We don’t need to wait for centuries to build a better world

A crucial argument for the incessantly promoted idea that capitalism will be with us for a long time to come is the idea of inertia in human understanding. Ideas are stubbornly persistent and can only be changed over long periods of time. Slow evolutionary change is the best we can hope for, and the prospects even for that are uncertain and fragile.

If the above were true, then there would have been no revolutions in history. That is quite obviously not the case. Consciousness can change rapidly. It does so exceptionally and under rare circumstances during periods of social upheaval. Yes, not everyday occurrences. But they do happen. “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen,” Lenin famously said.

We need not lean on Lenin. A survey of history need not be comprehensive to find examples of dramatic changes in consciousness, even if we exclude, for purposes of this discussion, national movements of liberation from colonialism, which generally didn’t meaningfully change social relations.

France alone offers us two examples: The French Revolution and the Paris Commune. That working people didn’t obtain what they wanted, the bourgeoisie were in a position to gain an upper hand due to material conditions and that a monarchal restoration would later occur doesn’t require us to deem the events of 1789 to 1793 a failure. The dramatic insertion into history of the popular masses is what we can center here, and it can’t be argued there wasn’t an overturning of a rotten ancien régime. Louis XIV’s boast that he was the state (“L’état, c’est moi”) was reality given his absolute powers. Peasants were subject to starvation during poor harvests, and were subject to being strapped to a plow like an ox to pull a cart or forced to spend nights swishing a stick in a pond to keep the frogs from croaking so the local lord wouldn’t have his sleep disturbed. Town laborers worked 16-hour days and wages were codified as “not exceed[ing] the very lowest level necessary for his maintenance and reproduction.” The church provided the ideology to cement feudal relations in place, telling them all this was God’s will.

These conditions were endured, until they weren’t. Rebellions were hardly unknown across feudal Europe, but had tended to be isolated affairs. French peasants and laborers had been acquiescent to their miserable conditions, or so it seemed. As discontent among social classes mounted, the first demonstrations broke out in 1787. Organization and the education movements provide put people in motion. In only two years, the movement went from issuing petitions asking for reforms to overthrowing the monarchy. 

The throne of king Louis Philippe is burned in the place de la Bastille, at the foot of the July Column, during the French revolution of 1848. (painting by Nathaniel Currier)

There are also the revolutions of 1848 across Europe. It is true these would falter one after another as traditional authorities, mostly monarchal and military, would reassert themselves. But these upheavals could never have occurred without peasants and proletarians ceasing to continue total deference to elites and institutions. Masses were in motion, but the ideas, although temporarily crushed, survived and began to be implemented within decades. 

Societies across Europe were rigid class dictatorships, with the elites of their countries horrified at the very idea that common people might be given some say in how they were ruled. Incontestable violence was the frequent response to any stepping out of line. And while demands like a constitution wouldn’t seem at all radical today, they were in 1848 — granting them would have meant at least some rights for common people codified in law. The revolutions were failures in terms of immediate results, but the ideas raised would become common sense not long into the future. 

When implemented, these changes were not revolutionary, it is true, as national elites found they could accommodate such demands and not have their rule challenged. But millions previously resigned to bowing their heads and accepting their bitter lot learned to speak up, to organize, to struggle and to imagine that a better world could be brought into being. As Priscilla Robertson wrote in her marvelous account, Revolutions of 1848: A Social History, “Most of what the men of 1848 fought for was brought about within a quarter of a century, and the men who accomplished it were most of them specific enemies of the 1848 movement.”

An early demonstration in the Paris Commune

No account of 19th century uprisings could possibly omit the Paris Commune, the first socialist revolution in history. Consciousness wasn’t simply profoundly changed in 1871; the ideas of that new consciousness were put in action. The Paris Commune enacted several progressive laws — banning exploitative night work for bakers, suspending the collection of debts incurred during the siege, separating church from state, providing free education for all children, handing over abandoned workshops to cooperatives of workers who would restart production, and abolishing conscription into the army. Commune officials were subject to instant recall by voters and were paid the average wage of a worker.

The Commune would be drowned in blood. But we can readily see the difference between the vision of a better world and the ruthless violence used to suppress any attempt at putting such a vision into practice. A National Guard commander freed captured French army officers in a spirit of “comradeship,” to the point where a top army commander was let go in exchange for a promise that the commander would henceforth be neutral — a promise that was swiftly broken. The Communards’ magnanimity was repaid with a horrific bloodbath. An estimated 30,000 Parisians were massacred by the marauding French army in one week. Another 40,000 were held in prisons, and many of these were exiled to a remote South Pacific island where they became forced laborers on starvation diets, eventually barred from fishing in the sea or to forage for food, and routinely subjected to torture. The restored government exerted itself to deny any political or moral content to the Communards’ actions, instead treating them as the worst common criminals as part of what developed into a de facto “social cleansing” of Paris; the French official overseeing the deportations, in his public statements, directly linked socialist politics with chronic petty crime.

The past is not forgotten. Chileans demonstrate in Plaza Baquedano, Santiago in 2019 (photo by Carlos Figueroa)

The very peacefulness of the Communards was a sharp divergence from ordinary governing practices. Only a people who had rapidly gained new and radical understandings of how society might be organized could have created such a government. Those ideas aren’t extinguished when bloodily suppressed, but remain alive for the next generations.

There are no shortages of examples to be drawn from the 20th century. Start with perhaps the most obvious example, Russia in 1917. Russia was a vast sea of illiterate peasants yoked to the land and held in bondage through superstition and backward social institutions; ruled by a tsar whose every word was incontestable law and backed by exiles, whippings and executions. Agitation by organizers in social democratic parties had made some headway, exemplified in the soviets of 1905, but even that was cut off when Russians accepted their country’s participation in World War I the same as the peoples of other countries. Yet three years later, all of Russia was in motion. Russians refused to accept any longer the brutality and backwardness forced upon them. More than 300,000 Petrograd workers took part in strikes during the seven weeks immediately preceding the February Revolution and mutinies spread throughout the army.

And it is not often remembered that women workers touched off the February Revolution — yet another overturning of social relations that required new consciousness. Women textile workers in Petrograd walked out on International Women’s Day, walked to nearby metal factories, told the men there to join them on strike, and both groups inspired workers in other factories to walk out. In two days, a general strike was underway in Petrograd, with demonstrators shouting anti-war and anti-monarchy slogans. And what could the October Revolution be other than a mass demonstration of changed thinking? Soldiers and sailors disarmed their officers and turned the military’s orientation 180 degrees, and that enabled civilians to disarm the police. The October Revolution took place in the capital city with the city’s residents filling the streets, occupying strategic buildings and electrifying the world with their cascade of motion and unity of purpose, backed across the country by workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors asserting their collective will. That was no “secret coup” as pro-capitalist historians consistently but falsely assert.

From object to subject in Nicaragua and Chile

And there is Nicaragua, the pre-revolutionary history of which was a history of exploitation. There would not have been a Sandinista Revolution coming to power in 1979 if it weren’t for the willingness of activists to adapt ideas developed elsewhere to Nicaraguan conditions and to draw upon local conditions and realities, blending them with the writings of 1930s liberator Augusto Sandino. In just a handful of years, a country at the mercy of the gigantic neighbor to the north accustomed to treating everything south of the Rio Grande as its “backyard” and under the whip of a brutal local family dictatorship maintained through copious amounts of torture and violence overturned both. A mass change in consciousness was created, without which Nicaraguans in huge numbers wouldn’t have had the fortitude to overthrow the Somoza family, defy the United States and create a dramatically different society and governing structure.

