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Revolution, capitalist restoration and class struggle in China-Chris Slee

Posted by admin On March - 2 - 2019 Comments Off on Revolution, capitalist restoration and class struggle in China-Chris Slee

February 24, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party (CP), led by Mao Zedong, came to power after more than 20 years of war.  They had fought against the reactionary Chiang Kai-shek regime, and against the Japanese invasion of China.

For a time there was an alliance between the CP and Chiang Kai-shek against Japan, but this ended when Japan was defeated.  The CP, based in rural areas, won the support of the peasants through land reform and other progressive measures.  This enabled them to win the war, despite US military aid to Chiang Kai-shek.

Initially, the revolution was intended to be democratic, not socialist.  Those capitalists who had not been closely associated with Chiang Kai-shek were allowed to continue in business.

But after the outbreak of the Korean war in 1950 there was a change.  The party’s policy became more radical

Workers were mobilised to investigate their employers, looking for things like tax evasion, theft of state property, etc.  Bosses were brought before mass meetings and confronted with accusations by their workers.  [1]

In October 1953 the CP stated that its policy was one of “transition to socialism”.  By 1956 nearly all capitalist property had been nationalised.

In the countryside agricultural cooperatives began to be formed.  Later there was a push to create collective farms.

Social gains

The early years of the revolution brought big gains for the Chinese people.  Health and education were greatly improved.

Prior to the revolution, a large proportion of the people lived on the brink of starvation.  Epidemics killed thousands every year.  While there were no reliable statistics, one estimate of the average life expectancy in China was 28 years.  Another estimate was 35 years.

By 1981 life expectancy had risen to 69.6 years for women and 67.0 for men.  [2]

Massive campaigns of vaccination and public health education, stepped up medical training and widely distributed health services virtually wiped out many diseases that were rampant in the past.

Medical services were brought to rural areas which had not previously seen a doctor.  The number of doctors was rapidly expanded, and rural people were trained as paramedics (known as “barefoot doctors”), who could provide a basic level of health care to their neighbours.

Urban workers also benefited from the revolution.  In addition to the health and literacy programs, they gained job security and other benefits, such as housing supplied by their enterprise.

Bureaucratic regime

However, the transition to socialism was hindered both by objective conditions (including the backwardness of China and the pressures of imperialism), and by the bureaucratic nature of the CP.

The state created by the revolution was a bureaucratised socialist state.

In 1956, the Chinese government adopted a system of ranks for state employees that included 30 grades, with the top grade receiving 28 times the pay of the bottom grade.  In addition to their salaries, higher-level party and state officials had special housing, cars, drivers, personal servants, meals, travel, etc.  [3]

The CP used repression against people who supported the revolution but disagreed with some of the government’s policies.

In 1956, following Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union, there was a brief period of relative freedom in China.  People were encouraged to voice their criticisms.  Mao advanced the slogan:  “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”.

But in June 1957 there was a crackdown.  Many of those who had spoken out were arrested, or were sacked from their jobs in the cities and sent to the countryside.

This repression intimidated people from criticising mistaken policies of the Communist Party and the government.  This meant that mistakes were not corrected until they had become such big disasters that the leadership was forced to change course.

Great Leap Forward

One example was the so-called Great Leap Forward.  Launched in 1958, this was an attempt by Mao to force the pace of economic and social change, with disastrous results.

The transition to cooperative and collective farming was supposed to be voluntary, and was therefore expected to carried out gradually.  However, the apparent success of the early cooperatives caused Mao to call for the acceleration of the process.  This resulted in pressure being put on peasants to form collective farms before they were really convinced it was a good idea.

In 1958, collectivisation was taken a step further with the formation of the communes – much larger collectives involving tens of thousands of people.  While peasants in some areas supported the policy, in many other areas it was imposed from above.

At the same time, the CP leadership issued calls for enormous increases in production.  Workers and peasants were pushed to work at an excesssive pace.  Transport and supply systems collapsed.

Pressure on party and government officials to meet unrealistic targets led inevitably to false reporting.  Newspapers reported stories of amazing increases in production.

The result of the Great Leap Forward was a severe decline in agriculture – causing the reappearance of famine – and chaos in industry.

The Great Leap Forward reflected Mao’s voluntarist mentality.  (Voluntarism is the idea that, if we try hard enough, we can do whatever we like, regardless of objective conditions).

Beginning in 1959, these policies were partially reversed.  The communes lost much of their importance.  Smaller units became more important.  The peasants were allowed small private plots.  In some areas collectively owned land was contracted out to individual families.

China began to recover from the effects of the Great Leap Forward.  However, there was no public admission of mistakes, nor public criticism of Mao for his role in promoting the Great Leap Forward.  The cult of Mao was maintained.

Two factions

But within the leadership, a factional struggle was beginning.

One faction, headed by Liu Shaochi and Deng Xiaoping, were “moderates”.  They wanted no more voluntarist adventures like the Great Leap Forward.  They emphasised increasing production through material incentives.

The other faction, headed by Mao, was still prone to voluntarism.  They wanted to revive some of the policies of the Great Leap Forward period when the opportunity arose.

Cultural Revolution

In 1966, the Maoist faction launched the Cultural Revolution.  They made use of Mao’s prestige to mobilise youth to attack the wing of the bureaucracy that supported Liu and Deng.

Mao and his supporters used radical-sounding slogans to mobilise students against Mao’s opponents.  High school and university students formed groups of “rebels” or “red guards”.  Many party leaders at all levels were subject to denunciation, public humiliation and physical violence.

Mao’s faction tried to keep control of the movement, directing it against those seen as Mao’s opponents.  But some Red Guard groups got out of control and began attacking Mao’s supporters as well.  Some of Mao’s opponents were able to set up their own youth groups.  Some groups seized arms, and different groups began fighting each other.

The army was brought in to restore order.

Mao had to bring back many of the old cadres who had been purged, in order to get society functioning normally again.

Thus the Cultural Revolution ended in an uneasy compromise.

Right turn in foreign policy

At this stage, the United States government started putting out feelers to the Chinese bureaucrats.  It was looking for a deal with China at the expense of third world national liberation struggles (including Vietnam), and at the expense of the Soviet Union.

US secretary of state Henry Kissinger visited China in 1971, preparing the ground for US president Richard Nixon’s visit the following year.

The US trade embargo on China was progressively eased.  China moved towards a de facto political alliance with US imperialism, and adopted a generally reactionary foreign policy.

Deng’s return

In 1976 Mao died.  The Maoists were defeated in the ensuing power struggle.  By 1978 Deng Xiaoping had become the real leader of China.

The pro-imperialist foreign policy continued and even got worse.  In February 1979, Chinese troops invaded Vietnam.  The invasion occurred shortly after Deng had visited the United States, and it is reasonable to assume it was planned in collusion with the US government.  On March 1, the formal opening of full diplomatic relations between the US and the Peoples Republic of China occurred.

Wang Hui, a left-wing Chinese academic, later commented:  “The only reason for this otherwise senseless attack on a small neighbour was Deng’s desire for a new relationship with the United States.  The invasion was offered as a political gift to Washington, and became China’s entrance ticket to the world system”.  [4]

The Chinese troops met strong resistance and were soon forced to withdraw, but only after causing substantial damage and loss of life.  Chinese harassment of Vietnam continued for a number of years.  China continued to support the forces of the former Pol Pot regime – a genocidal regime which ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and had been ousted by Vietnamese troops.

Market reforms

Deng introduced “market reforms”.

In the countryside, the communes were broken up and land was contracted to individual peasant families, who could sell surplus production on the free market.

Foreign owned companies were allowed to establish joint ventures with Chinese state and collective enterprises.  As the reform process went further, some wholly foreign owned enterprises were established.  Restrictions on the ability of Chinese citizens to establish privately owned enterprises were progressively eased.

Corruption spread as bureaucrats accumulated wealth for themselves and their relatives and cronies, in the context of growing private ownership of the means of production.  Many bureaucrats began to turn themselves into private owners of capital.

The Beijing massacre

But opposition to corruption – and to the bureaucratic regime – began to grow.  In April 1989 students protested in Beijing’s Tian An Men square.  They remained for more than a month and were joined by many non-students.  The army was ordered to remove the protestors, but the protestors talked to the soldiers and won many of them over.  Workers joined the protests, raising their own demands, such as job security, wages, and control over their workplaces.  [5]

Eventually the regime brought in new army units that used extreme violence to crush the movement.  A wave of repression followed.

Capitalist restoration

In my opinion, the repression of the 1989 upsurge helped prepare the ground for capitalist restoration.  The increased repression helped break the resistance of workers to the attacks on their job security, working conditions and welfare benefits.

Some Chinese intellectuals have made the link between the Beijing massacre and the subsequent intensification of “free market” policies.

Wang Hui, who participated in the Tian An Men Square protests, argued that the crackdown not only silenced calls for democracy, it also ended public debate about inequality.  Once the tanks had done their work, the process of marketisation speeded up.  [6]

Similarly Li Minqi, another participant in the 1989 protests, later said:  ”  To unleash a full-blown capitalism in China, workers had to be deprived of the extensive social and economic rights they enjoyed after the 1949 revolution….

“Popular participation in the revolt did threaten to undermine the project of capitalist development.  But the failure of the movement ensured that for a long time the Chinese working class would not be able to act as a collective political force….”  [7]

The privatisation of industry proceeded very rapidly during the 1990s, and continued more slowly thereafter.  The state sector’s share of industrial production fell from 100 percent in 1978 to 37.5% in 1999 and 31.6 percent in 2004.  [8]

Thirty million workers were sacked from the state sector in the late 1990s.  Corrupt managers enriched themselves while carrying out “restructuring” and privatisation, whereas the sacked workers got minimal compensation.

Transnational corporations increasingly used China as a base for producing goods for sale on the world market.  For example, Apple iPhones are made in China.

Today millions of Chinese workers are ruthlessly exploited by local and foreign capital.  Extremely long hours, physical punishment, fines and non-payment of wages are amongst the abuses suffered by many Chinese workers.

The most oppressed section of the working class are rural migrants working in urban areas.  According to Australian National University academic Anita Chan, writing in 2001:  “They are required to possess a ‘temporary residential permit’ and are trapped if the employer takes it away from them.  Their residential status is similar to foreign nationals living as guest workers.  They are not entitled to any of the benefits enjoyed by the local residents such as social welfare, schooling, the right to own property, to bring their spouses or children with them or even any right to residency.  Once their labor is no longer required, they are supposed to go back to their place of origin.”   [9]

(Since then, there have been reforms enabling some migrant workers to become urban residents.  But migrant workers continue to be super-exploited)  [10]

Privatisation destroyed China’s social welfare system.  A range of services such as health, housing, etc had been provided to workers via their workplace.  The loss of state and collective sector jobs meant the loss of these services.

The result of all these changes was a vast increase in economic inequality.  China has the second highest number of billionaires in the world, after the United States.  In 2018 it had 373 billionaires, not including those in Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.  [11]

The state sector

China’s economy is now essentially capitalist, as indicated by the privatisation of the bulk of the means of production, and the conversion of labor power into a commodity.  Workers can only survive by selling their labor power to an employer.

But the most extreme ideologues of neoliberalism (both in China and elsewhere) are not satisfied with the degree of privatisation that has occurred so far.  State-owned enterprises remain dominant in certain strategic industrial sectors such as iron and steel, and electricity, and in the banking sector.  The neoliberals want more complete privatisation, and unfettered access to all areas of the economy for local and foreign capital.

The Chinese Communist Party has up to now resisted these pressures.  A strong state sector helps China maintain a degree of independence from the US and its allies.

It also helped China to recover from the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis.  The initial impact of the crisis was severe.  Twenty million migrant workers lost their jobs in the export-oriented manufacturing industries.  But the Chinese government was able to stimulate the economy by ordering state-owned enterprises to spend money, and state-owned banks to lend money.  This caused the resumption of rapid economic growth in 2009.  Government-funded construction projects provided alternative work for many of those displaced from the factories.

The continued existence of a strong state sector does not make China socialist.  In the past, before the rise of neoliberalism, many capitalist countries have had a significant sector of state-owned enterprises.  Australian examples include the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Qantas, etc.

We should also note that many enterprises in China that are called “state-owned” actually have a mixture of state and private ownership.

Popular resistance

Workers have been fighting back against the attacks on their job security, living standards and working conditions.  There have been thousands of strikes and protests by Chinese workers, as well as numerous protests by peasants against land seizures by local governments and property developers.  There have also been many protests against pollution and environmental destruction, as well as protests by ethnic minorities against discrimination.

Workers struggles

Workers have taken action over the non-payment of wages or social insurance contributions, and the failure to pay the compensation prescribed by law after the termination of employment contracts.  They have demanded higher wages, improved severance packages, shorter working hours, improved welfare benefits and reductions in workload.  Some retired and laid-off workers sought higher retirement payments.  Other disputes arose over arbitrary changes to working conditions, meals and housing allowances, as well as demands for government investigations into management malpractice during the restructuring of state-owned enterprises.

Tactics used by the workers have included strikes, blockades of roads, bridges and railway lines, sit-downs at the factory gate, protest marches, and petitions.

The response of the authorities to such protests has been a combination of conciliation, promises, threats, physical force and criminal sanctions against the leaders.

Nevertheless, the workers have often been successful in winning their demands.  [12]

Peasant struggles

Under the market reforms, collectively owned land was allocated to peasants on long-term leases.  In theory this gave them security of tenure.  But in practice many people from peasant families have been forced to leave the land.

Heavy taxes were imposed on peasants by local governments.  Much of the tax revenue was siphoned off by corrupt local officials.

Prices obtained by farmers from the sale of their crops were often insufficient to meet both their own expenses and the tax burden.  Many farmers got into debt.  Younger family members sought work in the cities to supplement family income.

In many cases local authorities have evicted peasants from the land so it could be handed over to property developers.  This has been a major cause of peasant rebellions.

Ethnic conflict

In areas inhabited by minority nationalities, discontent often takes a nationalist form.  In Tibet for example there have been numerous protests (some peaceful, others violent), and demands have been raised for independence or autonomy.

Tibetans feel that they are discriminated against.  Language is a key issue.  Mandarin Chinese is the main language used in government and in the upper levels of the education system. The Tibetan language has a secondary status.  This puts Tibetan speakers at a disadvantage in getting jobs.  The higher paid jobs are disproportionately held by Han Chinese.

In Xinjiang province, discontent amongst the Uigurs has been met with severe repression.  Hundreds of thousands of people are being held in detention centres.

Rebuilding the social safety net

Prior to the “market reforms”, people had job security and a basic social welfare system provided through the workplace, which provided them with nurseries, kindergartens, schools, healthcare, pensions and funeral services.

As the market reforms deepened, workplaces shed their responsibility for social welfare.  People lost pensions, healthcare and welfare benefits, and had to spend money buying them.

China’s healthcare system became one of the most commercialised in the world.  Individuals were expected to pay for their own health care.

But around the year 2000, the government began to rebuild the social safety net in areas such as health care, education and pensions.

The government’s share of health care spending began to increase a little, after a long period of decline.  The government also began a drive to increase the proportion of the population covered by various health insurance schemes.  Schemes for employees require contributions from both employers and workers.

Labour legislation

In 2007 three labor laws were adopted by the National Peoples Congress.

The Labour Contract Law puts some restrictions on the right of employers to hire and fire, and requires redundancy payments to be made after termination of a contract.

The Labour Arbitration Law established a conciliation and arbitration system to rule on disputes between workers against their employers.  It was soon overwhelmed by complaints from workers, leading to long delays in hearing cases.

The Employment Promotion Law deals with issues of discrimination in employment.

According to the China Labour Bulletin:  “The unprecedented wave of labour legislation in this period was.…a direct response to the pressure exerted by the workers movement over the previous decade.  A government committed to maintaining social order and harmony could no longer afford to ignore the strikes and protests staged by workers on an almost daily basis across the country…..

“What the government has not yet done, however, is to rigorously enforce its own laws or empower workers to safeguard their rights and interests on a collective basis.”  [13]

China has one officially recognised trade union federation, the All-China Federation of Trade unions.

The ACFTU does not organise strikes.  It does sometimes challenge violations of China’s labor laws by employers through legal channels.  But this is no substitute for a union that organises workers to fight for their rights.

Foreign policy

Mao used radical anti-imperialist rhetoric in the 1960s, but swung to an openly pro-imperialist foreign policy in the 1970s.  This policy was continued by Deng Xiaoping.

Since then China has moved away from its close political alliance with US imperialism.  Today China has good relations with the revolutionary governments of Cuba and Venezuela, as well as with other third world governments such as Iran that are in conflict with the US.

This does not mean that China’s foreign policy is consistently progressive.  China supported the racist Sri Lankan government in its war against the Tamil independence struggle.  China supplied arms to the government and gave it diplomatic support.

One motive for China’s position was its desire to gain access to ports on China’s trade routes across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East and Africa, which are sources of oil and other raw materials for China’s industry.  In March 2007 Sri Lanka signed an agreement with China for the construction of a port at Hambantota on Sri Lanka’s south coast.

Is China Imperialist?

There has been a rapid growth of Chinese investments overseas.  Much of this investment is aimed at supplying Chinese industry with raw materials.  This is the case with Chinese investments in mining in Africa, for example.

But it is now going beyond this – for example, Chinese companies have been investing in ports in many European countries, including Greece, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.  In Australia, China has bought the port of Darwin.

China has been building big infrastructure projects in many countries.  These projects are usually financed by loans from China.  If the recipient government is unable to meet its repayments, China takes ownership.  The port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, which I mentioned before, is an example of this.

In the past I have described China as a bourgeois nationalist regime, meaning that it was capitalist, but the government was relatively independent of the imperialist powers.

But now China is starting to look like an imperialist power itself.  It has big overseas investments.  It intervenes in conflicts in other countries – for example, supporting the Sri Lankan government against the Tamils.  It has a military base in Djibouti, a small country in the horn of Africa.

On the other hand, foreign transnational corporations continue to use China as a base for production for the world market, ruthlessly exploiting Chinese workers.  In this respect China looks like a semi-colony of Western imperialism.

Thus China combines imperialist and semi-colonial features.

The need for socialism

Despite the partial reversal of some neoliberal policies, China remains a highly unequal society, where workers are ruthlessly exploited and lack job security.  The state represses the resistance of the workers to capitalist exploitation.  In my view it is a capitalist state.

The struggle for socialism will need to bring together workers, students and other oppressed groups.

An example of such unity is the solidarity of university students with workers at Jasic Technologies, who wanted to form a union and elect their representatives.  Students joined the workers in protests, and helped to publicise the case on the internet.  A number of workers and students were arrested.  [14]

This kind of solidarity, if repeated on a much larger scale, can help take China on the road to genuine socialism.

The above is was a talk given to Socialist Alliance Summer School, January 2019.


1.See Bill Brugger:  China: Liberation and Transformation, 1942-1962, p. 83-85 (Croom Helm, London, 1981)

2. Ruth and Victor Sidel:  The Health of China, p. 94  (Zed, London, 1982)

3. Les Evans, China After Mao, p. 86 (Monad Press, New York, 1978)

4. One China, Many Paths (ed. Chaohua Wang), p.65 (Verso, London, 2005)

5. John Gittings:  China Changes Face, p. 275-6 (Oxford University Press, 1990)

6. Mark Leonard, What Does China Think?, p. 30-31 (Fourth Estate, London, 2008)

7. One China, Many Paths, p. 314-5

8. Figures from retired researcher Sun Xuewen, quoted by Eva Cheng in Green Left Weekly, no. 695, 24 January 2007

9. Anita Chan, China’s Workers Under Assault; the Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy, p. 8-9 (East Gate, New York, 2001)

10. Billy Beswick, At Peking University…

11. According to a survey by Swiss bank UBS and accounting firm PWC

12. Going it Alone: the Workers Movement in China (2007-2008), China Labour Bulletin, Hong Kong, 2009

13. Going It Alone, p.13

14. Au Loong-Yu, The Jasic Workers Mobilisation, a High Tide for the Chinese Labour Movement? International Viewpoint
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The French Yellow Vests: A self-mobilized mass movement with insurrectionist overtones-Kevin B. Anderson

Posted by admin On January - 22 - 2019 Comments Off on The French Yellow Vests: A self-mobilized mass movement with insurrectionist overtones-Kevin B. Anderson


January 22, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from New Politics — After rumbling on social media for weeks, the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) movement emerged suddenly on November 17, when no less than 300,000 protestors occupied roads, traffic circles in exurbs and rural areas. They wore the yellow safety vests the government requires all motorists to purchase, and which immediately became the emblem of the movement.  That week and the next, Yellow Vests also ventured into the heart of Paris, blocking the gilded Boulevard Champs-Elysées and almost reaching the nearby presidential palace.  From the beginning, women were unusually prominent in the local occupations and the street marches.  At the same time, the Yellow Vests chased away many politicians who visited their protest sites, including some from the left.

On November 17 and over the next several weeks of mass outpouring, the protesting crowds had to face typical French regime police brutality, whereupon they set up barricades on the Champs-Elysées and attacked the Arc de Triomphe and luxury shops. Slogans scrawled on walls and shouted in the crowds included calls for the immediate resignation of neoliberal President Emmanuel Macron, “Topple the Bourgeoisie,” and, in a reference harking all the way back to the Great Revolution of 1789, “We Cut Off Heads for Less Than This” (Alissa J. Rubin, “French Protestors Chide Macron,” New York Times 12/3/18).

But alongside this white-hot anger stood not the nihilism of pure destructiveness, but heartfelt aspirations for a more human future, what in dialectical terms is called the positive in the negative. As the Yellow Vests of Saint-Nazaire declared in November: “Our objective is not to destroy, but, quite the contrary, to build a more human world for us and future generations… The solution is in ourselves, workers, unemployed, pensioners of all origins and all colors” (Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

Not since the near revolution of 1968 has France — or any of the so-called Western capitalist countries — witnessed anything like this, a massive, spontaneous, nationwide series of militant demonstrations that not only gained majority support, but also managed to block some crucial parts of the economy like oil refineries, putting the entire government on the defensive.  As one far left commentary put it, “a scent of revolution was hanging in the air” (“Une situation excellente?” Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes 12/6/18).  At the same time, it should be noted that 1968 was immensely larger, involving multiple sectors of society, and, with a smaller population than now, ten million workers on strike and nearly all major economic and educational institutions occupied by workers or students.  Nor should we forget the Black and Latinx ghetto uprisings in the US in the 1960s and after, or similar ones in France and the UK in recent years by impoverished people of color.  Still, the Yellow Vest movement is the first time since 1968 that a mass insurrectionary movement has burst out in a developed capitalist country that was based primarily in the white majority, let alone those in rural and semi-rural areas.

The French government, visibly shaken, was forced to give ground.  Despite promising in regal style in both his 2017 campaign and afterwards never to cede to street pressure, Macron was forced to back down partially and accede to a few of the protestors’ demands.

(The contagion crossed France’s borders too. Belgium experienced mass strikes by newly militant workers against austerity policies, while the iron dictatorship of Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi rushed to ban the sale of yellow vests as a precaution.)

The precipitating grievance of the Yellow Vest movement was a planned hike in the gasoline tax for 2019, which would have hit especially hard the working poor and lower middle classes outside the major urban centers. These sectors of the population are increasingly dependent upon their automobiles to get to work and accomplish other life activities in an economy that is growing more and more delocalized. Meanwhile, the centralized state apparatus has concentrated its public transport initiatives on flashy high-speed rail between major urban centers while allowing local bus and train lines to deteriorate.

Initially, the government and the international media presented the protest as one pitting the economic grievances of some rural people against the Macron government’s overly high-minded ecological aim of discouraging automobile use. This slanderous narrative only enraged the Yellow Vests further, as well as the majority of the French people, especially the fact that Macron has been widely decried as “the president of the rich.”  At the same time that he raised the gas tax, his ISF tax cut for the very wealthy meant that “the 100 richest people in the country received the equivalent of a million euros ($1.14 million) each in tax reduction” (Paul Elek, “The Popular Volcano Is Back!”, Transform! Europe 12-8-18). Or as Marxist environmentalist Andreas Malm put it: “If anyone needed another lesson in how not to mitigate climate change, they can thank Emmanuel Macron. Scrap taxes on the richest, then slap higher taxes on fuels… Capitalist climate governance… always makes sure any actual burdens end up on the shoulders of the poor” (“A Lesson in How Not to Mitigate Climate Change,” Verso Blog 12-7-18).

The movement’s list of grievances and its socio-political character
By November 29, a number of other “directives of the people” had been sent to the government, going far beyond repeal of the gas tax. Many of these demands exhibited a working class or leftist bent, including, (1) repeal the ISF tax reduction on the rich, (2) raise the minimum wage, (3) more secure retirement benefits for all, (4) peg the salaries of elected representatives to the median national income, (5) good treatment for asylum seekers, (6) jobs for the unemployed, (7) class sizes no higher than 25 from nursery school through the twelfth grade, (8) full retirement at 60, and at 55 for those performing heavy physical labor, (9) concentrate housing and promote rail transport of goods for ecological reasons, (10) stop the closures of local train lines, post offices, and schools.  Other demands were of a more protectionist or nationalist nature: (1) big chains like MacDonald’s or Google to pay higher taxes, small shops or artisans less, (2) protection for French industry, (3) forbid the sale of national assets like dams and airports (4) send asylum seekers home whose cases have been rejected, (5) better integration of all those living in France, who should become French by learning the French language and the country’s history (Robert Duguet, “Les Cahiers de Doléances,” in Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre, Paris, Éditions Syllepse, December 2018).

To be sure, it is wrong to view the Yellow Vests as a conservative movement concerned only about high taxes and indifferent to the environment, especially since they moved to the left in the weeks after they burst onto scene on November 17.  But it is equally wrong to highlight solely the most progressive elements of their demands and other articulations.

The most concerning Yellow Vest demands are those about sending back rejected asylees and about becoming “French,” each of which have some racist overtones.  This is hardly surprising in a country that gave neofascist Marine Le Pen 34% of the vote in the 2017 national elections, with even higher levels in many rural areas. As Cédric Durand notes, “In this movement one finds cohabiting, amid great confusion, sentiments from the left and sentiments from the right, a large mass of people with little political experience, with anticapitalist activists and fascists” (“Le fond de l’air est jaune,” Contretemps: Revue de Critique Communiste 12-11-1. I will be quoting extensively from writers on the French. and global, in order to give a flavor of a debate that is still ongoing over the nature and meaning of the Yellow Vest movement.)

Or as the far-left Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes observed, during the December 8 protests in Paris, “New slogans appeared, like ‘Paris/Bourgeois/Submit,’ ‘Don’t Turn Out Migrants, Turn Over the Money to Us,’ and even the [singing of] the Internationale,” but at the same time some slogans were more ambiguous or possibly rightwing in nature. The Plateforme article also mentioned the “work carried out over the past four weeks by antifascist groups responsible for expelling the most openly far right groups from the marches.” This article also pointed to “the significant presence of youth from the suburbs in the riots,” a reference to the impoverished peripheries of Paris with large Black and Arab populations (“Macron ne lâche rien, le gilets jaunes non plus!” 12-13-18).

