By Per-Ake Westerlund from the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), the international socialist organisation to which the Socialist Party in Ireland is affiliated
2019 marks a definite political turning point globally. Particularly in the last months, we have seen mass struggles and general strikes around the world with revolutionary characteristics. This is a mass explosion, a result of accumulated anger and discontent against those in power, their neo-liberalism and lack of democracy. These protests have also featured some basic elements of a socialist struggle – most notably the strength of the working class and the need for internationalism.
At the same time, governments, dictators and generals have proved the ruling class will not step down voluntarily. In several countries, armed counter-revolution and brutal repression have been used against peaceful demonstrations and young activists.
Most governments around the world are silent about the violence of the counter-revolution, or are calling for “calm”. News media talk about “violent clashes” between state forces and demonstrators. The fact is that “violence” everywhere means attacks by heavily armed counter-revolutionary state forces, while those on protests only try to defend themselves. In Bolivia, more than 30 people have been killed by state forces in the last two weeks, eight of them in a massacre in El Alto on 19 November.
For imperialism and governments, these events are sharp warning of the weaknesses of their global capitalist system. This wave of protests takes place at the same time as a sharp increase in inter-imperialist conflicts, a likely downturn in the world economy and deepening climate crisis.
And the protests are still spreading. Last week, Iran and Colombia became the most recent arenas for mass protests. In Iran, following another drastic price hike on fuel, protests took place in over 100 cities. The economic burden on workers and poor was immediately linked to the theocratic dictatorship. The Supreme leader, Khamenei, went on television to condemn the protests, claiming the extra income from fuel was destined for the poorest. The response was increased anger, including burning pictures of Khamenei. In Colombia, the general strike on 21 November, with 250,000 on street demonstrations, was followed by more street protests in the next days, against privatisations and cuts in pensions. The state answered with a curfew in Bogota and a heavy police presence.
Comparisons with 2011
Commentators have made historical comparisons with 1848 and 1968, years of revolutionary and pre-revolutionary struggles spreading to many countries. Comparisons have also been made with 2011, when the so called Arab Spring saw revolutionary struggles, overthrowing Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia. Now, 8-9 years later, the wave of protests is not confined to one region, but global, and with clearer social demands, for jobs, water, electricity etc.
Politically, the masses have also drawn conclusions that regime change is not enough. In Sudan, the lessons of Egypt, with al-Sisi establishing a new dictatorship, have led the masses to continue their mobilisations after al-Bashir was overthrown.
Compared to 2011 and other protests in recent years, the struggles of 2019 are much more long-lasting. Protests in Haiti started in February and Hong Kong in June. Lebanon’s “October revolution” forced Prime Minister Hariri to resign after two weeks, but has continued since. In mid-November, bank workers were on indefinite strike, roads were blocked around the country and state buildings were blocked by protests. Algeria has seen mass demonstrations every Friday, also after Bouteflika was forced to resign, with “New Revolution” as a frequently-used slogan.
Many of the protests have seen youth and women in leading roles, without question inspired by the youthful climate strikes and the global women’s and feminst movement. 7.6 million participated in the climate strikes in September, with an increasing consciousness about the issue and the need for a movement for drastic social change. The feminst strikes and movements also have an international character and use the strike weapon.
Where the working class have taken decisive action with general strikes and strike waves, the balance of forces have been made very clear – the isolated small elite versus the majority of workers and poor. This has also underlined the economic and collective role of the working class, the force that can achieve a socialist transformation of society.
The movements are combining many issues: economic hardship and lack of democracy with sexist oppression and the environment. This was made clear by the movement in Indonesia, at the end of September. Student protests at over 300 universities were trigged by a law illegalising sex outside of marriage, directed against LGBTQ+ people, but immediately also raising corruption and the destruction of rain forrests.
