By Kevin Henry
Covid 19 has thrown every aspect of society into disarray. In the previous part of this article we looked at five things that the covid19 crisis tells us about capitalism today. In this part we will look at how it shows a socialist alternative can and needs to be built.
- “All that is solid turns to air”
These words were written by Marx and Engels in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto but are easily applied to the current situation. In recent days and weeks we have seen measures, previously branded impossible by the establishment, implemented at the drop of a hat.. In the south of Ireland, during the recent election the two establishment parties said rent freezes were unconstitutional; now they have happened. For years Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed by the Tory press for calling for railways to be brought into public ownership; now the Tories have been forced to implement their own variation of that. The European Union’s fiscal rules were used in country after country to push for more austerity; now they are suspended.
One commentator in the Irish Times stated that the policies the Tories have been forced to implement would previously only be “found in the manifestos of revolutionary socialist parties.”. While a prominent article in the Tory Telegraph praised Boris, saying “to avert socialism, we must briefly become socialists.”
These are not socialist measures. The reason they have been implemented is to stabilise the capitalist system at this unprecedented time. As another prominent political commentator put it the Tories and other capitalist governments were “forced to decide between Tory doctrine and food riots”. Nonetheless it is an important change in the situation- ideas such as there being no magic money tree seem quaint when governments are forced to come up with billions and even trillions in stimulus packages. But the crisis does also demonstrate how genuinely socialist policies and ideas are rooted in reality as will explore the next few reasons you should be a socialist..
- Workers bring society to a halt
As our comrade and Seattle socialist councillor, Kshama Sawant, put it in Teen Vogue “we should always remember that it was ordinary workers, not billionaires or CEOs, who have been essential in this pandemic. The crisis has ruthlessly exposed the prettified narratives about capitalism. Karl Marx was right: It is the working class that creates value in this economy, while the bosses take the lion’s share for themselves”. This crisis has exposed the key role played by workers in our society everyday. Not just our health workers but cleaners, retail workers, refuse collectors and countless others who until recently were dismissed as “unskilled” workers but who are now proven to be essential.
Similarly the crisis has demonstrated an essential truth for Marxists: workers are ultimately the most powerful force in society and have the capacity to bring society to a halt. It is a fact that a large section of workers not working is what has brought large sections of the economy to a standstill-not what is happening in stock exchanges or boardrooms.] At times this was done against the decision of management. Take the inspiring example of 1,000 workers at the Moy Park site in Portadown who walked out in protest against unsafe working conditions. In factories across Italy and the Spanish State workers took strike action to shut non-essential work at the height of the pandemic in some of the most affected areas.
Workers will draw lessons from this as one Amazon workers leader, fired by the world’s richest man for organising walkouts to protect his fellow workers, wrote in the Guardian: “Mr Bezos, my message is simple. I don’t give a damn about your power. You think you’re powerful? We’re the ones that have the power. Without us working, what are you going to do? You’ll have no money. We have the power. We make money for you. Never forget that.”
- Workers and ordinary people should take the decisions
Ordinary people have demonstrated countless examples of ingenuity in the course of this crisis. Take the example of an engineer in a car factory in north London who with his family used a 3D printer to make visors and then convinced management at his factory to change production to make them. Or even more remarkably, the group of young volunteers in Italy who successfully used 3D printers to create much needed valves for ventilators for only $1 while a company was charging $11,000. But as ordinary people show ingenuity, capitalists seek to crush it – the response of the company who made the original valves was to threaten to sue the group!
More importantly there have been examples of workers collectively taking things into their own hands. Take the example of McDonald’s workers in Marseille who have occupied their restaurant and are using it as a base to distribute food to those struggling in the coronavirus pandemic. Or in the US where workers at a General Electric plant organised picketing, with proper social distancing, demanding the conversion of GE’s jet engine factories to make ventilators.
