and how much to produce and thereby what value money will have. In this sense, MMT doesn’t account for the underlying objective tendencies towards crisis in capitalism: the tendency towards overaccumulation of capital and the tendency in the general economy for the rate of profit to fall as more is invested in technology and machines than in workers’ labour power, which is the only source of surplus value. This is a tendency and not a law, but it can be seen in the U.S.’s struggle with declining productivity growth. From 1991-2007, U.S. worker productivity grew an average of 2.2% per year. From 2010-2017, productivity growth fell to 0.9% despite the heavy use of quantitative easing. With capital investments barely improving output per worker, and low or negative real interest rates in all the advanced capitalist countries, capitalists are refusing to invest newly printed money because they can’t turn a profit. The growth of capital intensity – a ratio that roughly reflects capital consumed to labor power consumed in production – has in the past decade been near zero or even negative for the U.S. The seeds of the current economic crisis were sown long before COVID-19 emerged. If the previous period of quantitative easing didn’t fix the dearth of profitable investments, then neither will printing even more money as MMT proposes to do. The combination of declining rates of profit and easy monetary policy led to “stagflation” in the 1970s, when economic growth in the advanced capitalist countries stagnated while inflation soared. That led the ruling class to reject Keynesianism in favor of neoliberalism, which promised to restore profitability through lowering the share of wealth going to the working class, including vicious cuts to social programs. MMT is a return to Keynesianism, except armed with the Job Guarantee so that state employment can soak up newly printed money. The JG stops short of massive state employment, however. In the MMT vision for a GND, laid out in “How to Pay for the Green New Deal,” “JG workers would be used only in a subset of GND projects,” for “labor-intensive work” that does “not require expensive capital investment or materials,” and “not be used as skilled labor.” Skilled labor and capital-intensive goods and services would make up “a core component of the GND” but still be “undertaken by private contractors while paid for by [the state],” funded with money-printing. Workers desperately need higher wages and a huge expan-
sion of social spending, but MMT’s watered-down program offers undesirable jobs while its money-printing approach risks further deepening the crisis under capitalism. In a capitalist economy already glutted with goods, printing money for additional production will exacerbate the crisis of overproduction. Only a rational, planned economy under democratic control can redirect production to rebuild infrastructure based on 100% renewable energy, universal healthcare, and good jobs for all. Without a theory of value, MMT also underestimates the role of debt in capitalism. State debt is more than a number; it is a tool for capitalists to transfer wealth from other classes. Not only are capitalists the main benefactors of state spending, they are also the state’s creditors and will see their loans to the government repaid with interest through taxation of the working class and the middle class. In Volume 1 of Capital, Marx called “public debt… one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation” of capital. But excessive state debt becomes a burden on capitalism. Bank assets that could have been invested in capitalist enterprise are instead tied up in non-productive government bonds, which become especially attractive in the current atmosphere of economic uncertainty and low profitability. New state debt ceases to be an instrument of capital accumulation as real interest rates drop to zero or negative. Addressing the national debt with money creation, which has already happened in a limited way through quantitative easing, caused skyrocketing prices in the real estate and financial markets. For capitalists, this meant rising capital costs: more expensive commercial real estate and higher costs to buy shares in startups and corporations. This further reduced profitability and discouraged investment. Printing money merely transforms, but does not negate, the problems of debt. Additionally, state debt is not the only debt to be concerned about. In the last year zombie companies, which can’t earn enough profit to pay the interest on their debts and need to borrow more to avoid bankruptcy, have doubled their debts to $2 trillion. This explosion of debt was spurred on by the Federal Reserve, which printed money to buy up corporate bonds in a new precedent. Today there is so much speculative money competing to buy junk bonds that their yields have fallen and companies are told to issue even more junk debt. The corporate debt bubble is a powder keg, waiting to detonate a financial crisis if interest rates rise. There is no historical reason to believe that interest rates will remain indefinitely at the current low levels. If interest rates rise and threaten the mass of corporate zombies, the political establishment may even pick and choose elements of MMT’s logic to justify ever-larger corporate bailouts and thereby try to prevent the corporate debt bubble from exploding. Meanwhile, no relief is coming for household debt. The federal government has passed loan forbearance for student loans and mortgages, and a weak moratorium on evictions, but workers still have to pay back enormous sums after the
36 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 grace period ends. The empty recovery after 2008 and the current crisis have stretched ordinary people to their limits on debt. With almost 90% of people with student loans currently not repaying them during the pandemic forbearance, the specter of mass default looms over working people once repayment becomes mandatory. But the Fed will not rescue us like they did zombie corporations unless forced to by a mass movement. In the absence of such a movement, capitalists and the state will send debt collectors, lawyers, and police to extract the pound of flesh they believe they are owed. Debt is such an integral part of capitalism that the ruling class will never allow a technocratic money-printing solution to deprive it of such a useful tool. A socialist transformation of society is needed to end the burden of excessive personal debt and reset working people’s lives to be debt-free.
MMT Depends on the Power of U.S. Imperialism
Much of MMT’s economic proposals rests on the special position of U.S. imperialism. MMT’s policies require “monetary sovereignty” - a list of sovereign privileges which includes full control over currency issuance, tax collection, debt issuance, and the ability to float exchange rates. While the U.S. fulfills that criteria, few countries around the world do. Individual Eurozone countries, for example, do not have full control over the issuance of the Euro. Many developing countries don’t have floating exchange rates because imperialism has straight-jacketed their economies for tourism or exporting commodities, forcing them to peg to the U.S. dollar. Attempts by neocolonial countries to exercise monetary sovereignty regardless of these constraints have triggered currency crises, such as the hyperinflation currently gripping Lebanon as the central bank prints liras to cover the debts of a government wracked by corruption and imperialist extraction. It is clear that MMT proposals only have a chance of working only in truly wealthy countries. As the pre-eminent global imperialist power, the U.S. also has the privilege of the dollar being the reserve currency of the world. This means countries trade with each other largely in dollars, even if neither country uses the dollar domestically. The dollar accounts for over 60% of foreign exchange reserves globally. Worldwide acceptance of the dollar lends credibility to MMT’s assertion that the U.S. can print as much of it as it wants. But that’s partly because the consequences of money-printing can be offloaded to other countries, with dollar-pegged countries being hit the hardest because they may need to match new dollars with money-printing of their own to maintain the currency peg. A massive money-printing program, leading to devaluation, will test the reserve status of the dollar and the strength of U.S. imperialism that backs it. In this moment of worldwide crisis, capitalists of other countries will not easily allow the U.S. to export either inflation or cheaper dollar-priced goods to their home markets. Advanced capitalist countries would certainly retaliate against dollar devaluation. For the
neocolonial world, dollar-driven inflation on top of the coronavirus crisis could trigger economic calamity and provoke popular uprisings that challenge imperialism. For rising Chinese imperialism, this could present opportunities to wrest countries out of the U.S. sphere of influence and into their own. We might even see elements of MMT adopted by both right- and left-wing nationalists looking to combat U.S. hegemony with domestic monetary autonomy. With global trade tied to the dollar, creating a vast amount of dollars is in effect a protectionist measure, equivalent to exporting the U.S.’ way out of crisis, that will no doubt accelerate inter-imperialist rivalry, further decouple national economies, and deepen the economic crisis. Breaking with capitalism is a critical step for neocolonial countries to end imperialist domination, and for advanced economies to step back from mutually destructive economic competition.