“Fun and exciting”
Bourgeois “experts” have big difficulties in explaining this movement. New agency Bloomberg stresses that these are not working class protests, butrather “consumers” reacting against a rise in the cost of fuel, taxes or travel costs. This totally underestimates the strong political demands of the movements, although in most countries a strong, organised and unified worker’s movement remains to be built.
The Economist magazine dismisses links to neo-liberalism and government policies. Instead, it says “The search for a unifying theme is pointless”, stating protests can be “more exiting and even more fun than the drudging daily life”, and warns that “solidarity becomes fashion”. This, of course, explains nothing: why do the protests takes place now and why do more people not always enjoys this kind of “fun”?
As Marxists, we have to consider and analyse both the clear common denominators, the strengths and weaknesses of these movements, as well as the different forces of counter-revolution. Of course, there are national peculiarities, but also many common features.
What is behind the explosive anger?
This is a global turning point, created by the deep political and economic crises of capitalism, its blind alleys and decay, as explained in many discussions and documents of the CWI Majority. Politically, we see the ruling class relying on right-wing populism and nationalism, in an increasingly parasitic economic system. They have no way out.
Who are these mass protests directed against? What is behind the explosive anger?
- There is extreme hatred against governments and parties. In Lebanon, the dominant slogan is “all must go”. Different to the big movement in 2005, this demand is now also directed against Hezbollah and its leader, Nasrallah. In Iraq, the movement wants to ban all existing parties from stand in coming elections, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement that was able to divert previous protests. Students in Baghdad displayed a banner with “No politics, no parties, this is a student awakening”. In Chile, people on the streets shout “Away with all thieves”. The opposition to governments was also shown in the Czech Republic last weekend, with 300,000 in a demonstration against the billionaire president.
- This hatred is based on decades of neo-liberalism and shrinking living standards, and the prospect of no future. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) advises further neo-liberalism through reducing state subsidies, that triggered the revolts in Sudan and Ecuador. In Lebanon, 50% of state spending goes to debt payments. New austerity was also the trigger in Haiti, Chile, Iran, Uganda and other countries. It’s a question of time until it reaches further countries, for example Nigeria. This is linked to the extreme rise in inequality, with Hong Kong and Chile as key examples.
Strikes and street protests
The struggles show many common and important features.
- Enormous peaceful demonstrations were the starting point in many countries. Two million marched in Hong Kong in June (with a population of 7.3 million), over one million each in Chile and Lebanon, and several hundred thousand on Tahrir square in Baghdad. In most cases, the protests have not been only the capitals or big cities, but spread over entire countries.
- General strikes have been decisive in overthrowing and shaking regimes. 2019 started with the large general strike in India (150 million), and continued with Tunisia, Brazil and Argentina. This autumn has seen general strikes in Ecuador, Chile (twice), Lebanon, Catalunya and Colombia, plus city wide strikes in Rome and Milan. Iraq has seen big strikes of teachers, dock workers, medical doctors and more. Government buildings have been occupied (such as the central bank in Beirut) or burned down, as in many cities in Iraq. Roads have been blocked in Iraq and Lebanon, as in Peru where indigenous people struggle to stop mining projects threatening the environment. Roadblocks was also the method of the yellow vests in France.
- The struggle has shown new methods of struggle and traits of a new society. In Bagdad, Tahrir square has taken up the tradition from the square with the same name in Egypt in 2011, with a hospital tent, free transport and even a daily paper being produced. Ecuador saw the development of people’s assemblies and Chile has also seen local organising assemblies. In Lebanon, students left the universities for practical education in the cities. In Hong Kong, the youth have invented a number of methods to use in street confrontations, to meet tear gas and repression.
- Sectarian division has been overcome by common struggle, a feature typical in revolutionary struggles. In Lebanon, shia and sunni muslims struggle alongside christians. In Iraq, shia and sunni also fight together, even if it is mostly in shia areas so far. In Latin America, indigenous organisations play a leading role, in Ecuador, Peru and Chile, and in the resistance against the coup in Bolivia.