The Sandinistas also provided an important lesson, one equally applicable to advanced capitalist countries as underdeveloped ones. Although no theory can be transplanted whole to another place or time, there was an explicit acknowledgement, which was acted upon, that workers are not only blue-collar factory employees, but are also white-collar and other types of employees in a variety of settings, in offices and service positions, among others. Any revolution that seriously attempts to transcend capitalism, which means eliminating the immense power of the capitalist elite, has to include all these varieties of working people if it is to succeed in the 21st century. Mass consciousness would change so thoroughly that the Sandinistas had to go ahead with an insurrection sooner than they had planned because everyday people were moving forward so fast.

A different type of transformation was attempted in Chile, where the movement toward socialism was voted in but soon had profound effects. So profound was the beginnings of that transformation that frightened capitalists used fascistic levels of violence to turn back the clock. But, given the past couple of years of movement work in Chile, culminating in a Left-led writing of a new constitution to replace the Pinochet constitution, the ideas of the early 1970s have not been buried forever. Following the election of Salvador Allende, Chilean workers rapidly learned to manage their enterprises and take control of their lives. 

Marchers for Salvador Allende.

A representative example would be the Yarur textile factory, the enterprise focused on by Peter Winn in his indispensable study of the Allende years, Weavers of Revolution. Those workers had to overcome fear and memories of past repressions before they could band together to improve their conditions. Dr. Winn painted a vivid picture of the Yarur facility at the time of President Allende’s victory: “A passive and isolated work force, carefully selected and socialized, purged of suspected elements, disciplined by the Taylor System, and represented by a moribund company union; a paternalistic patrón who dispensed favors and largesse at his pleasure in return for unconditional loyalty, but who punished disloyalty with righteous anger; a network of informers that covered both the work sections and the company housing; and a structure of scaled punishments for transgressions against the patrón or his social politics that ranged from a verbal warning to summary dismissal and blacklisting.”

Yet in a matter of months, this once-cowed workforce went from clandestine work to create an independent union seeking merely better wages and working conditions to openly making demands such as firing hated foremen and moving to “free the factory.” Dr. Winn wrote, “The roots of revolution might be present, along with the justification for rebellion, but a precondition for this revolution from below was a dramatic change in the workers’ view of themselves, their capacity and power, as well as their perception that for once the state would support them in any showdown between capital and labor.” This leap in consciousness was replicated across the country. 

President Allende’s Popular Unity government achieved strong results in its first year. Unemployment was halved, inflation was reduced, the labor share of income increased from 55 percent to 66 percent and not only did the country see strong industrial growth, the growth came from production of basic goods such as food and clothing in contrast to prior years when growth was based on durable goods such as appliances and automobiles. Perhaps the most basic measure of the improvement was that the poor could now afford to eat meat and buy clothes. What might have been created if the U.S. government and Chile’s capitalists hadn’t crushed it?

What might have been created without interference?

Not all the revolutions discussed were successful, and you might disagree with the direction that some of those that were successful took. There can be no guarantees for the future. The point here isn’t that a change in thinking among enough people that a revolutionary situation arises, and is acted upon, guarantees success. Overwhelming power was brought to bear on the revolutions that failed, and overwhelming power was brought to bear on those that did succeed, distorting the results. We can not know what might have been accomplished had revolutionary governments had the space and time to develop peacefully, including in many other examples that could have been cited in this brief survey.

We might also consider non-revolutionary changes on a national level. To cite just one example, consider Germany. Having unified across the 19th century mostly due to the expansionary tendencies of Prussia, and finally achieving unification through Prussia’s lightning victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870, Prussian militarism was a dominant ideology in the young country with the military holding strong sway. Although the rise of Hitler had multiple causes, the militaristic ultra-nationalism that was in large part a holdover from Prussia accommodated itself well to Nazi government; indeed, supported it before the taking of power. 

Memorial of the 1848-49 revolution in Hungary. (photo by Globetrotter19)

But after World War II, those tendencies rapidly receded. Would anybody today see Germans as a nation of Prussian militarists bent on expansion? German national culture is very different today. Ideas changed sharply and rapidly. Yes, under the impact of a second devastating defeat in a continent-wide war. But the potentiality of such a change had to have been there, and we can point to the wide interwar support of the Social Democratic and Communist parties, and the rise of social democracy before the first world war. The treachery of the Social Democrats and sectarianism of the Communists, and their destruction during the Nazi régime, undermined the chances of more profound change (while acknowledging Allied and particularly U.S. impositions from 1945 that limited change in West Germany to capitalism under U.S. suzerainty and Soviet compulsion that molded East Germany). 

Changes in consciousness and belief systems don’t need decades, much less centuries, to change. Such changes don’t, and won’t, happen without enormous organizing, which includes gaining the ability to disseminate materials exposing and contradicting standard ideology and presenting alternatives that speak to people’s lives and goals, most importantly conceivable ideas and concepts that lead to a better world. A better world will come about through the everyday work of organizing and campaigning, not through blueprints. Some of the bricks of today will inevitably be used in building the institutions of tomorrow but those bricks can be arranged differently.

What is radical one day is everyday common sense another day, and the time span between those two days is not necessarily distant. The idea that one family was granted the right to rule in perpetuity, the idea that a human being could own another human being, the idea that everyone was born into a particular class and could never leave it, have passed into history. Why shouldn’t the idea that only a minuscule number of people have the ability to manage enterprises and should therefore be paid hundreds of times more than those whose work produces the profits also pass into history?

The idea that capitalism doesn’t work for most people, that a better world is possible, has animated millions and some of those millions have tried to put those ideas into practice. The ability to see through capitalist propaganda arose quickly — the peoples mentioned throughout this article didn’t need centuries. Popular opinion changed dramatically and rapidly.

That shifts in mass consciousness with revolutionary potential have rarely taken place in the world’s advanced capitalist countries does not mean they can’t happen in the future. What forms any such uprisings might take can’t be known, and could take different forms than previously seen. Repressive rule, whether through monarchs, armed force or economics, is not forever. Nothing of human creation is forever. Capitalism isn’t an exception and will be history when enough people decide to make it so. Organize!

Riots don’t change systems: There’s no shortcut to organizing

You say you want a revolution? There are no “lessons” for anyone on the Left to draw from the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol building in Washington.

If we were to set aside for a moment the fascistic nature of the mob, egged by on former President Donald Trump and his minions (which I am not suggesting we actually do), there is nothing to be taken in the abstract. Apparently there are some folks who, while certainly not condoning the political outlook of the insurrectionists, believe the example set might provide something of a template for how to achieve very different goals.

Even before we get to what should be an obvious observation — the Trumpite mob was enabled by some Capitol Police officers and law enforcement agencies largely share the insurrectionists’ politics while not hesitating to crack down violently on Left demonstrations, no matter how peaceful — governments and economic systems are not overturned by mobs storming the headquarters of the government. Any change to a better world by Left-led social movements can’t succeed without having a large majority of the population behind them with a significant number willing to act on the desire for systemic change in well thought out moves and not simply be passive supporters. There is no shortcut to organizing.

Hugo Chávez swearing in as Venezuela president in 2013 (photo by AVN, Prensa Presidencial/Venezuelanalysis)

As comforting as it may be to believe that any form of economic democracy, whether we call that socialism or something else, can simply be voted in, that path isn’t available. History has amply demonstrated that peaceful roads will meet with massive counter-attacks, from the Paris Commune in 1870 through Salvador Allende’s democratic election in 1970 and right up to today with the Bolivarian Revolution. That, on the other hand, doesn’t mean we are condemned to wringing our hands in frustration and doing nothing as capitalism continues to immiserate more people and destroy the environment.