How Can Workers Win Social Spending?
Today’s social programs model themselves after President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The key social programs of the New Deal were not won with words and clever arguments, but by a titanic uprising of the working class. In the 1930s several strike waves swept across the country, through which millions of workers unionized under the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Socialists played a key role in this process, including leading the Minneapolis Teamsters strike in 1934 that squared off against the police, private militias, the National Guard, and a hostile labor bureaucracy to lay the foundations of a strong union. That is the kind of class warfare approach we need today. The coronavirus crisis and economic depression has worsened already extreme inequality. The answer to “who’s going to pay for social spending” needs to be “the rich.” Seattle showed the way when Socialist Alternative city councilmember Sawant led and won a militant campaign to tax Amazon. Now, workers and socialists over the country need to defend those gains from a right-wing attempt to recall her. If one city councilmember can do that, imagine if Bernie or AOC called for a mass movement to tax the rich and fund the GND and M4A. That kind of fighting movement, linked to building an independent workers’ party freed from Democratic Party interference, can translate the huge popularity of these social programs into actuality. Massive spending is no longer the sole property of MMT economists. President Biden is planning a major stimulus that would provide $400/week in unemployment benefits, and a one-time check of $1,400 – all without any new taxes. However, this does not mean that Biden has been won over to the left or adopting permanent social spending. While Biden’s stimulus plan is the exact opposite of his very fiscally conservative stance during the primary and general elections, it is only the depth of the current crisis that is forcing him and the ruling class to spend on ordinary people in order to prop up the economy.
37 If passed, this top-down spending will engender illusions in lobbying the political establishment for extensive social spending, among both activists and technocrats like MMT’s proponents. Lasting social change, however, can only be won by an organized working class movement. MMT presents itself as a shortcut to the hard work of building a movement,
a panacea of sorts to those who hunger for social change. Socialists should be friendly and understanding of MMT’s appeal, but firm in pointing out its weakness as a bourgeois theory which does not recognize the limitations of the capitalist system itself. Only a socialist transformation of society can guarantee high standards of living for all. J
AOC and Bernie Sanders have both been influenced by MMT.
Front page of the Communist Party linked newspaper, Southern Worker, published in Birmingham, AL 1934
The Communist Party in the 1930s: What Lessons for Socialists Today? Tony Wilsdon
s a new generation of socialist activists are being forged out of the turmoil in American society, they will look to previous movements for successful methods of struggle. Marxists believe it is essential we learn the lessons of the past in order to be prepared to successfully wage future battles. As we prepare for struggles in the coming years, the activities of the Communist Party in the 1930s are a treasure trove of important lessons, both positive and negative, for socialists. The American communist movement emerged in 1919 out of the left wing of the Socialist Party. The Russian Revolution sent shockwaves throughout society, especially the left and the working class. In fact, initially two communist parties were formed in the U.S.; one dominated by exiles of Slavic countries, the other with more roots in the native-born working class. They had a combined estimated support of 70,000. The most important factor in the early years of the American communist movement was the positive influence of the newly formed Communist International (also known as the Comintern) With Lenin and Trotsky in the leadership of the new workers state in the Soviet Union, the communist movement in the U.S. had the opportunity to ground itself in Marxist strategies and methods. This contrasted with the Socialist
Party, whose leadership had been dominated by right-wing reformists, despite the revolutionary Eugene Debs being their best-known leader. While Marxism understands that capitalism has to be overthrown for the working class to achieve liberation, reformism mistakenly believes that workers can solve their problems gradually within the framework of the capitalist system. One essential issue was the insistence of the Comintern that the CP place support for the struggle for Black liberation as a key part of their program and work. One of Lenin’s most important contributions to Marxist theory was his sharpening of the Marxists approach to fighting oppression, especially national oppression. While many socialists saw it as a distraction from the class struggle, Lenin explained that without being the best fighters against all forms of oppression, the Communist Parties could not be successful. This was because of the use of “divide and rule” by the ruling classes and capitalist politicians. The poison of division could only be blocked by socialists fighting to strengthen the unity of the working class and by making the fight to end oppression an issue for the whole working class. A second crucial contribution the Comintern made to the socialist movement in the U.S. was the need to build a revolutionary party with a clear program, rooted in Marx-
39 ist methods. This meant politically grounding the party on a clear strategy of class struggle as opposed to the methods of reformism which paralyzed the Social Democratic parties of the Second International. Marxism explains that the state under capitalism is not neutral, but instead is tied by a thousand strings to the capitalists, and that the working class, as part of transforming society, needs to replace it with its own institutions that would defend their interests. As the workers government works to end inequality and remove the material basis of oppression pointing towards a classless socialist society, the need for a state will “wither away.” The reformist leaders of the Second International betrayed the working class exactly when revolutionary opportunities opened up the possibility for the working class to take over state power and end capitalism after World War I. However, the influence of the Communist International turned out to be a double-edged sword for the Communist Party in the U.S. While it played a hugely progressive role in the early 1920s in uniting the two communist parties in the U.S. and politically arming them, the degeneration of the leadership of the Soviet Union, with the rise of Stalinism in the mid-1920s, then became an increasingly negative force. The new privileged caste that came to power in the Soviet Union based on the idea of “socialism in one country” looked to defend their own interests, at the expense of the needs of the wider working class in the Soviet Union and internationally. This narrow political outlook was an abandonment of a key tenet of Marxism – that only an international movement of the working class could overthrow capitalism. It also increasingly distorted the politics of the Communist International. Also, the bureaucratization of the Soviet Communist Party was directly transferred into the Communist International. As different political factions fought for power in the USSR, this led to increased factionalism in the CP in the U.S., with each faction trying to decide their politics based on the balance of power in the Soviet Union.