- Internationalism is clear,with the solidarity statement from the masses in Iraq to the protests in Iran, as well as the huge demonstration in Buenos Aires against coup in Bolivia.
The movements have won big victories and concessions. Longstanding dictators in Sudan and Algeria have been overthrown, the government in Ecuador fled the capital, Ministers have resigned in Lebanon, Chile and Iraq. In Chile, President Pinera first claimed the country was “at war” against the protests, then had to “apologise” and retreat on all measures that triggered the movement. Similarly in France, Macron was forced to retreat on fuel prices and increase the minimum wage as a response to the yellow vest protests.
In most cases, the protests have continued after these retreats.
The struggle in Hong Kong stands out in many ways. We have comrades on the ground to give us first hand analysis and information. The struggle has been marked by the incredible determination and courage of the youth. Hong Kong being ruled from Beijing means that retreats made by governments in other countries are not on offer.
In August, CWI comrades warned of a “creeping state of emergency”. In mid-November this changed, when Xi Jinping gave new directives: in short, the protests have to stop. The regime’s hope to exhaust the movement and then use repression (as with Umbrella movement in 2014) failed. Instead, the protest movement created another major crisis for Xi’s rule.
With repression on a new level, there were war-like scenes on Monday and Tuesday 18-19 November with police threatening to use live ammunition and students at university campuses trying to defend themselves with molotov cocktails and arrows. On Tuesday morning, the police attacked with more than 1,500 teargas canisters. The students at PolyTech university were forced to surrender to the police. More than one thousand were arrested, risking ten years in prison.
The strong popular support that exists for the struggle of the youth was shown with solidarity manifestations on the streets and even more in the huge defeat for the right-wing pro-government parties in the local elections Sunday 24 November.
The impressive struggle in Hong Kong needs to take further steps, including democratic organisation, the organisation of a general strike and, decisively, to spread to mainland China. The students’ tactic of “be water” – formless, shapeless, no leaders – has given them some advantages in street struggles and allowed them to counteract the blocking role of the liberal pan-democrats, but been unable to take the struggle to the necessary new level. A big difficulty has been the weakness of the trade unions and the lack of strikes for a long period. Politically, this can give room for illusions in the “international community” and in particular US imperialism and Trump to give support. It also gives room for continued belief in a “Hong Kong solution” separate from the rest of China.
The complications of this period
In the debates and split of the CWI this year, debates on consciousness played an important role. The leadership of our former Spanish section, that left in April, underestimated the problems of low socialist consciousness while the grouping that left in July overstressed this problem. The latter group therefore preferred to wait for a “genuine” movement rather than intervene in the present ones. To understand the decisive role of the organised working class does not mean to ignore other important social movements.
Consciousness can take leaps based on the experience of struggles. This process has begun but, in the main, the mass struggles lack the organisation and leadership necessary to develop a strategy for the a socialist transformation of society. No workers’ or left parties capable of this task have developed so far. New left formations have been volatile and politically weak. The latest example is Podemos joining the PSOE (social democrat) -led government in Spain.
The comparisons with 1968 show how far the labour movement – workers parties and trade unions – has retreated in terms of an active base. However, this also means that stalinist communist parties and social democracy have less possibilities to block and divert the struggles as they did back then.
This autumn has also shown that the capitalist class does not hesitate to use the most brutal counter-revolutionary repression in order to stay in power. They prefer other, more peaceful, means but are prepared to use violence when necessary.
- In Bolivia, there was a military coup, with the support of US imperialism and the Brazilian government under Bolsonaro. The new “president” Anez was “elected” by less than a third of parliament. European governments, such as the Swedish government, have expressed “understanding” for the coup.
- More than 300 have been killed and 15,000 wounded in Iraq in the last month.
- 285 people have been shot in the eyes in Chile. In France in the spring, 40 people were blinded.