A November 28 declaration from the anti-racist, anti-police-murder Adama Committee, “The Popular Neighborhoods Alongside the Yellow Vests,” stated: “The popular neighborhoods are facing the same social problems as rural or exurban areas… affected by the hyper-[neo]liberal policies of Macron…. It also takes us several hours by car to get to work… plus we face 40% unemployment in some neighborhoods…. Racism, daily humiliations and police violence are added to these social inequalities. This [police] violence is also being experienced by the Yellow Vests today…. We are not ceding the ground to the far right, and we reaffirm our position against racism inside the Yellow Vests movement…. We call upon all residents of the popular neighborhoods to come out in massive numbers to fight for their dignity on December 1” (Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

Despite some contradictions, the overall thrust of the Yellow Vests movement has been a progressive one: against neoliberalism, against economic inequality, against the centralized French state, and for grassroots democracy. Moreover, it has emerged outside the urban centers, in the very parts of France where the neofascists have been drawing much of their support. Let us look more at its social composition.

The Danger of Lassalleanism
The social strata that self-mobilized as the Yellow Vests were not typical leftwing constituencies, at least in the eyes of the dominant parts of the global left. More rural, more self-employed or working in small enterprises, they could be too easily dismissed as “petty bourgeois” by orthodox Marxists, who see them as the mass base of reaction and fascism.

This is a distorted perspective whose roots go back to Ferdinand Lassalle’s German socialist movement, a rival tendency to that of Marx, but which became an important founding influence on the Second (Socialist) International.  Lassalleans infamously regarded all forces outside the industrial working class as “one reactionary mass.” To Marx, this was a distortion of the Communist Manifesto, where he and Engels had declared: “Of all the classes that stand face-to-face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.” However, Marx and Engels did not mean by that a dismissal of the revolutionary potential of other non-ruling classes. Marx therefore retorted, in his Critique of the Gotha Program: “Has one proclaimed to the artisan, small manufacturers, etc., and peasants during the last elections: Relative to us, you, together with the bourgeoisie and feudal lords, form one reactionary mass?” (Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875, Ch. 1.)

Lassalleanism forms a major part of the intellectual origin of the class-reductionist “workerism” one finds even today in some varieties of Trotskyism. It is also tied to how a large number of US liberals declare either that the rural areas can be written off due to demographic change (optimists) or that these areas will continue to control the Senate and thus drag the government permanently to the right despite the popular vote (pessimists).  But as the Yellow Vests movement shows dramatically, rural areas have never been monolithic, as rural people also suffer under the weight of capitalism, whether in its monopoly stage a century ago (bringing about the leftwing U.S. Populists) or in its neoliberal stage today (bringing about the Yellow Vests).

Moreover, if one is thinking about a real social revolution as opposed to electoral politics alone, or about fascist coups as a real possibility even in longstanding democratic republics, one has also to think about how the hard core of the state, the military-police apparatus, could be overcome. In that case, one has to consider that in most societies, the bulk of the military comes from the more rural areas and that on numerous occasions, from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Chinese democratic uprisings of 1989, troops from outlying rural areas were sent in to crush the movement. They were able to do so in large part because the revolutionary movement had not succeeded in spreading outward to those rural areas, something Marx pointed out after 1871 with regard to France’s Paris Commune. Had that not been the case, those troops would more easily have gone over to the side of the revolutionaries, as occurred in Russia in 1917.  In countries like the US today, an attempted fascist coup seems nearer than social revolution. But that is all the more reason to consider how the left needs to go outside the urban centers, to interact with and win over those sectors of the population whose sons and daughters join the military in such large numbers.

This is not to deny the fact that downwardly mobile lower middle class (petty bourgeois) groups and rural populations drawn from the dominant ethnic groups (not of course members of oppressed minority groups like rural Blacks in the U.S. or Kurds in the Middle East) have at times formed the social base of rightwing populism and fascism, as theorists like Leon Trotsky and Erich Fromm have shown.  But such positioning is a product also of the state of the formation of revolutionary ideas and subjectivities at specific historical junctures, something that we as revolutionary leftists cannot control but that we are in a position to influence and help to shape.

The social composition of the movement
What does it mean to say, in the context of France and other industrially developed capitalist countries today, that the Yellow Vests are more rural, more middle class, and more white than other recent radical movements?  As the Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes notes: “First of all, the social composition of the movement. This novel uprising is characterized by downwardly mobile middle classes and social strata undergoing proletarianization. Certainly, the familiar strata of public and civil servants, service workers, wage earners from the industrial basins, and students are present. But a whole host of other social segments struggling to make ends meet seems to be at the forefront of the dynamic: employees of small and medium enterprises, shopkeepers, artisans, and the growing plethora of new forms of independent and precarious labor. The unity of this social diversity, beyond the rejection of Macron and his centrist politics (politics coming from right or left, it doesn’t really matter), lies in a generalized feeling of having had enough [ras-le-bol], anchored in the materiality of living conditions. The violence of downward mobility for some, the harshness of work for others; those who see their social rights crumbling or those who never really had these rights; those for whom the future suddenly appears to be much darker than they had expected, and those who grew up with a receding horizon of expectations” (“On a Ridgeline: Notes on the ‘Yellow Vests’ Movement,” Viewpoint Magazine 12-6-18).

Another new aspect, seldom remarked upon, is the large presence of women among the Yellow Vests: “Women are also at the traffic circles and blockades, at the leading edge of the demonstrations, and are acting as spokespersons. Visible on TV screens, they give the movement an unaccustomed image, since it is too often the men who do the speaking during social movements. First victims of precarity, of unemployment, and involuntary part-time hours, the women in yellow vests are denouncing the social conditions imposed upon them. They are a vital force in the movement” (“Nous sommes le peuple,” Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

Rural sociologist Benoît Coquard amplifies this point: “In terms of gender there has been something remarkable in my view: There were almost as many women as men even though, as is typical, especially in rural areas, it is the men who assume public functions.  I would even say that the women took the initiative in creating the public gatherings. Many times, I observed here the divorced single mother eking out a precarious existence or the young single woman” (“Qui sont et que veulent les ‘gilets jaunes’?” interview in Contretemps 11/23/18).

The mainstream media obscured this fact, but women were also hit by brutal police repression, As the philosopher Frédéric Lordon intoned: “Whereas France Info had fed us to the point of nausea with images of the Necker hospital windows and a burning McDonalds, no midday news flashes last Monday [3 December] had yet informed us of the death of a woman in her eighties killed by a tear gas canister” (“End of the World?,” Verso Blog, Dec. 7, 2018).

One also has to think about how the working class has changed over the decades of neoliberal capitalism. As Jean-François Cabral notes, the working class of 1968 with its giant factories and powerful trade unions no longer exists in the same form, certainly not in France and other industrially developed countries: “The reality has become more complex.  Former proletarians have become self-employed entrepreneurs alongside small business owners who have to get their hands dirty? Is this really a problem?” (“Des gilets rouges aux gilets jaunes: la classe ouvrière introuvable?” Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre).

These are problems that go far beyond France, but what is notable about the Yellow Vests is the emergence of a movement against concentrated wealth and for its redistribution, as well as a host of other progressive demands, in a country that was worried in 2017 about a neofascist electoral victory and where both racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and sexism exist at significantly high levels. To be sure, the Yellow Vests are not an anticapitalist movement, but they seem to offer some real possibilities for a mass left that would embrace all working people, regardless of race, gender, or geography.

Comparisons and contexts
How can we contextualize the Yellow Vests in terms of recent popular uprisings and movements around the world?

Several commentators have linked the basically leaderless, spontaneous Yellow Vest protests to those since the Arab Revolutions of 2010-11, when the Tunisian and Egyptian masses toppled their autocrats.  These in turn inspired Occupy, the Spanish Indignados and other similar movements outside the Middle East.  Chiding those who still think of radical movements solely in top-down terms, the anarchist David Graeber writes, in light of the sudden emergence of the Yellow Vests, of “horizontality” replacing “older ‘vertical’ or vanguardist models of organization.” He adds that “intellectuals” need to do “a little less talking and a lot more listening” in relation to these new movements (“The ‘Yellow Vests’ Show How Much the Ground Moves Under Our Feet,” Brave New Europe, Dec. 11, 2018).  It is certainly true that many revolutionary movements, from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to those that pushed out several Arab tyrants in 2011, have been leaderless and horizontal.

But Graeber’s argument has two major limitations. (1) He is still addressing the left, giving it lessons, not dialoguing with the actual movements, as seen in the fact that he doesn’t quote a single slogan or voice from the French protests, or any other one for that matter. Contrast that to our Marxist-Humanist tradition, which has published classics like Charles Denby’s Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal, recording the words of those from the deepest layers of the oppressed, and where mass upheaval from below is not only described and celebrated, but also analyzed critically.  (2) More crucially, Graeber is at such pains to deny the charge that the Yellow Vests are nihilistic or reactionary, that he simply celebrates them, without raising the kinds of critical questions that intellectuals, theorists, and members of radical organizations need to do if they are to truly support such movements. For example, Tahrir Square was a magnificent example of horizontal revolutionary subjectivity, but at the same time, the genuinely revolutionary elements did not have a chance to build up their organizations or to develop a really clear-headed theoretical perspective. This resulted in their oscillation between, on one hand, allying with the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, or on the other, with the nationalist but authoritarian military (Gilbert Achcar, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising, Stanford University Press, 2016). This does not mean that Graeber is wrong, however, to view the Yellow Vests as part of the revolutionary tradition that began in 2011, and in which he played such a crucial part at Occupy Wall Street.

A second context for the Yellow Vests has not been noticed very much, the link to several other rural uprisings against economic oppression over the past year.  In Oklahoma and West Virginia, US teachers staged militant and massive strikes last spring, managing to win some significant victories. Women were in the forefront of many of these strikes, which targeted pay so low that teachers had to take second jobs to survive. For their part, the teachers’ unions were more dragged along by events than in the position of leading these strikes.  The fact that teacher militancy broke out most massively in these predominantly rural states that had voted overwhelming for Trump showed that those areas had radical possibilities beyond the imagination of leftists and liberals still under the spell of the Lassallean paradigm discussed above. As education researcher Lois Weiner concludes, “the teachers’ movements are laying the ground work for a new labor movement in the South” (“Walkouts Teach U.S. Labor a New Grammar for Struggle,” New Politics 65, Summer 2018).

A less discussed but even more apt analogue to the Yellow Vests can be found in the Iranian protests and riots in rural areas last winter. In late December 2017 and into January 2018 a series of violent uprisings occurred in 80 small cities and rural areas that had been thought to have been the political base of the Islamist regime.  As an anonymous correspondent from inside Iran wrote at the time: “The protests expanded horizontally, covering most cities in northern, southern, and western parts of Iran. Small cities and places farther from the center, which before this movement were government strongholds, are rioting. It was amazing to see how large numbers of people in small cities of western Iran, who were not active in political crises in the past, came into the streets. In these cities the time between peaceful street protest to taking over the government centers and putting them on fire was very short” (An Iranian Marxist, “Iran Uprising after Five Days,” International Marxist-Humanist 1-3-18 — see also the articles on this site that month by Mansoor M, Ali Kiani, and Ali Reza).  As in France, areas of the country often dubbed “reactionary” came to the forefront of protests that were mainly over economic grievances: declining or unpaid wages, unemployment, corruption and favoritism, and ecologically disastrous mismanagement of their water supply.  While women’s rights was not an explicit issue in the protests and riots, some significant women’s demonstrations against the veil occurred during the same period. Many of the urban residents who had supported earlier protests against the regime were stunned, and even suspicious, hanging back from supporting the new upsurges in the rural areas.

The Yellow Vests movement also has a particularly French resonance, sometimes with nationalist overtones. Recall though, that this is a country whose modern republican system was founded through one of history’s great social revolutions, that of 1789. That revolution paved the way for both a modern democratic system that allows labor and socialist groups to organize and also a new form of class society, capitalism, with all its exploitation and oppression. Recall also that that “republican” heritage — especially the tricolor flag and the “Marseillaise” national anthem — has at least since the Russian revolution of 1917 been used more by the center and the right than the left, which has carried the red flag and sung the “Internationale.”  In addition, the left has — for good reason — eschewed for the most part the language of “the people” in favor of that of the “working class” or “popular classes.” Thus, it was a bit jarring for the French left to witness protests against the rich and against deteriorating economic conditions accompanied by the singing of the “Marseillaise,” the waving of the tricolor, and references to the French “people,” especially when those same protests called for revolution and sometimes even the guillotine. Often, the modern left has also tended to regard locally based anti-tax movements with suspicion.

But as historian Gérard Noiriel informs us, local resistance to the state by peasants and other popular classes had a long tradition in the centuries preceding 1789.  In many cases that resistance took the form of opposition to royal taxes: “Struggles against taxation have played an extremely important role in a French popular history,” i.e., the struggles of the pre-revolutionary French popular classes, for example, peasants and artisans. For many years, this was subsumed under labor and socialist movements that supported a stronger state and that channeled class anger in a reformist direction (“Gilets jaunes et les ‘leçons de l’histoire,” in Gilets Jaunes: Des clés pour comprendre; see also Richard Greeman, “Self-Organized Yellow Vest Protest Movement Exposes Inequality and Hollowness of French Regime,” New Politics Online 12-3-18).

Rather than jump to conclusions, these are issues to consider and debate, given the changed world of neoliberal capitalism and, more recently, burgeoning rightwing populism and neofascism in the U.S., France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere.

Today, when Marxist and socialist discourse no longer dominates French intellectual life or plays major part in public discourse, and has even less influence outside the urban centers, is it surprising that a social movement of the 2010s has adopted (and adapted) the narratives that citizens receive in the public schools, which still cover the revolutionary origins of the republic.

That in no way makes the Yellow Vests a reactionary movement, as can be seen by its social content and context. Instead, it is a movement that expresses a type of revolutionary anger and energy that could really shake up the country, while at the same time it, like many other social forces today, faces the danger of seduction by the far right.

One issue of concern to the Yellow Vest movement is that the problem is not ultimately Macron or even neoliberalism, but capitalism itself. This is a system that for some decades now has been unable to raise or even maintain the standard of living that the masses achieved, in part through their own labor and social struggles, in the years 1945-75. But in this regard, left spokespersons like Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Unbowed (or Bernie Sanders in the US or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK) offer no real solutions either, except the mirage of a return to Keynesian welfare capitalism.

If the Yellow Vests have achieved anything, it is to expose Macron as a last holdout of neoliberalism, of a type of “free market” liberalism that rejects nationalism à la Trump and believes strongly in the European Union.

Whether a truly revolutionary movement, based on solid theoretical ground, can arise in France or elsewhere remains the question.

But the Yellow Vests have at least opened a breach, showing to themselves, the French people, and the world, that mass self-activity by working people is not only the most powerful weapon we have had historically, but that this weapon remains in stock, sharp as a knife, and ready to strike.  The question is, in what direction and toward what ends?

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We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Socialists and the fight against racism-Review by Bill Mullen

Posted by admin On December - 3 - 2018 Comments Off on Socialists and the fight against racism-Review by Bill Mullen


Histories of American socialism and the fight against racism in the early twentieth century are laden with flimsy myths. On one account, the socialist movement was indifferent or silent, a lie buttressed by endlessly repeated citation of Eugene Debs’ claim that “We [the Socialist Party] have nothing special to offer the Negro.” On another account, the left hurled itself uncritically and unilaterally into support of the Comintern’s “Black Belt Thesis” advocating for the secession of African-Americans in the US South as an oppressed national minority. These polarized, caricatured assertions prop up a wider liberal consensus hardened by American anti-communist drift that Karl Marx himself—and Marxism more generally—are Eurocentrically tone deaf to the centrality of race and racism in the formation of capitalism. This school of misrepresentation reached its apotheosis in Cedric Robinson’s influential 1983 book Black Marxism. As Paul Heideman notes in his Introduction, Robinson asserted that Marx “consigned race, gender, culture, and history to the dustbin.” This, in turn, gave birth to a neologism meant to replace Marx and historical materialism itself: racial capitalism.

Heideman’s well-curated and annotated anthology of writings by US socialists dispels each of these myths. It is the single best anthology on the topic yet published, providing a wide-ranging, nuanced, critical, and, importantly, interracial representation of writings on race by the US left. It serves four particular uses for historians and activists. First, it restores the central influence of Marx’s own writings on slavery, colonialism and race on twentieth century US socialists. Second, it clearly and judiciously diagrams competing arguments and debates among early twentieth century US socialists about how to understand and combat racism. Third, it recovers a number of figures, texts, journals, and newspapers where these debates occurred, restoring a fuller portrait of socialism’s dynamism at its apex of influence on popular US consciousness. Fourth, it acknowledges analytical weakness, residual racism, and failure in political practice as constant accompaniments to socialist organizing. This is a reflexive approach to our own socialist movement, and thus a more usable tool for our time.

Heideman’s book is structured into five sections. “The Socialist Party,” part one, includes the full text of Debs’s 1902 speech “The Negro in the Class Struggle” from which his “nothing special” line is taken. The speech, important to read in entirety, shows that Debs’s criticism of racism was unequivocal, and that the greatest weakness of his Socialist Party was an inability to develop a clear strategy for organizing the working class across racial lines.

A. M. Simons follows Debs. He was an early member of the Socialist Labor Party and editor of the International Socialist Review—for a time the preeminent socialist journal in the United States—wherein his essay “The Negro Problem” was first published. The essay is significant for locating slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction as cauldrons of unresolved US racial divisions in the working class, and as such shows the influence of Marx’s own writings. Heideman includes a key text by W. E. B. Du Bois—a member of the Socialist Party for one year—signaling his own ambivalence about socialist vacillation on interracial organizing—and two essays by Hubert Harrison driven by frustration with the Socialist Party’s compromises, especially in the South, where only Debs refused to speak to segregated audiences.

Heideman’s selections allow the reader to leave section one for section two on the Industrial Workers of the World with a clear understanding of why the latter felt it necessary to make interracial radicalism a cornerstone of the Wobbly movement. The IWW won two major victories organizing interracial unions: in the South (timber workers) and in Philadelphia where Ben Fletcher, a Black Wobbly, helped organize marine transport workers. In 1923, his essay “The Negro and Organized Labor” blasted the AFL and railroad brotherhoods for excluding Black workers. IWW leaders also reached out to Chinese and Japanese workers despite declaring, “To the I.W.W. there is not a race problem. There is only a class problem.” The IWW’s commitment to on-the-ground interracial organizing bested the Socialist Party during the World War I era.

The Wobblies also earned the support of Socialist Party members Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph when they launched the journal The Messenger in Harlem in 1917. Significantly, The Messenger also attracted writers from the Garvey movement, like W. A. Domingo. As much as any early twentieth century left journal, The Messenger represented African-American socialists in theoretical engagement with a broad menu of vital issues: not just racism but Bolshevism, World War I, labor organizing, strikes, and communist internationalism. Contradictions and weaknesses in The Messenger’s articulation of socialism are evident in its 1919 editorial “The Right and Left Wing Interpreted,” which simultaneously calls for interracial working-class revolution and a larger Black police force to keep down rioting. Owen and Randolph’s ardent support for Bolshevism morphed into a conservative drift as the Russian Revolution sputtered in the 1920s.

Heideman devotes an entire section of the book to The Crusader, a newspaper founded in 1918 by Caribbean immigrant Cyril Briggs. The weight assigned to what Heideman calls”project of one man” foregrounds the paper’s role as a bridge between Black nationalism and socialism after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Brigg’s secret companion society to the paper, the African Blood Brotherhood, attracted radicals like Claude McKay seeking to produce within socialist politics an analysis of radical Black nationalism, anti-colonialism, and imperialism. Significantly, McKay would join the Communist Party and travel to Moscow to testify on the conditions of Black Americans, giving momentum to Bolshevik support for Black self-determination. Essays here like the African Blood Brotherhood’s “Program” for Black liberation published in 1921 are key primary sources for understanding how US and West Indian revolutionaries shaped left internationalism after 1917.

The book’s final section, “The Communist Party,” has several strengths: it features the key documents produced by the Communist International on Black liberation—the Theses of the Second and Third Cominterns (the “Black Belt Thesis”); it carries entries by most of the leading theorists on Black liberation in the CP orbit—Robert Minor, Jay Lovestone, Lovett FortWhiteman, William Z. Foster; and it recuperates lesser known nuggets, like John Reed’s 1920 essay, “The Negro Question in America.” Heideman’s head notes, proficient throughout, are especially useful in this section, tracking the onerous effects of Stalinism on both shifts in the CP line, and more tragic effects like Fort-Whiteman’s incarceration and death in a Soviet prison camp. Where could Heideman’s volume be stronger? The book has only two female contributors—Kate Richards O’Hare and Jeannette Pearl. This limitation reflects the sexism of this period, which generated male dominance in the “theoretical” milieu of the early twentieth-century left, but the book might have added journalistic pieces by Grace Campbell, who joined the Socialist Party and Communist Party and helped co-found the African Blood Brotherhood, or Fanny Austin, who wrote on day workers, or Bell Lamb, who wrote on Black women in industry. The decision to end the book at 1930 also bespeaks the need—well established by this volume—for a sequel that includes the World War II period and the “popular front.”

That said, Heideman’s volume demands a place on every radical’s bookshelf. The text is as useful for political reading groups as for the classroom. It is an indispensable weapon for all of us in the fight against capitalism and racism.

Fair Use Notice
This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which we are making only for educational purposes. This is a non -profit web site and does not accept any type of advertisement, paid or otherwise. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems.

We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Trotsky’s revolutionary ideas – originality or continuity?-By Paul Le Blanc

Posted by admin On December - 2 - 2018 Comments Off on Trotsky’s revolutionary ideas – originality or continuity?-By Paul Le Blanc


December 2, 2018 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – Although I consider myself a Trotskyist (just as I consider myself a Leninist and a Marxist), there is something that has gotten me into trouble with some friends who also identify as Trotskyists.[1]

Early in my short biography Leon Trotsky, I said: “A key dimension of Trotsky’s reputation is as a brilliantly innovative theorist.” That was okay – it was what came next that was the problem: “In looking at the ideas Trotsky put forward in his theoretical writings … I will be inclined to emphasize the aspects of unoriginality in Trotsky’s thought, especially in relation to the much-vaunted theory of permanent revolution, his analysis of Stalinism, his prescriptions for defeating Hitler, and the much misunderstood Transitional Program.  All these are drawn from Marx and from revolutionary Marxists of Trotsky’s own time, including the best of Second International Marxism in the period leading up to 1914, as well as the collective project of the early Third International.”[2] I want to focus, here, on the substance of what Trotsky had to say on such things as permanent revolution and Stalinism and so on.  But first I want to take a little time unpacking this originality thing.

I think it is very unhelpful to turn Leon Trotsky into some kind of ideological icon, with a special set of theories presented under the banner of “Trotskyism,” for the purpose of elevating him (and those of us who worship the icon) above the rest of humanity – or at least above everyone else on the Left.  It can also lead to the fashioning of ideological measuring rods, with which we can beat those among us who seem to deviate from the Master’s Doctrine.  I think it is especially unhelpful to have a competing set of labels: there go some Marxists, here comes a Leninist, and that one over there is a Trotskyist, then there’s a Luxemburgist, here’s a Gramscian, and so on.  Trotsky (and Marx and Lenin and Luxemburg and Gramsci) didn’t see things that way. Trotsky considered himself a revolutionary socialist, which was the same for him as a communist – although he did believe that the whole set of Marx’s ideas and way of approaching things was so impressive and valuable, that he was happy to call himself a Marxist.  This is also true of such people as Luxemburg, Lenin and Gramsci – and in my book From Marx to Gramsci, I seek to demonstrate that these three revolutionaries, along with Trotsky and Marx and Engels, are best understood as being close enough in methodological approach and practical political orientation to be grouped together.[3]

Trotsky had an advantage over the others, due to the banal fact that he was able to live longer, enabling him to apply Marxist analysis to the most horrific tyrannies of the twentieth century – Stalinism and fascism (particularly fascism’s most virulent form, Nazism).[4]  We’ll return to that shortly – but first, let’s consider how Trotsky was inclined to define the term Marxist – especially in relation to the term Leninist.

One of the places Trotsky explored this was in the voluminous notes for his unfinished biography of Stalin.  He noted, “Marxism is in itself a historical product and should be accepted as such.  This historical Marxism includes within itself three basic elements: materialist dialectics, historical materialism, and a theoretical critique of capitalist economy.”  He went on to assert: “Leninism is Marxism in action, that is, theory made flesh and blood.”  It’s not that Marx was a theorist instead of an activist – he was active in the Communist League of the late 1840s and the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) of the 1860s and early 1870s.  But, according to Trotsky, “Lenin’s work differs enormously from the work of Marx and his old comrades just as much as Lenin’s epoch differs from that of Marx.  Marx, the revolutionist, lived and died as the theoretical teacher of young parties of the proletariat and as a precursor of its future decisive struggles.  Lenin led the proletariat to the conquest of power, secured victory by means of his leadership, led the first workers state in the history of humanity,” through the Russian Revolution, at the same time working for the global triumph of working-class rule, especially through the Communist International.[5]

Of course, just as Marx was lucky to have what Trotsky calls “old comrades” who made essential contributions to what he thought and was able to do, so it was with Lenin – his achievements were necessarily part of a collective endeavor. His comrades were especially concentrated in a centralized organizational network within the Russian revolutionary movement, a network known as the Bolsheviks.  Their revolutionary Marxist perspectives reflected the lessons and insights of accumulated experience, to which Lenin gave voice, and these, in turn, were a decisive influence within the early Communist International.[6]

Unfortunately, the forces in and around the Communist International were not successful in extending revolutionary working-class victories to other countries. The working-class regime of Soviet Russia was not only isolated in a hostile capitalist world, but it was severely damaged by a brutal civil war, and devastated by multiple tidal-waves of economic crises.

Within the new Soviet Republic, this generated authoritarian habits and inclinations within the apparatus of the Communist Party and Soviet state.  A self-interested bureaucracy crystallized that claimed to represent the old revolutionary commitments but, in fact, was going in a very different direction.   As Trotsky explained in his 1937 testimony to the Dewey Commission, at this point (back in the early 1920s) the bureaucracy initiated a campaign in which “all the old formulae of Bolshevism were named ‘Trotskyist.’  That was the trick.  What was the genuine thing in Bolshevism is opposed to every privilege, to the oppression of the majority by the minority.”  Stalinists now denounced this as “the program of Trotskyism.”[7]

Trotsky’s distinctiveness is that, unlike many, he sought to remain true to the original revolutionary perspectives.  In a sense he became original simply through applying old principles – as consistently and creatively as he could – to new realities. This brings us back to Marxism.

Marxism fuses a view of history, an engagement with current realities, and a strategic orientation for replacing capitalism with socialism.  The dominant interpretation of history shared by Marxists of the early twentieth century went something like this: since the rise of class societies (with small, powerful upper classes of exploiters enriched by vast laboring majorities) there have been a succession of historical stages characterized by different forms of economy – ancient slave civilizations giving way to feudalism, which has given way to present-day capitalism.

The growth of capitalism was facilitated by democratic revolutions that swept away rule by kings and the power of landed nobles, making way for increasingly democratic republics and capitalist economies.  The victory of the capitalists (the bourgeoisie) paves the way for the triumph of industrialization and modernization.  This creates economic productivity and abundance making possible a socialist future (a thoroughly democratic society of freedom and plenty, in which there will be no upper class and no lower class).  Capitalism also creates a working-class (or proletarian) majority that potentially has an interest in, and the power required for, bringing into being a socialist future.

Many Marxists consequently believed that there must first be a bourgeois-democratic revolution, followed by industrialization and modernization, before the necessary preconditions for a proletarian-socialist revolution can be created.  There seemed a crying need for such a bourgeois-democratic revolution in economically “backward” Russia of the early 1900s.  It was a land oppressed by the Tsarist autocracy and landed nobility (to which capitalists were subordinated as junior partners), with a small working class and a large impoverished peasantry.  Many Marxists concluded they should fight for the triumph of such a bourgeois-democratic revolution, so that capitalist development could eventually create the economic and political preconditions for a working-class revolution that would eventually bring about socialism.

For some Russian Marxists (the Mensheviks, influenced by “the father of Russian Marxism,” George Plekhanov), this meant building a worker-capitalist alliance to overthrow Tsarism.  Lenin and his Bolsheviks – profoundly skeptical of the revolutionary potential of Russia’s capitalists – called instead for a radical worker-peasant alliance that would carry the anti-Tsarist struggle to victory.  But even they did not question the “orthodox” schema: first, a distinct bourgeois-democratic revolution paving the way for capitalist development; later – once conditions were ripe – a working-class revolution to bring about socialism.[8]

Yet from a Marxist point of view, this schema provides a theoretical and political puzzle.  If the working class is as essential to the democratic revolution as the Mensheviks claimed, and if their direct exploiters are the capitalists with whom they are engaged in class struggle, then how can these mortal enemies be expected to link arms as comrades in a common struggle? And if – as Lenin insisted – the workers must, in fact, turn their backs on the capitalists (in alliance with the peasantry) to overthrow Tsarism, what sense would it make for them in the moment of victory to turn power over to their cowardly exploiters?

“Trotsky alone [was able] to cut the gordian knot of the Marxism of the Second International,” my friend Michael Löwy has argued, “and to grasp the revolutionary possibilities that lay beyond the dogmatic construction of the democratic Russian revolution which was the unquestioned problematic of all other Marxist formulations.”  Yet scholars Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, in their massive documentary volume Witnesses to Permanent Revolution, have provided a sharp and persuasive challenge to this. “Leon Trotsky, while certainly the most famous and brilliant proponent of permanent revolution, was by no means its sole author,” is how they sum it up.  Among the others are Karl Kautsky, Alexander Helphand (who used the pen-name Parvus), Rosa Luxemburg, David Riazanov, Franz Mehring – and, one could add, Lenin, with his formulation “uninterrupted revolution.”  The phrase “permanent revolution,” and essential elements of the theory, can be found in works of Marx and Engels – especially in their writings of 1850.  With specific reference to Russia, the conceptualization crops up in their writings of the 1870s and 1880s – for example, in the 1882 introduction to the Communist Manifesto.[9]

Trotsky himself insisted that his “permanent revolution” conception overlapped with perspectives of other Marxists.  Some have characterized this as an effort to “minimize the originality of his conception” in order to “play down the supposedly ‘heretical’ nature of the theory of permanent revolution.”[10]  In fact, it seems Trotsky’s comments were grounded less in political expediency than intellectual honesty.  Far from being the unique innovation of Leon Trotsky, it is a perspective that flows naturally from the revolutionary conceptualizations inherent in the analyses and methodology of Marx himself.  “Trotsky is deeply committed to one element in classical Marxism,” as Isaac Deutscher has observed, “its quintessential element: permanent revolution.”[11]  Revolutionary-minded theorists and activists – seeking to apply such Marxism to the world around them – will naturally come up with formulations going in a “permanent revolution” direction.

Yet it was Trotsky’s sparkling prose that most clearly and boldly formulated the interrelated elements of permanent revolution.  Trotsky’s formulation linked the struggle for democracy – the end of feudal privileges (especially redistribution of land to the peasants), freedom of expression, equal rights for all, rule by the people – with the struggle for socialism, a society in which the great majority of people would control the economic resources of society, to allow for the full and free development of all.  It also linked the struggle for revolution in Russia with the cause of socialist revolution throughout the world.

Trotsky’s version of the theory contained three basic points.  One: The revolutionary struggle for democracy in Russia could only be won under the leadership of the working class with support from the peasant majority.  Two: This democratic revolution would begin a transitional period in Russia in which all political, social, cultural and economic relations would continue to be in flux, leading in the direction of socialism.  Three: This transition would be part of, and would help to advance, and must also be furthered by an international revolutionary process.

One might go further, beyond countries like Russia: permanent revolution has application in the capitalist heartland, not simply in the less developed periphery.  Struggles for genuine democracy, struggles to end militarism and imperialist wars, struggles to defend the environment from the devastation generated by capitalism, struggles simply to preserve the quality of life for a majority of the people, cannot be secured without the working class coming to power and overturning capitalism.  This means our own struggles in the here-and-now also have a “permanent revolution” dynamic.  Nor can socialist victory be secured without the spread of such revolutions to other lands. Trotsky insisted on (in his words) “the permanent character of revolution as such, regardless of whether it is a backward country that is involved, which only yesterday accomplished its democratic revolution, or an old capitalist country which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.” He added:
The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. . . . The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.[12]
But, again, this is plain Marxism, not some innovative theoretical twist of Trotsky’s.  And he never claimed otherwise.

After Lenin’s death, the rising bureaucratic apparatus headed by Stalin in the Communist Party and Soviet state instinctively gravitated toward a variant of “Marxism” that snapped all threads connecting the essential elements of Trotsky’s formulation of permanent revolution: connections between democracy, socialism, and internationalism. Stalin advanced the notion that this so-called “socialism” (burdened by scarcity and authoritarianism, problems that would eventually fade away if all comrades did what they were told) could be created in the Soviet Union itself, within a capitalist-dominated world.[13]  Therefore Communist parties in other countries (required to follow the Stalinist line) were expected to struggle for democracy and social reforms, but not socialist revolution, making alliances with “progressive capitalists” and creating regimes to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union.  This approach was interrupted briefly, from 1929 to 1934, by a so-called “left turn” (which we will examine shortly).

As Tom Twiss documents in his fine study Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy, Trotsky’s early efforts to analyze Stalinism contained some serious misjudgments.[14]  Still, early on he got much of it right.  Describing in 1932 the typical functionary of the Soviet bureaucracy, “who manipulates the general line [of the Party] like a fireman his hose,” Trotsky was merciless: “He eats and guzzles and procreates and grows himself a respectable potbelly.  He lays down the law with a sonorous voice, handpicks from below people faithful to him, remains faithful to his superiors, prohibits others from criticizing himself, and sees in all this the gist of the general line.”   A few million such bureaucrats constituted the governing apparatus, he added, and a majority of them “never participated in the class struggle, which is bound up with sacrifices, self-denials, and dangers. … They are backed by the state power.  It assures them their livelihood and raises them considerably above the surrounding masses.”

Using the analogy of the bureaucratization of the top layers in trade unions and working-class political parties, raising themselves above the working class they claim to represent, Trotsky argued that “the ruling and uncontrolled position of the Soviet bureaucracy is conducive to a psychology which in many ways is directly contradictory to the psychology of a proletarian revolutionist.  Its own aims and combinations in domestic as well as international politics are placed by the bureaucracy above the tasks of the revolutionary education of the masses and have no connection with the tasks of international revolution.”  His analysis is summed up with a single conceptually packed sentence:  “ On the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat – in a backward country, surrounded by capitalism – for the first time a powerful bureaucratic apparatus has been created from among the upper layers of the workers, that is raised above the masses, that lays down the law to them, that has at its disposal colossal resources, that is bound together by an inner mutual responsibility, and that intrudes into the policies of a workers’ government its own interests, methods, and regulations.”[15]

Far from portraying Stalinism as the product of an evil genius, Trotsky sees it as related to the more general development of a bureaucratic-conservative dynamic naturally deriving from historical circumstances, conditioned by specific economic realities.  This involves an analytical methodology quite recognizable to those familiar with the approach of Karl Marx.

Nazism, and fascism in general, are similarly analyzed by Trotsky through the employment of basic Marxist categories (and dovetailing with other Marxist analyses – for example, those of Antonio Gramsci in Italy and of Rosa Luxemburg’s close comrade Clara Zetkin in Germany).[16] Before exploring Trotsky’s analysis of fascism, we should note another aspect of Stalinism – its ultra-left turn of 1929-1934.

By the early 1930s, the urgency of stopping Hitler and the Nazi movement from taking power in Germany was absolutely clear to Trotsky.  But such urgency was something that the mainstream of the Communist movement proved incapable of grasping.  The reason can be found in the political disorientation generated by Stalinism.

Stalin’s dictatorship resulted from the failure of socialist revolution to spread beyond the confines of what had been the huge and backward Russian Empire, contradicting Bolshevism’s original revolutionary-internationalist expectations.  The resulting authoritarian bureaucracy, which dominated not only Soviet Russia but the entire Communist International, adhered to a shallow pragmatism characteristic of such regimes.  When a global economic depression began to devastate the capitalist world in 1929, such shallow pragmatism allowed revolutionary hopes to balloon among the bureaucrats, but these were expressed in a mechanistic and bureaucratic form.

A theory of three “periods” was advanced by the Stalinists: the first period (1917-22) had been one of revolutionary upheaval, revolutionary flow; the second period (1922-29) had been one of revolutionary ebb and capitalist re-stabilization; and the new third period, opening with the Great Depression, would usher in capitalist collapse and revolutionary triumph.  The future belonged to the world Communist movement headed by Comrade Stalin.  The greatest threat to revolutionary victory was posed not by fascists and Nazis – they were seen as foolish demagogues who would prove helpless in the face of history’s revolutionary tidal wave.  The real threat consisted of left-wing working-class currents that were not part of the Stalinist mainstream in the Communist movement.  Such elements (whether moderate socialists or revolutionary socialists) threatened to mislead the workers, drawing them away from the true revolutionary leadership of Comrade Stalin.  This meant they were, ultimately and objectively, twins of the fascists – instead of socialists, they should be considered “social-fascists.”[17]

Street fighting between German Communists and Nazis became a daily routine in the early 1930s, but an alliance against the Nazis with the massive German Social-Democratic Party – the so-called “social-fascists” – was unthinkable. And if Hitler’s Nazis took power, in the view of Stalin’s followers, the masses would soon turn against them, leading to Communist triumph: “After Hitler – our turn!”  This outlook harmonized well with the fierce and brutalizing rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization policies in the Soviet Union associated with Stalin’s murderous “revolution from above” of 1928-34.[18]

For Trotsky, the rise of Nazism could be explained by several convergent developments.  Nazism’s growing mass base came largely from what he viewed as “petty bourgeois” layers – farmers, shopkeepers, civil servants, white-collar employees, all of whom definitely did not want to be “proletarianized” and were becoming increasingly desperate for an alternative to the grim status quo and the deepening economic crisis.  They, and some “backward” layers of the working class, were for various reasons alienated from the “Marxism” associated with both the massive German Communist Party and the even more massive Social-Democratic Party, both of which were rooted in majority sectors of the country’s working class.  Petty bourgeois and alienated working-class elements flocked to a plebeian movement steeped in the ideological witch’s brew of super-patriotic nationalism and racism prevalent in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Germany. Fierce anti-Semitism was blended with vague anti-capitalist rhetoric.  Yet the Nazis drew much material support from substantial elements within the upper classes (aristocrats, financiers, industrialists) who detested Social Democrats and trade unions and who genuinely feared the possibility, particularly with the Great Depression, of the sort of Communist revolution that had triumphed in Russia a dozen years before.  The mass political movement the Nazis were building provided a counter-weight and ultimately a battering ram to smash the Marxist threat.

An essential ingredient in the growth of Nazi mass appeal was the earlier and ongoing failure of the major parties of the working-class left to provide a revolutionary solution to the problems afflicting society – the Social-Democrats thanks to the reformist and opportunistic moderation of their own bureaucratic leaders; the Communists thanks initially to their woeful inexperience, later compounded by the sectarian blinders of “third period” Stalinism. Especially when left-wing organizations and parties prove ineffective, Trotsky argued, petty bourgeois layers will be vulnerable to fascist appeals, drawing the more conservative layers of the working class along with them – which is exactly what was happening in regard to the Nazi movement, as masses of Germans were attracted by Hitler’s sweeping authoritarian certainties.

Trotsky called for a united front of Social-Democrats and Communists (including, as well, the dissident fractions of each), drawing on a conceptualization which the early Communist International had been won to – by Lenin, Trotsky himself, and others:  the notion that a working class divided between reformists and revolutionaries could still defend and advance its interests through a fighting unity. A united front must be formed, and within this context the revolutionaries, as the most effective fighters, could ultimately win the adherence of a working-class majority. This dynamic played out in Russia in 1917, when the reactionary General Kornilov was defeated by united working-class action, in turn giving the Bolsheviks predominant influence in the working class.  “Should the Communist Party be compelled to apply the policy of the united front, this will almost certainly make it possible to beat off the fascist attack,” Trotsky argued.  “In its own turn, a serious victory over fascism will clear the road for the dictatorship of the proletariat” – that is, for the working class to take political power and initiate a transition to socialism.[19]

In addition to breaking the Nazi threat and bringing a socialist transition in Germany, such a revolutionary development would likely generate similar revolutionary upsurges and transitions elsewhere, and by ending the Soviet Union’s isolation, thereby also helping to overcome the influence of Stalinism there and in the world Communist movement.  In addition to pushing aside the twin tyrannies of Hitlerism and Stalinism, the question is naturally raised whether such developments might have prevented World War II.

Of course, history took a more tragic turn.  Once Hitler came to power, the Communist International ultimately zig-zagged in the opposite direction, and by 1935 was calling for what some perceived as a sort of Super United Front – called the People’s Front or Popular Front. Communists were now supposed to unite not only with moderate socialists, but also (and especially) with liberal capitalist politicians, for the purpose of creating liberal capitalist governments that would form an alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler’s Germany.  Comintern spokesman George Dimitrov explained: “The toiling masses in a number of capitalist countries are faced with the necessity of making a definite choice, and of making it today, not between proletarian dictatorship and bourgeois democracy, but between bourgeois democracy and fascism.”  As historian E. H. Carr has noted, “Lenin’s ‘united front’ had been designed to hasten the advent of the proletarian revolution,” while “Dimitrov’s ‘popular front’ was designed to keep the proletarian revolution in abeyance in order to deal with the pressing emergency of Fascism,” adding: “care was taken not to ruffle the susceptibilities of those imperialist Powers whose support the Comintern was seeking to woo for the anti-Fascist front.”[20]

Time after time, over the eight decades since then, revolutionary socialists have found old-time Stalinists and moderate socialists alike aggressively pushing forward that same political line.  In arguing against that, Trotsky didn’t devise some new theory, but simply continued to apply the united front perspective guiding the Communist International under Lenin.

The insights and perspectives that Trotsky developed in his time still have resonance and value for our own time. Yet there is – in the conclusion of these remarks – a question of method that deserves attention.  It is related to Trotsky’s caution against devising a set of presumably “orthodox Trotskyist” or “orthodox revolutionary” tactics to be applied “from Paris to Honolulu,” as he put it.  In discussions with Trotsky and others in Mexico in 1938, a seasoned U.S. comrade (Charlie Curtiss) expressed a concern that Trotskyists from various countries, in his words, “have an extremely mechanical approach to the problems of permanent revolution.”  He urged that “emphasis should be placed upon the study of each concrete case, not upon abstractions only but upon each concrete case.”  Trotsky agreed, chiming in that “schematicism of the formula of permanent revolution can become and does become extremely dangerous to our movement in Latin America.”  In seeking to provide leadership in workers’ struggles, he emphasized, it made no sense to “pose an abstract socialist dictatorship to the real needs and desires of the masses.” Instead, revolutionaries must start from actual “daily struggles to oppose the national bourgeoisie on the basis of the workers’ needs,” through this approach “winning the leadership of the workers” via democratic mass struggles helping workers gain power.[21]

Related to this was Trotsky’s criticism of comrades who “substitute a [seemingly revolutionary] monologue for actual political work among the masses.”  He expressed the same concern in various ways, at another time warning against an inclination, as he put it, to “terrorize the workers by some abstract generalities and paralyze the will toward activity.”  It is important to listen to and learn from others, in order to be able to communicate revolutionary perspectives in a way that makes sense to people – or as Trotsky put it, revolutionary activists “should have in the first place a good ear, and only in the second place a good tongue.”[22]

This connects with what Trotsky is reaching for in the Transitional Program of 1938. “It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution,” he wrote. “This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”[23] Involving increasing numbers of people in actual mass struggles, in the here-and-now, for goals that seem quite reasonable to them but which come into sharp collision with the capitalist status quo – this is what helps to generate revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary struggle.

“How to mobilize the greatest possible numbers; how to raise the level of consciousness through action; how to create the most effective alliance of forces for the inescapable confrontation with the ruling classes” – this was the problematic with which Trotsky wrestled in this foundational document of the Fourth International, the global network of Trotskyist organizations. More than six decades after the founding, Fourth Internationalist Daniel Bensaïd shared his own understanding: “The concept of transitional demands overcomes sterile antinomies [contradictions or contrapositions] between a reformist gradualism which believes in changing society without revolutionizing it, and a fetishism of the ‘glorious day’ which reduces revolution to its climactic moment, to the detriment of the patient work of organization and education.”[24]

Here again, such insights are hardly unique to Trotsky. They are certainly essential to his politics, but they have also been an integral element in the methodology of revolutionary Marxism over the past 160 years, and part of the collective wisdom of the international workers’ movement for even longer.  They can certainly be found in Lenin and in the first four congresses of the Communist International.  And they can be found in Rosa Luxemburg’s earlier admonition at the dawn of the twentieth century, that the uncompromising struggle for social reforms is the pathway for the working class in achieving the consciousness, the confidence, the organization and the experience for realizing the aim of the socialist revolution.[25]

The fact remains that, along with the other aspects of the revolutionary ideas of Leon Trotsky touched on in these remarks, such challenging conceptualizations can be useful for us as we seek, today and tomorrow, to build effective struggles for freedom and socialism.

[1]This article is based on a talk given on July 5, 2018 at a conference in Chicago called Socialism 2018, which can be listened to at https://wearemany.org/a/2018/07/revolutionary-ideas-of-leon-trotsky.

[2]Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky(London: Reaktion Books, 2015), pp. 13-14. Two expressions of the criticism can be found in generally friendly reviews by Jeff Mackler, “Leon Trotsky, Revolutionary Fighter,” Socialist Action, October 15, 2015, https://socialistaction.org/2015/10/15/leon-trotsky-revolutionary-fighter/, and by Michael Löwy, “A most intelligent and insightful presentation of Trotsky’s thought and historical action,” International Viewpoint, 3 May 2015, http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article4010.

[3]Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci, A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), the elaboration of the common ground and continuity being made in the book’s long introductory essay, pp. 3-145.

[4]A representative collection of Trotsky’s writings in this later period is offered in Kunal Chattopadhay and Paul LeBlanc, eds., Leon Trotsky, Writings in Exile(London: Pluto Press, 2012).  One could argue that Gramsci – who lived until April 27, 1937 – was also in a position to analyze both fascism and Stalinism.  But his ten-year imprisonment blocked Gramsci’s ability to grapple with the German variant of fascism, as well as with the nature and meaning of Stalinism. Despite important insights, his analyses of the latter were sometimes “evasive” and necessarily “limited,” as noted in Emanuele Saccarelli, Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism: The Political Theory and Practice of Opposition(New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 54.

[5]Leon Trotsky, Stalin, An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence, ed. by Alan Woods and Robert Sewell (London: Wellred Books, 2016), pp. 723, 724, 733.

[6]This is demonstrated – massively and well – in the seven-volume work of John Riddell and his collaborators on the early years of the Communist International, five published by Pathfinder Press and two published by Haymarket Books. Also see additional writings on the Communist International by John Riddell, available at his internet site “Marxist Essays and Commentary” – https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/.

[7]The Case of Leon Trotsky, Report of Hearings on the Charges Made Against Him in the Moscow Trials(New York: Merit Publishers, 1968), p. 319.

[8]For Trotsky’s account, see “Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution” in Stalin, pp. 763-780.

[9]Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), p. 43. Documentation on common ground between Trotsky and others can be found in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, eds., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record(Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009), and in Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and “The Peripheries of Capitalism”(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).  On Lenin, see Löwy, pp. 34-36, and Paul Le Blanc, “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party: A Revolutionary Collective,” Links, Journal for Socialist Renewal, July 10, 2018, http://links.org.au/lenin-bolshevik-party-revolutionary-collective.

[10]Löwy, p. 40. Löwy’s interpretation is powerfully and capably re-emphasized in the first part of an article (co-authored by Paul Le Blanc, who was responsible for the second part of that article) entitled, “Lenin and Trotsky” in Norman Levine and Thomas Rockmore, eds., The Palgrave Handbook of Leninist Philosophy(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).

[11]Isaac Deutscher, Introduction,” The Age of Permanent Revolution, A Trotsky Reader (New York: Dell, 1964), p. 18.

[12]Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), p. 279.

[13]For more on the nature of Stalinist theory, practice and sources, see Paul Le Blanc, Reflections on the Meaning of Stalinism,” Crisis and Critique, Vol. 3, Issue 1, 29 March 2016, http://crisiscritique.org/ccmarch/blanc.pdf.

[14]Thomas M. Twiss, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015).

[15]Leon Trotsky, “What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat” (January 27, 1932), in Leon Trotsky, The Struggle against German Fascism, ed. by George Breitman and Merry Maisel (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), p. 213.  The most complete and rounded analysis can be found in Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed(New York: Doubleday Doran, 1937, which is consistent with the excerpt quoted here.

[16]See analyses of fascism in Antonio Gramsci, An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, ed. by David Forgacs (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), pp. 135-185, and in Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, ed. by Mike Taber and John Riddell (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).

[17]It has been shown that Nikolai Bukharin, briefly Stalin’s ally, played a key role in this “third period” theorization, but Stalin and those closest to him utilized it in far more extreme and destructive ways – see Nicholas N. Kozlov and Eric D. Weitz,“Reflections on the Origins of the ‘Third Period’: Bukharin, the Comintern, and the Political Economy of Weimar Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 24, No. 3, July 1989); also Georg Jungclas, “The Tragedy of the German Proletariat,” in Ernest Mandel, ed., Fifty Years of World Revolution, 1917-1967, An International Symposium(New York: Merit Publishers, 1967); and Theodore Draper, “The Ghost of Social Fascism,” Commentary, February 1967, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-ghost-of-social-fascism/#16.

[18]E.H. Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, 1926-1929, Volume Three-II (London: Macmillan Press, 1976), pp. 638-643; C.L.R. James, World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, ed. by Christian Høgsbjerg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), pp. 306-348; Allan Merson, Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany(London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985), pp. 19-22, 71-72.

[19]Trotsky, “What Next?” in The Struggle against German Fascism, p. 254.

[20]Georgi Dimitroff, The United Front: The Struggle Against Fascism and War(New York: International Publishers, 1938), p. 110; E.H. Carr, The Twilight of the Comintern, 1930-1935(New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), pp. 419, 426.

[21]“Latin American Problems: A Transcript, November 4, 1938,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky, Supplement 1934-40, ed. by George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1979), pp. 782, 783, 784.

[22]“The Social Composition of the Party,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1936-37, ed. by George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), 489, 490.  See also Dianne Feeley, Paul Le Blanc, Thomas Twiss. Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

[23]Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution(New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), p. 75.

[24]Daniel Bensaïd, Strategies of Resistance and “Who Are the Trotskyists?”(London: Resistance Books, 2009), p. 23.

[25]Rosa Luxemburg, “Reform or Revolution,” in Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott, eds., Socialism or Barbarism: the Selected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg(London: Pluto Press, 2010), p. 48.


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How the Nicaraguan Revolution was lost-Review by Todd Chretien

Posted by admin On November - 27 - 2018 Comments Off on How the Nicaraguan Revolution was lost-Review by Todd Chretien

During the 2012 presidential elections, Daniel Ortega’s campaign billboards proclaimed, “Nicaragua: The Joy of Living in Peace: Christian, Socialist, and in Solidarity.” Dan La Botz opens his What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis remarking that “By the second decade of the 2000s, however, there was no socialism, little solidarity, and, for many Nicaraguans, not a lot of joy either.” Six years later, at least solidarity is making a comeback as mass protests spearheaded by students have rocked Ortega’s authoritarian state. Where these will lead is impossible to predict, but those looking to make sense of this latest rebellion can do no better than to begin with this book.

As he readily acknowledges, La Botz draws heavily on authors such as Henri Weber, Mike Gonzalez, and Carlos Vilas writing in the 1980s or ’90s, who have plowed some of this ground before. Yet the passage of time has given La Botz the opportunity not only to synthesize the best of the previous literature, but also to see how life has unfolded as we approach the fortieth anniversary of The Triumph, July 19, 1979. On that day, tens of thousands of ordinary Nicaraguans flooded into Managua to celebrate their defeat of the US-backed Somoza family dictatorship that had ruled through the terror of its National Guard for more than four decades.

La Botz effectively traces Nicaraguan history from colonial times up to the revolution, especially emphasizing the constant presence and pressure of US imperialism; for instance recalling the attempt by proslavery adventurer William Walker to bring Nicaragua into the Union as a slave state before the Civil War. Happily, Walker got the firing squad he deserved. Unhappily, President Woodrow Wilson invaded Nicaragua in 1912 and US Marines remained until 1933, only leaving after six years of armed resistance. Upon withdrawing its troops, the United States built up the Nicaraguan National Guard and incorporated some of the former resistance fighters within it. One radical leader stood out for his refusal to liquidate his opposition, Augusto Sandino. For his troubles, he was lured into a trap and assassinated in 1934. Now relying on the National Guard to maintain order, a string of Democratic and Republican presidents, from FDR to Eisenhower to Carter, looked to the Somoza family (whose patriarch got his start as a colonel in the Guard) to safeguard US commercial interests. Torture and bloodletting seemed like a small price to pay.

By the 1960s various radical organizations, taking inspiration from the Cuban Revolution, initiated protest actions including kidnapping an entire Somoza dinner party in 1974 in exchange for the release of leftist prisoners. Although many cheered on the rebels’ daring, the Somoza dictatorship exacted a terrible revenge on the population, torturing, maiming, and murdering thousands. By 1979, unrest was crystallizing and the revolutionary left (re)merged to form the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). La Botz details all this in a fast-paced and insightful style that doesn’t shy away from sharp critiques of the various leftist currents’ political and organizational outlooks.

By the summer of 1979, tens of thousands of Nicaraguan workers, peasants, and students were fighting a life or death struggle. The terms of the revolution were simple: obliterate the National Guard, or the National Guard will obliterate you. The Guard dropped barrel bombs and fought with US-supplied machine guns. Most of the rebels fought with Molotov cocktails and hunting rifles. An estimated fifty thousand died in the fighting, but the people had passed a point of no return. Jimmy Carter watched and waited, only pressuring Somoza to negotiate after National Guard troops were caught executing an ABC News reporter on camera. Having finally lost his US patron, Somoza and his family boarded a plane for exile, carrying as much loot as they could.

Although terrible in human costs, this story is one of the great revolutionary episodes of the twentieth century. The Nicaraguan insurrection ranks alongside the Paris Commune, the October Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the greatest events of 1968, and Tahrir Square in terms of mass participation and self-sacrifice. The people not only won the revolution, the revolution won the people. That is the single most important fact about 1979. As La Botz writes, “the Nicaraguan people were elated at the victory of the revolution and anxious to create a new Nicaragua.”

This “new Nicaragua” was made flesh immediately. The National Guard and the secret police were liquidated, either being killed or driven out of the country. The Somoza family’s property was confiscated and turned over to the popular Sandinista state. Tens of thousands of landless peasants received plots to farm. A student-led campaign reduced illiteracy from an incredible 50 percent to just 13 percent within five months. And twenty days after The Triumph, the Sandinista government created the Single National Health System under the principles that “Health is the right of all and is the responsibility of the state” and “the community should participate in all the health system’s activities.” And if there were real limits, the fact that women constituted a significant percentage of the insurrection’s fighters established feminism and women’s liberation as a real force. All these steps were wildly popular with workers, peasants, students, and the poor. So, what went wrong?

Most of the revolution’s defenders place the lion’s share of the blame for the Sandinista’s 1990 electoral defeat by a pro-US candidate on the brutality of the Contra War and the population’s exhaustion. La Botz outlines the war’s impact, explaining how Ronald Reagan’s “Freedom Fighters” took the lives of 30,865 Nicaraguans, maimed or injured another 30,000, and cost the country of 2.5 million inhabitants approximately $1.9 billion over the course of the ten-year conflict. In the wake of Vietnam, the US population remained wary of sending US troops, so Reagan ordered the CIA to direct the operation and fund it through Col. Oliver North’s secret dealings that eventually came to light in the Iran-Contra scandal. In the end, Reagan could not defeat the revolution militarily, but he did bleed the people dry.

La Botz agrees that the Contra War, as well as the defeat of revolutions in El Salvador and Guatemala, “ultimately doomed” the Nicaraguan Revolution; at the same time, he argues that the “FSLN’s lack of commitment to democracy contributed significantly to the revolution’s failure.” He makes this case convincingly by showing how the FSLN leadership—of whom Ortega was the most important but not only figure—never considered following the example of the Russian Revolution in relying on direct elections by workers, students, peasants, soldiers, and the poor in a system of councils or “soviets.” In fact, as he notes, the FSLN didn’t even call a party congress to elect its own leadership until after 1990. According to La Botz, this failure alienated the FSLN’s mass base and predisposed many high-ranking party leaders to conflate their own positions and power with the politics of liberation. As he puts it, “It was this problem—the lack of democracy—that led to the specific sort of betrayal of the revolution, and to the unique way in which the FSLN was transformed into an authoritarian party. . . . It was the authoritarian politics and ethos of the FLSN that created Daniel Ortega, not the other way around.”

La Botz is undoubtedly right to point to this dangerous tendency, and it has the great virtue of helping orient the international left with respect to the need for solidarity with the 2018 rebellion against Ortega’s regime. Further, What Went Wrong? articulates the necessity for a “new revolutionary movement that places at the center of its political ideas the understanding that socialism is only possible with democracy, and democracy is only possible with socialism.”

Yet, I do wonder if, in stressing this point, La Botz hasn’t succumbed to an overgeneralization. As he writes, “We can only [my emphasis] understand what happened in the Nicaraguan Revolution (and many other Third World countries in the postwar period) if we recognize that for about 70 years there was a three-cornered struggle for power between three social and political systems: capitalism, bureaucratic Communism, and working-class movements struggle to establish democratic socialism.”

Certainly, the pernicious influence of Stalinism in the socialist movement conditioned what took place in Nicaragua. But I think we must begin by assuming there was a tremendously open and liberatory revolution exploding in Nicaragua the few years after 1979. La Botz is right that the FSLN leadership used its tremendous moral and political authority to crack down on leftist opponents. However, should we foreclose the possibility that the Nicaraguan masses might not have chafed more under, and demanded more from, the Sandinista leadership (the right to strike, to widespread and frequent elections, to expropriate US and foreign companies, etc.) had not the Contra War (and US embargo) not sapped the vitality and confidence of the very same people who had just smashed the National Guard?

Of course, counterfactuals only get you so far. The point is that the ideology of the Sandinista leadership should not be seen as an original sin that precluded different potentials arising from elsewhere, or even from within the various tendencies of Sandinismo. Perhaps what Victor Serge remarked about the Russian experience might also apply to Nicaragua, “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning.’ Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it.”

This debate notwithstanding, I cannot recommend La Botz’s book highly enough. It is meticulously researched, but never succumbs to academic jargon. It provides readers with the facts and the drama but makes its theoretical framework clear. It is a gateway into the history of one of the last century’s most heroic revolutions, and it will serve anyone who reads it well in preparing for our century’s coming upheavals. Paraphrasing a popular slogan from 1979: ¡Nicaragua venció, el pueblo vencerá!

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‘October Song’ – A challenging portrayal of the Russian Revolution-John Riddell

Posted by admin On November - 4 - 2018 Comments Off on ‘October Song’ – A challenging portrayal of the Russian Revolution-John Riddell


Review of Paul Le Blanc, October Song:Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, 1917-1924, Chicago: Haymarket, 2017, 479 pp., US$19.56

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell’s Marxist Essays and Commentaries — Amid a flock of volumes marking the Russian revolution’s centenary last year, Paul Le Blanc’s October Song is set apart by its unique method. Working from English-language sources, Le Blanc offers us an anthology of assessments and viewpoints on the revolution with “a strong inclination to privilege older things” – that is, testimony and opinions from its early years.

The result is a kaleidoscope of observations, some by respected historians and many by unknown or forgotten voices, which, taken together, constitute a far-ranging debate over the meaning of these world-shaking events.

Among these comments are many vivid on-the-spot recollections, such as the portrayal by Eduard Dune, then a Bolshevik worker-activist, of a factory debate in May 1917. Since workers had taken effective control of the factory, their conditions had improved dramatically, the Bolshevik speakers pointed out. “If we could organize a revolutionary government in one factory, then why could we not create a similar order across the whole of Russia?” (104)
In the same vein Maurice Hindus, returning in the 1920s to the remote Russian village where he had been born and raised, noted changes among the peasants: “Their imagination had been stirred…. [T]heir minds teemed with new concepts, new ideas, new beliefs. They were aware of a world outside of their village. They were awake to the darkness around them and to the need of ushering in enlightenment.” (170)

We also hear the testimony of Victor Krawchenko on how, as a 16-year-old foundry worker, he joined the Communist youth movement (Komsomol) in 1921, a time of “general distress and pessimism.” As a Komsomol member, however, his life now had “an urgency, a purpose, a new and thrilling dimension of dedication to a cause” (172-73).

Then there is Katia, a young factory woman writing to a friend in exile, an opponent of Soviet rule, in the 1920s, as clouds gather over the revolution. Referring to the legend of the Golden Fleece and the myth of the Garden of Golden Apples, Katia writes:

I am not so simple as I used to be. I know that our generation will never reach the Fleece nor the Apple. We thought we held it in our hand, but it rolled away into the dirt and blood. Then, splashed and stained, we saw how it shone as it rolled along. It is the light that leads us.” (249–50; 323-4)

Le Blanc’s narrative thus unfolds as not so much a reinterpretation but an invitation to reflection.

Global dimension

“The Bolsheviks saw their revolution as only the beginning of a global insurgency,” Le Blanc declares, (183) citing Lenin’s dramatic appeal in his 1918 letter to U.S. workers:

We are banking on the inevitability of world revolution…. We have raised the banner of struggle for the complete overthrow of imperialism for the whole world to see. We are now, as it were, waiting for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief. (185)[1]

The chapter that Le Blanc devotes to the revolution’s global dimension thus sparkles with urgency. His collection of quoted reactions of imperialist chieftains highlights the obstacles faced by the revolution. Necessarily compressed, his account ably summarizes the Communist International’s first four congresses, to which I have devoted 6,000 printed pages, in a mere seven – in itself a noteworthy achievement.

It was the International’s dependency on the Soviet Communist Party that, in Le Blanc’s view, became the overriding factor in its decline and degeneration. This explanation, widely accepted and valid in a general sense, leaves a lot to be explained. For example:

Why was the Comintern weak in advocating defense of democratic rights, a characteristic strength of the Bolshevik Party that it took as a model?
Why did the Comintern, after rejecting ultraleftism at its Second Congress (1920), become entangled in a damaging ultraleft adventure (the “March Action”) only one year later?
Why was united front policy, among the early Comintern’s most enduringly useful innovations, effectively dropped only two years after its adoption?

In this sense, the unavoidable limitations of global analysis in October Song pose relevant questions for future attention on this blog.

Theoretical blind spots

Le Blanc deploys varied testimony to buttress his conviction that the Russian revolution was necessary and that the course of the early Bolshevik party, which led the Soviet government, was broadly speaking the best possible under the circumstances. While forceful, his argument here is not original. Of greater interest is his discussion of the weaknesses he perceives in the Bolshevik’s understanding of this revolution’s dynamics.

Le Blanc praises the Bolsheviks’ wisdom on agrarian policy after the October Revolution. They then accepted what Lenin called “the decision of the [peasant] rank and file, even if we disagree with it,” to divide the landlords’ estates. (258) Yet Le Blanc criticizes the Bolsheviks’ failure to sustain that approach, particularly in their commitment to conducting a class struggle against a bourgeois layer in the villages – the “kulaks.” In reality, no such crystallized layer existed, Le Blanc says, and very few peasant farms employed hired labour.

Le Blanc draws here on Lars T. Lih’s Bread and Authority in Russia and Theodor Shanin’s Late Marx and the Russian Road as well as on two dissident Soviet agronomists of the 1920s, Nikolai Sukhanov (better known for his Notes on the Revolution) and Alexander Chayanov. It is unfortunate, in Le Blanc’s view, that the latter two theorists were marginalized in Soviet discussion of agrarian policy, while Marxist theory on the peasantry stagnated. Implications of Le Blanc’s analysis are evident for today’s world, where peasants remain prominent in anti-neoliberal coalitions in many countries. (See “World Farmer Alliance.”)

Le Blanc does not discuss the analogous “blind spot” in Bolshevik policy toward national minorities. But here, by contrast, Bolshevik policy underwent a significant evolution often missed in present-day studies (see “The Russian Revolution and National Freedom”).

Organized diversity

A second blind spot, in Le Blanc’s view, involved “an insufficient theorization and comprehension of the dynamics and requirements of democracy,” particularly with respect to the “closing off of organized diversity” as represented by contending parties and collective viewpoints. (357) Bolsheviks understood democracy as both a means and an end, but not the complexities of its realization, Le Blanc states. In particular, the need for freedom “to join to gather in order to develop and argue for [dissident views],” although realized in Bolshevik practice in the revolution’s early years, was not acknowledged in the plane of theory – at least, not by the party as a whole. (358)

Bureaucratic peril

The third Bolshevik “blind spot” concerned the character of bureaucracy. To be sure, Bolsheviks leaders gave much thought in the early years of Soviet rule to problem of a state apparatus mushrooming beyond workers’ control. In 1921, Lenin made an apt comparison of the Soviet administration with an automobile “going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both.”[2]

In Lenin’s view, the sinister hidden hand was that of administrative cadres drawn from or reflecting the outlook of former ruling classes. This was certainly part of the story. It was this malign influence that led Lenin in 1921 to define the Soviet republic in 1921 as a “workers’ and peasants’ state with bureaucratic distortions.”[3]

Still, Le Blanc is right in noting the absence in Bolshevik and, more broadly, socialist thought in that period of “the notion of a bureaucracy developing a will of its own and for its own benefit.”[4] (359) It was not until 1928, Le Blanc tells us, that Leon Trotsky acknowledged that a “bureaucratic hierarchy with all its ministries and departments” had “raised itself over and above society.” (359) But for Le Blanc, resistance to bureaucratization is linked with preservation for an extended period of a mixed economy under Soviet rule, which he rightly identifies as the Soviet government’s original policy in 1917-18.

Le Blanc writes that “Destruction of the mixed economy in 1918” – however inevitable this may have been under the circumstances – “was a disaster … [one] matched only by the disaster of the isolation of Bolshevik Russia” combined with the “militarism generated by foreign invasion and brutal civil war.” (161) Sweeping nationalizations in conditions of civil war and social disintegration made it necessary to replace capitalist economic relations across the entire economy right away, a process that created the overgrown and ultimately uncontrollable bureaucracy.

Of course, market relations did not vanish during the Russian civil war; in part they took refuge underground. The return to a mixed economy in 1921, under the New Economic Policy (NEP), brought market relations back into the light of day where they could be regulated and taxed – arguably a step forward toward Soviet economic planning.

Le Blanc portrays the vitality of Soviet society under the NEP but also highlights its negative side: the evils of capitalist relations (mass unemployment, austerity, etc.) all returned within a year. Moreover, the bureaucracy took shape as an ultimately dominant political current securing elite privilege and closing off avenues for control from below.

In subsequent decades, socialists worldwide projected several methods of avoiding such a bureaucratic takeover, including workers’ enterprise self-management and worker-run cooperatives. Yet an economy of such self-managed units faces an urgent question: Who speaks for the interests of the working class as a whole? This challenge has been addressed above all by Canada-based Marxist Michael Lebowitz and is taken up in his Contradictions of Real Socialism.[5]

An unanswered question

In one respect, October Song does not fulfil the promise of its subtitle: the narrative, which closes in 1924, does not portray the consummation of the “Communist tragedy” to which the title refers. Le Blanc portrays the life of working people in the first half of the 1920s as marked by an unprecedented degree of freedom; in the words of historian W.H. Chamberlin “a sense of release, of social liberty.”[6] (303) In Le Blanc’s view, at the time of Lenin’s death (1924), “the road seemed open to different possibilities of development.” (297)

Yet 15 years later the Bolsheviks’ leading cadres had been in their vast majority executed by Stalin; their party was transformed beyond recognition. Soviet democracy, limited as it was, vanished, Le Blanc explains, while brutalization and repression overwhelmed the humanism and creativity unleashed in 1917. Somewhere in that period the party of Lenin suffered a definitive defeat: the “Communist tragedy” that Le Blanc’s subtitle refers to.

Lenin and his comrades made a “wager on revolution,” Le Blanc tells us, and – although they ultimately lost – “the greater failure would have been never to have tried.” (377-8) Very true, but still we must ask whether this failure was so complete. A strong case can be made that despite its degeneration under Stalin, the Russian revolution survived and was vindicated by its overall impact on world history.

Even after the end of Bolshevism, as Trotsky pointed out just before his assassination in 1940, the Russian revolution was still alive in the hearts of Soviet working people.[7] (See, in this blog, “Did Trotsky Retreat…?”) Its survival found expression in the Soviet victory over Hitlerism, postwar social gains of Soviet working people, and the inspiration and material aid provided to the Chinese and other anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist revolutions. Even the Soviet Union’s ignominious collapse in 1991 did not erase the historic memory of the 1917 revolution.

The entire range of attempts during the twentieth century to achieve some form workers’ power needs to be analyzed as a single process – a task well worth our collective attention.


[1]. Lenin, “Letter to American Workers,” August 29, 1918, Collected Works, 28:62-75.

[2]. Lenin’s views are taken up in more detail in a book, still in print,  for which I wrote the initial draft, Lenin’s Final Fight, Speeches and Writings 1922-23, New York: Pathfinder, 1995.

[3]. See Lenin, “The Party Crisis,” Collected Works, 32:43-54.

[4]. Le Blanc is quoting here from J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, London: Oxford UP, 1966, vol. 1, p. 406.

[5]. Michael A. Lebowitz, The Contradictions of Real Socialism: The Conductor and the Conducted, New York: Monthly Review, 2012.

[6]. William Henry Chamberlin, Soviet Russia, A Living Record and a History, Boston: Little, Brown, 1930, pp. 397-401.

[7]. See, on this blog, “Did Trotsky Retreat from Viewing the USSR as a Workers’ State?”, including footnotes 6 to 9.

‘Marx’s writing more relevant today than ever’:INTERVIEW WITH WOLFGANG STREECK-JIPSON JOHN AND JITHEESH P.M.

Posted by admin On October - 25 - 2018 Comments Off on ‘Marx’s writing more relevant today than ever’:INTERVIEW WITH WOLFGANG STREECK-JIPSON JOHN AND JITHEESH P.M.

Interview with Wolfgang Streeck, German political economist.
THE German political economist Wolfgang Streeck is one of the world’s leading critics of neoliberal capitalism. He received international attention for his essay “How will capitalism end?” written in 2014 for the New Left Review. The much-discussed essay was later republished in book form. Meticulously analysing the present trajectory of capitalism, Streeck argued that “the marriage between democracy and capitalism, ill-suited partners brought together in the shadow of World War Two, is coming to an end. The regulatory institutions that once restrained the financial sector’s excesses have collapsed and after the final victory of capitalism at the end of the Cold War there is no political agency capable of rolling back the liberalisation of the markets. Ours has become a world defined by declining growth, oligarchic rule, a shrinking public sphere, institutional corruption and international anarchy, and no cure to these ills is at hand.”

Streeck cautioned the world that what was to be expected, on the basis of capitalism’s recent historical record, was a long and painful period of cumulative decay: of intensifying frictions, of fragility and uncertainty, and of a steady succession of “normal accidents”, not necessarily but quite possibly on the scale of the global breakdown of the 1930s.

Streeck had earlier believed that a centralist social-democratic position was a solution to the capital-labour antagonism. This would have been a solution within the capitalist system itself, but neoliberal capitalism again brought about that basic antagonism between capital and labour. Streeck has since emerged as one of the leading critics of the system. Adopting the slogan of delinking, he says that “it is essential that control is returned to local political communities as much as at all possible. That means ending the dictatorship of international organisations like the World Bank or multinational corporations over local economic development. Only then there can be democracy, i.e., participation in collective decision-making by the broad majority of working people, and only then we will see the experiments, social and economic, that can grow into an alternative to capitalism.” Streeck’s notable books include Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, Social Institutions and Economic Performance and Re-Forming Capitalism.

In this interview, Streeck talks about how capitalism will end, capitalism and future of humanity, the growth of resistance movements, the limitations of social democracy, the relevance of Marxism, the message of Brexit, capitalism and popular reactions, challenges and prospects before the European Left, the refugee crisis, globalisation and delinking, neoliberalism and the state, and the growth of worldwide inequality. Excerpts:

In “How will capitalism end?”, your 2014 article for “New Left Review”, you gave a theoretical farewell to capitalism. You identified five disorders to the system, namely, declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of public sphere, corruption and international anarchy that would bring about the end of capitalism. Are you saying that such an end is impending or immediate before us?

I am not saying that. I am saying that those five trends will continue as there is nothing to be seen that can stop them. I am also saying that there is no new society waiting in the wings of history, which will only have to be instituted by the forces of capitalist opposition. Instead, I am expecting a long period of high uncertainty and disorder—an interregnum in which the old order has died while a new order cannot yet be born. Very strange things can happen in such a time, as Antonio Gramsci pointed out in a famous passage of his The Prison Notebooks.

You argue that capitalism will continue to regress and atrophy until at some point it might end. You also add that we do not need to confront capitalism but let its “natural” end come about. Will capitalism end in such a peaceful manner or will it endanger humanity? People such as John Bellamy Foster speak of either socialism or exterminism as the choice before humanity.

The interregnum will be an extremely dangerous period. It is not that we don’t need to confront capitalism. I said we don’t have the collective capacity to do away with it. I wish we did. But capitalism is now a global regime while anti-capitalist politics is inevitably local. That makes it possible to throw sand into the wheels of capitalist development but, I am afraid, not to end it.

You have written that every effort to confront or combat capitalism resulted in the strengthening of capitalism in one way or another. What about the growing resistance and struggles in different parts of the world against capitalist economic policies? What about human will and agency?

It is true that the opposition to capitalism enabled it to survive, at least in the core countries where counter movements temporarily reconciled the working class with capitalism and provided for sufficient aggregate demand, enabling capitalism to grow and remain profitable. We have to build opposition to the capitalist system—but it will, for the time being, be possible only at the local level. We must encourage all sorts of local experimentation with non-capitalist forms of human life and political economy.

You earlier believed that a centralist liberal or social-democratic position is a solution to the capital-labour antagonism. In a sense, it is a belief that we have a solution within the capitalist system itself. But neoliberal capitalism again brought about that basic antagonism between capital and labour. And you emerged as one of the leading critiques of the system. What is wrong with the liberal or social-democratic political position?

Social democracy was an answer to the dynamics of capitalism as long as capitalism was contained in national political economies, or could be fought as though it was. This is now over. The past three or four decades have shown that free trade and the deregulation of markets, as adopted by the centre-Left parties of the West, tear our societies apart and immobilise the government as an agent of economic redistribution. Today the working class is effectively international without being able to become organised at this level, and capital is so internationalised that it can no longer be forced into national class compromises.

Relevance of Marxism
Your thesis predicts the end of capitalism. This is in conformation with the hypothesis and analysis of that great 19th-century thinker of your country, Karl Marx. The course of contemporary developments and critical studies prove Marx right to a great extent. How relevant is Marx today?

Marx’s writing is more relevant today than it ever was. One must read him right, though. Marx expected to see capitalism end during his lifetime. For this reason, he did not spend much time on what might delay the end and what the world might be like in between. We must do that thinking instead of him, with the tools he provided and as we need to, update them. Marx draws our attention to the fact that capitalism is a historical phenomenon, that is, one that has a beginning, and following from this, an end. He expected that end to come about as a result of what he called the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But now we are 150 years after Capital Vol. I appeared, and that tendency has not yet done its work.

The European Union (E.U.) has been projected as a zone of democracy, integration, cooperation and transnationalism. But Brexit was a big blow to these claims. There are stories of the possibilities of similar exits. What does the exit of the U.K. symbolise? What is the post-Brexit picture of the E.U.?

To begin with your last question, nobody knows this at this point. The crisis of European integration has the same reasons as the increasing authoritarianism in large political units such as China, India, Russia and the United States: large political entities are difficult to keep together or to build in the first place, due to increasing inequality between classes and regions which, in turn, are produced by global markets penetrating national political economies and making them ungovernable (especially as long as they are democracies). See also the segregationist, or secessionist, tendencies in countries such as Britain and Spain, which have the same cause. People lose confidence in large superstates and demand more local self-determination, either through decentralisation within large states or through breaking away from them. Merging extant states into newly created superstates, which is what European integration is aiming at, runs counter to what people today want.

A Bloomberg analysis of decades of election results across 22 European countries reveals that support for populist radical-Right parties is higher than it has been at any time over the past 30 years. What kind of social dynamics in the neoliberal era results in such a support for these neofascist forces? What would be the effect for Europe which experienced the horrors of “the night of the long knives”?

Not all “populist” movements are rightist; some come from the Left. Moreover, only on the margins of European political systems do we at this time see truly fascist movements—by which I mean parties led by one charismatic would-be dictator commanding a paramilitary private army-plus-police. We have not, till date, seen a return of the nightmares of the interwar years. What we are seeing is a deep loss of legitimacy on the part of the established political party system and an attempt by very different social forces to benefit from this loss and build up support for right-wing or left-wing alternatives to neoliberal politics as usual.

Along with the right, a populist Left is also increasingly gaining influence in several European countries. In the U.K. election, Jeremy Corbyn attracted significant political support for his strong stand against neoliberalism, austerity measures and so on. We saw it earlier in countries such as Greece. What does this signify? Is it a resurgence of the Left? What are the challenges and prospects before the European Left?

Be careful here. The Greek Left was thoroughly defeated by the united European governments, including the “socialist” government of France and the “social-democratic” government of Italy, not to mention Germany. Now the Greek governing party, Syriza, is playing the game of Brussels and Berlin.

Whether Jeremy Corbyn can make it to Downing Street remains to be seen; I very much hope so, and I hope that he will be able to accomplish more than Francois Hollande, who also was a great hope of the Left when he was elected. In any case, building a new European Left will require new parties, or older parties thoroughly revolutionised from below, that function very differently from the past. Above all, these parties must rebuild their connections to their national working classes; listen better to their problems instead of those of the new middle class. This includes more and better management of trade and a regulation of immigration that is compatible with the interests of workers, in particular those with low wages and a need for a functioning welfare state.

Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’
The migration of hapless human beings from the war-ravaged West Asia and African countries, or what is called “the refugee crisis” of Europe in the past three-four years, has gained significant global media attention. According to reports, as many as one million people have migrated to different countries of Europe. How does this inflow affect the European political landscape? Could you also comment about the return of Islamophobia, neo-fascism, racism and so on?

Over the years, it has grown to much more than 1 million. (Germany alone took in 1 million refugees in 2015.) What we are talking about here is unregulated immigration. Whatever else it does, it creates a huge low-wage labour supply in rich countries, with very little social and legal protection for employment in the restaurant industry, at Amazon distribution centres, as delivery men and women and so on. It also results in conflicts over housing, schools and education, even religious holidays and so on. The picture is mixed.

In rare instances, German bullies attack refugee centres; at the same time, there is a broad movement among Germans to help immigrants find their way into language training, schooling, social welfare benefits and the like. Among the very large number of Turkish immigrants in Germany, for example, roughly half live a quiet and productive life, while others are still largely outside of German society; yet others support enthusiastically the Turkish dictator [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and demand that he be allowed to hold election rallies in Germany for German Turks or Turkish Germans. The political climate is heating up while the E.U. and its member states are working hard to bring immigration under control. European countries need immigration for demographic reasons but open borders are politically and economically unsustainable, and they are especially problematic for low-income people.

You have analysed and explained how neoliberal capitalism brings misery to the bulk of the population. Marxist thinkers such as Samir Amin and Prabhat Patnaik suggest a delinking from globalisation of countries, especially in the South. What do you think of it?

To me it is essential that control is returned to local political communities as much as possible. That means ending the dictatorship of international organisations like the World Bank or of multinational corporations over local economic development. Only then can there be democracy, that is, participation in collective decision-making by the broad majority of working people, and only then will we see the experiments, social and economic, that can grow into an alternative to capitalism.

Building cooperatives, of producers and consumers, financed by local development banks is one way; another would be investing in basic education and essential health care services, independent of the sales efforts of large multinational firms; yet another would be protecting local subsistence agriculture from the export pressures of the E.U. and agribusiness. People must first stand on their own feet in order to get on the march into a better future.

In contemporary debates, there is an argument that in the period of neoliberal globalisation, the state “withdraws” from welfare measures. You have coined the term “debt-state” to describe the economic character of the state in the neoliberal age. Could you elaborate? How does the state function under neoliberalism in terms of economic activities?

On the one hand, the state is supposed to let competitive markets run their course. For this, it must open the national economies to the world market and withdraw from intervention in the national economy. It must also, as much as possible, open up the national political economy to privatisation to allow for a maximum of “private initiative”. But this does not mean that the state must be weak. On the contrary, it is expected to protect the “free play of market forces” from popular resistance, sometimes with a considerable use of force. So a “free economy” needs a strong state, one that keeps the market immune to democratic-electoral pressures from below. Neoliberal democracy is possible after democracy has been severed from the economy. This is what I call the “consolidation state”.

Thomas Pikketty, in his book “Capital in the 21st Century”, has shown how income and wealth inequality grows substantially across different countries in the world. He also proposes serious measures to curb this growing inequality. Universal or progressive wealth tax is his main suggestion. What is the significance of Piketty’s findings? Do you think that the proposal of universal wealth tax could be worked out under neoliberal capitalism?

Piketty’s great merit is that he has demonstrated the extent of the capitalist tendency toward high and rising inequality by collecting an almost unbelievable richness of empirical data, deeper back in history and on more countries than anyone else, all pointing in the same direction. On the rest, no, I see no chance at all for universal wealth tax, for technical as well as political reasons.

Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. are fellows at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and contribute to various national and international publications including Monthly Review, The Indian Express and The Wire.

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Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?- Tom Bramble

Posted by admin On October - 24 - 2018 Comments Off on Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?- Tom Bramble


Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?-
Tom Bramble

Trade unions in Australia are facing the biggest crisis in their existence
. Membership coverage – the ratio of unionists to workers – has fallen for more than three decades and now stands at just one in seven, down from one in two in the early 1980s.[1] From being one of the world leaders in union coverage outside Scandinavia, Australian unions have experienced the most rapid decline of any Western country. Industrial relations lawyer Josh Bornstein is right to argue that “The tipping point passed long ago. Australian trade unions are fighting for their survival”.[2]

Areas that were once at the forefront of unionism have faded almost to nothing. Outside a few pockets, there are large swathes of manufacturing with no more than a token presence of union members – less than one in ten workers in the machinery and equipment industry are now unionists. The result is that membership of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) has collapsed from more than 200,000 members in 1995 to 80,000 in 2016. Tens of thousands more are expected to go within five years, with the union predicting just 40,000 dues-paying members by 2020.[3] The Pilbara iron ore industry, once a union stronghold, has seen unionism virtually disappear. In coal mining, another former union bastion, coverage has fallen by more than half, and the same is true in the utilities (electricity, gas and water) and construction: outside big projects, mainly in the central business districts, unionism in the construction industry has been purged. Finance and insurance, never a militant area but one with relatively high union coverage, has seen coverage drop dramatically, likewise communications.

Particularly worrying is that union coverage is both very low and dropping even more rapidly among younger workers. Union coverage is therefore likely to keep declining without dramatic change as those workers with some experience of union activism retire, giving way to a new generation without any knowledge of union struggle on the job – the 21-year-old who took part in the last big strike push of 1981 is now in their late 50s. The vital socialisation processes that have in the past inculcated new entrants to the workforce with union traditions are breaking down. The culture of unionism, once an important feature of working class life in Australia, has substantially broken down.

Little wonder that ACTU secretary Ged Kearney told a crisis meeting of union leaders in 2016 of her fear that unions could be reduced to “some quaint anachronism barracking from the sidelines” and “a national non-entity”.[4] For the right, of course, this prospect is welcome, with The Australian’s industrial relations writer Troy Bramston asserting that “the union movement is in terminal decline” as workers are “deserting unions in droves”.[5]

The dramatic weakening in union membership has contributed to the working class being pushed backwards. Real wages have fallen in recent years and the labour share of national income has sunk to its lowest since 1964. As numerous cases have now demonstrated, workers are being robbed of basic wage and superannuation entitlements, and penalty rates are rarely paid across hospitality and areas of retail dominated by small business and franchises.

As unions decline, so too does coverage of collective agreements. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of private sector employees covered by collective agreements fell from 2 million to 1.5 million, and in the public sector from 700,000 to 570,000, even while the workforce steadily grew.[6] For the most part, those no longer covered by collective agreements are now reliant on awards where wages are much lower.[7] The falling coverage of collective agreements, combined with meagre increases in the minimum wage applied to awards by the Fair Work Commission, has contributed to the rapid decline in the minimum wage relative to median wages over the past decade.

With weak or absent unions, the ability of management to boss workers around at the workplace has significantly increased. What employers and politicians call “restrictive practices”, which limit management’s assumed prerogative to direct workers on the job as to how work is done, what breaks are taken, what safety provisions are observed, how workers can be sacked or disciplined, what employment contracts workers are under (direct employment; labour hire; independent contractor) have all been whittled away. The absence of union intervention on the job also significantly increases the exposure of workers to unsafe work practices. More broadly, the decline of trade unions has removed an obstacle to successive governments stripping away social security entitlements that benefit the working class.

The decline of unionism also has important political and ideological effects. When unions fight, they overcome the atomisation of workers as individual voters and give the working class a collective voice and a platform to fight. They play an important role in shaping Australian politics, most obviously during the last term of the Howard government when the ACTU launched its Your Rights at Work campaign against WorkChoices. Or, more recently, in the marriage equality postal survey, where the unions, particularly in Victoria, established themselves as a significant force driving the “yes” vote, deploying many hundreds of volunteers across the cities. The unions possess roots in communities, in particular in blue collar workplaces, usually well out of the reach of small LGBTI campaign groups.

Finally, the absence of unions from so many industries dilutes a basic sense of working class identity and encourages individualism, with all of the toxic effects that go with that – crawling to the boss, doing down your workmates and so on. Fracturing solidarity at the workplace also opens the door in society more widely – in the parliamentary, media and educational spheres for example – for the ideas of the far right to grow.

The crisis of Australian trade unionism therefore has many damaging effects. The purpose of this article is to explain the roots of this crisis and to point to the potential for recovery. I start with a critical review of the strategies pursued by unions themselves over the past three decades, in particular their Accord with the Hawke and Keating governments. I then move on to some discussion of how unions can be revitalised, pointing in particular to the revival of class struggle and the growth of a larger radical left oriented to the working class movement.

The role of the Accord

The central argument of this article is that the decline of Australian unionism is in large part the responsibility of the trade unions themselves. And if it is decisions taken by the union movement itself that are to blame, so this requires a fight within the union movement to turn things around.

The adoption of the ALP-ACTU Accord in 1983 and its maintenance in various forms through to the defeat of the Keating government in 1996 must be understood as the single most important factor explaining the onset of sustained union decline.[8] The Accord entrenched class collaboration with the bosses, pushed aside strikes in favour of arbitration and appeals to the ALP, accelerated the destruction of independent shop floor union organisation and centralised power in the hands of the growing union bureaucracy. The Accord of course is long dead, but its legacy lives on in the strategies pursued by unions to this day.

This is not an uncontroversial argument. Peetz, for example, argues that the Accord delayed deunionisation in Australia because it held at bay hostile government attacks and prevented the Hawke and Keating governments from pursuing the kind of neoliberal agenda then being popularised by the Thatcher and Reagan governments.[9] It is worth spending a little time, therefore, to explain the role of the Accord in steering the union movement towards its current predicament.

The Accord was an agreement between the ALP and ACTU leaders by which the latter agreed to abandon industrial campaigns for higher wages and better working conditions in return for the “maintenance of real wages over time” through the mechanism of six-monthly indexation of award wages by the Arbitration Commission (the forerunner of the Fair Work Commission). The Accord also involved a commitment by the ALP leadership to an expansionary fiscal policy that would cut unemployment, an increased “social wage” (Medicare, social security payments, pensions), and the inclusion of trade union leaders in tripartite committees that would give them a voice in economic and industry policy.

The Accord was at its inception a brainchild of the left of the trade union movement, most notably the leadership of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (AMWU) and the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU). Key figures had been or were in one of the communist parties (e.g. Laurie Carmichael, Tom McDonald, John Halfpenny). The fact that it was a project identified with the left wing and more militant unions was central to its success. For any incomes policy to succeed in circumstances where two big strike waves (1969-74 and 1980-82) were still a very recent memory in the minds of working class militants, its architects had to rein in the militants with the capacity to wreck it through strikes, and the members of the AMWU and BWIU were at the top of that list.

Before going on, it is worth considering why the left wing trade union leaders were prepared to take on this responsibility. Answering this question also underpins my explanation for the developments in the years after the Accord. Trade union leaders occupy a contradictory role in the labour movement.[10] They are under pressure from the bosses with whom they negotiate and who value “partners” who can deliver “reasonable” outcomes that do not jeopardise their profits and who can ensure that any deal struck will stick with the rank and file membership. Outside the workplace or enterprise, union leaders are also subjected to pressure to be “reasonable” from the courts, government ministers and the media who insist that business must make profits. The pressure ratchets up as capitalism ages and becomes more crisis-prone: there is less space for concessions by the employers.

The union leaders are also, however, under pressure from the rank and file members who join unions and go on strike in order to improve their wages, working conditions and treatment by supervisors, to defend their jobs and, sometimes, to make political demands on governments. Union leaders who fail to demonstrate any capacity to lead such fights may be shunned by members and replaced by more militant contenders for the leadership, or their unions may simply lose out to others that do demonstrate these fighting qualities. At times, the union leaders themselves, in order to buttress their bargaining power with recalcitrant employers, may try to galvanise rank and file workers for industrial action.

The job of union leaders is to manage these conflicting pressures which are rooted in their social position as a buffer between labour and capital. They are, as one author put it, the “managers of discontent”.[11]

But the union leaders do not merely compare the contrasting force of the pressure from above (the employers, state, media) and below (the members) and act in concordance with the stronger of the two. Ultimately, the full-time union official is a creation of capitalism; their role depends on the continued existence of wage labour. Under communism, where the sale of labour power has ended, there will be no union officials. Unlike the working class, therefore, they have no interest as a social layer in fighting to overthrow the capitalist system. Indeed, union leaders have repeatedly proven themselves to be the last line of defence for the capitalist order when all else has failed. Even short of revolution, which hardly impinges on their consciousness on a daily basis, an active, militant, rank and file membership means more work for them, puts them under more pressure, forces them to stand up more to the boss and, if they fail to do so, makes it much more likely they will be thrown out of office at the next union election. For a quiet life, they want as much as possible a union membership that is passive for the most part but which can occasionally be revved up for action when the bosses or a government minister has to be convinced of the need for some concession. Hence the appeal of arbitration for union leaders, in that it provides a perfect mechanism for directing class conflict away from the hurly-burly of strikes and lockouts and towards the serenity of the court room. In the former, they are subjected to the indignity of workers poking them in the chest wanting answers; in the latter, they reign supreme as the embodiment of the union’s collective will. Hence the appeal also of Labor governments as an avenue to pursue workers’ demands: quiet lobbying by union delegations in ministerial offices is less irksome and onerous than the hard work involved in an industrial fight.

Further, the union leaders enjoy various material benefits that go with their role. For those who used to work on the tools, taking a job in a union office is a definite social and economic advance, in terms of pay and conditions of work – apart from anything else, they are unlikely to suffer any serious injury at work. Their rates of remuneration, taking into account salary, superannuation, a union car and phone, travel allowances and the rest of it, are commonly double those of the average member, sometimes triple. And none of these are affected by any deals they strike. If they sign off on a deal to cut jobs or hold down pay, they do not face the dole queue or cuts to their living standards.[12] If they agree to reduce staffing or speed up work, they do not have to work any harder themselves. They are not workers but functionaries of the union. And if they rise through the ranks, they become figures of note, interviewed by the media, treated with respect by government officials and politicians. More rewards wait for those who do not make waves: the prospect of a position in parliament, appointment to the arbitration commission, the offer of an HR position at a big company, or a well-paid job in the public service. Very few full-time officials happily return to the workplace from such a position. If social being determines consciousness, as Marx famously argued, the pressures on trade union leaders towards conformism with the capitalist system are obvious. All these factors come together to cohere the union officialdom into a bureaucracy, a conservative social layer in the labour movement.

Two small qualifications can be made. First, the pressures towards conformism are usually felt more acutely by those higher in the union apparatus for the simple reason that they are more removed from rank and file pressure, and because they come under more pressure from the bosses, as their actions can have more impact on the profitability of particular companies or the fortunes of the “national economy”. Nonetheless, the difference between the national or branch secretary and the local organiser is not as marked as it once was: the fact that the latter are today mostly appointed rather than elected has lessened the pressure from members on this layer too. And there are plenty of organisers only too keen on an easy life for themselves and with an eye to a position in HR.

Second, the social role of the trade union leader does not mean that divisions between left and right in their ranks are irrelevant, as any comparison between the leadership of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) will demonstrate. But nor is it determinative of their role in the last instance. The behaviour of all union officials, no matter how left their rhetoric, is shaped by their social function. And the history of Australian unionism is that it has been the left officials, with their greater credibility among the militants, who have the greatest capacity to save the capitalists’ skins. So it was with the Accord and the Hawke Labor government.

The left wing union leaders promoted the Accord on the basis that it was a step towards a planned economy and thus towards socialism. For those with a more limited ambition, it offered unions the ability to embrace a wider social agenda. By agreeing to wage indexation and “no further claims” (that is, a no strike commitment), the unions would, supposedly, be able to sit down with the government to discuss implementing reforms to boost the welfare state. Accord supporters argued that this would benefit the whole working class, not just those in the more militant unions who could push for higher wages by going on strike.[13]

Regardless of the claims made for the Accord, it was a strategy that in practice drove the working class and union movement backwards. The obvious problem was that by agreeing to make no further claims for wage increases outside indexation, the union leaders allowed real wages to fall as full indexation was breached from the outset. By the end of the decade, median earnings had fallen by 7.1 percent, adjusted for inflation (Figure 1 – see Appendix). Not even Malcolm Fraser or, subsequently, John Howard, cut real wages like the Accord. And, far from helping to close the gender wage gap, female workers experienced an even larger wage cut (7.4 percent between 1983 and 1989) than men (6.8 percent). By holding back on strikes, waged workers went backwards across the board. The contrast with one group of predominantly female workers, the Victorian nurses, who went on strike in defiance of the Accord, is conspicuous. The nurses went out for seven weeks in 1986 after months of being given the run-around by the state Labor government. Even though they faced opposition and white-anting of their campaign by both the ACTU and Victorian Trades Hall and outright hostility from the minister for health, they prevailed in their fight for increased wages and a better career structure.[14]

The Hawke government did throw the unions one bone in its early years – Medicare – but even this was used as a justification not to fully index wages in the year of its introduction. The other “win” promoted by the Accord’s supporters, the introduction of industry superannuation, was likewise used as a justification not to fully index wages – and, at the same time, gifted governments then and since with a rationale not to boost the age pension.

Even more damaging than the wage cuts, however, was the harm the Accord did to the union movement. First, the unions became identified as organisations that fought not for improved living standards but for “national competitiveness”, and that meant profits came first. This was evident in their role promoting “industry restructuring” and “workplace reform” which involved thousands of redundancies across manufacturing industry.

The Accord destroyed those militant traditions that had survived the Fraser years and the 1982 recession. Some unions chose not to buckle under to the restrictions of the Accord – for example, the Food Preservers Union, the Furnishing Trades, the Builders Labourers and the Airline Pilots – but they were targeted for retribution by the ACTU which acted as the Hawke government’s industrial police force. Activists recall being at a BLF picket in Sydney during their battle against deregistration when BWIU officials relied on police to usher their members through the picket lines.[15] Not only did this break down traditions of honouring pickets – a question of basic solidarity – but it also meant their members had to walk up many flights of stairs because lifts operated by the BLF could not operate. So a condition established in previous disputes, that BWIU members could not be required to walk up numerous flights, was lost. Former union militants who had led strikes for big wage increases in earlier years were sucked into industry restructuring committees that drew them away from their fellow workers and turned them into apologists for the employers and the Labor government. Those who still wanted to strike for higher wages were reined in by their union officials.

At the end of the 1980s, centralised wage indexation gave way to the introduction of certified agreements allowing variations of award conditions, the two-tier wages system and award restructuring. The focus of the Accord now switched from straight wage cuts to destroying working conditions and union control on the job.

In 1991, the ACTU and Labor government joined forces to introduce enterprise bargaining, which had originally been promoted by the Business Council of Australia as a way of undermining the award system. Enterprise bargaining has proven to be a disaster for the union movement and working class. Its fundamental fault is that it is premised on undermining working class solidarity. The new principles adopted by the Industrial Relations Commission banned any return to the industry-wide campaigns of the type used in the 1960s and 1970s, which had lifted wages across the board. Henceforth every group of workers had to eke out the best result that they could. By splitting up the workforce into those able to push up wages through enterprise agreements and those who found it more difficult to do so, predominantly those working in small enterprises, enterprise bargaining led the unions to abandon the latter to the mercy of the Commission and its panel of economists responsible for determining the annual adjustment to the minimum wage. With a widening gap opening up between the two industrial instruments, agreements and awards, employers were given an incentive, growing larger over the years, to force workers off the former and back down to the latter, increasingly threadbare, award standard.

In 1993, the Keating government’s Industrial Relations Reform Act (IRRA) took the process of undermining the award system further. A new stream of non-union “enterprise flexibility agreements” was established. Although the ACTU disapproved, it refused to fight it. By now the union peak council had the enterprise bargaining bit between its teeth. The Accord Mk VII of 1993 stated:

The Accord partners support an approach which places the primary responsibility for industrial relations at the workplace level with a framework of minimum standards provided by awards of industrial tribunals. Such an approach is fostering workplace reform and building a new productive culture. The ACTU accepts and encourages the increased proliferation of enterprise bargaining.[16]

Much more damaging even than these changes was the string of anti-strike measures included in the IRRA.[17] Prior to the Act, there had never been a legal right to strike. The absence of a legal right to strike did not, however, inhibit Australian workers from striking: in the 1970s Australia had one of the highest strike rates in the Western world. Employers had the option to take unions to court for damages in tort for loss resulting from strikes, but very few did. In 1985 in a high profile case at Dollar Sweets in Melbourne, the owner, backed by conservative organisations and up and coming Liberal party lawyer Peter Costello, successfully used the court to pursue the union for damages. This was still, however, an exception.

The case of Dollar Sweets alerted the International Labour Organisation to the fact that Australian unions did not enjoy protection from tort actions and resulted in ILO censure of the government for failing to make provision for legally protected strikes. The Reform Act introduced a right for workers to take “protected action”, including strikes, for the first time. However, the Act surrounded this right with so many limitations and exceptions that in practice, workers were in a worse position than before.

It is worth spelling out the ways the Reform Act did this since it set up the basic framework unions have to battle with to this day. First, strikes or indeed any industrial action that took place outside a narrow window of negotiations called the “bargaining period” were unprotected. From the moment of signing an agreement until its expiry and the opening of negotiations for a new agreement, the union signatories were prevented from striking, no matter what the provocation from employers. Even once negotiations had been initiated for a new agreement, no industrial action could take place unless the unions had first attempted to negotiate a new agreement to the satisfaction of the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC). Strikes in pursuit of an industry-wide campaign were disallowed: industrial action was only protected if it was in pursuit of single enterprise agreements. And no industrial action was to take place unless the employer had first been given 72 hours’ notice.

The bargaining period during which action could be protected could be terminated by the IRC if it determined that the union was not bargaining in good faith or if the dispute “threatened to endanger the life, the personal safety or health, or the welfare, of the population or of part of it” or “to cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it”. Such an action to terminate the bargaining period could come about either on the Commission’s own initiative or on that of the employer or the Minister. Heavy fines, both for the individuals and the unions involved, were stipulated for those breaching the new Act, for example by striking outside the bargaining period in response to victimisation of a union delegate.

The significance of the Act was that for the first time since the penal powers had been rendered unenforceable by the general strike against the jailing of Tramways Union leader Clarrie O’Shea in 1969, the industrial courts were given the wherewithal to target unions for going on strike. Unlike the penal powers and unlike common law action against the unions, these powers were endorsed by all of the unions as part of their commitment to the new bargaining regime. The ACTU declared:

The Australian trade union movement has been at the forefront of workplace reform. We support the Industrial Relations Reform Act as being both well measured and socially responsible. [18]

Prior to the early 1990s employers had been hesitant to take on powerful unions for fear of the industrial backlash. Now, they were much more prepared to go on the offensive. With union coverage having fallen from 48 percent of the workforce in 1982 to 40 percent in 1990, with union combativity seriously undermined by years of industrial passivity, and with the old networks of union militants more or less gone, the employers seized their opportunity. In the iron ore industry and the coal mining industry, two former union strongholds, Rio Tinto and BHP set about trying to destroy the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Miners Federation, succeeding in the former and scoring some big wins in the latter.

The Kennett government took the fight to the union movement in Victoria on its election in 1992, abolishing state awards and replacing them with individual contracts. Here was an opportunity for the unions to fight back. The early signs were propitious: the Victorian Trades Hall Council called a one-day strike in November 1992 which brought out 150,000 onto the streets of Melbourne. But the momentum was squandered. Trades Hall declared a Christmas truce and by the time of the next day of action, in March 1993, the energy that had propelled people onto the streets had dissipated.

By 1996, when the Coalition under John Howard returned to federal office, union coverage was down to 31 percent, 17 points lower than when the Accord was signed. This catastrophic drop in union coverage, it is worth emphasising, took place under federal Labor governments.

If the Accord was a calamity for the working class it was, however, good for one layer within the union movement – the union bureaucracy. The Accord turned the union leaders into national political figures with easy access to senior ministers. They were appointed to numerous boards and committees to oversee industry restructuring. ACTU secretary Bill Kelty was appointed to the board of the Reserve Bank. National union leaders were in the media on a daily basis. They were sent on overseas “fact-finding” trips with politicians, public servants and employers to investigate ways to make Australian industry more competitive. There were the usual inducements of parliamentary positions – ACTU presidents Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson both ended up on the ALP front bench – while others were appointed to various government bodies and industrial tribunals.

The bureaucracy of the union movement grew more powerful in the Accord years because rank and file activism was virtually eliminated by the no-strike pledge and because the union leaders were promoted by the Hawke and Keating governments. But the decision by the union leaders to concentrate union membership into a small number of super unions through a process of mergers and amalgamations was another factor pushing power to the top. By 1993, just 11 unions encompassed two-thirds of all trade union members. The result was the creation of large organisations with hundreds of staff and substantial financial and property assets overseen by an ever more remote official apparatus. The resulting omnibus structures, with their memberships drawn from widely disparate occupations and industries, resulted in a further distancing of members from their unions: no longer did many unions appear to have any clear idea who they were for. The memberships were being stretched into ever wider elements within the working class but the campaigns that forged any sense of commonality were being broken down into ever smaller components of the membership through enterprise bargaining. The overall impact was to provide the union leaders with a bigger buffer from rank and file members, insulating them more effectively from pressure from below.

Since the Accord

Union decline and bureaucratisation went hand in hand in the Accord years. The problem for the union bureaucracy was that by the time the Howard government took office, the unions had become so hollowed-out that the incoming government felt confident to go on the offensive.[19] The attacks were immediate. The government’s first budget slashed thousands of public service jobs and cut funding for education and health.

Bill Kelty had said that if the Howard government attacked the unions, it would be met with fierce resistance. But when the challenge came, in the form of the Workplace Relations Act (WRA), the unions huffed and puffed but undertook no serious action. A combined union and community protest outside Parliament House in August 1996 got out of the control of the union leaders and what was meant to be a set-piece rally addressed by Labor leader Kim Beazley turned into an invasion of the lobby of Parliament House. The union leaders quickly disowned the protest and thereafter ensured that only token events were held to protest against the WRA, with the focus being instead on lobbying the Democrats, who held the balance of power in the Senate. The union response to the early attacks by the Howard government set the template for what was to become standard practice in the next couple of decades: to lobby parliamentarians, run public relations campaigns, and await the return of a Labor government to set things right.

Having passed its industrial laws, the Howard government now egged on the employers to step up their attacks on the unions. Chris Corrigan, CEO of Patrick Stevedores, took on the challenge over Easter 1998, sacking the company’s 1,400 wharfies and replacing them with scab labour. The union response was immediate. “Community assemblies” were set up at the entrance to Patrick’s operations around the country and quickly drew in hundreds, sometimes thousands of supporters from across the labour movement and beyond. In Melbourne, Sydney and Fremantle, these assemblies prevented the movement of containers from the docks, throttling Patrick’s operations.

The waterfront dispute was a big opportunity to mount national solidarity strikes in support of the sacked wharfies that could have transformed the industrial situation and landed a serious blow on the Howard government. But the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and ACTU leaders diverted the immense solidarity into a legal challenge in the courts. The community assemblies, which repeatedly demonstrated the potential to shut down the entire waterfront, were held back from doing so, in the name of “boxing clever”. The outcome of the waterfront dispute was a legal victory; the wharfies were reinstated and the MUA was restored at Patrick, but, in a story that was told repeatedly in the late 1990s and 2000s, the resulting negotiations over a new enterprise agreement saw the unions agree to dilution of conditions, including, most disastrously, the wholesale casualisation of wharf labour.

Over the following years, the employers and Howard government drove things further and further to the right, with more successful pushes to de-unionise industries and more gradual tightening of the industrial laws. Peetz argues that these measures constituted an “institutional break” in what had been a legal and political environment supportive of high levels of union coverage.[20] In 2005, the government introduced the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) as the culmination of a big campaign to demonise the CFMEU. A critical element of the ABCC has been its ability to initiate prosecutions of unions; no longer does the government have to try to push individual employers, sometimes reluctant to go into battle against the CFMEU, into an industrial confrontation.

The unions, by and large, refused to fight. The language of “boxing clever”, being industrially “smart”, “tactical” and running “long-run community campaigns” – all rationales not to go on strike but to pursue cases in the courts or election campaigns to toss out conservative governments – came to the fore. The strike rate fell further, and so too did union coverage.

The scene was set, therefore, for the introduction of the WorkChoices laws once the Howard government won a Senate majority at the 2004 federal election. These laws represented a dramatic escalation of the anti-union offensive. The union leaders understood that not to fight WorkChoices meant their further marginalisation in industrial and political life. And so in 2005, the peak labour councils launched the Your Rights@Work campaign which included a high court challenge, lobbying senators, a massive media campaign and four days of mass rallies over 18 months. Attendance at the rallies was enormous – with 550,000 attending protests across the country in November 2005 – and demonstrated, as had the MUA dispute in 1998, the potential to mobilise mass industrial opposition to employer and government attacks. But that was not the aim of the ACTU campaign, which funnelled popular opposition into a vote Labor campaign.

The slogan “Your Rights@Work Worth Fighting For” was changed to “Your Rights@Work Worth Voting For” at the last of the big national days of action in November 2006, and the next 12 months saw hostility to WorkChoices channelled into electoral campaigning. Six thousand unionists were involved in some form of electoral activity, more than two million leaflets were distributed, 40,000 people were door-knocked in a canvassing campaign and 5,000 volunteers handed out how to vote cards at 835 polling booths in 25 marginal seats on polling day in November 2007. The Howard government was defeated and the prime minister lost his seat thanks in no small part to the union campaign. Missing from the campaign, however, was any push to restore the right to strike or union rights more generally.

Union decline in the 1990s and 2000s was not inevitable. The battle against WorkChoices, along with the protests against the Kennett government in 1992-93 and the fight on the waterfront in 1998 provided union leaders with the opportunity to seriously push back, to confirm the relevance of trade unions and to regain the initiative against the bosses and governments. But, pulling back from the kind of action needed to score a decisive victory, the unions were incapable of checking the long term decline in membership and activist structures.