Everything of human creation has a lifespan and everything of human creation can be changed or removed by human hand. Slavery, feudalism and other systems of the past were not natural, they were not ordained — they were products of human imagination. Capitalism is not the end of history. It is nothing more than one more system of repression, one more system of organization. It is no more permanent than slavery, feudalism or any other system of the past. If this were not so, there would not be so much frenetic activity put into convincing us that “there is no alternative.”

A serious movement needs to use a wide range of tactics and approaches wielded by cohesive organizations bringing together movements in broad alliances that provide scope for people with specific issues and oppressions to advance their goals simultaneously with rooting these in larger understandings of their structural causes and the systemic crises that must be tackled. The days of telling people that you need to “wait your turn” and, anyway, “your oppression will be solved once we have a revolution” need to be definitively over. On the other hand, splintering into a myriad of groups working only on specific issues in isolation from one another is a guarantee of ineffectiveness in terms of tackling the overall systemic problems that underlie so much of what we fight. 

Masses in motion in 1917

It’s a myth that the October Revolution in 1917 Russia was the work of a small conspiratorial clique that violently took power. A contingent of Bolsheviks walked into the Winter Palace, then moved through hallways until they found the room where the remnants of the Provisional Government were meeting and simply arrested them. Hardly a shot was fired in St. Petersburg (then known as Petrograd).

How could it have been that simple? Because the entire country was in motion and support for the deposed government had evaporated. The urban masses in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and in other cities, had swung behind the Bolsheviks. In the countryside, where political support remained with the Social Revolutionaries, there was tacit support for the revolution — peasants had actually defied the Right Social Revolutionary leadership (the SRs having just split into two) by taking land from landlords and the aristocracy and redistributing it among themselves, actions strongly supported by the Bolsheviks and the Left Social Revolutionaries, who would soon join the Bolsheviks in a coalition government.

Meeting at the Putilov Factory (1917)

All this could have happened because Bolshevik, Left SR and Interdistrict Organization agitation had turned the Russian Army, which led to the disarming of the police, who melted away. Russian soldiers and sailors took control of their units, refusing to follow orders by their officers, and even disarming them, putting control of the army and navy in socialist hands. This was most clearly demonstrated when the army chief, Lavr Kornilov, attempted a coup against the Provisional Government. Train tracks were torn up to block military movement into St. Petersburg, and Aleksander Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government, had to call on Bolshevik militants to defend the capital. Enormous work over years, in extremely repressive conditions, was behind all this.

And what of the February Revolution that preceded the October Revolution? 

Neither the Bolsheviks or any other party played a direct role in the February revolution that toppled the tsar, for leaders of those organizations were at the time in exile abroad or in Siberia, or in jail. Nonetheless the tireless work of activists laid the groundwork. The Bolsheviks were a minority even among the active workers of Russia’s cities then, but later in the year, their candidates steadily gained majorities in all the working class organizations — factory committees, unions and soviets. The slogan of “peace, bread, land” resonated powerfully.

On one particular day, tens of thousands of women textile workers walked out, then went to the metal factories and asked the men working there to join them. They did, the strike spread and within two days a general strike took hold. In another five days, the tsarist régime was finished — one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships brought to an end. Why that one day? Why that one strike among many that had broken out in recent weeks and over years? We can never know with certainty. The most we can say is that on that particular day, Russians finally had enough. This was an amazing feat, overthrowing an autocratic régime that had endured for centuries. Here, too, police considerations are part of the equation — some of the troops sent by the tsar to put down the rebellion refused to fire or even took the side of the people.

Yet there was no spontaneity at work. Russia’s socialists had tirelessly laid the groundwork, and although the tsar’s secret police had decimated their ranks and so many had paid with exile, banishment, hard labor, jail and execution, the ideas could not be stamped out. The talks of the socialist agitators, the words of the socialist newspapers, pamphlets and fliers, resonated with the experiences of Russians — not only in the cities, but in the countryside and in the army and navy. It was this practical work, carried out over many years, that provided the people of Russia with the tools necessary to understand, and then change, their conditions. Organizing.

Masses in motion in 1979

One more example. The Sandinistas took power in 1979 at the head of a broad coalition encompassing wide sections of Nicaraguan society, despite the efforts of Nicaragua’s corporate elite — industrialists and agricultural exporters — who wanted Somoza removed but retain his extremely repressive system. The United States government, under Jimmy Carter, was working toward the same goal, having decided that Somoza had become too much of a liability. Therefore, Sandinistas argued, the task was to build its own multi-class coalition, going beyond peasants and blue-collar workers to include other social groups, including church groups and social christians.

Although Sandinistas developed an insurrectionist strategy in an underdeveloped country of the Global South, their strategy has broad applications for the developed countries of the Global North, for similar social complexities and differentiations exist there. While no theory can be transplanted whole to another place or time, organizers explicitly acknowledged, and acted upon, the fact that workers are not only blue-collar factory employees, but are also white-collar and other types of employees in a variety of settings, in offices and service positions, among others. Any revolution that seriously attempts to transcend capitalism, which means eliminating the immense power of the capitalist elite, has to include all these varieties of working people, those regularly employed and those precarious, if it is to succeed in the 21st century. 

Strikes alone would not be enough. In September 1978, Sandinista forces attacked the National Guard in several cities, including León, sparking uprisings in each of them. Although the Sandinistas were forced to retreat, thousands left with them in long columns, demonstrating that they would not abandon the people who supported them and the cause of building a better world. 

On June 4, 1979, Sandinista calls for an “insurrectional general strike” shut down the country. Coordinated attacks began in a series of cities, isolating units of the National Guard and forcing the Guard to stretch its forces too thin. By July 16, almost every major city in Nicaragua was in insurgent hands and the régime was about to topple. The U.S. government this day was still trying to negotiate a deal to block the Sandinistas from assuming power with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Managua, various members of the anti-Somoza corporate elite and the Junta of National Reconstruction — this last maneuver was an effort to get the Junta, the government in waiting that had recently been formed, to add a member of the National Guard and a member of Somoza’s Liberal Party. With Nicaraguans solidly behind them, the Sandinista could easily say no to the U.S. maneuvers.

On July 17, dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled the country after years of waging war on his country’s people and muscling in on so many businesses that even sizable numbers of Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie wanted him gone. Years of tireless organizing by Sandinista militants, often at the risk of their lives, led to that day. Two days later, on July 19, the Sandinistas marched triumphantly into Managua, the capital, having already captured control of much of the country in the late stages of the insurrection.

This success was not the product of a random mob attacking a government building, but patiently building a mass movement that became strong enough to topple a deeply corrupt, extraordinarily brutal dictatorship.

A disorganized group of people, even if they had the goal of bringing into being a better world that we would agree with, has no chance of success. None. Trying to create an alternate history or counter-factual by substituting good people for the fascists acting out an absurd fantasy is a sterile exercise, and one undertaken in an absence of historical knowledge. It would be a service to humanity and the health of the Earth if capitalism and the governments upholding it through violence were swept into the dustbin of history. But that will take monumental organization, getting a healthy majority to back the vision of a better world, linking hands across borders and solidarity across movements. That is as far removed as can be from a mob egged on by an aspirant fascist.

Class warfare intensifies as labor rights violated around the world

As bad as conditions have traditionally been for labor worldwide, 2020 has seen conditions deteriorate even more. As in past years, there is not a single country on Earth that fully protects workers’ rights. And although every country continues to violate labor rights, the extent of those violations grows, continuing a sad pattern of class warfare.