1930s: Unemployment and Evictions Struggles
The collapse of stock markets around the globe in 1929 precipitated a decade of economic depression and mass unemployment, which reached 25% in the U.S. in 1933 (15 million workers). This was a devastating blow to the working class and created conditions for mass radicalization and struggle. The CP stepped into the huge vacuum of working-class politics and played a role that, while flawed, demonstrated what an enormous influence on politics and society even a small revolutionary organization can have. 1929 found the politics of the CP in a period of political flux. The Comintern was just entering a phase called the “Third Period,” so named because this was seen as the third period of political strategic shift since the 1917 Russian revolution and the beginning of the end of world capitalism. In 1928, the leadership of the Soviet Union also began a desperate struggle against the growth of pro-capitalist forces in
the USSR. When transferred to the Comintern, this new political position led to the adoption of an ultra-left strategy of the “revolutionary offensive.” This disastrous policy, which started not from an analysis of the world economy and world processes, but from a dogma, shipwrecked the Communist Parties around the world as adherence to the line dictated by the Kremlin replaced independent analysis of how global processes played out concretely and affected the momentum of the class struggle in each particular country. By defining the period as “revolutionary” this also dictated the need of the Communist Parties to prepare for a revolutionary offensive and a struggle for power. The Communist Parties were told to break from all alliances with other left forces and forge an independent path towards revolution under their own banner. The Social Democratic parties were described as “social fascist,” twins of the Nazis. This isolated the Communist Parties around the world, contributing directly to the victory of Hitler and fascism in Germany in 1933, as the German CP refused to work with broader socialist and working-class forces to defeat Hitler through a united struggle in the streets. This was a reversal of the carefully worked out policy of the “united front,” to unite working class forces into common struggle where the superiority of Marxism could expose the inadequacy of reformism. The united front had been a guiding policy in the Comintern since shortly after the Russian Revolution. Based on the politics of the “Third Period,” the small American CP took to the streets with dynamism and revolutionary zeal. This placed the CP at the forefront of struggle in the early years of the Depression and catapulted them to national prominence. Despite serious political weaknesses, they set an example for the type of struggle needed in this period of capitalist crisis. Through their dynamic initiative, they temporarily filled a political vacuum. However, their demands that other emerging social organizations accept CP leadership as a condition for collaborating in struggle seriously weakened their ability to help build a much broader movement and isolated Communist activists from the rest of the emerging left. The Communist Party set up Unemployed Workers Councils in order to organize dynamic, direct actions in defense of working class communities devastated by the Depression. This included protecting tenants from eviction through mass actions to prevent bailiffs seizing their furniture and possessions, sit-ins at relief offices, and escalating street demonstrations across the country calling for unemployment insurance. Their demands included an immediate grant of $150 for every out-of-work American and $50 for each dependent, an immediate end to all evictions, free milk for children of the unemployed, and “full wages to all workers unemployed from any cause whatsoever.” (Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade page 56) These demonstrations were viciously attacked by club-wielding police. The CP members developed important traditions of militancy by refusing to back down in the face of the vio-
40 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 lence, and “gave as good as they got” when attacked in this way by the police. This contributed to a growing momentum of struggle, and a National Hunger March brought over 75,000 workers and unemployed onto the streets of Washington D.C. in December 1932. They won important reforms for the unemployed and created mass pressure that ultimately resulted in the enactment of federal unemployment insurance in 1935.
cities, did not have a common territory. In practice, the Black belt theory and the call for self-determination were not central to the CP’s work among Black workers which centered on the fight to end discrimination and winning integration in U.S. society – the opposite of separation. But this mistaken theory played a role in miseducating a generation of radicals, and was not understood by radicalizing Black workers in the Northern cities.
CP Develops New Anti-Racism Traditions
The Communist Party broke ground for socialists in the U.S. in how to fight oppression alongside the struggle to build a powerful revolutionary movement of the working class to end capitalism. The CP made the struggle against Black oppression a central issue for all members, and integrated this into the struggle to build support in the wider working class. Their focus was on fighting against racism in all forms, and to make this a struggle for all workers, whatever their race. The commitment of the CP to put the fight against the oppression of the Black population as a central plank of their work has huge lessons for today, where ideas of identity politics are powerful in the left. The ideas of identity politics, while playing a key part in the radicalization of a large section of young people, do not transfer into successful victories in the class struggle. The key to winning class struggles is building the greatest possible unity of the working class as a fighting weapon against the bosses. To combat this, the capitalists deliberately create division among workers based on race. In the U.S., the bosses systematically promoted the idea among less politically conscious sections of white workers that they had something to gain from racism. But this division lowered the living standard of all workers. The successful mass struggle of the working class depends on fighting against all aspects of racism and forging unity based on united common struggle. We will see later how the anti-racist politics of CP members were essential to winning the confidence among Black steel, auto, and electrical workers on the front lines of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ organizing drives. In 1928, at the insistence of the Comintern, the CP took up the idea that Black people had the right to self-determination as a nation in the so-called Black belt, a region in the South where Blacks were a numerical majority. It was a mistaken application of the Marxist position of support for the right for self-determination of oppressed nations, including the right to form their own state. This concept, first developed by Lenin, was an essential aspect of the program of the Bolshevik party in Russia. But it was a theory that only applied when an oppressed group has the material basis to form their own state, i.e. a separate language, culture, and territory that sets them apart from other peoples. While Black people in the U.S. were an oppressed section of U.S. society, they did not have a separate language, and with increased migration to the northern
The CP’s campaign to defend the “Scottsboro boys” played a key role in winning support among Black people. In 1930, nine poor Black teenagers were arrested in Alabama and charged with raping two white women on a freight train. Within two weeks, facing whipped-up racist hysteria and despite the lack of any evidence, they were convicted and sentenced to death. Through their legal defense arm, the International Labor Defense, the CP organized a massive national campaign in defense of the young men, challenging for the first time the exclusion of Black people from juries. The campaign not only provided free legal help, but also developed into a mass campaign that exposed the class basis of racism in the South. This aggressive national campaign won support from important sections of the Black community. Others struggles in the South led by the CP broke new ground, especially in Alabama. Not least was their commitment and sacrifice in building the Sharecroppers Union as a militant organization of poor Black workers. The situation of a mainly white organization fighting unreservedly for Black workers, and demonstrating a total commitment for Black and white unity in the South in the depths of Jim Crow, was ground-breaking and in many ways was a precursor of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The CP did not just fight racism in the South. They had a significant base in Black working-class communities in New York and Chicago. However, while the CP was ploughing new ground in the South, in Harlem their ultraleft approach to other social struggle organizations, especially Black organizations, reduced their ability to become a catalyst for a broader social movement. In his article, The Communist Party and black Liberation in the 1930’s, Paul D’Amato explains: “The CPs Third Period ultraleftism was more damaging, because it prevented the CP from calling for principled unity around immediate struggles which could have helped to win Blacks away from the nationalist Garveyites or the liberal NAACP. But its uncompromising militant stands attracted an important number of Black workers to join the CP.”
It was in their approach to the labor movement that the contradictions in the approach of the Communist Party were most exposed. Having recruited the well-known labor fighter, William Z. Foster, in 1921, the CP was able to build an
41 important base in labor in the 1920s. Foster was a leader of the massive steelworkers organizing drive and strike of 1919, which was crushed brutally by the state. In a visit to the Soviet Union, he and other activists were greatly influenced by the pamphlet of Lenin, Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder (recounted in Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the U.S., vol. 9, pp 109-110). In that book, Lenin argued that if socialists abstained from fighting in existing unions, they were abandoning the workers in those unions to their conservative leaders. The dominant force in the labor movement, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), had adopted a very conservative approach to labor organizing based on only representing workers in skilled trades, often called craft unions. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed in 1905 by left-wing labor activists to build a radical labor movement and organize those unskilled workers, many of whom were systematically kept out of craft unions, as well as women and Black workers. Despite its more militant tactics, Foster became disillusioned with the IWW policy of refusing to work inside the established AFL unions. He launched the Trade Union Education League (TUEL) in 1922 based on bringing together union activists to transform existing unions based on solid militant trade union principles. These included: rejection of dual unionism; rejection of the AFL’s class-collaborationist policies and adoption of the principle of class struggle; amalgamation of existing unions into wider industrial unions; organization of the unorganized; unemployment insurance to support the unemployed; and for a labor party. (Foner, p. 130) The TUEL began to build a real base in the labor movement. The CP played an important role in the mid-1920s in building a core of militant workers in the U.S. Unfortunately, this excellent work was broken up by the dramatic shift towards “Third Period” policies by the Comintern in 1928. Under Third Period policies, the American CP was told in 1929 to wind up TUEL, get out of the AFL, and set off on a sectarian path by launching their own “red unions” under the banner of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) Now, the CP militants were cordoned off in small, isolated radical unions. While the TUUL led a number of militant strikes in this period, they were ultimately all defeated due to their isolation. However, through these determined struggles, the CP built a layer of hardened fighters who would go on to have a huge impact in the drive to organize steel, auto, rubber factories, and electrical plants in the 1930s.
