/ 11 January 2019

Halt the capitalist crisis gripping the world

Divisive: Activists such as Karl Marx
Divisive: Activists such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin (above) recognised unity is the way to confront capitalism. (John Launois/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images, Painting by Isaak Brodsky [1929])

Capital has always aspired to a global reach. 

All the talk about globalisation in the 1990s often neglected to acknowledge that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had placed the globalising drive of capital at the centre of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. They observed: “The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known.”

Capital emerged from the enclosure of common lands in Europe, and then the planet-wide devastation of colonialism and enslavement. The drive for capitalist accumulation has always been anti-woman and racial in the sense that there is a gendered and racial logic to how genocide, dispossession and exploitation have been meted out across the planet. It continues to be gendered and racialised today. A car manufactured in South Africa does not have the same safety features as a car manufactured in Europe. A rock drill operator in South Africa is paid a fraction of what a rock drill operator earns in Australia. The Congo is plundered in a way that would be unthinkable in Europe. And women workers, including unwaged women workers in homes, suffer the most.

In their remarkable book, The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker show that from the beginning the European bourgeoisie was confronted with sustained global opposition from below, in which the dispossessed and exploited of Europe, Africa and the Americas frequently combined to ferment rebellion. When the Haitian revolution finally defeated the great slave-holding European powers in 1804, the Polish mercenaries who had fought alongside the slave armies were counted as black in the new republic.

To reduce a similar threat of alliances among the oppressed, colonial power worked to segment the working class by gender and race, offering the white male working class a larger stake in the system. The nation state, as a construct of capitalism, has always been used to divide the working class of the world. From the beginning, the workers’ movement insisted on internationalism as a non-negotiable point of departure. It was taken for granted that, as Marx and Engels had proclaimed in The Communist Manifesto, “the working men have no country” and that the historical task of the working-class movement was to ensure that the “Workers of the World Unite”.

This call to unite the global working class was further cemented on Wednesday, September  28 1864. Various socialist, communist, anarchist and trade unions largely representing the European working-class gathered in St Martins Hall in London and established the International Workingmen’s Association. This became known as the First International. In 1871 the Paris Commune, a working-class insurrection that governed Paris for 72 days, elected a number of foreigners to leading positions. Jaroslaw Dombrowski, a Pole, was a leading general. Marx described the commune as “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour”.

By 1907, under the shadow of a looming intra-European war, internationalism was the fundamental principle for socialist organisations in general and communists in particular. For key activists and thinkers of the period such as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Vladimir Lenin, it was vital that the coming war had to be opposed as the working class do not own any national interest and would be mere fodder in the war. Luxemburg and Lenin also did vital work in theorising the ways in which capitalism and imperialism were entwined.

Socialists and communists were not able to avert the catastrophe of World War I, with its industrialised slaughter. But the success of the October 1917 Russian Revolution ignited huge enthusiasm across the world in the struggle against colonialism, capitalism and imperialism. After the Cuban Revolution, progressive internationalism would come to play a significant role in our own liberation and the liberation of the African continent more widely.

By the 1930s, fascism, a form of national socialism organised around the idea of race, was on the march across much of Europe. It would continue to fester in parts of southern Europe and Latin America more than 50 years later. 

Today, as a result of the prolonged, deep systemic and structural crisis of capitalism we see that from India to Brazil, Hungary and the United States new forces that are deeply authoritarian, fundamentally committed to domination through race or caste, and often termed fascist, have captured state power.

We are in a global crisis of capitalism in which racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are gaining ground. In much of the West Islamophobia has often come to replace anti-Semitism as a fundamental organising principle for the forces of reaction.

It is true that the socialists have not always held true to internationalism. Many socialist leaders and organisations have betrayed the historic mission of socialism and succumbed to nationalism, racism, sexism and casteism.

But, in this dangerous period of capitalist crisis it is vital that the socialists hold a principled line and reject all forms of racism, sexism and xenophobia.

Any worker leader or communist worth their salt must understand that capitalism is global, that this is the imperialist age of capitalism, and that the oppression and exploitation of the working class is global. The historical task in this crisis, is to build the kind of internationalism that can effectively confront capitalism and imperialism.

In South Africa, we face many of the same challenges that have emerged elsewhere around the world. 

Populist right-wing demagogues in political parties and trade unions appeal to people’s fears and resentments and fan racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. They do not explain the true sources and causes of the suffering of the working class and therefore they do not articulate genuine solutions to the crisis of capitalism and imperialism. With brazen lies, they actively divide the working class along race, gender, nationality and religion.

The crass xenophobia of a figure such as Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba is positively Trumpian in its crudity. And Mashaba is not an isolated case. Xenophobia has festered in the Democratic Alliance, in the Economic Freedom Fighters and in many organisations in the country. 

The anti-Islamic texture that is now common to xenophobic sentiment in Europe, Australia and the US has also made itself felt here. In 2015 hundreds of migrant shopkeepers were driven out of Grahamstown, as Makanda was then known. Muslims were explicitly and specifically targeted.

In this context, the disturbingly anti-internationalist, xenophobic and Islamophobic statements made by South African Federation of Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi on Twitter recently are a matter of concern. Of course, we need to take the staggering scale of unemployment and exploitation in South Africa seriously. But this requires us to take capitalist and imperialist exploitation seriously, and to take a principled position against the reactionary ideologies advanced by Vavi in his tweets.

Just as a Mexican migrant is not responsible for the suffering of the working class in the US, a shopkeeper from Somalia or Pakistan is not the cause of the suffering of the working class in South Africa. On the contrary, it is capitalism and imperialism that have devastated the working class in Mexico, Somalia, Pakistan and South Africa, and now in the US too.

In this period of crisis, in which more and more countries are turning to deeply authoritarian and reactionary forms of politics, the crystalline clarity of Lenin’s words, written in the midst of another crisis almost a century ago, offers moral and political clarity: “I must argue, not from the point of view of ‘my’ country (for that is the argument of a wretched, stupid, petit-bourgeois nationalist who does not realise that he is only a plaything in the hands of the imperialist bourgeoisie), but from the point of view of my share in the preparation, in the propaganda, and in the acceleration of the world proletarian revolution.”

Dr Vashna Jagarnath, PhD, is the strategic support for Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party in the Office of the General Secretary of Numsa, senior researcher associate for the Centre of Social Change at the University of Johannesburg and the co-ordinator for Tricontinental Institute for Social Research (South Africa)