The International Trade Union Confederation has issued its annual Global Rights Index, and only 12 countries managed to be listed in the Index’s top ranking, the countries that are merely “sporadic” violators of rights. But those countries are hardly paradises (this is capitalism, after all). One of those dozen, the Netherlands, had no less than seven of its corporations listed among companies violating workers’ rights. Those were not necessarily isolated instances. The report said, “In the Netherlands, unions observed an increasing trend to shift from sectoral agreements to company agreements with the intent of minimising labour costs in return for employability. Companies often used the competitiveness and employability argument with their employees to incite them to accept lower conditions of work at the enterprise level. In addition, companies, including Ryanair, Transavia, Jumbo Supermarkets, Gall & Gall, Action and Lidl supermarkets, tended to circumvent collective bargaining with representative unions.”

If that represents the “best” of conditions for working people, the world is a mighty unfair place. Which it obviously is, given the ever more intense pressure bearing down on working people as the neoliberal era continues to make capitalism ever more miserable for those whose work produces the profits swelling the pockets of industrialists and financiers.

As in past years, the Global Rights Index report divides the world’s countries into five categories with increasing levels of rights violations. They are as follows:

  • 1. Sporadic violations of rights: 12 countries including Germany, Ireland, Norway and Uruguay (green on map above).
  • 2. Repeated violations of rights: 26 countries including Canada, France, Japan and New Zealand (yellow on map).
  • 3. Regular violations of rights: 24 countries including Argentina, Australia, Britain and South Africa (light orange on map).
  • 4. Systematic violations of rights: 41 countries including Chile, Mexico, Nigeria and the United States (dark orange on map).
  • 5. No guarantee of rights: 32 countries including Brazil, China, Colombia and Turkey (red on map).
  • 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 9 countries including Libya and Syria (dark red on map).

Hypocritical finger-wagging

Consistent with past years of the Global Rights Index, the United States, which loves to hold itself up as an exemplar of democracy and civil rights, is among the lowest-ranking countries — the U.S. has consistently had a ranking of 4 for “systemic” violations. The International Trade Union Confederation, in supplemental materials discussing U.S. violations, noted that the National Labor Relations Board has made a series of anti-union rulings, including allowing retaliation against striking Wal-Mart workers, while U.S. law permits anti-union discrimination, restricts workers’ rights to form unions of their own choosing, and places severe barriers against union organizing. 

The United Kingdom, second only to the U.S. in regular scolding of other countries, is ranked in the middle of the pack, same as a year ago. The report’s discussion of Britain reported “the number of people employed on a stand-by basis, ‘zero-hour contracts,’ at between 200,000 to 250,000 which demonstrates the prevalence of underemployment in the UK. Under these contracts employees have to be available for work but are not guaranteed a minimum number of hours. These contracts create income insecurity for workers and also undermine family life.” Additionally, the report noted multiple barriers to British union organizing.

Canada, although ranked higher than Britain or the U.S., is no paradise despite the image its governments like to project. The report noted that in Canada there are many categories of workers, ranging from domestics to professionals, barred from organizing, and there are severe legal restrictions limiting the right to strike.

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

Globally, the report states that violations of workers’ rights are at a seven-year high. Direct attacks on unions highlight the degradation:

“The trends by governments and employers to restrict the rights of workers through violations of collective bargaining and the right to strike, and excluding workers from unions, have been made worse in 2020 by an increase in the number of countries which impede the registration of unions — denying workers both representation and rights. … A new trend identified in 2020 shows a number of scandals over government surveillance of trade union leaders, in an attempt to instil fear and put pressure on independent unions and their members.”

The global pandemic has only made conditions worse:

“These threats to workers, our economies and democracy were endemic in workplaces and countries before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted lives and livelihoods. In many countries, the existing repression of unions and the refusal of governments to respect rights and engage in social dialogue has exposed workers to illness and death and left countries unable to fight the pandemic effectively.”

Class warfare goes on and on and on

Some of the sobering statistics gathered by the International Trade Union Confederation tell a grim story:

  • 85 percent of countries violated the right to strike.
  • 80 percent of countries violated the right to collectively bargain.
  • Workers were arrested and detained in 61 countries.
  • Workers experienced violence in 51 countries.

The Confederation, which describes itself as a coalition of “national trade union centres” encompassing 332 affiliated organizations in 163 countries and territories, determines its ratings by checking adherence to a list of 97 standards derived from International Labour Organization conventions. Those 97 standards pertain to civil liberties, the right to establish or join unions, trade union activities, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike.

The Confederation’s report is one more illustration of the race to the bottom. The International Labour Organization estimates that more than 470 million people worldwide were unemployed, underemployed or “marginally attached to the workforce” in a report issued in January 2020, with 2 billion people (61 percent of the global workforce!) informally employed. That report was issued just before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, triggering a dramatic economic crash that had been overdue, thanks to the instability of capitalism that regularly causes downturns. Inequality and lower pay are endemic around the world, and the costs of housing, because it is a capitalist commodity, rises far faster than incomes. The continual imposition of austerity on working people contrasts dramatically with the trillions of dollars thrown at financiers and industrialists since the pandemic began.

Capitalism promises nothing but more one-sided class warfare. We’re long past due to try something different.

Capitalism’s triumph: Labor rights violated in every country on Earth

In what country are labor rights fully respected? The sad answer is: none.

Labor rights are routinely violated around the world, and the trend is only getting worse. The International Trade Union Confederation has again issued its annual Global Rights Index and the result is no better than in past years. It’s worse. For example, the number of countries that exclude workers from the right to establish or join a union increased from 92 in 2018 to 107 in 2019. Even in Europe, the region with the (relatively) best conditions for working people, half the countries exclude at least some groups of workers from freely associating by allowing “non-standard” forms of work such as zero-hour contracts, temp work or misclassifying people working through online platforms as “self-employed.”

Corporations ever on the lookout for ways to extract more from their workforce and, with government complicity, continue to press down. The Confederation, in its report, said:

Worldwide, new technology has allowed employers to use various mechanisms to avoid paying minimum entitlements and exclude workers from labour laws. Recent technological leaps in the ways that work can be allocated and accessed has resulted in increased incidences of workers being denied rights under the guise of flexibility and as platform workers. Decent work is being affected and rights are being denied by companies avoiding rules and regulations. … More and more governments are complicit in facilitating labour exploitation or allowing the rule of law to be avoided because workers are forced to work in the informal sector of the economy.”

Rapid advances in technology, because they are controlled by corporations and repressive governments, are enabling continuing deterioration in working conditions. Not only does technology enable production to be moved to locations with ever lower wages and regulations, but it enables the weakening labor protections in new “high tech” wrapping.

In its report, the International Trade Union Confederation ranks countries from one to five, with one the least repressive and five the most. Only 12 countries — Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden and Uruguay — are ranked as one. These are countries that are merely “sporadic” violators of rights. So there are no countries on Earth that do not violate labor rights. (There are several countries not given a rating, shown in gray in the map below.)

The International Trade Union Confederation labor rights rankings

Interestingly, the two countries most prone to wagging fingers at the rest of the world, Britain and the United States, once again fared poorly. Britain was ranked as a three, representing a country that has “regular violations of rights.” The U.S. was rated as a four, among countries determined to condone “systematic violations of rights.” There is nothing new here; the U.S. has consistently been scored as a four in these reports over the years. As recently as 2017, Britain was also ranked as a four.

In a country rated as a four, “The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under threat.”

So much for the so-called land of freedom.

