The following document was adopted by the ICL’s Eighth International Conference.
By any measure, the 30 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union were years of relative stability on the scale of world history. The period had its crises and bloody conflicts, but they were the exception rather than the norm and mild compared to the upheavals of the 20th century. Armed conflicts were of lower intensity, the living standards of millions improved and many parts of the world witnessed social liberalization. How was this possible in the wake of the destruction of the USSR, a catastrophic defeat for the international working class?
The imperialist ruling class and its sycophants proclaimed that these developments decisively proved the superiority of U.S. liberal capitalism over communism. What was the response from those claiming the Marxist mantle? The Communist Party of China (CPC) became the standard-bearer for economic globalization, cozying up to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and relegating socialism to purely ceremonial purposes. Many pro-Moscow Stalinists simply disintegrated. As for the Trotskyist groupings, they chased liberal movements against war, austerity and racism, unable to justify the need for a revolutionary party. While some “Marxists” continued to preach socialism for the future, none built a revolutionary opposition to liberal triumphalism.
Today the wind has left the sails of liberalism. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war marked a turning point in the world situation. Crisis is becoming the norm and stability the exception. As U.S. hegemony is threatened and all the factors which favored stability are unwinding, very few have the illusion that the road ahead will be smooth. While liberalism still has its defenders—not least in the workers movement—they are no longer confident and on the offensive but hysterical and reactive as they feel the ground melting under their feet. Liberalism now faces real challengers, from right- and left-wing populism, Islamism and Hindu nationalism to Chinese Stalinism. The liberals themselves are tearing each other apart over the criteria for political correctness and identity politics. But as the clouds gather and U.S. imperialism and its allies seek to regain the initiative, the vanguard of the proletariat remains disorganized and disoriented.
The fight to break the workers movement from opportunism, started by Lenin and continued by Trotsky, must be taken up once more, applied to the tasks and dynamics of today’s world. The Eighth International Conference of the ICL and this document seek to provide a foundation for this struggle through a critique of the post-Soviet period of liberal triumphalism and by outlining some basic elements of analysis and program for today’s new era characterized by the breakdown of U.S. hegemony. As the working class of the world faces disaster and conflict, more than ever there is an urgent need for a revolutionary international vanguard party capable of leading the working class to power.
I. Origins of the Unipolar World
The United States emerged from World War II as the undisputed leader of the capitalist world. Its domestic economy accounted for 50 percent of the global GDP. It held 80 percent of the world’s hard currency reserves, had the strongest military and was the world’s main creditor. It used this dominance to reshape the international order. The Bretton Woods system established the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency and a whole series of institutions were created (UN, IMF, World Bank, NATO) to enshrine U.S. dominance and lay the foundation of a liberal capitalist world order.
Despite the overwhelming economic power of the U.S., the USSR represented a major counterweight. The Red Army was a formidable force and its control extended over all of East Europe. Despite Stalin’s attempts at securing a lasting agreement with U.S. imperialism, no deal was possible. The very existence and strength of the Soviet Union represented a challenge to American capitalism’s domination. Around the world, anti-colonial struggles were in full swing and anti-imperialist forces looked to the USSR for political and military support. The victorious 1949 Chinese Revolution further increased the weight of the non-capitalist world, creating hysteria and panic in the U.S. The world was effectively divided into two competing spheres of influence representing two rival social systems.
As the other imperialist powers rebuilt themselves and the U.S. engaged in one anti-Communist military adventure after another, the first clear signs of overextension appeared. The U.S. defeat in Vietnam was a turning point, opening a period of economic and political turmoil at home and abroad. In the early 1970s there were strong reasons to believe that the so-called “American Century” was facing an early demise. However, the revolutionary openings of the late 1960s and early ’70s—France (’68), Czechoslovakia (’68), Quebec (’72), Chile (’70-73), Portugal (’74-75), Spain (’75-76)—all ended in defeat. By ensuring these defeats, the opportunist leadership of the working class provided imperialism with the necessary room to stabilize. By the late ’70s and early ’80s it was back on the offensive, marking the start of the neoliberal era of privatization and economic liberalization. In 1981 Reagan dealt a decisive defeat to the U.S. working class by crushing the PATCO air traffic controllers strike. This was followed by further defeats for the international working class, notably that of the British miners in 1985. In this period ever more pressure was exerted on the USSR, with the Cold War hiked up to new heights and the U.S. exploiting the Sino-Soviet split through its anti-Soviet alliance with China.
By the end of the ’80s, the USSR and the Eastern bloc were in deep economic and political distress. The retreat of the Red Army from Afghanistan and the counterrevolutionary victory of Solidarność in Poland further demoralized the ruling bureaucracy in Moscow. After Moscow sold out the DDR (East Germany) and acceded to German reunification, it wasn’t long before it sold out the Soviet Union itself. The pressures of world imperialism combined with working-class demoralization from decades of Stalinist treachery led to the final liquidation of the gains of the October Revolution. By 1991 the international balance of class forces had decisively shifted in favor of imperialism at the expense of the working class and oppressed of the world.
II. Reactionary Character of the Post-Soviet Period
Ultra-Imperialism, Made in the USA
With the collapse of the USSR, the world order was no longer defined by the conflict of two social systems but by the hegemony of the United States. There existed no individual country or group of countries that could rival the U.S. Its GDP was almost twice that of its closest rival, Japan. It controlled the flow of global capital. Militarily, no power could even come close. The American model of liberal democracy was proclaimed the pinnacle of progress with which every country was expected to converge.
In many ways the order that emerged resembled “ultra-imperialism,” a system in which the great powers agree to jointly plunder the world. This wasn’t brought about by the peaceful evolution of finance capital, as projected by Karl Kautsky, but by the supremacy of a single power built on the ashes of European and Japanese imperialism after World War II. The U.S. rebuilt these empires from their remnants and unified them in an anti-Communist alliance during the Cold War. When the Cold War ended, this imperialist united front was not broken up but in many ways reinforced. For example, German reunification did not lead to a ramping up of tensions in Europe, as many feared, but was done with the blessings of the U.S. and NATO.
The exceptional stability of the post-Soviet period can be explained by the overwhelming advantages held by the U.S. over its rivals combined with the opening of great swaths of previously untapped markets to finance capital. One-third of the world population lived in non-capitalist countries in 1989. The wave of counterrevolution which started that year led to the complete destruction of many of the workers states, or—as in the case of China—opening up to imperialist capital while maintaining the foundations of a collectivized economy. These developments gave imperialism a new lease on life. Instead of tearing each other apart for market share, Germany, France, Britain and the U.S. worked together to bring East Europe into the political and economic fold of the West. The European Union (EU) and NATO were expanded in tandem to the very borders of Russia. In Asia an analogous situation existed: the U.S. and Japan worked together to foster and exploit economic liberalization in China and the rest of East and Southeast Asia.
The united front of the major powers gave the rest of the world little alternative but to abide by U.S. political and economic dictates. In one country after another, the IMF and World Bank rewrote the rules according to the interests of U.S. finance capital. This “neoliberalism” was already well underway in the ’80s, but the destruction of the Soviet Union gave it renewed impetus. The few countries that refused or were blocked from following the path outlined by the U.S. (Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan) posed no significant threat to the global order.
This favorable balance of power not only created lucrative investment opportunities for the imperialists but also reduced the risks associated with foreign trade. Capitalists could invest and trade abroad knowing that U.S. political and military dominance insured them against a major conflict or an overly hostile government. These factors led to a significant growth in international trade, the massive offshoring of production and an explosion of international capital circulation, i.e., globalization.
A Marxist Answer to Globalization
The advocates of liberal imperialism credit globalization with an important rise in living standards in many parts of the world and generally lower prices for consumer goods. It is undeniable that the extension of the global division of labor over the last 30 years has led to a development of productive forces internationally. For example, per capita energy consumption in low- and middle-income countries more than doubled, world literacy increased to almost 90 percent, auto production more than doubled and so did steel production. At first glance these progressive developments appear to conflict with the Marxist theory of imperialism, which argues that capitalism has arrived at its final stage, where the domination of monopoly capital leads to parasitism and long-term decay. However, far from being contradicted by the course of events, Marxist analysis alone can fully explain them and in the process show how the liberal world order leads not to gradual social and economic progress but to social calamity.
For starters, it is in no way necessary to attribute a progressive role to finance capital to explain a sustained growth in productive forces. The conditions following the collapse of the Soviet Union—reduced military threat, weakened labor movement, reduced risk in foreign investment, widespread liberalization—enabled imperialism for a time to overcome its tendency toward decline. In fact, Trotsky himself projected this possibility:
This is precisely what happened. Following a dramatic change in the relationship of class forces at the expense of the proletariat, capitalism gained a new lease on life. But this could only be a temporary respite in imperialism’s overall tendency toward decline which is now returning to the norm.
