World disorder – war, economic crisis and workers’ fightback

The national congress of the Socialist Party, held from 2-4 March 2024, began with a discussion looking at global developments and perspectives for national conflict, economic crises, and the struggle for socialism. Here we reproduce the introduction to the discussion, made by the Socialist Party general secretary, Hannah Sell.

Leon Trotsky in his brilliant book, The History of the Russian Revolution, describes the situation in Russia a couple of years before the overturn of 1917, in the early months of the first world war. Soldiers were dying at the front, and bread and fuel were running out in the capital. But the misery was not universal. At the same time, he wrote, “speculation of all kinds and gambling on the markets went to the point of paroxysm. Enormous fortunes rose out of the bloody foam… A continual shower of gold fell from above. ‘Society’ held out its hands and pockets, aristocratic ladies spread their skirts high, everybody splashed in the bloody mud. All came running to grab and gobble”.

It could be written about today. The stock markets are soaring, especially in the US, driven by the so-called ‘magnificent seven’, the tech giants whose market value increased by 80% last year. The world’s five richest men have more than doubled their wealth since 2020. But beyond providing unimaginable riches for the very few – what else has capitalism to offer?

More than 60% of the world’s population have got poorer since 2020. Many face horror without end. We are not in a world war, nor is that posed at this stage given the existence of nuclear weapons and, vitally, because of the class balance of forces: the strength of the working class. But violent conflicts are at their highest level since the second world war. They affect two billion people. Global military spending hit an obscene record of $2.2 trillion last year. Many governments are dramatically increasing arms expenditure while they cut every other budget.

The war in Ukraine has entered its third year, with casualties – deaths and serious injuries combined – approaching the half a million mark. At this stage the Russian forces are making gains, and President Vladimir Putin appears all powerful. But dictators always do until they fall. Putin, and the gangster capitalist elite he ultimately represents, thought they’d take Ukraine in days, but years later they are still slogging it out with huge losses. Just seven months ago he faced an armed uprising. At a certain stage Putin will face his comeuppance, and when it erupts it will probably happen very quickly out of a seemingly clear blue sky.

Right now Putin is also able to bolster his position by pointing to the apocalyptic horror being inflicted on Palestinians and the blatant hypocrisy of US imperialism, backing the Israeli government’s destruction of Gaza while decrying the killing of Ukrainian civilians.

More recently US imperialism has been applying pressure for a ceasefire in Gaza. The capitalist media tries to give the impression that the US had been using its power to bring the Israeli government to heel throughout. It’s rubbish, it backed the IDF onslaught to the hilt. Just two weeks ago Biden was pushing another $14 billion to fund Israeli weaponry through the US senate.

Undoubtedly, however, that has enormously fuelled the anger of the masses in the neo-colonial world with US imperialism. And pressure on Biden is also mounting domestically. One hundred thousand voters – 13% of the total – voted ‘uncommitted’ in Michigan’s Democratic primary on 27 February in order to protest against war on Gaza.

The timing of any ceasefire remains very uncertain. And, while a ceasefire would be a huge relief for those living in the hell on earth that is Gaza, they’d still be in hell. Under military occupation, with 60% of all buildings in the strip destroyed. Capitalism will never offer national liberation to the Palestinians. That does not mean, however, that at a certain stage there will not be a new round of negotiations, with the promise held out of a Palestinian state. But on the basis of capitalism any Palestinian entity will be no better than a new form of prison camp or an apartheid-style Bantustan.

‘Green’ protectionism

Increasingly capitalism means war, and also rapidly accelerating climate change. More refugees today are created by climate change even than by war. Biden as US President has attempted to burnish his credentials on this issue. His Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is touted as the road to a green transition. Yet oil production hit a record high in the US in 2023 and oil and gas industry profits have tripled while Biden has been in office.

The IRA is not about a green transition. It is about protecting the US economy at the expense of its rivals, China above all. When it comes to trying to put rest of the world on rations Biden has done more than Trump ever did in power. By offering, for example, discounts on electric cars; provided they are assembled in America. That led to $265 billion being invested in the US by foreign companies between January to September 2023 alone. The US is far outstripping the rest of the world in the amount of Foreign Direct Investment it is sucking in.