The report’s rankings are as follows:

  • 1. Sporadic violations of rights: 12 countries as noted above (green on map above).
  • 2. Repeated violations of rights: 24 countries including France, Japan and New Zealand (yellow on map).
  • 3. Regular violations of rights: 26 countries including Australia, Canada and Spain (light orange on map).
  • 4. Systematic violations of rights: 39 countries including Argentina, Chile and Mexico (dark orange on map).
  • 5. No guarantee of rights: 34 countries including Brazil, China, Greece and India (red on map).
  • 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 9 countries including Libya and Syria (dark red on map).

The Confederation, which describes itself as a coalition of “national trade union centres” encompassing 331 affiliated organizations in 163 countries and territories, determines its ratings by checking adherence to a list of 97 standards derived from International Labour Organization conventions. “The methodology is grounded in standards of fundamental rights at work, in particular the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike,” the Confederation wrote in its report.

During the six years that the Confederation has issued its yearly reports, conditions have steadily deteriorated. Since the initial report in 2014, every region of the world has seen scores worsen. Summarizing this trend, the report says:

“In 2019, strikes have been severely restricted or banned in 123 out of 145 countries. In a significant number of these countries, industrial actions were brutally repressed by the authorities and workers exercising their right to strike often faced criminal prosecution and summary dismissals. Three regions — Africa, the Americas and [Middle East/North Africa] — all had an increase in the number of countries that violated the right to strike from last year.”

And thus it is no surprise that inequality is rising around the world, unemployment is endemic and far higher than official government statistics would have us believe and corporate tax dodging facilitated by government policies is widespread. The world’s working people continue to be on the losing side of one of the most one-sided wars in human history.

Why are Leftists cheering the potential demise of Rojava’s socialist experiment?

Lost in the discussions of Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement of the withdrawal of United States troops from Rojava is the possible fate of the democratic and cooperative experiment of the Syrian Kurds. Threatened with annihilation at the hands of Turkish invaders, should we simply wipe our hands and think nothing of an interesting experiment in socialism being crushed on the orders of a far right de facto dictator?

The world of course is accustomed to the U.S. government using financial and military means to destroy nascent socialist societies around the world. But the bizarre and unprecedented case — even if accidental — of an alternative society partly reliant on a U.S. military presence seems to have confused much of the U.S. Left. Or is it simply a matter of indifference to a socialist experiment that puts the liberation of women at the center? Or is it because the dominant political inspiration comes more from anarchism than orthodox Marxism?

Most of the commentary I have seen from U.S. Leftists simply declares “we never support U.S. troops” and that’s the end of it; thus in this conception President Trump for once did something right. But is this issue really so simple? I will argue here that support of Rojava, and dismay at the abrupt withdrawal of troops on the direct demand of Turkish President and de facto dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is not at all a matter of “support” of a U.S. military presence.

Kurds, Assyrians, and Arabs demonstrate against the Assad government in the city of Qamişlo (photo via KurdWatch.org)

Let’s think about World War II for a moment. Was supporting the war against Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist régimes simply a matter of “supporting” U.S. troops? The victory over fascism likely could not have been won without the herculean effort of the Soviet Union once it overcame the initial bungling of Josef Stalin and the second-rate commanders he had put in charge of the Red Army after purging most of the best generals. To say that the Soviet Union won World War II is no way is meant to denigrate or downplay the huge sacrifices borne by the Western allies. That Western effort was supported by communists and most other Leftists. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) were staunch supporters of the U.S. war effort — party members well understood what was at stake.

In contrast, the main U.S. Trotskyist party, the Socialist Workers Party, dismissed the war as an inter-imperialist dispute. That may have been so, but was that the moment to make a fetish of pacifism or of an unwillingness to be involved in any way in a capitalist fight? We need only think of what would have happened had Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo triumphed in the war to answer that question. Backing the war effort was the only rational choice any Leftist not blinded by rigid ideology could have made. It is no contradiction to point out the CPUSA took the correct approach even for someone, like myself, who is generally strongly critical of the party.

Shouldn’t we listen to the Kurds?

To bring us back to the present controversy, we might ask: What do the Kurds want? The Syrian Kurds, surrounded by hostile forces waiting for the opportunity to crush their socialist experiment, made a realpolitik decision in accepting the presence of U.S. troops, and a limited number of French and British troops. The dominant party in Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is strongly affiliated with the leading party of Turkey’s Kurds, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been locked in a decades-long struggle with successive Turkish governments.

The preceding sentence is something of a euphemism. It would be more accurate to say that the Turkish government has waged an unrelenting war against the Kurdish people. Ankara has long denied the existence of the Kurdish people, banning their language, publications, holidays and cultural expressions, and pursuing a relentless campaign of forced resettlement intended to dilute their numbers in southeast Turkey. Uprisings have been met with arrests, torture, bombings, military assaults, the razing of villages and declarations of martial law. Hundreds of thousands have been arrested, tortured, forcibly displaced or killed. Turkish governments, including that of President Erdoğan, do not distinguish between “Kurd” and “terrorist.”

The PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been held in solitary confinement since his abduction in Kenya in 1999, an abduction assisted by the U.S. Successive U.S. governments have capitulated to Turkey by falsely labeling the PKK a “terrorist” organization and have actively assisted in the suppression of Turkish Kurds. Can it really be possible that Syrian Kurds are somehow unaware of all this? Obviously not.

YPJ fighter helping maintain a position against Islamic State (photo by BijiKurdistan)

Surrounded and blockaded by Turkey, an oppressive Syrian government, Islamic State terrorists and a corrupt Iraqi Kurdistan government in alliance with Turkey, the Syrian Kurds of Rojava have made a series of realpolitik choices, one of which is to accept a U.S. military presence in the territory to prevent Turkey from invading. That in the wake of the announced U.S. withdrawal Rojava authorities have asked the Syrian army to move into position to provide a new buffer against Turkey — despite the fact the Assad father and son régimes have been relentlessly repressive against them — is another difficult decision made by a people who are surrounded by enemies.

To ignore what the Kurdish people, in attempting to build a socialist, egalitarian society, have to say are acts of Western chauvinism. It is hardly reasonable to see the Syrian Kurds as “naïve” or “puppets” of the U.S. as if they are incapable of understanding their own experiences. And Turkey’s invasion of Rojava’s Afrin district, which was disconnected from the rest of Rojava, resulting in massive ethnic cleansing, should make clear the dangers of further Turkish invasions.

The Kurdistan National Congress, an alliance of Kurdish parties, civil society organizations and exile groups, issued a communiqué that said, as its first point, “The coalition forces must not leave North and East Syria/Rojava.” The news site Rudaw reports that Islamic State has gone on the offensive since President Trump acquiesced to President Erdoğan’s demand, and quotes a spokesperson for the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces as saying that “More than four million are exposed to the danger of massive displacement, escaping from possible genocide,” noting the example of Turkey’s brutal invasion of Afrin.

Here’s what someone on the ground in Rojava has to say:

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is not an ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ measure. It will not bring the conflict in Syria to an end. On the contrary, Trump is effectively giving Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan the go-ahead to invade Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing against the people who have done much of the fighting and dying to halt the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). This is a deal between strongmen to exterminate the social experiment in Rojava and consolidate authoritarian nationalist politics from Washington, DC to Istanbul and Kobane. … There’s a lot of confusion about this, with supposed anti-war and ‘anti-imperialist’ activists like Medea Benjamin endorsing Donald Trump’s decision, blithely putting the stamp of ‘peace’ on an impending bloodbath and telling the victims that they should have known better. It makes no sense to blame people here in Rojava for depending on the United States when neither Medea Benjamin nor anyone like her has done anything to offer them any sort of alternative.”