Second, for defenders of capitalism the superiority of free markets over planned economies is proven by comparing the living standards in the deformed workers states of East Europe to those of today (Poland is the standard example). In fact, this claim can be refuted even leaving aside that by certain measures conditions have worsened—inequality, status of women, mass emigration, etc. Orthodox Marxists—i.e., Trotskyists—always argued that the planned economies of isolated workers states, despite their huge advantages, could not prevail over those of the advanced capitalist powers due to the latter’s higher productivity and international division of labor. Stalinists claimed that the Soviet Union on its own (and later with its allies) could overtake the advanced capitalist countries through means of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. But it is precisely the impossibility of peaceful coexistence that rules this out.
The imperialist powers always maintained extreme economic and military pressure on the USSR and other countries of the Warsaw Pact, whose economic performance was hampered by these assaults. To this was added the bureaucratic mismanagement that necessarily comes with trying to “build socialism” in conditions of isolation and poverty. The sustained economic growth in capitalist Poland is due to its full integration into global commerce—a possibility closed to the devastated postwar economy of the Polish People’s Republic. One cannot fairly compare the living standards of a castle under siege with those of one that isn’t. The superiority of planned economies is fully obvious when looking at the incredible progress achieved despite the hostile international environment in which they found themselves. This is true for Poland just as it is for the Soviet Union, Cuba, China and Vietnam.
Third, the defenders of the liberal world order argue that since the intensity and number of wars have decreased since World War II and further declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this proves that liberalism and globalization gradually lead to peace. While some factual aspects of this claim can be disputed, it is undeniable that no conflict in the last 75 years has come close to the industrial slaughter that took place in the two world wars. To this day, “keeping peace in Europe” remains the main argument used to defend the EU. The truth of the matter is that the absence of a new world war is only a product of the U.S. towering over its rivals—a necessarily temporary relationship of forces. As Lenin explained:
Accepting that the post-Soviet period has been one of relative peace in no way erases the fact that there have been numerous wars which have been plenty brutal. The U.S. military has been almost continuously engaging in low-intensity wars to assert its military might and secure its right to “peacefully” subjugate untold millions through the expansion of finance capital. Far from leading to world peace, this dynamic only prepares new wars of unimaginable brutality to redivide the world once more.
Fourth, the growth of productive forces has occurred not because of some mythical free trade but under the yoke and according to the interests of monopoly capital controlled by a few great powers. This has meant that whatever short- to medium-term progress occurred in certain regions of the world, it has come with increased dependence on the financial whims of the imperialist powers, centrally the U.S. For example, one can look at various socio-economic indicators and observe an improvement in living standards in Mexico since the 1990s. But this has come at the price of a much-deepened economic subordination to the United States and the devastation of certain layers of the population, in particular the peasantry. This situation means that in times of growth the imperialists draw huge profits from their dependencies, and when crisis strikes they can demand extortionate political and economic concessions, further deepening their national oppression. This all goes to show that short-term economic growth is not worth the price of enslavement to imperialism.
Finally, and most importantly, the collapse of the Soviet Union did not herald a higher phase of human progress but the triumph of U.S. imperialism, which is nothing other than the domination of U.S. financial rentiers over the world. It is the very rule of this class that limits the further development of productive forces and leads to social decline. This is true first and foremost for the U.S. itself. In Imperialism Lenin explained:
This perfectly describes the character of the U.S. economy. The unprecedented growth of its international financial interests has hollowed out the very source of U.S. global power, its once mighty industrial base. Offshoring, chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, astronomical housing prices, a bloodsucking health care industry, overpriced and low-quality education: these are all products of the increasingly parasitical character of American capitalism. Even U.S. military might is undermined by the hollowing out of industry.
The American ruling class has sought to compensate for the country’s economic decline through wild speculation, cheap credit and printing money. As Trotsky observed, “The poorer the society grows, the richer it appears, regarding itself in the mirror of this fictitious capital” (“The World Economic Crisis and the New Tasks of the Communist International,” June 1921). This heralds economic disaster. The entire social fabric of the country is rotting and more and more layers of the working class and oppressed are thrown into destitution.
This internal decay is matched by a declining economic weight in the world. Where it represented 36 percent of the world GDP in 1970, the U.S. economy now represents less than 24 percent. This trend has been followed by all the imperialist countries. Whereas in 1970 the top five powers (the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, Britain) represented together 60 percent of the world GDP, today the figure is 40 percent. On the one hand, the phenomenal increase in the international export of capital has produced decay; on the other, it has further integrated many countries into modern capitalist relations, creating a gigantic proletariat in East Asia and other parts of the world.
It is the so-called middle-income countries, and China in particular, that have seen their weight in the world economy increase. Yet despite this economic progress, these countries remain subordinate to international finance capital. When it comes to financial power, the U.S. remains unchallenged: the dollar still reigns supreme, the U.S. controls the main international institutions, and 14 of the top 20 asset management firms are American, controlling a combined capital of 45 trillion dollars, the equivalent of around half the world’s GDP. (The other six top asset management firms are either Swiss, French, German or British. Of the top 60, none are from China, South Korea or any of the other so-called “newly industrialized countries.”) The growing contradiction between the hegemonic position the U.S. still holds and its reduced real economic power is not sustainable and is the root cause of growing economic and political instability in the world.
The growth of world trade, the industrialization of neocolonial countries, the development of China—all these factors are undermining U.S. hegemony. To maintain its position, the U.S. must reverse the current dynamic. This means tearing apart the basis of globalization by confronting China, pressing the neocolonies, raising tariff barriers and reducing the crumbs given to its allies. Fundamentally, the most definitive argument against globalization is that the development of productive forces runs against the interests of the very class on which globalization rests, the American imperialist bourgeoisie. This alone establishes that it is nothing but a reactionary fantasy to try to maintain or “fix” the liberal world order.
This is not to say that just as in 1989 it wouldn’t be possible for the U.S. to succeed in shoring up its position. But that could only be brought about at the cost of catastrophic defeats for the international working class and would do nothing to halt the inexorable decay of imperialism. The only force that can put an end to imperialist tyranny and usher in a truly higher stage of development is the working class. Globalization has in fact reinforced the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, making it today more powerful, more international and more nationally oppressed than ever before. But this has so far not been translated into increased political strength. On this count the post-Soviet period has thrown the workers movement very far back indeed.
III. Liberalism and the Post-Soviet World
The collapse of the Soviet Union led not only to major changes in the economic, political and military balance of international forces but also to major ideological changes. During the Cold War, the ruling classes of the West presented themselves as the defenders of democracy and individual rights against the tyranny of “totalitarian communism.” At bottom this was an ideological justification for hostility toward the deformed workers states and anti-colonial struggles. As the Soviet bloc collapsed, communism was proclaimed dead and liberal triumphalism became the dominant ideology, reflecting the change in the imperialists’ priorities from confronting “communism” to penetrating newly opened markets in East Europe and Asia.
Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) epitomizes the hubris and triumphalism of the early post-Soviet period. Liberal capitalism was proclaimed the pinnacle of human civilization, destined to spread around the entire world. Of course, underlying this fantastical view was the very real extension of imperialist capital around the world. Liberal triumphalism was the ideological justification for this process. The United States and its allies ruled the world in the name of economic and social progress—a modernized version of the white man’s burden.
It is behind this ideological cover that the U.S. led its various military interventions in the post-Soviet period. The first Gulf War and the intervention in Serbia were to “protect small nations.” The intervention in Somalia was to “save the starving.” This ideology was enshrined by the UN as the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). As the name of the doctrine indicates, it proclaimed that the great powers have the responsibility to intervene militarily to protect the oppressed people of the world. It is in part because Bush Jr.’s war in Iraq didn’t neatly fit into this category that there was so much opposition to it. That said, in its fundamentals it was not different from other U.S. interventions in this period. Their aim was first and foremost to assert U.S. hegemony over the world, not to secure long-term economic or strategic benefits. U.S. allies that opposed interventions such as Iraq did so because they didn’t consider it worthwhile for them to invest substantial resources to show once more that the U.S. could crush a small country. Better to reap the benefits of the U.S. order without paying the cost.
Much more significant than the armed conflicts of this period was the economic penetration of imperialist finance capital into every corner of the earth. The process of globalization was itself accompanied and aided by a whole series of ideological principles. A sort of imperialist internationalism became the consensus in most Western countries. The nation-state was said to be a thing of the past, and free trade, open capital markets and high levels of immigration were seen as the road toward progress and world peace. Once more, these high principles reflected the specific interests of the ruling class and were wielded to trample on the national rights of oppressed countries, deindustrialize the West, import cheap labor and open markets to imperialist capital and goods.