1934: End of Third Period
The coming to power of Hitler in Germany in 1933 forced a change of policy by the Comintern. The ultra-left policies of the German Communist Party (KPD) let Hitler seize power without the powerful German working class organizing any serious mass opposition. Having burned their fingers in Germany with their disastrous ultra-left policies, the Comintern
William Z. Foster, a leader of the 1919 steel strike, went on to play a key role in the CP. now flipped to a reformist, class collaborationist position. As Trotsky pointed out, opportunism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin, both reflecting a failure to assess the real balance of forces and point a way towards winning the mass of the working class to a revolutionary position. The new “Popular Front” policy, adopted in 1935 was for unity not only with other working class organizations, but also, criminally, with the so-called liberal capitalist political parties. This reflected not the needs of the working class, but the fears of the Soviet bureaucracy as they dropped all principles of Marxism in order to forge an alliance with the U.S., France, and Britain against the threat of invasion by Hitler. This policy was delusional. The major capitalist powers were never going to be genuine allies of the Soviet Union. It was their strategic goal to overthrow the planned economy. Their price for the agreement was that the USSR stop pretending to play a revolutionary role in the world, and Stalin eagerly complied. In reality, the Soviet leadership had abandoned a consistent revolutionary position in the mid-1920s. In the U.S., this meant channeling the struggle of workers away from independent politics and behind the Democrats, a capitalist party. The Communist Party’s policies in the labor movement were increasingly subordinated to the appeasement of Roosevelt, including blocking any independent po-
42 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 litical movement of the working class toward a labor party.
1934 to 1935, Transitional Phase
However, from 1934 through 1935, as the Communist Party started moving away from the sectarianism of the Third Period and before total adoption of the Popular Front in 1936, they played an important role in encouraging the radicalizing labor movement. In his excellent article on the CP’s role in the labor movement in this period, The Popular Front: Rethinking CPUSA History, Charlie Post writes: In early 1934, the CP abandoned its policy of boycotting the growing AFL “federal locals.” Over the next year, the CP led its relatively tiny TUUL “red unions” into the rebellious AFL locals, where they returned to the politics they had promoted through TUEL during the 1920s. In the auto, rubber, maritime, electrical appliance and machine making industries, Communist and other radical and revolutionary workers led a rank-and-file movement in the AFL federal locals to create new, industrial unions. The CP’s abandonment of “third period” abstention from the AFL federal locals was crucial to the success of the CIO in 1935-1937. Whereas the AFL bureaucracy had easily derailed the strike agitation in basic industry during 1933, the CP along with other radicals were able to provide an effective
alternative leadership after 1934. In 1933, workers swarmed into the AFL unions, but their ability to win struggles was blocked by conservative craft unionist methods. But in 1934, three victorious strikes led by socialists changed U.S. labor history by using class struggle methods. The Teamsters strike in Minneapolis was led by Trotskyists, the general strike in Toledo auto parts factories was led by the American Workers Party, and the longshore strike in San Francisco was by the militant leader Harry Bridges, who had just joined the CP. Each of them won major victories through the strategy of escalating the class struggle to the wider working class, including use of partial general strikes. CP membership in AFL unions exploded from 2,000 members in 1934 to 15,000 in mid 1936. They had delegates at every state AFL convention. (Fraser M. Ottanelli, The Communist Party in the United States; From the Depression to World War II, p. 140) They played a huge role in building the base of the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), winning the leadership of the United Electrical Union (UE) and a dominant position in the United Autoworkers Union (UAW). By 1938, 40% of industrial unions were either led by the CP or by their close allies. Overall membership in the CP had grown from 26,000 in 1934 to 75,000 in 1938. (Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade, p. 238-239) They played an especially important role in the successful organizing drive in the steel industry. According to William Z.
San Francisco’s 1934 general strike started with dock workers and was politically led by the CP.
43 Foster, out of the 200 organizers sent into the steel factories, 60 were from the CP. Racist hiring practices were central to the steel company’s anti-union strategy. In 1936, there were 85,000 Black steelworkers, 20% of the total workforce. Philip Foner writes: Restricted to the worst jobs, they received the lowest wages averaging between sixteen and twenty dollars a week for hazardous and degrading employment. The companies based wages on a differential pattern for whites and blacks, but they poured money into black churches and fraternal society to buy their allegiance to the employers...The future of the CIO and organized labor in America was at stake in the colossal battle that was shaping up between the unions and the steel industry for the loyalty of the steel workers. (Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker 1619 to 1973, p218) Alongside important efforts of the National Negro Council, a pro-union Black organization, the anti-racism of the CP organizers and members in the steel plants was decisive in convincing Black workers to join the organizing drive by demonstrating that this new radical industrial unionism would not exclude them, as had many of the craft unions.
