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Ahmed Shawki

Between Things Ended
and Things Begun

(June 2001)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 18, June–July 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A decade ago, Western politicians and the mainstream press were celebrating the miracles of the market system and proclaiming the victory of capitalism over communism. The introduction to the 1989 edition of the annual Economic Report of the President proclaimed, “The tide of history, which some skeptics saw as ebbing inevitably away from Western ideals ... flows in our direction.” Now it seems that not everything is flowing in their direction; there are growing signs of resistance to the “tide of history.” The much-heralded promises of Western politicians and business leaders at the time of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 have given way to the stark realities of a global capitalist system. Accounts of the inequities of “globalization” are now commonplace – in sharp contrast to what was being said a few years ago.

There is a growing international consciousness – as well as action – against the effects of the market and globalization. As BusinessWeek conceded in a recent article, the protests against corporate domination of the global economy are forcing a “profound rethinking about globalization”:

The plain truth is that market liberalization by itself does not lift all boats, and in some cases, it has caused severe damage. What’s more, there’s no point in denying that multinationals have contributed to labor, environmental and human-rights abuses. [1]

The same issue of BusinessWeek continues:

The extremes of global capitalism are astonishing. While the economies of East Asia have achieved rapid growth, there has been little overall progress in much of the rest of the developing world. Income in Latin America grew by only 6 percent in the past two decades, when the continent was opening up. Average incomes in sub-Saharan Africa and the old Eastern bloc have actually contracted. The World Bank figures the number of people living on $1 a day increased, to 1.3 billion, over the last decade.

The article goes on to illustrate the unevenness of development:

Despite liberalization in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, growth has fallen from 3.5 percent in the 1970s to 2.2 percent in the 1990s ... In 1960, the world’s 20 richest countries had 30 times more income than the poorest 20 percent. Now that wealth gap has grown 74 times. [2]

Class inequality and social polarization have accelerated over the decade of the 1990s, and they form the underpinnings to a new radicalization internationally. In the U.S., this radicalization has taken several forms. To name just a few of the high points, workers at United Parcel Service (UPS) won a major victory in 1997; trade unionists, environmentalists, and other activists shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999; Ralph Nader campaigned for president in 2000, representing the first significant left-wing alternative to the Democratic Party in decades; and activists won significant victories against the death penalty, while criminal justice issues became a focal point for an emerging, new civil rights movement. Internationally, we saw the Zapatista uprising in 1994, the French public-sector strikes of 1995, and the revolution in Indonesia in 1998, to name only the most notable events. These struggles represent the birth of a new left after decades of, at best, stagnation and, at worst, outright retreat and defeat. As we enter this new period, it is critical to understand not only what has taken place, but also the character of the new radicalization. We are in a transition period – between things ended and things begun. This article is an attempt to frame where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Class inequality and social polarization

During the past three decades, a massive transfer of wealth to the rich has taken place – whether the world economy was in slump or boom, stagnation or recovery. The results of this transfer of wealth are staggering. While more than a billion people live in poverty, the richest 200 people in the world more than doubled their net worth between 1994 and 1998 to more than $1 trillion. A measly 1 percent tax on their wealth could fund primary education for all of the world’s children who lack access to schooling. The world’s top three billionaires alone possess more assets than the combined gross national product of the 48 least developed countries and their combined population of 600 million people. About 840 million people are malnourished, and close to one billion find it difficult to meet their basic consumption requirements. More than 880 million people lack access to health services, and 2.6 billion people have no access to basic sanitation. Those living in the highest-income countries have 86 percent of world gross domestic product (GDP), 82 percent of world export markets, 68 percent of foreign direct investment, and 74 percent of world telephone lines. Those living in the poorest countries share only 1 percent of any of these. [3]

Far from narrowing, the gulf between rich and poor is growing. According to the United Nations World Development Report, “Some have predicted convergence. Yet the past decade has shown increasing concentration of income, resources and wealth among people, corporations and countries.” [4] The world market, instead of being the source of emancipation promised by its defenders, is a source of further oppression. As Karl Marx put it 150 years ago:

In history up to the present it is certainly an empirical fact that separate individuals have, with the broadening of their activity into world-historical activity, become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them (a pressure which they have conceived of as a dirty trick on the part of the so-called universal spirit, etc.), a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market. [5] [emphasis in original]

The chasm between rich and poor is widening not only between rich and poor countries, but also within each country, rich or poor. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have experienced “the fastest rise in inequality ever. Russia now has the greatest inequality – the income share of the richest 20 percent is 11 times that of the poorest 20 percent.” [6] According to the World Bank, the number of people in Russia living on less than $4 per day grew from 4 million in 1989 to 147 million in 1999. [7] Income inequalities have also grown dramatically in China, Indonesia, Thailand, other East and Southeast Asian countries, and in the industrialized countries, especially Sweden, Britain, and the United States.

Taken together, this picture of immense wealth growing alongside immense poverty demonstrates that corporate globalization, contrary to the assertions of its defenders, has benefited only a minority. Furthermore, the promise of peace and prosperity that was supposed to follow the collapse of the Soviet Union has turned out to be hollow. While in the past the defenders of the status quo could blame political and economic turmoil on the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union, to use Ronald Reagan’s favorite formulation, this scapegoat is no longer available. When the Southeast Asian economies – formerly the “tigers” whose growth was offered up as proof of the free market’s superiority – collapsed in the late 1990s, the only culprit left to blame was that very same free market. Even George Soros, the billionaire currency speculator, spoke of a “crisis of global capitalism”:

”It is time to recognize that financial markets are inherently unstable,” Soros says. “Imposing market discipline means imposing instability, and how much instability can society take?” Thus, his gloomy outlook rests upon the assumption that if the global system is not torn apart by deflation or depression, it will be undone by political rebellion.

Soros muses: “I can already discern the makings of the final crisis ... Indigenous political movements are likely to arise that will seek to expropriate the multinational corporations and recapture the ‘national’ wealth. Some of them may succeed in the manner of the Boxer Rebellion or the [original] Zapatista Revolution. Their success may then shake the confidence of financial markets, engendering a self-reinforcing process on the downside.” [8]

In the U.S., the richest 1 percent of Americans earned as much after taxes as the poorest 100 million people, according to a 1999 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; in 1977, the top 1 percent only had as much as the bottom 49 million people. [9] Among the industrialized nations, the U.S. has the highest concentration of individual wealth – roughly three times that of the number two nation, Germany. Since 1979, the average income of the highest-earning 1 percent of Americans has increased by roughly 80 percent, while the income of the highest-earning 20 percent has increased by 18 percent. The bottom 60 percent of the population has experienced a decrease in real income.

One measure of the obscene wealth inequality in the U.S. is the gap between compensation for the CEOs of corporations and the amount earned by workers. According Responsible Wealth, CEO pay has risen 535 percent since 1990. But the bounty of surging profits and giddy share prices has not translated into comparable gains for regular employees, whose pay rose only 32 percent, just slightly more than inflation, over the same period. [10] Another way to measure the difference in pay is to compare that of the average CEO to that of a minimum wage worker. The average CEO makes 728 times more than a minimum wage worker. If the minimum wage had risen at the same rate as executive pay over the last three decades, it would stand at nearly $41 an hour, as opposed to $5.15 an hour.

Without question, the gap between rich and poor has produced a bitterness and frustration – even if it is sometimes hidden – that runs very deep and should not be underestimated.

The shift from labor to capital

The new radicalization may be in the early stages of its development, but it represents a growing rejection of what capital has done in the last period. It is emerging, however, against an international background of retreat and decline by organized labor and the left, reformist and revolutionary. The balance of class forces shifted decisively in favor of the employers from the 1970s through the 1990s. Rebuilding the forces of organized labor, the left, and, in particular, the revolutionary left, is key to generalizing and building today’s radicalization. But an understanding of the period of downturn, or retreat, allows us to understand better what we need to overcome and helps to explain some of the dynamics of today’s movement.

After some 25 years of boom after the Second World War, the world economy began to sputter in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Still shaken by its defeat in Vietnam and by more than a decade of social protest, the U.S. ruling class found itself facing the¸end of the long boom, the U.S. economy’s decline in relation to its main competitors, and renewed combativity on the part of U.S. workers. The mass radicalization of the 1960s was expressed not only in a variety of significant social movements, but in the working class as well.

In the early 1960s, the growing disaffection with union leaders was exhibited in a number of ways. First, unprecedented numbers of local union officials were voted out of office. In 1961 and again in 1963, fully one-third of the presidents of United Auto Workers (UAW) locals were voted out of office – the highest turnover in UAW history. Second, workers fought speedups with loosely coordinated slowdowns and sabotage of equipment as a way to slow down the assembly line without involving the union. Third, workers mounted wildcat strikes, unofficial walkouts not endorsed by the unions themselves but coordinated by rank and filers. The wildcats were by far the most effective weapon and used with greater frequency as the 1960s decade wore on. [11]

The high point of this strike movement came in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was dramatized by two groups of workers: the miners in their struggle against black lung, which later produced the group Miners For Democracy and was immortalized in the Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County, USA; and the postal workers, who held a wildcat strike in 1970. George Shultz, then secretary of labor, remarked, “There’s only one thing worse than an illegal strike. A wildcat that wins.”