The Workers Movement in the Post-Soviet Period
In the period following World War II, the working class did not anywhere have at its head a conscious revolutionary vanguard. It nonetheless had a number of significant conquests: the Soviet Union, the new postwar workers states (later joined by China, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos) and a powerful labor movement in the capitalist world. The latter included strong unions and mass workers parties. However, in every one of these cases the opportunist, bureaucratic leaderships constantly weakened and hollowed out these strongholds of working-class power. When the unions in the U.S. and Britain came under concerted and ardent attack in the 1980s, their leaderships proved incapable of repelling these offensives despite heroic sacrifices by workers. In East Europe the Soviet bureaucracy liquidated one position after another without a fight until finally it liquidated itself. Altogether these defeats unmoored the entire postwar position of the international proletariat.
These disasters were exploited by capitalists who pressed their advantage, wresting more and more gains from a weakened and disoriented workers movement. Almost everywhere in the world, trade-union membership declined, nationalized industries and utilities were privatized, workers parties such as the once mighty Italian Communist Party simply liquidated, and in the West more and more industries were shut down. These objective blows to the working class caused demoralization and a right-wing shift in the workers movement.
In imperialist countries the bulk of social-democratic leaders, Stalinist leftovers and trade-union tops openly embraced liberal triumphalism. Old-school reformism and trade unionism were considered too radical for this new age. Class struggle was said to be over, unions had to become respectable (i.e., impotent), and socialism was seen as utopian at best. There was opposition in the workers movement to privatization and free trade, but it was minimal and undermined by a belief that they were inevitable. Tony Blair’s New Labour project symbolized this right-wing shift. He sought to transform the British Labour Party from a trade union-based working-class party into one akin to the U.S. Democratic Party. In government, he pushed ahead with radical neoliberal reforms coated with a varnish of modernism and progressive social values. As these new “workers’ leaders,” in Britain and elsewhere, rejected the very existence of a workers movement and all the principles on which it was built, the traditional organizations were further weakened and hollowed out. The dominance of liberalism in the trade unions and workers parties basically amounted to the workers movement sawing off its own legs, bringing it to its enfeebled state today.
The Countries Oppressed by Imperialism
In the West and Japan, the position of the working class was driven down by the offshoring of industry. However, in many countries oppressed by imperialism industry boomed, yet the proletariat still saw its political position substantially degraded in the post-Soviet period. How to explain this weakness amid an objective strengthening of the working class? Accounting for the wide variations between countries, a general trend can be established. The international context in the ’80s and ’90s led to imperialism tightening its hold over “developing” and “emerging” countries. This in turn favored a strengthening of liberalism at the expense of Third World nationalism and militant working-class politics. While liberalism on social questions such as sexuality, race and religion did not generally progress much, economic liberalism (neoliberalism) and to a certain extent political liberalism (formal democracy) became dominant.
On the political level, the international convergence toward liberal democracy was partly the result of U.S. foreign policy, which increasingly saw democratic reforms as an optimal way to stem social upheaval. But the internal regimes of neocolonial countries were also greatly affected by the weakening of the workers movement internationally. The elites were more confident in their position, allowing them room for concessions, while the oppressed had a weaker hand, increasing the pressure on them to give up on radical change. This reduced the sharpness of domestic contradictions, allowing countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil and South Africa to replace quasi-totalitarian dictatorships with a measure of bourgeois democracy. For regimes that relied more on class collaboration than repression, the changing context reduced the need for concessions to the workers movement. In Mexico, for example, the old corporatist one-party rule that had lasted 70 years was gradually destroyed, and with it much of the influence of the unions.
On the economic level, the existence of the Soviet Union had enabled neocolonial countries to balance between the two great powers. Many regimes nationalized important sectors of their economies and had some control of capital flows in their countries. These models were inefficient and corrupt but enabled a certain independence from the United States and the other imperialists. The collapse of the Soviet Union put the last nail in the coffin of such models. Neocolonial countries had little choice but to align themselves fully behind the economic dictates of the imperialists and to discard their old corporatist and statist structures.
The workers movement in the neocolonial world also capitulated to the heightened liberal pressures, albeit in different ways from the West. In certain cases such as Brazil and South Africa, the previously repressed working-class parties, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) and the South African Communist Party, became executors of the new neoliberal “democratic” regimes. In Mexico, working-class resistance to neoliberalism was hitched to the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), a left-populist split-off from the ruling party. The PRD itself did not oppose more U.S. capital penetration of Mexico but only sought better terms for Mexico’s rape. In many countries the labor movement mingled with the liberal NGO world, getting behind “human rights” and “millennial development goals” rather than class struggle. Thus we had a situation in which the working class in many countries was growing in economic strength but was politically paralyzed by leaderships that were capitulating to strong national and international currents pushing toward liberalism and integration with world imperialism.
Neoliberalism with Chinese Characteristics
The outlook seemed bleak for the Communist Party of China after the counterrevolutionary wave that rolled from East Germany to the USSR. The bloody crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising had isolated the regime on the world stage. For the U.S. and its allies, it was only a matter of time before China followed the path of the Soviet Union and integrated into the growing liberal democratic fold. But this was not the path followed by the CPC. The lesson it drew from Tiananmen and the counterrevolutions in the Eastern bloc was that to remain in power it needed to combine high economic growth with tight political control. To achieve this, it doubled down on the path of “reform and opening up” started by Deng Xiaoping in the late ’70s, which consisted of market liberalization in agriculture and industry, privatizations and attracting foreign capital. Currently the Communist Party’s grip on power appears firmer than ever. For the CPC and its advocates, China is being guided down the stream of history by the enlightened policies of its leaders. But as the choppy currents of the class struggle will make clear, this apparent success has more to do with the stagnant waters of the post-Soviet period than the steering abilities of the CPC.
With the threat of “global communism” having seemingly disappeared and Deng recommitting the party to welcoming foreign capital during his 1992 “southern tour,” imperialist investment flooded into China. The Special Economic Zones offered a deregulated environment worthy of the best neoliberal free-market practices and a huge pool of cheap labor whose submissiveness was guaranteed by the CPC, while the state-driven economy marshaled enormous resources to build infrastructure and factories. This combination produced huge profits for monopoly capitalism but also unmatched economic and social progress in China. In the three years after 2008, China used more cement than the United States did during the entire 20th century. Since 1978 its GDP growth has averaged 9 percent annually and 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty. China’s integration into the world economy has enabled huge leaps in productivity, opened a gigantic new market and served as the engine of economic growth and the increase in world trade. The rise of China is both the greatest success of the post-Soviet order and its greatest threat.
For social democrats and liberal moralists, the mercantile and repressive policies of the CPC are proof that China is now capitalist or even imperialist. But unlike what happened in the USSR and East Europe, the Stalinist regime in China never gave up control of the economy and the state. The main economic levers remain collectivized. In many ways the economic regime in China currently resembles an extreme version of what Lenin described as “state capitalism”: the opening of certain economic areas to capitalist exploitation under the dictatorship of the proletariat.
For a Marxist evaluation of the policies of Deng and his successors, one cannot simply reject on principle market reforms or any compromise with capitalism. Rather, one must look at the terms and aims of the agreements and whether they strengthened the overall position of the working class. At the Third Congress of the Comintern, Lenin outlined in the following way his approach to foreign concessions in the Soviet workers state:
Lenin sought to attract foreign capital to Russia as a means of fostering economic development and gaining time until the revolution could extend internationally. The compromises he was ready to make did not involve the slightest hint that the struggle against capitalism was to be sidelined. On the contrary, he insisted:
In contrast, Deng Xiaoping proclaimed that “there is no fundamental contradiction between socialism and a market economy” (1985). For Deng and his successors, it was never a question of gaining time for the world revolution but of pursuing the pipe dream of developing China in essential harmony with the capitalist world.
While the last 30 years have produced astonishing results when looking at raw economic data, the picture is quite different when evaluating the strength of the Chinese workers state on a class basis. China’s development has been built on a foundation of sand: “peaceful coexistence” with world imperialism. There is a fundamental contradiction in China’s rise: the stronger it gets, the more it undermines the condition that made its rise possible—economic globalization under U.S. hegemony. But instead of rallying the international working class for the inevitable struggle with U.S. imperialism, the CPC has for decades built faith in “economic interdependence,” “multilateralism” and “win-win cooperation” as means of averting conflict. Such pacifist illusions have weakened the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by disarming the working class, the only force that can decisively defeat imperialism.
China’s position is further undermined by the powerful domestic capitalist class that has emerged on the mainland and has a direct interest in the destruction of the workers state. Far from recognizing this deadly threat to the social system, the CPC has openly encouraged the growth of this class, playing up its contributions toward building “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” One does not have to be a scholar of Marx to understand that a class whose power rests on the exploitation of the working class is a deadly enemy of the dictatorship of the proletariat, a regime based on working-class state power.