Political Effect of Popular Frontism
Despite the Communist Party’s excellent work in building militancy in many unions during this brief but very critical period, their work as a supposedly revolutionary party in the labor movement was deeply flawed. While they supported militant action by workers, this was undermined by a refusal to challenge the union leadership and their increasing abandonment of the fight for an independent political role for workers. It also meant a refusal to help or lead struggles against the bureaucratic, industrial union strategy of the CIO union leadership. While the CIO leadership had broken from the AFL craft unionism, they had not broken from business unionism in general. Driven by the politics of the Popular Front, the CP during the late 30s increasingly became a police force to ensure the movement did not challenge the CIO leadership, including its lining up behind Roosevelt. In the aftermath of the successful sit-down strike by autoworkers in Flint, Michigan at the end of 1936, UAW members of the CP could have taken the leadership of the UAW, with party member Wyndham Mortimer being the best-known radical leader in the union. With their base in the militant movement of workers around the CIO, they could have emerged as a powerful force in the labor movement pushing for a break with the Democrats and helped launch a new workers’ party. This would have transformed American politics. Instead, driven by the class-collaborationist logic of the Popular Front, they refused to challenge the pro-Roosevelt leadership of the CIO. They let a right-wing candidate take over the leadership of the UAW with disastrous consequenc-
es, and were instrumental in blocking a motion in support of a labor party at the UAW convention in 1936, despite majority support among UAW delegates. The effect of Popular Front politics can be most clearly seen in the evolution of the CP’s position towards Roosevelt. In 1932, they absurdly called him a “social fascist.” With the turn to the Popular Front they began a trajectory which, while it ended up fully embracing him in 1937, had interesting twists and turns. In 1935 and 1936, after they broke from the ultra-leftist verbiage of the Third Period, they briefly embraced independent politics for the working class through a labor party-farmer party. If they had been able to operate outside the framework of the Stalinized Comintern, and maintain that position in the following years, they could have played a key role in catalyzing support for such a party at a time when the most politically conscious sections of the working class were starting to look for an alternative to the pro-capitalist politics of Roosevelt. In early 1936, the Comintern told the CP to back away from their support for a farmer-labor party. In the 1936 national elections, they ran their own presidential ticket, with a Black vice-presidential candidate, James W. Ford. But in this campaign, they refused to criticize Roosevelt, concentrating on putting forward their own program. During 1937, all pretenses of a critical position on Roosevelt disappeared. The full adoption of the Popular Front meant that any candidate who they deemed to be not a “fascist” should be supported in the fight against fascism. Once they defined the Republican party as “fascist,” this then meant full support for Roosevelt and the Democrats, and they fiercely criticized anyone who challenged this. By 1937 and 1938, the CP was in full retreat from any pretense of a revolutionary position, and they became the most ardent promoters of Roosevelt. A measure of this capitulation can be seen in the South where in 1937 the CP endorsed Alabama Democrat, Lister Hill, for Congress – a seasoned representative of racist Jim Crow politics and an opponent of anti-lynching legislation. Across the board, the CP dropped all militant campaigning in the interests of the working class, and instead looked to merge with middle class and liberal groups in defense of the Democrats, and in preparation for U.S. entry into World War II. During the war, they directly took the side of the bosses by becoming the most ardent support of no-strike pacts. The most radical workers, especially Black workers in the South, turned away from the CP in disgust. A whole generation of fighters who joined the CP in the 1920s and early 1930s were lost due to the betrayal of the leadership of the CP and the Comintern. The policy of supporting the Democrats as the “lesser evil” capitalist party had a devastating effect in miseducating the rest of the U.S. left, instead of fighting for independent working class politics. Instead, every four years the CP raised the need to support Democrats as part of the
44 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 fight against “fascism,” which they defined as the Republican Party. Socialists and activists should be inspired by the positive examples of the Communist Party and its members during this turbulent period of U.S. history. They hold essential lessons for the new generation of emerging activists. At the same time, we need to have a sober approach to their mistakes. It is not enough just to proclaim opposition to capitalism and support for socialism. The successes of the best years of the CP were grounded in the Marxist strategies of the united front, political independence from all corporate parties and linking
the fight against all oppression with the struggles of the working class. These were rooted in the politics of the first four congresses of the Comintern. When they abandoned this heritage for the class collaborationist policy of the Popular Front, it had devastating consequences. We need to dig into this history in order to arm our movements with the kind of Marxist strategies that can win us victories in the coming years. J
The Communist Party played an important role in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Photo shows an SFTU meeting in Arkansas, 1937.
Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Britain 1979-1990, one of the architects of neoliberalism.
The Bitter Legacy of Margaret Thatcher Mike Forster, ISA in England, Wales, and Scotland
hirty years ago, on November 28, 1990, Margaret Thatcher, with tears in her eyes, ended her eleven year reign as Prime Minister of Britain. Her departure ended a period of rule which had completely changed the face of British and indeed international politics. A pioneer of neoliberalism, she fought for the interests of her class -- the rich -- while the working class grew to so hate her, that many celebrated when she died. Thatcher’s resignation in 1990 was also marked by huge celebrations in working class communities which had suffered massively at the hands of her brutal policies, but it would be another seven years before the Tories were finally prised out of office. Thatcher’s reputation and legacy has left a deep scar across the whole face of British society which is still very keenly felt today by successive generations.
The Decline of British Capitalism
Thatcher’s anti working class government was a by-product of the slow but steady decline of British capitalism dating from the beginning of the twentieth century, but accelerated by the post war recession of the 1970s. The social-democratic Labour Party had been in power from 1972 -1979, but in that
period Britain became the first developed capitalist economy to bow the knee to demands from the International Monetary Fund. In return for a $4 billion bailout, the Labour government was forced to dramatically cut public spending, introduce wage restraint and rein in the power of the unions. The assault on jobs and the public sector resulted in the infamous “dirty jobs” strikes of 1978-9 which saw prolonged and coordinated strike action taken by some of the lowest paid workers, including medical staff, gravediggers and fire fighters against the anti-union policies of the government led by James Callaghan. This resulted in many workers losing faith in Labour and allowed the Tories to narrowly win the general election of 1979, bringing Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to power.
Thatcher - Pioneer of Neoliberalism
There are many myths surrounding Thatcher’s years in office, one of which was that she commanded big public support. Within a year, she was already the most unpopular prime minister in history. She was presiding over growing unemployment, which rose from 1.5 million in 1979 to 3.5 million by 1984. She claimed to tame inflation, but although it was over 20% when she came to power, for most of her reign it varied from 5–10%.
46 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 The trade union movement held mass protests against her, attracting hundreds of thousands and the Labour Party called demonstrations in Liverpool, Glasgow, Cardiff and London, which brought out around one million onto the streets. A mood of resistance and defiance hung in the air. Rioting broke out in Bristol, London and Liverpool around excessive racist policing and the development of unemployment hotspots in blighted inner cities. Thatcher ’s inner circle, which then reflected the interests of Britain’s ruling elite, had changed course economically. It marked the ditching of the post war “consensus” politics, by which both Labour and Tory parties followed broadly the same policies, and introduced harsh “monetarist” doctrines, the forerunner of neoliberalism. They advocated shrinking the public sector and dismantling heavy industry in favour of financial marketization. This approach contradicted the entire history of British capitalism which had become a major world power through manufacturing and industrial development. When Thatcher came to power, manufacturing accounted for 40% of UK GDP. This fell dramatically for the rest of the decade and up to this day, now accounting for less than 10% of GDP. Public spending fell from 44% of GDP to just 39% when she left office. Instead, the Tories offered tax cuts for the rich and a forced reliance on the financial markets. They lifted exchange controls on British currency and foreign capital began to pour into the City of London. Thatcher completed this revolution when the London Stock Exchange was deregulated in 1986 and became one of the largest financial centres of speculation and profiteering in the world. Although the “Big Bang” in the City created a huge illusion of wealth creation, in reality it was paving the way for the financial crash of 2007–9. Markets became massively over inflated with debt and speculation. Marxists warned at the time that she was sowing the seeds of a major catastrophe. Although this took time to feed through, the crash of 2007–09 and today’s deep recession has its firm roots in Thatcher’s monetarist experiment. This “get rich” mentality was positively encouraged by Thatcher, even though it was clearly at the expense of the poorest sections of society. A new brutal and heartless ideology was pursued by Thatcher which led to her declaring “there is no such thing as society.” These ideas have proven to be empty and hollow nonsense when humanity has faced up the Covid pandemic which has required working class society coming back together in heart-warming displays of solidarity and mutual cooperation. Her policies ravaged working class communities. Thatcher was on course for election disaster after one term even as late as 1982. History dealt her an opportunity to play the nationalist card when Argentina invaded the Falklands Islands in the same year. Thatcher took a serious gamble and chose to dispatch a
war armada to allegedly “liberate” the very small British-derived population of the Falklands from the military dictator, President Galtieri. This was a conflict she almost lost. Galtieri’s young conscript army proved to be no match for superior air power, but not before Thatcher had ordered the infamous sinking of the Argentine warship, Belgrano, as it was actually sailing away from the conflict, resulting in the loss of over 700 lives. In reality, Thatcher’s future was intrinsically tied to a military victory and she saw the brutal downing of the Belgrano as necessary collateral damage. The surrender of Argentine troops earnt Thatcher the title of the Iron Lady. In the following year’s election, wrapping herself in the Union Jack, she swept Labour and its hapless leader, Michael Foot, aside and was returned to power for another term.