None of this means we should forget for a moment the role of the United States in destroying attempts to build socialism, or mere attempts to challenge U.S. hegemony even where capitalist relations are not seriously threatened. Certainly there is no prospect of a U.S. government supporting socialism in Rojava; experiments in building societies considerably less radical than that of Rojava have been mercilessly crushed by the U.S. using every means at its disposal. That the project of Rojava, for now, has been helped by the presence of U.S. troops is an unintentional byproduct of the unsuccessful U.S. effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. At the same time of the expected pullout from Rojava, U.S. troops will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are unambiguously occupiers.

Assad brutality in the service of neoliberalism

Even if the analysis is overly mechanical, cheering the withdrawal of troops is understandable, given the imperialist history of U.S. aggression. Less understandable is support for the bloodthirsty Assad regime. “The enemy of what I oppose is a friend” is a reductionist, and often futile, way of thinking. The Ba’ath regime of Hafez and Bashar Assad have a long history of murderous rampages against Syrians. The United Nations Human Rights Council reports “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights.” Amnesty International reports that “As many as 13,000 prisoners from Saydnaya Military Prison were extrajudicially executed in night-time mass hangings between 2011 and 2015. The victims were overwhelmingly civilians perceived to oppose the government and were executed after being held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance.”

Enforced monoculture agriculture was imposed on the Kurdish regions of Syria by the Ba’ath régime, with no economic development allowed. These areas were intentionally kept undeveloped under a policy of “Arabization” against Kurds and the other minority groups of the areas now comprising Rojava. Kurds were routinely forcibly removed from their farm lands and other properties, with Arabs settled in their place. Nor should the Assad family rule be seen in as any way as progressive. Neoliberal policies and increasingly anti-labor policies have been imposed. The spark that ignited the civil war was the drought that struck Syria beginning in 2006, a disaster deepened by poor water management and corruption.

Political scientists Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zinti, in the introduction to Syria from Reform to Revolt, Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations, provide a concise summary of Assad neoliberalism. (The following two paragraphs are summarized from their introduction.)

Hafez al-Assad became dictator, eliminating Ba’athist rivals, in 1970. He “constructed a presidential system above party and army” staffed with relatives, close associates and others from his Alawite minority, according to professors Hinnebusch and Zinti. “[T]he party turned from an ideological movement into institutionalized clientalism” with corruption that undermined development. In turn, Alawite domination bred resentment on the part of the Sunni majority, and a network of secret police and elite military units, allowed to be above the law, kept the regime secure. Over the course of the 1990s, widespread privatization drastically shrank the state sector, which earned Assad the support of Syria’s bourgeoisie.

Upon Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar was installed as president. Bashar al-Assad sought to continue opening Syria’s economy to foreign capital. In order to accomplish that, he needed to sideline his father’s old guard and consolidate his power. He did, but by doing so he weakened the régime and its connections to its base. He also altered the régime’s social base, basing his rule on technocrats and businessmen who supported his economic reforms and concomitant disciplining of the working class. Syria’s public sector was run down, social services reduced, an already weak labor law further weakened and taxation became regressive, enabling new private banks and businesses to reap big incomes.

Not exactly friends of the working class, and a strong contrast to the system of “democratic confederalism” as the Rojava economic and political system is known.

Building political democracy through communes

Clandestine organizing had been conducted among Syrian Kurds since a 2004 massacre of Kurds by the Assad régime; much of this organizing was done by women because they could move more openly then men under the close watch of the régime. Kurds were supportive of the rebels when the civil war began, but withdrew from cooperation as the opposition became increasingly Islamized and unresponsive to Kurd demands for cultural recognition. Meanwhile, as the uprising began, Kurdish self-protection militias were formed in secret with clandestine stocks of weapons. The drive for freedom from Assad’s terror began on the night of July 18, 2012, when the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) took control of the roads leading into Kobani and, inside the city, people began to take over government buildings.

What the Syrian Kurds have created in the territory known as Rojava is a political system based on neighborhood communes and an economic system based on cooperatives. (“Rojava” is the Kurdish word for “west,” denoting that the Syrian portion of their traditional lands is “West Kurdistan.”) The inspiration for their system is Murray Bookchin’s concept of a federation of independent communities known as “libertarian municipalism” or “communalism.” But democratic confederalism is a syncretic philosophy, influenced by theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Benedict Anderson and Antonio Gramsci in addition to Mr. Bookchin but rooted in Kurdish history and culture.

Political organization in Rojava consists of two parallel structures. The older and more established is the system of communes and councils, which are direct-participation bodies. The other structure, resembling a traditional government, is the Democratic-Autonomous Administration, which is more of a representative body, although one that includes seats for all parties and multiple social organizations.

The commune is the basic unit of self-government, the base of the council system. A commune comprises the households of a few streets within a city or village, usually 30 to 400 households. Above the commune level are community people’s councils comprising a city neighborhood or a village. The next level up are the district councils, consisting of a city and surrounding villages. The top of the four levels is the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, which elects an executive body on which about three dozen people sit. The top level theoretically coordinates decisions for all of Rojava.

Integrated within the four-level council system are seven commissions — defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice and ideology — and a women’s council. These committees and women’s councils exist at all four levels. In turn commissions at local levels coordinate their work with commissions in adjacent areas. There is also an additional commission, health, responsible for coordinating access to health care (regardless of ability to pay) and maintaining hospitals, in which medical professionals fully participate. Except for the women’s councils, all bodies have male and female co-leaders.

At least 40 percent of the attendees must be women in order for a commune decision to be binding. That quota reflects that women’s liberation is central to the Rojava project on the basis that the oppression of women at the hands of men has to be completely eliminated for any egalitarian society to be born. Manifestations of sexism, including male violence against women, have not magically disappeared. These may now be socially unacceptable, and more likely to be kept behind closed doors, but the system of women’s councils attached to the communes, and councils at higher levels, and the self-organization of women, has at a minimum put an end to the isolation that enabled the toleration of sexist behavior and allowed other social problems to fester.

A system of women’s houses provides spaces for women to discuss their issues. These centers also offer courses on computers, language, sewing, first aid, culture and art, as well as providing assistance against social sexism. As with peace committees that seek to find a solution rather than mete out punishments in adjudicating conflicts, the first approach when dealing with violence or other issues of sexism is to effect a change in behavior. One manifestation of putting these beliefs into action is the creation of women’s militias, which have played leading roles in battlefield victories over Islamic State.

Building a cooperative economy based on human need

The basis of Rojava’s economy are cooperatives. The long-term goal is to establish an economy based on human need, environmentalism and equality, distinctly different from capitalism. Such an economy can hardly be established overnight, so although assistance is provided to cooperatives, which are rapidly increasing in number, private capital and markets still exist. Nor has any attempt to expropriate large private landholdings been attempted or contemplated.

Given the intentional under-development of the region under the Assad family régime, the resulting lack of industry and the civil-war inability to import machinery or much else, and the necessity of becoming as food self-sufficient as possible due to the blockade, Rojava’s cooperatives are primarily in the agricultural sector. There is also the necessity of reducing unemployment, and the organization of communes is seen as the speediest route to that social goal as well.

The practitioners of democratic confederalism say they reject both capitalism and the Soviet model of state ownership. They say they represent a third way, embodied in the idea that self-management in the workplace goes with self-management in politics and administration. Since their liberation from the highly repressive Assad régime, Rojava agriculture has become far more diversified, and price controls were imposed.

