Report on the ICC London Public Forum on Trump’s election and the rise of populism, April 2017

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We’re publishing here the presentation and some of the issues and contributions at the meeting which was called by the ICC and attended by some of its members and sympathisers (one of whom has produced this report), two members of the Communist Workers Organisation (ICT)[1]; a former member of the group Kronstadt Kids[2]; and several other individuals who evidently considered discussing proletarian politics a worthwhile Easter project. There were also written and Skype contributions by ICC comrades from the US and France[3].


Presentation:

1.       The world order is crumbling. Disorder is increasing: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, North Korea…

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Eastern Bloc in 1989, when the ruling class announced the end of history and a ‘new world order’, the ICC insisted that disorder, chaos and an attitude of ‘every man for himself’ by the major imperialisms would be the real result, with the Western bloc unravelling as well as the Russian empire. The US acted to stop its own bloc falling apart by obliging members to back it in the first Gulf War of 1991. But soon after came events in Yugoslavia, with Germany and Britain already acting against the US. 2001 saw 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq... But the intervention of the US superpower only further fanned chaos...

The rise of China, the revival of Russia, regional powers like Turkey and Iran vying for influence... US ‘full spectrum dominance’ lies in disarray. Obama’s ‘foreign’ policies represented a US retreat on the world stage. Trump wants to make the US ‘great again’ – merely underlining the fact it’s in decline! However Trump embodies the weakening of any strategy, even in the short term. In the face of internal pressure from other factions of his class, he’s had to engage, contrary to election pledges, in volte face manoeuvres in domestic policy and to involve his administration abroad in “other people’s wars”; to prove “I’m not Putin’s puppet” (attack on Syria), “I’m tougher than Obama” (confront North Korea) … Such rapid switches in policy hardly testify to increasing stability or coherence.

2.       Imperialist chaos and the populist politics of Trump have common root: a lack of perspective for capitalism. The economic crisis is unresolved, deepening, despite apparent ‘growth’ which brings with it a vast destruction of nature and the dislocation of millions of people. Lacking the mobilisation of the masses, world war is not at present possible and not in any case a ‘solution’ for capital. At same time the working class, despite emerging from defeat in the (1917-1928) revolutionary wave in late ‘60s - with world-wide strikes, struggles and protests against war - was not thereafter able to politicise sufficiently and offer an alternative vision of life for the future. Capitalism rots on its feet and its continuation is a threat to humanity, a threat to the material and subjective basis of a communist alternative.

3.       Populism expresses this impasse. Brexit, Trump, both show the established parties can’t convince that they can improve things except for a tiny, privileged minority, especially after 2008. Neo-liberalism - the most recent stage in the evolution of state capitalism – reveals its limits. There’s a loss of political control by the ruling class: witness the Brexit fiasco and the election of Trump as president despite opposition from his own party, and from key parts of state apparatus like elements in the secret services.

4.       Populist parties are bourgeois but they don’t correspond to most ‘rational’ needs of the bourgeoisie, they threaten further disorder in the management of bourgeois society, cf Brexit and Trump’s unpredictability. This is not a total loss of control: traditional parties ‘co-opt’ populist policies in order to maintain their continuity: the Tories in GB[4] (5) and, strikingly, Trump in the White House who, faced with the needs of the state, have already modified policies (Obama care, immigrants, and vis-a-vis Russia). However the origins of populism in the depths of a disintegrating society means that it’s not something that can easily be controlled or manipulated by the ruling class.

5.       Part of the working class, especially that most affected by globalisation, ‘revolt’ but without perspective and not on their own class terrain. Some vote for populists as a possible ‘alternative’. Without an understanding of the root causes and evolution of the economic and social crisis – reinforced after 2008 because it affected people more as individual savers or householders (or evicted home-owners) at the mercy of the mysteries of finance – there tends to develop a search for scapegoats: the ‘urban elite’, ‘the bankers’, and above all the migrants and refugees. Here the imperialist situation aggravates populism: waves of refugees – including a veritable EU refugee crisis - as well as terrorist attacks in Europe, express the ‘blow-back of war’ and stimulate populist upsurge. This manifests itself in, amongst other aspects, a ‘bunker mentality’: the thirst for revenge and the violence of those who feel powerless and robbed; the shadow of the pogrom... In economic terms, grab what you can and to hell with solidarity.

