by Andrew Burgin
‘We won’t return to normality because normality was the problem.’ Chilean workers’ proverb
‘The number one objective right now is to save my people. We need to close down.’ Christian Smalls, Amazon warehouse employee who led a shutdown in New Jersey.
When society stands on the cusp of great change, or even the possibility of that change, there is generally a disconnect between the objective possibilities of the time and the thoughts in the minds of the people facing those changes. In retrospect, it can seem that there was an inevitability to the change; historians have produced countless books explaining why the French Revolution or the decline of the Roman Empire or any other event in history were inevitable given the specific conjuncture. But no doubt it didn’t seem like that at the time.
Many of us experienced this in a small way when we opened our windows that first Thursday to ‘clap’ and shout for the NHS. Would we be alone? And then a minute later we realised that millions of people were doing it, prepared to act and show their support for our health workers. Of course they would!
We cannot know in advance how events will unfold and it would take a brave or foolish person to predict what will happen. No doubt future historians will admonish us for not having seen the ‘bleeding obvious’, but when you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees, let alone the plains beyond. But we do know the outcome of today’s events will be shaped by its participants, humankind makes its own history.
When it’s necessary to act we often don’t understand what’s possible in the new situation. We may try and pursue strategies from the past, replicating known methods, when a historical turning point has been reached which demands something new. For the organisations and institutions of social democracy, which is an intrinsic part of the existing system, the tendency is always to try and return to the times when labour had a bigger share of the economic cake, via the welfare state. For some decades now that approach has been unworkable, following the massive industrial defeats of the 1980s, the trashing of Keynesianism and the onset of neo-liberalism. If the labour and trade union leaderships continue to stick to that approach it will fail to embrace the possibilities that a new period of heightened social confrontation has opened. It may imagine that it’s possible to return to previous forms of labour relations: that in this period of crisis where we are ‘all in it together’ the return of ‘beer and sandwiches’ with the government may be a harbinger of better things. The Labour Party may be relieved at once more being feted and taken seriously by those in power but there are grave dangers in accepting co-option; they risk sharing the blame for the debt tsunami that threatens to engulf this system. It is a mistake to seek solutions which are anchored in the experience of the past for the political and economic problems we face now; these can no longer – even to the limited extent that they have in the past – serve the interests of the working class.
These political limitations are no less true of those on the radical or revolutionary left, of which I count myself part. Our organisations are often tied to past structures and methods of political work which were appropriate for previous times and wholly different circumstances. They have become ossified and stuck. At worst, we treat organisational forms as a fetish, as if they are our politics, rather than a means of facilitating them which must change according to the context we face. There is a desperate need for renewal to engage with this new period; we don’t need shackles from the past. Crucially though, even more important than the recasting of the organisational form is the revitalisation of Marxist theory, its re-reading for today’s crisis with all its implications. How we grapple with these questions must be driven by the closest engagement with the struggles now unfolding. We must support and engage with every step forward taken by working people to defend their interests.
A slowness to move beyond the limitations of past strategies, and to recognise what new action is required, disconnects activists from the unfolding and immediate struggle; it can block the political road, leaving them disorientated and powerless. It will take courage and real political imagination for us to move beyond this stage and rise to the challenges that this situation presents.
COVID-19 is sweeping through the world. Already millions of people have been infected and it will kill hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people. The priority is to do whatever is necessary to save life and stop the virus spreading. It will impact disproportionately on poorer countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. In many of those countries the virus has yet to take root but it will. I fear for those trapped in the Palestinian territories and especially for the people of Gaza, locked into what is effectively a prison camp. The virus suppression measures that have been taken here will not work in many of the more vulnerable countries with weak health systems and massive overcrowding in the cities and the slums. There people cannot self-isolate and have to go to work every day to get the basic means of survival.
In reorganising our political work in the light of the pandemic, it’s essential that we undertake a rigorous examination of our own organisations and our political work in its entirety. It’s an enormous task even to understand the scale of the collective tasks we have to meet in the coming period and to examine whether we have the necessary political tools to meet them. But some factors are fundamental: international solidarity is at the heart of our work especially in a period where the first response of others will be to retreat into nationalism and xenophobia. The socialist movement is nothing if it is not international and it must be able to respond at that level to the concerns and needs of workers everywhere, whatever struggles they face. This is a time for the left to make its internationalism concrete. For many years the left has paid lip service to organising on an international level but now rebuilding a truly international movement is an existential requirement.
Those millions shouting and clapping for the NHS here are echoed in every country of the world by millions more. This is the time of social and international solidarity. We must find a path to supporting struggles as they emerge: in Tunisia, for example, where there have been significant workers’ protests demanding the government act to defend the people and provide social security during the pandemic; in the US and elsewhere, where there are a growing number of strikes against non-essential work and demanding protection for workers.
Another factor is the urgency of political engagement. There has been some discussion on the left about the difficulty of engaging in political activity during lock down. Some argue there is little we can do until we can get back on the streets, until society returns to ‘normal’. There will no doubt be a time, though possibly not for many months, when public association will return. A yearning for our old lives is a fairly widespread desire, but the changes wrought by this pandemic – both here and throughout the world – make collective action necessary in the here and now. If we treat this period as a mere intermission in our political lives we risk misunderstanding and underestimating the changes that are now taking place globally.
These changes to the everyday lives of millions of people pose real challenges for those on the left who seek systemic change. It is not a question of waiting for the pandemic to be over but of developing and engaging the forms of organisation and action that are crucial now but will also lay the groundwork for what comes next. Unless the left confronts and overcomes particular organisational and theoretical obstacles during this period it will remain on the margins of political life. There is no guarantee of success for our actions but if we do not act there is a certainty of failure and defeat. The one thing though I think we can be sure of is that life can never return to ‘normal’, it can never be as it was before the pandemic. The future will be conditioned by this present crisis and by our actions or lack of them in response to it.
What is also certain is that the pandemic is driving profound changes in the consciousness of millions of people. Some challenge this view by pointing to opinion polls which show significant support for Boris Johnson and Donald Trump but such snapshots of sentiment are ephemeral, contributing little to our understanding of what is actually going on. They certainly shouldn’t be used as a guide to action or as an excuse for class collaboration. This is not, as many on the left would have it, a national crisis; it is a global crisis and therefore requires solutions and action from the peoples of the world: it requires a global health solution. Responding to the virus from a national perspective is part of the problem. Such attitudes have enabled the virus to spread rapidly in Europe. Little was learnt in the West from the Chinese experience, and the effective measures that the Chinese government introduced in order to stem the spread of the virus were largely ignored elsewhere. Racist attitudes played a significant role in that process.
The forces of the far right have strengthened substantially in recent years. They are no doubt poised to try and take advantage of popular dissatisfaction that will arise with the establishment’s handling of the crisis. This crisis is unlocking many doors to reactionary forces. The introduction of emergency laws to confront the virus and the mobilisation of the military in many countries are clear examples. In Hungary, the Prime Minister Victor Orban has used these new laws to effectively introduce a dictatorship; in the United States, Trump has used measures supposedly aimed at stemming the pandemic to further victimise and criminalise migrants. In Italy, the pandemic has taken a huge toll on the population with more than 20,000 deaths. The result has been that both the fascist Brothers of Italy and Salvini’s Lega party have been politically strengthened. If the left fails to rise to the political challenges we face as a society, the far-right and reactionary nationalism will step into the breach.
But there are many indicators that the current balance of attitudes is favourable to progressive social change. When people ask why there is insufficient testing and personal protective equipment for NHS staff who are risking their lives everyday – and a hundred other questions – this carries the seeds of societal change. When people spontaneously organise social solidarity, this is the embryo of the future society we want to see. Social solidarity, the defence of life and the protection of the vulnerable are front and centre of the political, economic and social demands being made across society on a mass scale. Of course this is contested by the right: they mount dark arguments, demanding that the government protects the economy by allowing the virus to rip through society – a Darwinian cull leaving hundreds of thousands to die. At the moment these are voices that we have driven to the margins; but they still exist and the further development and consolidation of solidarity-based mass engagement – and the framing of a new type of society in the post-virus era – is necessary to prevent those voices organising and growing louder.
