What Perspectives, Following the Shockwave of Protests Around the World?

International Revolutionary Convergence V.1, Aug. 2020

[this article has been translated from French]

In the year before the Covid crisis, revolts had multiplied throughout the world. In Chile, from the students protesting against the increase in the price of subway tickets, the anger spread to wide swaths of the whole working classes. In Iran, anger erupted against the regime following the increase in fuel prices. In Lebanon, the population exploded following the introduction of a tax on a social media app. In France, for more than three years now, there have been successive mobilizations: against the most recent labor law, which imposed considerable setbacks for workers’ rights under the so-called “socialist” government of the time; against the increase in fuel taxes imposed by the government that succeeded it, with the Yellow Vests movement; against the pension reform project that paralyzed the country’s transport system for several months last winter. Other uprisings in dozens of countries have also marked the refusal of various peoples to accept the weight of the sacrifices imposed by the capitalist system. And, of course, young people around the world have taken the lead in the rebellion against the growing global climate catastrophe.

While the coronavirus pandemic has slowed these uprisings for some time, it has not stopped them. From Hong Kong to Lebanon to France, we continue to see desperate people risking their lives in their struggles against the ruling classes and the systems that serve them. At this summer’s end, these protests haven’t weakened, and in Lebanon it has led to the resignation of government, and to a social explosion in Belarus where, despite a brutal repression, demonstrations against the dictatorship are ongoing.

What is striking everywhere is the fact that the working classes have marked these movements with the seal of their own aspirations — as well as the relative absence of common political or trade union forces in these mobilizations, despite their attempts to divert anger towards pseudo-political objectives, which are in reality institutional and reformist sidelines. These aspirations from the working classes are both social and democratic.

In Lebanon, the ethnic and religious divisions that seemed to be so deeply entrenched in the country, those that are even part of its territorial organization, were shattered: youth and adults, Muslims and Christians of all beliefs found themselves side by side in the demonstrations.

In France, in the 2018-2019 Yellow Vests movement, the small bosses who had initially been one of the components of the movement — who quickly passed the baton to the far-right, which subsequently attempted to take the lead — soon found themselves faced with demands that were in opposition to their interests: demands over wages, rents, and food prices kept growing. These demands reflected the massive presence of a precarious proletariat in the movement, especially women, working in small businesses. Small bosses found themselves marginalized and most often simply abandoned it, and the extreme-right failed to set the tone.

Today, the United States has joined the countries where the population has entered the struggle, with the revolt against racist police violence. This is the first time in more than half a century, since the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 60s and 70s, that mobilizations of this magnitude have taken place across the country so quickly. Young people — from both the working and middle classes — demonstrated massively, regardless of whether the person next to them was white, Black, Latino or Asian. And the shockwave spread around the world, to Madrid, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Rome, London, Bristol, Brussels, Maastricht, Lausanne, Budapest, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Vienna, but also Montreal, Quebec City, Nairobi, Sydney…

The murder of George Floyd by racist cops set fire to a country where the confinement due to the Covid crisis has thrown 43 million workers out of work in two and a half months, where the measures that followed the 2008 crisis have made the situation of a large part of the working class precarious. Everywhere, demonstrations against police violence and racism mobilized very young people from the poor suburbs of the big cities and working-class neighborhoods.

The pandemic and the economic crisis have exacerbated the social inequalities that form the backdrop to the recent wave of revolts.
Politicization of mobilizations, democratic aspirations

What is also striking is the relative politicization of the worldwide demonstrators, who refuse to attack only those in power, but who want to denounce “the system.” This was notably the case in Algeria, where the departure of Bouteflika and the maneuvers of all the bourgeois political forces did not succeed in getting the demonstrators off the streets. Only confinement succeeded. Since it ended, the protest movements against the new government have resumed, despite increased repression. It’s the same in Hong Kong, where repeated threats by the Chinese authorities have not succeeded in silencing the protest — we will see whether the latest legislative measures and the wave of repression that has followed will overcome the mobilizations.

Behind the the apparent diversity of popular movements that have emerged around the world there is much in common. The mere fact that they have burst out at the same time, reinforcing each other, is a sign of a profound shaking of society, on a global scale. In 1848, in each country, the motivations of the insurgents also seemed different; nevertheless, throughout Europe they marked the beginning of the working class breaking into the political arena and demonstrated the inability of the bourgeoisie to take charge of the democratic revolution — a change of the system — where there were regimes that were directly inherited from feudal society. Marx had concluded that only the working class was capable of carrying out the tasks of democratic revolution through a revolutionary process — “the permanent revolution” — leading to the socialist transformation of society.

In this 21st century, it is directly the capitalist system (and the bourgeoisie) at its highest level of global development that is being questioned. There is no longer any question of a bourgeois democratic revolution — or national independence. More than half of humanity lives in the cities today, and around the industrial proletariat it forms a whole that constitutes the popular classes, a precarious proletariat. Today, all the struggles that have been going on for more than a year resulted in a direct confrontation between the big bourgeoisie and the popular classes.

For some time now, almost everywhere, protest and revolts have been engaging not only students, but more broadly the working classes. This social character can be seen in the demands being put forward and, more deeply, in the aspirations that express revulsion felt by those who do everything and receive very little in return, not only in terms of payments, but also in terms of recognition.