For Lenin, the only principle involved in establishing foreign capitalist concessions was to preserve the power of the proletariat and improve its conditions, even if this meant “150 percent profits” for the capitalists. He based his entire strategy on the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, both in Russia and abroad. This outlook has nothing to do with that of the CPC bureaucracy, which fears revolution like the plague and above all else seeks political stability to maintain its bureaucratic privileges. Far from building “common prosperity,” CPC policies have sought to keep working-class aspirations subdued and maintain working conditions as miserable as possible to compete with workers abroad and secure capital investment. Those who have profited are not the “people who work hard” but a small clique of bureaucrats and capitalists. The truth is that the CPC has worked with the capitalists at home and abroad against the workers in China and internationally. This treachery carried out in the name of “socialism” tarnishes the PRC in the eyes of the international working class and undermines the defense of the 1949 Revolution.
IV. Fighting Liberalism with Liberalism
The strong political consensus throughout the West post-1991 did not mean that there were no dissenting voices from the left and the right. However, generally speaking this dissent did not challenge the basic ideological premises of the liberal world order and even less the material basis of this order: the domination of U.S. finance capital. The various movements that emerged on the left criticized the status quo based on liberal morality, i.e., from within the basic ideological underpinnings of the status quo. Whether they were against free trade, war, racism or austerity, the movements on the left were all premised on curbing the excesses of imperialism, keeping the overall system intact but without its most brutal aspects. As Lenin explained about such criticisms of imperialism in his time, they were nothing but “pious wishes” since they did not recognize “the inseverable bond between imperialism and the trusts, and, therefore, between imperialism and the foundations of capitalism” (Imperialism). And so the various leftist movements in the post-Soviet period denounced, petitioned, demonstrated, sang and ate tofu, but utterly failed in building a real opposition to liberal imperialism.
The Anti-Globalization Movement
The anti-globalization movement hit its stride at the 1999 Seattle WTO protests. Followed by various similar movements around the world, this eventually gave birth to the World Social Forum. The movement itself was an eclectic mix of trade unions, environmentalists, NGOs, indigenous groups, anarchists and socialists. This hodgepodge had no coherence or common goal; it was a coalition of the losers of globalization, who sought to stop the wheels of capitalism from turning, and the left wing of liberalism, which sought to make its cycles less brutal.
In the trade unions, opposition to globalization was driven by working-class resistance to job losses from offshoring. Properly channeled, this legitimate working-class anger could have changed the balance of class forces internationally and put a stop to the offensive of finance capital. This would have required strong defensive struggles that directly confronted the interests of monopoly capital: plant occupations, strikes, unionization drives. But the opposite was done by trade-union leaders.
In the U.S. they opposed offshoring and NAFTA but actively celebrated the dominance of U.S. capitalism over the world, which they had themselves helped achieve through engagement in “fighting communism.” The trade unions could not mount a fight in defense of jobs while continuing to support the very factor leading to offshoring—U.S. imperialist dominance. And support it they did, from their protectionist anti-Mexican and anti-Chinese campaigns to supporting Bill Clinton for president. In Europe even formal opposition to free trade was much weaker and many trade unions actively campaigned for the Maastricht Treaty and the EU. Those that did not, like their American counterparts, refused to fight against the ruling class that was behind economic liberalization, seeking instead a bloc between labor and capital on a national basis against “foreign interests.” In both cases the result was utter devastation for the working class, with massive job losses and the decay of entire regions.
The other side of the anti-globalization movement consisted of various NGOs, anarchists, ecologists and socialist groups. As most of these groups themselves insisted, they were not opposed to globalization but sought a “fairer,” “democratic” and “eco-friendly” globalization. As previously explained, globalization cannot be fair under the yoke of imperialism, and the neoliberal offensive could only be stopped by strengthening the position of the international working class. The anti-globalization movement could do nothing to further this because it embraced the same liberal triumphalism whose consequences it was supposedly fighting. The movement claimed that class struggle was over and nation-states had been supplanted by international corporations…so obviously it didn’t organize class struggle against the imperialist states backing globalization.
Since the movement saw globalization as basically unavoidable and viewed the working class as irrelevant at best, it did nothing to oppose the loss of millions of jobs. The left denounced the protectionist chauvinism spouted by certain trade-union bureaucrats and reactionary politicians but did so without providing a program to defend jobs and working conditions. This meant being a left echo of the Bushes and the Clintons who were also denouncing protectionism and nativism, for the benefit of U.S. foreign expansion. The basic truth rejected by the anti-globalization movement is that a real defense of working-class jobs in the U.S. and Europe would not be against the interests of the workers of the Third World but would strengthen their position by putting a brake on heightened imperialist plunder. To be internationalist the working class must not become “liberal” and “enlightened”; it must unite to overthrow imperialism. Any fight against the imperialist bourgeoisie will objectively bring the international working class together and break it away from its nationalist leaderships.
While the anti-globalization movement succeeded in causing a few riots, these were no threat to liberal imperialism. Paralyzed by a fundamental allegiance to the status quo, the movement was ultimately only a footnote in the crushing offensive of finance capital in the 1990s and early 2000s. Eventually, even formal opposition to NAFTA and the EU was dropped by practically the entire labor movement and left. It is the impotence of the forces opposing globalization that pushed millions of workers in the West toward demagogues such as Trump, France’s Le Pen and Italy’s Meloni.
Post-2008 Anti-Establishment Left in the U.S. and Europe
The 2007 credit bubble marked the high point of the liberal world order. The subsequent economic crisis represented a major turning point as the dynamic contributing to stability and economic growth—increased world trade, growth in productivity, political and geopolitical consensus—broke down and reversed. While the crisis and its aftermath did not end the post-Soviet era, it accelerated the trends undermining it. In much of the Western world, millions of job losses and evictions followed by a wave of austerity created deep political discontent. For the first time since the 1990s, major political movements emerged which attacked key pillars of the post-Soviet consensus. On the right protectionism, opposition to “multilateralism” and open chauvinism became mainstream. On the left it was opposition to austerity, calls for nationalizations and in certain quarters opposition to NATO. The characteristics of these movements vary widely, yet a conclusion imposes itself: whereas the populist right is today emerging reinvigorated after a certain decline in 2020, the anti-establishment movements of the left have mostly collapsed. What explains this failure?
The anti-establishment left was pushed to the fore by decades of neoliberal attacks that were exacerbated following 2008, and in the case of the U.S. and Britain, by opposition to military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. While these movements reacted against the status quo, they did not decisively break with it. In their own ways, each was tied to the imperialist bourgeoisie responsible for degrading social conditions. The standard-bearers for this trend were Corbyn in Britain, Sanders in the U.S., Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. In contrast to them, Mélenchon in France has not yet visibly failed. That said, his movement contains all the ingredients that led to the demise of its foreign counterparts.
In Sanders’ case, he is a representative of the Democratic Party, one of the two parties of U.S. imperialism. His speeches about “a political revolution” against the “billionaire class” meant nothing given his allegiance to a party representing billionaires. Moreover, as a liberal reformist politician, the major reform Sanders promised, “Medicare for All,” was always subordinated to unity with the “progressive” Democratic capitalists against the more reactionary Republican ones. In the name of “fighting the right,” Sanders betrayed the principles he claimed to stand on. The more Sanders trampled on the aspirations of the movement he represented, the more he rose in the Democratic Party establishment. Those who today want to recreate this movement outside of the Democratic Party and without Sanders fail to understand that it is the program of liberal reformism itself which leads to capitulation to the ruling class. Any program seeking to reconcile the interests of the working class with the maintenance of U.S. capitalism will necessarily seek support in one of the two wings of American capitalism. To break the reactionary cycle of U.S. politics and truly advance its interests, the working class requires its own party built in total opposition to both liberals and conservatives.
The Corbyn movement was similar to the one around Sanders but differed in two important respects. The first is that the Labour Party, unlike the Democratic Party, is a bourgeois workers party. Its working-class base explains in part why Corbyn could win the leadership of Labour whereas Sanders was stopped by the Democratic establishment. The other significant difference is that Corbyn crossed red lines when it came to questions of foreign policy. His opposition to NATO and the EU, his criticisms of the 2014 NATO-backed coup in Ukraine, his support for the Palestinians and his opposition to nuclear weapons were utterly unacceptable to the ruling class.
In the face of the rabid hostility of the British establishment and an ongoing insurgency against him in his own party, the alternatives posed for Corbyn were to confront the ruling class directly or capitulate. But Corbyn’s program of pacifism and Labourite reformism seeks to soothe the class war, not win it. So at every turn Corbyn sought to appease the ruling class and the right wing of his party instead of mobilizing the working class and youth against them. Corbyn capitulated on renewing the Trident nuclear sub program, on self-determination for Scotland, on the question of Israel-Palestine, on NATO and most decisively on Brexit. The example of Corbyn, even more than Sanders, is a classic case of the utter impotence of reformism in the conduct of class struggle.