It was not the case that workers simply became uninterested in trade unionism in these years, as right wing critics argue. Public attitudes to trade unions remain supportive despite the best efforts of the right to delegitimise them, most recently the Abbott government’s Trade Union Royal Commission.[21] In an Essential poll conducted in 2015, 62 percent of all voters were of the opinion that unions are “important for Australian working people today”. Only 26 percent believed that Australia would be worse off with stronger unions, 45 percent better off.[22]

In the years that followed the defeat of the Howard government, the Rudd and Gillard governments scrapped some of the more punitive provisions of the WorkChoices laws, in particular Australian Workplace Agreements (statutory individual contracts), and reinstated an improved floor of conditions for enterprise agreements (the “better off overall test”) and a weak unfair dismissal provision. The ABCC was folded into the Fair Work Commission and maximum penalties cut by two-thirds. The Fair Work Act loosened rules over what could be bargained over, including contracting out and casual employment, and Howard-era greenfields agreements, which allowed employers to unilaterally set employment conditions on new sites, were amended.

Nonetheless, the anti-union clauses, and in particular the anti-strike clauses, were for the most part simply transferred across from WorkChoices to Fair Work. So, for example, the new Act includes the requirement to apply to the Fair Work Commission for a protected ballot action order and then to conduct a secret postal ballot prior to industrial action. It also included the requirement that at least 50 percent of the union’s members in the relevant area return a valid ballot, the continued ban on pattern (industry-wide) bargaining, the banning of political strikes, the deeming of all forms of unprotected industrial action as unlawful and injunctible and the obligation on the Commission to enforce mandatory orders in the case of such action, along with mandatory restrictions on industrial action which threaten “to endanger the life, the personal safety or health, or the welfare, of the population or of part of it; or to cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it”. This latter provision has proved extremely damaging to the unions. When unions at Qantas took very limited industrial action in 2011 to limit outsourcing and guarantee jobs for the maintenance crews, the Commission used this clause of Fair Work to terminate the bargaining period and impose a settlement which rejected all of the unions’ big claims. The result is that what should be a very powerful group of workers at the airports is now employed by a myriad of undercutting firms on multiple EBAs.

Other Fair Work restrictions included continuing restrictions on the right of entry for union officials and the prohibition of any closed shop or preference arrangements. Employers may be prevented from legally locking out their workforces unless the union has first initiated industrial action, but they face no other restrictions on their ability to do so, no matter how disproportionate their action might be. A provision for “award modernisation”, including four-yearly reviews of modern awards, was included in the Act, which in subsequent years has led to a stripping out or weakening of some long established provisions including, most damagingly, penalty rates.

Although welcomed by the ACTU at the time, the Fair Work laws are, as AMWU national industrial officer Don Sutherland has recently argued, “barely” better than WorkChoices and “very much in the same neoliberal ideological framework”. Fair Work is shot through with rules that reinforce employer prerogatives and undermine workers’ ability to organise collectively. Enterprise bargaining, in particular, Sutherland argues, is “rotten to the core”, based as it is on using competition between workers in different enterprises, and sometimes even the same enterprise, to break worker solidarity and encourage a race to the bottom.[23]

Union strategies today

The result of developments over the past three decades is that trade unions today face an industrial relations set-up in which the bosses, backed by the Fair Work Commission, courts and governments, have been emboldened to attack unions on every front. This involves removing the remaining institutional props that have kept the surviving unions alive, or in some cases, retaining the form of a union onsite but removing what is left of its power. Employers are aiming to eliminate what remains of the conditions won by industrial militancy and on the job organising in the union movement’s remaining redoubts. Workers in these redoubts will be able to hang on to only what they are able to fight for and no more. In many situations, this will result in the stripping out of vital conditions that have been tolerated by employers in times past.

One employer tactic is to use labour hire companies to set up enterprise agreements with one or two workers and then to outsource parts of their workforce to these labour hire operations on far inferior wages and conditions. This was what Carlton and United Breweries (CUB) planned for its maintenance workforce at its Melbourne brewery when it set up a labour hire company in 2014 and then sought to move its workers over to the new contractor two years later.

The tactic was given the blessing of the courts in 2015 when the Federal Court upheld an enterprise agreement negotiated and voted on by only three John Holland employees at the Perth Children’s Hospital project, which the company then used to set terms and conditions for much wider groups of employees who had had no say in the making of the agreement. The John Holland precedent was then used by Esso to do the same in 2016-17 with the outsourcing by contractor UGL of maintenance workers on the Bass Strait gas project to its own shelf company resulting in 30 percent wage cuts and casualisation.[24]

Another tactic has been for employers to apply to the Fair Work Commission to simply terminate expired enterprise agreements. This is a provision of the Fair Work laws, carried over from WorkChoices, but had been rarely used until 2015 when, breaking precedent, the full bench of the Fair Work Commission terminated 12 expired EBAs at Aurizon, Australia’s largest freight rail company. This allowed the employer to roll the Aurizon workforce onto a much inferior agreement. The full bench approved termination of the agreements under s226 of the Fair Work Act, on the grounds that there was no public interest not to and that the changes proposed by the company under the new agreement were not “undesirable or unnecessary, oppressive on employees or inappropriate”.

The Aurizon decision gave a green light to other employers to apply to terminate expired agreements on the basis that the existing conditions in what are sometimes called “legacy agreements” from the days of public ownership, or where unions had otherwise managed to hold the line, were now far in excess of what has become the much inferior industry standard where conditions have been given up by weak or non-existent unions through rounds of concessionary bargaining. In the 1960s, metal trades unions leveraged the good wages and conditions in the well organised workplaces to win breakthroughs in the poorly organised shops through the award system. The employers are now using this method in reverse, with the bad driving out the good. This was the explicit rationale for Glencore’s lockout of its workforce at its Oaky Creek mine in Central Queensland in June 2017 – to drag down wages and conditions to the level prevailing at the company’s other mines.

Once an existing agreement is terminated, the bosses then have a free hand to threaten workers with being forced back to award standards. Examples in 2016-17 include Griffin Coal in Collie, WA, the Loy Yang power station in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, Murdoch University in Perth, the NRG power station in Gladstone, the Nyrstar zinc smelter outside Hobart and the Streets ice-cream factory in Minto. In the case of Griffin Coal, maintenance workers lost between $24,000 and $29,000 a year when they were put back onto the award. Even where the employer only threatens but does not proceed to terminate the enterprise agreement, as at Coates Hire or Fletcher Insulation, these threats combined with lockout are a powerful factor forcing concessions in any new agreement.

Workers and unions are under siege. The slashing of penalty rates by the Fair Work Commission in July 2017 is the most drastic cut to worker entitlements since the 1930s. The Turnbull government’s reintroduction of the ABCC, together with its Building and Construction Code of Conduct, is being used to drive effective trade unionism from the construction sites. The franchise business model has encouraged employers in retail and hospitality to cheat workers of their wages and conditions.

The union response to these latest attacks has varied. In some cases, there has been dogged resistance, with workers maintaining protest lines during lockouts lasting months. For example, unions maintained a presence for six months outside CUB in 2016 after 55 ETU members were sacked for refusing to sign an inferior employment agreement. There are even flickers of resistance in regional towns, as at the Myrtleford pulp mill in country Victoria in 2017, where workers had to face not just the scabs but hostility from many in the town.

But such resistance is the exception rather than the rule; union timidity has been more obvious. At the extreme end of the spectrum is the SDA, for many years the country’s largest union, which has worked hand in glove with the bosses to undermine wages and conditions. The SDA has tens of thousands of members in the big retail and fast food chains, where it maintains a presence on the basis of sweetheart deals with the employers. All told, the sub-standard enterprise agreements the union has signed in recent years have stripped wages from 250,000 workers, saving big business more than $300 million a year.[25] The SDA has done nothing about the exploitation of migrant workers and international students ripped off by 7-Eleven franchisees, one of the country’s largest retail chains. The union was either ignorant of the conditions at 7-Eleven, or was aware of them and took no steps to challenge them. Neither reflects any credit on the union.

The SDA may be held in contempt by many unions, but it is significant that only one, the Meatworkers, publicly opposed the deal it struck at Coles. The ACTU leadership, charged with overseeing the general interests of the union movement, brushed off criticisms of the SDA, arguing that cashing out penalty rates was a common tactic in enterprise bargaining.[26] Likewise Labor leader Bill Shorten. That the SDA is the ALP’s largest donor and constitutes a significant factional force ensures that Labor leaders usually treat it with kid gloves. Had it not been for the work of a couple of Age journalists, an organiser at the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and a small number of SDA members, Coles’ deal with the SDA would have gone unchallenged.

Like the SDA, the Australian Workers Union also has a history of signing off on cut-price agreements that undercut awards and industry standards in return for membership coverage. It has long established itself as the union favoured by employers wanting to reduce conditions negotiated by the CFMEU and MUA.

But the problem does not just lie with the most craven union leaders. Their supine behaviour is exactly what one would expect. The real problem is that even in those sectors where the unions retain the capacity to land a few blows on the bosses, the fight has been half-hearted. Despite the fact that the country has not experienced a recession for more than a quarter of a century, wage increases negotiated through enterprise agreements have fallen year after year to their lowest level ever. In the public services, where unions still retain a presence, the usual pattern during enterprise bargaining negotiations is for the union leadership to call one or two state or national stoppages followed by a series of partial actions, department by department or agency by agency, that serve only to fritter away the initial momentum and solidarity. The agreements that have subsequently been signed usually feature a very modest pay rise and very often come at the expense of conditions like permanency or limits on outsourcing. It’s been a similar story in higher education. In one of the NTEU’s few strongholds, Sydney University, a very successful enterprise bargaining campaign, including a one-day strike that completely shut down the university, was ended prematurely in September 2017 as the state leadership hurried to settle with the management, abandoning some of the key claims in the process.

The failure of many unions to resist the employer offensive is also evident when it comes to redundancies. In the vehicle industry the AMWU leadership could only issue statements of “regret” when in 2013 the big car manufacturers announced their plans to shut down most of their operations in Australia. Thousands of unionised jobs went with barely a whimper. In the steel industry, the AWU, both at BlueScope at Port Kembla and Arrium at Whyalla, refused to fight mass sackings but rather accepted major losses to jobs, pay and conditions. In the maritime industry, the MUA did not take one hour of industrial action to prevent Alcoa and Rio Tinto subsidiary Pacific Aluminium from replacing Australian crews with foreign crews on much lower wages on their bulk cargo ships MV Portland and CSL Melbourne in the summer of 2016.[27]

In the steel and vehicle industries the unions faced a tough situation – it has been many years since any union has successfully fought for jobs when the employer threatened to shut the company down. But in other cases, there is no such excuse. When the Newman LNP government announced 14,000 sackings in the Queensland public sector in 2012, the biggest job cuts in the state’s history, the public service union Together had every opportunity to strike in defence of jobs – the state government was not just going to shut down. And there was no legal impediment to the union doing so: the previous enterprise agreement covering Together members had expired and so protected action was on the cards. The union leadership balloted members for action and received strong endorsement. Delegates attending special meetings of the Queensland Council of Unions voted for a state-wide stoppage in September 2012. However, after the QCU held a rally which attracted a large crowd of 10,000 in Brisbane, neither the QCU nor Together organised any further industrial action and the government was able to force through the redundancies without opposition

One of the most damaging developments in the union movement over recent decades has been the erosion of the basic principle “touch one, touch all”, even in what are otherwise admirable examples of resistance to employer attacks. During the CUB dispute in Melbourne, unions brought hundreds of workers to the gates of the brewery on several occasions to demand the reinstatement of the CUB workers. The unions also launched a nationwide boycott of CUB beer. Eventually these tactics were successful and the company reinstated the workers. But throughout the course of the dispute, hundreds of workers, members of United Voice, continued to work at the Abbotsford brewery, as did union members at the company’s other big brewery in Yatala in Brisbane. A dispute that could have been won in a matter of weeks, had unions organised to shut down CUB operations, took many months.

The strategy that has come to dominate the union movement in the past decade is electoralism, specifically, campaigning to get the ALP elected, or re-elected.

The idea that workers should put their trust in Labor and vote them into office is by no means new. The unions founded the Labor party and “the two wings of the labour movement”, as they are described by reformists, have worked closely together for more than a century, despite periodic disputes. Each “wing” reproduces the division of labour that is central to the reformist project: the unions are held responsible for the industrial interests of the working class, the Labor party its political needs. This artificial separation of industrial and political demands works nicely both for the union and parliamentary leaders alike. It dilutes the radical potential of each – the existence of Labor, whether in government or in opposition, is used to damp down demands for greater militancy (“Don’t rock the boat, it will cost Labor votes”; “Just wait until Labor is in power, then we can get our grievance resolved”). The ALP also provides the union bureaucracy access to ministerial offices when the party is in government and a potential career option in parliament or well-paid positions that the party has the power to award – on commissions and statutory bodies of various kinds.

But for several decades this cosy arrangement was challenged by another tradition – a willingness by workers to fight for wages and conditions regardless of who was in government. Labor governments came and went, but it was fighting on the job that delivered the victories or pressured governments or industrial tribunals to introduce the reforms that workers were demanding. The battles for shorter working hours or paid annual leave in the 1940s were classic cases of this dynamic. The militant unionists won shorter hours through strikes, and governments and tribunals then generalised them through legislation and awards.

The problem today is that the militants who organised these strikes and who provided the impetus towards militancy were squashed by the Accord. The union movement is now firmly in the hands of the union bureaucracy and their strategies prevail. With unions unwilling to fight industrially, electoralism is the alternative that naturally comes to dominate as unions have been increasingly turned into appendages of the ALP.

The Your Rights@Work campaign against the Howard government in 2007 served as the template which has been adhered to closely in subsequent state and federal elections. In the 2014 Victorian state election, for example, volunteers organised by Trades Hall knocked on 93,000 doors across six marginal seats and made 120,000 phone calls to potential voters.[28] The Napthine Liberal government fell. Unions in Queensland followed the pattern in the 2015 state election, campaigning in 16 marginal seats. The Newman government fell, losing 15 of the targeted seats. The unions were not successful at the NSW state election in 2015 when the NSW Labor Council failed to dislodge the Liberal incumbents.

One indication of the dominance of electoralism in the unions today is the sheer time, money and staff deployed. At the 2016 federal election, the unions contributed $14 million and allocated 24 paid organisers to the ACTU’s “Building a Better Future” campaign. The campaign targeted 22 swing seats. Over the course of 12 months, more than 16,000 volunteers played some role; these volunteers ran 80 door-knocks, handed out 1 million replica Medicare cards and “had conversations” with 46,102 union members to convince them to put the Liberals last.[29] At the 2017 WA state election, the MUA alone organised 200 members and supporters to staff polling booths around the state. Never do unions mobilise the same resources for any industrial campaign. There are cases of some unions pushing to break into new territory, as with the National Union of Workers’ (NUW) organising drive among agricultural workers, but these are small and the exception.

The unions now claim to be in “permanent campaign mode”. But this simply means permanent electoralism: no matter how remote the next election, the resources of the union, other than basic industrial representation, are devoted to electioneering. And so, just months after the Turnbull government narrowly won the July 2016 federal election, the unions began to prepare for the next. The ACTU official responsible for the 2016 campaign, assistant secretary Sally McManus, was hoisted into the position of ACTU secretary to reprise her role.

Electoralism has become the default union strategy and has pushed serious industrial campaigning further to one side. When Queensland unions marched in Brisbane in 2012 against the Newman government’s mass sackings, just six months after the election, the chant was “We’ll be sacking Campbell Newman in three years”. After this one mass action, the unions devoted the resources that could have been given over to organising industrial resistance on the job to electoral campaigning for the ALP.

The penalty rates campaign illustrates the problems with the electoral focus. The attacks on penalty rates were widely opposed as soon as they were first flagged in 2014. There was a general understanding in the union movement that those workers identified for the cuts had been selected because they were poorly organised and that, if the government and Commission met no opposition, they would then proceed to the more strongly organised workers – firefighters, nurses and so on. The cuts to penalty rates were something that were both a threat to Australian workers and could have been used to rally the whole union movement in opposition. The lead would have to come from the big battalions – certainly if it had been left to the SDA and United Voice there was little chance that the cuts could have been stopped since both unions have extremely limited industrial strength after years of neglect. Unfortunately, that lead was not forthcoming.

Rather, the unions looked for an electoral solution: only a Labor government could save penalty rates. This despite the fact that Labor leader Bill Shorten for many months urged the unions simply to accept whatever the Fair Work Commission handed down.

Following the 2016 federal election, the onus in the campaign mostly fell back on the shoulders of United Voice. The union started from a very weak base. But rather than use the issue as an opportunity to mount a serious campaign to target hospitality workers where they are concentrated in big numbers, United Voice organised a series of Sunday speak-outs, comprising mostly union staff and ALP branch members, outside suburban sports clubs. The idea was to put pressure on the club managers to refuse to implement the cuts. The clubs targeted were chosen on the basis that they were in marginal seats and the main game was to generate media coverage and a bigger pool of election canvassers.

The CFMEU did call rallies in the capital cities in the first half of 2017 against the ABCC, to which they added the demand to halt the cuts to penalty rates. However, none of the unions most directly affected by the cuts sent anything more than a token presence of a few union officials, at best. Other than building the local apparatus for marginal seats campaigning, the only other avenue pursued by United Voice was a legal challenge to the cuts on the eve of their introduction in mid-2017.

An obvious defence of the electoral turn by the unions is that Labor in office can deliver things for the unions that their own industrial power cannot. The unions might point to Labor’s repeal of WorkChoices and the Gillard government’s commitment of several billion dollars to fund equal pay in the community services sector. The Nurses Union for its part secured $1.2 billion from the Gillard government to fund higher wages in aged care. The Transport Workers Union (TWU) won a new “safe rates” tribunal with the power to set pay rates for truck drivers, while United Voice won $300 million for childcare workers under the Big Steps campaign. And today, union pressure has forced the ALP to shift its position on penalty rates; Labor now promises to legislate to restore penalty rates if it wins office. The ALP is also considering changing the Fair Work laws to make it more difficult for employers to apply to terminate expired enterprise agreement.

At state level, unions have found the industrial relations climate more congenial under the Andrews and Palaszczuk Labor governments than they did under their conservative predecessors. The Queensland Labor government, for example, passed new laws to regulate labour hire companies and has tabled industrial manslaughter legislation. None of these gains involved anything more than token industrial action on the part of the unions; mostly they were the result of a few rallies, a social media campaign and representations to the relevant minister.

If an incoming federal Labor government were to “change the rules” significantly, as the ACTU is now lobbying for, this would be welcome. Changes to make it easier for union organisers to gain entry to work sites; reducing some of the onerous restrictions on the right to strike; broadening the options for multi-enterprise agreements (“pattern bargaining”) would all improve the unions’ bargaining position. The union leaders certainly would welcome any limit on the right of employers to apply to terminate expired enterprise agreements because such a step threatens them with industrial irrelevance unless they demonstrate the capacity to push back.

There are problems, however with the strategy of awaiting a Labor government. First, many years can pass before Labor is actually elected. The ACTU decision not to challenge WorkChoices industrially gave the employers two years to introduce substandard contracts before Howard was defeated in 2007. Then there is the wait until an ALP government actually repeals anti-union laws. It was only in 2011, for example, more than three years after Labor was elected to office, that the Fair Work Act took effect, and dodgy WorkChoices contracts lingered on well beyond even that date. The ABCC was actually operational for longer under the Rudd and Gillard governments than it was under Howard. With fixed four-year terms now the norm for state governments and the prospect of such for federal government, workers can lose a lot of industrial rights before Labor is ever elected, especially if it fails at the first attempt.

Second, the ALP is by no means obliged to meet union demands. The Gillard government may have made life a little easier for some unions, but, when spread over big workforces, the funding packages for pay increases are not as generous as they may first appear. Given Shorten’s hostile response to McManus’ suggestion that unions have the right to break “unjust laws”, and indeed his own history both as architect of the Fair Work laws and as AWU national secretary, it would be foolish to expect a Shorten-led government to go far in relaxing the many restrictions on strikes, still less to stand idly by in the event of a real industrial fightback. Nor can it be expected that the Senate will be favourably disposed to any laws to grant unions more rights.

There is discussion in Labor circles around making it easier for unions to refer intractable disputes to the Fair Work Commission but this does nothing to boost union power. It may appeal to union leaders for the reasons discussed earlier – it puts them back in the frame – but if workers are not in a strong bargaining position, they can expect little joy from the tribunal. Likewise, while industrial manslaughter legislation and restoring penalty rates might improve safety on the job or working class living standards, they do nothing to rebuild the capacity of unions to fight for workers’ rights, the key ingredient. More than this, the focus on having Labor elected actually cuts against this project. As Tim Lyons, former ACTU assistant secretary, said of the union focus on election campaigning after he left office:

The union becomes not something about your work and your life, but an organisation that periodically tells you how to vote. Compounding this, the message is that it’s voting that is important, not joining a collective that has its own power. There is no future for trade unionism if people experience it as internet memes and random-issue phone calling and door-knocking about how every election is very likely the end of the world. At best this is palliative care for the union movement. [30]

Without building strength in the workplaces, the unions are simply at the mercy of Labor governments. And what Labor gives, it (or its conservative successor) can easily take away. That is exactly what happened when the Abbott government was elected in 2013: many of the union movement’s gains under the Gillard government, for example the Safe Rates tribunal, were simply eliminated at the stroke of a pen. Because the unions had not built the fighting capacity of workers, the government had little trouble wiping out the reforms.

But pointing out these problems is unlikely to shift the union leaders from their dependence on the ALP. It’s not just that many are increasingly anxious as they see their membership rolls decrease by the year and look to the election of Labor to save them from extinction. It’s not just that they see political lobbying as preferable to the hard work (and risk) involved in organising industrial campaigns. It’s not even that many are angling for parliamentary positions and that wheeling and dealing in the factional world of the party is a major obsession of the union bureaucracy. The main factor that draws the union leaders close to the Labor parliamentarians is that they remain deeply committed to the social democratic project of managing capitalism together. Many of them look longingly back at the Accord, when they were trusted partners of Labor ministers and employers. Ged Kearney argues that the Accord was “a highpoint of the political and industrial wings of the labour movement linked informally and formally in the national interest to deliver economic stability and historic reforms”.[31] Former ACTU secretary Dave Oliver was similarly enthusiastic:

In the past, a collaborative approach between government, employers and unions streamlined industrial awards, markedly increased production standards, ensured workplace safety, rationalised subsidies and tariffs and generally brought Australia kicking and screaming into the modern economic world. Collaboration between industry, unions and government enabled us to lay the foundations on which we built the economic success of the decades since.[32]

Doing deals with the ALP is part of the union bureaucracy’s DNA. This suggests that even if a future Labor government were to significantly relax restrictions on the right to strike, union leaders will not be in any hurry to make use of it.

Union decline and, in some cases, the cost of ever-rising legal bills and fines, is putting some unions at risk of collapse and this is encouraging union leaders to pursue amalgamations. Subject to membership ballots, and providing it is not barred by federal legislation, the CFMEU (125,000 members) will merge in 2018 with two unions which have seen dramatic drops in their national memberships over recent decades, the MUA (12,000) and the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union (3,500). The AMWU, haemorrhaging members, is in discussions to amalgamate with United Voice and the National Union of Workers.

But amalgamations did nothing to revive the union movement during the last big round of mergers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and there is no reason to believe it will be any different today. The leaders of the amalgamated unions may wield more power in factional battles inside the ALP but the mergers will not halt decline. Indeed, to the extent that some mergers will only introduce undemocratic governing structures in unions with more democratic traditions, they will only further alienate members and make it more difficult to revive.

Another indication of desperation in the ranks of the union leaders is the consideration that some are giving to even more dramatic shake-ups, including abandoning any notion that they should be primarily collective organisations of members on the job organising to defend wages and conditions. In the Brave New World that some envisage, unions should become professionally-run service providers selling packages of industrial, legal and consumer services to clients. In 2015, former ACTU president Greg Combet and Andrew Whittaker, a management consultant, produced a report for the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. The union, they noted, was a long way from the heyday of the metal trades unions in the 1960s and 1970s and not just in membership. The internal culture of the union was toxic. The amalgamation of the old metalworkers, food preservers, vehicle builders and print workers unions into the omnibus AMWU in the late 1980s had created a dysfunctional structure, and there was a “pervasive sense of frustration, suspicion of colleagues and a conviction that change within the union was a forlorn task”. [33] Combet and Whittaker’s “solution” was for the AMWU to reposition itself as a service provider offering existing and potential new members enticing “value propositions” involving various combinations of “products” and “services”.[34] Elections for organisers would be eliminated and power centralised in the national office. “Digital-based communications” between members and union staff would replace face to face contact with organisers attached to particular sectors or companies.

Combet and Whittaker’s report was in line with thinking as it was evolving in the senior ranks of other unions. In February 2016, a special conference of union leaders, convened to address the dire state of the union movement, considered a report by Chris Walton and Erik Locke. Their report recommended introducing a “cafeteria approach” to union membership, by which workers might select and purchase subscriptions to individual services provided by unions, what they call a “ladder of engagement”, just like pay TV subscriptions.[35] On the lowest rung, workers could become a supporter just to get on a centralised database. They could then pay one or two dollars a week and have access to online support. They could pay more, in the order of $7 a week, and be provided with information about legal rights, industry campaigns, career development and financial planning but with no actual support of the union on the job. Or workers could be a full union member on the current lines. Applicants would simply need to call a centralised call centre in order to purchase one of these options. Like most such documents in recent years, Walton and Locke’s report is stuffed with the language of business consultancy, with its references to “the change process”, outsourcing “backend services” to reduce administrative costs, the need for unions to “calibrate your offer and services” for each target market, to conduct research on the union “brand” and ensure “alignment to core purpose”, etc.

The ACTU special conference in early 2016 established a series of “Innovation and Growth” taskforces and the ACTU executive set aside a kitty of $1 million for unions to experiment with ways to improve their operations. There was much discussion in these task forces about visions, value propositions, capacity building and the like, but missing was any discussion of militancy or strikes.[36] Organisations as diverse as Greenpeace, Lock the Gate, the Hillsong Church, Mamamia, the NRL, Google Hangouts and LinkedIn, were held up as organisations from which the unions could learn useful lessons on how to recruit and engage members.

It is unclear how far unions are willing to go down this road. Some have already moved. In 2016, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance replaced the elected federal secretary’s position with a CEO appointed by a board of management, and introduced a new category of “associate membership”.[37] But if others follow, this would be a major retreat for the labour movement, exacerbating the problem of membership withdrawal. Subscriber-based service delivery organisations run by managers and emptied of any notion that the members are the union and that union power ultimately rests on workers’ capacity to fight the boss at the workplace would turn them into hollow shells. The removal of elections for senior positions and the creation of new categories of quasi-members without voting rights makes a mockery of union democracy. In such circumstances, the incidents of corruption by senior union figures identified by the media in recent years and by the Trade Union Royal Commission would only multiply.

Another development in the union movement that only pushes the unions more to the right is the increasing entanglement of national union leaders in the superannuation industry. The funds under management in industry super funds have ballooned since compulsory superannuation was introduced by the Keating government in 1991. Union leaders are now jointly responsible with employer representatives for more than $500 billion invested in 41 industry superannuation funds, equivalent to nearly one-third of GDP.[38] The biggest fund, Australian Super, has $100 billion under management.

