The pandemic, the working class and the left


The Coronavirus pandemic is accelerating across the world. Every few days the scope and scale of the disease is increasing. Hundreds of thousands of people are being infected, many thousands have already died and many tens of thousands will die.

In China where the outbreak was first identified, it has been brought under control but elsewhere it is spreading rapidly. In its wake the virus is transforming everyday life. The main way to fight it is self-isolation and social distancing. No longer can people socialise as they did. Grandparents cannot help look after their grandkids. The schools are shut. The supermarket shelves are often empty. Bars, clubs restaurants and all social amenities are closed and will remain so possibly for many months.

The world is turned upside down and everyday life is changed in a way that nobody was expecting.

Swift action in China against the virus gave the rest of the world a breathing space. It gave other countries a few weeks in which to make preparations but few heeded the warning signs. In the US and Europe, few if any preparations were made by governments. Trump called the virus a hoax. He had already closed the White House pandemic office and last July had withdrawn the only US medical epidemiologist embedded in China’s disease control agency in Beijing. This was a ‘Chinese’ virus and would not infect US citizens. But Europe not China is now the epicentre of the virus and many thousands more will die here than there. In the US itself there has been precious little testing and the disease is running rampant.

As governments flounder and struggle to stop the spread of the pandemic, ordinary people are coming together in self-help groups, in streets and on estates and throughout the community, to make sure the vulnerable and the elderly are not abandoned. In the UK, thousands of these groups sprang to life almost spontaneously. They are social solidarity in action and are taking some of the strain off local councils who have seen services decimated through central government cutbacks. This is not only heart warming but is a cause for hope and optimism.

Society is creaking under the weight of the tasks necessary to protect people in this outbreak. It is ill-prepared. The health service is poorly resourced and short of staff and basic equipment. The medical staff struggle to find protective masks. There are insufficient beds and not enough ventilators. The doctors will have to decide who lives and who dies. More morgues are being prepared. All this stems from years of austerity cutbacks which followed the bailout of the banks in 2008. Over that period there has been a massive transfer of wealth from working people to a small elite in society.

When the government says not to panic few believe it. When the supermarkets say there is enough food for all even fewer believe it. The supermarket shelves are emptying. The just-in-time food supply chain is fragile and could easily collapse.

The pandemic has detonated an enormous crisis. It is a crisis not just of health care but of the economy, of our political structures and of society as a whole. It is a global existential crisis of the entire system, it presents a real threat to the continuation of capitalism. Is this an exaggeration?  Some argue that the old routines of society will return once a vaccine is found. People will go back to work, production will resume and things will pretty much return to ‘normal’

Of course it is possible for the ruling class to recover its position, even from such a deep crisis. But is it also possible now to see an alternative path to a new kind of society. A struggle is now engaged over the future – can this rotten system be ended?  For many years this has seemed an unattainable prospect for those on the left. But in the midst of this crisis the possibility of fundamental social change is posed.

The virus has stripped the ideological mask away from society. Every thing that was hidden is now illuminated for all to see. The pandemic unleashes the same social and political dynamic that the world wars did. It accelerates class divisions and class struggle and reveals the real relations of things in society. We can see clearly the social power of the working class. The bankers, the Richard Bransons, the hedge fund managers and the speculators are exposed as the drain on society that they actually are. They add nothing of value.

The real value in society is to be found in those who constitute the actual subject of production, that is in labour itself. It is an ideological sleight of hand that makes the capitalist rather than the worker appear as the motor of production. For those of us on the left this is a truism that we learnt in our early time in the movement. But the change that the virus creates is that this now becomes apparent to all, as clear as day. Everyone now not only sees it but they come out on their balconies and shout it and make noise with pots and pans about it and whatever else they have to hand. And in Edinburgh they sing it in the form of Proclaimers’ songs dedicated to the ‘unsung heroes’ of this crisis – the nurses, the doctors and all those who are keeping society going during this crisis.

Society as a whole recognises the truth that it can dispense quite happily with the bankers but nurses are essential. Even the ruling class understands this and sees its own impotence in the crisis. The virus illuminates this essential truth: that working people embody the common decency of humanity.

Millions of people now recognise the uselessness of this system and of those who rule us. ‘Don’t we need a new form of society?’ ‘Why are things like this?’ This goes beyond leftist propaganda and becomes the talk of everyday life. In the solidarity networks these questions and these discussions are taking place. ‘What sort of society do we want?’. And when the answer to that question is ‘Not This One’, then something is in the air. A profound change in mass social consciousness is taking place.

The questions keep coming. Why are there no medical masks, no ventilators, no hand sanitizer? Where do we get these things? The answer is simple. Requisition the resources from the private health care system, instruct manufacturers to produce for human need. Society can be organised on radically different lines and can serve the interests of the vast majority and not those of a small minority.

This is a potentially explosive situation in class relations. The economic compulsion on the backs of the working class is undermined. Everyone remembers Theresa May saying in the 2017 general election that there was no magic money tree to pay for an increase in nurses’ wages. Now it seems they have found a whole magic money forest to try and preserve their dominance.

So what will happen next? The ruling class senses the danger and is prepared to move quickly and to give ground in order to maintain class rule. They are trying various strategies to preserve their position. At the beginning Johnson and his chief adviser Cummings were both keen on the ‘herd immunity’ strategy which proposed letting the virus rip through society. However after a public outcry and the publication of a study by epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson and others from Imperial College which suggested the strategy could lead to the deaths of 250,000 in the UK and up to 1.2m in the US, ‘herd immunity’ was shelved. The government withdrew it declaring that it had never been its strategy in the first place.