These struggles were part of a more general rise in working-class combativity internationally. The level of struggle was qualitatively higher in Western Europe. There, a series of major class battles toppled governments and provided the opportunity for the revolutionary left to influence significant numbers of workers for the first time in decades. Socialist organizations were able to grow into substantial organizations. In Italy, one revolutionary organization, Lotta Continua, at the height of its influence claimed 30,000 members and had three daily newspapers, dozens of radio stations, and a half dozen MPs. [12] As the late Daniel Singer wrote in his last book, Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours?:

The pace of growth began to slacken, the rate of profitability declined. The French general strike of 1968, the Italian Hot Autumn the year after, more generally the “blue-collar blues,” as it was called in the United States, revealed mass discontent with the existing form of exploitation and a potential for resistance. For the system to survive, it was imperative to reassert its basic principle: the domination of capital over labor. [13]

Singer captures not only the victories, but also the ruling-class offensive to take away reforms won by our side – and then some:

The attack was preceded and accompanied by ideological bombardment. It spread throughout the Western world, though, quite naturally it was not simultaneous. The Reagan administration, by crushing the air controllers’ union, PATCO, in 1981–1982, gave a signal to business the world over that it was time to take back concessions in negotiations with labor unions. The biggest confrontation took place in 1984–1985 in Britain, where Maggie Thatcher’s government, after intensive preparations, took on the miners and finally managed to defeat them as the leadership of the trade unions chose not to back the strikers with the full strength of the organized labor movement. Altogether, it was easier to pare back social benefits in the United States, where they were gained or lost in separate bargains, firm by firm, than in Western Europe, where the dismantling of the welfare state had to involve national deals and parliamentary legislation. In Italy, the scalia mobile, the indexing of wages on prices, was not finally abolished until 1992–1993 ...

For capital, victory could only be consolidated by changing its relationship, notably on the shop floor. [14]

The reassertion of capital over labor, what is often now called the “American Model” or neoliberalism, was then described as an employers’ offensive; that is, an all-out ideological, political, and economic offensive by the bosses to regain the upper hand – with the backing of both Democrats and Republicans. As Business Week put it in the mid-1970s: “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow – the idea of doing less so that business can have more ... Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must be done to make people accept the new reality.” [15]

The process of making workers “accept the new reality” began under Democratic president Jimmy Carter and was taken to new heights by Republican president Ronald Reagan. While Reagan’s firing of 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) was the clearest indication of the federal government’s shift toward intervention against labor and breaking the unwritten postwar labor-capital agreement, the groundwork for this was laid in the years before Reagan came to office. Re›igning from the top-level Labor-Management Group in 1978, Douglas Fraser, UAW international president, issued a remarkable statement explaining his reasons for refusing to sit across from the CEOs of the biggest corporations in the United States. Even before the defeat at PATCO and the many later defeats to come, Fraser wrote:

Leaders of the business community ... have chosen to wage a one-sided class war today in this country – a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old ...

The leaders of industry, commerce and finance ... have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress ... Where industry once yearned for subservient unions, it now wants no unions at all ... I cannot sit there seeking unity with the leaders of American industry, while they try to destroy us and ruin the lives of the people I represent ... We ... intend to reforge the links with those who believe in struggle: the kind of people who sat down in the factories in the 1930s and who marched in Selma in the 1960s.

But Fraser’s resignation was not enough to break the U.S. labor movement from its program of “seeking unity with the leaders of American industry,” even though it was clear that U.S. bosses would no longer play by the rules as they had been understood until then. [16]

The unanimity of the ruling class was evident. The May 1982 issue of World Financial Markets, a newsletter published by Morgan Guaranty Trust, argued bluntly that “a necessary condition for a return to non-inflationary growth is the curbing of excessive real wage growth. To restore adequate profit margins – to provide an incentive for investment and the resources to finance it ... real wage increases [must] be kept below productivity gains for several years.” Although Ronald Reagan had already fired the 12,000 PATCO air traffic controllers, the newsletter urged the government to “set the tone for wage settlements by adopting a tough posture in public sector negotiations.” [17]

This model is, of course, a very old one repackaged. It had to be, because it was so discredited in the 1930s – when unregulated capitalist competition led to market collapse, bank failures, the imploding of world trade, mass unemployment, a long depression only overcome through war and destruction, and an eruption of class struggle. The model was revived by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s as a way out of the crisis that began in the 1970s.

Breaking labor was part of the drive to reestablish U.S. economic competitiveness internationally and was critical to the economic boom of the 1990s, in which the U.S. economy grew by more than one-third. It was also central to maintaining and extending the position of the U.S. as the world’s dominant military power. A key indicator of the success of the U.S. offensive against labor is the precipitous decline in union membership. The proportion of U.S. workers who belong to unions dropped from 31 percent in 1970 to less than 16 percent in 1992 to 13 percent today. The proportion of unionized workers in the private sector is less than 9.6 percent. [18]

Workers in the U.S. weren’t the only ones who took it on the chin over the last twenty-plus years. A recent article on trade unionism in Europe reports that in Britain:

Between 1980 and 1998 the proportion of workplaces with 25 or more employees that reported 100 percent union membership fell from 18 to 2 percent; while those reporting no union members at all rose from 30 to 47 percent; among private sector workplaces union density fell from 56 to 26 percent. By 1998 a national survey of workplaces of 25 or more employees found that only 52 percent of unionized workers felt that the unions were taken seriously by management, and only 46 percent felt that unions make a difference to what it is like at work. [19]

According to International Labour Organization (ILO) figures, by 1995 union membership as a percentage of wage and salary earners had fallen in the UK to 33 percent (from 46 percent in 1985), in the reunited Germany to 29 percent (from 35 percent in 1991), and in France to 9 percent (from 15 percent in 1985). [20] According to the ILO’s World Labour Report, 1997–98, in 1995:

Roughly 164 million workers belonged to trade unions. In only 14 of the 92 countries surveyed did the union membership rate exceed 50 percent of the national workforce. In all but 20 countries, membership levels declined during the last decade. [21]

The decline in the proportion of workers organized in unions is significant and shows the shift from labor to capital during this period. But this should not be interpreted to mean that workers are rejecting unions and are not interested in struggle. In fact, the World Labour Report attributes much of the numerical decline of unions to “such economic factors as reduced public-sector employment, heightened economic competition and a falling share of the manufacturing industries in total employment.” But when it comes to a “dramatic rise or fall of trade union membership,” the main cause “is linked to systemic changes in governance of major legislative overhauls in many countries and regions.” [22] Thus, in regional terms, the drop in union membership was sharpest in Central and Eastern European countries, which saw an average decline of almost 36 percent. According to the December 1997 issue of World at Work, the ILO magazine:

Unionization rates in Estonia were down 71 percent, in the Czech Republic by 50 percent, in Poland by 45 percent, in Slovakia 40 percent and Hungary 38 percent. Much of the decline in Germany’s unionization rate (20 percent versus a 16 percent average in the EU) is attributable to the drop in the former East Germany.

In contrast, the largest single increase in trade-union membership came in South Africa, which saw unionization rates leap by 130.8 percent, with most of the increase coming in the post-apartheid era. Some of the other countries which saw unionization rates increase were: Bangladesh (58 percent), Canada (10.7 percent), Chile (89 percent), Republic of Korea (61 percent), the Philippines (69 percent), Spain (92 percent), Thailand (77 percent) and Zimbabwe (54 percent). [23]

Moreover, the decline of unionization rates shouldn’t be confused with an absolute decline in the number of workers internationally or with the shift to a workerless “new economy” driven by technology. According to Daniel Singer,

Manufacturing, far from dwindling, has been absorbing more labor. Between 1970 and 1990, the share of developing countries in world manufacturing employment went up from 43 percent to 53 percent. The rise was particularly striking in the fast-growing Asian states: South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the tigers and dragons presented to us as models of capitalist virtue and then, after the financial crash of 1997, suddenly dismissed as addicts to all sorts of anti-market vices. [24]

The decline in unionization rates also should not be taken as a sign that workers are less powerful as a social force than they were 20 years ago. On the contrary. The working class is larger and potentially more powerful today. Writes Kim Moody:

It would probably surprise many people to know that the number of production workers employed in U.S. manufacturing has not changed much since 1950. In most years, the number of manufacturing workers hovered between just under 12 million and just above 13 million. There were only five years in the entire post-war period when more than 14 million were employed, all in the 1960s and 1970s. In the industrial (OECD) nations of the North as a whole there were 115 million people employed in “industry” in 1994 compared with 112 million in 1973.

The surprisingly static number of manufacturing workers who turn out the goods of the industrial nations have become progressively more productive. By 1995, more or less the same number of production workers in U.S. manufacturing produced five times what they could in 1950. [25]

These figures do not include the vast expansion of the service sector – of white-collar workers – whose labor is essential to the system’s operation. So, what workers produce for the system – and, by extension, the leverage they have against it – has grown.