The entrenchment of trade unions in a system of industry super funds has damaging consequences. First, it gives them a stake in what is a fundamentally regressive private pensions system. It structurally disadvantages women unionists who take time out of the paid workforce, thereby rendering them even more financially dependent on male partners, or condemned to poverty in retirement. It funnels money to financial institutions that receive mandates from the funds to manage investments. And, with highly concessional tax treatment of super, more of the national budget is channelled to those with the biggest balances, the well-off. The system ensures that the workers’ access to a financially secure retirement is increasingly dependent upon fluctuations in financial markets and not their rights as citizens. Unions should be fighting for increases to the state pension so that it provides a living income for all retirees, male and female, paid for from progressive taxation. But with unions tied up in industry superannuation, their role as advocates of the state pension is significantly compromised.

Membership on the boards of Australia’s largest financial enterprises pushes union leaders into the role of capitalists, alongside their traditional role of brokers of labour power. They are now responsible for individual investments worth tens of millions of dollars. Union appointees to super funds claim that the industry can be used to develop the Australian economy. Thus Oliver told a conference of superannuation industry representatives in 2016 of the “nation-building” role of superannuation, its role in preventing Australia slipping into recession during the global financial crisis, and its contribution to “building a new, stronger economy into the future”.[39] But the main contribution industry superannuation has made to developing “a new stronger economy” is to fund privatisation of public assets. Key assets on Australian Super’s books include Port Botany, NSW’s major container-handling facility, Port Kembla, Australia’s largest vehicle import facility and a major export facility for coal and other bulk products, Ausgrid, the lessee for NSW electricity transmission operations, and Queensland Motorways. All of them were once state assets.[40] As board members of Australian Super and other big industry funds with investments in these businesses, union representatives have an interest in further privatisation and opposition to any progressive renationalisation of those enterprises.

Union representatives on the boards of superannuation funds are now joint partners in the management of these former state assets. Oliver, AMWU national secretary Paul Bastian and his counterpart at the AWU, Dave Walton, are all board members of Australian Super and are responsible for boosting returns on the fund’s investment in Ausgrid, while Greg Combet plays the same role for industry fund-owned global fund manager IFM Investors. This puts them in an antagonistic role to the company’s workforce. As ETU NSW branch secretary Dave McKinley commented when Ausgrid outsourced jobs and shut down call centres in 2017: “What is most extraordinary is that these attacks on working people are being perpetrated by a company majority-owned by industry super funds”.[41]

As board members of big investment companies, union representatives are drawn closer into hobnobbing with capitalists. Appointees of the construction unions debate the investments of CBUS with the head of the Master Builders’ Association. Appointees of the manufacturing unions discuss the financial affairs of Australian Super with representatives of the Australian Industry Group. The result is what Oliver calls “collegiate and collaborative structures” between union leaders, private capitalists and former politicians.[42] The links with the capitalists continue once they quit the union movement. Garry Weaven, a union pioneer of industry super and former ACTU assistant secretary, is chair of IFM Investors, where he is joined by Combet as deputy chair. For all the scare stories in the right wing media about union corruption in super funds, much more concerning is the insistent right wing pressure that bears down on union board representatives.

Why strikes?

Nothing that the unions have done over the past two decades has halted their relentless decline. Avoiding extinction outside a few small pockets of the workforce requires a radical change of direction. I will argue in what remains of this article that this change of direction must involve returning to the strike as the main weapon of the labour movement.

Australia’s industrial history is replete with examples of strikes winning improvements for the working class. Shorter working hours legislation by the NSW state government, which cut the working week from 48 hours to 44 hours and then to 40 hours, was the result of big waves of strikes in the late 1940s and again in the early 1960s – and by the simple expedient of workers knocking off work having done the target number of hours. Likewise, the progressive extensions of paid recreation leave from one week to four.

In the late 1960s, the upturn in strikes by the stronger unions secured higher wages and put pressure on the Arbitration Commission to generalise the increases to other workers on the basis of having established industrial “facts on the ground”. The same was true with equal pay for women: the Arbitration Commission’s 1969 equal pay decision was preceded by several decades of union struggle to eliminate the pay gap. And it was only industrial action in the following years that forced the Commission to actually flow through equal pay into awards. Left to its own devices, the Commission was happy to string out pay equalisation for much longer.[43]

Over the past 50 years, there is a clear relationship between industrial disputes and workers’ share of national income. When workers strike they push up the wages share, and when they don’t, their share goes backwards (Figures 2 and 3 – see Appendix).

Strikes do not just advance the wages and conditions of the working class; they also build unions. Figures 4 and 5 (see Appendix) demonstrate the relationship between the strike rate and union coverage over the past 30 years: when workers strike, union coverage expands, and when they don’t, coverage shrinks.

The role of strikes in building unions should be obvious to anyone with experience of workplace organising. Every state-wide or national strike by health workers, teachers or public servants in the past decade or two has seen union membership rise by a couple of thousand. There is a simple reason for this: it is only when unions organise industrial action that workers, both members and non-members, see the purpose of unions and feel the confidence to band together collectively. Industrial action answers the basic question “Why should I join the union?” and provides a response to the objection “I can’t afford to join the union”. Without strikes, workers suffer and unions die.

This argument is supported by three recent academic studies.[44] In the largest and most rigorous, Hodder, Williams, Kelly and McCarthy examined strikes by the Public and Commercial Services Union in the UK in the period from 2007 to 2013. On the basis of quantitative analysis of the union’s membership database, a survey of the membership and interviews with senior officials in the union, Hodder et al conclude that:

[T]here is a strong and robust link between strikes and union membership: months in which a union organizes strike action show significantly higher rates of gross and net recruitment compared to non-strike months.[45]

It is not the case that unions are confronting a wall of disinterest among non-unionists. There is a significant body of workers who are not currently union members but who would like to be. According to one estimate in 2007, 13 percent of the total workforce fall into this category.[46] If these “unrepresented” workers were to join a union, coverage rates would be significantly boosted. And that figure undoubtedly understates the proportion of workers who could be drawn to unions if they demonstrated their fighting power.

Nor is it the case that the changed structure of the workforce has made it impossible to build unions today through strikes. It is often suggested some combination of the decline in employment in blue collar areas, the closure of big factories, the impact of new technologies or the growth of “non-standard” work is responsible for union decline and the movement’s dim prospects. Chris Walton, formerly head of the ACTU’s Organising Works program, and Erik Locke, a former secretary of the Victorian ALP, for example, suggest that:

The very existence of an employer-employee relationship is changing. The nature of work is changing. An increasing number of Australians have no employer. Collective bargaining is largely inaccessible to the vast majority of workers. [47]

While ACTU secretary Sally McManus argues:

The reason union membership has declined is due to the destruction of regular work, it’s in decline all around the world. Steady, secure jobs are being contracted out, outsourced, people are put on rolling contracts or forced to get an ABN – all things that have taken power away from workers and made it much harder to organise.[48]

The problem with these arguments is that union coverage has fallen in every industry and occupation and every sector of the workforce since the 1980s – among part-timers and full-timers alike, among public sector and private sector workers and among permanents and casuals.

It’s also important to understand that much less has changed than is often suggested. As Peetz has noted:

Despite many predictions of its demise over many years, including by some deeply opposed to unionism, the employment relationship is still the dominant model for relations between capital and labour, as in many firms it is the most cost-effective model for managing labour. Even in industries that have seen large scale contracting out (such as mining), the majority of workers are typically employees, even if they are working for sub-contracting firms.[49]

The basic data tell the story.[50] Take self-employment. The proportion of the workforce that is self-employed (incorporating independent contractors) was stable at 16 percent between 1975 and 1993, and then fell every year thereafter to reach 11 percent by 2012.[51] Or take casualisation: while the casualisation rate increased in the 1980s through to the mid-1990s, it had stabilised by the late 1990s and has remained steady at about one quarter of the workforce for the past two decades.[52] The result is that the proportion of permanent employees in the work force was higher in 2013 than in 1990.[53] Labour hire or agency work has never been a big component of the overall workforce and has declined: the proportion of employed persons working for labour hire firms (“temporary agencies”) declined from 3.1 percent in 2001 to 2.2 percent in 2015.[54] These kinds of changes are no impediment, then, to rebuilding unionism.

And despite all the talk of the death of the lifelong job, replaced by constant chopping and changing of employers and workplaces, job tenure in Australia has not declined. The proportion of those employed who have been in their jobs for 10 years or more has increased steadily since the early 1980s, driven by the doubling in the proportion of women with long tenure, while the proportion of employees in their jobs for less than 12 months has declined.[55]

Part-time work, it is true, has grown consistently as a share of the workforce, especially in the 1980s, but today is growing more slowly than in the late 1960s and early 1970s when union coverage was on the rise.[56] But, regardless of the rate of growth, its contribution to union decline needs closer examination. Part-time work is a very diverse category, covering everything from school students working a couple of hours at McDonalds after school right up to middle-aged workers working 34 hours a week in a big business or government department.

It is hard to make the case that rising part-time work has been responsible for much of the national decline in union membership, when its growth has been most dramatic in those sectors – retail trade, accommodation and food services and health care and social assistance – that have, with the exception of sections of health care, never been union power bases. The same is true when it comes to age cohorts: part-time work has grown particularly rapidly among those workers (aged 15-24) who have always had the lowest coverage rates.[57] Where unions have been strong in the past or where they still retain some presence, part-time work is marginal to the workforce, for example, mining (3.1 percent of the workforce part-time in 2016), electricity, gas and water services (5.5 percent), manufacturing (11.8 percent), construction (14.1 percent) and public administration and safety (14.4 percent).[58]

It is difficult to be precise, but the number of workers for whom “Uberised” work is their main form of employment is probably no more than 1 percent. As with part-time work, there is no obvious relationship with union decline: those sectors of the workforce where “Uberisation” has established a presence, for example taxi drivers and home handymen, are historically non-union occupations. The same is true for industries such as agriculture, hospitality, tourism, small retail and professional services, where use of immigrant workers and students on visas with sub-standard working rights is most common.

Big workplaces are not vanishing. For every car factory or steel plant that has shut, a hospital, university or airport has opened, each bringing together thousands of workers. Indeed, in some sectors, the tendency is towards increasing workplace size, or at least the clustering together or what were once disparate workplaces. Big office parks have sprung up in places like North Ryde in Sydney. Shopping centres dominated by anchor tenants like Coles or Woolworths have replaced strip shopping zones populated by mum and dad enterprises. Medical centres run by large businesses are encroaching on the traditional small GP practices. Amazon, with its giant warehouses and logistics networks, has wiped out thousands of small retail outlets in the United States and will likely have a dramatic effect here as well.

The fear that workers may lose their jobs, encouraging them to avoid rocking the boat by joining a union, is no barrier to the revival of unions through strikes. First, it is not obvious that many workers are wracked with fear that they may be thrown out of their jobs. Less than 2 percent of the workforce fear that within the next 12 months they may lose their jobs due to business closure/downsizing or the ending of their seasonal or temporary contract, a figure that has fallen since 2001.[59] Further, the unionisation rate is highest of all among those who expect to lose their jobs due to the business closing down or downsizing, making it equally plausible that fear of job loss actually encourages workers to join unions.[60] And nor is there any obvious relationship between unemployment and union decline. The decrease in union coverage set in in earnest during the mid-1980s, a period of falling unemployment, and continued through the years of the Howard government when the rate of unemployment continued to fall. And even when factoring in underemployment, there is no reason why the state of the job market holds workers back from striking. Greek workers in the depth of the country’s economic crisis in 2009-12 managed to pull off 30 general strikes despite unemployment topping 25 percent. And nor is the rate of retrenchments a good indicator: the rate has bounced around over the years but with no obvious relationship to union coverage.[61]

While the shut-downs of the big car factories have resulted in the loss of thousands of unionised jobs, employment in some areas of relatively high union coverage, such as education and health care, has grown strongly in recent decades. And while technological change is shaking up a lot of industries, this is nothing new: entire trades and professions have vanished over the course of the history of the union movement. But new trades and professions have opened up with emerging technologies, most obviously in health care, which can and have in part been unionised.

As for offshoring, the same process of closer integration into the world economy that is contributing to job loss in manufacturing, and with it loss of union members, has expanded other sectors of the workforce that present opportunities for unionisation. Sydney, for example, is a financial centre and regional head office for multinational companies operating in the Asia-Pacific region and is home to hundreds of thousands of office workers. The rise of China has boosted employment in hospitality, transport, the luxury end of retail and food processing as well as higher education. All of these are areas where unions are presented with opportunities to expand their membership.

The arguments that changes to the structure of the workforce and workplace explain the decline in union coverage since the 1980s or why revival is unlikely overlook the role of unions themselves in making their futures. Every new stronghold of unionism becomes established in industries and occupations where the workforce had formerly lacked decent conditions. If shearers were at the forefront of unionism in the 1880s, it was coal miners in the 1940s and builders’ labourers in the early 1970s. It is important to remember that the so-called “traditional” pattern of 9-5, permanent, full-time employment was only a phenomenon for large parts of the workforce from World War II until the 1980s. For the majority of workers, for most of Australia’s modern history, this was far from the norm. It was unionisation that converted industries like the waterfront from casualised to permanent labour. Rather than compositional change being responsible for union decline, it is equally plausible to reverse the causation: it has been the decline of unionism and in particular the decline in union militancy, that has allowed rampant casualisation and sham contracting.

The question is why unions have been unable, or unwilling, in the past three decades to mount the kind of organising drives that built trade unions in inhospitable circumstances in the early decades of the movement’s history. Workers in the “gig economy” can be organised, as recent strikes by meal delivery drivers in the UK and China demonstrate. Outsourced workers from migrant backgrounds can fight for their rights. In 2017 alone, African cleaners at London hospitals struck against their employer Serco, as did workers at McDonalds in the UK and US. The main obstacle to a fast food strike by workers in Australia is not the nature of the workforce but the union covering the sector, the SDA.

The fundamental point is that going on strike is the most powerful weapon in the hands of the working class because it halts the flow of profits to the boss. As the boss of Deliveroo, William Shu, reflected after the strike at his company in London: “Our riders are the lifeblood of our business and without them we are nothing”.[62]

The power of the strike has if anything become greater as a result of industrial change in recent decades. On the waterfront, while containerisation and automation have led to a dramatic reduction in employment of wharfies, and thus the membership of the maritime unions, it has also strengthened the power of those workers who remain. Measures taken by bosses to cut turnover time of capital by reducing stocks in warehouses and tightening integration of different processes through just in time methods enhance the strategic power of workers in production and distribution: a single strike can shut down an entire industry.[63]

Recruitment to the union over the course of strikes is not the end of the story. Strikes also make it more likely that new members will be retained: failure to retain newly recruited members is a major problem. Every year something like 180,000 workers are signed up to unions, commonly during recruitment blitzes, but around 250,000 quit.[64] Some of them will be retiring from the workforce, but many will be members who joined and then quit within a year or two. And why should this high quit rate be surprising? Signing up recruits at any cost just to prop up the numbers for another quarter is no substitute for building a union presence based on willingness to take on the boss.

It is this last factor that is missing from the analysis put forward by former director of the ACTU’s Organising Centre Michael Crosby, author of an influential book, Power at Work. Crosby points to the lack of attention given by many unions to improving local workplace union structures and activist delegates.[65] This is a major weakness in the union movement since unions with such structures and delegates are much more capable of withstanding hostility from employers and governments than unions that lack them.

But organising has to have a purpose – building up the momentum to organise serious strike action, not just organising for its own sake. This was the basic limitation of the “organising model” promoted by Crosby in the 1990s and embraced by many unions at the time. Because the organising model did not break from the practice of tailing the ALP and did not seek to infuse the unions with class struggle militancy, quite the opposite – Crosby completely writes out of union history the role of strikes and political radicalism in building the movement – the organising model did nothing to rebuild membership on a sustainable basis.

The reason why organising toward industrial action, taking control of health and safety structures, enforcing awards or EBAs, developing delegate structures, the basics of organising, don’t take place at anything like the degree necessary is that the union movement has spent a long time without fighting for workers’ rights in any serious fashion. This is a function of politics. Even one or two self-confident workplace activists in any big workplace can be enough to start to turn things around. A widespread union revival must involve the creation of a politicised layer of workers who will push for this and sees the point in spending time and putting themselves at risk.

Mobilising workers for strikes is by no means an impossible task, despite the oft-heard lament from union organisers: “the members just won’t fight”. True, it is not the case that workers are simply primed to fight at the drop of a hat. Years of industrial passivity have taken their toll. Getting a ballot up for industrial action can take a lot of effort. Strike ballots do fail, not so much because of opposition to action in most cases, but failure to enthuse 50 percent of the membership to vote. And employers have taken advantage of union passivity to ballot the workforce to force through some shoddy agreement in the face of union opposition. In these circumstances, union officials can just shrug their shoulders and say “Well, what can you do?”

But while getting a big yes vote up for industrial action can take a serious effort, it is by no means impossible. Workers balloted for industrial action regularly vote affirmatively in big numbers. The problem when turnout fails to reach 50 percent or an employer is successful in bypassing the union is not primarily member apathy but lack of effort and determination on the part of the union leadership. Money and volunteers can usually be found in large numbers by unions when directed towards campaigns they are seriously invested in, like elections. But many union leaders approach campaigns of industrial action in the most lacklustre way, and the outcome is predictable. The union leaders then point to the failure of the ballot to justify their own passivity. And there are plenty of occasions when workers do vote in big numbers to take action but the opportunity to do so is squandered by the leadership who see their negotiating skills as the thing that will make a breakthrough.

On other occasions, union leaders point to the many legal obstacles to militant industrial action to explain their failure to fight. Some of this is self-serving nonsense. Much could be done that does not involve a frontal challenge to the Fair Work laws. In many industries, just the basics of proper organising – building up delegate structures in the workplace, putting effort into getting good turnouts and yes votes for industrial action ballots, following through with actual strikes with full involvement of members – these kinds of actions are still too rare. It was not the law that prevented Together from running a half decent campaign against the Newman government’s sackings. The law does not explain why the public service unions all too often call a halt to strike campaigns when they have fired only a few shots across the employer’s bow, nor why the NTEU pulled the plug on the enterprise bargaining campaign at Sydney University in 2017 just days after a very successful strike. The SDA and AWU have not been required by industrial law to connive with the employers over shoddy enterprise agreements. United Voice is not prevented by the law from having a go at organising hospitality workers in the CBDs of the capital cities. The education unions have not been forced by the law to put all their organising efforts into the #GiveAGonski election campaign while neglecting industrial organising.

It is true, however, that plenty of legal snares do await unions planning on taking action. This is most obvious in the building and construction industry, where the ABCC’s power to initiate legal action against construction unions has changed the terrain. Outside this sector, moreover, the Fair Work Ombudsman can initiate legal action against unions for breaches of the Fair Work Act. The Ombudsman has done so on ten occasions, the most significant being prosecution of the NUW for strikes at two Woolworths warehouses in Melbourne in 2015, with heavy fines likely.[66] Labour lawyer Andrew Stewart argues:

It’s absolutely straightforward. The ILO for the past 20 to 30 years has told governments of both political persuasions that we are in breach of international labour standards. Not only are we flagrantly in breach, but our laws are also so restrictive on the right to strike that they are way out of step with the laws of just about every other developed country.[67]

Plans by the Turnbull government to increase maximum fines for secondary boycotts from $750,000 to $10 million and to generalise the ABCC’s harsh inquisitorial powers to the Fair Work Ombudsman, forcing workers to give testimony against themselves, their workmates or their union, indicate that ILO censure is no deterrent.

Restrictive though the legal framework is, however, it should not be an insuperable barrier stopping unions from fighting for workers’ rights. The content of industrial law and how, where and when it is deployed against unions is fundamentally determined by the class struggle. If sufficient numbers of workers are prepared to flout it, or employers (or the ABCC or Fair Work Ombudsman) fear the consequences of initiating legal action, the legal provisions can lose their effectiveness.

Unions have always faced a wide range of punitive restrictions spelled out in both common and statute law.[68] But employers only rarely initiated common law action against unions in earlier decades because they were scared of the union response. Or, as Creighton put it: “Legal proceedings are by their very nature divisive and tend to lead to a hardening of attitudes on both sides – they are not, in other words, likely to be conducive to industrial peace and harmony”.[69]

In the post-war decades, employers also had recourse to provisions of the arbitration system, including the insertion of bans clauses into awards, the cancellation of awards, union deregistration and court injunctions. In the 1960s, employers took to invoking the penal powers with gusto and the fines racked up. By 1969, the combination of fines and legal costs incurred by unions had mounted to $590,000. Motions to oppose the penal powers were repeatedly passed through union congresses, but unions continued to pay the fines. It was only after the metal trades struck vigorously and successfully against the attempt by the Arbitration Commission to “absorb” over-award payments in 1968 that the ground was laid for confrontation over the question. The broader radicalisation over the Vietnam War also contributed to increased combativity in the unions, as did the determination of the Victorian rebel unions to push past the lethargy of the ACTU, NSW and Victorian peak union bodies. The climax came in 1969 when Victorian unions organised a state-wide strike in response to the jailing of tramways union secretary Clarrie O’Shea for contempt of court for refusing to open his union’s books.[70] Very quickly the strike in Victoria spread to other states. Within days O’Shea was released from jail when an anonymous donor stepped forward to pay the fine. The result of the strike was that the employers were intimidated from appealing to courts for financial penalties against the unions for the next two decades. Class struggle trumped black letter law.

The battle against the penal powers is probably the best known fight against legal penalties on unions. But unions have had to battle repression on numerous other occasions. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the BWIU, Federation of Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association (FEDFA) and Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) were deregistered at different times, as was the BLF in the 1970s. But on each occasion the unions were able to regain registration because they were too powerful to be shoved aside and because other unions refused to poach their members. Likewise, secret ballots to authorise strikes have been on the books since 1928, but were used, according to Creighton, “only in a handful of cases” in the following decades. And in the 1970s, the Fraser government, despite winning thumping majorities at two elections, was unable to make its package of anti-union laws stick because of union opposition. In 1980, NSW petrol tanker drivers went on strike against the invoking of the secondary boycott provisions of the Trades Practices Act and in WA in 1979 unions struck against the arrest and jailing of 10 trade unionists under the provisions of the WA Police Act.[71] As with the O’Shea case, only payment of the outstanding fines by an anonymous donor prevented even more widespread action in WA.

These examples demonstrate that it is politics, not black letter law, that determines when and how penalties are pursued against militant unions. As Creighton concludes from his review of the use of the law in industrial disputes:

There is clear evidence to the effect that penal provisions, criminal or civil, can only work for so long as those to whom they are directed are prepared to allow them to work. If trade unions and their members decide that they are not prepared to accept the legitimacy of the sanctioning process, then those sanctioning processes are ultimately doomed to failure.[72]

That was in 1982. The problem today is not fundamentally the law, but the dead hand of union leaders who have not tried to lead an industrial fight for decades. As the strike rate has fallen ever lower, militant traditions from the past have vanished, replaced by a series of dead-end strategies that are incapable of reviving the movement. Without a conscious attempt to build a campaign of defiance, as the left wing unions did in Victoria in the late 1960s, the employers, courts and governments have been given every encouragement to keep pushing the unions into a corner.

The positive argument for militancy in the teeth of political and legal repression is also made by the experience of unions in South Africa, Brazil and South Korea in the 1980s where unions were built in far more difficult circumstances than Australian unions face today. The negative argument begs the question: must union revival await the day when employers, courts and governments decide to relax their grip? If so, we may as well surrender now.

So, where to from here? It is widely understood that the union movement is in serious trouble. It is shrinking, ageing and has suffered repeated industrial defeats. The coverage of collective agreements is becoming increasingly concentrated in the public sector and is close to nil in many areas of the private. Employers are confident that they can keep squeezing the unions. And the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. An incoming Labor government might make some changes at the margins but is not likely to fundamentally shift the balance of power. And when the next recession strikes, the employers will be driven by their shrunken profits to squeeze unions even harder.

It is impossible to be definitive about the means by which trade unions might reverse this trend. The history of building unionism in Australia and then rebuilding it after historical defeats has seen a wide variety of methods and figures. But several things stand out from the story of rebuilding unionism in the period from the turn of last century until World War I – when union membership grew fivefold from 100,000 to half a million.

First, building unionism in virgin territory and rebuilding it in areas where it has been wiped out takes serious effort and dedication of resources, as the example of the Organising Committee of the NSW Labor Council in the 1900s demonstrates.[73] This effort will have to be pushed along by a determined minority in the face of foot-dragging on the part of many established union leaders. It therefore requires a fight within the union movement.

Second, industrial militancy is a recurring theme in the accounts of union growth, examples including the Broken Hill miners, the Queensland sugar workers and the Sydney rockchoppers who mounted significant strikes and endured savage lockouts in the decade before World War I. The unions did not win in every case, but defeats also played their role. One crucial outcome of these battles was the fostering of a culture of working class solidarity.

Third, radicals were usually to the fore. Even though there were cases like Billy Hughes, who built the wharf labourers’ union in Sydney in the 1900s while a sitting federal Labor MP and an opponent of strikes, there were many more of radical or militant temperament like Ted Theodore, Bill McCormack, Ernie Lane, Emma Miller, Tom Mann, Con Hogan, Henrietta Greville, Minnie Lalor and Peter Bowling who organised the unorganised into a fighting force in Queensland and NSW. In Victoria, members of the Victorian Socialist Party played an important role building the railways union, while militants agitated among women workers in the Flinders Lane rag trade in Melbourne.

Finally, the big upswing in unionism at this time took place in the context of a broader radicalisation in society, and not just in Australia – this was a period of general radicalisation in the labour movements of many countries. None of this is a uniquely Australian story: the experience of building trade unionism in the United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression demonstrates the general validity of these points.[74]

These steps cannot simply be recreated today at the click of a finger. There is no indication today that any Labor MP is prepared to give union organising a push along, as Hughes did. Possibly a Corbyn-like figure could emerge in coming years who might be inclined to tackle the job, but there is no sign of this and the odds are against it. It is possible that a John L. Lewis figure could emerge from within the union bureaucracy – an established union leader prepared to throw resources into organising the unorganised in order to build their own empire and to try to forestall the rising influence of radicals.[75] But none has yet done so despite the emergence of broad swathes of un-unionised territory.

The fact that socialists have no control over some of the possible combinations of factors that might yield a breakthrough is no reason, however, for left wing activists to passively await the course of developments. Socialists have made a notable contribution to the revival of trade unionism in Australia in times past. The best historical precedent is the Minority Movement of the early 1930s. Facing savage wage cuts, mass unemployment, state repression and entrenched union leaders who refused to fight the effects of the Great Depression, the Minority Movement, founded by the Communist Party, rebuilt unions in the Victorian and NSW coal mines, the Queensland sugar industry, Victorian textiles, NSW railway workshops and public works projects in Melbourne and Sydney. In Sydney and North Queensland they built unions on the waterfront despite blacklisting, police thuggery and bashings.

In the 1960s left wing militants built the Builders Labourers Federation among labourers on the construction sites of Sydney and Melbourne in the face of threats from organised crime and Liberal governments. A reform ticket in NSW, led by the socialists Bob Pringle, Joe Owens and Jack Mundey, won office in 1968. Within a few years, the new NSW leadership had won smashing gains for builders’ labourers – on pay, on job security, on protection from victimisation, on health and safety on the job – using aggressive industrial tactics, snap strikes to halt concrete pours, “guerrilla action” to sabotage the work of scabs and marches to the offices of the big employers, courts and government departments. Employment conditions for BLs soared, and so too did their morale. Members participated enthusiastically in the work of the union, with numerous new activists coming forward. The union leadership was infused with a commitment to social transformation. As they argued, “In a modern society, the workers’ movement…must engage in all industrial, political, social and moral struggles affecting the working people as a whole”. Building on the confidence that BLF members had developed by fighting for their own conditions, the union took action to support Aboriginal land rights, campaigns against the Vietnam War and the tour by the racist South African rugby team. They also imposed green bans to halt the destruction of working class housing by developers in inner Sydney.

But in the case of both the Minority Movement and the BLF, the fight to build unionism involved not just a struggle against the bosses but a fight within the union movement itself – against the strategies of the day favouring passivity and fatalism and for those promoting militancy, democracy, solidarity and class struggle politics. In this fight, socialist organisation can play a vital role. Simply put, one of the most important steps in halting the rot in the union movement today is the creation of larger numbers of more active and organised socialists in workplaces. The case for rebuilding our unions is also the case to build socialist organisation in this country. No-one is pretending that this will be a simple matter, but it is still the main task ahead for any left wing activists wanting to rescue unionism from its current death spiral.



Figure 1

Note: changes calculated as annual median earnings growth minus annual CPI growth.

Source: ABS 2013.


Figure 2: Industrial action (working days lost [WDL] per 1,000 employees) and wages share (employee earnings as share of GDP), where wages share is lagged 12 months, 1960-2016.

Source: ABS 2017c; ABS 2017d.


Figure 3: Industrial action and wages share of GDP (lagged 12 months), 1960-2016.

Note: relationship statistically significant, p<0.05.

Source: ABS 2017c; ABS 2017d.


Figure 4: Industrial action (working days lost [WDL] per 1,000 employees) and union density (union membership as share of workforce) 1986-2016.

Source: ABS 1997; ABS 2013; ABS 2017c.


Figure 5: Industrial action (WDL) and union density, 1986-2016.

Note: relationship statistically significant, p<0.05.

Source: ABS 1997; ABS 2013; ABS 2017c.



Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union 1982, Australia on the rack.

Atalay, Kadir, Woo-Yung Kim and Stephen Whelan 2013, “The decline of the self-employment rate in Australia”, University of Sydney Economics Working Paper Series, 2013-03.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1997, “Trade Union Members, Australia, August 1996”, cat. no. 6325.0.

ABS 2014, “Australian labour market statistics, July 2014”, cat. no. 6105.0.

ABS 2017a, “Characteristics of employment, Australia, August 2016”, cat. no. 6333.0.

ABS 2017b, “Employee earnings and hours, May 2016”, cat. no. 6306.0.

ACTU 2017, “Innovation and growth taskforces progress report”, unpublished mimeo.

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) 2016, “State conference discussion paper – 2016”.

Australian Super 2016, “Australia’s biggest superannuation fund reaches $100 billion”, media release, 11 July 2016.

Bloodworth, Sandra and Tom O’Lincoln (eds) 1998, Rebel women in Australian working class history, Interventions.

Borland, Jeff 2017a, “Job insecurity in Australia – no rising story”, Labour Market Snapshot, 39, July, Department of Economics, University of Melbourne.

Borland, Jeff 2017b, “Part time work: a first look”, Labour Market Snapshot, 37, May, Department of Economics, University of Melbourne.

Borland, Jeff 2017c, “Part time work: a second look”, Labour Market Snapshot, 38, June, Department of Economics, University of Melbourne.

Bramble, Tom 2008, Trade unionism in Australia: From flood to ebb tide, Cambridge University Press.

Bramble, Tom 2011, “Does the working class have the power to change society?”, Marxist Left Review, 2, Autumn.

Burford, Mark 1983, “Prices and incomes policy and socialist politics”, Journal of Australian Political Economy, 14.

Cole, Kathryn (ed.) 1982, Power, conflict and control in Australian trade unions, Pelican Books.

Cooper, Rae 2002, “‘To organise wherever the necessity exists’: the activities of the Organising Committee of the Labor Council of NSW, 1900-1910”, Labour History, 83.

Cregan, Cristina 2013, “Does workplace industrial action increase trade union membership? An exchange relationship approach to union joining and leaving behaviour”, International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24 (17).

Creighton, Breen and Andrew Stewart, Labour law, 2005, 4th edition, Federation Press.

Crosby, Michael 2005, Power at work: Rebuilding the Australian union movement, Federation Press.

Denemark, David, Gabrielle Meagher, Shaun Wilson, Mark Western and Timothy Phillips (eds) 2007, Australian social attitudes 2: Citizenship, work and aspirations, UNSW Press.

Fair Work Ombudsman 2016, “Union faces legal action over alleged unlawful industrial action at Woolworths sites”, media release, 23 June.

Hodder, Andy, Mark Williams, John Kelly and Nick McCarthy 2017, “Does strike action stimulate trade union membership growth?”, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 55 (1).

Kearney, Ged 2013, “The relevance of the Accord for unions today”, address to “The Accord 30 years on” symposium, Macquarie University, 31 May 2013.

Kuhn, Rick (ed.) 2005, Class and struggle in Australia, Longman.

Lyons, Tim 2016, “The labour movement: My part in its downfall”, Meanjin, Spring 2016.

McCarthy, Nick 2010, “Organizing or partnership: How can UK unions reverse the decline in membership density within UK recognition agreements?”, PhD thesis, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Mills, C. Wright 1948, The new men of power: America’s labor leaders, Harcourt Brace.

Moody, Kim 2017, “US workers in the late neoliberal era”, International Viewpoint, 13 August 2017.

Oliver, Dave 2015, “Productivity v profit: Increasing living standards for all Australians”, speech to the Australian Financial Review Workforce and Productivity conference, 8 December 2015.

Oliver, Dave 2016, “Speech by ACTU secretary Dave Oliver, Industry Super Australia” to the Super Opportunity conference, 22 November 2016.

Pallas, Tim 1994, “The IR Reform Act 1993. A Union Perspective: Labouring Towards Workplace Reform”, https://www.actu.org.au/actu-media/archives/1994/the-ir-reform-act-1993-a-union-perspective-labouring-towards-workplace-reform.

Peetz, David 1998, Unions in a contrary world: The future of the Australian trade union movement, Cambridge University Press.

Peetz, David 2013, “Are individualistic attitudes killing collectivism?”, Transfer – European Review of Labour and Research, 16.

Peetz, David 2015, “The ABS statistics or the abyss, statistically?”, presentation to the Queensland Council of Unions growth symposium, 14 December 2015.

Richard, Joe 2017, “Hunters and dogs: What today’s labor radicals can learn from the socialists who helped build the CIO in the 1930s”, Jacobin, 26 August.

Romeyn, Jane 2008, “Striking a balance: the need for further reform of the law relating to industrial action”, Parliamentary Library Research Paper no. 33, 2007-08.

Smith, Sharon 2006, Subterranean fire: A history of working-class radicalism in the United States, Haymarket Books.

Sutherland, Don 2017, “Enterprise bargaining – not just ‘broken’, but rotten to the core”, https://donsutherland.wordpress.com/2017/09/08/enterprise-bargaining-not-just-broken-but-rotten-to-the-core.

Walton, Chris and Erik Locke 2016, “The overdue case for change: A place for unions in modern Australia”, January, unpublished mimeo.

Wood, Katie 2013, “Fighting anti-union laws: the Clarrie O’Shea strikes”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer.

Wood, Katie 2015, “Australian unions and the fight for equal pay for women”, Marxist Left Review, 10, Winter.


[1] ABS 2017a.

[2] Josh Bornstein, “Tough rules on unions have stifled Australian wages”, The Age, 5 July 2017.

[3] AMWU 2016, p3.

[4] http://services.thomsonreuters.com.au/cpdnews/docs/workforce/GedKearneyspeechtotheACTU2016Leadership Forum.pdf.

[5] Troy Bramston, “Where workers don’t count”, The Australian, 2 November 2015.

[6] Department of Employment, Workplace Agreements Database, Historical Trends data. These figures include managerial employees, https://www.employment.gov.au/workplace-agreements-database.

[7] ABS 2017b.

[8] I make this argument in more detail and with extensive sourcing in Bramble 2008.

[9] Peetz 1998, p173.

[10] See Tom Bramble, “Labour movement leadership”, Kuhn 2005, for a more in-depth study of the union bureaucracy in Australia.

[11] Mills 1948, pp8-9.

[12] One example: between 2001 and 2015, the number of AMWU members fell by 44 percent, while the number of officials actually grew by 6 percent. AMWU 2016, p31.

[13] Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union 1982; Burford 1983.

[14] Liz Ross, “Dedication doesn’t pay the rent! The 1986 Victorian nurses’ strike”, Bloodworth and O’Lincoln 1998.

[15] Communication from Sandra Bloodworth, who was at such a picket in 1986.

[16] Pallas 1994.

[17] The following discussion of the Industrial Relations Reform Act is based on Romeyn 2008.

[18] Pallas 1994.

[19] See Bramble 2008, chapters 7 and 8, for more on unionism during the Howard years.

[20] Peetz 1998, p85.

[21] Peetz 2013.

[22] Essential poll, 26 October 2015.

[23] Sutherland 2017.

[24] Jerome Small, “Esso gas dispute: Gippsland workers on the frontline against boss’s offensive”, Red Flag, 18 July 2017.

[25] Ben Schneiders and Royce Millar, “Shoppies’ union faces Senate probe over wages scandal”, The Age, 19 June 2017.

[26] Ben Schneiders, “Workers deserve better than shameful Coles deal with shop union”, The Age, 31 May 2016.

[27] Tony Wright and Nick Toscano, “Armed police remove ship’s Australian crew, escort replacements aboard”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2016.

[28] “Union’s Victorian campaign model to go national”, Workplace Express, 25 September 2015.

[29] Australian Unions Team, “We are the mighty trade union movement”, email to subscribers of the ACTU mailing list, 3 July 2016.

[30] Lyons 2016.

[31] Kearney 2013.

[32] Oliver 2015.

[33] “Change imperative as AMWU faces membership wipeout: Combet report”, Workplace Express, 28 January 2016.

[34] Andrew Martin, “AMWU review proposes major changes as membership falls”, Red Flag, 4 April 2016.

[35] Walton and Locke 2016.

[36] ACTU 2017.

[37] “Media union seeks broader support base”, Workplace Express, 1 March 2016.

[38] Australian Superannuation Funds Authority, “Superannuation statistics, June 2017”, https://www.superannuation.asn.au/ArticleDocuments/…/SuperStats-Jun2017.pdf.aspx.

[39] Oliver 2016.

[40] Australian Super 2016.

[41] Ewin Hannan, “Union fury at new job cuts by industry super funds”, The Australian, 25 September 2017.

[42] Oliver 2016.

[43] Wood 2015.

[44] McCarthy 2010; Cregan 2013; Hodder et al 2017.

[45] Hodder et al 2017, p18.

[46] Gabrielle Meagher and Shaun Wilson, “Are unions regaining popular legitimacy in Australia?”, Denemark et al 2007.

[47] Walton and Locke 2016.

[48] “Sally McManus, the ACTU’s new leader, vows to take on ‘corporate greed’”, The Guardian, 15 March 2017.

[49] Peetz 2015, p18.

[50] I discuss the extent and impact of workforce and industry restructuring on working class strength in Bramble 2011.

[51] Atalay et al 2013.

[52] ABS 2014.

[53] Peetz 2015, p14.

[54] Borland 2017a.

[55] ibid.

[56] Borland 2017b.

[57] Borland 2017c.

[58] Borland 2017b.

[59] Borland 2017a.

[60] ABS 2017a.

[61] ABS 2014.

[62] Sean Farrell and Hilary Osbourne, “Deliveroo boss says sorry for pay dispute”, The Guardian, 15 August 2016.

[63] This point is made very forcefully by Kim Moody in the context of the US working class; Moody 2017.

[64] Peetz 2015, p7.

[65] Crosby 2005.

[66] Fair Work Ombudsman 2016.

[67] www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-21/have-the-right-to-strike-laws-gone-too-far/8370980.

[68] Creighton and Stewart 2005, p536.

[69] Breen Creighton, “Law and the control of industrial conflict”, Cole 1982, p128.

[70] Wood 2013.

[71] Creighton, “Law and the control of industrial conflict”, pp137-38, 145-46.

[72] ibid., p147.

[73] Cooper 2002.

[74] Smith 2006, Richard 2017.

[75] Smith 2006, pp115-16.

No.1 Spring 2010
No.2 Autumn 2011
No.3 Spring 2011
No.4 Winter 2012
No.5 Summer 2013
No.6 Winter 2013
No.7 Summer 2014
No.8 Winter 2014
No.9 Summer 2015
No.10 Winter 2015
No.11 Summer 2016
No.12 Winter 2016
No.13 Summer 2017
No.14 Winter 2017
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Mutual profiting: Unpicking the Harvey-Smith debate-Esteban Mora  

Posted by admin On October - 6 - 2018 Comments Off on Mutual profiting: Unpicking the Harvey-Smith debate-Esteban Mora  

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Review of African Political Economy — The entire debate between David Harvey and John Smith on roape.net on whether East Asia and the Pacific (including China) or the Triad (US, EU and Japan) is ‘draining’ the other is based on several misconceptions. The debate is based on Paul Baran and dependency theories, which postulate a correlative profiting of the ‘central’ countries over the ‘peripheral’ ones. This means there is a ‘drain of value’ from South to North, and just as companies in the North augment their profits, they ensure that companies in the South diminish their own.  In simpler terms there is a correlative movement between rising profits in the North and falling profits in the South. So, this is what they look for in the relationship between BRICS or East Asia and the Western Triad, a relationship where there is a ‘drain’ or a flow of value from one region to the other. But these notions are not entirely accurate, and hence the terms of the debate

For example, the rate of profit is higher in the South thanks to a less developed organic composition and cheap constant capital (something pointed out by Ernest Mandel), which means a higher rate of profit not only for international companies operating in the South, but for the local Southern bourgeoisie as well. The mass of profits might be significantly inferior, but not its rate. The same mechanism which is seized by companies in the North in profiting from the South, is used as well by the local and weaker bourgeoisie.

Another example is the export sector. The export sector in the South acquires dollars (or any other dominant currency as means of payment, depending on the region and the trading partners, etc), and this means they have acquired an overvalued currency in nominal and exchange market terms, which gives them an advantage over sectors dealing with the local currency. Not only that, but fluctuations in this currency (for example, the dollar) now affect not only the companies in the North, but the local bourgeoisie whose assets are now in dollars and who have greater purchasing power because of that. So once more the same mechanism which produces or increases profits or even gives advantages to countries in the North, also gives advantages to the local bourgeoisie in the South.

These examples contradict the notion of a correlative movement between rising profits and diminishing profits which is supposedly ‘ingrained’ in the very relationship of dependency between ‘core’ and ‘peripheral’ countries. In addition, not only is the notion of ‘dependency’ based on Ricardian assumptions (measuring value as price, and so measuring value in absolute terms or in terms of mass, and not relatively), but it seems to be extremely partial in its understanding of the world market. I am not denying there is a ‘draining’, or unequal exchange (which is not the same in Raúl Prebish as it is in Arghiri Emmanuel, two prominent pioneers of dependency theory and unequal exchange), but that imperialism cannot be reduce to these phenomena.

What does this mean? It means you do not have to look only for an inversion between ‘drained’ countries and countries who ‘drain’ the others, but also a relationship of mutual profiting between an international bourgeoise which in no way makes the Triad ‘dependent’ on East Asia. Dependency theories are partial and cannot be said to summarize the totality of relationships which can be encountered in the international market, nor the operations of imperialism.

Of course, the Triad has an upper hand financially, but nobody can overlook the fact that East Asia and the Pacific is producing more value added in industry (as well as being the biggest producer of high tech in the world in terms of value added), and has larger capital formation than the Triad, or has more capital good exports than the Triad. All of these elements of capitalist production were dominated by the Triad just a few decades ago, and they were considered marks of their imperialistic character over the world market. Increasingly they are being taken over by East Asia. Instead of looking for a relationship that involves ‘draining’ as a marker of imperialism or not or seeing the Triad on the verge of becoming ‘dependent’ on East Asia, we must also look for relationships which are beneficial for all bourgeoisie – whether they are from a large central state in the United States, the UK or Japan, or a smaller capitalistic partner like the ones in the South (in this respect, Harvey is also mistaken in looking for such ‘draining’). We have to go back to the notion from Lenin’s Imperialism where ‘central’ states and ‘peripheral’ states are all ‘agents of financial capital’, and not simply the ‘central’ ones  that operate against the ‘peripheral’ ones. This contradicts the ‘three worlds theory’ on which dependency is based (and seems to inform much of the context of the debate on imperialism on roape.net) and makes us look at international economic phenomena, instead of national or regionalist frameworks.

We also need to make a small correction. Smith argues that this study reveals not only financial returns, but also FDI, portfolio investments and repatriated profits. But it is only from tax heavens, not the whole world market. If we go to the data for world corporate profits or FDI, etc (see the report here), we realize the South or ‘emerging’ economies are not only profiting at almost the same level as the North in absolute terms (for example, the 10 biggest Chinese companies in the Fortune 500 have revenues for 2,11 trillion dollars, while the 10 biggest US companies in the same list have revenues for 2,22 trillion), but that this means a superior dominance in portfolio investments or dividends than the North in relative terms. The problem with focusing on absolute terms (as Smith does in his book Imperialism in the 21st Century) is that you do not have the same purchasing power in the US as you do in China (means of production or raw materials do not cost the same in the US as in China, even if they have the same absolute mass of profits), and as Michael Roberts points out, there is no socially necessary value for the whole world, but only for specific societies. This means the absolute mass of profits can be bigger in companies in the North (for example, General Motors, as is pointed out by Smith), but that does not mean the same control over means of production, the same purchasing power, nor the same rate of profit (which is bigger in the South). This is why FDI, portfolio investments and profits in general are relatively superior in the South or emerging economies at the moment, as well as gross capital formation or value added for industry for East Asia. In addition, the nominal GDP, if considered equal to total profits (not corporate profits, but the totality of profits produced by a society before it is distribution into profit, interest and rent), is of course dominated by the South, specifically East Asia.

Besides what I have already said, we have to clearly state the limitations of dependency theory. Not only is it a Ricardian paradigm, but ‘three worlds theory’ disconnects nations and regions in the world market, when in reality, and beyond all mystifications, there are relationships of mutual profiting within a global financial bourgeoisie. Another perspective that considers this relationship is world-system theory, but it chief proponent Immanuel Wallerstein still divides the globe into the ‘three worlds view’.

Such ideas do not exist in the original theories of imperialism made by Nikolai Bukharin or Vladimir Lenin. For these writers all nation-states, whether bigger or smaller, were considered imperialists or agents of financial imperialist capital. The division into three worlds was inserted historically into Marxist frameworks by Alfred Sauvy, Frantz Fanon or Lin Piao, and dependency theory picked it up from there. But even if dependency is correct on the fact that underdevelopment persists, capital exports and multinational capitals are being socialized in every single nation-state in the world, which is precisely why East Asia now is dominant (specifically in productive terms).

In conclusion, we are witnessing a refutation of dependency, in the fact that capital has penetrated rural and urban life in the South, from agriculture to high tech industry. We are also seeing an inversion of positions between North and South which does not imply a new dependency of the North, something nobody in the study of emerging multinationals, BRICS or East Asia seems to be proposing. Instead of an inversion of dependency as Smith and others seem to be arguing on roape.net, we must look at other ways to understand the vital processes that we are witnessing.

Esteban Mora is a graduate student in Communications Science at the Universidad de Costa Rica, he has written three books, and writes a Marxist economics blog. He has written a detailed blogpost Colonialism and periphery: Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.


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Again, is imperialism still imperialism?-Walter Daum  

Posted by admin On October - 6 - 2018 Comments Off on Again, is imperialism still imperialism?-Walter Daum  

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Review of African Political Economy — Esteban Mora begins his contribution to the roape.net discussion of the David Harvey-John Smith debate by asserting that the whole debate over who drains value from whom is misguided. While Smith says the West continues to drain the East and Harvey holds that the direction has been reversed, Mora believes that both claims rest on the ‘misconception’ arising from dependency theory that the imperialist North drains value from the imperialized South. [1] This, he says, is ‘not entirely accurate,’ and he goes on to make further claims which, as I see it, amount to arguing that imperialism as classically defined by Marxists does not exist – and for that matter never did.

Mora’s argument goes through several steps. He first points out that Northern and Southern capitalists both exploit the South, which is undeniably true. The rate of profit is higher in the South, he says, because of Southern industry’s less developed organic composition of capital, and both Northern and Southern capitalists benefit from it. But this reasoning is off-target. Mora overlooks the enormous super-exploitation of Southern labor (in fact, he never mentions any kind of exploitation), the main reason that profit rates from production in the South are higher. Moreover, the organic composition need not be much lower in the South; many Southern factories use up-to-date technology.

Second, Mora rejects the dependency-theory notion of a ‘correlative movement between rising profits and diminishing profits.’ It is not clear whether the rising profits are meant to be those produced in the North or those captured by Northern capitalists wherever produced, and likewise for the diminishing profits of the South. But since he is aiming to refute the ‘drain’ of profits, we have to assume that he is denying that Northern capitalists capture greater profits than Southern capitalists. On this, John Smith has shown in his book and in this online discussion that, Apple, for example, makes a much higher rate of profit than the contractors who produce its devices in China. And I gave evidence in my contribution to the debate that ‘the surplus-value flow from the U.S. to China does not match that extracted from China by the West.’

Mora seems to disagree:

If we go to the data for world corporate profits or FDI, etc … we realize the South or ‘emerging’ economies are not only profiting at almost the same level as the North in absolute terms (for example, the 10 biggest Chinese companies in the Fortune 500 have revenues for 2,11 trillion dollars, while the 10 biggest US companies in the same list have revenues for 2,22 trillion), but that this means a superior dominance in portfolio investments or dividends than the North in relative terms.

By ‘relative terms’ Mora presumably means the rate, not just the mass, of profits, since his numbers suggest that the mass of profits in South and North are comparable. His data derive from the Emerging Market Multinationals Report by Lourdes Casanova and Anne Miroux, published in 2016 by Cornell University. But this report’s conclusions do not back up the idea that Southern profit rates are higher than Northern. For example, they state:

Overall, the average profit margins of eMNCs [emerging market multinational corporations] lag behind that of their US and Japanese counterparts for instance. Emerging Multinationals appear to be looking for growth in revenues rather than profit margins for the moment. The differences are relatively significant, whether one considers the E20 firms as a whole (27% of the eMNCs in the Fortune Global 500 achieve a profit margin above 5% versus 39% if one considers the whole Fortune Global 500) or at the industry level…

This means that while 27% of Southern (emerging market) multinationals make a profit rate over 5%, a notably greater proportion – 44% – of Northern multinationals do so. There are other ways to measure the rates of profits of firms from different countries, but this is the source Mora chose to cite, and it does not justify his conclusion that the Southern economies achieve a ‘superior dominance’ in rates of return.

As a third step in his argument, Mora invokes Lenin to back up his claim that Southern and Northern capitalists are comparably profitable. He writes, ‘We have to go back to the notion from Lenin’s Imperialism where ‘central’ states and ‘peripheral’ states are all ‘agents of financial capital’, and not simply the ‘central’ ones that operate against the ‘peripheral’ ones.’

This is a very strange assertion. First of all, the words that Mora seems to quote – ‘central states, ‘peripheral states, and ‘agents of financial capital’ – do not appear in Lenin’s book at all. Not even the term ‘financial capital’ appears, because Lenin’s well known thesis about the predominant capitals in the imperialist countries refers not to the financial firms as such but to ‘finance capital,’ the term he borrowed from Hilferding signifying the combination of bank and industrial capital. And on that, Lenin produces data to show that in the early twentieth century four countries – Britain, France, Germany and the United States – owned nearly 80% of all finance capital. Lenin sums up: ‘In one way or another, nearly the whole of the rest of the world is more or less the debtor to and tributary of these international banker countries, these four ‘pillars’ of world finance capital’ (see Lenin, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Chapter 3). That is, for Lenin and contrary to Mora, not all states are dominant agents of finance capital; only the imperialist states are. Others are tributaries.

Mora makes his mistaken claim specific in a further appeal to the authority of Lenin. Citing the theories of Lenin and Bukharin, he writes, ‘For these writers all nation-states, whether bigger or smaller, were considered imperialists or agents of financial imperialist capital.’ No, Lenin did not regard all nations, big or small, powerful or weak, as imperialist. Lenin (and Bukharin, and likewise Luxemburg) explained to the contrary that the nations of the world were divided into two categories – the imperialists and those they dominated and exploited. Lenin said that ‘the division of nations into oppressor and oppressed … forms the essence of imperialism.’ Anyone is entitled to disagree with Lenin or Marx on this or any other question, even in a Marxist discussion. But to claim Lenin as a co-thinker, on a disputed question in which Lenin’s exact opposite view is well known, is unwise.

Mora summarizes his brief essay by observing that dependency theory has been refuted by the capitalist penetration of agriculture and industry in the South. Indeed, one claim by some dependency theorists was that imperialism doomed the South to underdevelopment, and there is no question that some formerly underdeveloped countries have undergone remarkable growth and development. But that isn’t all that dependency had to say: the most prominent dependency claim was that Northern capital extracted enormous amounts of value from the Southern countries. And that remains true today, even though some (a relative handful) of formerly underdeveloped countries now exhibit some features in common with the imperialist powers.

Mora concludes that there has been ‘an inversion of positions between North and South,’ but he is quick to add that this does not mean that the North has become the dependent part of the globe. What he appears to be saying is that North and South are now pretty much equal, and that if any countries are imperialist then all are. This too is an absolutely untenable claim.

The reality that Mora ignores was described vividly by Adam Mayer in his entry in this discussion:

It is beyond absurd to compare the status of the Western proletariat … in core Western countries and those outside those countries. Even if a Western unemployed person is materially poorer than a Southern or Eastern unemployed person, the former owns (in a very immediate sense) a passport that is worth literally dying for (as African migrants, and Asian migrants, demonstrate day to day, tragically). … When the wretched of the Earth die to reach the shores of the People’s Republic of China at sea, and not the shores of Australia as they currently do, that is precisely when I will be ready to follow Harvey’s take on imperialism to the extent that ‘reversing the roles has perhaps just advanced beyond its very inception’…[2]

The dependency theorists got a good deal wrong. But they were not wrong to call attention to the gross inequality that exists between global North and South, an inequality that has grown even more monstrous today. And their explanation, that the Northern imperialists exploit the labor and resources of the South, is all the more true today. The claim that this drain of value has been inverted, reversed, or merely leveled off flies in the face of reality.

Walter Daum is the author of The Life and Death of Stalinism: a Resurrection of Marxist Theory (1990) and articles on Marxist economic analysis. He taught mathematics at the City College of New York for 35 years.

[1] Mora explicitly places Japan in the West, alongside Europe and the U.S. while Harvey put it in his East, alongside China. So, Mora’s West aligns with the more common ‘Global North.’

[2] As a resident of the U.S. I must add that the same desperate conditions drive migrants and refugees from Central America to the U.S.’s Southern border, on journeys that risk death to where they face imprisonment and now the kidnapping of their children by the imperialist state.

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