6.       Populism doesn’t at all infest the whole working class. ‘Urban’, technological, more diverse sectors, often misrepresented as part of the elite, but really proletarian, may be repelled by populism. But they are vulnerable to democratic ‘resistance’ which is also on a nationalist terrain: ‘we are the real America’ as marchers of 1 million and more chanted in Washington after Trump’s victory. Populists also refer to the democratic will, so this central plank of bourgeois ideology is reinforced on all sides. Certain comparisons with the 1930s are valid – key themes of fascism do reappear. But even if ‘building walls’ and vainly attempting to isolate this or that country from global events is on the agenda, the out-and-out concentration camp state is not at present. And this is because the proletariat may be weakened but it is not en masse dragooned behind capitalist policies.

7.       Our perspective: the potential for communism remains even if the decomposition of capitalist social and material relations threaten to undermine it. The continued expansion of capitalism is also the growth of contradictions: use value/exchange value, capitalism and nature, world-wide association and private appropriation; the centralisation of capital and centrifugal tendencies within and between the world’s ruling cliques and countries.... etc

8.       On the subjective level: in 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ICC predicted a profound retreat in class consciousness within the proletariat. (6) Anti-communist campaigns and the effects of decomposition, coupled with the effects of ‘globalisation’ have ensured that class identity has weakened, along with a loss of confidence in itself and its project of constructing a new society.

And yet still important movements, especially among younger generation have emerged: in 2006 (the anti-CPE protests in France) and 2011. Also ‘classic’ economic movements, Spain, Egypt, China, UK…The problem is that economic struggles don’t automatically raise political issues and more ‘political’ ones like Indignados movement in Spain show how a loss of class identity makes workers’ movements vulnerable to ‘citizen’ ideology (Podemos, Syriza, Corbyn, Sanders etc). Both parts of the jig-saw need to be put together.

9.       Revolutionaries, weakened by difficulties within the class, are today very isolated. But it’s more necessary than ever:

  • To make a profound analysis of period
  • To denounce false alternatives
  • To put forward a communist perspective for the new society and prepare the ground for the party of future.

Discussion:

To a certain extent it was a debate between the ICC and the CWO, but as these are rare enough, this was positive in itself. The main points of contention were a) the underlying nature of populism, b) the constitution (class composition) of the working class and its present perspectives for struggle and c) the role of revolutionary minorities.

Why the rise of populism and what are its origins?

The CWO comrade had a slightly different emphasis: what lies behind these phenomena are the effects of the crisis of 2007/8 which the bourgeoisie has been unable to solve. There is certainly a loss of confidence in the ruling class about its ability to control the situation. Trump talked of ‘unfair trade’, of debt and these grievances, also felt by the populace, are diverted by the bourgeoisie into populism. For the CWO comrade, populism doesn’t have a future. It has no solutions. It’s a short-term phenomenon. It proposes trade barriers, and nationalism, against all the developments of the last 30 years. It represents the view of the petty bourgeoisie, and as such it’s not correct to look to or compare the situation with the 1930s because the strength of petty bourgeois groups in society is no longer the same. This section of the populace has been decimated.

Various ICC comrades and sympathisers responded to this analysis, expanding on the idea made in the presentation that populism was not something manufactured or even particularly desired by the bourgeoisie: the main factions of the ruling class wanted neither Brexit nor Trump but got both! And as the CWO comrade himself said, it represents an attempt on the political and juridical levels to reverse recent capital developments such as trade blocs, globalisation – expressing something equally real in today’s situation - a disruptive, centrifugal, each for himself tendency: the growing fetter of social relations on the tendency of capital to globalise. No: populism arises out of the depths of a degrading society which offers no perspective for the populace in general and the working class in particular. A close ICC sympathiser in the US put it thus:

“One of the primary --perhaps the overriding feature--of the current epoch is uncertainty. This, of course, reflects one of the main features of decomposition--it is very hard to say what exactly will happen in the future these days even on the scale of weeks. Already with Trump's Presidency, we have seen a series of shifts and back slides that make one wonder about the nature of his campaign and Presidency...

“...But this raises more questions about the nature of populism. Populism is not new. There were features of populism in the right-wing fascist movements of the 1930s, but also in Roosevelt's New Deal, but what we seem to be saying now is that populism is emerging is a defining feature of the current period--we are in a sense entering an epoch of populism, perhaps as something of a sub period of decomposition.”

“..beyond all this I think what we are seeing today is not just declining faith in the bourgeoisie to manage society, but a collapse of legitimacy in institutions of all kinds: political parties are chief among these, but it seems to go even deeper--there seems to be even an increasing rejection of or questioning of politics itself--which seems another manifestation of decomposition.”

Other comrades addressed comparisons with the 1930s; these existed and should be further explored, particularly the loss of confidence of whole populations in their rulers to govern; the hunt for scapegoats, the persecution of minorities, and also the solidarity expressed by some workers towards immigrants and other hounded, herded sectors. However, unlike the 30s, the aim isn’t to mobilise an ideologically and physically crushed class for immediate war; and populism today hasn’t invaded the entirety of the state apparatus as in Nazi Germany, Italy, or even Roosevelt’s US ‘New Deal’.

The example of The New Deal dovetailed with further elements to the discussion around populism which remain to be addressed. For example, is it correct to see populism as only a ‘right-wing’ phenomenon? Is there a ‘left-wing’ populism? The original ICC discussion document on populism[5] suggests there is not. Other comrades have questions: The US comrade again:

“I’m concerned we continue to use "populism" only to refer to the right-wing variant, when it seems like that is only part of the story of this period. But what all of these variants have in common is that they attempt to portray themselves as somehow outside the system, anti-establishment, different, etc. The problem with this is that if they win they have to govern and it isn't long before they are part of the establishment themselves, which furthers the political crisis. In another sense then, the populism can be seen as something that flows from society itself, as much as it is a political phenomenon of the bourgeoisie. Trump wouldn't be President and Brexit wouldn't have passed unless millions of workers voted for them (millions also voted for Sanders--he received more votes in the Dem primary than Eugene Debs ever got) against the overwhelming consensus of the media/ideological establishment. In a sense there is a kind of "distorted" class rebellion here--even if it is expressed in very dangerous and counterproductive way.”

One comrade said this: “Right and left populists portray themselves as against mainstream. We need to understand what is similar in them and what is different....Scape-goating is a developing phenomenon. Obama deported millions but this was ‘hidden’ rather than the openly declared programme of Trump’s populism. Right-populism rejects the bourgeois ideology of universalism. It had no realistic policy to forward in US election but was pressurised once in office to act in the national interests. On the left (eg Syriza – Greece, or Sanders, US) had a more realistic policy for national capital. Similarities between different populisms but also distinctions at time of great weakening of working class support for traditional parties as in France.

However an ICC sympathiser questioned the notion that the left wing of capital had a more coherent economic/social programme than the right. “Trump put himself forward as an outsider – it is part of his image. This leads us to a general view of where the bourgeoisie is at – and it is true they do not have a perspective for society. But the bourgeoisie does think about the future. Trump represents where the world is going – there are going to be unprecedented numbers of immigrants attempting to enter the main centres of capital, for instance. The US bourgeoisie is getting ready to deal with this. Populism is seeing things from the point of view of the ‘citizen’ in society – both right and left populism. The idea that (in the US) Sanders had a more realistic program than Trump – I am not sure of that. The left live in denial of reality – their dreams of massive state spending on social welfare, equality, support for local industry, are simply that: dreams and propaganda. Trump’s wall is more realistic and redolent of the future.”

Concluding this section of the debate, ICC comrades insisted that populism is not a temporary phenomenon but expresses something profound. The bourgeoisie is unable to fully impose order in its own house. There’s a certain loss of political control - not complete - but a crisis in confidence in itself and a loss of confidence by the population in general in their ability to go on as before. However, on issues like refugees, immigration … as long as there is no explicit working class alternative, populism appears as ‘common sense’. The ICC Theses on Decomposition[6] refers to the effect on the petty bourgeoisie of the impasse in society. We’re today seeing a disintegration of bourgeois ideology. But this process also weighs heavily on the proletariat’s consciousness. One way of looking at world embodied in populism – conspiracy theory – has a deep hold on the younger generation; populism nurtures itself on this. Populism may morph into new forms but the dangerous tendencies in it will not disappear until there is an overt proletarian movement to confront it.

Are we turning our backs on the class struggle?

Immediately after the main presentation, a comrade, formerly a member of the proletarian group Kronstat Kids, said the ‘downbeat’ assessment on the difficult state of the class struggle made it “sound as if the proletarian milieu is turning its back on the working class.”

This intervention to a certain extent coloured the rest of the discussion not directly concerned with populism (though, of course, populism is intimately entwined with the historic balance of class forces, as far as the ICC is concerned).

Be that as it may, this gave rise to different strands regarding the class struggle: a) the objective existence of class antagonism and current manifestations of working class struggle; b) the difficulties of combativity and coming to consciousness plus the changing composition of the working class and the importance of Europe and the US; finally, c) the past and present role of revolutionary minorities.

The basics

First and foremost: no-one had turned their backs on the working class. In the present historical situation, in the relative absence of class identity and the perspective of a struggle for a classless society, revolutionary potential lies, for the moment, in the objective conditions: the persistence of the class antagonisms; the irreconcilable nature of class interests; the world wide-collaboration of the proletarians in the production and reproduction of social life. Only the proletariat has an objective interest in and capacity to resolve the contradiction between world-wide production and private and nation-state appropriation of wealth. On this objective basis, the subjective conditions for revolution can still recover, in particular through the return of the economic struggle of the proletariat on an important scale, and through the development of a new generation of revolutionary political minorities. The presentation had highlighted important moments of struggle over the past 10 years and these continued today: uncountable movements in China where, according to the CWO comrade, the past 25 years has seen the creation of some 70 million new proletarians; massive struggles at present in South Africa; a recent anti-union (though also ‘anti-political’) strike of bus crews in Poland, etc etc.

However revolutionaries had a duty to make a sober assessment not only of immediate events but their historical evolution. Historical materialism recognises no automatic road to revolution: the struggle between classes can result in a ‘higher’, more compatible method of social reproduction (in our epoch, that would be communism) or it can lead to the “mutual ruin of the contending classes.” It wasn’t the ICT or ICC which invented the mutually exclusive alternatives of “socialism or barbarism.” The struggles of the recent period largely failed to have a major impact on the world situation: none (with few exceptions) had acted as focal points for the world proletariat, nor manifested a palpable level of proletarian class consciousness or, crucially, enriched the ranks of revolutionaries. Some of the most major events of the past period – like the collapse of the Eastern bloc – had, seemingly, taken place without the active intervention of the working class, reinforcing its non-active role in forging future social life as well as giving rise to all the damaging campaigns about the death of communism and the victory of democracy.

Comrades of the ICC who had been involved through their organisational commitment in the class struggle for over 40 years recalled the ‘bombshell’ that was May ‘68, the re-entry on the world scene of the proletariat after years of counter-revolution, accompanied and followed by at least a decade’s-worth of world-wide and massive strike movements, culminating in the mass strike in Poland in 1980 and a corresponding rediscovery of proletarian traditions, texts and the reconstitution of new organisations such as the ICC. There were reasons to be cheerful... But “It’s taken us long time to recognise it’s not as optimistic as we thought. When we started out, many of us felt the revolution was quite close. Yes, because we were young, but also because there were struggles breaking out everywhere.” Despite the insistence that history was the struggle between two major classes, that the ruling class consciously acted in its own interests and against those of the proletariat, and that the proletariat’s struggle followed a jagged course, “We assumed a steady development of struggles and a continued evolution of political currents towards the formation of the Party. However, we had overlooked the difficulties and deficiencies in the development of class consciousness: economic crisis and combativity did not automatically give rise to deeper and more widespread clarity within the class as a whole. So the most important judgement we can make is that there is problem...

One of these problems is that the ruling class is able to use the reality of different living standards around the world and the chaos of wars outside the proletarian heartlands to create divisions within the working class. There has been a loss of class identity and even revolutionaries felt the weight of of Stalinist and unionist ideology in ‘60s in their conception of who and what the working class actually is - a tendency to fixate only on blue-collar industries (which were in many cases prone to corporatist mentalities). The working class has not disappeared in the West – though it may be doing different work under changed conditions – but there are real obstacles to its seeing itself as the producer, revolutionary class at present.

The weekend of the meeting coincided with the arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station 100 years before. Neither he nor the Bolsheviks had anticipated the proletarian nature of the subsequent revolution in Russia which ‘seemed’ to come out of nowhere but which had in fact been brewing in the bowels of society. Today, it’s not possible to predict with any certainty, nor should we try, when the current regression in class consciousness and in combativity might end. The class often surprises its revolutionary minorities. But any concrete manifestation of a ‘subterranean maturation’ or a ‘qualitative leap’ in the level of struggles will not spring out of thin air: it will have been prepared by a whole series of movements, strikes and protests – including those against war, the degradation of living standards and of the environment on which humanity depends and which the ruling class is destroying. It’s hard to clearly see in today’s movements such developments. It also depends on the presence of revolutionary minorities – like the Bolsheviks – formed by the class itself, and today we can say the number of these remaining from the events before and after May 68 is absolutely tiny in relation to the tasks involved.

The Importance of Europe and the US

Within this process of coming to consciousness, not all parts of the proletariat are equal, even if they form an international whole. The CWO comrade felt that the focus of the class struggle had shifted from Europe and the US (which had witnessed record year-on-year reductions in strikes and struggles) to Africa, Asia and in particular China. This is not the first time that this organisation has placed emphasis on the “struggle in the peripheries” and the ICC disagreed then as now[7].

Reality is that In many parts of the world – in the Middle East, in large swathes of Africa – the proletariat and the dispossessed, landless population is being decimated by war and famine: Syria, Libya (which has witnessed the return of slave markets!), Somalia and Sudan were examples So essentially we’re talking here of countries like China which have seen a real industrial development.

The creation of new battalions of the class in China should, of course be welcomed – it will make any future generalisation of struggles throughout the world easier. But the new Chinese proletariat – and many millions of them are ejected back to the ruined ‘natural economy’ of the countryside once projects like the Beijing Olympic builds are completed or others collapse due to falling world demand and rising labour costs – is politically inexperienced and unexposed to traps long endured by workers in the West: trade unions; multi-party democracies, etc,  institutions that the rest of the world bourgeoisie has (so far) unsuccessfully tried to foist on the rigid Chinese bureaucracy in order to preserve social control and supply chains. The Chinese proletariat’s struggles require the politicization already achieved in the past in the West and which will again have to be manifested and surpassed there in future.

It’s no accident that despite the growth of the Chinese proletariat over the past quarter of a century - a growth in significant part corresponding to a loss of jobs and the creation of ‘rust belts’ in the West  - no politicised minorities have emerged to our knowledge. If the workers’ history of the past 40 years – if the histories of organisations like the ICT and ICC – is examined, the difficulty in coming to consciousness within the proletariat and the secretion of revolutionary minorities is notable for its feebleness.

The massive and varied struggles of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ – including workers’ strikes in Egypt, Bangladesh, the US as well as the formation of street assemblies and manifestations like Tahir Square and the Occupy movements – has given rise to very little ‘political decantation’. The most politically advanced movement appeared in the Europe, in Spain, in the Indignados movement. And while this has seen some small residue in the form of newly politicised comrades, it’s a pitifully small and painfully slow process.

The CWO comrade acknowledged the “huge difficulties” of struggles today in South Africa: despite large-scale mobilisations and the exposure of the ANC as a capitalist prop, the class hadn’t drawn the lessons and was to some extent repeating the same experiences as in Europe - the formation of new, often ‘base’, unions which were diverting struggles into a dead end. Revolutionary intervention was necessary, a sharing of experiences with struggles in Europe, but how was this to be achieved? In all events, at least there is an open combat as opposed to the low-levels of strikes in Europe.

The role of revolutionaries

The final strand of the discussion concerned the familiar theme of the role of revolutionaries and how to make contact with the working class and its struggles. Again, there’s a whole history of debate between the CWO/ICT and the ICC, particularly on the former’s conception of ‘Factory Groups’ as transmission belts between party, or revolutionary organisation and the class as a whole. For the ICC, the argument has never been whether intervention is necessary or not: communists are ‘leaders on the spot’ taking an active role wherever and whenever possible in strikes, assemblies, discussions, etc. The ICC devoted many resources to intervening, for example, in the Indignados movement, speaking in assemblies, etc. However, for the ICC, there are no ‘organisational panaceas’, no recipes to create the conditions either for struggle, or the favourable reception in that struggle of revolutionary ideas. When workers move, when minorities of them begin to coalesce, to discuss, then revolutionary intervention is vital, not to freeze this process but to help accelerate and politicise it. The dominant illusion in today’s proletarian milieu is they can create an immediate and lasting link between themselves and the class but this whole approach has been an activist failure. The reality is that nearly 50 years on from the end of the counter-revolution, organised revolutionaries are a tiny minority without influence in the class struggle and while they will in no way operate in some academic vacuum, the task of today, under the pressure of the dominant ideology, given the weakness of the working class, is ‘not to betray’ the principles and class lessons of the workers’ movement and to prepare for the transmission of these understandings for the revolutionary generation of tomorrow.

KT 21.04.2017

 



[2] A group formed in the late 70s with anarchist/councilist poliics, but definitely on a proletarian terrain.

[4]  In GB, PM Teresa May’s early election call is another attempt by the ‘traditional’ parties to regain a modicum of political control over the vagaries of populism – as is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to present himself as the ‘outsider’, ‘anti-establishment’ candidate

[5] http://en.internationalism.org/international-review/201608/14086/question-populism

[7] See for example Polemic with the IBRP: Task of revolutionaries in the peripheral countries:  http://en.internationalism.org/book/export/html/3160 and in addition, the ‘Critique of the Theory of the Weakest Link’ http://en.internationalism.org/ir/1982/31/critique-of-the-weak-link-theory