Articles posted by Radical Socialist on various issues.

Women of Dada and Their Times


— Penelope Rosemont

THIS YEAR IS the centennial of the birth of Dada, an anti-bourgeois movement in literature and art with profound Left-wing associations, especially in relation to anti-colonialism. Cabaret Voltaire was a nightclub in Zurich, Switzerland where the movement was launched by the poets Emmy Hennings and other artists. This reflection by Penelope Rosemont is a contribution to both our Women’s History feature and our ongoing centennial retrospective on World War I. — The Editors

YES, THERE WERE Dada women!

One hundred years of Dada this year. Cabaret Voltaire lasted less than six months from its opening, February 1916 in Zurich, Switzerland. Who would have guessed that its obscure beginning would herald a world-rocking negativity that was at the same time an ardent demand for renewal?

The group, idea, movement that it created, Dada, itself didn’t last very long but quickly mutated into surrealism and somehow made its radical presence known worldwide.

Zurich, at that time an island of peace, surrounded by ice, surrounded by war, attracted anarchists, revolutionaries, war resisters, bohemians who were fleeing the waves of patriotism and war fever rampant in Europe — it was even home for a time to Lenin. Albert Einstein lived there, taught there, was there in 1916. Bakunin had lived there earlier.

Emmy Hennings arrived with Hugo Ball in May 1915. They performed throughout Switzerland and then decided to establish a cabaret in Zurich named for Voltaire, to them “the anti-poet, the king of Jacanapes, the prince of the Superficial, anti-artist, preacher of the gate-keepers, the Papa Gigogne of newspaper editors...”
Plans were hatched with Marcel Slodky, Hans Arp and Max Oppenheimer. At Cabaret Voltaire’s first evening Tristan Tzara and the Janco brothers showed up and joined them.

Emmy, herself a singer, was the star performer. Ball played piano. Other acts included a balalaika band and a Dutch banjo group, dancers who performed to the mandolin, passionate poets and pianist Artur Rubenstein who played Ravel, Saint-Saens and Debussy.

Art by Picasso, Slodky, Janco, Arp and others hung on the walls, amid dance created by Sophie Tauber Arp, and puppet skits by Hennings. They were soon joined by Huelsenbeck playing drums and reading his poems.

Plays, poems, dances, songs, Negro chants, puppet theater, all were encouraged, it was open to all comers. Ball wrote that it was “a race against the audience’s expectations that called up all our powers of invention.... an indefinable intoxication.”

According to painter Christian Schad, in the spring of 1916 Dada gave birth to itself from this atmosphere of “spontaneous incongruities, formulated anti-meaning, ebullient collisions of opinions.” The name Dada itself was found by chance while searching for a title for their journal in a French dictionary.

When Dada or the cultural vanguard movements of this time are discussed, the women are most often completely left out. They might have been sensational performers as Emmy Hennings was, but nothing is left of their performances — or it could just be the male-centered cultural sieve that strains women out. Some of my favorite women Dadas Hannah Hock, Hennings, Sophie Tauber Arp, Beatrice Wood and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven participated and produced first class work, and yet....

Recovering Women Artists

Emmy Hennings was born in Flensburg on the coast of Germany, the daughter of a seaman. In 1906 she lost her child and was deserted by her husband; she took to the road, joining a traveling theater company. She had another child whom she left with her mother and continued as a vagabond performer appearing in road shows, light opera and nightclubs in Cologne, Budapest, Moscow and beyond.

A poet and writer, she wrote for Pan and Die Aktion, Left and anarchist journals. She and participated in the magazine Revolution which was founded by Hugo Ball and Hans Leybold. She was a star performer in Munich and met Hugo Ball while singing at Cafe Simplizissimus. Hugo Ball knew the gentle and elderly anarchist Gustav Landauer, active there, a fine writer especially notable for his theory of play.

In 1914 she spent time in prison charged with forging passports for those wishing to escape the war. She identified with the pacifists, not like some of the avant-guardists who supported the war. John Elerfield, editor of Flight Out of Time by Hugo Ball, claims she was implicated in a murder. She and Ball left for Zurich in 1915 to escape the madness.

According to Huelsenbeck, Hennings sang “Hugo Ball’s aggressive songs with an anger we had to give her credit her for although we scarcely thought her capable of it,” referring to the passionate voice of the frail Emmy. The Zurich Chronicle called her the “star of the cabaret” and described her as “exuberant as a flowering shrub, she presents a bold front and performs with a body that has only been slightly ravaged by grief.”

In her poem “Prison,” read at the first Dada event, she voiced her hatred of war and the prison system, her continuing despair: “There outside lies the world, there roars life, there men may go where they will, once we belonged to them, and now we are forgotten, sucked into oblivion, at night we dream of miracle on narrow beds, by day we go around like frightened animals, we peep out sadly through the iron grating, and have nothing more to lose....”

Cultural, Scientific & Social Revolution

Dada represented a beginning in a revolution of culture and consciousness, while Einstein brought the revolution in science. In November 1915 Albert Einstein triumphantly revised Newton’s universe with the General Theory of Relativity. “The general theory of relativity was not merely the interpretation of some experimental data or the discovery of a more accurate set of laws. It was a whole new way of regarding reality,” said his biographer Walter Isaacson.

In 1917 Hennings and Ball had broken with Dada and left Zurich. The Russian Revolution was in full swing. The Isaacson biography mentions the German Revolution of 1918 that began with a revolt of the sailors, became a general strike and then a popular uprising. On November 9, Einstein noted “Class cancelled because of Revolution.”

Protestors occupied the Reichstag and the Kaiser resigned. Students took over the university and jailed the deans and the rector. Einstein and two friends, physicist Max Born and psychologist Max Werthheimer, asked the students to release the prisoners. But the students didn’t have the power to do so, so Einstein and friends went to find the new German president who did then sign the release order. That day Einstein also addressed a group on the dangers of tyranny, both Right and Left.

Emmy published an autobiographical novel Gefangnis (1918) which described her prison confinement, her talks with other prisoners and the feeling prison provoked in her of being trapped always — whether in prison trapped by bars, or outside the walls trapped by society. Ball, who had written an entire book on Bakunin, now claimed anarchists were innocents (perhaps he did not always feel this way).

Emmy subsequently turned to Catholic mysticism. Most of her work, including two novels which may have a religious turn and further information on her life, is available only in German.

Einstein’s work was not known to the broad world until 1919 when it was confirmed by the Eddington observations (on the deflection of light by gravity — ed.) The New York Times then published a huge six-part headline “Lights All Askew in the Heavens, Men of Science More or Less Agog over Results of Eclipse Observations, Einstein’s Theory Triumphs, Stars Not Where They Seemed or Were Calculated to Be. But Nobody Need Worry.....”

Kandinsky too passed through Zurich. He was a friend and a major influence on Hugo Ball, in touch with Tzara, and his work was included in the first Dada journal (1916). It is notable that Kandinsky’s Moscow exhibition of 1920 shows a change in his work — forms floating in space, perfect circles, geometric designs, the spectrum of color, bent forms and waves, cosmological considerations. He seems to have been translating Einstein’s theory of relativity into exhilarating paintings.

In a time of high hopes and many defeats a short-lived Munich Soviet was established in 1919 and the gentle Gustav Landauer became minister of education. Soon all were massacred by the military Freikorps. (On the Munich Soviet and massacre, seehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bavarian_Council_Republic — ed.)

Thinking about Dada today, it is astonishing that such a small, obscure group should have become such an influence. It was the laboratory for new ideas and unrestrained, uninhibited, playful activity and their works still find joyful resonance in our hearts. Groupings like this still exist.

One finds them around small magazines; they are poets, artists, socialists, anarchists and environmentalists. They are determined to create new ideas, new worlds and most of all, a new future.


Reproduced from Against the Current

March-April 2016, ATC 181

Rosa Luxemburg for Our Time


Tuesday 8 March 2016, by Nancy Holmstrom

From Against the Current

Does Rosa Luxemburg leave feminists a theoretical and political legacy? That is, does she give us any theoretical guidance as to how to understand women’s oppression? If so, what is it?

Certainly Rosa Luxemburg is a model for feminists of all times in her passionate commitment both to understanding the nature of our oppressive system — and most important, to changing it — and for pursuing her own political and personal life without concern for what women were and were not supposed to do.

But what if anything would she have to say about theoretical debates among socialist feminists today? Was she even a feminist in this sense? Was her position on women’s oppression similar to her position on national oppression [opposing Lenin’s embrace of the right of nations to self-determination, which she saw as a diversion from class struggle — ed.]?

And on the practical political questions facing feminists today, does Luxemburg’s work give us any guidance? These are the kinds of questions our panel will address.

Luxemburg and Zetkin

Luxemburg wrote next to nothing specifically regarding women, and was not active in the women’s movement. Some have inferred from this that she was not a feminist, or in any case that she was not interested in women’s issues.

Obviously these were not her primary area of interest, but why should they have to be — can’t there be a division of labor?