The city of Qamishli in Syrian Kurdistan (photo by Arab Salsa)

Cooperative enterprises are not intended to be competitive against one another. Cooperatives are required to be connected to the council system; independence is not allowed. Cooperatives work through the economics commissions to meet social need and in many cases their leadership is elected by the communes. The intention is to form cooperatives in all sectors of the economy. But basic necessities such as water, land and energy are intended to be fully socialized, with some arguing that these should be made available free of charge. Because the economy will retain some capitalist elements for some time, safeguards are seen as necessary to ensure that cooperatives don’t become too large and begin to behave like private enterprises.

We need not indulge in hagiography. There are, naturally, problems and contradictions. Private ownership of the means of production is enshrined in documents espousing socialism and equality, and large private landholdings, with attendant social relations, will be untouched. It is hardly reasonable to expect that a brand new economy can be established overnight, much less in a region forced to divert resources to military defense. Nonetheless, capitalists expect as much profit as can be squeezed out of their operations, an expectation decidedly at odds with goals of “equality and environmental sustainability.” In essence, what is being created is a mixed economy, and the history of mixed economies is fraught with difficulties. Another issue is that Rojava’s authorities, connected with the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD), can be heavy-handed, including the closing of the offices of the opposition Kurdish National Council on questionable legal grounds.

Nonetheless, what is being created in northern Syria is a remarkable experiment in economic and political democracy — not only Kurds but other minority groups and Arabs consciously working toward socialism. Why shouldn’t this be supported? The authors of the book Revolution in Rojava, supporters of the project and one of whom fought in the women’s militia, argue that the idea that Rojava’s acceptance of Western aid is a “betrayal” is “naïve,” drawing parallels with Republican Spain of the 1930s. Describing Rojava as an “anti-fascist project,” they note that the capitalist West turned its back on the Spanish Revolution, allowing fascism to triumph.

In the forward to the same book, David Graeber, careful to differentiate the targets of his critique from those who oppose the global dominance of North American militarism, argues:

“What I am speaking of here instead is the feeling that foiling imperial designs — or avoiding any appearance of even appearing to be on the ‘same side’ as an imperialist in any context — should always take priority over anything else. This attitude only makes sense if you’ve secretly decided that real revolutions are impossible. Because surely, if one actually felt that a genuine popular revolution was occurring, say, in the [Rojava] city of Kobanî and that its success could be a beacon and example to the world, one would also not hold that it is better for those revolutionaries to be massacred by genocidal fascists than for a bunch of white intellectuals to sully the purity of their reputations by suggesting that US imperial forces already conducting airstrikes in the region might wish to direct their attention to the fascists’ tanks. Yet, astoundingly, this was the position that a very large number of self-professed ‘radicals’ actually did take.”

It does seem quite reasonable to hope for a socialist experiment to avoid being destroyed by Islamic State fascism, Turkish ultra-nationalism or Syrian absolutism rather than clinging to dogmatism.

The problem is fascists, not those who stand up to them

The ongoing debate of recent weeks around how, or if, to confront demonstrations of white supremacists and fascists is the latest manifestation of arguments the Left and liberals have been having for many years. For this is not simply a question of tactics but incorporates broader ideas of how we conceptualize the threat from the extreme Right.

For decades, the liberal “solution” to fascists, including marches by undisguised neo-Nazis, has traditionally been to go to the other side of town, pray and hope they go away. Critiques of antifa and other groups who courageously stood up to the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, are variations on that pacifist theme. We need do no more than refer to Cornel West’s support of “the anti-fascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.”

Raleigh-Durham IWW stands with clergy at the stairs to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia (photo by Anthony Crider)

The problem with liberal-pacifist responses is that, if adopted, the only result would be to embolden the fascists. The white-nationalist gangs behind the Charlottesville rally unmistakably intended to intimidate. Remember that another demonstration was scheduled for Boston the following weekend and several others were planned. Instead, because they were confronted in Charlottesville, their Boston rally became a fiasco for them and appearances in other locations were called off. Communities showed what they think of them. The result for speaks for itself.

The foremost problem with liberal-pacifist responses is that it tells people they have no right to defend themselves. That should be rejected, emphatically. The violence of hate-mongers like those carrying the torches in Charlottesville and any violence that is used in defense by people who have no choice but to physically defend themselves has no equivalence. Should people have just stood there and allowed violence to be perpetrated against them and allow gangs of white supremacists and fascists to intimidate the majority — the vast majority — into silence? Do we really need to ponder this question?

Sufficient numbers in themselves stop fascists

Fighting back needn’t be physical, and generally does not need to be if there are sufficient counter-forces. I’ll draw here on two examples from late 1990s in New York City.

In the first example, a small band of neo-Nazis were running loose on Staten Island, the city’s right-wing outpost situated at a distance from the rest of the city. There were five of them, apparently inspired by a truly loathsome “novel” called The Turner Diaries, which features scenes of vast groups of people hung by Nazis during a race war. (To give you an idea of the demographics there, Donald Trump won Staten Island even though he received only 18 percent of the overall New York City presidential vote.)

A small group that I was then a member in, New York Workers Against Fascism, organized a coalition to confront the neo-Nazis. It was quickly decided to organize a series of peaceful demonstrations on the belief that a violent response would only alienate the community we were attempting to rally against the neo-Nazis. At one rally, in a park, the neo-Nazis actually showed up in uniform, across a busy street, and started giving Hitler salutes while shouting “white power.” They were simultaneously pathetic and representative of a potentially highly dangerous trend. In this instance, we had to hold back a group of anarchists from Love and Rage who wanted to charge, one of whom angrily told me “I came here to smash fascists.” I answered that today we were going to smash them peacefully. Conceding to the coalition’s consensus, he didn’t charge although he remained angry. Tactics had to be a serious consideration here.

Note the coalition did not go to another part of the island and pray the neo-Nazis would go away. In this case, a confrontation needed to be non-violent, although we did have some baseball bats hidden in case we were attacked. Fortunately, they stayed hidden as the coalition significantly out-numbered the neo-Nazis.

A few years later, a Ku Klux Klan group decided to have a rally in Manhattan. Setting aside the idiocy of them thinking they could get a foothold in a place like New York City (fascists aren’t the brightest bulbs, to put it mildly), one can’t help but wonder how they thought they could get any reception other than the one they got. Their appearance was scheduled for Foley Square, a downtown location with wide spaces. Eight of them showed up, guarded by hundreds of police officers and surrounded and heckled by about 80,000 counter-demonstrators. Yes, we outnumbered them 10,000 to one! The Klan ended its event early and were said to have received an escort by the police to the Holland Tunnel, the nearest exit from the city.

Similarly, the white supremacists were badly outnumbered in Boston last month and had to be protected from the people of Boston by rings of police and metal barricades. They had to slink home. They were successfully confronted. Not by praying they would go away but by so out-numbering them that they had to concede defeat and realize how unpopular their racism and misogyny is, even if they are highly unlikely to admit to themselves.

Communities are entitled to defend themselves

Questions of tactics, based on the immediate situation, the size of the forces on the two sides and the community being defended and/or reached out to, should predominate. Should we condemn antifa for a physical defense in light of the other outcomes discussed here? Emphatically no. The situation in Charlottesville called for such a defense, as Professor West directly said. The next time a community needs to defend against physical jeopardy, we can only hope there will be people ready to provide it.

Let’s not forget what fascists stand for. They stand not simply for hate, but for supremacy of one group over another, violence to enforce such supremacy and ultimately the annihilation of demonized peoples and groups. We all understand what fascism led to Nazi Germany.