The pandemic has driven the world economy into recession to be followed by slump outstripping both the crisis of the 1930s and that of 2008. All the accumulated contradictions within the system that drove previous crises are once again brought to the surface in an even more powerful and destructive way. The measures taken to try and revive capitalist economies over the last ten years have built a massive burden of indebtedness into the system which now threatens its collapse. In its wake it reveals the fragility of all the existing political and social structures in society.

The Tories do not have a clear strategy to extricate themselves from this agglomeration of crises. A class truce is proposed by both Tories and Labour Party to deal with a national emergency. The Tories are prepared to temporarily suspend some of their sectional interests. The Labour Party, deeply wounded by its election defeat, is keen to present itself as a loyal, constructive and responsible opposition.

Jeremy Corbyn, whom the Conservative Party has attacked as a threat to the nation and as an ‘anti-semite’, now becomes an important elder statesman with whom one can work. You will hear little about the anti-semitism crisis in the Labour Party in the coming period. And Corbyn will be replaced by Keir Starmer who is very much a politician that leading Tories believe they can do business with. Some argue that Starmer should be brought into a national unity government. They believe that they will need Labour’s help in order to survive this crisis.

This political truce has its dangers for both parties. Both parties risk being outflanked and surpassed as the catastrophe gathers pace. In this situation the Labour Party is in a potentially powerful position, but doesn’t yet realise it – or more accurately wants to avoid the responsibilities that now rest on its shoulders. It welcomes being asked into the establishment’s inner circles and warns workers to accept and not go beyond what the Tories propose.

But the reality is that labour itself – the working class – is able at this point to exert its social, economic and political power. The Labour Party must represesent the interests of the working class in this context. It must lead, because what we are seeing is a shift in the balance of class forces in society, a change that few of us could have imagined only a few weeks ago. Working people are becoming aware of their power and the possibility of uniting with others across borders.

There is a sense that something must really change and a recognition that society must not return to how things were before the pandemic. Another, better world will have to be made.

The question for the radical left is how are we to respond? Do we have anything to say in this situation?

We cannot just repeat the old formulas. We have to reawaken our historical perspectives of socialist transformation. The answers do not lie in mirroring the strategies of the revolutions of the twentieth century. We must grasp the interplay of the social forces which are presented to us today, historically conditioned as those are, and which form the terrain on which we must fight. Previous revolutionary struggles cannot just be repeated. They left a legacy of positive and negative aspects which will shape our actions now.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks were the product of a specific constellation of historical and social forces. We must fight with the comrades we have and the social forces which exist in our time.

Many millions of people are beginning to understand the need for real social change and are preparing to fight for the new society they want to see. The initial skirmishes in this battle will take many forms and socialists should engage creatively with the new forms of organisation that are emerging and not impose preconceived ideas as to how the struggles should unfold.

The left in the country has been riven by deep divisions over Brexit but in other countries too socialist organisations have been confined to a small political space; and comrades have been isolated from each other in separate organisations, often battling over the minutiae of political differences. I believe it is time to try and unite those socialist forces which understand both the gravity of the crisis and the tasks necessary in the coming period.

There will continue to be political differences and I am not suggesting the abandonment of principles. Instead I am suggesting the abandonment of subjectivity because that is required of us. It is our duty as socialists. We must try and rise to the level necessary to play the historical role that the left has always claimed for itself.

The virus has disrupted the ability of the ruling class to subordinate working people in line with its overall class interest. The virus stops capital reproduction dead in its tracks. The Tories are prepared to give ground because they understand the weakness of their own position. They speculate that this ground can be recouped from labour once everything gets back to ‘normal’. In this belief they have some willing allies in the labour movement. These people are so imbued with the ideology of the ruling class that they cannot imagine the world being any different.

But there is movement now at the base of society. There is anger, a desire for change and there needs to be organisation.

The working class is faced with the possibility, no more than that at this moment, of resolving – in its own interests – some of the problems it has faced for many decades. It begins to recognise the impossibility of continuing to live in a world dominated by capital. A question is posed. How do we create a society based on human need and not profit?

For the radical left there is a new mass audience. Ideas that would have seemed outlandish a few weeks ago now make perfect common sense. Who will now justify the billions or even trillions of dollars being spent on nuclear weapons and other military hardware? Why do we not distribute food to the poor and vulnerable? Why are there food banks? Surely food should be distributed to everyone? Increasingly production and distribution are being brought under state control in the interests of the population as a whole. This cannot be only necessary and desirable during a national emergency. It has to be the bedrock of our society.

There must be no going back and we need to be organised, becoming hegemonic with a new narrative that centres planning, public ownership and solidarity at the heart of our society. The desire for ‘normality’ after the crisis will play into the Tories’ hands, We must resist this and win the case for social, economic and political transformation.

There is a lot more to say on the question of internationalism and on the question of climate change.  During the crisis the decline in industrial production, the reduction of air travel and exhaust emissions reduces pollution and leads to better air quality. There are once again fish and dolphins in the canals of Venice. The fight against the pandemic has to be accompanied by a complete re-thinking about the organisation of society and its relation to the natural world. In the future society must be organised in such a way that the natural world is protected and not destroyed.

We all need to write about and discuss these crucial matters. I will try and write some more on them myself, especially about why building the international movement is a primary task at this moment, and about the dangers we face from the far right should we fail.

Let us recognise the scale of the tasks we face and bring together those forces that have a common understanding of the necessity of ending this system, not saving it.

Time is not on our side. Rosa Luxemburg’s understanding that in her historical period humanity stood on the crossroads between ‘socialism or barbarism’ has never been more true than in ours.


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