The case of Syriza is different in that it came to power in Greece as a result of mass opposition to EU-imposed austerity. The rapidity of its rise was matched only by the depth of its betrayal. After organizing a referendum in 2015 which overwhelmingly rejected the EU austerity package, Syriza blatantly trampled on popular will by acceding to imperialist demands for even harsher attacks on Greek working people. The reason for this betrayal lies in Syriza’s class nature and program. The only force capable of standing up to imperialism in Greece is the organized working class. But Syriza is not a working-class party. It claimed it could serve the Greek capitalists as well as the workers and oppressed of Greece…all this while keeping the country in the EU. This myth exploded at first contact with reality. While most of the left cheered Syriza on until its betrayal, the Communist Party stood to the side, even denying that Greece is oppressed by imperialism. The consequences of both policies were slammed onto the Greek people. This debacle shows the urgent need in Greece for a party that combines the fight for national liberation with the need for class independence and workers power.
As the world enters a period of acute crisis, the workers movement in the West finds itself politically disorganized and demoralized, betrayed by the forces in which it placed its faith. While this will undoubtedly lead to gains for the right in the short term, a new upsurge of the working class and popular masses will once again pose the need for political alternatives to the representatives of the liberal status quo. It is essential that the lessons of past failures be drawn in order to avoid a new cycle of defeats and reaction.
Covid-19, Liberal Disaster
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the left offered not even a tepid opposition to the liberal establishment. As the bourgeoisies around the world locked their populations up for months on end while doing nothing to fix crumbling health care systems and dreadful living conditions, the left cheered and called for ever stricter lockdowns. Every attack against the working class was acceded to in the name of “following the science.” The basic understanding that science in capitalist society is not neutral but is wielded to serve the interest of the bourgeoisie was thrown out the window even by those claiming to be Marxist.
The result speaks for itself. Millions died of the virus, millions lost their jobs, families were locked up in their homes at the expense of women, children and sanity. Given that science was used to justify one reactionary policy after another, millions of people turned against “science” and refused lifesaving vaccines. Was the health care system saved? No, everywhere it is much worse than before. Were working people protected from the virus? No, they continued to work in dangerous conditions. Were the elderly protected? Many of them died in decrepit nursing homes. Those who didn’t saw their quality of life and life expectancy reduced due to social isolation and lack of exercise. The crisis in nursing homes and retirement centers is worse than ever.
In the name of “saving lives,” liberals and the left argue that there was no alternative to bowing down to governments and “science.” But there was one. The working class needed to take matters into its own hands and ensure a response corresponding to its class interests. Unions needed to fight for safe workplaces against either simply shutting them down or working in deathtraps. So long as bosses and governments control safety at work instead of unions, workers will die preventable deaths. Unions in health care and schools needed to fight for better conditions, not sacrifice for illusory gains later. Those sacrifices did not save public services but did allow the ruling class to squeeze them even more. Only in struggle against the ruling class and its lockdowns could any of the social ills behind the crisis be addressed, whether it be health care, housing, working conditions, public transport or care for the elderly.
The utter subservience of the workers movement to lockdowns guaranteed that any opposition to the disastrous consequences of the pandemic would be dominated by right-wing and conspiracist forces. Many of the people attending mass anti-lockdown demonstrations or protests against mandatory vaccinations did so out of legitimate anger at the social consequences of capitalist policies during the pandemic. Instead of getting ahead of these sentiments and channeling them into a struggle to advance the conditions of the working class, the left overwhelmingly denounced them and cheered on their repression by the state.
The basis for the utter betrayal by the left and workers movement in the pandemic was laid during the entire course of the post-Soviet period. When this crisis of global proportions hit and the bourgeoisie more than ever needed national unity, the workers movement stood to attention and loyally marshaled the working class behind “science” and “shared sacrifice.” While governments and most of the left are trying to sweep the pandemic under the rug, they will not get off so easily. The consequences of this disaster have left a deep imprint on the working class and youth, impelling them to look for answers and alternatives.
V. The Decaying Liberal Order
Hubris Turns to Hysteria
From the 1980s to the early 2000s, the dynamic of world politics favored the relative strengthening of U.S. power. The more the U.S. improved its economic, military and political position, the stronger the centripetal force bolstering the liberal world order. This self-reinforcing dynamic reached its height in the aftermath of the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. It enabled widespread political and economic liberalization with relatively limited direct intervention by the U.S. At the time, the currents of history appeared to be pushing the interests of U.S. capitalism forward.
But in politics as in physics there is a reaction to every action. Inevitably, the consequences of U.S. hegemony impelled countervailing forces. The increasingly reckless military interventions by the U.S. were geopolitical disasters, wasting resources and hardening opposition to American foreign policy at home and abroad. Financial deregulation and deindustrialization hollowed out U.S. economic might and strengthened its competitors while also making the entire world economy much more unstable and crisis-prone. The more the U.S. ruling class used liberalism to further its reactionary interests, the more it fostered resistance to liberalism. Slowly but surely, there were growing signs that the dynamics favoring the liberal world order were growing weaker and the forces pushing against it were becoming stronger. The 2008 financial crisis, the 2014 coup and conflict in Ukraine, the election of Donald Trump and Brexit in 2016 are all important markers of this trend.
As the U.S. has felt its power weaken, its hubris has transformed into hysteria. It exerts itself ever more strongly to shore up its power, confronting China and Russia, squeezing allies, sanctioning more and more countries. But these exertions are coming at ever-growing costs and bringing diminishing returns. Far from halting its decline, the U.S. response has so far only entrenched it. Today, following the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, it is clear that the dynamic of world politics has reversed. It is now pointing toward an accelerating disintegration of the liberal world order. NATO and Russia are engaged in a proxy war. U.S.-China relations are in a permanent state of hostility. Populist nationalism is on the rise in the non-imperialist world, taking both left-wing (Mexico) and right-wing (India, Türkiye) expressions. Politics in the West are becoming increasingly polarized between those who seek to shore up imperialist dominance by breaking with traditional liberalism (Trump, Alternative for Germany, Le Pen, Meloni) and those who seek to shore it up by doubling down on the liberal crusade (Biden, Trudeau, German Green Party).
The growing instability of the world is no mystery to anyone. The controversy emerges over the nature of the conflict. For the liberals, it is a contest between Democracy and Autocracy. For libertarians and social democrats, it is the free market vs. state intervention. For the Stalinists and Third Worldists, it is a competition between hegemony and multipolarity. All are wrong. The answer lies in the simple but penetrating words of the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” And so it is that today’s unraveling liberal world order follows the laws of class struggle. The fundamental conflict shaping the world is not between the CPC and U.S. capitalists, Trump and Biden, Putin and NATO, or Mexico’s López Obrador (AMLO) and Yankee imperialism; it is between the social decay of capitalism in its imperialist stage and the interests of the world proletariat. Those not guided by this understanding will not be able to orient themselves in the turmoil ahead, much less advance the struggle for human progress.
Global Economy: A Giant Ponzi Scheme
As previously explained, U.S. hegemony enabled a temporary improvement in the growth potential of imperialism. It was this improvement in the economic conjuncture that enabled the protracted stability of the capitalist world over the last three decades. Today, however, not only have the possibilities for expansion spent themselves but the conditions that enabled the previous expansion are going into reverse. The consequence will be a significant destruction of productive forces, with all the instability that comes with this. As Trotsky wrote in The Third International After Lenin, “States as well as classes fight even more fiercely for a meagre and a diminishing ration than for a lavish and growing one.” This factor underpins the current world situation and will continue to do so, barring a major change in the conjuncture.
Eight-to-ten-year cycles of boom and bust are the normal fluctuations of the capitalist economy. Wild speculation and overproduction are followed by collapse and panic. The post-Soviet period has been no different. However, as real growth possibilities declined, speculation and credit became the principal manner by which the U.S. sought to prop up its entire order. The aftermath of the 2008 “Great Recession” exposed this clearly. Facing a possible depression, the U.S. coordinated a historically unprecedented credit and monetary expansion. This created anemic real growth but a gigantic growth in asset prices. Even to most bourgeois economists, it is obvious that this simply meant setting the conditions for an even greater collapse down the road. For over ten years, the playbook has been the same at each sign of faltering growth: kick the can down the road by increasing credit. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this was pushed once more, to all-time highs. To solve the consequences of shutting down huge swaths of the economy, the capitalists simply printed money. This was too much, and finally the possibilities of this approach have reached their limit with the inevitable “return of inflation.”
The drastic increase in interest rates in the United States is sucking vast quantities of liquidity out of the world economic system. As Warren Buffett famously said, “A rising tide floats all boats.... Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” After a decade and a half of easy money, gigantic segments of the economy are bound to have been “swimming naked.” When the buck stops, the results are bound to be catastrophic. Since the U.S. is at the top of the capitalist food chain and essentially controls international credit conditions, even if it turns out to be the epicenter of the crisis it will be able to use its dominant position to make the rest of the world pay for the consequences. This will be particularly devastating for countries of the developing world, many of which are already in deep crisis, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Lebanon. But the consequences will be global and will necessarily lead to further blows to the world order, including from powers the U.S. today considers allies.