The potential power of the working class remains critical to any socialist project, but there is no doubt that the employers’ offensive tilted the balance of forces in favor of the bosses, both industrially – that is, within workplaces – and politically. There is also no doubt that the retreat of labor still needs to be turned around.

The end of communism and the 1990s

The assault on labor internationally was marked by a decline in trade union organization, attacks on the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, and the atrophy of the left – and, within the left, by the dwindling numbers of revolutionaries. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in 1989 further accelerated the decline of the left internationally in two ways. First, it capped off a process of decomposition of the Communist Parties (CPs), which had been underway for some decades. Many of them came to represent respectable parties of government rather than organizing centers for opposition. Others went into total collapse. Furthermore, the collapse of Stalinism led many on the left to throw the baby out with the bathwater and to abandon long-held principles in favor of liberal, pro-market ideologies. Many anti-Stalinists who had politically opposed the regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe believed that, economically, these regimes were superior to capitalism. These critics came to the conclusion that some form of the market was the only effective way to organize an economy.

The old left had organizationally disintegrated in the 1970s and 1980s – now it faced ideological collapse. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, for example, “I agree with John Kenneth Galbraith [that] in a very real sense in both East and West our task is the same: it is to seek and find a system that combines the best in market-motivated and socially motivated action.” He adds that “the bad results of the market can be and have been to some extent controlled.” [26] Robin Blackburn argues that “the Left must respect the complex structures of self-determination which the market embodies.” [27]

While the collapse of Stalinism opened up the possibility of rebuilding a genuinely revolutionary socialist movement internationally, it also produced enormous demoralization and confusion within the existing left. For although the CPs had long ago abandoned revolutionary politics, in countries such as France and Italy they had played a key role in the unions and left politics. The forces of revolutionary socialism, despite their inroads after 1968, had suffered during the years of defeat and retreat and were in no shape to replace the established left. Thus, in many countries, the immediate beneficiaries of the end of Stalinism were the defenders of capitalism.

The New World Order declared by the first Bush administration in the wake of the USSR’s collapse was a signal of the newfound confidence of U.S. bosses and U.S. imperialism. They hadn’t overcome all their problems, but they felt they were getting the upper hand – especially in relation to their main competitors. U.S. bosses reaped the economic benefits of their offensive by halting, then reversing, the relative decline of U.S. capital as compared to its competitors. Militarily, the attempt to reestablish U.S. power internationally was also met with success – with the collapse of its main military rival, the USSR, capped off with the U.S.-led bombardment of Iraq in 1991. [28]

But all was not rosy. There was of course a huge gap between ideology and reality – between the promises of a New World Order of stability and peace, and the reality of a world wracked by war, recession, and instability. The Financial Times wrote less than a year after the Gulf War:

It was not supposed to be like this. The 1990s dawned amid hopes of a new era of prosperity after the collapse of communism. The end of superpower rivalry was the icing on the cake of extended economic growth and rising living standards enjoyed by the western industrial democracies in the 1980s ... Global growth has been feeble. World output stagnated last year ... Some countries ... have suffered lengthy recession.

Eastern Europe is finding that the struggle to adapt to the market economy is far more difficult than expected. Worse still is the position of the former Soviet Union.

The world’s present economic tribulations and policy paralysis have their roots in the excesses of the 1980s. [29]

And the problems were not only economic. The recession produced political instability in country after country. Commenting on the G-7 summit held in Munich in July 1992, the Economist magazine opined:

How are the mighty fallen. When the leaders of the world’s richest countries meet in Munich this week, they will be looking over their shoulders to their voters even more anxiously than usual. Never in the history of the Group of Seven have its leaders been as collectively unpopular at home ...

The oddity is that these are the men who should be celebrating their greatest triumph. They are, after all, the leaders of the classiest club of all time, a club that has not only brought unprecedented prosperity to its members but seen off its fiercest adversary, communism. [30]

The sharp growth of the far right in Russia, Germany, Italy, and France was an indication of the crisis of bourgeois parties and the lack of solutions put forward by the parties in office. In the U.S., the disaffection with mainstream politics was given a distorted but no less real expression by Texas billionaire Ross Perot’s run for the presidency. Given this political instability and the onset of the third recession since the end of capitalism’s long postwar boom, it is understandable why some on the left began to draw parallels with the 1930s. When the Los Angeles Rebellion broke out in the spring of 1992, the uprising seemed further proof that indeed the gains of the far right were being matched by a rise in struggle and opportunities for the left. In fact, the Financial Times led the way by making the comparison explicit:

If we are now watching a replay of the 1930s, as fashionable pessimism has it – and I find it strangely uncomfortable to be in tune with the fashion – it is a replay in slow motion. The great bull market is over, but it is a sag rather than a collapse; unemployment is rising, but it is only a third of the way up to its peaks 60 years ago; the financial markets are shrinking, but there are no falling bodies.

The question now is whether a dispirited system will retrace the paths first hacked out by the survivors of complete demoralization. These led to protectionism to preserve jobs; to officially encouraged cartelization; and to tight financial regulation, eLgerly embraced by an industry desperate to re-establish its respectability. [31]

Another Financial Times columnist described the period as the 1930s on drugs. Under the heading Is it possible that the 1990s are the 1930s on Prozac? the story went on:

There are vast rumblings and upheavals out in the world, economic collapses, xenophobia and revanchism, but it all seems muffled, distant; we respond calmly, with bemusement. The Japanese have had a stock-market crash to rival 1929, but in slow motion. [32]

When recession gave way to recovery in 1991, economic growth was initially anemic. But by the late 1990s, growth rates picked up, and the U.S. experienced one of the most sustained booms in its history. When the Southeast Asian economies collapsed in 1997, financial markets around the world couldn’t help but react. But they were not dragged into the abyss, and by the beginning of the new millennium, the hemorrhaging had been stanched.

A recent article on the U.S. boom of the 1990s summarizes the situation:

The upshot has been contradictory in the extreme. A U.S. cyclical expansion that, up through 1995, had been even less vigorous than those of the 1970s and 1980s suddenly gathered steam. Since then it has delivered five years’ rapid growth of GDP, labor productivity and even real wages, while reducing unemployment and inflation quite near to the levels of the long postwar expansion. Investment has boomed impressively. Although wildly over-hyped in the business press, U.S. economic performance during the past half-decade has been superior to that of any comparable period since the early 1970s. On the other hand, the same period has witnessed the swelling of the greatest financial bubble in American history. [33]

The “American plan” in the U.S. – “flexible” labor policies (i.e., union busting), privatization, deregulation, and cuts in social spending – was exported in the 1990s as well. Western European countries, under pressure from a newly restructured U.S. economy, carried out similar measures, if at a slower pace. In the developing countries, or Third World, the model was imposed in large degree through what this journal has called “the economic arms of imperialism” – the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. To qualify for loans, aid, and investment, Third World countries were compelled to adopt increasingly burdensome standards and “structural adjustment” programs. The few that resisted the Washington consensus bore the brunt of Washington’s might – from the sanctions that strangle Iraq to the U.S./NATO bombs that shattered Serbia.

What is more, the post-Cold War world has been marked by a growing convergence of economic and military conditions. The U.S. and Western Europe, held together by a Cold War alliance over the USSR, now have regular spats over a separate European defense agency, as well as increasingly frequent trade wars. This is a bipartisan strategy: Bill Clinton approved the massive military aid for Colombia’s military in its war against leftist guerrillas, and George W. Bush’s plan for missile defense builds on the steps already taken by Clinton. If the U.S. ruling class remains haunted by the Vietnam syndrome – a reluctance to put troops in harm’s way because of the political risk of casualties – it is nevertheless determined to block the emergence of any potential military rival, as the tensions with China amply show. However, Washington’s determination to play the role of the world’s cop also exposes the U.S. politically when crisis hits its clients – just as it did in Vietnam in the 1960s, and again when the Shah of Iran and the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua were overthrown in revolutions in the 1970s.

The “third way”

In contrast to the growth of the far right that characterized the early 1990s, bourgeois political rule has restabilized. Threats continue – most notably the ascent of Jörg Haider in Austria and Silvio Berlusconi’s recent victory in Italy – but more typical is the return of social democratic governments across Europe. However, these are not the social democratic parties of old. Instead, these parties have adopted wholesale the platform they had previously denounced – privatization, austerity, and the embrace of the free market, albeit with a smile. In this, they are following the model of success pioneered by Bill Clinton in the United States. Clinton helped to carry through the offensive of capital by ensuring the acquiescence of liberal and trade union opposition while he adopted the policies that the Republicans always favored but couldn’t pull off: the elimination of federal welfare entitlements, the further expansion of the criminal justice system, and the passage of free trade treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. The social democratic parties are undergoing a transformation, which was on display at the Socialist International gathering in Paris in the fall of 1999. The Irish Times reported:

”Social democrats of the world unite” just doesn’t have the same ring as the old exhortation to the workers. It seemed appropriate that the auditorium where 1,200 delegates from 143 countries met yesterday for the Socialist International’s last congress of the 20th century should be located beneath a shopping center. They didn’t even sing The Red Flag. And while Mr. Lionel Jospin and Mr. Gerhard Schröder addressed their “dear comrades,” Mr. Tony Blair simply called the representatives of the world’s socialist, social democratic and labor parties “my friends.” With 11 of the EU’s 15 nations governed by socialists, with leaders from the former east bloc active participants and the ruling South African ANC a new member, socialism has never been so powerful. Even Uncle Sam’s back yard is going socialist. Speakers congratulated Argentina’s president-elect, Mr. Fernando de la Rua, and encouraged socialists who are on the verge of winning elections in Uruguay and Chile. [34]

Blair was the most careful imitator of Clinton. For some, the strategy of the “third way” was confirmed by Labour’s trouncing of the Conservatives in the elections of June 7.