A political door has been opened for the left which has long been closed. Our ideas have a potential mass audience – indeed many are spontaneously reaching the conclusion that we cannot go back to the status quo pre-virus – but at the moment we do not have the organisational forces to engage at the level that we need to. In this period it is necessary to find the means to swim with rather than against the current.
The need to provide personal protective equipment for medical staff and sufficient ventilators for virus patients is rightly seen as central to defending society as a whole. This need contains the seed of the revolutionary idea: that for society to function in the interest of its people and to meet their elementary needs, it must be organised on a fundamentally different principle. In confronting the virus, the realisation is growing that we have to escape the domination of production for profit and replace it with production to meet human need. These thoughts find concrete expression in the real world with numerous factories temporarily converting to socially useful production.
Socialists have always recognised the need to convert the vast wealth and productive capacity dedicated to the military-industrial complex, to turn ‘swords into ploughshares’, and here we see the real possibility of society and economy being organised to meet the needs of all people. This is a dynamic and creative development that challenges the dominant social relations of capitalist society. It engages with the desires of millions. This is well-expressed by Naomi Klein and Angela Davis’ statement that in order to really change society we have to ‘kick the door in’, or as Marx puts it in The Poverty of Philosophy, that ‘men must change from top to bottom the conditions of their industrial and political existence and consequently their whole manner of being’.
These changes will remain at the level of possibility until we build a movement sufficiently strong to impose the will of the people on government. It is in this struggle to defend humanity as a whole that we can begin to erode long-established modes of thought which encase us and trap us in the past. We must break with the idea that has been drummed into us by our rulers that ‘there is no alternative’. A socialist movement has to engage, help shape and even merge with this challenge to the existing order. The virus has placed a gigantic stop sign in the face of humanity. There is no going back and as Arundhati Roy says, ‘ nothing could be worse than a return to normality.’
Humanity faces a series of interlocking crises: environmental degradation, slump and economic collapse, political and social decay. Capitalism now confronts its deepest ever crisis. The strategies that enabled the system’s survival after the 2008 financial crisis no longer work. The trillions of dollars pumped into the system are having little effect. A global slump has begun that is already devastating the lives of hundreds of millions of working people on all continents. A great thunderstorm threatens and the pandemic is the lightening that precedes it. It is speeding up processes already under way and shining a critical light on past recent attempts to change society.
The crisis of 2008 gave rise to a series of political challenges from both the radical and the social democratic left, all of which grew quickly and mobilised millions of people who wanted to see a different world. These were hugely important movements which tested the political consensus but all proved unable to effectively challenge the existing system. They were beaten back by the strength of the establishment forces. Criticism can be made of individual political actors or failed strategies and compromises made, but it is important to try and understand why none of these movements were able to overcome the class forces ranged against them. There were many examples of important elements of social change wrought by these movements but none were able to mount a systemic challenge to capital, hampered by both the power of the financial institutions and the lack of adequate state or civil society support internationally.
The problems humanity faces require systemic societal change. This economic system is broken and destroys the lives of millions. It cannot be made to work in their interests. It must be ended. The conditions have arisen in which it is both possible and necessary to make a conscious break with all the traditionally accepted ideas and institutions that have dominated the lives of working people for generations. The class truce that many in the labour movement seek is no longer possible. The options for those who promote the line of least resistance are exhausted.
The pandemic illuminates the reality long suppressed, that the working class can no longer live under this system. Throughout the world millions now face penury and in many countries starvation. What we are now seeing is that working people and the poor are beginning to think that another world is necessary. Millions no longer want to live in the old way and the struggle is now engaged. There will be some confusion and some false starts but the outcome cannot be determined in advance – it will have to be fought out. It depends on mass human activity and crucial to the battles ahead is whether those bruised and battered forces of the radical and revolutionary left can develop the strategy and create the forms of organisation necessary for the coming struggles. I believe we are now in the foothills of a historic engagement which will determine our future and that of generations to come.