Archive article from The Socialist Issue 399
How can we change the world?
FEW SCIENCE fiction writers have succeeded in imagining a dystopian society more horrifying than the one we actually live in.
One hundred and fifty years ago Karl Marx explained that capitalism meant an ever-increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny minority. It is doubtful, however, that even he could have predicted how far the process has gone.
Today 500 multinational companies control 70% of world production. The richest 356 people enjoy a combined wealth that is greater than the annual income of 40% of the human race.
Two thirds of the world's population have never made a phone call and one-third have no access to electricity. Every single day 30,000 children are dying as a result of extreme poverty at the same time as more than $1 trillion a year is being spent on arms.
Worldwide, almost without exception, populations are faced in elections with a 'choice' between two or three almost identical brands of 'free-market' politicians who claim that the way to solve the world's problems is further deregulation, privatisation and cuts in social spending. These deeply unpopular policies have been followed remorselessly by all the G8 governments over the last twenty years - and have led to a vast increase in inequality.
Never before has there been such a gulf between the right-wing politics of all the mainstream political parties and the far more radical opinions of society as a whole. In Britain 89% of people now oppose the privatisation of public services. Yet governments and the multinational companies seem to be able to ignore 'public opinion'.
Despite the undoubted growing discontent with the existing order, everything appears to continue in the same old brutal way. Even the magnificent anti-war movement, the biggest simultaneous world movement in history, while it shook governments to their foundations, did not succeed in preventing the invasion of Iraq.
THIS RAISES the question are we - the working class, the poor, the oppressed - powerless to change things in the face of these massive, seemingly all-powerful, corporations and the governments that do their bidding?
The answer we give is an unequivocal 'no'. The world's poor and oppressed have enormous power if we unite together and rise from our knees. More and more people are fighting back - from the Nigerian workers who over the last five years have taken part in seven general strikes and mass protests against fuel price hikes, to the Pakistani workers fighting privatisation, to the French and Dutch workers who defied their governments to vote 'no' to continued privatisation and cuts in the recent referendum on the European constitution.
And when we rise from our knees we can win victories. In Britain, before the general election, the mere threat of 1.5 million workers taking strike action forced the government to retreat over plans to increase the retirement age, albeit temporarily. And in Scotland, where this week's G8 meeting is taking place, nursery nurses were able to win concessions as a result of taking strike action.
In Ireland, with assistance of the Socialist Party, Turkish immigrant workers - the Gama workers - who had had the bulk of their wages illegally withheld, were recently able to win thousands of euros in back pay, at the same time as revealing to the world a cesspit of similar scandals.
There are very many more examples of the oppressed defeating their oppressors. But there are not enough. Worldwide the most common story is still of the privateers, asset strippers and thieves getting away with riding roughshod over the rest of humanity.
And even when we do win victories they are never permanent. Just as New Labour are planning a second assault on the retirement age, big business will always come back for more. The huge corporations that dominate the world are driven purely and simply by the drive for profit.
Profit is, in reality, the unpaid labour of the working class. The record profits being made at the moment are primarily as a result of a remorseless driving down of the living conditions of working people worldwide (plus the forcing down of the price of raw materials, leaving the poor farmers of the neo-colonial world in absolute poverty.)
Only by fighting for socialism can we begin to permanently build a society which harnesses the enormous wealth, technique and science created by capitalism to improve the lives of the whole of humanity.
Capitalism, as Marx famously said, has created its own "grave-diggers" - the working class. While all of the oppressed can play a vital role in the struggle to change society, the working class, because of its potential collective power and its role in production, has the key role to play.
Over the last two years in a series of countries, including Nigeria, Bolivia and Italy, general strikes have brought society to a halt. This shows the potential for the working class to change society, if armed with a clear socialist programme.
UNFORTUNATELY, AT this stage the mass of the working class are not armed with a socialist programme. The capitalist classes rightly fear socialism, and over the last decade have done all they can to discredit it.
The collapse of the regimes that existed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has been used as a whip with which to beat any alternative to capitalism in general and the ideas of socialism in particular.
In reality, while these regimes were based on a form of planned economy, they were not genuine socialism but brutal dictatorships. Nonetheless, the restoration of capitalism in what was the Soviet Union has led to a catastrophic drop in living standards, with an average fall in male life expectancy of a decade.
Despite the avalanche of anti-socialist propaganda, the reality of life under capitalism is leading a new generation to begin to move in a socialist direction. It is significant, for example, that the indigenous masses of Bolivia have risen up to demand the nationalisation of their gas industry. Worldwide, the anti-war movement has radicalised a generation, and led many thousands to search out socialist ideas for the first time.
When a fighting socialist programme is adopted by millions, and mass parties are created to fight for such a programme, it will begin to open up the real possibility of overthrowing the rotten system of capitalism. It will also mean workers are able to win more victories in the day-to-day battles to defend their living conditions.
Today we have far too many trade union 'leaders' who prostrate themselves before the 'logic' of the market. As socialists, including the Socialist Party, leading the PCS (civil servants union) have begun to show, to be effective in the fight to defend workers' living conditions it is necessary to oppose the capitalist system. It is no coincidence that the PCS is the fastest growing union in Britain.
It will take further experiences of struggling against this foul and brutal system for the ideas of genuine socialism to be emblazoned on the banner of the world's oppressed.
The Committee for a Workers' International tries to participate in every struggle against injustice, against war, and for workers' rights. We do all we can to make sure those struggles are successful. At the same time we try to build the forces of socialism - to bring closer the day when, instead of struggling to change this rotten system, we can concentrate on building a world fit for humanity.