The right turn by international social democracy is, of course, not without precedent. In 1914, the member parties of the Socialist International – the forerunners of today’s social democrats – scrapped their resolutions of international solidarity and lined up to support their “own” governments in the First World War. This resulted in a split of the revolutionary socialists into the Communist International following the Russian Revolution. In the 1920s, social democratic parties were voted into office in Western Europe but, in the weak economic recovery of that time, failed to deliver their promised reforms. The result was a growing bitterness that fed the growth of fascism as well as the Communist Parties (by then completely in Stalin’s grip). Only the boom that followed the end of the Second World War in 1945 provided a new lease on life for reformist parties. With the system growing as never before, capital was willing to make concessions to labor. Since the end of the boom in the 1970s, however, social democracy has been unwilling, if not unable, to proceed in the same way. The social democratic governments in France in the 1980s abandoned their promises.

In the 1990s reformist parties could return to power in Europe on the basis of popular revulsion with conservatives. But this time they promised little and delivered less. If they could succeed, it was not only because of relatively favorable economic circumstances and the continued disarray of conservative parties, but also because the far left was as yet too small to make a significant challenge to them. Moreover, the reformist parties have substantial roots and long traditions.

A parallel took place in the developing world. Yesterday’s national liberation movements in countries such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala are today’s respectable parliamentary reformist parties that preach acceptance of the market. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress are stalwarts of neoliberal policies – including many leading Communist Party members who played crucial roles in the anti-apartheid and labor movements. The same is true for China, once a beacon for anti-imperialists and leftists around the world when Mao ruled the country. This view of China was always mistaken. But today’s “communist” China is a favorite of multinational corporations for its eager embrace of the market, further disorienting many on the left. One result of this is a retreat from the very idea of the socialist transformation of society. Marcos, the leader of the Mexican Zapatista movement, has often emphasized that the movement does not seek the revolutionary overthrow of society.

A decade after the fall of Stalinism there remains confusion over what it even means to be on the left. In Zimbabwe, the dictator Robert Mugabe clings to power by posing as an anti-imperialist and backing land reform (after a delay of 20 years!) to undercut his opponents. The opposition is headed by a labor party whose program embraces the free market. In Serbia, the “socialist” Slobodan Milosevic, a collaborator with imperialism before he got in its way, was overthrown by a revolutionary uprising of workers – but the new government is committed to free-market reforms that will hit those workers hardest.

The second half of the 1990s

The need to adjust to this changed situation was an imperative for socialists. For all too many socialists internationally, the picture looked bleak after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and their pessimism clouded their understanding of the very profound changes taking place. Those of us in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) found ourselves needing to point out the increased opportunities for the left. In the early 1990s, the ISO’s perspective stated that we were entering a new period of instability characterized by sharp shifts from right to left and back again, a period summed up by Russian revolutionary Lenin as a period of wars and revolutions. Developments in the early 1990s seemed to bear out this perspective. But the recession of the early 1990s turned into a recovery, especially in the U.S., and the ensuing nine years once more changed the context internationally.

The pessimism – or catastrophism – expressed in the mainstream press gave way to euphoric overestimation of the system’s capacity to grow uninterruptedly. The restabilization of bourgeois politics also took place under social democratic leadership, but a social democracy well to the right of what had come before. Two-thirds of Europe is ruled by social democratic governments, and the number and strength of social democratic parties has substantially increased.

The world economy grew in the 1990s in a way that left more and more people behind. The enthusiasm for a change from right to left also produced disillusionment. Many people looked to the likes of Clinton and the social democratic parties for an alternative and found none. Unable to find a political expression for anger and bitterness, apathy can easily alternate with rebellion.

The new radicalization

For several years now, there have been signs of a new and growing radicalization across U.S. society – and indeed internationally. [35] This radicalization has been apparent in the U.S. for some time in terms of a clear and widespread shift in mass consciousness to the left – something that could be measured consistently by looking at any number of opinion polls regarding social and economic questions. Part of this changed consciousness had expressed itself unambiguously in class terms – as was made so clear by the widespread sympathy among millions of workers for UPS strikers in 1997. The “Battle in Seattle” against the WTO near the end of 1999, and the subsequent (though smaller) demonstration against the IMF and World Bank in April 2000 in Washington, D.C., were further signs of this radicalization, particularly among those in the global justice movement. More recently, the breadth of support for Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign was a further sign of the shift going on in the consciousness of millions of people – both a growing anger about the inequalities and injustice of the system and a growing desire to do something about it.

At the core of this radicalization is the class inequality and social polarization described earlier in this article. This is why the radicalization has begun with a clear class content and finds expression in a variety of struggles where the issues of ruling-class power and privilege stand in stark contrast to the injustices and oppression faced by ordinary people. This is the sentiment that brought thousands into the streets of Seattle, and dozens of other cities since, around the questions of globalization, labor rights, Third World debt and poverty, and the environment. The same can be said about the thousands who have become active around the issues of the death penalty, police brutality, and racial profiling. At their heart, these struggles are a reaction to the attempt by the ruling class to impose its authority in all areas of life: economic, political, and social.

The point here is not to stress again the obvious (or what should be obvious) – that is, that a new radicalization has found its expression in several ways, in different arenas of struggle, some connected to each other and some not. Nor is it to explain that the specific issues around which this radicalization most actively expresses itself will change and develop as the struggle itself develops – anyone involved or familiar with the 1960s, or indeed any period of mass radicalization, should understand this.

The argument here is twofold: First, that we are at the start of a process of radicalization, that this process is ongoing – albeit unevenly, with advances and setbacks – and that it has to be the centerpiece of any perspectives for revolutionary socialists. Second, it is important to grasp that this radicalization will shape politics in the years to come. We cannot dictate – nor do we seek to – its direction or politics. Rather, we aim to build and shape its revolutionary left wing.

At each step of the way, socialists need to make a clearheaded analysis of the character and maturity of the movement. As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued against the 1928 perspectives of the Comintern, which declared that the system was in a state of collapse and that working-class consciousness had become revolutionary:

In order to approach a revolutionary situation the “radicalization” of the masses must in any case still pass through a preliminary phase in which the workers will flock from the social democracy to the communist party. Assuredly, as a partial phenomenon› this is already taking place now. But the principal direction of the flow is not yet that at all. To confound an initial stage of radicalization, which is still half-pacifist, half-collaborationist, with a revolutionary stage, is to head towards cruel blunders. It is necessary to learn how to differentiate. Anyone who merely repeats from year to year that “the masses are becoming radicalized, the situation is revolutionary,” is not a Bolshevik leader, but a tub-thumping agitator; it is certain that he will not recognize the revolution when it really approaches. [36]

Here, then, is an accounting of the most recent stages of the struggle.

The UPS strike

The victory of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters over UPS was the most important win for labor in at least two decades. Workers took on a hard-line and supremely arrogant employer – one of the most important corporations in the U.S. economy and one of the best-connected in Washington – and forced management to cry uncle. The strike centered on the question of part-time work, which forces many workers to hold down more than one job – a grievance shared by millions of U.S. workers in both union and nonunion workplaces. Even the mainstream media was forced to take notice of the issues involved. The strike also reflected the mood of union workers against the do-nothing policies of the old labor bureaucracy – thereby underlining the shift that led to the victory of the New Voices leadership in the fight at the top of the AFL-CIO.

But labor’s retreat of more than two decades was not to be overcome with a single strike victory, no matter how important. For one thing, the strike was won relatively quickly, getting workers back to work before the walkout had the effect of bringing together networks of union workers, either within UPS or outside it. Thus, when UPS pulled the rug out from under the agreement, labor was slow to respond. Second, the federal government took its revenge for the victory by going after Teamsters president Ron Carey, eventually forcing him out of the union altogether. The response from the labor movement was weak at best. There are still rumors that Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, will go next.

The UPS strike showed that mass consciousness had shifted, with majorities of people backing the strikers. At the same time, both labor leaders and rank-and-file workers hesitated to take the offensive. In other words, the strike expressed the elements that come together in a transition period – the willingness to fight, but as yet expressed by only a minority, and the willingness of trade union officialdom to back a fight, but not necessarily put into it what is needed to win a decisive victory.

