In Pakistan, where capitalism is extremely "underdeveloped", nevertheless there have been some major struggles, including the strikes of the power loom workers
She stood in front of a line-up of her union leaders. "F___ you, f___ you, f___ you, and f___ you," she said as she pointed at each one. Then she made good use of the bowl of pretzels on the table, picking them up and throwing them at the leaders. This was the reaction of a grocery clerk here in northern California at a union meeting after a truly horrible contract was forced down the throats of the members. The contract included a $5.00 per hour pay cut for some.
Even here in the United States, the bastion of "free" market conservatism, a mood is building up. It is not that workers want to fight; they are being driven into a corner from which there is no alternative. Elsewhere in the world, the battle is already breaking out in the open, and certain general tendencies are clear. It is no accident that four of the countries where these tendencies are clearest are Greece, Ireland, South Africa and Pakistan -- Greece and Ireland because they are in the crucible of the European capitalist crisis as well as because of the revolutionary traditions of those two countries; South Africa because the militancy of the black South African working class lives on to this day; Pakistan because it is in many ways at the heart of the world capitalist political crisis.
One general tendency is that under the pressure and inspiration of an aroused working class, left political groupings are tending to come together to build a united anti-capitalist front. In Greece, for instance, there have been the street battles, strikes and general strikes as workers have resisted the drive to make them pay for the crisis of Greek capitalism. South Africa has seen more protests per capita than any other country in the world, with many of these protests being around the issue of housing and evictions. In Pakistan, where capitalism is extremely "underdeveloped", nevertheless there have been some major struggles, including the strikes of the power loom workers.
Pakistan is caught up in the US "war on terror". This coupled with capitalism's near total inability to develop Pakistani society has thrown the country into turmoil. The regimes swing back and forth between formal, but extremely limited, capitalist democracy and outright military dictatorships. Even under the formal democracy, such as the present regime, the military retains massive power. The military is also a major landowner and owner of various capitalist concerns. The reactionary nature of capitalism in Pakistan is connected with the continued strength of reactionary Islamic fundamentalism. In part, the regime bases itself on islamic fundamentalism, but it is also in conflict with it, partly because of its links with US capitalism. The regime vacillates between these conflicting pulls.
In the face of these contradictions, several left political parties have arisen. One is the Awami Party. This party can be described as social democratic, and its program seems to have an emphasis on secularism, women's and workers' rights, and independence from the influence of US capitalism. There is also the Workers' Party. On the home page of their web site, they describe themselves thusly:
Five progressive, leftist political parties, namely National Workers Party Pakistan, Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (Communist Workers and Peasants Party) Pakistan, Peoples Rights Movement Pakistan (Peoples Resistance), Watan Dost Mazdoor Federation (Patriot Labour Federation) and Awami Mazdoor Anjuman (Peoples Labour Association), along with a number of other progressive democratic groups operating in the different regions of the Pakistan, anti-imperialist intellectuals, trade unionists and enlightened youth, after a series of meetings, discussions and debates have decided on 20-21 March 2010 to merge into a single political party called Workers Party Pakistan. This Party is a link in the chain of the national and international progressive movements. Its goals the establishment of a democratic order in which a particular class of elitist exploiters and their collaborators in the civil and military bureaucracy will not dominate the economy and politics of Pakistan.
Finally, there is the Labour Party of Pakistan (LPP), founded some fifteen years ago. The LPP is a socialist party with close links to various popular movements as well as to the unions there and has played an important role in various strikes as well as campaigns for relief for Pakistanis devastated by the floods last year. One of its founding members, Farooq Tariq, has a long, long history as a revolutionary socialist and is known in socialist circles world-wide.
In the face of the ongoing crisis in Pakistan, these three parties decided to merge into one united party.
A similar process has developed for some years in Greece. There, a left split off from the Greek Communist Party was joined by some other socialist groups to form the Coalition of the Radical Left, Syriza in the 1990s. In 2004, Syriza won 3.3% of the vote and had six candidates elected to the parliament. There followed various divisions and splits, but in 2007 it went up to 5% of the vote. This was just a foreshadowing of things to come. In the May, 2012 elections, Syriza shot up to 12% of the vote, becoming the second largest party in Greece. This forced a runoff election, which Syriza nearly won.
Parliamentary elections can first and foremost be a proving ground, a public forum, for different ideas. In the United States, this has always been the ideas of different wings of and strategists for the capitalist class. This is also increasingly so in countries like Great Britain, where the Labour Party now does little but mouth capitalist propaganda (as opposed to the past). The rise of Syriza, however, led to a battle between the ideas of some sectors of the working class (as represented by Syriza) and those of Greek and European capitalism.
Concretely, the latter presented the idea that Greek "society", meaning the Greek workers, would have to pay for the economic crisis of Greek capitalism in the form of ever-mounting austerity. Syriza, on the other hand, opposed the austerity and campaigned on the grounds that European capitalism would not be able to expel Greece from the euro zone and would have to come up with the money to pay for the debts of the Greek bankers.
The main point of all this is that the crisis in Greek capitalism has brought about the rise of this powerful united left party.
In South Africa, a similar process seems to be under way, although it is only in its very earliest phase. Several years ago a few members left the South African Communist Party. The extremely militant, and in some ways revolutionary traditions of the South African working class have never been completely lost, and in recent years there have been more protests per capita in South Africa than in any other country. This situation led to the coming together of several different left groups and individuals with those who had split from the SACP to the left. They formed the United Democratic Left. (Recognizing what might be the greatest crisis of capitalism overall - the environmental crisis - the UDL campaigns for "eco socialism.") As Martin Legassick, active member of the DLF, explains, "once the DLF was formed it concentrated on recruiting social movements which are community-based. It now has a wide range of these in at least six out of nine provinces, some in rural areas, and they are its main social base." The recent explosion of the Marikana miners has also propelled the DLF forward, and they are now somewhat known amongst some of those miners. As advocates for those miners, they were recently the subject of a harsh attack by a wing of the establishment union leadership there, a wing that has betrayed the interests of the miners. The fact that this leadership bothered to attack the DLF is a sign of its advance.
Ireland, too, has been in the forefront of the European crisis. The result has been that several socialists have been elected to the Irish parliament. In recent years, they have come together to form the United Left Alliance (ULA). Although there have been reports of various struggles within the ULA - maybe due to sectarianism - there are also reports that attempts are being made to overcome these divisions.
Thus we can see in several different countries in the world how under the influence of a rising workers' movement different individual socialists and socialist groups are starting to come together and build a real base within the working class.
Another trend can also be seen: From China to the United States to South Africa - and almost all points in between - most of the leadership of the unions are convinced that their salvation lies in linking themselves to the interests of "their" capitalist class, since they believe there is no alternative to an economy run on the basis of private investment for private profit. They try to keep investment at home and attract foreign investment. The inevitable logic is that they try to keep wages down and the workers passive. It was exactly this approach that caused that shop clerk in California to curse out her leaders and throw pretzels at them.
From Workers' Leader to Millionaire Capitalist
In South Africa, the result has been collective and widespread. Historically, formal racism (apartheid) was closely associated with capitalism itself in the minds of many black South African workers. Before the downfall of apartheid, the leadership of the workers' movement reflected this sentiment. But once apartheid collapsed, and an opening was given to the rise of a layer of black capitalists, things changed. Most symbolic of this shift was the "rise" (some would say the fall) of the founder of the National Union of Miners (NUM) Cyril Ramaphosa, who became a millionaire and gained a seat on the board of directors of several companies, including those of mining companies.