In the early 1980s, the Labour Party had undergone something of a transformation. In line with the growing militancy of the trade unions, the left wing was in the ascendancy and membership grew rapidly. Left union leaders and party activists forced through changes to bring in automatic reselection of MPs. This meant that before every general election, local party members could decide on who their candidate should be. At the same time, a party veto over the manifesto was established, putting control over Party decision making into the hands of its conference. The figurehead of the left, Tony Benn, called for a mass socialist Labour Party and stood for deputy leader. He narrowly missed winning this position at the 1981 party conference. Shortly afterwards, four right wing MPs who became known as the Gang of Four deserted Labour to set up a new party, the Social Democratic Party. This calculated manoeuvre, designed to undermine the left, also split the Labour vote in the 1983 election and gave Thatcher a 144-seat majority! We have, of course, seen similar betrayals by the modern-day right wingers who deliberately set out to undermine leftwing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the election of 2017, betraying their preference for a Tory government over a left-led Labour government. The Gang of Four should go down in the labour movement’s Hall of Shame as they paved the way for Thatcher’s onslaught on jobs, housing, the unions and democratic rights.
Thatcher Confronts the Trade Unions
Thatcher had set her sights on taking on the might of the British trade union movement. The Tories had never forgotten their humiliation at the hands of the miners in 1972 and 1974. Two successive strikes accompanied by the mass picketing of power stations, and a three day working week, due to energy shortages, forced the Tories to retreat. In 1974, the then Tory leader, Edward Heath, called a general election in the midst of the strike, asking the question, “who runs the country, the government or the miners?” The result was a Labour victory
47 and the Tories were ingloriously kicked out of power.
The Miners’ Strike 1984–5
Nicholas Ridley, an infamous member of Thatcher’s cabinet, went away to plan how the miners might be defeated in another strike. His secret plan was endorsed by Thatcher. This included the recruitment of a national strike breaking police force. Up until then, the police had been controlled locally. It also meant the stockpiling of coal, recruiting strike breaking truck drivers, withdrawing any state hardship benefits for strikers, and giving the government more anti-union powers. The Tories provoked a strike in 1984 by threatening the closure of several mines and the year-long strike took hold. This was one of the most bitter class battles in Britain’s post war history. The ruling class was out to destroy Britain’s most powerful union, the National Union of Mineworkers. The strike was rightly described by Militant, the forerunner of Socialist Alternative, at the time as a “civil war without bullets.” The outcome of the strike was a tragic defeat for the miners, but a victory for the NUM would have changed the course of history in favour of our class. It is therefore all the more tragic that both Labour and trade union leaders stood by and allowed the British state to inflict this terrible blow. The then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, condemned picket line “violence,” refusing to support their struggle. Calls on the Trade Union Congress to call a general strike were likewise dismissed by its leader, Norman Willis, and the miners were
left to fight alone. Despite this, the miners were close to victory. Thatcher later revealed that she had been seeking a way out when the strike was called off. A dignified but defeated union membership marched back to work without a settlement. Thatcher wasted no time in destroying the industry: a workforce of 230,000 at the start of 1984 has been reduced to less than 4,000 today. What followed was a rout of other major industrial workplaces and unions: dock, auto, steel, print, and engineering workers witnessed large scale closures or privatization, sometimes after brief and bitter strike action. Unemployment soared from 5.3% to 11.4 % by the mid 1980s. The number of workers on sickness benefit doubled to 1.6 million, artificially disguising an unemployment figure nearer to 20% of the workforce. Three million manufacturing jobs were destroyed mainly in the northern heartlands. Union membership slumped from its highpoint of 13.2 million members to an alltime low by the end of the decade of around 7 million and fell even further through the 1990s. Poverty levels soared; while the richest 10% saw their incomes rise by 35%, for the poorest sections, incomes fell and the number of children living in poverty increased from 1.7 million to 3.3 million by the time she left office. There is little wonder that thousands of workers partied all day long when Thatcher died in 2013. She left a bitter legacy of broken homes, communities and families; a scar which has never healed.
Thatcher’s War on Local Authorities
Thatcher also chose to go to war against Labour controlled local authorities. Labour, at that time, controlled most major cities. The Tories slashed the amount Councils received from central government and imposed legal caps on their ability to raise funds locally. This left Councils with a choice of either challenging her attacks or carrying out her dirty work and imposing cuts to services or raising rates (local taxes), or even both. Initially an impressive united front of up to 20 Labour Councils combined together to refuse to impose the Tory cuts. There were even
Sheffield Trades Council march in support of striking miners, 1984.
48 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021
Demonstration in support of the Liverpool Labour Council, 1985. mass Town Hall protests called by local Council leaders such as David Blunkett in Sheffield who was then seen as a leading left firebrand. However, one by one, they capitulated to combined legal threats and demands from Labour’s national leadership to “toe the line,” choosing in the end to set “legal” budgets which of course meant cuts and rate increases.
Liverpool City Council
Socialist led Liverpool City Council stood out in this process by refusing to bow the knee. It was led by supporters of the Militant. In sharp contrast to the other councils, they committed to defy the Tories and to set an illegal or “needs” budget. They committed themselves to building 6,000 new homes, paying council staff a proper wage, reorganizing the education system and much more. Their defiance and clear fighting approach inspired huge support among the working class of Liverpool who heeded the calls to protests and strikes when called upon to support their council. More impressively, the Labour vote continued to go up every year from the beginning of their struggle in 1981 when Militant supporters in the Labour Party assumed the leadership of the Council. In a huge stand-off in 1984, during the miners’ strike, Thatcher’s government backed down and gave the Council financial support to carry out their house building and jobs creation program without a huge rate rise. The Militant inspired Council
had proved that Thatcher could be beaten when confronted by determined and militant resistance. Regrettably, this lesson was lost on the new Labour leadership of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley who launched a prolonged and disgraceful witch-hunt against the Liverpool Council leaders at the 1985 Labour Party Conference. This represented a significant watershed in Labour’s history. The attack on Labour’s Marxist wing didn’t stop there. Bit by bit the gains of the left in Labour from the early 80s were whittled away over the next decade until Tony Blair was able to declare he was now leading “New Labour” in 1998. Effective opposition to Thatcher’s counter revolution was therefore tamed and she was able to push ahead with further attacks on the working class. After she left office, Thatcher was asked what had been her greatest achievement and without hesitation, she replied, “New Labour.” No surprise then that she was the first to be invited to the Prime Minister’s residence on Downing Street by Tony Blair when he won the 1997 election.