The UPS strike showed that labor’s potential to take the offensive is very real, yet largely untapped. For example, at the same time as the union movement has taken a step forward with the New Voices leadership, the AFL-CIO remains tied to a strategy of cooperation with U.S. bosses. As John Sweeney described labor’s priorities in a speech to members of Business for Social Responsibility:

We want to help American business compete in the world and create new wealth for your shareholders and your employees. We want to work with you to bake a larger pie which all Americans can share, and not just argue with you about the existing pie. [37]

The point is made even more clearly by a remarkable July 1999 document from the Service Employees International Union entitled The High Road, which argues that employees should avoid “stridency.” The union warns: “Don’t use words that conjure up images of conflict and struggle, such as power, strength, demand, fight, take on, stand up to struggle, solidarity, beat, defeat, blame, fault, the boss, union-busting.”

The problem with such a strategy is obvious: It didn’t work for the labor movement during the years of the postwar labor pact, and it certainly won’t today.

The Battle in Seattle

The demonstrations that shut down the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in late 1999 were an important turning point for the struggle. As we wrote in this review at the time:

The spectacular collapse of the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Seattle in December 1999 has been the subject of hundreds of articles and TV programs, as well as countless e-mails and discussions around the country and the world.

As indeed it should be. The WTO meeting was meant to promote – and impose – the “American Way.” This was to be the millennium-ending crowning achievement of the Clinton administration and a celebration of a “new American century.”

But the protests against the WTO meeting in Seattle and in other cities ensured that Clinton didn’t get his way. They pointed unmistakably to the fact that hundreds of thousands if not millions of people saw the WTO as a focus for the deep-seated and widespread resentment they have against many aspects of world capitalism. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerald McEntee captured the mood when he declared at the November 30 rally that we must “name the system” that we’re struggling against – “corporate capitalism.”

This point must be underlined. However disparate the political views expressed on the demonstration, they were united around themes of anticorporate greed and a desire to fight. The media has made much of the fact that previously antagonistic groups – most critically labor and environmentalists – came together. “Teamsters join forces with turtle lovers” was a common thread in the coverage. [38]

The enthusiasm for Seattle was immense – and rightly so – most of all among the left, both in the U.S. and internationally. Though the radicalization didn’t start there, Seattle came to symbolize the new resistance, which could be seen in many expressions everywhere. And, of course, the Seattle protests succeeded in shutting down the WTO meeting – a victory that didn’t bring global capitalism to its knees, but a victory nevertheless, and one that was the direct result of forging links between organized labor and activists of other movements.

This movement, like all others, will face new challenges, difficulties, and debates in the process of its development. Consider, for example, the question of the new links built in Seattle between labor and other movements for social change, the so-calle› Teamster-turtle alliance. This marked a tremendous step forward, especially in the U.S., given the labor bureaucracy’s determination for more than half a century to stick to “bread-and-butter” issues and ignore social questions. As Kim Moody pointed out in the July 2000 issue of Labor Notes:

While opposition to the effects of globalization has taken many forms and activated many people – from “direct action” youth in Seattle to women market traders, farmers, and landless peasants in the Third World – many of the biggest recent actions have come from organized workers and their unions. These actions have been marked by a series of mass strikes in many countries.

At first glance, many of these strikes appear to be over local or national issues rather than the direct attacks on globalization’s multilateral institutions like the WTO or IMF that characterized Seattle, Washington, and the June 4 demonstration at the Organization of American States meeting in Windsor, Ontario. But almost invariably the issues that spark them flow from decisions made by these institutions, applauded by corporate capital, and ratified by national governments. [39]

Moody continued the analysis in an article in March 2001:

Then came Seattle. Movements already developing abroad and growing in the U.S. came together with organized labor almost accidentally, to inspire a new vision of what mass action might accomplish. The drama of Seattle came from the environmentalists and young activists of the global justice movement. The AFL-CIO plan was to stay separate and peaceful. At the core of labor’s active participation were Teamster reformers, embattled steelworkers from Kaiser, longshore workers fresh from a series of political strikes, and others who broke from the official labor march to join the other movements in the streets. [40]

In fact, this raises a central question. Not whether these protests have involved workers at every stage – they have. And they clearly have the sympathy of many more who aren’t directly involved. Yet while labor mobilized for Seattle, they haven’t mounted a fight against the employers. Quite the contrary, rather than mobilizing a fight against the new Bush administration, the AFL-CIO has been timid – with some union leaders even agreeing to meet with administration officials over the president’s backward energy plan.

This unresolved tension between a new spirit of resistance within labor and a lack of confidence about taking the offensive – again, something that is generally characteristic of the current transition period – has played back into labor’s participation in the global justice movement. So, for example, at the April 2000 demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank in Washington, D.C., labor didn’t mobilize with other activists to present a challenge to the globalizers. Instead, it held its own rally during the week of demonstrations to focus on the issue of China’s entry into the WTO.

Politically, this split in the forces that came together in Seattle can’t be papered over – it amounts to the question of whether or not the movement will go in an internationalist direction or return to the kind of nationalism that was typical of the AFL-CIO in previous years. This is critical, not only because internationalism is part of the basis of this movement and one of its greatest strengths, but also because the specific issue under discussion – China’s entry into the WTO – raises the question of U.S. imperialism, the other face of U.S. power worldwide. Obviously a movement that seeks to challenge the economic domination of the U.S. worldwide has to be clear about its strategy for opposing the military domination of the United States.

On the other hand, there is the question of the attitude of other movements toward labor. At one level, the relationship is much more advanced than that in the last major radicalization during the 1960s and early 1970s. The 1960s antiwar movement largely accepted the idea that workers were apathetic, bought off, or, even worse, part of the problem. The U.S. was coming out of the period of the long economic boom, and the fight against U.S. imperialism was seen as coming from its victims: Third World peasant and guerrilla movements, Blacks in the U.S., and the like.

The current radicalization is coming after a period of growth in the system, but in the face of a massive decline in the living standards and working conditions for the masses of workers. This means very simply that many of the young radicals today see workers as the victims of capitalism, along with many others victimized by this system. [41] Likewise, many workers who are active in defense of their unions and jobs see those in the global justice movement as allies, or potential allies. This is a step forward. But there is some distance to go. For there is little agreement on – or understanding of, even among unionists – the central role that the working-class movement can play in uniting the majority of people in the struggle for change.

These, of course, are just a few of the many debates in the global justice movement – others include the question of whether institutions like the World Bank can be reformed, whether we want a retreat to a “small is beautiful” model of economic development, whether “overconsumption” in the West is the source of the problem, just to name a few. Any one of these questions is worthy of discussion – many have been taken up in the pages of this magazine. The point of raising the particular question of the relationship of labor to the global justice movement is to underline the discussions that the movement faces – to stress the fluid nature of the radicalization and that its different phases are bound up with challenges and debates that socialists need to clearly assess and consciously confront if they are to make a contribution to its future.

The new civil rights movement

The Battle in Seattle and the global justice campaigns and activities that have followed it have been the most spectacular activist expressions of the new radicalization. But to focus exclusively on this developing movement to the exclusion of others would be one-sided. Both before and after Seattle, the U.S. has seen the development of new and explosive struggles around questions of racial justice, particularly as they relate to the criminal injustice system.

One face of this has been the movement against the death penalty. Capital punishment has long been the centerpiece of the politicians’ tough-on-crime drive. Yet, a growing number of people have begun to question the obvious injustices of a system that victimizes only those who are poor and disproportionately minorities. One reason for this is the crisis of the death penalty system itself. In Illinois, the January 2000 halt on executions declared by Governor George Ryan was preceded by the freeing of the thirteenth innocent death row prisoner in as many years – which meant that Illinois had sent more innocent men to prison than it had executed since the death penalty was reinstated. Years of pressure from anti-death penalty activists had played a crucial role in publicizing the issue, and the ranks of these abolitionists have in turn grown as consciousness on the question has shifted.

Likewise, several horrifying examples of police brutality have sparked a renewed fight around this issue. After African immigrant Amadou Diallo was killed in a hail of 41 cop bullets in 1999, New York City activists began a campaign of protest that included almost daily civil disobedience outside police headquarters – with supporting crowds involving even more people. In 1999, 25,000 demonstrators marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to descend on City Hall in one of the largest anti-police brutality demonstrations of the decade. Outrageous murders like that of Diallo took place as the scandal of “racial profiling” – the policy of police to victimize racial minorities – captured front-page headlines.

The potential for this new civil rights movement to grow was seen at the August 26, 2000, “Redeem the Dream” demonstration in Washington, D.C. Even though the AFL-CIO and organizations like the NAACP, which could have turned out huge numbers for the protest, were barely represented, the demonstration drew 30,000 – many people whose commitment to a fight on this issue led them to get themselves to Washington. The Redeem the Dream rally also showed one of the challenges facing the new radicalization. Few global justice activists – much less, organizations – turned out to Washington, illustrating the need to link issues of global economic justice to activism around other social issues like racism.

The Nader campaign

Ralph Nader’s Green Party presidential bid represented the most successful left-wing third-party campaign in more than 50 years. Nader’s final tally of 2.7 million votes, nearly 3 percent of the electorate, exceeded the 2.5 percent won by Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party campaign. Despite tremendous pressure on them to vote for the “lesser evil,” Al Gore, millions voted for Nader anyway. For them, the campaign helped to raise the bar of expectations, giving voice to commonsense issues (like national health care and a living wage) that the major candidates wouldn’t touch.

The campaign itself activated tens of thousands of people, who gave it its grassroots character. It reached far beyond those active in the antiglobalization protests, which was initially considered the campaign’s only base of support. In fact, working for Nader was by no means an automatic conclusion for many in the global justice movement. Many of the most “militant” – including those associated with direct-action tactics who identified themselves as the “anticapitalist wing” of the movement – were reluctant or even opposed to involving themselves in electoral politics. Rather, the campaign’s real success was that it provided a political expression for people who wouldn’t have considered themselves radicals (and probably still don’t).

Initially organized as a protest campaign against corporate control of the political system, the Nader campaign took on other social issues as the election grew closer – questions of oppression and social inequality. To be sure, on some of these issues, Nader’s campaign left much to be desired. His sometimes cavalier attitude to ordinary people’s real fears about the prospect of a Bush presidency (such as his downplaying of the possibility of a Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade) hurt him. Still, as the campaign progressed, Nader increasingly highlighted issues of racial justice, such as the death penalty and the war on drugs. On the last weekend of the campaign, he appeared before Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in New York to appeal for support – and at his super rally in Washington, D.C., he emphasized his backing for statehood for the District of Columbia.

Clearly, the numbers of people who agreed with Nader’s positions exceeded the numbers who actually voted for him in the end. The scare campaign on behalf of Gore, led by the likes of Reverend Jesse Jackson, Gloria Steinem, and union leaders, helped to cut Nader’s support in half by election day. Even various schemes for “strategic voting” collapsed. Thus in states where the election wasn’t in doubt, Nader’s support still didn’t much exceed his national average (Texas, 2 percent; California, 4 percent; New York, 4 percent).

For the most part, the Nader campaign failed to break through to large constituencies like Blacks and labor that will be crucial to the building of any viable left-wing third party. The commitment to Gore of the official leadership of these constituencies and the media blackout on Nader’s campaign largely explained this. But at the same time, the Nader campaign and many of the politically inexperienced elements in the Nader rank and file didn’t see the importance of trying to win Gore supporters to Nader. The shouting matches that developed at the Boston presidential debate between mostly young students who supported Nader and unionists who supported Gore illustrated the point. Despite the fact that Nader had by far the best positions on labor, fighting racism, women’s rights, and gay rights, his campaign didn’t have the organizational muscle to translate them into support at the polling booth.

In the end, Nader found his most concentrated support among college students and young, first-time voters. Poll data suggests that these voters, who had no fixed party loyalty, were most likely to stick with Nader on election day. This obviously is a crucial part of the audience for socialists as the current radicalization develops. But it’s also important for the people who became the grassroots core of the Nader campaign to understand the need for reaching out to voters who might have been attracted to Nader, but who were pulled behind Gore and the Democrats by the appeal of “lesser evilism.” This became even more obvious in the aftermath of November 7. When it became clear that Bush and the Republicans were trying to steal the White House in Florida, a wide layer of people – involving both Nader supporters and Gore supporters – began to express their anger in pro-democracy demonstrations. Unfortunately, Nader himself disappeared from the scene.

Nader’s absence after November 7 is even more important in considering the gap between what the campaign represented before the election and what emerged afterward. Nader raised a series of questions – big business control over Washington, corporate power in a globalized world, the shambles of the health care system, and so on – which obviously went beyond the election. His campaign laid the political basis and drew together an activist core that could have become an ongoing movement to fight around these issues and oppose the attacks of whoever became president. Yet Nader was unwilling or unable to play the role of galvanizing such a movement after the election – as he had before. As a result, many of those most active in Nader’s campaign became demoralized in the wake of Bush’s inauguration. Their expectations of an ongoing fight weren’t met.

The experience of the Nader campaign represents on a small scale all the key contradictions of the current period. On the one hand, there is the widespread discontent with the status quo, the desire for an alternative, and the growing determination of a significant minority to become active and take a stand. On the other hand, there is a lack of confidence and experience to move beyond the early stages of the struggle – to take the next steps forward. The global justice movement has come to grapple with a similar question – that is, what should the movement do between the major mobilizations to oppose the summits of corporate and political leaders. The key problem to be resolved is the same one left behind by the Nader campaign – that is, how to turn anger and the commitment to fight back into the day-to-day organization of an opposition to take the struggle forward.

Changes and challenges

We have to have a clear assessment of where we are. On the labor front, the important strikes of the past several years have marked a break with the pattern of previous years. But there is still very little confidence to take on the bosses. As measured by number of strikes, the labor movement is still very much on the defensive. In 1999, all measures of work stoppages were at or below the lowest levels recorded since the collection of these statistics began 53 years ago. There were 39 major work stoppages in 2000, and in only two years during the decade did the number of work stoppages number more than 40 – 44 in 1990; 45 in 1994. Compare this to the years 1980 and 1981 (the year that Reagan was elected and the year that he fired the PATCO workers), where the number of major work stoppages was 187 and 145 respectively.

The mood among some of the best activists in the labor movement was perhaps summed up in Kim Moody’s piece in Labor Notes in March 2001:

When we started organizing for the 2001 Labor Notes Conference over a year ago, the Battle of Seattle, with its defiance of corporate power and hope for new alliances, was foremost in our minds. Since then, the new alliance has frayed, union membership has taken a dive, and the political atmosphere has taken a turn for the worse. The specter of recession and the machine-gun pace of layoff announcements proclaim a new context for labor in the next couple of years. [42]

There is a feeling of change and a desire to fight – but also apprehension at the capacity of the movement to ward off new challenges and turn the situation around. This is of course not a static situation. But it depends, above all, not on statistics and figures of union membership, but on action itself – and in particular, successful action – even if these battles begin as defensive.

This is why the struggle of the Charleston dockworkers against an anti-union offensive promises to be such a flash point (see Defend the Charleston Five! on p. 6 of this issue). South Carolina’s racist Republicans are out to make an example of these workers, who represent the most active and powerful unionists in a state with one of the lowest union densities in the country. Every effort should be made to build support for these workers in locals across the country and to engage in solidarity actions, as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and several dockworkers unions internationally have committed to on the day that the trial of the Charleston Five begins.

More generally, the slogan that the Charleston dockworkers have adopted – “Two struggles, one goal” – gets crucially at the question of linking the demands of the labor movement with other political struggles. The Charleston dockworkers are at the heart of the civil rights struggle in South Carolina; the union, for example, was the spearhead of the successful campaign to force the state government to take down the racist Confederate flag from on top of the capitol building. South Carolina politicians have made it clear that they see vanquishing the dockworkers as part of their resistance against antiracist activists. The fact that the unions and growing numbers of activists beyond the ranks of labor also recognize the crucial connections between the two struggles is an important step forward. The potential for such development could be seen in the demonstration in solidarity with the Charleston dockworkers on June 9 that involved thousands of union members and supporters – Black and white – from around the South and East. Indeed, it is the social power of the working class – exemplified by the promise of the West Coast dockworkers’ union to shut the ports – that will be key to the global justice movement’s ability to win real gains.

The movement for global justice is being built by many forces and in many cities. Socialists have a role to play in helping to create links between different sections of the movement and also in terms of the ideas and organization that we have to offer. This isn’t about having the exact line or slogan that we require of the movement. That is the work of sectarians. As Marx put it, a victory for the working-class movement is worth a dozen programs.

During the Summit of the Americas in April 2001, in addition to the protests in Quebec City at the summit site, there were dozens of demonstrations organized around the country. These were very important – perhaps none more so than the one at the Tijuana-San Diego border (see Forging Cross-Border Solidarity on p. 53 of this issue). This border protest made the issue of internationalism and international solidarity a very tangible one. Instead of blockading borders against Mexican truck drivers – as has been the tactic of the Teamsters union – the message of the demonstrators was clear and unambiguous: Mexican workers are our allies, not our enemies. The small role that socialists played in bringing this kind of action about is an example of the contribution that we can make to the movement.

The Quebec City protests mobilized tens of thousands and came close to achieving the success of the Battle in Seattle. But the turnout from the U.S. side of the border was lower than it should have been. The number of trade unionists mobilized for action in Quebec was in the hundreds, not thousands.

There is no doubt that the new radicalization has in the past months and years seen real advances – and on several fronts. But there is little reason to exaggerate its scale or character or level of development. Sober analysis of events is necessary – because this is the only way to have an accurate guide for action. Those who either denigrate or cheerlead are increasingly driven to false political positions in an attempt to close the gap between pretensions and reality.

It is only possible to have a real assessment of the movement by actually looking at what exists and understanding its tempo and course of development – not at what it ought to be or what we would like it to be. There is currently a debate on the character of the movement – its direction, its tasks, and its future. This is necessary – in fact, it is simply an expression of the fact that there is a real and living movement developing. Trying to fit it neatly into a catch-all schema can lead to all kinds of problems – theoretically and practically.