The estimated total cost of the Act, if it was fully implemented, is now around $1 trillion, well beyond what other capitalist powers can afford. Even then it would not mean a successful green transition – that requires socialist planning. You get just a glimpse of that over the issue of Tata steel here in Britain. Unite’s Workers’ Plan for Port Talbot puts forward a good outline of how to transform plants to make green new steel. It would cut carbon emissions by 95%. They estimate a cost of £12 billion. But no private company is going to invest on that scale, achieving it requires nationalisation, which unfortunately the Unite leadership is not raising.

But what a condemnation of capitalism today: that an issue which can only be solved on the basis of international cooperation is being used as a lever to increase protectionist measures, which are now on the rise globally. Even if smaller powers can’t compete with the US, they are still compelled to respond with their own similar measures.

Capitalism has always been based on nation states, even in the so-called era of globalisation of the 1990s and the start of the 21st century. That was, by historical standards, a brief period when the US really was for a while the sole ‘unipolar’ superpower. It was the period after the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe. The end of the cold war if you like.

Even though the Stalinist regimes were not genuine socialism, but brutal dictatorships, they were nonetheless based on a distorted form of a planned economy. Stalinism acted as a counterweight to the West led by US imperialism, it showed that capitalism was not the only possible system. Its collapse was an important historical turning point. It was a defeat for the working class worldwide, with levels of consciousness and organisation pushed back as a result. The capitalists hugely accelerated the already existing neo-liberal offensive, and restored profits by driving down the share taken by the working class. They used as a lever the 1.2 billion workers added to the capitalist economy, with China, in particular, becoming a cheap assembly plant for the west. That was the real character of ‘globalisation’.

The multi-polar world

In that short period the US was able to ‘call the shots’; to have the world dance to its tune. That is long gone. China is very clearly no longer willing to act merely as an assembly plant for the US but is fighting to become an advanced manufacturing economy. It is facing huge difficulties in achieving that: not least the barriers that the US has put up. But we have moved into a ‘multi-polar’ world.

That has big geo-political consequences. Putin could invade Ukraine knowing Russia’s economy had a powerful prop in China. So while the US is still the strongest power, including militarily – its defence budget still more than next nine countries combined – it is clearly not all-powerful.

Back at the start of the Ukraine war US imperialism appeared strengthened as it brought more countries behind it under the banner of NATO. Superficially, it could appear stronger again since, with Sweden and Finland joining NATO. But the ongoing squabbles about providing arms to Ukraine demonstrate the extreme limits to cooperation. Those squabbles are likely to get worse as the pressure to find some kind of settlement grows.

The multi-polar world also has economic consequences, as the US moves from so called ‘open markets’ – more accurately the exploitation of the rest of the world in its interests – to putting up the barriers. It is compelled to do so, in order to defend its own national position, even though it will only deepen the crises facing their system.

And they are many. There is no prospect of sustained healthy growth for capitalism; this is a decaying system. Most of the countries of Europe, including Britain, are in recession or, at best, stagnating. The toolbox the capitalist classes used to keep the show on the road before and especially after the Great Recession of 2007-2009 – ultra low-interest rates and pumping vast sums of cheap money into the economy – are no longer as possible or as effective.

Today there are huge speculative bubbles in the economy. The approximate value of all global financial assets – claims on goods and services produced – is equal to a record 600% of world GDP. There are unprecedented levels of indebtedness – corporate, government and private. But debt is no longer cheap! Whatever the short term developments on inflation, there is no prospect of a return to prolonged periods of ultra-cheap money. New financial shocks and crises are inevitable, and could be the trigger for the next global recession, but so could geopolitical events, not least if there is a further ratcheting up of war in the Middle East.

Capitalism has always been cyclical. But today it is not a question of healthy economic growth interspersed with recessions. This is an ailing system where, even in periods of growth, the capitalists’ levels of investment in production remain at a historic low. Even when money was cheap the capitalists were not carrying out their historic mission of investing in science, technique, industry. That’s not going to change significantly now, when debt has become much more expensive.

Working class re-emerges

No wonder that anger at this system is growing. Two-thirds of young people in Britain consider themselves socialist. In the US the figure is 44%. To make a general point, our main role is not to point out the horrors of capitalism. We have to do that. To express the rage felt by billions. But the rage will be there with or without us. Our job is to point a way forward at each stage. To convince as many as we can, via our programme, that it is possible to end this rotten system, to build a new world based on peace and plenty. And that the working class is the only force capable of doing that.