A significant part of the economic establishment is either lying or willfully blind to the prospects of the world economy. Certain parts of the social-democratic left have argued that high government debt levels are of no great concern and that working people would benefit more from low interest rates and more debt than from the current policy of higher interest rates. This is an echo of those in the bourgeoisie who wish to kick the can one more time, hopefully past the next election. The truth is that all policy alternatives—whether high debt, high inflation or deflation—will be used to attack the living standards of the working class. The fundamental underlying problem is the huge imbalance between the capital that exists on paper and the actual productive capacities of the world economy. No financial wizardry can solve this problem. The only way out is for the working class to take control of the political and economic reins and reorganize the economy in a rational way.
For right-wing economists, the solution is to let the free market do its work: accept that there will be a devastating crisis, let the weak die and the strong emerge stronger. But the times of free-market capitalism are long gone. The world economy is dominated by a small number of gigantic monopolies competing with the monopolies of other countries. No state is ready to let its monopolies collapse. If Ford and GM go bankrupt, this would not revive American free enterprise but strengthen Toyota and Volkswagen. Unbridled capitalism leads not to free markets but to monopolies. On the one hand, this reflects the tendency toward centralized planned production on a global scale. But on the other, under imperialism monopolies obstruct the growth of productive forces, leading to decay and parasitism.
For social democrats such as economist Michael Hudson, the panacea is a “mixed economy”—capitalism with state intervention and regulation. Whereas this was considered heresy in economic and government circles in recent decades, planning is becoming fashionable again. This is not out of enlightenment but because national capitalism needs propping up to stave off bankruptcy and compete with China. While the working class can wrest concessions from the capitalists through class struggle, it is not possible to regulate away the contradictions of imperialism. The irrationality and parasitism of the system are rooted in the very dynamics of capitalist accumulation. The government is itself no counterweight to the tiny clique of capitalist financiers but serves as their executive committee. When it interferes in economic matters, it is ultimately to benefit the imperialist ruling class.
Ukraine-Russia War: Military Challenge to U.S. Hegemony
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is by far the biggest challenge to U.S. hegemony since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That a major power had the confidence to defy the U.S. so directly—and has so far gotten away with it—indicates a real sea change. This war is unlike any of the last decades. It is not a low-level anti-insurgency war but a high-intensity industrial war. The outcome will not only determine the fate of Ukraine but will have a great impact on the balance of power in Europe and internationally.
The two decisive actors in the Ukraine war are Russia and the U.S. The war broke out as a result of decades of eastward NATO expansion to countries considered by Russia to be within its sphere of influence. Russia sees Ukraine as of vital strategic interest and will be ready to escalate the conflict until it either secures Ukraine in its orbit or is defeated. The American position is more complicated. Ukraine is of little strategic value to the U.S. and is viewed as a marginal backwater of Europe. For the Western liberal establishment, “defending Ukraine” is about defending the liberal world order, i.e., the right of the United States to do as it pleases wherever it wants.
The defeat of Ukraine by Russia would be a humiliating blow for the U.S. It would signal weakness, have destabilizing consequences for Europe’s political establishment and place a question mark over NATO’s future. Given these high stakes, the U.S. and its allies have continuously escalated the war, supplying ever more weapons to Ukraine. Russia has responded by calling up a partial mobilization and is destroying the Ukrainian army. While the U.S. has been driving the escalation, neither it nor its allies have yet committed themselves to decisively defeating the Russian army by going over to a war economy or intervening directly. For now, the war remains a regional conflict over control of Ukraine.
The leaders of the working class have everywhere marshaled the proletariat behind the interests of its ruling class. But the seeds of revolt are sown every day by the social consequences of the war. For Marxists it is of the utmost importance to intervene into this growing contradiction to build a new leadership which can advance the interests of the working class in this conflict. The essential starting point must be that it is the imperialist system itself—defined today as the U.S.-dominated liberal order—that is responsible for the conflict in Ukraine. The entire world proletariat has an interest in ending imperialist tyranny over the world, and only on this basis can the workers of the world unite, whether they be Russian, Ukrainian, American, Chinese or Indian. However, the application of this general perspective takes different concrete expressions according to considerations in each country.
Russian workers must understand that the victory of their own government would not deal a fundamental blow to imperialism. It would not further the independence of Russia from world imperialism but make it the oppressor of its class brothers and sisters in Ukraine for the benefit of the Russian oligarchs. Whatever short-term defeat it might inflict on U.S. foreign policy, it is not worth the price of becoming the oppressors of the Ukrainian nation. A perpetual conflict between Ukrainians and Russians would only strengthen the forces of world imperialism in the region. NATO and the EU would be dealt a much harder blow by a common revolutionary front of Russian and Ukrainian workers against their respective ruling classes, in the manner of the great October Revolution. Turn the guns against the Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs! For revolutionary unity against U.S. imperialism!
Ukrainian workers must understand that the U.S., EU and NATO are not their allies but are using Ukraine as a pawn for their interests, to be bled dry and then discarded. Ukraine’s national independence will not be secured by aligning with imperialism, which would mean servitude to Washington and guarantee permanent hostility from Russia. Ukrainian workers must also oppose the oppression of Russian minorities by their government. Such defense of Russian minorities would do a million times more to undercut the Kremlin’s war effort than Zelensky’s schemes. The question of borders and the rights of national minorities could be settled easily and democratically were it not for the reactionary intrigues of the oligarchs and imperialists. Every day it becomes clearer that Ukrainian workers are being sent to slaughter under the command of Washington and for the benefit of Wall Street. They must unite with the Russian working class to put an end to this madness; anything else will lead only to further carnage and oppression. For the right of self-determination of Russians, Ukrainians, Chechens and every other national minority!
In the West workers have been bombarded with propaganda about the need to sacrifice in the name of NATO’s crusade for democracy in Ukraine. The best thing the proletariat in the U.S., Germany, Britain and France can do to defend its own interests and those of the workers of the world is to fight back against the financial parasites and monopolies sucking them dry at home. To do this they must sweep away the reactionary cabal of trade-union and social-democratic leaders who are loyal to those very forces. Their sellouts at home are inseparable from their calls to install “democracy” abroad with NATO tanks and bombs. These traitors would be long gone were it not for the pacifist and centrist swamp that talks of “peace,” “trade union struggle” and even “socialism” but clings to the coattails of the warmongers and avowed servants of imperialism. An antiwar movement is only worth its salt if it excludes the conciliators of social-chauvinism in the workers movement. Lift the sanctions on Russia! Down with the EU and NATO! For the Soviet United States of Europe!
A growing number of working people in Latin America, Asia and Africa look to Russia as a force against imperialism. This misplaced faith will do nothing to liberate them from the yoke of the U.S., West Europe and Japan. Putin is no anti-imperialist and will not be an ally in the fight for the national liberation of any country. It is precisely for this reason that AMLO, South Africa’s Ramaphosa, India’s Modi and China’s Xi are sympathetic or not overtly hostile to him. Support to Putin lulls the working class of the Global South with the illusion that it can improve its living conditions and liberate itself from imperialism without revolutionary struggle. At the slightest sign of upsurge from the oppressed masses of the world, the reactionary leaders of the Global South will look to the same imperialists they today denounce. The real anti-imperialist force is the workers in Ukraine, Russia and the West. They and the workers of the world can be united around a common internationalist banner only by opposing all national oppression, whether at the hands of great powers or of nations that are themselves oppressed. Nationalize imperialist-owned assets! Workers of the world, unite!
China: Stalinist Belt or Proletarian Road
As the dynamics that enabled China to grow and prosper in the last 30 years unravel ever more quickly, the CPC’s faith in global free-market capitalism remains unshaken. Expressing himself at the 2022 Davos World Economic Forum, Xi Jinping argued:
Unfortunately for the CPC, the future of the “multilateral trading system” is dependent first and foremost on the actions of the United States, and the U.S. cannot allow current trends to persist. It will either force concessions from the rest of the world to prop up its position on top or it will bring down the whole edifice with it as it falls.
For over a decade, tensions between the U.S. and China have been growing. The U.S. has been ratcheting up the pressure as it has become clearer that China is not marching toward liberal democracy but is becoming a real economic and military competitor. The increased pressure pushes the CPC to strengthen its internal control of the economy and political dissent (e.g., Hong Kong) and strengthen its military position. This in turn leads the U.S. to further tighten the screws. This accelerating dynamic has brought U.S.-China tensions to a multi-decade high, threatening open military conflict.
