MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 2

International Socialist Review, Fall 1997

Notes of the Quarter

A new mood of resistance

From International Socialist Review, Issue 2, Fall 1997.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Millions of Venezuelan workers struck in August to demand wage increases and protest increased gas prices in the largest general strike in that country in years. Market reforms and International Monetary Fund austerity measures have driven down Venezuelan workers’ wages by 67 percent since 1979.

The Venezuelan general strike is the latest evidence of the growing mood of resistance to the free-market orthodoxy that dominated the 1980s and 1990s. The resistance, like the market itself, spans the globe. It takes different forms, depending on the national context, but the sense of rejection of the reigning orthodoxy is growing.

“Not long ago I read the results of a poll in which 80 percent of the population said they oppose privatization. People used to applaud privatization ... Now that everything is privatized, people are reacting saying that it was no good,” said an Argentine activist in the July/August issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas.

In Mexico in July, three years of economic crisis led to the election of an opposition Congress for the first time since 1913. The biggest beneficiary of the erosion in support for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party was the populist Party of the Democratic Revolution – whose leader, Cuahtemoc Cardenas, won the mayoral race for Mexico City.

The Mexican election followed closely the upset election victory of the French Socialist Party. Conservative President Jacques Chirac, hoping to establish a mandate to continue his plans to slash the welfare state, called an election for June, eighteen months before it was required. Chirac expected to win a majority, sliced from the 80 percent of the National Assembly the French right won in 1995.

Chirac’s ploy blew up in his face. Socialist Lionel Jospin, in coalition with Greens and Communists, riding on mass discontent with Chirac’s austerity measures, won the prime ministership away from Chirac’s ally, Alain Juppé. The key to Jospin’s victory was his promise to create 750,000 jobs in a country with 12 percent unemployment.

Only one month before Jospin beat the combined forces of the right, British Labour leader Tony Blair scored the largest victory over a Conservative government since 1832. The Labour victory unleashed a wave of expectation among British workers that they would finally get theirs after almost twenty years of putting up with Thatcher and Major.

Conservatives now govern only two of the thirteen major Western European countries. Many observers predict that the right-wing government of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl will go the way of Britain’s and France’s Tories when he calls elections next year.

In some countries, like Britain, no great increase in workers’ struggle has accompanied the massive shift to the left in workers’ consciousness. A recent poll showed that 76 percent of people in Britain believe that “there is a class struggle” and 52 percent say the government should redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. At some point in the future, the gap between workers’ consciousness and workers’ action will close.

In Italy and France, on the other hand, mass struggle succeeded in shifting the political climate against the right. A 1994 general strike in Italy brought down the government of right-wing media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. The French mass strikes in 1995 and 1996 unraveled Chirac’s massive parliamentary majority.

These developments in Europe and Latin America (not to mention Asia and Africa) are the most recent manifestation of the growing polarization between classes in these societies. A widespread mood of resistance to the bosses’ priorities – whether it be the European Monetary Union or free-market reform in Latin America – is developing after two decades in which the bosses have had it mostly their way. The U.S. isn’t exempt from these developments, as the widespread public support for the Teamsters’ strike against UPS showed.

Existing reformist oppositions, like Britain’s Labour Party or France’s Socialists, have served as the main political channels for discontent with the status quo. Yet, for the most part, these oppositions have been timid. Ideologically, they have accepted much of the right wing’s pro-market rhetoric. Politically, they have tended to stake out positions which accept many of the conservatives’ priorities while promising to soften their impact. Economically, they are unlikely to deliver on many of their promises.

These electoral victories are therefore more important as a measure of working-class discontent than a sign that the traditional left parties – who themselves administered austerity in the past and will continue do so now – are suddenly experiencing a permanent revival. What we are likely to see is growing political volatility with wild swings to the left and the right at the level of formal politics. As the political crisis deepens, mass disillusionment in mainstream parties of both the right and the left will produce increasing polarization. This can open up a wider audience to far-right politics such as those of French Nazi Jean-Marie LePen, but it will also – especially as working-class struggle intensifies – open up the possibilities for the rebuilding of a revolutionary left.

In this new climate, the prospects – and responsibilities – for socialists are vast.

Nothing about the current situation guarantees victory – either in the class struggle against the bosses or in the ideological struggle for Marxist ideas. Though highly uneven, class struggle is likely to intensify. In that context, the possibility of reconnecting a new generation of fighters with the genuine socialist tradition exists in country after country in a way that it hasn’t for a generation.

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