It is not automatic that young people radicalised by the horrors of capitalism draw that conclusion. Look at the young US airman, Aaron Bushnell, who tragically set himself alight outside the Israeli embassy in Washington on 25 February. Unfortunately, anger at the horror of Gaza could lead other desperate young people down the dead end path of terrorism, killing themselves and others alongside. And it’s not just war. Eco-terrorism is also a real possibility.

The consciousness and cohesion of the working class is still lagging far behind the objective crisis of capitalism. As a result all kinds of other forces will inevitably step into the vacuum. Not least the right populists and racists. But amidst all of this, the horror and the misery, for us the most important development in the world in the last two years is that in a number of countries the working class is beginning to re-emerge, albeit from a low starting point.

We are witnessing the start of the re-entering onto the scene of history of the force that can overthrow this rotten system. We know that here in Britain. But it is also true in the US, where in October 2023 4.5 million days were lost to strikes, the highest level since the collapse of Stalinism. Canada last year saw the biggest public sector strikes in the country’s history. Northern Ireland had the most powerful strike since the early 1980s. The working class raising its voice was central to why the Northern Ireland Assembly had to reconvene. In Germany as well the working class is re-emerging, with warning strikes across the economy in 2023. In Argentina the new ultra-right wing President Javier Milei was met with a massive 24 -hour general strike within a month after coming to power. Far more will be needed for the Argentinean working class to defeat the onslaught that Milei is planning on it. But he is going to face an uprising.

Central to what marks us out from others on the left is our confidence in the capacity of the working class to fight. Look at Nigeria at the moment, along with the South Africans the most powerful working class in Africa. They are facing very difficult circumstances, suffering a catastrophic fall in living standards, with rampant inflation and vicious neo-liberal measures being implemented by the new government. Again and again the trade union leaders have called action, then called it off before it had even taken place – five times, I think, in the last year.

After one of the trade union leaders was beaten up by the police at the end of last year the Nigerian Labour Congress, one of the two main trade union federations, produced an utterly craven statement, which accidentally accurately described the reality of their role when it declared: “Organised labour is not unaware of the misdirected anger of Nigerians for not going for the jugular of this government… this government should remain grateful to the organised labour for its uncommon patience”, and that “organised labour, by not opting for a strike as a first option, acted as a bulwark against the rage of Nigerians”.

Despite that rotten role at the top, protests developed from below across the country, which forced the Nigerian Labour Congress to call two national days of action in February. The first day had some success, the working class began to respond, with Nigerian CWI members in the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) playing an important role, but the NLC leadership called it off after one day.

The essence of the matter is that the reformist trade union leaders cannot imagine the working class taking power, they are terrified of taking responsibility for society – and therefore filled with horror that they might unleash the enormous potential power of the Nigerian working class.

This is particularly acute in the neo-colonial world, but the same issues fundamentally apply in the developed economies as well. The work being done by the DSM in Nigeria, and other sections of the CWI globally, is crucial in building at least the beginnings of revolutionary parties that are prepared take responsibility. Ultimately, it’s the only way out of the horror of capitalism.

Of course, doing so requires advancing a programme to take the immediate struggle forward. The DSM is fighting for a 48-hour general strike. It is linking that to the need to transform the trade unions, to develop rank-and-file workers’ organisation, but also for the working class to have its own political party. The latter demand is crucial at this stage, perhaps more so than any time in the decades that we’ve raised it. That’s true in Nigeria but also in Britain, the US and many countries.

New workers’ parties

It’s part of our transitional approach; which is absolutely essential for us building roots in the working class today, and mass support in the future. In the Transitional Programme Trotsky talks about how we aim “in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution”. A revolution means the working class conquering power, and our programme points in that direction.

That means in most countries raising the demand for a new mass party of the working class. Of course it’s not universally the case – it’s clearly different where mass parties that the working class see as their own already exist. In these situations the key questions are the need for a socialist programme and a party willing to fight to implement it. But in most cases where the working class has no mass party of its own we need to raise the need for one as a means for the working class to increase its cohesion, its organisation, and to begin to see itself as a potential governmental alternative.