In case of such an occurrence, it would be the duty of the international proletariat to stand unconditionally for the defense of China. The imperialists are rabidly hostile to China precisely because of the economic and social progress the collectivized core of its economy has enabled. This is what the working class must defend. But it must do so according to its own methods and aims, not those of the parasitic CPC bureaucracy.
Trotsky explained in relation to the USSR that “the real method of defense of the Soviet Union is to weaken the positions of imperialism, and strengthen the position of the proletariat and the colonial peoples throughout the earth” (The Revolution Betrayed, 1936). This strategy, entirely applicable to China today, could not be more different than that pursued by the CPC, which seeks first and foremost to hold on to the status quo. For starters, it seeks to restore relations with the U.S. by leaning on American capitalists like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jamie Dimon—representatives of the same class that oppresses the world and seeks to dominate China. Such maneuvers can only increase the hostility of American workers toward China, alienating the PRC’s greatest potential ally in the struggle against U.S. imperialism. As for the oppressed people of the Global South, the CPC stands not for their liberation but for illusory alliances with the elites of these countries. Those self-interested crooks are sure to abandon China at the first difficulty, or if offered a better bribe by the imperialists.
There are voices in the Chinese bureaucracy that strike a more bellicose tone, looking to the strengthening of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as the surest way to defend China. One can only welcome the increase in the technical and combat abilities of the PLA. But military matters cannot be separated from politics, and in this domain as well the conservative interests of the ruling caste undermine China. A key pillar of the PLA’s defense strategy is to deny the U.S. access to the so-called “first island chain” around China by developing long-range strike capabilities as well as seeking military control over these islands. But in any conflict, support from the proletariat of the surrounding countries would be much more decisive than possession of any number of small, uninhabited rocks.
The only way to truly throw U.S. and Japanese imperialism out of the East and South China Sea is through an anti-imperialist alliance of workers and peasants encompassing the whole region. But the CPC with its nationalist strategy has made no attempt to win workers in the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia to its cause. Instead, it has played into the imperialists’ anti-PRC campaign by focusing only on short-term military advantages while disregarding both the national sensibilities and internal class antagonisms of neighboring countries.
Nowhere is this truer than over the question of Taiwan. The workers of Taiwan have suffered brutal oppression under the boot of its capitalist class. But instead of encouraging them to struggle in their own class interests against the imperialists and the local bourgeoisie, the CPC’s strategy is based on convincing the latter to voluntarily submit to its rule and join the People’s Republic of China. To that end the party pledges to maintain capitalist economic relations and political administration in Taiwan under its “one country, two systems” policy. To the workers the CPC offers not liberation but support for continued capitalist exploitation and the Stalinist boot of repression. Not surprisingly, this “lose-lose” proposal has done little to win the Taiwanese masses to reunification.
The CPC’s Plan B is direct military intervention, which while potentially successful in reunifying Taiwan would come at huge costs, not least if it faces hostility from the local working class. If the CPC were to go this route, Trotskyists would stand in defense of the PLA against the Taiwan capitalists and the imperialists, but would do so fighting for a proletarian revolutionary strategy. Against the bankrupt scheme of “one country, two systems,” Trotskyists fight for revolutionary reunification, that is, reunification through a social revolution against capitalism in Taiwan and political revolution against the bureaucracy on the mainland. This strategy would unify the workers of China around a common class and national interest. It would not only cut the ground out from under the anti-Communist alliance between the U.S. and Taiwan bourgeoisie but would transform China into a beacon for oppressed people around the world in their struggle against imperialism.
While today the CPC continues to proclaim its loyalty to both socialism and capitalism, one must not count on this remaining the case for very long. There are powerful forces linked to Chinese and foreign capitalists who wish to do away with any trace of state control and open China to imperialist pillage once again. That outcome must be fought to the death! But there are also currents within the ruling caste who, under the pressure of working-class discontent, could shift the party far to the left, cracking down on capitalists and dusting off the anti-imperialist and egalitarian rhetoric of traditional Maoism. But just as with Deng’s market reforms, Mao’s attempts at egalitarian autarchy based on frenzied mass mobilization could not overcome the economic stranglehold of world imperialism over China. In fact, the disasters of Mao’s policies brought the PRC to the brink of collapse and directly led to the CPC’s shift to “reform and opening up.”
The CPC’s twists and turns reflect only different means by which the parasitic bureaucratic caste seeks to maintain its privileged position within the confines of an isolated workers state. Contrary to the claims of the CPC from Mao to Xi, socialism cannot be built in one country, nor is peaceful coexistence with imperialism possible. The only way forward for the working class of China is to unite in a party built on the true Marxist-Leninist principles of class independence, internationalism and world revolution and sweep away the self-interested CPC bureaucrats. Oust the bureaucrats! Defend China against imperialism and counterrevolution!
VI. The Fight for Revolutionary Leadership
As the world enters a new historic period of crisis, the working class stands politically disarmed. Everywhere it is led by bureaucrats and traitors who have overseen one defeat after another. As gigantic challenges loom, the task of forging leaderships of the working class that will truly represent its interests is posed with the utmost urgency. How to forge such leaderships? This is the central question confronting revolutionaries today. The inevitable social and political upheavals in the years ahead will raise the masses against their current leaders and present opportunities for radical realignments in the workers movement. But these occasions will be wasted without pre-existing revolutionary cadre who have rejected the failed policies of the last 30 years and correctly pose the tasks of today.
The Central Lesson of Leninism
In The Permanent Revolution (1929), Trotsky wrote of Lenin: “The struggle for the independent political party of the proletariat constituted the main content of his life.” It is precisely this core concept of Leninism that is repudiated by each new wave of revisionism. While it takes a distinctive shape according to the dominant pressures of the epoch, revisionism always consists at bottom of the subordination of the proletariat to the interests of alien classes.
Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party took its mature form after the outbreak of World War I, when the parties of the Second International, having sworn to oppose the war, overwhelmingly lined up patriotically behind their own governments. In his works during the war, Lenin showed how this historic betrayal did not come out of thin air but was prepared by and rooted in the preceding period of imperialist ascendancy. The exploitation of countless millions by a few great powers generates superprofits which are used to co-opt the upper layers of the working class. In its habits, ideology and aims, this stratum aligns itself with the bourgeoisie against the interests of the working class. The wholesale capitulation of most of Social Democracy showed that the pro-capitalist trend in the workers movement had not only become dominant but had paralyzed or co-opted the majority of what had been the revolutionary wing of the International.
From this experience Lenin drew the conclusion that unity with pro-capitalist elements of the workers movement meant political subordination to the capitalist class itself and necessarily betrayed the fight for socialism. Most of his fire was directed against the centrists in the workers movement, who had not openly rejected the principles of socialism but sought nonetheless to maintain unity at all costs with open traitors to the working class. Lenin insisted that centrists stood as the principal obstacle to building a party capable of leading the masses on the road to revolution. Whereas this lesson was critical to the successful October Revolution in Russia, the failure to assimilate it in time in Germany led to the defeat of the 1919 Spartakist uprising. From the ashes of war and revolution, the Third International was founded on the principle that any party claiming to fight for revolution must split politically and organizationally from the pro-capitalist and centrist wing of the workers movement.
As the postwar revolutionary wave receded, a period of capitalist stabilization ensued, which left the Soviet Union isolated on the world scene. It is in this context that Stalinism emerged, rejecting the essential component of Leninism—the political independence of the working class. Rather than relying on the extension of revolution by the international working class to defend the USSR, Stalin increasingly relied on other class forces. Whether it was the kulaks, the Guomindang in China, the British trade-union bureaucracy or the imperialists themselves, Stalin struck agreements that sacrificed the long-term interests of the working class in favor of supposed short-term advantages. Far from strengthening the Soviet Union, this led to one bloody disaster after another, undermining the overall position of the international proletariat.
Trotsky’s struggle for a left opposition and for a new, Fourth International was a continuation of Leninism precisely in that it fought to build an international vanguard party against the social-democratic and Stalinist trends in the workers movement. The physical extermination of its cadre, including Trotsky himself, led to political disorientation and defeat in the revolutionary openings that followed the carnage of World War II. The consequence was the strengthening of Stalinism and world imperialism. It is these historic defeats and the failure since that time to reforge the Fourth International that led to further catastrophic setbacks up to the destruction of the Soviet Union itself.
Post-Soviet Period: “Marxists” Liquidate into Liberalism
At the time of the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, the forces claiming the mantle of Trotskyism overwhelmingly stood by and watched or actively cheered as the remaining gains of the October Revolution were destroyed. The ICL stood alone in fighting for Trotsky’s program of defense of the Soviet Union and political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy. Despite its tiny size and political weaknesses (see document on permanent revolution), the ICL was at its post when faced with the decisive test of the epoch. But its weakness and isolation speak volumes to the miserable state of the revolutionary left at the dawn of the new historical period.
The consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union were devastating for all those claiming to be Marxist. The world’s rapid shift to the right—not to bonapartism or fascism but to liberalism—created enormous pressure toward organizational and political liquidationism. With this turn in the world situation, the task was to slowly and patiently rebuild a revolutionary working-class vanguard based on the lessons of the recent proletarian defeats and in political opposition to liberalism. While the ICL was able to explain the Soviet collapse, like the rest of the “Marxist” left it rejected building a revolutionary alternative to liberalism (see “The ICL’s Post-Soviet Revisionism”).
By adapting to liberalism and not fighting to chart an independent working-class road forward, the “Marxist” left was without a compass in the face of the stability and relative prosperity of the new period. To justify its existence, it resorted to crisis-mongering and pointing to specific atrocities or reactionary policies to “prove” that imperialism retained its reactionary character. This simply dovetailed with the dominant liberalism, which had no problem with critics wanting to curb “excesses” such as war and racism in the context of the “peaceful” exploitation of the world through the expansion of finance capital.
The wars, austerity, and national and racial oppression of the post-Soviet period were of course grounds for workers and youth to revolt. But for this revolt to take on revolutionary content, it was necessary to expose how the liberal leadership dominating these various struggles was an obstacle to advancing them. It was necessary to exacerbate the contradictions between the legitimate sentiment of revolt and the liberals’ loyalty to the system engendering these scourges. The task was to break these movements from their liberal leaderships. But none of the so-called Marxist organizations so much as identified this as the task at hand. Instead, the “revolutionaries” latched themselves to each wave of liberal opposition to the status quo that emerged, giving a slight Marxist coloration to what were bourgeois movements.
The more right-wing “Trotskyist” organizations gave up most of their Marxist pretensions and built the left wing of neoliberalism, whether it was Green parties, the U.S. Democratic Party, the British Labour Party or Brazilian PT. The French Mandelites—pretenders to the Fourth International—liquidated their Ligue communiste révolutionnaire, replacing it with the amorphous Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste, whose professed goal was no longer working-class revolution but merely to create a “strategic alternative to mild social-liberalism” (Daniel Bensaïd). Others retreated into the worst sort of sectarianism. The Northites (known for their World Socialist Web Site) proclaimed that in the epoch of globalization, unions were “simply incapable of seriously challenging internationally-organized corporations” and had thus become entirely reactionary. For all its radical verbiage, this anti-union position simply leaves the liberal leadership of the unions unchallenged.
The more centrist groups such as the ICL and Internationalist Group (IG) continued to proclaim the need for revolutionary leadership and to “break with reformism” in general but totally abstracted this from the need to split the left from liberalism, the main political task in cohering a revolutionary party in that new epoch. Necessarily, the polemics by the ICL and IG against the rest of the left (and each other) were based on timeless principles and abstract jargon, not on guiding class struggle along revolutionary lines.
The result of 30 years of disorientation and capitulation to liberalism speaks for itself. Today, as a new epoch begins, those organizations claiming to stand for revolution are splintered, weak and sclerotic (literally and metaphorically), with barely any influence on the course of working-class struggle. They remain stuck in the same mold in which they have worked unsuccessfully for decades.
The Fight for the Fourth International Today
The struggle for revolution today must be founded on a correct understanding of the key characteristics of the epoch. U.S. imperialism remains the dominant power and the world order it has built continues to define global politics. It is being challenged not by the aggressive rise of rival imperialist powers but by the relative loss of economic and military weight of all imperialist countries in favor of China—a deformed workers state—and regional powers that have a degree of autonomy but remain dependent on and oppressed by world imperialism. Current dynamics point to increased economic and political instability throughout the world and regional conflicts (Ukraine, Taiwan, etc.) with potentially catastrophic global implications. The pressure on the world order is rapidly rising as are internal pressures within each country.
The clearest way for U.S. imperialism to regain the initiative is by dealing a crippling blow to China. The CPC bureaucracy has fostered enormous contradictions within China by balancing between world imperialism, a growing capitalist class and the most powerful proletariat on the planet. The breakdown of the post-Soviet equilibrium will exacerbate these contradictions. The CPC’s hold is not as solid as it outwardly appears, especially in the face of internal unrest (as seen in the small but significant protests against the CPC’s brutal lockdowns). The working class will not stay passive as its economic conditions not only stagnate but start to worsen. Nor will the Chinese capitalists passively accept being squeezed by the bureaucracy. Eventually, either China will fall to counterrevolution like the USSR or the proletariat will rise up, sweep away the bureaucracy and establish proletarian democracy through a political revolution. When this will be decided is impossible to predict. Any showdown is sure to be preceded by violent zigzags by the bureaucracy, cracking down on both counterrevolutionaries and working-class discontent. The task of revolutionaries regarding China is to defend the gains of the 1949 Revolution against counterrevolution and imperialist aggression while showing how the bureaucracy undermines these gains at every turn by betraying the fight for international revolution.
The struggle by the U.S. and its imperialist allies to maintain their grip on the world order will come at ever-growing social costs for their populations at home. Already the social fabric of the imperialist powers is rotting from the inside. The balance maintained by cheap credit, monopoly profits and speculative bubbles is no longer tenable as living standards are being crushed. Numerous Western countries have shown signs of growing discontent in the working class. France has been the most explosive, but even countries such as the U.S. and Britain have seen a rise in trade-union struggle.
While the first waves of these struggles are being defeated, the pressure will only rise at the base of the unions. It will become clearer that none of the problems confronting the working class can be solved through palliative adjustments to the status quo. This will pose ever more sharply the need for a trade-union leadership that can lead the working class on the road of revolutionary struggle. The main obstacle blunting this development is the so-called “revolutionaries” who support marginally more left-wing but pro-capitalist trade-union leaders instead of building oppositions based on a revolutionary program. Only in struggle against such centrism will it be possible to break the trade unions from their current pro-capitalist leaderships.
As threats accumulate, liberalism is becoming ever more rabid and hysterical. This reflects the liberal petty bourgeoisie desperately clinging to the status quo. But it also reflects a legitimate fear among the oppressed in the face of growing right-wing reaction. Revolutionaries in the West must understand that to fight rising reaction it is necessary to break the liberalism that shackles movements in defense of immigrants, racial minorities and women and other sexually oppressed people. Marxist-sounding criticism of certain isolated elements of their programs, such as cop reform or appeals to the state, is not sufficient. Only by showing in practice how liberalism is a direct obstacle to advancing the struggles of the oppressed can its hold on the masses be broken. This cannot be done from the sidelines but only from within the struggle, by providing a class-struggle response to every manifestation of capitalist tyranny.
The shocks of the world order will hit the countries at the bottom of the pyramid the hardest. The prospect of a better life, which seemed a possibility not so far back, is now closing for hundreds of millions of people. The new working-class layers in Asia, Africa and Latin America represent the greatest danger to capitalism. The masses of the Global South have increasingly left the isolation of the villages and are urbanized, literate and connected to the world. Their growing role in world production gives them tremendous power, yet their only prospect is further immiseration. It is this groundswell of the disenfranchised that is pushing populist forces to the fore. The weak capitalist classes of these countries must balance between the pressure from below, which threatens to sweep them away, and the pressure from the imperialist paymasters who control international capital flows. Leftist demagoguery and religious obscurantism have so far proven effective in keeping the lid on social discontent. But when this fails, military dictatorship is never far behind.
In countries oppressed by imperialism, the fight for national emancipation from the grip of the great powers and the resolution of other most basic democratic tasks play a decisive role. As these struggles intensify, it will be shown at every step that the national bourgeoisies play a treacherous role, sacrificing national liberation and the emancipation of the working class and peasantry on the altar of private property. Revolutionaries must enter the fray and show at every step how only the working class at the head of all the oppressed can lead to liberation.
Under no circumstances can the fight against authoritarian or obscurantist governments justify the slightest concession or alliance with pro-imperialist liberal-modernizing alternatives. That would only strengthen reaction while tying the forces for democratic reform to imperialism. In countries where the bourgeoisie paints itself in left-wing “anti-imperialist” colors, it is necessary to expose their lying hypocrisies by pushing the fight against imperialism forward. Nothing can be more sterile and counterproductive than standing on the sidelines and preaching revolution. It is obligatory to defend any reforms that strike at imperialist interests. But this must in no case justify supporting bourgeois populism. The working class must defend its independence at all costs, always making clear that it fights imperialism with its own methods and aims—those of revolutionary class struggle.
The forces fighting for international revolution are today minuscule. Regroupment based on a clear program and outlook is essential. We offer the current document as a contribution to the process of rebuilding and regrouping the forces for the Fourth International. The ICL has been mired in internal controversy and political disorientation, yet it advances confident that the process of consolidation it has started will give it a crucial role in the upcoming period of social turmoil and conflict. As Trotsky explained:
Forward to a reforged Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution!