Britain - "Anti-globalisation" and the SWP's global renunciation

Sept/Oct 2001

It is now commonplace for most revolutionary organisations to describe the series of protests against "globalisation" which have taken place over the past two years as the expression of a "new radicalism", particularly among the youth. Most prominent among these organisations is the Socialist Workers' Party in Britain, which goes so far as to consider these protests the "greatest opening for the left since the 1960s" and expects so much from them that it has set up its own "anti-globalisation" grouping under the name of Globalise Resistance.

Despite the superlatives used by the revolutionary left to describe the size of these protests, one should probably not overestimate the importance of the milieu concerned by this "new radicalism", even if the demonstration held during last July G8 summit in Genoa may appear large by British standards (but probably less so by Italian standards). But the fact is that at each one of the major recent gatherings organised by the rich countries to discuss international economic issues, thousands - sometimes tens of thousands - of people have responded to the calls issued by a wide spectrum of groupings and campaigns to demonstrate against what is described vaguely by the word "globalisation". Most of these demonstrations have involved acts of brutal repression by the police, resulting in particular in one demonstrator being shot dead in Genoa.

This shows that in the rich countries where these protests have taken place, at least, there is a milieu of mostly young people who want to express their anger against certain aspects of today's society. The issues concerned are very diverse, reflecting in part the preoccupations of the petty-bourgeois nature of the "anti-globalisation" milieu. They include the plight imposed on the Third World through the mechanism of their debts, their endemic impoverishment, the privatisation of public services and cuts in welfare provisions in the rich countries, the threat on jobs caused by capitalist competition on the world market, the social and economic havoc generated by financial speculation, the criminal behaviour of multinationals, the exploitation of child labour, the failure of the rich countries to help the poor countries to fight the spread of AIDS, the destruction of the environment, the use of GMOs, etc..

In view of this diversity, the content of the demonstrators' "radicalism" - "new" or not - is obviously impossible to assess - except for the fact that they are prepared to take part in demonstrations. And this, in and of itself, does not tell us very much, even if occasionally these demonstrations turn rough. So lumping these protestors together into one category by using a phrase such as "new radicalism", as most of the revolutionary left does these days, cannot help one to understand the nature of this phenomenon. Nor can it help to determine what attitude and policy revolutionaries should have towards it.

An "anti-capitalist" movement?

Obviously, in so far as these protestors demonstrate against the devastation caused in one way or another by capitalism, revolutionaries should certainly express solidarity with their protests. But does it follow from this that we should give to their protests a political content that the protestors do not formulate themselves?

The SWP, for instance, characterises the "anti- globalisation" protests as an "anti-capitalist" movement. Its weekly paper, Socialist Worker, explains for instance that "the movement today has one great advantage over the movement of the 1960s. Although we have not yet experienced anything on the scale of May 1968, it is already a movement against capitalism."

However, words do have a meaning. The word "globalisation" may be vague, since it covers a whole range of different phenomena and issues, but the word "capitalism" is very precise, since it represents the social organisation based on capitalist exploitation. The religious groups and NGOs which demonstrate for the cancellation of the Third World debt, for instance, probably see themselves as opposing "globalisation", but certainly not capitalism.

But even leaving out religious groups, NGOs, animal rights groups and other single issue campaigns, whose preoccupations obviously have nothing to do with anti-capitalism (and in some of the protests they accounted for a sizeable section of the demonstrators), many of the remaining currents are not, even remotely, against capitalism as such. To take only one example: the trade union leaders of the rich countries who jumped on the bandwagon of the "anti-globalisation" protests, often to revamp their tarnished image, are much too integrated into the workings of the capitalist system to even dream of opposing it.

The SWP knows this, of course, as one of its leading figures, Alex Callinicos, admits when, in an article entitled "The anti-capitalist movement and the revolutionary left", he writes about the need for "anti-capitalism, still as a diffuse ideology defined primarily by what it is against - neo- liberal policies and multinational corporations" to develop "into a much more coherent socialist consciousness."

Of course, with such a broad meaning given to the anti-capitalist label, it can be applied to a lot more people, including, for instance, to the tens of thousands in Britain who, over the last decade, have protested against hospital closures, marched against job cuts or demonstrated against the privatisation of transport (if so the "radicalism" of the "anti- globalisation" protests would not be so "new" after all!). But even then, this broad definition is still probably too narrow to accommodate a significant proportion of the "anti- globalisation" protesters.

One can only wonder what advantages the SWP sees in twisting words in such a way, to the point of depriving them of any content?

Of course, judging from what the SWP comrades write, they are anxious not to miss the boat of what they consider as the best opportunity for their organisation since the 1960s. Whether their assessment of the depth and scale of the "anti- globalisation" protests is correct remains to be seen. But whatever is the case, looking at the "anti-globalisation" protests with wide eyes and twisting semantics to describe them, will not turn the protestors into opponents of the capitalist system, let alone win them over to the revolutionary programme.

Revolutionaries have nothing to gain by not calling a spade a spade. By dressing the "anti-globalisation" protests in anti-capitalist clothes they can only end up confusing the issues and deluding themselves. Moreover they take the risk of losing sight of their main task - to fight for the revolutionary programme.

The "latest phase of capitalism"?

An SWP pamphlet published last year under the title "The IMF, globalisation and resistance" describes "globalisation" as "the latest phase of what historically has been called capitalism."

Exactly in what way is "globalisation" the "latest phase" of capitalism? This pamphlet explains: "What is called globalisation or neo-liberalism is the ruling class' attempt to impose its will on every inch of the world so that there is no enclave or niche not pulled into the delirium of profit making. They want the whole world to be for sale."

But if, for the SWP, this is what "globalisation" is, then there is nothing new under the sun - neither since Lenin wrote his pamphlet "imperialism, highest stage of capitalism" in 1916, nor even since Marx wrote his "Communist Manifesto" in.. 1848!

Indeed, Marx already pointed out that "the need for a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.(..) All the old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.(..) In place of the old local national seclusions and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations."

What more does the SWP mention in its description of "globalisation"? Nothing, not even the new developments of the beginning of the 20th century, which led Lenin to conclude that capitalism had reached its "highest stage". By this he meant that the world was now unified into one single capitalist market dominated by international monopolies which were themselves controlled by finance capital, and partitioned between a handful of rich rival capitalist classes. Having reached this degree of parasitic exploitation of the whole planet, said Lenin, capitalism could no longer expand. In that sense this imperialist stage could only be the last one in its development.

This was 85 years ago. Is there any fundamental difference between Lenin's characterisation of imperialism and the SWP's definition of "globalisation". Has the SWP any reason to revise Lenin's analysis that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism? Does the SWP's view of "globalisation" as the "latest phase of capitalism" imply that capitalism may have other stages?

There are no clues to the SWP's answer to these questions in this pamphlet. Or rather, one can only conclude from the pamphlet, that the SWP has chosen to use the word "globalisation" instead of imperialism, but that in fact they consider them as fundamentally one and the same thing. And indeed while there are real differences between the situation in 1916 and today's in terms of the increased role played by finance capital, the ways in which it operates and the size of multinationals, these differences only reflect trends which Lenin already described as features of the imperialist stage. And one can see, therefore, no reason to consider the present period as a "new" phase of capitalism.

We can take for granted, of course, that the SWP comrades are well versed in Marx's and Lenin's analysis. So why this semantic repackaging of imperialism?

Only one reason comes to mind. Marx and Lenin are not very popular these days, let alone communist ideas. Could it be that the SWP is trying to adapt its language to the common view (certainly within the "anti-globalisation" milieu) that the world has changed since the days of the Soviet Union and that the ideas which led to its emergence during the October revolution in Russia are no longer relevant? This would certainly be consistent with these comrades' insistence on talking about a "new" radicalism.

But if so, this would be pandering to anti-communist prejudices and going down a very dangerous road indeed. It is one thing to try to make one's ideas attractive, but it is quite another to do it by hiding their real content. Where does one draw the line? At which point does this sleight of hand begin to amount to abandoning the revolutionary programme by failing to defend the political tradition on which it is based?

Pointing to the real enemy

The various "anti-globalisation" protests have all been targeted at prominent meetings of international institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, IMF, World Bank, the ruling bodies of the European Union and NAFTA (the North American equivalent of the EU), the Davos economic forum, etc..

The general assumption on which these protests were based was that these institutions are the decision-making organs responsible for all the ills of the world. And the SWP gives its backing to this view by writing in the pamphlet already quoted: "These bodies are the target because they impose economic and social measures on countries that result in destruction and ruin." Alex Callinicos adds in the article mentioned above that "the significance of the demonstrations lie partly in what they actually achieved - thus those in Seattle did help precipitate the collapse of the WTO meeting, while the Prague protests brought the IMF annual general meeting to an abrupt halt."

But did the collapse of the WTO meeting in Seattle (which, by the way, was primarily the result of the rivalry between the EU and the USA, rather than the demonstrations) stop or reduce in any way the exploitation of the Third World by multinationals? Did it change the unequal trading conditions imposed on the poor countries? Did it prevent the Texas company Ricetech from using US patent laws to undercut India's export of basmati rice, resulting in likely disaster for many Indian farmers? No it did not. Not any more than the halting of the IMF meeting in Prague allowed Third World countries to suspend their debt repayments.

To claim that the exploitation of the poor countries is due to the existence of these international institutions is to forget that these countries were plundered by the western capitalist classes long before these institutions were formed. Without going back to the way in which Britain imposed its economic diktats on China in the 19th century, by means of the two Opium Wars, one could recall how the entire Middle-East was divided up between France and Britain in the aftermath of World War I, or how these two countries controlled the entire financial system of Iran and the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. There was no WTO or IMF in those days, and in most cases military power was not even needed. The local bourgeoisies proved quite willing to oblige in exchange for the crumbs they were allowed to take from the looting.

Today, the WTO and similar organisations are merely convenient frameworks which help to dress the imperialist plundering of the world in legalistic (and therefore more respectable) clothes. But the real decisions are made in the ministries of the major imperialist capitals and the boardrooms of multinationals. What happens afterwards, during the spectacular summits of the international institutions, reflects the domination of imperialism over the world market and the rivalries between the various imperialist powers themselves. Accounts are settled between the rich rivals (or sometimes they cannot be settled, as in Seattle) and orders handed over to the weakest countries. If this did not happen at the WTO general assemblies, it would happen within a less visible framework, as part of direct negotiations from country to country. But the end result would still reflect the same relationships of forces.

These institutions do not have policies of their own. The fact that the policies they advocate result in cutting the standard of living of the exploited masses and increasing their exploitation across the entire world while stepping up the imperialist looting of the poor countries, only reflects a consensus among the imperialist capitalist classes on the best way to maximise their profits - a consensus which most of the bourgeoisies of the Third World support, because their own profits depend on their effectiveness in helping the imperialist multinationals to exploit the populations of their own countries and plunder their resources.

After all, there was no need for the WTO's or IMF's existence in order for the Tory and Labour governments of the past two decades to privatise public services: this policy was dictated by the greed of British capitalists, who wished to rake in the money that could be made out of the profitable parts of public services, while increasing their share of state funding at the expense of social expenditure. Nor was it the WTO which sent troops to Sierra Leone to protect the interests of the London-based diamond monopoly, De Beers - it was Blair, acting on behalf of British capital.

To point to these international institutions as the root causes of the plundering of the world as the SWP does, or to fail to challenge this idea which dominates the "anti- globalisation" milieu, amounts to diverting the attention away from the real enemies - the capitalist classes of each country. Moreover, it is giving credit to the reformist illusion that without the WTO, IMF, etc.., or with reformed, more democratic versions of these institutions, the capitalist world might be a better place to live in. Surely, this is not the role of revolutionaries!

Dangerous illusions

On the contrary, the role of revolutionaries should be to expose the dangers contained in the many illusions which exist within the "anti-globalisation" milieu due to its focus on the international institutions and their policies.

In particular, we should denounce, without any ambiguity, the harking back to the "good old days" of protectionism and restrictions to international trade, professed by some of the "anti-globalisation" currents. These include, for instance, the currents represented by the leaders of the American ca-and steelworkers' unions, whose presence at the Seattle protest was hailed by the SWP, and the French small farmers' union leader, José Bové, whose writings the SWP has been publicising over the past months.

Indeed these currents argue that if workers are losing their jobs and small farmers are being forced to the wall by falling prices, it is due to international competition - particularly the "competition" presented by poor countries, in the case of industry.

But shouldn't revolutionaries expose this as a red-herring and argue, on the contrary, that the British capitalist class is rich enough to pay for keeping workers in their jobs, even if it means denting its considerable profits and wealth as a result, and that the working class should aim at forcing this down the bosses' throats? Whereas putting up trade barriers, as the US union leaders demand, can only result in a reduction of international trade and loss of profits for the bosses that they will try to recoup by turning the screw on the working class, while it intensifies imperialist rivalries. And we should remember where such policies have led in the past: in the 1930s, they resulted in increased exploitation for the working class across Europe (Nazi Germany being only the most extreme instance of this process) and eventually a world war. Shouldn't revolutionaries expose the reactionary nature of these protectionist currents?

Likewise, there are currents within the "anti- globalisation" milieu, which argue in favour of a "Tobin Tax" - i.e. a small tax imposed on every financial transaction, aimed at reducing the flow of speculative funds trying to make profits out of small price differences across the world. These currents claim in addition that by handing over the proceeds of this tax to Third World countries, this would make a significant contribution to the alleviation of their endemic poverty. Among these currents is the ATTAC grouping, which was originally formed in France by some scholars and journalists before spreading to other European and American countries.

Here again, shouldn't revolutionaries point out the fact that, if implemented, such a tax would only come about as a unilateral protectionist measure, to protect the financial system of one country, with the potential dangers mentioned before. But to think that governments, whose function is to look after the interests of their respective capitalists, would agree readily to cutting the profits of their national banks, big shareholders and companies in such way, is simply pie-in-the-sky. Or to put it differently, to force these governments to agree to this would require a mobilisation on such a scale (in every imperialist country at least, otherwise this tax would be meaningless, and using much more than just protests and petitions) that it would put on the agenda the revolutionary transformation of society, thereby relegating the "Tobin tax" to the dustbin of history once and for all.

Along these lines there are many other such ideas floating about in the "anti-globalisation" milieu, some of them quite reactionary, that revolutionaries should be exposing explicitly. But the SWP stops short of doing this.

Last June's issue of the SWP's monthly Socialist Review explains the SWP's attitude in this respect: "We have a chance to force a real mass movement against the system and any attempt to boil the movement down to those with a particular ideological line amounts to throwing away that chance." So, for fear of alienating anyone, these comrades prefer to keep their criticisms to themselves. But in so doing, they take the risk of encouraging reactionary trends in the movement they hope for and, in any case, they ensure that if a mass movement does indeed develop out of these protests, it will not be a movement against the system, aiming at its overthrow, but at best a movement aiming at reforming it.

The task of revolutionaries

For us, proletarian revolutionaries, no matter how large the "anti-globalisation" protests may become, the working class will still remain the only force capable of overthrowing the capitalist system and replacing it with a new, higher social order, free of the devastation caused by capitalist exploitation and profit making.

The main problem for us, therefore, should not be to find ways of helping the "anti-globalisation" protests to achieve their objectives, by providing them with "good" advice (which the protesters do not need anyway, because they have their own agenda). Rather it should be to raise the revolutionary banner in order to win over those who can be won to the camp of the working class.

True, the SWP does pay lip service to this approach. Callinicos, for instance, argues that "ultimate success [for the development of what the SWP calls the anti- capitalist movement - CS] will depend upon what happened briefly in Seattle - the coming together of organised workers and anti-globalisation activists - becoming a sustained movement." However, the formulation is ambiguous ("the coming together", on the basis of which class interests?) and the example used, is, to say the least, unconvincing. Indeed, in Seattle, the trade unions were demonstrating against imports from Mexico threatening jobs in the US. Hopefully this is not the sort of basis on which the SWP would like to see the working class fight!

The SWP pamphlet already mentioned provides a more complete and apparently somewhat different answer: "If we are really going to take on the IMF, World Bank, WTO and the multinationals that stand behind them, we have to move on from demonstrating to building a movement that links all the different struggles. Then the battle can be fought not only in the streets, but also in the communities, and in the very workplaces where we toil to create the wealth that keeps the system going."

In other words, the SWP is arguing for the working class to fight for the objectives of the "anti-globalisation" milieu - that is against the WTO, IMF, etc.. and the multinationals. These comrades want "a movement that links the different struggles", but just as in Callinicos' formulation quoted above, the class basis on which this link is to be established is not even mentioned. Or to put it more clearly, since the working class is invited to fight for the objectives chosen by the "anti-globalisation" protesters, workers are relegated to the role of foot soldiers of "anti- globalisation" and their class interests left in the lockers.

So, instead of putting forward an independent perspective for the working class which could serve as a basis to win over the best elements among the young "anti-globalisation" protesters, the SWP proposes to put the working class in the tow of the "anti-globalisation" milieu - in other words of the petty bourgeoisie.

The September issue of Socialist Review hails in its editorial the success of the Genoa protests and adds that "the presence of large numbers of workers shows that the movement is now reaching significant sections of the organised working class." Inside the same issue a report by another leading SWP figure, Lindsey German, notes that "the Saturday demonstration was working class, it was young. It was the first major protest since the election of the Berlusconi government in May." Elsewhere in this issue, another report adds that "the single biggest political presence on the Genoa protests was that of Rifondazione, the Refounded Communist Party. The trade union presence was also there from the start."

Significantly, however, there is not one word in the many articles dealing with the Genoa protest in this issue to question why, two months after Berlusconi's election, Rifondazione and the trade unions which participated in the G8 protests, have still not organised anything against the reactionary measures announced by the new government. Of course, because the only conclusion that one can draw from this - one that the SWP would rather not draw - is that these reformist leaders of the Italian working class considered the Genoa protest as "safer" from the point of view of their policy than a protest against the Berlusconi government: at least, there was no risk of sending the working class the wrong message, namely that it was time to fight for its class interests!

And it is likely, particularly if there are more large protests like in Genoa, that we will see more and more reformist leaders making a point of showing their faces in these protests and encouraging workers to support them as a substitute for fighting for their class interests. If so, the SWP's policy will make it impossible for these comrades to expose such manoeuvres, let alone to counter them. They will be in the position of serving as a left cover for reformist leaders whose main preoccupation is to stifle the capacity of the working class to fight back.

Yet, today, instead of inviting workers to fight windmills in Genoa, Prague or elsewhere, revolutionaries should be defending in front of the British working class the need for a counter-offensive against its own bosses and their trustees in government, by using the weapons of the class struggle, in the factories, offices and cities, where its forces are, in order to reverse the social balance of forces to its advantage. We should be defending a programme of radical objectives aimed at really addressing the problems of unemployment, job insecurity, derelict housing, poverty, etc.. that the working class faces - a programme that could provide the basis for the necessary counter-offensive, uniting the ranks of the working class across the many artificial divisions and boundaries created by capitalist exploitation. And at the same time we should popularise the idea that the working class needs a party of its own, a workers' party, in order to lead the fight for this programme - a party that will not allow itself to sucked into the system, but will, on the contrary, seek to develop the fights of the working class, with the aim of overthrowing capitalism.

If, in the coming period, revolutionaries had some successes in carrying out such a policy, they might be in a position to influence the best and most serious elements in the "anti- globalisation" milieu, by winning them over to a revolutionary perspective, away from the reformist "anti- globalisation" mirages. Otherwise, if they choose, as the SWP seems to have done, to forget about their responsibility to the working class in order to adapt to this milieu, they take the risk of disappearing into it.

9 September 2001