Privatisation of the Public Sector
Thatcher was also responsible for extensive privatisation. Key industries which had been in public hands were sold off to the private sector including British Gas and Electricity, British Telecoms, Leyland, British Airways, British Steel,
49 British Petroleum, and Jaguar followed by the water companies. Other utilities and travel networks followed suit under the John Major government. This obscene sell off represented a massive transfer of wealth from the public sector to the asset strippers and the rich. It was accompanied by the hideous sale of public housing assets to create what she called a “property owning democracy.” Throughout the 1980’s, she introduced legislation which allowed council house tenants to buy their own homes, taking just short of one million homes out of the public sector and seeing home ownership rise from 10.2 million in 1981 to 13,4 million by the end of the decade. This brought her temporary support from some former Labour voters who, dissatisfied with the failure of Labour to fight, bought into the illusion of wealth creation. However, the rapid rise in house prices and interest rates throughout the decade priced most of them out the market. The legacy of this appalling legislation is now written large in the huge rise of homelessness and record shortage of social housing. Thatcher was able to secure a third term in 1987 on the back of a temporary economic upswing fuelled by credit and debt, but which nevertheless created the illusion of rising living standards. In reality, a large section of the working class had been left behind, but Neil Kinnock’s appalling leadership of the Labour Party gave the Tories the political space to win again.
city tenements. When the poll tax became law in Scotland, one million people had refused to pay, making it completely uncollectable. Undaunted, Thatcher pressed on, creating an incredible 14 million non-payment army in England and Wales, culminating in huge simultaneous demonstrations in Glasgow, and London on March 31, 1990. Non-payment actually rose throughout the year and sent council finances into turmoil. The tax had dismally failed and the Tory grandees finally plucked up the courage to have Thatcher removed at the end of the year.
The Rusting of the “Iron Lady”
Thatcher became overconfident in her final term. She made the mistake of judging the mood of the masses by their insipid leadership. She chose to introduce the poll tax - an unfair and unequal flat tax to be imposed on every householder, regardless of income, as a way of replacing the local rates system which levied household income based on house value. It was a direct attack on workers’ living standards which they could not afford. The demoralized leadership of the Labour and trade union movement railed against the inequality of the tax, but offered no coherent fighting alternative. Only the Militant, staying true to its class, advocated a mass non-payment campaign. We knew there was a brewing discontent which could easily spill over and crystallize around this tax. Thatcher’s second mistake was to use Scotland as a guinea pig where the poll tax was introduced a year early. Through community door to door canvassing, anti-poll tax campaigners built up huge anti poll tax unions in every housing estate. “No Poll Tax Here” window posters festooned inner
The Original Brexiteer
Her other legacy was to encourage hostility and suspicion towards the European Union. Initially she was a strong advocate of the European Union and supported strengthening trading ties. However, when that spilled over into closer political union, she began her crusade against further integration. It was this stand which appealed to the rampant right wing nationalists in her party and shifted it towards a far more hostile attitude to the EU. This approach haunted her successor, John Major’s, time in office; he described the nationalist opposition to the EU as “bastards.” Opposition to the EU allowed Boris Johnson to claim he stands in the tradition of Thatcher which ironically continues to tear the Tory Party apart and helped lead to Brexit. Thatcher was a product of her time, feared and loathed in equal measure. We study this period because it remains rich in lessons, most notably for the defeats which were inflicted on her by organised socialist forces on the ground. When all too often, we are told that right wing dictators or leaders are all powerful, we should remind ourselves how the Iron Lady was forced back. When inspired and confidently led, working people will always struggle and can win, as we have proved today in Seattle. Regrettably, she was allowed to inflict huge misery and hardship on millions of working people and set a different course for British society which we must never forget. Although still praised and lauded by Tory stalwarts today, her policies also paved the way for the huge divisions we see today in the Tory Party around Europe and of course the financial ruin in the economy. Thatcher’s period in power, in reality, paved the way for the massive demise of British capitalism and with it, the Tory Party. J
50 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021
Winning the Green New Deal Bruce Castonguay
Young people have got to rise up. That’s it. That’s the message.” These are the opening lines of the Sunrise Movement book Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can. It’s hard to argue with this sentiment and call to action. Under our current system, climate change is an inexorable death march that’s not a matter of if or even when, but how bad? The Sunrise Movement has become a major factor in the fight for climate justice, growing to over 400 hubs across the United States over the past few years. Sunrise, along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, made headlines with their sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding a Green New Deal in 2018. Their membership is made up primarily of youth, who have the most at stake as climate change projects an uncertain and terrifying future. The global climate strike of September 2019 proves that there is a mass base capable of driving meaningful change, with over three million people participating in over 4,000 events in 150 countries. Sunrise has gathered a list of activists and organizers to write a series of chapters on the Green New Deal, the plan and policy they advocate to reduce or possibly reverse the severe environmental damage that has been done to the planet. But while the authors accurately define who is at fault, the book’s strategy for winning the GND does not address how to overcome the current political gridlock. It also does not meet the timeline required to effectively battle the climate crisis.
Who Did This?
The book’s early chapters lay out the nature of the crisis and why the Green New Deal is the solution. To effectively battle climate change, we must know who the driving force behind it is, and Kate Aranoff and Naomi Klein’s chapters argue that it’s neoliberalism, the most recent form of capital-
ism. Neoliberalism is focused on “privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending” (p. 30). The ruling class pushes the narrative that all individuals must do their part to combat climate change by recycling, using paper straws and buying electric cars. The reality is, as Aronoff states, “We don’t all have our hands equally on the levers that fuel climate chaos. A tiny set of very powerful corporations and oligarchs spent prodigious amounts of money to keep burning and extracting towards destruction” (p. 16). The data backs it up. Only 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of the greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Meanwhile, as the planet gets hotter, the working class has faced extreme attacks over the past 30 years as wages flatline, pensions are cut, public services are privatized, and healthcare, education and housing costs soar. This has led to inequality levels not seen in a century as the top 1% captures the majority of the new income generated year over year. It’s clearly not because working class people aren’t willing to make personal sacrifices that we aren’t addressing climate change. As Klein says, “we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamen-
51 tally conflict with deregulated capitalism” (p. 30).