- In Guinea, West Africa, 5 were killed and 38 wounded in protests against president Alpha Conde standing for a third term. The protests still continue.
There is still a risk of a major clampdown by the Chinese army in Hong Kong, even if the many warnings of a new Tiananmen Square massacre have not materialised so far. Also, the risk of a return of sectarianism in Lebanon or Iraq is a real danger.
The ruling class also want to disarm the protests, and derail them into elections or negotiations. In Argentina, this was clearly the case when the Peronist candidates, Fernandez and Fernandez-Kirchner, won the elections recently. The masses’ main target was to oust Macri, the former big hope for capitalism in Latin America that presided over a new deep financial crisis. The new Peronist government, however, will not have a honeymoon since it will continue implementing the policies of the IMF.
In Sudan, official protest leaders signed a deal over the heads of the masses with the military about sharing power. This left the real power with general Hemeti and his notorious forces. Now there are growing protests again, against the deal and the generals.
In Chile, a key demand has been for a new constitution, since the present one is from 1980, under Pinochet’s dictatorship. However, the demand for a revolutionary constituent assembly of democratically elected representatives from workplaces and worker’s areas is the complete opposite of an assembly including president Pinera and right-wing parties.
The ruling class has a thousand and one ways to try to block revolution from below. In 2011, the CWI warned for illusions in “regime change” as the end of the struggles. The state, the capitalists and imperialism were left intact and opened the door to counter-revolution.
However, defeats are not as long standing as in the 1930s or the 1970s. Mass protests in Iran were crushed in 2009 and again in 2017, but returned again this year. The same has happened in Iraq, Zimbabwe and Sudan. New protests also show that Egypt is not stable.
Indefinite general strikes and mass movements of a revolutionary character raise the question of power. Which class should rule?
For long, in many countries our call would be for a 24 hour or 48 hour strike instead of an all-out strike. This to prepare the working class, let it feel its strength and numerous superiority, to start organising and increase consciousness of its enemies, to select its leadership.
Most of the present struggles are all-in struggles that immediately challenge the power of the capitalist class. The counter-revolution is preparing itself for such struggles, but so far have had problems with its normal methods this autumn.
Another important comparison is with the first Russian revolution in 1905. The working class showed its strength and power of the tsarist state hang in mid-air. A final confrontation was inevitable.
Liberals and Mensheviks accused the Soviet and particularly the Bolsheviks for talking too much about armed insurrection. Lenin answered, “Civil war is being forced on the population by the government itself”. Trotsky, in his speech for the defence in front of the court he was charged in after the revolution, declared “to prepare for the inevitable insurrection… meant to us first and foremost, enlightening the people, explaining to them that open conflict was inevitable, that all that had been given to them would be taken away again, that only might can defend right, that powerful organisation of the working class was necessary, that the enemy had to be met head on, that the struggle had to be continued to the end, that there was no other way”.
In 1905, the lack of organising and experience despite the formation of the worker’s council, the soviet, alongside the weakness of the struggle on the countryside, gave counter-revolution the upper hand. In December, a general strike of 150,000 in Moscow, eventually was exhausted and counter-revolution won.
The experiences of 1905 laid the basis for the victory of the revolution in 1917. Today’s situation does not leave room for long periods of reaction with no struggle. Today’s Bolivia will not see the kind of counter-revolution as after 1905. What will happen there is still in the balance. Counter-revolution has been beaten before in Bolivia.
We will without doubt see further countries and regions enter this trend of mass movements. The effects on global consciousness will be increased understanding of struggles as the only way to achieve changes. Anti-capitalist and socialist ideas will develop in the search for an alternative to capitalism and repression. The weakness of the left and worker’s organisation means that it will be a drawn-out process, with both leaps and set-backs.
The general lesson, however, is the same as in 1905 or 1968 – still it is a question of the need for the working class to take power to sustain the concessions a mass movement can win and to achieve a fundamental change.