Socialists believe workers not only have the capacity to bring society to a halt but crucially that they have the capacity to run society in their interests. Put it this way, who would you trust to take the decision about when schools should start back – the teachers and local communities or the politicians who were too slow to shut them in the first place? Who do you trust to decide when construction sites open – workers on the site or those developers who kept working even after we were told to cease non-essential work? Who do you trust to decide what factories reopen and what they produce- those workers who know their jobs and how their skills and abilities could be adapted or those manufacturing bosses wanting to open even if it puts our lives at risk? Obviously for most people the answer in each instance must be the workers. We collectively and democratically should be making these decisions which would enable us to balance collective social need with health and safety.
However, under capitalism it is the bosses (or politicians who serve the interests of the bosses) who make these decisions. When a government is elected that does not do the bosses bidding they mobilise all forces against it. We do not live in a democratic society. Most of the decisions that affect our lives are not taken in parliament or at the cabinet table but at the table of major CEOs across the world.
Ultimately you cannot control what you do not own. Socialist demand the key sectors of the economy and the largest companies that dominate our economy – ‘the commanding heights’ be brought into public ownership and those resources being democratically decided over by workers and society as a whole not the super-rich. That way we can solve the major problems facing humanity, including the climate crisis. Workers, in our view, alongside experts, know how best to retool our economy and create new green jobs.
- We need workers’ unity and solidarity more than ever
This crisis has brought out the best and the worst in humanity. The worst can be seen in the willingness of the establishment to use the old methods of divide and rule in this crisis. A blatant example is Donald Trump, changing his speeches to refer to the “Coronavirus” as “the Chinese virus”. Closer to home the Tory newspaper the Daily Telegraph warns “China kids stay home!” and across the world we are seeing reports of increases in racist attacks.
But that is only one side of things; the other, more pronounced, factor is the willingness of ordinary people to step forward and offer solidarity. We see that in countless ways from the #ClapforCarers events to the springing up of “mutual support” groups in almost all working-class communities and importantly workers standing together in the workplace.
For the Socialist Party this is very important- it demonstrates that workers can overcome the issues that divide us. Vitally important is that the common misery of working class people will produce common struggle. When people take to their front door every Thursday at 8pm they are clapping for a multi-ethnic workforce and clapping for workers that are Protestant, Catholic and other. This does not mean ignoring issues that genuinely divide people but [rather] it’s about saying that working class people coming together in a spirit of solidarity and mutual respect cannot be divided by sectarian politics.
- Leadership matters!
Socialists, as stated above, have confidence in the power and capacity of working-class people to take on the running of society. As Marx put it “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class themselves.” At the same time the capitalist class have plenty of weapons at their disposal, from the state to the media. It is therefore essential that workers are organised. In that regard leadership is very important and so is the lack of leadership (or misleadership) of those in the leadership of the labour movement. Take the fact that the head of the TUC Francis O’Grady tweeted that the Tory chancellor had demonstrated “real leadership.” Similarly, ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer, who is unfortunately the new head of the British Labour Party commented that now was not the time to criticise the government over its slow handling of the Covid crisis despite 57% of people telling a new poll that the government did not act fast enough to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
During the previous crisis, the lack of decisive leadership in the trade unions and the movements that have developed stunted the development of a fightback and the development of an alternative during the years of austerity. Often workers were prepared to take action only for it not to be followed up with further actions. Socialist Party members in the unions have been at the forefront in arguing against trade union leaders who organised days of strike action to let off steam but did not organise a serious campaign of action. When a lead is given workers and young people show a great determination to fight back.
The experience of the last 100 years is that workers do fight back and there will always be mass revolutionary movements sweeping the world. Even before this crisis- revolutionary movements swept Hong Kong, Chile and Sudan to name only a few. What was lacking was a revolutionary organisation to bring these movements to their logical conclusion: confrontation with the capitalist state and a struggle for workers’ democracy. As the Africain proverb goes “tomorrow belong to those who prepare today,” The work of the Socialist Party is about organising those who want to fight for workers’ unity and socialist change. We do so by being involved in the struggles of workers and young people.
“Educate, Agitate, Organise” Now
If you agree with what we say in these two articles- what is stopping you from getting in touch to discuss with our members? There is no point being an armchair socialist. Even at a time of lockdown our members are organising a series of online meetings, including with our comrades in different countries, campaigning on the countless workers’ right issues and agitating against capitalism in the 21st century. By getting involved you can make a difference! Sign up today!