Perhaps this is where we can perceive the depth of the current movements. Beyond the immediate demands that served as a detonator, there is a deep desire to be heard, and to influence events. This is the expression of a sense of dignity that has been violated and of democratic will.

It is not very surprising that, in such a context, the traditional reformist apparatuses, whether political or trade union, are not successful in crystallizing these aspirations around them, or do so only with great difficulty. Deeply integrated into bourgeois society, for which they constitute a safety valve, they have produced a bureaucracy that never takes the trouble to consult the workers on what to demand — not to mention allowing them lead their own movements! Having no say, or so little say in society or at their work, they have equally little say as to their own demands, which are institutionally entrusted to apparatuses that discuss, negotiate and reach agreements over their heads.

Local popular structures and their political limits

It is no surprise then that here and there, so-called “horizontal” structures have emerged and set the tone of many movements over the last ten years or so. Informal groups have met in specific places that have become emblematic: Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Arab Spring of 2011, the Puerta del Sol in Madrid gathering the Indignados in the same year, followed closely by Occupy Wall Street. There’s been the “cabildos” in Chile in 2019, the neighborhood assemblies or square occupiers from Lebanon to Algeria or Sudan. The French Yellow Vests had even more decentralized structures, with gathering places corresponding to highway roundabouts. But these spontaneous structures at local levels have not led to popular counter-powers that are centralized enough to offer an alternative political direction on a national scale. This is undoubtedly the major limit of these various social explosions, given the absence of revolutionary political leadership that would allow the dynamic of protest to take a new revolutionary step forward.

While the popular character of the different movements that have shaken up a great number of countries is indisputable, the fact remains that the working class has not appeared in these struggles with a policy of its own, that is to say, by taking the effective political leadership of these struggles.
The proletariat (in the most general sense of the word, the sense given to it by Marx and not limited to the industrial working class), which constitutes the bulk of those who express their anger in the streets, is not putting forward its own solutions to what is denounced in society. Not yet, at least. The issue is above all a matter of leadership.

A movement that can move in any direction…

The immense hope for the oppressed of all countries that is represented by the mobilizations taking place around the world, including in the United States, should not hide the fact that the situation is far from homogeneous.
Many workers are far from seeing that the increase in layoffs due to the recession, on the one hand, and police violence on the other, are two manifestations of the same capitalism. Politically, the far right remains present everywhere. It has a lot of support among the popular strata, and sometimes even holds power, as in the Philippines, Brazil, Hungary and, to some extent, the United States. In France, police unions linked to the far right have called for spectacular demonstrations, to which the government has pitifully acceded after an unprecedented and timid denunciation of police violence.

A new period of struggles and possibilities for revolutionaries

The pandemic, by paralyzing international trade, has triggered a serious recession. In all countries, the states have spent countless sums to help restructure capitalist enterprises and put their national capitalists in the best possible situation for the future struggle for market share, the contours of which are not fully known. This reorganization is under way everywhere and is or will be reflected in millions of layoffs throughout the world.

The relations between the great powers have also been modified. Contradictory tendencies are being expressed. The European Union has just concluded a joint recovery plan of €750 billion in negotiations that have shown the concern for a united front as well as the desire of a certain number of states to ride alone. As for the current rise in tension between the United States and China, it is difficult to know whether it heralds an exacerbated trade war or is just one more episode in an arm wrestling match which, until now at least, has resembled sturdy negotiations between horse traders.

At the same time, the outlooks for the global economy are very uncertain. According to Christine Lagarde, the former head of the IMF and current President of the European Central Bank, the worst is behind us and the hardest is yet to come. It’s possible that after the global economy recovers, we could go into a period of convalescence, but it’s equally possible that this convalescence will be very slow and even very difficult.

A quiet fury has emerged within the petty bourgeoisie, and this is where the worst is possible: many small businesses have already closed, and many others are likely to suffer the same fate in the coming months.

In any case, whether the worst is behind us or not, the workers will be presented with the bill. Even if the recovery is quick, based on rising unemployment, business will seek to increase productivity through increased exploitation. Many of the movements of the past began when we saw the light at one end of the tunnel that was slow in coming. The struggles of the workers intensified precisely because of a revival of the economy while the capitalists continued to put the full weight of the post-recession reorganization on the workers and the popular classes.

Regardless of the pace of recovery, the working class is in a position to lead the struggle of all those left behind by capitalism. This requires a policy that shows the link between the violence of working conditions, the violence of unemployment and the violence of the police against all those who raise their heads — a policy that unifies the proletariat in the same struggle against the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system.

More than ever in recent years, the wave of revolt in the world, combined with the international character of the health crisis, puts the need for a common struggle of the international proletariat on the agenda.

The addition of the United States among the countries shaken by a wave of popular revolts shows that sleeping giants can awaken at any time. Even though revolutionary militants are present in many countries, they are only small groups, without a base that allows them to lead the struggles of the working class. However, these groups will have to do so to develop policy for the revolutionary transformation of society, the only policy that could establish a rational economy on behalf of the workers, where the collective interest would come before private interests, and industry respects the environment. In short, a policy that would allow a revolutionary dynamic to be set in motion until its victory, because the current situation contains immense possibilities, and no one knows how far they can reach.