The formation of such parties would also increase the ability of the working class to draw others behind them who are also in revolt at the consequences of capitalism. We have seen the farmers’ movement sweeping Europe. Clearly it has a cross-class character. But without doubt a mass workers’ party that was putting forward a programme to appeal to small farmers and farm workers would be able to win their support. Of course there is no guarantee that a new party would do this, which is why the simultaneous work to build the forces of Marxism is so vital.

Calling for mass workers’ parties does not prescribe what the programme of such parties will be, and we are open that we will fight for them to adopt our programme. Nonetheless, we recognise that even parties with a much more limited programme could, for a time, represent a significant step forward; allowing a collective discussion on how the working class can change society.

We also understand that new parties will tend to be extremely unstable. There is no room today for stable mass ‘reformist’ parties like those that existed in many economically developed capitalist countries in the post-war upswing. That era is long gone. Today, capitalism generally no longer offers meaningful reforms to the working class unless forced to by mass movements, and even then, concessions will tend to be short term. That’s true in the US and Europe, never mind what faces the masses of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Of course, what prominence we give to this demand in our programme, and the way that we pose it, varies enormously. As do perspectives for the speed of development of such parties. It has already been a protracted process. And the entry of the working class industrially onto the scene poses the question of a political voice, but it does not automatically lead to it being answered. The process can still be further protracted, perhaps particularly in those countries, like Greece and Spain, which have already experienced new left formations – they were not workers’ parties – betraying in power. But we also always have to be ready for the unexpected, for the working class finding a political outlet and turning to it.

Global alienation

There are more than four billion people going to the polls globally this year. Virtually without exception they will face a choice between deeply unpopular capitalist parties. All of which are empty shells with very little social base, likely to shatter at any time.

Here Starmer is set to be swept to power on a wave of disillusionment, and it is no different elsewhere. The latest Pew Research records the views of voters across 24 countries, and shows record levels of alienation, with 74% believing elected officials don’t care what people like them think, and 42% saying no political party represents their views.

The British capitalist class is lucky, at least in one respect: that it has in Starmer’s Labour a potential government that will reliably represent its interests. It’s very different for the capitalist classes of numerous countries, above all the US.

What better illustration of the inglorious decline of US imperialism is there than that Trump could be elected as president for the second time? Even the risk of that happening is speeding up other Western powers drawing the conclusion that they cannot rely on the US, and need to strengthen their own military strength, which is accelerating the development of a multi-polar world.

But how could it happen? How could this right-wing populist racist millionaire wide boy potentially become president of the US – twice? There are all kinds of reasons. One factor is the particularly undemocratic character of the electoral system in the US – in 2016 Hillary Clinton got three million more votes than Trump, but the Electoral College meant he became president. Then there is Biden’s bumbling.

Fundamentally, however, it is because for all the US economy has grown a bit more than the stagnation in Britain and Europe, that has not been reflected in the lives of workers. In the US too incomes have been brutally squeezed. Wages fell in real terms in the two years to April 2021, and have not yet recovered. Defaults on car loans are now the highest ever, higher even than at the time of the 2008-09 Great Recession. Credit card defaults are the worst since then.

Given all that, having, as Biden does, a majority of the capitalist elite saying you are the best candidate is not a vote winner, whereas Trump’s cynical posing as a rebel persecuted by the establishment is.

The outcome of the election is still very uncertain. Biden could pull it off, with enough people holding their noses, especially in the so-called ‘swing states’, to turn out to vote against Trump. And don’t rule out that Biden develops a health emergency and is replaced by a more popular candidate like Michelle Obama, for example. But that there is even the possibility of a second Trump presidency is a graphic illustration of the sickness of this system.

The whip of counter-revolution

It Trump does win it won’t be the end of the story but the beginning. It would massively accelerate the splits in the capitalist class and in US society. We’d see Democratic states like California refusing to cooperate with a Trump presidency, far more than last time. And against the background of those splits at the top, the working class will also enter the scene. Let’s remember that even during Trump round one the airflight attendants threatened a general strike over Trump’s government shutdown.

In the end the biggest reason for the capitalist class to fear a Trump presidency is not his undoubted unreliability, how much more chaotic he would make world relations – but that it would ultimately accelerate the radicalisation and mobilisation of the US working class.

To make a general point. We do not underestimate the dangers of right-wing populist and racist governments coming to power in different countries. The way they increase racism and division, and the necessity of the working class to mobilise against them. However, unlike many others on the left, we do not despair. The election of such governments does not represent defeats of the kind suffered by the working class under fascism in the 1930s.

It is a big generalisation, and there is huge variation from country to country, but in the main these parties are primarily electoral phenomenon. They are picked up as a means to protest at the ballot box – but have low levels of active participation. At the same time, the organisations of the working class remain intact, and in many cases are on the rise.

That does not mean such governments coming to power can’t have horrific consequences. Look at the case of the ultra-right wing government of Netanyahu in Israel. That government does have an ‘active base’ in that it leans on the extreme right-wing settler movement that is driving Palestinians out of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Clearly it has been able to use the horror at the October 7 killings to bring the big majority of the Jewish population behind the mass slaughter in Gaza.

We understand the inevitable mood – particularly in the Arab world, and above all among the Palestinians – that what is needed is a mass uprising of Arabs and a war against Israel to stop this horror.

We have to be prepared for new mass uprisings in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That would represent an important step forward. We call for a mass uprising of the Palestinians under their own democratic control. However, there is no prospect whatsoever of any support for such an uprising from the rotten, capitalist Arab regimes. The fact that the Egyptian President Abdul al-Sisi is building a new prison camp in the Sinai desert tells you everything you need to know about the Egyptian regime’s attitude to the Palestinians.

We raise the need for a new Arab Spring, this time to overthrow not just individual dictators but to break with capitalism and landlordism. Hard as it is to imagine at the moment, such a movement would have a huge effect within Israel. Although it was ultimately defeated, even the Arab Spring was echoed in the tents movement against soaring housing costs in Israel in mid-2011. The working class coming to power in any of the countries of the region would spread like wildfire, and such a movement would be able to defeat the military might of the Israeli state.

But not without a class appeal. Capitalism is based on nation states, and revolutions therefore also start on a national basis. They cannot be brought from outside by a foreign invader. Given the military power of the Israeli state, and the strong national consciousness of the population, with around 70% of Israeli Jews born there, a war would be a terrible bloodbath, beyond anything we are currently seeing in this war-torn world.

But it would be possible to split Israel on class lines, provided there was a recognition of the right to an Israeli state, for a socialist Israel in which the working class could live in peace and security. Whilst at the same time, of course, making clear that would only be possible on the basis of the right of the Palestinians to genuine self-determination, to their own state.

At the moment that can seem utopian. The appearance from outside is that Israel is a cohesive whole. That is very far from reality despite the support for the Gaza operation. In the months before 7 October huge movements swept Israel, including a general strike. Right now the Netanyahu government is extremely unpopular, and divisions in it are opening up. The defence minister is openly blocking attempts of Netanyahu to extend the exemption of the ultra-orthodox from military service.

Divisions will inevitably grow, as the realisation grows in the population that the onslaught on Gaza has not achieved its alleged aims of security for the Israeli population – and will not do so, no matter how murderous it is. It will only create a new cycle of violence. When the current government falls it will not be replaced by a government of the left, but probably by a more reliable government of the capitalist class – perhaps under Benny Gantz. However, Israel is a society in deep crisis, with no way forward on the basis of capitalism, and that will lead to new movements of the working class, perhaps quickly.

To conclude. In the decades since the collapse of Stalinism we have battled to maintain a revolutionary international through one of the most difficult periods in history. The fact that we have a significant organisation – with roots in the working class, and a national profile – is an enormous achievement. We have not fallen into opportunism – just becoming one more left organisation trying to ‘help people’ rather than a Trotskyist party fighting for a break with capitalism and the working class to come to power. But nor have we fallen into sectarianism – making ourselves feel better with ‘ultra-revolutionary’ phraseology – while having no connection to the working class.

That is an achievement, now we have to start capitalising on it. We are entering a different era – of greater instability, war and crisis, but also one in which the working class is beginning to re-enter the scene of history, preparing the ground for class struggle on a scale we have not seen before.

We are in a period of laying the groundwork for what is ahead. We have already taken steps forward. This congress is an opportunity to discuss the further and bigger leaps forward we can make in 2024, as part of our urgent task of beginning to build at least the kernel of parties – and an international – capable of leading the working class to power.