AMCU & New Unions
In 1999, a local NUM leader, Joseph Mathunjwa, was expelled from the NUM for leading a wildcat strike. He then formed the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). Now, some 13 years later, miners at the Marikana mine have turned to the AMCU when they found their way blocked by the leadership of the NUM. Several thousand of them went on strike, leading to several violent clashes with government forces, including the slaughter of some 34 miners by the South African police on August 16. Refusing to back down, the miners actually spread their struggle and eventually won a 22% wage increase. Both the pay victory and the strike itself were subsequently condemned by the NUM leadership. This position can only serve to strengthen the AMCU and the struggle of the South African miners is far from over.
Again, this is not a unique development. Over 15 years ago, following the ascent to power of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, workers there formed new unions and a new union federation in order to bypass the compromised leadership of the old, official federation. More recently, workers in Egypt have done the same following the fall of the Mubarak dictatorship.
Overall, workers tend to move into struggle through their traditional organizations. That is especially true as far as the unions are concerned, partly because there is strength in numbers. However, this general tendency can be overridden by extreme circumstances, and that is exactly what workers are facing globally. From Venezuela to Egypt to South Africa, workers on the job are finding their situation intolerable at the same time as they see an opening to organize to change that situation. If the way to fight on the job is blocked by the established leadership, then at times workers will find an avenue outside the established unions.
In fact, a similar process can be seen in the political realm, except here it is even more extreme. The old parties that were traditionally seen as the parties of the working class - the mass labor and social democratic parties - have been transformed. Many argue, with justification, that they are already capitalist parties. Whether or not this is true, the masses of younger workers certainly no longer look to them as "their" parties. This is why the various left coalitions, which all seem headed in the direction that Syriza has taken, have developed.
Of course, we must not make too much of these trends. Major political battles may well be fought within the old traditional parties of the working class. These should not be ignored. This is even more true for the mainstream unions. In some cases, it is entirely possible that opposition caucuses within the mainstream unions can develop and even start to play the role of the union as a whole to some extent, directly organizing workers and negotiating directly with the employer. In any case, major battles within those unions are inevitable, especially in the face of "upstarts" like the AMCU. It would be a mistake bordering on the criminal to ignore these developments.
The fact that these left coalitions are developing in several completely different parts of the world at the same time is important. Capitalism is a global system more than ever, and it is impossible to fight it on a national basis. A natural outgrowth of the rise of these different left coalitions would be for them to come together globally, to form a global program and strategy, and to link up across all national borders.
The importance of internationalism is underscored in the country where the political developments have gone the furthest - Greece. There, in reaction to the rise of Syriza, an outright fascist party - Golden Dawn - is being built. Typical of fascism, Golden Dawn is not only an electoral party, it is carrying out physical attacks on both leftists and immigrants. It uses ultra-nationalist ideology to build itself. There are reports of anti-fascist patrols, possibly by anarchists, in Athens. This is very positive, but while Golden Dawn must be stopped in the streets, its nationalist propaganda should also be countered by working class internationalism. Whether the unions can be brought into this struggle might be considered.
The tendency to form united left or socialist alliances is just an outward manifestation of the rising movement of the working class; as workers move into struggle, they seek unity around common purposes and interests. However, the drive for unity must not obscure the real and important differences that will inevitably arise within the struggles. How to deal with Golden Dawn is just one example. This means that there inevitably will be different groupings, different wings or "factions", within the united movement. Marxists - revolutionary socialists - must not neglect this part of the task either.
From Pakistan to Greece, from the economic and environmental crises to the threat of war, the capitalist class has proven that it is driving human society and Planet Earth to disaster. The working class is the force that can prevent this disaster. It will learn enormously and gain confidence through the developments outlined above. It is up to the revolutionary socialists to help concentrate this confidence and understanding to provide an alternative.
John Reimann is a retired carpenter and an expelled member of the Carpenters' Union in the United States. (He was expelled for leading rank and file struggles against the union bureaucracy.) He is a long-time socialist, who organized for a number of years in Mexico. He is presently a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.