Boston Free Speech rally counter-protesters on August 19, 2017 (photo by GorillaWarfare)

The Holocaust should not be out of our minds when fascists carrying torches march in formation chanting “Jews will not replace us.” When we think about where fantasies of white supremacy lead, such as in the apartheid systems of South Africa and the United States South of the pre-civil rights era, and in slavery, ideologies of white supremacy should not be taken lightly. When we see the results of misogyny globally, especially but far from only in régimes run by religious fundamentalists, talk of making women subordinate to men can’t be laughed off as nothing but the fantasy of losers who can’t get a girlfriend.

Liberals who don’t want to confront these threats but insist on an absolutist free-speech position, even to the point of saying we should engage with fascists, are playing with fire. You don’t “debate” people who deliver their message only with violence. You don’t debate whether one racial group if superior to another. You don’t debate whether we should adopt social forms reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. You don’t debate whether the Holocaust happened or if there is an international Jewish conspiracy. Just as the proverbial “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater” puts limits on free speech, advocating the annihilation of people (always conveniently different) is outside any reasonable definition of free speech. Yes, that means “no platform for fascists” — we shouldn’t apologize for such a stance, which is what the non-violent confrontations recounted above amount to.

All working people are ultimately threatened by fascist ideologies. Beyond all the reasons already discussed (more than sufficient in themselves), there is the question of who fascist movements serve. That there is no immediate danger of a fascist takeover in the United States (or almost any other global North country, Hungary and Poland excepted) does not mean we should ignore the class nature of fascism.

Who would a dictatorship serve?

As always, we should carefully distinguish between right-wing demagogues like Donald Trump (whose election is ultimately a product of decades of routine Republican Party rhetoric) and his ability to actually implement fascist rule. Once again, it might be best to see the Trump phenomenon as constituting the seeds for a potential fascist movement rather than a fully fledged fascism. That ought to be scary enough, and enough for all of us to make a stand against it. To say this is not to ignore the glaring connections between the Trump administration and white supremacists and the so-called “alt-right” (let’s retire that silly term and just call them fascists or fascist wannabes), but rather to note that most of the U.S. ruling class — industrialists and financiers — backed Hillary Clinton and not President Trump in the 2016 election.

That matters, because at its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements, although not sufficient in themselves.

Despite national differences that result in major variations in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter what a fascist movement’s rhetoric contains, and is invariably the beneficiary. For even if it is intended to benefit them, these big businessmen are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. After using violent militias to gain power, those militias are quickly sidelined.

Hitler would never have reached power without significant material support from German industrialists. German industrialists and aristocrats, and the conservative politicians who served them, thought they could control Hitler if they put him in government. They couldn’t, but profited enormously as wages for German workers declined sharply and were enforced by labor codes that even a Nazi paper once said were “reminiscent of penal codes.” It was little different in Mussolini’s Spain or Franco’s Spain or Pinochet’s Chile.

Think it can’t happen in your country? It can. Any country dominated by the capitalist system is at risk of fascism because fascism is capitalism with all the democratic veneers stripped away, when capitalists come to believe they can’t continue to rule and maintain profits any other way. That fascist groups, even the Nazi Party, start out as small bands of deluded misfits lashing out at scapegoats because they don’t have the intellectual capacity to understand the world they live in, in no way alters this picture.

Better to definitively defeat fascist grouplets now, before they have any chance of becoming tools. Anti-fascist organizers are doing humanity a service, whether peacefully counter-demonstrating or using more militant tactics such as those of antifa.

No country on Earth fully safeguards labor rights

There is no country on Earth in which violations of labor rights do not occur. The best rating is for those which are merely “irregular violators of rights,” and only 12 countries managed that.

The International Trade Union Confederation, in its annual Global Rights Index report on the state of labor around the world, has once again provided sobering news. Sixty percent of countries exclude whole categories of workers from labor law, the ITUC report says, indicative that “corporate interests are being put ahead of the interests of working people in the global economy.” The ITUC’s general secretary, Sharan Burrow, said:

“Denying workers protection under labour laws creates a hidden workforce, where governments and companies refuse to take responsibility, especially for migrant workers, domestic workers and those on short term contracts. In too many countries, fundamental democratic rights are being undermined by corporate interests.”

Among the key findings of the report:

  • More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers their right to strike.
  • More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining,
  • Eighty-four countries exclude groups of workers from labor law.
  • The number of countries in which workers are exposed to physical violence and threats increased to 59 countries from 52 a year earlier.
  • Unionists were murdered in 11 countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Mauritania, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines and Venezuela.

International labor standards

To assess the state of global labor, the International Trade Union Confederation, “a confederation” of national trade unions, sends questionnaires to its affiliates in 161 countries and territories representing 176 million workers, with the intention of covering as many aspects of the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike as possible. The information collected is then used to assess whether a given country meets standards set by the International Labour Organization.

These standards are examined by answering “yes” or “no” to 97 indicators arranged in five categories: Fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike. The reason for a binary “yes” or “no” rather than a gradated scale is because “this method reduces the normative subjectivity of the analyst who carries out the coding,” the ITUC said. Further, because each of the 97 indicators is based on “universally binding obligations,” companies and government are required to meet them in full.

When the ITUC first carried out this survey, in 2014, the highest score attained was 43, meaning that no country had even half of its questions answered with a “yes.” In other words, every country in the world flunked.

For the 2017 report, the ITUC did not indicate the range of country scores, but followed its previous format of grouping countries into five tiers. The top tier, in which countries merely “irregular violate” labor rights, consists of 12 countries, which are marked in green on the map below. Eleven are found in Europe, and one in Latin America, Uruguay. (Yellow represents the second tier, followed by progressively darker shades of orange and red, the worst violators.)

ITUC map of labor rights. Green represents the highest-ranking countries; red the lowest.

The rankings are as follows:

  • 1. Irregular violations of rights: 12 countries including France, Germany and Sweden.
  • 2. Repeated violations of rights: 21 countries including Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
  • 3. Regular violations of rights: 26 countries including Australia and Chile.
  • 4. Systematic violations of rights: 34 countries including Brazil, Britain and the United States.
  • 5. No guarantee of rights: 35 countries including India, Mexico and the Philippines.
  • 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 11 countries including Burundi, Palestine and Syria.

U.S., Britain systematic violators of labor rights

The United States was also rated a “four” in 2014, while Britain has slipped from being ranked a “three” then. Once again, that means the U.S. and U.K. commit “systematic violations” of labor rights — so much for those governments’ endless attempts to assert moral authority over the rest of the world. The Trump and May governments are not likely to improve upon these rankings. In regards to U.S. deficiencies, the ITUC report says:

“Far from consulting with unions regarding labour law and policy, some states and U.S. politicians have taken deliberate steps to roll back workers’ collective bargaining rights. … The National Labour Relations Act (NLRA) and judicial decisions interpreting the law prohibit workers from engaging in sitdown strikes, partial strikes and secondary boycotts, and impose other restrictions on organisational or recognitional strikes.”

Embarrassingly for a country governed by a party calling itself a “Coalition of the Radical Left,” Greece is among the countries with a ranking of “five.” This ranking is due to harsh restrictions on collective bargaining that were implemented beginning in 2010 through several laws on orders of the “troika” — the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — which led to “a significant erosion” of labor rights.

Ironically, the Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, says that collective bargaining is a “best practice” of the European Union, but the EU continues to block any attempt by the Syriza government to restore labor protections. A proposed law to re-establish collective bargaining was not submitted to the Greek parliament because of troika disapproval.

A sobering reminder of what capitalism offers working people: A race to the bottom and more exploitation. Surely, the world can do better.