For example, declaring the global justice movement to be “anticapitalist” overestimates its present consciousness, outlook, and direction – and underestimates the breadth of anger outside the ranks of those currently self-identified and active in the movement. It is an attempt to impose on the movement a coloration that it has not yet achieved, and it increasingly becomes an empty phrase rather than a characterization of the temper of the movement. [43] Even advocates of this view have to concede, if they look at reality, that while some define themselves as anticapitalist (and, at this stage, these are few and far between in the U.S. compared to European countries), others clearly do not. Many currents are involved, and there is and will continue to be a battle over ideas. And what does it mean to call a movement anticapitalist that is not against the market or for workers’ control over production? As every previous radicalization has shown, the development of consciousness is not a mechanical process. Who would have thought that those who believed in the American Dream and advocated nonviolence and civil disobedience in 1960 – hardly embryonic anticapitalism – would become the revolutionaries of 1965? Judged through the prism of anticapitalism, the struggle against the Confederate flag in South Carolina was a single-issue campaign that didn’t generalize against the system as a whole, or so it seemed in “theory.” In reality, the core organizers of that movement were the Charleston dockworkers. They understood that the struggle against their employers was fused with the struggle against racism – and that produced both political generalization and a challenge to the system.

As revolutionary Marxists have always argued, political development does not proceed in a linear fashion. Writing in 1930, at the start of a long period of radicalization and working-class struggle, Trotsky tried to come to grips with similar questions. He wrote:

For the Comintern, the radicalization of the masses has become, at present, an empty catechism, not the characterization of a process. Genuine communists – teaches L’Humanité [the CP newspaper] – should recognize the leading role of the party and the radicalization of the masses. It is meaningless to put the question in that way. The leading role of the party is an unshakable principle for every communist. If you do not accept this, you can be an anarchist or a confusionist but not a communist, that is, a proletarian revolutionary. But radicalization itself is not a principle; it is only a characterization of the temper of the masses. Is this characterization correct or incorrect for the given period? That is a question of fact. In order to correctly gauge the temper of the masses, the right criteria must be used. What is radicalization? How does it express itself? What are its characteristics? With what tempo and in what direction does it develop? ...

The radicalization of the masses is described as a continuous process: today the masses are more revolutionary than they were yesterday, and tomorrow will be more revolutionary than today. Such a mechanical idea does not correspond to the real process of development of the proletariat or of capitalist society as a whole ...

The social democratic parties, especially before the war, had imagined the future as a continual increase in the social democratic vote, which would grow systematically until the very moment of the taking of power. For a vulgar or pseudorevolutionary, this perspective still essentially retains its force, only instead of a continual increase in the number of votes, he talks of the continual radicalization of the masses.

Trotsky was making two points: First, he was warning against making a direct correlation between economic data and consciousness – put differently, against the crude notion that the worse conditions get, the more likely workers are to rebel. Second, Trotsky was arguing against a mechanical understanding of how ideas change – in particular, against those who believe simply that by insisting that the masses are revolutionary, the actual problem of building revolutionary organization is solved. In words that could equally be applied to the present period, Trotsky wrote:

The political mood of the proletariat does not change automatically in one and the same direction. The upturns in the class struggle are followed by downturns, the floodtides by ebbs, depending upon complicated combinations of material and ideological conditions, national and international. An upsurge of the masses, if not utilized at the right moment or misused, reverses itself and ends in a period of decline, from which the masses recover, faster or slower, under the influence of new objective stimuli. Our epoch is characterized by exceptionally sharp periodic fluctuations, by extraordinarily abrupt turns in the situation, and this places on the leadership unusual obligations in the matter of a correct orientation. [44]

The state of the left today

The U.S. left has been in the doldrums for some years now. There have been some false starts and signs of revival, but the truth is that the picture is not pretty. The U.S. left was already a pale reflection of a relatively weak labor movement going into the 1990s. The success of the employers’ offensive against labor combined with the economic upturn of the 1990s helped to keep an already marginalized left unable to establish much influence. Of course, this was not inevitable, in the sense that there were key opportunities and openings for a revitalization of the left. But there was already a crisis that wasn’t overcome.

The U.S. left found itself disoriented and on the defensive during the Reagan years and largely gave up on the project of building an independent working-class political alternative. The crisis of militancy of the revolutionary left internationally in the late 1970s expressed itself with the collapse of many of the largest revolutionary currents that emerged between 1969 and 1974. In the U.S., this was reflected in the crackup of all the major Maoist organizations in the late 1970s, and the collapse of the left press over the following decade, culminating in the demise of the biggest circulation weekly, The Guardian, in 1992. There was an attempt at realignment and regroupment of the left that was, in its own terms, partially successful, initiated by groups that merged together to become the organization Solidarity. But it failed to draw (as it had wanted to) elements of the Maoist left, which instead oriented on the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign of 1984 and later went into the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, the collapse of the former USSR and its Eastern European state capitalist regimes produced another crisis, leading to another hemorrhage.

Today, just as in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there is a change and realignment in the left. New forces are emerging, and new methods are needed to relate to new situations – or, more accurately, old tactics and methods that simply haven’t been tried in a long time need to be dusted off. The worst danger would be to give up on the project of building an independent socialist movement. It took the movement that began in the 1960s ten years of long and difficult struggle to come to the conclusion that such a party was necessary. Everything about the current situation makes the arguments for revolutionary socialism and organization more pertinent, not less. It makes no sense to be in favor of socialist ideas and organization when hardly anyone is listening, only to declare them a barrier for the left once there is an audience. But it is a mistake that has all too often been repeated.

Many activists will agree in principle with these ideas, but argue that they are not applicable in today’s conditions. Rather than build an organization around a clear set of politics, a broader socialist organization is needed. The left is already divided enough, so why not unite on a broader basis? The attraction of this argument is that it promises results without as many hardships. However, building an organization that is not absolutely clear and firm on the central core of revolutionary Marxism – the need for revolution from below, the centrality of the working class, the need to fight all forms of oppression, the need to be against imperialism and war – and how to apply this core in today’s world means, simply, building on a bad foundation. The entire historical experience of the socialist movement is that such formations disintegrate under the pressure of events.

This is not an excuse for opposing the maximum possible unity of the left in action – nor should it be used as such. In fact, the revolutionaries of the Third International developed the tactic of the united front to deal with precisely this question. As Duncan Hallas explains in his book The Comintern:

The tactic starts from the assumption that there is a non-revolutionary situation in which only a minority of the working class support the revolutionaries. This can be altered only on the basis of a rising level of class struggle, involving large numbers of workers, many of whom will support reformist organizations. The united front is a tactic intended to win these workers to support for revolutionary organizations, which it can do under favorable circumstances. It is not a bloc for joint propaganda between revolutionary and reformist organizations, but a limited agreement for action of some kind. [45]

It is imperative to build an organization that is firm in its principles and able to grow on a strong foundation. Any such organization must learn to be flexible and to learn from the experience of workers’ struggle, the movements for social change, and its own members. It must seek to provide an alternative leadership to those who want to contain, confine, or derail the movement.

Building such an organization is imperative, if the beginnings of an organized leadership for future struggles is to emerge. The ISO is committed to this project – and of working diligently with all in the movement who want to see the system changed, to rebuild our unions, and to rebuild an active and vibrant left. We think that we are at the beginning of a new political period. There is no point in exaggerating our strengths or weaknesses. We need to look at the lessons of the past and the experiences of the present with an eye to the future. As Tony Cliff puts it in an article about the events of 1968 in France: “What is necessary, however, is not a euphoric generalization about the great days of May and June 1968, but a sober analysis of the lessons of these events.” Later in the same article, he writes:

The old forest of reformism is withering away. The trees are without leaves, the trunks are dying. But in society old ideas are not wiped away unless they are replaced by new ones, and the shoots of revolution are very small indeed ... The point of departure of the revolutionary organization is the experience – the action, thinking and organization – of the workers, and the aim of its operation is raising the historical initiative and drive of the working class ...

The greatest defect of revolutionaries who have been isolated for years from the mass movement, is their inclination to make a virtue out of necessity, and concentrate on theories to the exclusion of practice, forgetting that above all the duty of a revolutionary is to raise theory to the level of practice ...

Fatalism, that is inimical to Marxism in general, exposes its poisonous nature especially under such dynamic conditions. The initiative and perseverance of revolutionaries are at a special premium. [46]

Between things ended and things begun

The gap between what exists and what is necessary – between the need to overthrow capitalism and organizing the force capable of achieving that aim – is the chief challenge facing socialists today. The late Daniel Singer summed it up in his last book when he wrote:

We are at the moment, to borrow Whitman’s words, when society “is for a while between things ended and things begun,” not because of some symbolic date on the calendar marking the turn of the millennium, but because the old order is a-dying, in so far as it can no longer provide answers corresponding to the social needs of our point of development, though it clings successfully to power, because there is no class, no social force ready to push it off the historical stage. This confrontation between the old and the new – the sooner it starts, the better – will now have to be global by its very nature. We have picked France, Italy, and Western Europe as the first probable battlefields, though skirmishes are already taking place from Chiapas to Jakarta and from Seoul to S“o Paulo. Tomorrow Moscow, Warsaw, and Prague may emerge from the utter confusion following their conversion to capitalism, while after tomorrow explosive struggles may even erupt in the heart of the capitalist fortress from New York to California.