Climate Change is the Symptom, Not the Disease
To properly address climate change we need to transform our economy to be less destructive on natural resources and do so in a way that is equitable to the global working class. Millions of good paying union jobs must be created to aid this transition, ensuring economic security for all. The book challenges the false dichotomy, often taken for granted in the environmental movement, between jobs and environment by pointing out that, “the investments required to retrofit the economy by themselves would generate large numbers of jobs” (p. 104). Additionally, the authors of these chapters correctly link environmental activism with the fight for racial justice. Any broad movement that seeks to disrupt the status quo must also reject the racism baked into capitalist institutions. The book argues that it is in the best long-term interest of society to make the short-term, less profitable sacrifices now by switching to green energy. While this would certainly help matters, it is unfortunately inconsistent with how capitalism functions. The authors seem to be at least partially aware of this, even quoting economist Mariana Mazzucato’s analysis: “Markets are blind… They may neglect societal or environmental concerns...they often head in suboptimal, path-dependent directions that are self-reinforcing” (p. 78). Capitalists will always seek to maximize growth in the short-term, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve known about the impact of capitalist production methods on the climate for four decades and have done nothing fundamental to end their dependence on fossil fuels while environmental devastation continues. We simply do not have the time to wait for these companies to do the right thing. If capitalism is the problem, it points to socialism as the solution, which the book does not call for. While there is some discussion on the benefits of taking the energy industry into public ownership, there is no call for workers taking control of the means of production and a democratically planned economy. Rather, there is a call to “rebalance the relationship between the public (the state) and the private (the market)” (p. 79). This incorrect bifurcation gives the impression of two separate entities, blurring the reality that the state under capitalism represents the interests of the capitalist class. They wield influence through their massive campaign donations to corporate political parties and the revolving door that allows politicians to become corporate lobbyists and millionaires and billionaires to buy their way into office and use it to further their interests. Under capitalism, state intervention into the economy is either the result of mass working class pressure (such as the struggle that won Social Security), or it is done to achieve things for the collective interests of the capitalists that they won’t do themselves (like the interstate highway system). Capitalism has and always will put profit
over people until it is overthrown or destroys human life as we know it.
Winning the Green New Deal
Sunrise’s theory of change is simple: “if we keep building people power and political power, we will win a Green New Deal” (p. 142). They further breakdown people power into 1) a durable majority and 2) an active base, both of which they seek to grow. On the first count, the Green New Deal is broadly popular and stands to become even more so as environmental conditions continue to get worse. But broad support is clearly not enough. To put real pressure on corporate politicians and their backers, the movement must feature mass mobilization including mass civil disobedience and bring the social power of working people to bear with strike action. As the book accurately notes, “The course of history changes when ordinary people bring business-as-usual to a halt” (p. 155). Labor unions must take up the call for a Green New Deal, linking the fight for economic demands with environmental justice. Sunrise naturally requires that the elected representatives they support do not take any contributions from fossil fuel companies. They endorse “champions”: politicians who support their policy priority areas and seek to change the status quo. The model champion referenced throughout the book is of course Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who helped write the Green New Deal legislation. Unfortunately, while AOC supports policies that would broadly improve the lives of the working class, she has yet to draw on the “people power” by calling for mass mobilizations to win them. AOC supported the Sunrise Movement’s sit-in in Pelosi’s office which galvanized youth and workers by showing a different way to stand up to corporate democrats without using backroom politicking. Since then, however, she and the Squad have quietly refused to use their leverage, for example failing to challenge Pelosi’s bid for Speaker of the House. This is a more serious weakness after the 2020 election now that the Squad holds the balance of power in the House. AOC is hamstrung by working within the Democratic Party, an institution that is still controlled with an iron fist by its corporate wing. There was some hope last year that the balance of forces within the party had shifted when (another climate champion whom Sunrise endorsed) Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was at its height. As we saw in March though, the establishment quickly and effectively circled the wagons to neutralize a progressive takeover and has waged war on all the policies they stand for, including a Green New Deal. To add insult to injury, voters had to watch President and VP-elects Joe Biden and Kamala Harris refuse to commit to banning fracking in the debates leading up to the election. Despite all available evidence to the contrary, Sunrise continues to advocate pushing the Democratic Party from within, even absurdly declaring that the party is theirs now. While Biden has committed to the idea of large investment in in-
52 Socialist World Issue 5, 2021 frastructure (paid for through even more borrowing), this is framed as a part of a transition to carbon neutrality by 2050, a timeline too far away according to Sunrise and most climate science. Youth and workers will never be able to win the meaningful, equitable gains they seek within a party that is structured around the interests of capitalists. Sunrise would do well to listen to a quote from their own book, “We’re speeding toward catastrophe so quickly that winning slowly is the same as losing.” (p. 140)
A New Strategy
While the book draws heavily on the 1930s and the victories of the New Deal, it should be noted that President Roosevelt was forced into passing progressive legislation to save capitalism from the working masses fed up with the status quo (reform from above to prevent revolution from below). But these reforms were combined with pro-capitalist measures like paying farmers to destroy their own crops to drive up prices. After making concessions under duress, the capitalist have effectively chipped away at all the New Deal legislation over the subsequent decades, especially under neoliberalism, bringing us to our present crisis. While we support the program of the Green New Deal, we cannot continue to have illusions in fixing capitalism with a “kinder” or “green” capitalism. We do not have the time to fight for temporary improvements only to see them reversed shortly after. In addition to calling for millions of good paying
Sunrise Movement sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office, 2019.
union jobs, we should also demand a tax on the billionaires and big business to fight the climate crisis they created. We should bring private utilities, transportation and major fossil fuel companies as well as key parts of the logistics and manufacturing sectors into democratic, public ownership and those should immediately be retooled for renewable energy sources. The authors should also direct the existing people and political power on their side to call for the formation of a new party that actually is accountable to and fights for the interests of working people. The Sunrise Movement, along with figures like AOC and the Squad could mobilize the base of people who supported the Sanders campaign to lay the groundwork for the formation of a mass left party. This way, their local organizing will not wind up co-opted and neutralized by the Democratic Party, the graveyard of social movements. The Sunrise Movement has assembled an impressive grouping of energetic youth and ideas to help stave off the worst effects of climate change. They clearly understand the power working people have, stating, “Collective action rooted in social movements is the most direct way to bring about change, and it’s how working people will win a Green New Deal.” (p 133) Unfortunately their strategy to win involves staying within the lanes of capitalism, a system that created and is unable to deal with this existential crisis. It’s time to use our leverage to build towards the only system that can save the planet while providing a just and equitable living for all: socialism. J
Join Socialist Alternative Socialist Alternative is a national organization fighting in our workplaces, communities, and campuses against the exploitation and injustices people face every day. We are community activists fighting against budget cuts in public services; we are activists campaigning for a $15 an hour minimum wage and fighting, democratic unions; we are people of all colors speaking out against racism and attacks on immigrants, students organizing against tuition hikes and war, women and men fighting sexism and homophobia. We believe the Republicans and Democrats are both parties of big business, and we are campaigning to build an independent, alternative party of workers and young people to fight for the interests of the millions, not the millionaires. We see the global capitalist system as the root cause of the economic crisis, poverty, discrimination, war, and environmental destruction. As capitalism moves deeper into crisis, a new generation of workers and youth must join together to take the top 500 corporations into public ownership under democratic control to end the ruling elites’ global competition for profits and power.
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