On the ground littered with broken models and shattered expectations, a new generation will now have to take the lead. Chastened by our bitter experiences, they can advance with hope but without illusions, with convictions but without certitudes, and, rediscovering the attraction and power of collective action, they can resume the task, hardly begun, of the radical transformation of society. But they cannot do it on their own. We must follow their lead and, to the dismay of the preachers and propagandists shrieking that the task is impossible, utopian, or suicidal, and to the horror of their capitalist paymasters, proclaim all together: “We are not here to tinker with the world, we are here to change it!” Only in this way can we give a positive answer to the rhetorical question asked in this book: whose millennium, theirs or ours? It is also the only way in which we can prevent the future from being theirs – apocalyptic or, at best, barbarian. [47]

Between things ended and things begun. Whose millennium, theirs or ours? This is how Daniel Singer summed up the current political situation internationally. And it is the right description. We live in a world system capable of producing enough to house, feed, and clothe all its inhabitants, but it does not. Worse yet, a precondition of the system’s continued existence is the misery of most for the enrichment of the few. The task of socialists is to build the struggles, the movements, and the organization needed to once and for all get rid of a system of exploitation and oppression – capitalism.

Ahmed Shawki is the editor of the International Socialist Review

* * *



1. Pete Engardio and Catherine Belton, Global Capitalism, BusinessWeek, November 6, 2000. Quoted in Lee Sustar, Globalization, forthcoming (Chicago: CERSC Books, 2001).

2. Special Report on Globalization, BusinessWeek, November 6, 2000, pp. 74, 76, 84.

3. Statistics taken from United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report, 1999 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 3, 28–32, 37.

4. Human Development Report, 1999, p. 3.

5. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, C.J. Arthur, ed. (New York: International Publishers, 1989), p. 55.

6. Human Development Report, 1999, p. 36.

7. Paul Lewis, Aid to poor could miss targets and stall, World Bank reports, New York Times, April 27, 1999, p. A6.

8. William Grieder, Curious George talks the market, review of The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered, by George Soros (New York: Public Affairs, 1998), Nation, February 15, 1999.

9. Isaac Shapiro, Robert Greenstein, and Wendell Primus, Pathbreaking CBO study shows dramatic increase in income disparities in 1980s and 1990s: An analysis of the CBO data, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, revised May 31, 2001, p. 6. The report is available on the CBPP’s Web site at www.cbpp.org.

10. Statistics are from The Shareholder Resolution Campaign, 2000–2001, Responsible Wealth, a project of United for a Fair Economy, available at www.responsiblewealth.org.

11. Chrysler Corp., for example, reported 15 unauthorized strikes in 1960. That figure jumped to 49 in 1967 and then peaked at 91 in 1968. And the number of wildcats in the manufacturing sector as a whole went from about 1,000 in 1960 to 2,000 in 1969. (Sharon Smith, Rank and file rebellion in the ’60s, Socialist Worker, December 1990, p. 10.)

12. Chris Harman, The crisis of the revolutionary left, International Socialism Journal, Spring 1979, p. 49.

13. Daniel Singer, Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours? (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999), p. 161.

14. Singer, p. 161.

15. Quoted in Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein, Washington Babylon (London: Verso, 1996), p. 8.

16. It should also be noted that Doug Fraser joined the Chrysler board of directors the following year and negotiated the first concessions contract under the Carter administration’s bailout plan.

17. Allan Engler, Apostles of Greed: Capitalism and the Myth of the Individual in the Market (London: Pluto Press, 1995), p. 112.

18. The UAW saw its membership drop from 1.53 million in 1979 to 862,000 in 1991. The most recent issue of Solidarity, the UAW newsletter (June 2001, p. 12), says that the UAW now has “nearly 730,000 active members” and “more than 560,000 retirees.”

19. Steve Jefferys, Western European trade unionism at 2000, in Working Classes, Global Realities: Socialist Register 2001, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds. (London: The Merlin Press, 2000), p. 162.

20. Jefferys, p. 154.

21. ILO highlights global challenge to trade unions, press release on World Labour Report, 1997–98: Industrial Relations, Democracy, and Social Stability (Geneva: International Labour Organization, 1997), November 4, 1997.

22. ILO press release, November 4, 1997.

23. Trade unions: Battered, but rising to the challenges of globalization, World of Work, December 1997.

24. Singer, p. 157.

25. Kim Moody, Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy (New York: Verso, 1997), p. 186.

26. Eric Hobsbawn, Out of the Ashes, in After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism, Robin Blackburn, ed. (New York: Verso, 1991), pp. 322–23.

27. Robin Blackburn, Preface, After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism, Robin Blackburn, ed. (New York: Verso, 1991), p. xiv.

28. For more discussion of these issues, see Anthony Arnove, The fall of Stalinism ten years on, International Socialist Review, Winter 1999, pp. 43–52.

29. Peter Norman, World economy and business review, Financial Times, September 21, 1992, p. 1.

30. The basket-case summit, The Economist, editorial, July 4, 1992, p. 13.

31. Anthony Harris, Crawling back to the future, Financial Times, July 6, 1992, p. 19.

32. Joe Klein, The new neatness, Financial Times, U.S. edition, December 27, 1993, p. 21.

33. Bob Brenner, The boom and the bubble, New Left Review, November–December 2000, p. 5.

34. Blair opts for friends instead of comrades, Irish Times, November 9, 1999.

35. There was resistance throughout the decade to the attempt to impose neoliberalism internationally. According to Kim Moody, “As union membership and annual strike statistics fell in unison across much of the industrial world through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the experts proclaimed the working class a thing of the past. The diagnosis read: paralysis due to globalization, fragmentation, flexibilization ... Like Mark Twain’s proverbial death notice, the diagnosis proved premature. By the mid-1990s the streets of continental Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia were filled with hundreds of thousands of angry working people, long, bitter strikes had erupted in the United States, Canada’s industrial heartland was swept by a series of one-day general strikes, and Britain experienced a new wave of strikes among postal, transport, and dock workers. In the Third World a new unionism had established firm ground in South Africa, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan and was on the rise in other countries of East Asia and Latin America. General or mass political strikes in Nigeria (1994), Indonesia (1994), Paraguay (1994), Taiwan (1994), Bolivia (1995), South Africa (1996), Brazil (1996), Greece (1996, 1997), Spain (1994, 1996), Argentina (twice in 1996), Venezuela (1996), Italy (1996), South Korea (1996–97), Canada (1995–97), Haiti (1997), Columbia (1997), Ecuador (1997), and Belgium (1997), all attempted to confront neoliberal policies.” (Moody, p. 21.)

36. Leon Trotsky, What Now?, The Third International After Lenin (London: New Park Publications, 1974), p. 200.

37. John Sweeney quoted in Lee Sustar, A new labor movement?, International Socialist Review, Summer 1997, p. 22.

38. WTO: Crashing the Bosses’ Party, International Socialist Review, Winter 2000, p. 1.

39. Kim Moody, Mass strikes around the world: Global labor takes on global capital, Labor Notes, July 2000.

40. Kim Moody, Will labor choose retreat and isolation – or new strategies and new alliances?, Labor Notes, March 2001.

41. The anti-sweatshop movement is perhaps the most advanced expression of the new solidarity among a layer of young activists.

42. Moody, Will labor choose retreat and isolation?

43. One proponent of the idea that the global justice movement is anticapitalist, Alex Callinicos, had to acknowledge this reality in his assessment of the World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre, Brazil. “But there are also major political differences within the movement against capitalist globalization,” he writes, pointing out that a leading figure in organizing that event, Bernard Cassen of the French group ATTAC, opposes neoliberal free-market policies but not capitalism in general. Callinicos concludes: “Anti-capitalism is still an embryonic movement, within which wide-ranging divergences of opinion and strategy are to be expected. Indeed, the impression of a movement united despite its diversity is a positive attraction. All the same, the differences are real. For some within the movement, the aim is to create a more humane version of capitalism. For others, among them revolutionary socialists, the enemy is global capitalism itself. This is an argument whose implications will have to be put to the test of practice.” (Alex Callinicos, Diversity and a growing debate, Socialist Worker (Britain), February 17, 2001.)

So the anticapitalist movement is actually made up of people who are against capitalism and are for it? So what we really are saying is that the movement has a dynamic which can lead it in the direction of anticapitalism, but is not there yet. So what sense is there to continue to describe the whole movement as anticapitalist? The real question – which is not asked or answered – is how we can help move it in the direction of revolutionary conclusions instead of proclaiming that it has already arrived there.

44. Leon Trotsky, The ‘Third Period’ of the Comintern’s Errors, Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1930 (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1975), pp. 28, 29.

45. Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (Bookmarks, London, 1985), p. 66.

46. Tony Cliff, On Perspectives, International Socialist Review, August–September 2000, pp. 60, 66.

47. Singer, p. 299.

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