Clara Zetkin, Luxemburg’s close comrade and friend, is well-known for her work with working-class women, including forming groups similar to the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s, which made Lenin distinctly uneasy. I know of no evidence that Luxemburg disagreed with her work.

On the contrary, in some of her last letters of November 1918, Rosa asks Zetkin for an article on women — “which is so important now, and none of us here understand anything about it” — and then to edit a women’s section of the Spartacus paper, saying “... it is such an urgent matter! Every day lost is a sin....”

Based on this correspondence and on her short writings on women’s issues, it should be abundantly clear that Luxemburg was a Marxist or socialist feminist in the sense we use these terms today.

First I will say very briefly how I characterize a socialist feminist, some of whom are Marxists and some are not, and then try to say where Luxemburg would stand on the debates among us.

Among Socialist-Feminists

All socialist-feminists see class as central to women’s lives, yet at the same time none would reduce sex or race oppression to economic exploitation. And all of us see these aspects of our lives as inseparably and systematically related; in other words, class is always gendered and raced.

The term “intersectionality” has come to be used for this position. Luxemburg certainly held to this kind of perspective, in that she recognized some kinds of oppression as common to all women and others varying by class and by nation.

While the special needs of working women were Luxemburg’s priority, she also supported positions some might see as merely “bourgeois demands,” the end to all laws that discriminated against women and women’s suffrage, which she advocated both as a matter of principle and for pragmatic political reasons.

Bringing women into politics would help combat what she called “the suffocating air of the philistine family” that affected even socialist men, and would also build the ranks of the social democratic forces. These positions were actually in advance of the bourgeois women’s organizations of the time.

On one occasion, she criticized social democrats willing to compromise on women’s suffrage to make an electoral alliance with liberals. The most radical of socialists were often also the best feminists. Within the broad definition of intersectionality, however, there are differences regarding how to understand these kinds of oppression and how they are related.

Some socialist feminists see capitalism and sexism (usually called “patriarchy”) as two distinct, though intersecting, systems with equal explanatory importance. (Other systems to account for race/ethnic oppression are usually part of the picture too.)

Just as capitalism is constituted by relations of oppression and exploitation between capitalists and workers, patriarchy is a system in which men oppress women. Some also say men exploit women, which they explain in different ways. This is known as a “dual systems” position.

Marxist Feminism

On the other hand, other Marxist/socialist feminists believe there is only one kind of oppression and exploitation that, in the current period, really constitutes a system with full explanatory powers — and that is capitalism. However, other distinct kinds of oppression, like sexism, play more or less important roles within the framework of that system at different times and places.

One system or two — or more — is a highly abstract theoretical question, but often connected to a practical political one: what kind of political organizing should take priority? Should it always be class issues, labor struggles and other economic issues not differentiated along gender lines? Or is it legitimate from a socialist point of view to give equal importance to distinctly women’s issues?

Dual systems theorists will invariably give equal political importance to organizing around class or sex (or race) issues. Why would they not? But what political implications should be drawn from the one-system theoretical position, which I accept?

In my opinion — and I want to stress this — it does not follow that struggles around sex (or race) oppression should necessarily have a lower political priority. Socialist feminists try to integrate the two, whatever their views on the abstract question of one or two systems.

For example, contemporary socialist feminists support the legal right to abortion, like liberal feminists, but we combine that with the right to birth control, medical care, childcare, better and equal pay (certainly more than $15/hour) — all the things necessary to give working-class women a genuine choice over their reproduction.

Luxemburg, I am pretty sure, assumed the one-system position, giving theoretical primacy to capitalism as a framework in which other kinds of oppression operate. On the practical political question, I can’t say for sure, but I would like to think she would have the flexible position regarding political priorities (perhaps because that is my view).

Oppression and Exploitation

In “Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle” of 1912, Luxemburg makes an important theoretical argument relevant to current debates. She writes the following:

“Only that work is productive which produces surplus value and yields capitalist profit — as long as the rule of capital and the wage system still exists. From this standpoint the dancer in a café, who makes a profit for her employer with her legs, is a productive working woman, while all the toil of the woman and mothers of the proletariat within the four walls of the home is considered unproductive work. This sounds crude and crazy, but it is an accurate expression of the crudeness and craziness of today’s capitalist economic order....”

I have used this quote more than once to clarify the meaning of (un)productive labor in capitalism and to distinguish oppression from capitalist exploitation.

Some feminists are very offended by the Marxist position that housework is unproductive labor, and some argue for “wages for housework.” But as the quote from Luxemburg makes clear, designating housework as unproductive is hardly an insult, nor is it sexist. A carpenter who works for the government, or for that matter a public school teacher, are also “unproductive” in capitalist terms, though both — obviously, and very importantly — are productive in a general sense.

It’s crucial to understand what “productive” means in capitalist terms, i.e. the production of surplus value, because it is this that makes the capitalist system tick.

There is more to be said about the domestic labor debate, but one important point is that even in 1912, as Luxemburg wrote, “millions of proletarian women ... produce capitalist profit just like men — in factories, workshops, agriculture, homework industries, offices and stores. They are productive therefore in the strictest economic sense of society today.”

Luxemburg used this fact as an argument for suffrage; it showed that patriarchal conceptions of women’s “proper role” had become simply ridiculous.

I agree with Luxemburg on this theoretical point and on its importance. However, I think we must be careful not to overstate its political importance.

Even if housework were productive of surplus value, it wouldn’t follow that orgnizing housewives should be a priority for socialists. Compare guards in private prisons who do produce surplus value. Though exploited by capital, they certainly would not be promising candidates for socialist organizing.

On the other hand, while public sector workers are not productive in this sense, they are a key sector for labor organizing today and should be, given the attacks on the public sector. Where socialists should put their best energies depends on many factors and we need to be alert to changing conditions.

Luxemburg’s stress on the meaning of “productive” labor in this crazy capitalist system also helps to explain why capitalism is leading to the destruction of our planet and why we need to build a society based on production for human needs, not profit. Organizing around this issue has to be central to everyone today.

Luxemburg argued for a working-women’s organization independent of the bourgeois women’s movement, so that they could better fight for their specific needs, while at the same time supporting universal women’s interests.

More controversially, she also supported independent self-organization within the working class and even among socialists, encouraging Zetkin to found a women’s section of the Spartacus League. This position, I would point out, is ahead of many Marxists today.

So in conclusion. there is much that Luxemburg’s life and work can offer to contemporary socialist feminists. We need not look to her for all the answers, and we might find some areas of disagreement, but no more than we would likely find in this room.

Remember Rohith Vemula and Cry Death to Brahmanism: Dalit Suicides Are Systemic and must be resisted by making Anti-casteism a Core Issue of Social Movements

Radical Socialist condemns the state and University organised repressions on Dalit students that culminated in the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar of the University of Hyderabad (UoH) and member of Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA). The Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) has been, and is continuing to be subjected to vicious attacks, by Ministers and MPs, by the Vice Chancellor, Executive Council and officials of the University of Hyderabad and by forces of Brahmanism on media and social media.

The background is the screening of Muzzafarnagar Baaqi Hai by the ASA — (a documentary which shows, using footage of speech made by BJP leaders, that the riots in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar were orchestrated for electoral gains in the run-up to the 2014 elections)—which was resisted by the goons of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student arm of the RSS. They attacked the ASA and also used verbal violence. The ASA response compelled them to apologise in public. This  “public humiliation” of Hindutvavadis before dalits, whom they treat as subhumans, resulted in sustained attacks. A fraudulent complaint was lodged, which resulted in an inquiry in which the ASA members could not be found guilty. Thereafter, several letters came from the Union Ministry of Human Resource Developments, in flagrant violation of the least autonomy of institutions of higher education, demanding action against so called anti-nationals. One issue currently being held up against the ASA is its opposition to the hanging of Yakub Memon. Anyone opposed capital punishment on principle are deemed anti-national by the current government and its MPs.

Eventually, after a change of Vice Chancellor, the Centre’s handpicked man, Appa Rao Podile, took action against five ASA members, all PhD scholars. Despite the fact that the Proctor’s report actually said: “The board could not get any hard evidence of beating of Mr. Susheel Kumar either from Mr Krishna Chaitanya or from the reports submitted by Dr. Anupama. Dr. Anupama’s reports also could not link or suggest that the surgery of the Susheel Kumar is the direct result of the beating.”, by decision of the University Executive Council, the five were denied access to hostels on the campus except their classrooms and workshops related to their subject of study. This amounted to a social boycott with the students being denied access to hostels and forced to sleep in a makeshift tent.

While carrying on agitations, Rohith clearly felt devastated by what was happening to him, as his suicide note tells us. His suicide note also recounts that his Junior Research Fellowship was stopped for the last 7 months and he had contracted debt, by borrowing from his friends. Rohith grew up in Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh and his mother is the sole breadwinner of the family who did sewing to support the household. This is the tale of a majority of dalit’s including the Vemulas who have to bear heavy economic burden. In this context we need to understand that this is not a one off incident, and that institutional murders of Dalit students, and at a lesser level the institutional and systemic attacks in their attempts to be educated, have been rampant in India. The UoH alone has seen nine Dalit students committing suicide in a decade. One remembers Dalits constantly failing in IITs, violence on Dalits and adivasis in numerous ways everywhere, such as the threats and the conscious failing and abuse of Chuni Kotal in West Bengal (resulting in her suicide), and other incidents.

In India, no genuinely revolutionary Marxist organisation can be built; no real social emancipatory struggle can be generated, unless it also makes opposition to Brahmanism and the real overcoming of the exploitation of Dalits and Adivasis a core component. Indeed, no struggle against communalism will be complete unless we realise the tacit bonds between wider savarna circles and aggressive communal-fascists, and unless we consciously seek to become parts of Dalit struggles as well as anti-communal struggles. Radical Socialist accordingly joins the militants of ASA, and all militant students in Indian campuses, in condemning Brahmanism on campus,  the institutional murder of Rohith, and demands:

  • ·         Resignation of Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya as Union Ministers
  • ·         Resignation/sacking of Appa Rao Podile
  • ·         Immediate revocation of the punitive action on all the other Dalit students
  • ·         Action against the police for snatching Rohith’s body and disposing of it instead of handing it over to his family
  • ·         Thorough judicial inquiry into the complicity of persons in abetting Rohith’s suicide.




Radical Socialist condemns Custodial Rape in West Bengal by army personnel

Protest Against Custodial Rape

More than 60 people joined the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) at the street corner of Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata on January 2, 2016—to protest against the cruel rape of a 14-year-old minor girl by army personnel in a moving train. The survivor was en route to meet a friend she made over Facebook via a Howrah-Amritsar mail. She took the compartment reserved for army personnel. She was later forced to consume a spiked alcoholic drink, and reportedly raped six times by at least two people. Following the complaint by her family about her disappearance, RPF and GRP personnel found the girl to be in the train and rescued her. The survivor identified the assaulters through CCTV footage. Accused persons have been arrested.

Heinous as it is, such crimes are far from rare. This brutal incident is merely the most recent addition to the long list of atrocities committed on a regular basis by the army, especially in the North Eastern states of India and Kashmir, thanks to the prevalence of the Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA). Survivors are still awaiting justice for the Kunan Poshpora gang-rape  incident perpetrated by army personnel in 1991—where the number of women raped by the Indian Army is somewhere between 23 to 100. Ordinary Kashmiri citizens and family members are still awaiting justice for the rape and murder of Neelofar Jan (aged 22 years) and Aasiya Jan (aged 17 years). In the wake of the rape and murder of  Thangjam Manorama, Manipuri women took to the streets in an unforeseen act of defiance—they stood naked with a piece of cloth covering them which had “Indian Army Come Rape Us” written on it.

While the sensitivity to cases of sexual assault has increased a little bit after the horrifying gang rape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012 —general people and the media are still oblivious to the countless number of atrocities committed on the poor and marginalised, Dalits and Adivasis and LGBT in particular. Many voices have raised the concern of stricter punishment for rapists, forgetting that often the enforcers of law of the bourgeois state are the ones committing the crimes. Forced disappearances of suspected militants cannot be solved by stricter laws. We do not need castration, or death penalty to reduce instances of sexual assault—we need sustained campaign to raise awareness on restorative justice, and on resisting the glorification of masculine values which reinforce sexual oppression. Political parties too legitimise masculinity by carrying out retributional politics of rape. We cannot fight a social problem with a legal solution. We need to embrace feminist politics to fight misogyny and patriarchy embedded in the social structure which caters to needs of capital. In the absence of a feminist politics, people will raise questions as to why the 14-year-old girl was visiting her virtual friend—an insinuation at a ‘socially’ unacceptable sexual relationship. This is raised, as though if it could be proved she wanted to have sex with a virtual friend, her rape would be justified.

Radical Socialist unequivocally condemns this incident of custodial gang rape of a minor and demand:


  • Perpetrators of sexual assault be given exemplary punishment without delay

  • The survivor be given adequate medical help both for physical injury and mental trauma

  • Safety measures be ensured by the governments in all public transport  

  • An end to all repressive acts and laws by the state including the AFSPA prevailing in Kashmir and the North Eastern states of India

  • We demand that the perpetrators of numerous instances of sexual violence and massacres in Kashmir and in the North East be brought to justice immediately.

China: Workers Rising?


China: Workers Rising?


 by Jane Slaughter

From Against the Current

When I read a book about rebellious factory workers in China, what I want to know is: Where are all the wildcat strikes heading? Will workers be able to build real (at this point illegal) unions? Will they be able to keep any kind of organization going? Will they ever be able to make connections across factories and coordinate their actions?

China’s leaders are intent on making the 21st century the Chinese century. To do so they will need the cooperation of the world’s largest working class, which these days is showing more restiveness than that of just about any other country. It would be good to read that this very new working class, an immense potential source of global worker solidarity, is overcoming its fragmentation and getting organized.

Neither of two fascinating books about China in 2014 and 2015 give me the answer that I want to hear.

Lu Zhang is assistant professor at Temple University and a researcher who interviewed 200 Chinese auto workers and 78 managers, party cadres and union officials at seven assembly plants. She does not predict the future except to say that local rebellions will continue and that the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which is actually part of the government and the only “union” allowed, will likely become more active on workers’ behalf.

Eli Friedman, assistant professor at Cornell’s Institute for Labor Research who speaks Mandarin and has spent a great deal of time in China, sees it as next to impossible that workers will win better conditions through the ACFTU or through legislation, which goes unenforced. He’s pessimistic about the legalization of real unions. He, too, says worker unrest will continue, but in its current fragmented form, not strong enough to force reforms, and inequality and poverty will persist.

It’s not a pretty picture, and not hopeful for workers in the West who are constantly told by management that they are competing against “the China price.”

Still, both authors take us inside the astounding manifestations of worker discontent that have the central government worried enough, in the last year, to crack down. The government has suppressed the worker-centered NGOs that sprang up in various cities to help workers file legal claims for unpaid wages or to assist on health and safety issues. It even shut down a labor-research center at SunYat-sen University in Guangzhou, co-sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley, that the regime found too friendly to worker concerns.

The message coming from the government these days is all about avoiding pernicious “Western influences” — which would include independent unions.

Growing Protests and Limits

Strikes and labor protests in China more than doubled last year to 1,379, according to the China Labour Bulletin, based in Hong Kong. In 2011 there were only 185. All strikes take place outside the official channels of the union.

Friedman shows us throughout Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China how the ACFTU takes a “passive repressive” response to worker unrest — and sometimes not so passive. His case studies show how in even the supposed best examples of collective contracts — the ones ACFTU officials show to visiting foreign unionists — workers find their union worthless and the contracts go unenforced.

His upshot, confirmed by other observers, is that the rising wave of protests wins gains for particular groups of workers but does not result in lasting organizations that workers could use to fight to alter the balance of power.

China’s government makes sure that’s the case because it fears independent worker organization more than anything — far more than outbursts of worker unrest.

A main role of the ACFTU, sometimes aided by the police, is to block any budding organization that might arise. The Wall Street Journal reports that during a recent strike at a clothing factory in Shenzhen, police entered the plant to force workers back to their jobs, breaking from past police practice of staying outside the premises.

A strike by 100 women workers at a small bike-light factory in Shenzhen in May this year is perhaps emblematic. Labor Notes reports that a Taiwanese company, New An Lun Lamp, was ignoring labor law and social insurance policies by not paying into workers’ pension or housing funds.

The company refused to pay for sick, maternity, work injury, or marriage leave or the high-temperature allowance that workers were entitled to. Bathrooms were locked except during official breaks. When workers held a sit-in in May, 100 police came to help the company move out finished bike lights. Strikers were evicted and nine were arrested.

The nature of the ACFTU is fairly well known; Friedman explains that it’s under the control of the government at the national and city levels, while at the company level, it’s controlled by the employer. Higher-level officials are not elected but appointed. They’re rotated in and out of union jobs and other positions in the state machinery.

Friedman says, “It is not at all unusual for people with no experience in trade unionism whatsoever to be appointed to very high-level positions...leadership is frequently unfamiliar with, and often uninterested in, labor issues...these officials think of themselves as, and behave like, government officials.”

Indeed, the 2001 Trade Union Law says that in the event of a work stoppage, the “union shall assist the enterprise or institution in properly dealing with the matter so as to help restore the normal order of production and other work as soon as possible.”

At the company level, Friedman reports, “it is quite common to have human resource managers or the enterprise owner serve as union chairs.” And if a pro-worker union chair somehow makes it into office, “there are countless examples of activist union chairs being summarily fired for antagonizing management.”

Faced with a union like that, what are workers to do? Over and over again, they organize on their own.

Auto Workers’ Strike Wave

Friedman details the famous 2010 strike wave in the auto sector. It began when about 50 workers from the assembly department of a Honda powertrain factory sat down in front of the plant in May, demanding a big raise of 800 RMB ($50 a month). The strike spread to other departments, and within a week the lack of parts had shut down every Honda facility in China.

At the start of the strike’s second week, the district-level union federation sent vanloads of what appeared to be hired thugs, wearing union insignia, who ordered strikers to return to work. They assaulted some workers.

This intervention reinvigorated the strike — but also brought in riot police to cordon off the road to the factory. The local government, Friedman says, wanted neither violent confrontation nor the possibility that the strikers might leave the grounds.

The union chair had been involved in negotiations with management, but essentially took Honda’s side. In order to resolve the strike, local government now actually demanded that the strikers select their own representatives. Bravely, the strikers stated that they would accept nothing less than their original demands without a general meeting of the workers.

In the end, they got wage increases of 500 RMB, and 600 RMB for the second-tier “intern” workers, a hike for the interns of more than 70%. Says Friedman, “Such large wage increases in response to strikes were unprecedented.”

That summer, strikes spread throughout the auto industry and spilled into other sectors. At Denso, a major parts supplier for Toyota, 200 workers met in secret to plan their walkout. They blocked trucks from leaving the plant, elected 27 representatives to negotiate, and demanded an 800 RMB raise. They got it.

In the northern city of Dalian, 70,000 workers struck at 73 employers in a development zone, winning average increases of 34.5%.

Friedman says the dozens of reported strikes are surely a small portion of those that occurred that year. Wage increases around the country — sometimes offered by management preemptively — prompted media commentators to declare the end of low-wage labor in China. That was premature.

The Honda strikers were perhaps the most daring and “political” of the strikers: one of their demands was for a “reorganized” union, that is, one that represented its members. After the strike, the ACFTU allowed workers to elect their reps — but only at the level of the team, representing about 30 people. At higher levels, management stepped in, and mostly white-collar employees won the elections.

Friedman interviewed Honda workers in July 2010 and found them dismissive of the union, finding no change since the strike: “They just collect the dues each month and that’s it.” “If this company has a union or not, it makes no difference.”

It would seem hopeful that the following winter, the elected representatives participated in wage negotiations at the Honda powertrain plant, and that management granted another 611 RMB raise. Some observers might seize on this as evidence of a real change in power relations. And Friedman notes how much power these workers potentially had, because they were the sole supplier of some parts for Honda in China — and because they’d demonstrated their willingness to act.

But he also points out that their wages are still low, below those of Honda assembly plant workers in China, and that no gains were made on any non-wage issues.

Most important for long-term hopes for worker resistance: Workers in the strike wave of 2010 were clearly inspired by each other, but “there was no coordination between strikers from different factories.”

Two-Tier Workforce

In Inside China’s Automobile Factories: The Politics of Labor and Worker Resistance, Lu Zhang describes vividly the two-tier system in Chinese auto plants. Most are joint ventures between foreign companies and local or regional governments. All are new and modern; all use a form of the Toyota lean production system, which Lu describes as grueling, monotonous, exhausting and authoritarian.

In particular, they hire a core of formal workers who have higher wages than the average Chinese factory hand and some job security — although their initial contracts may be as short as one year — and a large number of temp agency workers.

Temp workers tend to be between 18 and 24 years old; they earn half to two-thirds the pay of formal workers, with far fewer benefits. They do the same jobs as formal workers, often for years, but with no hope of becoming permanent.

In six assembly plants Zhang studied, the percentage of temporary workers ranged from a third to 60% of the workforce. (Oddly, the one plant that did not use temporaries as of 2011 was a Japanese joint venture.) Even lower in the hierarchy are student interns, who must work six months in order to graduate from technical school. They get no training except in basic jobs on the assembly line and receive only a base wage, with no benefits. Sometimes their schools retain a portion of their pay.

At two plants, student interns were 30% of the workforce, and overall they were 30% of the temporary workforce.

Temp agency workers have become ubiquitous in China: at 60 million, they are 20% of the employed population, used long-term alongside regular workers not just in factories but in government agencies and industries of all sorts.

Lu explains the paradox of this system, which she calls “labor force dualism.” Management began using temporaries for flexibility in numbers, to save money on wages and, presumably, to create a division inside the workforce that would defeat solidarity.

It’s the oldest trick in the book: create loyalty, or at least a reluctance to rock the boat, among one segment of the workforce (“at least we’re not as bad off as those other guys”). And make the other segment more vulnerable, more fearful of losing their jobs, and thus more likely to conform to management demands.

But dualism hasn’t worked as well as management hoped. Although it has kept formal workers from actively supporting the temps, for temporary workers it has become “a continuing source of irritation and an impetus to rebel,” Lu reports.

She notes three characteristics of temporary workers that help when they decide to dissent. Both regular temps and student workers are more likely to be urban, with higher education levels, than former temporaries who were migrants from the country. Even workers from rural areas want to stay in the city and get ahead. All talked of the injustice of their unequal treatment.

Second, temp workers are concentrated in dormitories, enabling them to form close connections. Third, they are adept at using social media. Three-quarters of those interviewed said they were active on online forums, and half said they had posted online comments about their jobs.

Presumably, many or most of those comments were complaints. One stated, “Although we work side by side with formal workers, they have preference over the job assignments, and they usually work at the same position as long as they want. But we have no choice, and we are...allocated to the least desirable positions — those tiring and dirty jobs, most at the welding shop.”

Temps frequently cited the “equal pay for equal work” clause in China’s labor law and denounced the illegality and injustice they suffered. Their deep resentment of the dual system meant that “their claims and protests were often explosive and morally based,” Lu writes.

A Pair of Strikes

Temporaries therefore resorted to minor sabotage, absenteeism, slowdown, and collective resignations. Most effective and most interesting were strikes.

At one state-owned plant, the vocational school that supplied student workers was late with their pay. More than 300 night-shift student workers decided not to go to work; they stayed in their dorm sleeping and a whole assembly line stopped.

A formal worker reported, “It was fun to watch managers running around and trying to find workers to get the line to start running again. But it was impossible when three-fifths of the line workers [temporary workers] went on strike.”

Strikers’ descriptions from a group interview are worth quoting at length:

“The shop manager came to our dorms one hour later and asked us to go back to work. We said not until we got paid our wages in arrears. The manager said they would discuss the issue with our school but we must go back to work first. No one responded. That was almost 10 p.m. And we learned that our co-workers, the formal workers, went back home without working as well. The whole assembly shop was shut down.

“The following morning the production manager and the HR manager came to our residence...They promised to solve the problem, but we must go back to work immediately. They threatened to fire those who didn’t go back to work. Many of us were frightened, but we insisted on getting paid first.

“Our brothers in the day shift stayed with us and no one showed up at work....The vice principal of our school...apologized and said... we should see our paychecks in our bank accounts by noon. And we did. Most of us went back to work shortly afterwards.

“At that moment, you feel like we are all staying together, we are all supporting each other. You realize at least I am not alone...That makes you feel stronger. It’s a great feeling!”

Lu notes the power the student workers had, to shut down the plant during peak season. She credits the formal workers with “silent support;” they too were feeling resentful, because of heavy overtime and a puny bonus. A team leader said that the student workers’ strike became an outlet for the formal workers to vent their discontent as well.

Four months later, the temporary workers upped the ante. Formal workers had gotten a raise but temp workers nothing. Again 300 student workers stayed in their dorms, demanding the same wage increase formal workers had received.

This time management took a hard line: return to work by noon or be fired. Eighteen workers who did not return were dismissed. And this time the dual system worked as management wanted it to: formal workers were not supportive.

Lu quotes one formal worker giving the classic “you’re lucky to have a job” rationale: “The market is not that good these days...You know, it is just impossible to pay everyone the same. Otherwise, why would the factory even bother to hire temporary workers? Because it needs cheap and flexible hands. I also think this is unfair. But look, there are so many people who don’t even have a job. They [temp workers] should feel lucky to even have a job and work here.”

The temp workers believed that their strike did cause management to give raises a month later: 100 RMB for those who struck and 200 for those who did not. They saw their main problem as having no representative to speak for them: “Individually, everyone was scared to be identified as black sheep and get fired. If we could have a union or an organization that can genuinely represent us and speak for us, things could have been different.”

Can Stability Be Maintained?

Lu Zhang emphasizes throughout the central government’s focus on maintaining “stability.” As Friedman puts it, “different levels of the state are all concerned about worker unrest and are searching for various methods of dealing with the problem.”

Guangdong province, north of Hong Kong, produces more than a quarter of China’s exports and is a major site of worker restiveness and strikes. Last year more than 40,000 workers there, in seven factories, for two weeks struck the Yue Yuen company, which makes a fifth of the world’s sport shoes, including Nike and Adidas.

They demanded that the company stop short-changing their pension contributions — and the company not only gave in but raised their pay by 230 RMB. According to a Hong Kong NGO, in the first quarter of this year 11 large factory strikes in Guangdong brought about violent police reprisals.

Guangdong officials responded by passing a labor law with disturbing implications. Workers will have the right to demand that their employers negotiate over wages and benefits — but the law spells out that this can happen only through the ACFTU. And the law makes it illegal to strike during such negotiations — for the first time officially prohibiting strikes and making possible long prison terms for violators.

Previously labor law had been silent on the legality of strikes; it was a “grey area,” according to Anita Chan, longtime China labor scholar and editor of Chinese Workers in Comparative Perspective. No one has as yet been arrested for striking, she says, but rather for “disturbing the peace” or “causing social instability.”

The new law “legalizes” strikes only in order to prohibit them, spelling out a long list of banned actions: “Employees are forbidden to initiate or promote a collective bargaining by: (i) refusing to complete assigned duties by breaching employment contract; (ii) breaching disciplinary rules, or forcing other employees to leave their duty; or (iii) blocking up entries and exits of enterprise or traffic arteries, impeding the transportation of personnel and assets, destroying equipments and facilities, or impairing business order or public order.”

Such a law, says Chan, ”only means there will from then onwards be many ‘illegal’ strikes, allowing the government and the police to crack down.”

Still, even without legal protections, Chinese factory workers have been remarkably unafraid to take bold action and have learned that it often works, in the short term. They apparently don’t buy into the government’s official goal of a “harmonious society,” at least in practice.

Lu’s book is full of evidence that workers, formal and temporary, see through the notion that all is fair under “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — read, capitalism. They are experiencing the worst of both worlds — capitalist exploitation and the harshness of its lean production regime, combined with the repression of a government accustomed to one-party rule and determined to keep it that way.

Lu Zhang urges us to look past the “localized, cellular, and apolitical” nature of Chinese workers’ outbursts and instead “identify the potential for transformation from below.” The question is whether workers’ bravery and initiative can outmaneuver the corporations and government who are betting everything on their ability to contain them. The potential is enormous, as China’s rulers are well aware.

September-October 2015, ATC 178

COP21: in spite of the show, the glass is 80% empty


COP21: in spite of the show, the glass is 80% empty

Saturday 19 December 2015, by Daniel Tanuro (International Viewpoint)

The COP21 Paris Climate Conference has, as expected, led to an agreement. It will come into effect from 2020 if it is ratified by 55 of the countries which are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and these 55 countries account for at least 55% of global emissions of greenhouse gases. In the light of the positions taken in Paris, this dual condition should not raise any difficulty (although the non-ratification of Kyoto by the United States shows that surprises are always possible).

“Well below 2°C”: how?

The agreement sets the objective of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

In addition, the preamble to the agreement affirms its willingness to achieve these objectives while respecting the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, human rights, the right to health, the right to development, the rights of indigenous peoples, the rights of persons with disabilities and children, gender equality (by promoting the “empowerment” of women) as well as intergenerational solidarity, stressing the importance of a “just transition” for the world of work and taking into account the respective capabilities of countries.

One can of course only agree with these positions, but the text adopted by the 195 countries represented at the COP gives no guarantee that they will be effectively followed. In addition, and more importantly, it remains completely vague with respect to the deadlines for the climate goals to be achieved: it simply says that the “Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” However, the peak year, the annual rate of overall reductions of emissions after this peak and the precise time between 2050 and 2100 where the overall balance of emissions/removals is achieved condition the stabilization of warming at such or such a level.

“Reconciling the irreconcilable?”

Taking the floor before the plenary of participants, on December 12, 2015, French President François Hollande welcomed the fact that the conference had “reconciled what seemed irreconcilable” by adopting a document “both ambitious and realistic.” “The decisive agreement for the planet is now”, he concluded. Speaking before him as president of this COP, his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, welcomed a result representing “the best possible balance.”

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change dates from 1992. It has led to a very insufficient sequel: the Kyoto Protocol. For some years the climate challenge has contributed more and more to undermining the legitimacy of capitalism and the credibility of its political managers. In the wake of the COP in Paris it is already clear that we are going to be faced with a very broad counter-offensive aimed at spreading the idea that the system, contrary to what has been said, is able to stem the disaster that it has created, and that the governments in its service are up to the challenge facing them.

Those who do not believe in the possibility of a green capitalism, who do not believe in particular in the possibility of saving the climate without calling into question the fundamental tendency of the system to growth, therefore have an interest in examining the Paris agreement from this angle: does the COP21 “reconcile the irreconcilable”? This article focuses primarily on this. We will return later on other aspects of the Agreement, such as adaptation, support for the countries of the South, and so on.

So, has Paris given the lie to those terrible grumpy pessimists and eco-socialists? The answer to this question is -at least - 80% “no”. Why 80%? Because, on the basis of the expertise of the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), we can say that only a fifth of the path to stay under 2°C of warming has been taken (and this only on paper!). In other words, it is not a case of the glass half full and half empty: the glass of COP21 is four-fifths empty, at least. Fundamentally, the climate catastrophe continues, the evidence that things deemed irreconcilable can be reconciled has not been presented. We will explain.

Between the Agreement and the INDCs

There are two elements in the negotiation: the agreement adopted in Paris and its preamble, on the one hand, and the projected “Climate Plans” that each country participating in the Conference has adopted and transmitted to the Secretariat of the UNFCCC in view of the COP, on the other hand. In the jargon of the negotiators, these projected climate plans are designated by the acronym INDC (for “intended nationally determined contributions”). The text adopted in Paris poses the objective of a warming lowered to 2°C, as close as possible to 1.5°C. But the INDCs - which relate to 2025 or 2030 - are far from achieving this objective: according to the estimates which have been made, their cumulative effect would be to lead us toward a catastrophic warming of approximately 3°C.

This contradiction between the declarations of intent of the Agreement and the reality of the climate plans of the countries which are signatories to the agreement is not a secret. The preamble to the agreement adopted in Paris, "(emphasizes) with a serious concern the urgent need to tackle the significant gap between the aggregate effect of the promises of mitigation of the Parties in terms of annual global emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 (on the one hand), and the cumulated emission trajectories consistent with the objective of maintaining the increase of the average temperature of the globe at well below 2°C and to continue the effort to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (on the other hand). "

This gap between the cumulative effect of the INDCs and the objective of 1.5 to 2°C adopted in Paris has been studied by the ad hoc working group established at the COP in Durban to decide on ways and means to enhance the level of ambition of the climate policy (Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action). On October 30, 2015, in the framework of the preparation of COP21, this working group submitted a detailed report to the Secretariat of the UNFCCC.

In this text, the sum of the INDC emissions at the deadlines in 2025 and 2030 is compared to the “business as usual” emissions, on the one hand, and, on the other to (variants of) the reduction trajectory for global emissions which should be followed, according to the IPCC, for having a 66% probability of keeping warming under 2°C “at least cost” (these trajectories constitute what the last IPCC report called the “least cost 2°C scenarios”).

The method of the authors of the study is simple: they take the “business as usual” emissions as the reference scenario (0% of the 2° objective) and the “least cost 2°C scenario” as the goal to achieve (100% of the 2° objective); this done, they express the sum of the emission reductions projected by the INDCs as a percentage of the 2° objective. Here is their conclusion: “in this comparison, the INDCs are estimated to reduce the difference between “business as usual” emissions and the 2°C the scenarios by 27% in 2025 and 22% in 2030”. That is why we have said above that “the glass of COP21 is 80% empty”.

It is moreover not excluded that this figure of 80% is lower in reality. The INDCs should be subjected to a more detailed review, to check whether states have not inflated their figures in order to give an image of being good pupils. Cheating of this kind has already occurred several times in relation to the climate (we think for example of the way in which the member states of the EU have overestimated the emissions of their polluting industries, so that the latter receive free of charge a maximum of emission rights resold with profit). The fact that a good number of INDCs rely heavily on removals of CO2 by forests, or on reductions relating to emissions, and relatively little on net reductions, encourages mistrust. But let us leave this aspect to the specialists and rather see how the Paris Agreement intends to bridge the gap between the INDCs and the objective of a warming maintained between 1.5 to 2°C.

Bridging the gap

In advance, I must confess that one point of the IPCC reports remains for me unexplained: whereas the diagnosis of the severity of climate change is increasingly worrying and the phenomenon is growing much more quickly than projected using the models, how is it that the peak of global greenhouse gas emissions to meet in order for there to be a 66% chance of remaining under the limit of 2°C has been deferred so significantly between the fourth and the fifth report? According to the fourth report, in order not to exceed the 2°C increase, it was necessary that global emissions peak no later than 2015; however, according to the fifth report, it would still be possible to remain under 2°C by starting to reduce global emissions only in 2020, in 2025, and even in 2030 – although at the price of increasingly significant difficulties. I suppose that the authors of the reports do not simply intend to maintain the flame of hope, and that there is a scientific explanation for this elision. But I don’t know.

In any case, let us assume that the peak of emissions compatible with 2°C or 1.5°C can indeed only occur in 2025 or in 2030, and go back to our question: how does the Paris agreement envisage bridging the gap between the INDCs and the objective of a warming “well below 2°C”? The answer is in the text adopted: by revising the INDCs every five years, with the aim of increasing the ambition. This revision will be based solely on the goodwill of the parties: the agreement is not legally binding and provides no penalty, so while the house burns down, a commitment as light as this is presented as a historic breakthrough.

One of the important issues here is that of timing: the Paris Agreement will enter into force in 2020, and the first revision will take place only in 2023. Remember that it took eight years to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which concerned only a small number of parties and only implemented derisory emission reductions. To think that in ten years, whereas geopolitical tensions are growing, 195 countries will quickly agree on 80% of the path they must still take to save the climate, is in reality to play Russian roulette with the fate of hundreds of millions of human beings and with the ecosystems. COP21 does not invalidate the eco-socialist analysis, on the contrary it confirms it: the capitalist system, when it comes up against the ecological limits, can only postpone the essence of the problem facing it, making it increasingly complex and dangerous.

Fossil fuels

In relation to the dangers, those who insist on believing that a miracle happened on December 12 at Le Bourget should still ask two more questions: 
- How is it that the words or expressions “fossil fuels”, “industry”, “coal”, “oil”, “natural gas”, “car (industry”, and others equally crucial to the topic which occupies us, do not appear at all in the Paris text? That the word “energy” is only used twice in the same sentence about Africa (plus in the name of the International Energy Agency)?

- Conversely, how is it that the words or expressions “energy transition”, “energy sobriety”, “recycling”, “re-use”, “common goods”, “localization” are never used? That the expression “renewable energy” is used only once, and only about the “developing” countries (“Africa in particular”)? That “biodiversity” is used only once? That the concept of “climate justice” appears only once, as “important for some” - precisely in this same grab-bag paragraph which mentions biodiversity and the importance (“for some” also!) of Mother Earth?

These gaps are not the fruit of chance but the mark of a specific project, a strategy of capitalist response to the climate challenge. The climate negationists seem to be losing the ear of the dominant class, and so much the better. For all that, it would be wrong to consider with relief that the Paris Agreement is a “strong signal”, “would turn the page on fossil fuels” or would mark the turning point toward a “just transition”, as some people have said. Those responsible for the disaster - the fossil fuel and credit sectors, broadly speaking - still hold tight to the rudder.

A turning point but which?

Is Paris a turning point?. Probably. There is probably awareness, at the highest level, of the major, incalculable risk that global warming represents for society, its cohesion and its economy if it is not confronted (the Encyclical of Pope Francis is a manifestation of this phenomenon). It is likely that some capitalist decision-makers do want more than using this COP as a smokescreen to hide the disaster that their political mismanagement has produced since the Earth Summit in 1992, that they will attempt to try to bridge the gap between the INDCs and what is needed to contain warming below 2°C. But it is very unlikely (and this is an euphemism) that they will succeed: their awareness has come very late, fossil fuel capital has its foot on the brake and the multi-polar world is torn by ferocious inter-imperialist rivalries, without clear leadership.

In addition, the objective is not everything, there is also the manner. The “least cost 2°C scenario” that inspires the strategists is the use not only of “soft energies” but also nuclear power, the combustion of fossil fuels with capture-sequestration of carbon, giant hydro-electricity and the combustion of biomass with “carbon recovery”. The fifth report of the IPCC is clear: without this, remaining below 2°C is really “not profitable”, costs explode, and profits are threatened! Sacrilege!

In the hit parade of these sorcerer’s apprentice technologies, the combustion of biomass with carbon recovery ranks high (Bio-energy with carbon capture and sequestration, or BECCS). Its supporters argue that burning this biomass, by storing the CO2 from this combustion and cultivating a new biomass to burn which will absorb CO2 from the air, will not only reduce emissions but also reduce the stock of CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere. The reasoning is faultless, but the tremendous consumption of biomass that this project involves can only destroy both the ecosystems and the human communities which live there. Compensation, biomass destruction and carbon storage are the heart of the Paris agreement. The text announces a broad “mechanism for sustainable development”. On reading it, we understand that it will simply amplify to the maximum the “clean development mechanism” of the Kyoto Protocol, through which the European car companies, in particular, “offset” their emissions by investing in the South in “forest” projects on the backs of the indigenous peoples.

This is the “realistic ambition” described by Hollande. This is the true face of what some persist in hailing as the march toward a “green capitalism”. Let us deal with reality. What is being put in place in the name of “sustainable development” is anti-ecological, anti-social, will not save the climate and will require ever more repression to break resistance and silence dissent. Decreed under the pretext of combating terrorism, the French state of emergency is in any account very revealing of certain hidden tendencies of this COP.

South America: end of a cycle? Popular movements, “progressive” governments and eco-socialist alternatives


Thursday 10 December 2015, by Franck Gaudichaud

More than 40 years after the coup d’état that defeated the Chilean road to socialism and 30 years since the foundation of the largest social movement on the continent, the Movimiento de trabajadores rurales sin tierra (MST - Movement of Landless Rural Workers) of Brazil; 20 years since the Zapatista cry of “Ya basta!” in Chiapas against neoliberalism and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), more than 15 years since the electoral victory of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (and more than two years after his death), the peoples of South America and their attempts to build an emancipatory project seem to be at a new turning point. A, social, political and economic cycle of medium length gradually seems to be becoming exhausted, but not in a uniform or linear manner. With its real (but relative) progress, its difficulties and significant limitations, the experiences of the different and varied “progressive" governments of the region, whether centre-left, social liberal, or radical national-popular, claiming to be anti-imperialist or characterised in conservative circles as “populist", the Bolivarian, Ando-Amazonian or “citizen” revolutions or simple institutional progressive changes, these political processes seem to be encountering big endogenous problems, a strong conservative backlash (national and global ) and not a few unresolved strategic dilemmas.

Without a doubt, in several countries where there have been crushing electoral victories for left-wing or anti-neoliberal forces, in particular when these victories are the product of years of social and popular struggle (such as in Bolivia) or a rapid politicization-mobilization from below (such as in Venezuela), the state and its regulations, domestic economic growth, the fight against extreme poverty through specific programs for redistribution and the institutionalization of new public services have been gaining ground: a noticeable difference to the infernal cycle of privatization, fragmentation and violence of the neoliberal capitalist deregulation of the 1990s. The public force has reappeared as regulator of the domestic market, redistributing part of the income from extraction profits and subsoil resources toward the more impoverished, with direct and immediate effects for millions of citizens, a process that explains in part the solidness of the social and electoral base of these experiences up until today (and in some cases more after more than 10 years of government). For the first time in decades, various “post-neoliberal” governments, starting with Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, have showed that it is possible to begin to regain control of natural resources and, at the same time, reduce extreme poverty and social inequalities with reforms of political inclusion of broad popular sector. Also the dream of Bolivar has re-emerged at the geopolitical continental level through initiatives of alternative regional integration and cooperation among peoples (such as the ALBA-TCP), trying to regain the space of national sovereignty from the big powers of the North, military imperialism and the transnational companies or the unilateral orders of the world’s financial institutions.

At a time when the old world and the peoples of the European Union are subject to the financial dictatorship of the Troika (IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank) and a deep economic, political, and even moral crisis, it is important to emphasize the ability shown by several popular movements and leaders in Latin America to resist and begin to rebuild multilateralism, democratize democracy and even reinvent politics, with projects that present alternatives for the twenty-first century. When a country like Greece tries to raise its head under the onslaught of the debt and the European ruling classes, when many workers, young people and collectives in this part of the world seek emancipatory directions, we can learn a lot from Latin America, its traumatic experience with neoliberal capitalist fundamentalism and its heroic attempts to counteract it from the south of the world-system.

However, as the theologian and sociologist Francois Houtart said in early 2015 the key challenge - in particular for countries that have most raised expectations of change - remains the definition of paths of profound transition toward a new paradigm of post-capitalist civilization. That is to say not being trapped in an objective of post-neoliberal modernization and even less within a welfare-oriented neo-developmentalism or an attempt at reconciliation between national growth, regional bourgeoisies and foreign capital: it is about aiming at a transformation of the social relations of production and forms of ownership. Without doubt, the task is daunting and arduous.

In this perspective and in this historic moment, despite the democratic advances conquered with blood and sweat [1] there are multiple stresses and limits to the various Latin American “progresismos” which have emerged in the period opened in the year 2000 in the fight against neoliberal hegemony. An intellectual - today statesman - like Alvaro Garcia Linera presents these tensions (in particular between movements and governments) as potentially “creative” and “revolutionary”, as the experiences necessary to advance gradually in the direction of a “communitarian socialism” [2] taking into account the current relationship of geopolitical, political and social forces (and disregarding without much argument as “childish” all criticism coming from their left).

Within this orientation, the electoral conquest of government by national-popular forces is seen as a democratic - and “concrete” - response to the plebeian emergence of the 1990s and 2000s, and the state is considered as an essential instrument of “administration of the ordinary” faced with the kingdom of the law of value and the intensified neoliberal dissolution. In this defence of the different progresismo governments, very often analyzed as a homogeneous whole, we also find prominent intellectuals such as Emir Sader or the Chilean sociologist Marta Harnecker. [3]

“Capture” of the state apparatus, and capture of the left … by the underlying foces in the state apparatus

However, quite a lot of militants on the ground, some movements and critical analysts of various political horizons (such as Alberto Acosta and Natalia Sierra in Ecuador, Hugo Blanco in Peru, Edgardo Lander in Venezuela, Maristella Svampa in Argentina or Massimo Modenesi in Mexico, among others) insist on the ever more “conservative” dimension of the state policies of progresismo or post-neoliberal nationalism (from Uruguay to Nicaragua to Argentina [4]) and even its character as a “passive revolution” (in the sense of Gramsci). It is a transformation “from above” that actually alters the political spaces, public policies and the relationship between the state and society, but by integrating – effectively neutralizing – the eruption of the and down in the networks of institutions, organizing a sudden realignment within the ruling classes and the system of domination, slowing down the self-organization capacity and control from beneath of the peoples mobilized [5]. From this angle the “capture” of the state by force can mean the capture of the left by the forces of the deep state, its bureaucracy and the capitalist interests it represents; seen thus the strategy of seizing power in order to change the world may end in a left seized by power, changing everything to preserve the main current of the world as such. For the Uruguayan writer Raul Zibechi:

“To the extent that the progressive Latin American cycle is ending, it seems an appropriate time to start to draw long term balance sheets, that you do not stop at conjunctural or secondary elements, to begin to sketch an overall picture. It goes without saying that this end-of-cycle is disastrous for the popular sectors and the people of the left, we are filled with uncertainties and anxieties over the immediate future, by the repressive right-wing that we must face”. [6]

In the last few weeks an avalanche of articles of opinion – several of which we have already published in Rebelion.org – have discussed the existence or not of a progressive “end of cycle” or even of the existence of such a “cycle”, this debate reaching such a level of polarization that some authors accuse others of “capitulation” or being “Cafetín leftists" (thus García Linera), while others are accused of having been converted into intellectuals commissioned by and sympathisers in the service of the states of the region and governments which are no longer progressive but regressive. This dialogue of the deaf does little to unravel the current political situation. The notions of a possible “reflux of the change of era” [7] or, from a contrary perspective, the idea of a gradual “end of the progressive hegemony” are probably [8] more useful to begin this discussion in a more constructive manner. All while recognizing that this phenomenon occurs in highly differentiated territorial-national conditions:

“This slippage is more noticeable in some countries (e.g., Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador) than in others (Venezuela, Bolivia and Uruguay) because in these last few relatively compact progressive power blocs remain and strong cleavages to the left have not opened up. In particular, Venezuela was the only country where the widespread participation of the popular classes was given momentum with the creation of the communes from 2009.” [9]

Beyond the controversy about the dimension of the exhaustion, inflection or reflux of the current period, and highlighting the variety of the processes analyzed, it emerges that at many levels the progresismo governments seem to have finally opted, under pressure from global and endogenous players, for a “modernizing realism”, which is often the best path to justify a renunciation of structural changes in an anti-capitalist direction: a dynamic that could be symbolized by the meeting (July 2015) between the Brazilian president Dilma Roussef – a militant of the Workers’ Party - and the war criminal Henry Kissinger (former US Secretary of State), at a time when Dilma was looking for imperialist political support faced with a rise in opposition within civil society and a right revitalized by the amplitude of governmental corruption cases. For sure, the aim of the executive of the main Latin American power with this type of diplomatic gesture is first and foremost to support “their” dominant sectors and provide more “security” for business in Brazil. From another angle, the covert free trade agreement signed in 2014 by Ecuador with the European Union reminds us of the limits of the discourse on the “end of the neoliberal night” even on the part of one of the exemplars of this perspective at a discursive level. Today, this government, faced with the right and denouncing the dangers of a “soft coup”, is also faced with social and indigenous movements (and even with a weak left), to the point that we could talk about a situation of “political impasse”, in the sense developed by the Marxist Agustín Cueva, where the figure of the President plays a functional role of stabilizer to capital:

“There have been recurring moments in the history of Ecuador where the intensity of the horizontal conflicts, inter-capitalist, in combination with the vertical struggles between the ruling and popular classes, were too much to be supported by the existing forms of domination. While the politicians were looking for new more stable forms of domination, instability reigned until an impasse was reached.” [10]

More generally, it is necessary to mention, even if it is not the only problem, the presence in all the progressive countries of a productive model of accumulation combining, at various degrees and intensities, state capitalism, neo-developmentalism and extraction of primary and energy resources, with damaging effects on indigenous communities, workers, and ecosystems. This endogenous tension is articulated, in a combined and unequal manner, with a ferocious globalized financial context and the central fact of the current situation: the economic crisis that has hit the region heavily, causing a sharp fall in the price of raw materials and in particular of the barrel of oil (from almost $150 to less than $50), thus ending the previous period of booms and exposing again the dependent and neo-colonial productive matrix if Latin America, the cursed inheritance from centuries of imperialist subjection. This context corresponds in time with a clear offensive of transnational capital, from the states of the North and some giants of the South (starting with China) to capture more agricultural land, energy, minerals, water, biodiversity, labour, in a maelstrom that seems without end. In countries like Bolivia or Ecuador where there is more political awareness of these dangers, the government and its political supporters quite sensibly defend the tactic of moving through a necessary industrialized-extractive period to build the transition with some economic strength: that is something like a “post-neoliberal transitional extractivism” to enable small countries with few resources to develop, create wealth from primitive accumulation in response to the immense social emergency which exists in these impoverished nations and at the same time begin a slow process of change of model of accumulation. However, according to Eduardo Gudynas, executive secretary of the Latin American Centre for Social Ecology (Centro Latino Americano de Ecología Social - CLAES):

“There is no evidence that this is happening for several reasons: the first is that the way in which the wealth generated by extraction is in good part allocated to programs that deepen extractivism, for example, increase fuel reserves or encouraging mineral exploration. Second, extractivism has economic side-effects that inhibit processes of autonomy in other productive sectors, in both agriculture and industry. The government would need to take precautionary measures to avoid such deformation and that is not happening, in fact, there is a drift to promote agricultural export crops while increasing food imports. Third, as the extractive projects generate so much social resistance (recent examples are the Guaranis in Yategrenda, Santa Cruz, or the Yasuni Reserve in Ecuador), that governments have to defend them so intensively that the extractivist culture is strengthened in broad sectors of society and the search for alternatives is therefore inhibited.” [11]

Multisectoral popular protests

In fact, it is not by chance that the cycle of popular struggles and mobilizations that is emerging in the heart of America, announcing - perhaps - a new historical period of class struggles, is directly linked to this depredation and repression and its consequent socio-territorial resistance:

“The resistance is centred on mining and monoculture, in particular soya, as well as in urban speculation, or in the various modes of extractivism. According to the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in the region there are 197 active conflicts in mining which affect 296 communities. Peru and Chile, with 34 conflicts each, followed by Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, are the most affected countries.” [12]

This tendency is reflected in the context described previously of strong shadows over economic growth in recent years, the profound crisis of world capitalism which is still ongoing and the permanence of immense social inequalities and regional imbalances throughout the continent. On the other hand, it is necessary to emphasize the major offensive by the various business and media right wings and by the oligarchies in the region to take advantage of the end of progressive hegemony to recover the ground lost over 15 years to different charismatic and progressive leaders. The conservative and neo-liberal right continues to control -at the political level - cities, regions and key countries (like Mexico and Colombia), threatening steadily the rights established in the last decade and the process of a new regional integration more independent of Washington. We know that these regressive forces were and are ready to organize multiple forms of destabilization, and even coups (as in the last decade in Paraguay, Honduras and Venezuela), with the explicit or indirect support of the imperial agenda of the US.

However, from the bottom up, popular multi-sectoral, aboriginal, student and worker protests also advance their own agendas and claims, realizing the limits of the profound transformations made in the countries where “post-neoliberal” forces rule and their absolute absence where the neoliberal right still dominates, denouncing the various forms of repression, intimidation or cooption in both cases: collective opposition to genetically modified soya or workers’ strikes in Argentina; big street mobilizations of youth in major Brazilian cities demanding the right to the city and against corruption; deep crisis of the Bolivarian project, violence of the opposition and reorganization of the popular movement in Venezuela; in Peru, peasant and indigenous struggles against mega-miner groups (such as the Conga project); in Chile, Mapuche, employees and students denouncing the cursed inheritance of the Pinochet dictatorship; in Bolivia, criticism by the Central Obrera Boliviana and sectors of the indigenous movement of the policy of "modernization" of Evo Morales; in Ecuador, abandonment by President Correa of the Yasuni oil project and confrontation between the executive, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador - CONAIE) and significant layers of organised civil society; in Colombia, a search for a real peace, i.e. a peace with social transformation, economic and agrarian reform and so on.

The scene is tense and shaky. But, in spite of everything the "old mole of history" (in the sense that Marx understood it) is still digging and a wide variety of experiences of social struggles, class conflicts and political debates accompanied by multiple exercises of popular power, radical alternatives and utopias in construction are visible [13]. If some critical intellectuals could believe for a time that Latin America - or better said Abya Yala - could reach the new El Dorado of "21st century socialism” thanks to a “left turn” government and democratic electoral victories, we know that the roads to emancipation are more complex and deeply sinuous, and that the power apparatuses (military, media, economic) of the Latin American and imperial oligarchies are strong, resilient, entrenched and ferocious if necessary. Transforming the social relations of production and disrupting the dominations of “race” and gender in the societies of our America is a dialectic that will undoubtedly need to start from below and from the left, from class autonomy and independence, but always in a political key, and not from an illusory change without taking power. `

Ecosocialismo nuestroamericano of the 21st century

This is without denying that these collective attempts of people’s power should continue to rely on partial electoral gains or be able to consider the importance of conquering institutional spaces and supports within the state, if - and only if - the development of such new public policies are placed at the service of the "communes" and the subalterns. Can we use the state to finish with the (capitalist) state, using it for a time as barrier of containment of colossal hostile forces outside? Or, as Marx found, is the state essentially the creature of the dominant which we cannot use as tool without risking that it colonize our minds, souls and practices?

It is clear that the control of the executive represents “only” the conquest of a partial power, and even more limited if there is no parliamentary majority and a mobilized social base - let us remember the lessons of Chile and how Salvador Allende and the institutional route to socialism of Popular Unity was defeated in 1973. That’s why a left-wing and popular government [14] shows its true alternative character when it serves as a lever and stimulus for the self-organised struggles of the workers and the popular or indigenous movements, favouring dynamics of real empowerment, transformation of the social relations of production, construction of self-management and emancipatory roads to “living well”. In the contrary case, the political forces of the left are sentenced to manage the existing order, and even in time of instability to rise above the social classes in a Bonapartist manner to perpetuate the state Leviathan, administering domination in a more or less “progressive” manner, with more or less friction with the local elites.

Without doubt, the inflection and doubts represent current dangers and opportunities; it is also the time to go back to discuss what’s new without forgetting the old and to discuss anti-capitalist strategies to build what we propose to call an “ecosocialimo nuestroamericano” of the twenty-first century: a project that is not a carbon copy, which rejects being overwhelmed by myopic electoral tactics, by the struggles of caudillos and bureaucratic apparatuses, but without accepting the pull and the illusion of the construction of a plurality of social autonomies without common political project, a centralized minimum. With this project, it is essential that we open eyes, smells, senses and hearts to those collective experiments underway, often existing above and below the consensual media radar, no doubt still dispersed or little connected, but that make up a huge river of struggles in a permanent state of transformation, from the real and concrete, from their mistakes and successes. Experiences that allow us to understand dynamic emancipating, original collective attempts and the dangers they face or circumvent.

For sure, we cannot point to an ideal manner of successful attempts at revolt, but rather a mosaic of praxis-knowledge-actions: some focused at the agricultural and the territorial levels, others focused on production and occupied factories, others on the neighbourhood and urban community, others originating from state or institutional policies but controlled by the users: struggles by women against patriarchal violence, of the homeless, indigenous people, the working class in several countries, an example of the agro-ecological alternative in Colombia, the demands for “living well” in Ecuador, the commune councils in Venezuela, or the factories without bosses in Argentina, community media in Brazil and Chile, the community patrols in Peru and Mexico and so on.

“Local organizational initiatives to take and exercise popular power, virulent street protests of rejection of decisions taken by the national and transnational regime; but also constituent assemblies capable of re-founding utopia, recovery of the reins of the political at the level of the states; the roads to emancipation are far from univocal. As experiences, they suppose trials, hesitations, and convolutions. But also, conquests. Complex, sometimes contradictory, but profound and authentic, experiences (that) constitute a source for those who participate in the task of reinventing societies and the way of doing politics,, who act as citizens of the countries of the region or women and men from other areas who have taken the difficult path of resistance and emancipation.” [15]

This plurality of voices and of examples allows us to pick up the thread of a discussion which already runs through the veins of the continent; allows us to think beyond the progressive governmental projects, assuming that it is, at the same time, indispensable to create socio-political fronts to confront the threats of the return of the right wing and imperialism in South America. Above all, it obliges us to think against the tide, against a “left which is contemplative, institutional, administrative, a left of aspiring officials and civil servants, a left without rebellion, without mysticism, a left without left”. [16] And it obliges us to to think critically about our own developmentalist and teleological myths, assuming the global urgency of a mauled planet on the brink of ecological and climate collapse. For sure, it is essential to recognize that these various experiences that we have mentioned here briefly on how to change the world are contradictory, or even divergent: some isolated, very localised and others, on the contrary, institutionalized or dependent on the state. Hence the interest in resuming the major strategic debates of the twentieth century, but starting from current times and remembering the balance sheets of painful past defeats: how do undertake a post-capitalist and eco-socialist transition in the twenty-first century? What will be the role of the political-party tools and of the movements in this transition? What is the role of the armed forces, the parliamentary system, and the trade unions? Do we destroy them, use them, transform them, avoid them, split them… very well, but in any case: how? And in what way can we reconstruct common senses, cultural hegemony and an anti-capitalist left from and for the people? How do we avoid forging illusions about small affinity groups closed in on themselves and, at the same time, avoid the state-centred bureaucratic horror of the twentieth century?

The great Rosa Luxemburg said in 1915, “advance to socialism or regression to barbarism”. In 2015, her words are all a sense even more catastrophic and premonitory: “eco-socialism or global ecocide”. Without doubt, it is from the “audacity of the new” that we will be able to tear down the walls of capital, wage labour, neo-colonialism and patriarchy:

“Changing the world sounds very ambitious. What is more, it seems pretty risky if you take into account all the power groups that would never would allow you to remove capitalist civilization. But in the current circumstances, there is no other alternative. The living conditions for broad segments of the population and the land itself degrade rapidly. We are approaching a point of no return. And the option to switch planets does not exist. ( …) We must accept the challenge. We must be rebels in relation to power (and maybe even desire its destruction). We must accept our limitations as human beings in nature. We must hate all forms of exploitation. We must oppose injustices and those who commit them. We must not resign ourselves. We must continue to demand and build the impossible”. [17]

The task has already started; it is our daily bread, today and tomorrow.


[1] Such as the construction of multinational states, the installation of more or less institutionalized social rights, the creation of constituent assemblies and spaces for community participation or the regional integrationist impulse.

[2] Alvaro Garcia Linera, “Las tensiones creativas de la Revolucion”, La Paz, 20011.

[3] Emir Sader, “¿El final de un ciclo (que no existió)?”, Pagina 12, Buenos Aires, September 17, 2015 and Marta Harnecker, “Los movimientos sociales y sus nuevos roles frente a los gobiernos progresistas”, Rebelión, July 9, 2015.

[4] It should be noted here that, for us, the current Chilean government of Michelle Bachelet is clearly outside of this category, as a “reformist” continuation of the neoliberalism of the governments ran the country between 1990 and 2010.

[5] Modenesi, Massimo, “Revoluciones pasivas en América Latina. Una aproximación gramsciana a la caracterización de los gobiernos progresistas de inicio de siglo”. In: Modenesi, Massimo (coord.), Horizontes gramscianos. Estudios en torno al pensamiento de Antonio Gramsci, México, FCPyS-UNAM, 2013.

[6] Zibechi, Raul, “Hacer balance del progresismo”, Latin American Summary, August 4, 2015.

[7] Katu Akornada, “¿Fin del ciclo progresista o reflujo del cambio de época en América Latina? 7 tesis para el debate”, Rebelión, September 8, 2015.

[8] Massimo Modenesi, “¿Fin del ciclo o fin de la hegemonía progresista en América Latina?”, La Jornada, September 27, 2015.

[9] Massimo Modenesi, op. cit.

[10] Jeffery R. Webber, “Ecuador en el impasse político”, Viento Sur, September 20, 2015.

[11] Ricardo Aguilar Agramont, “Entrevista a Eduardo Gudynas: La derecha y la izquierda no entienden a la naturaleza”, La Razón, August 23, 2015.

[12] Zibechi, Raul, “Hacia un nuevo ciclo de luchas en América Latina”, Gara, November 3, 2013.

[13] Pablo Seguel, “América Latina actual. Geopolitica imperial, progresismos gubernamentales y estrategias de poder popular constituyente. Conversación con Franck Gaudichaud”. In: GESP (coord), Movimientos sociales y poder popular en Chile, Tiempo robado editoras, Santiago, 2015, pp. 237-278.

[14] See Marta Harnecker, op. cit.

[15] Tamia Vercoutère, prologue to the Ecuadorian edition of the book América Latina. Emancipaciones en construcción, Quitogo, IEAN, 2013.

[16] Pablo Rojas Robledo, “Hay que sembrarse en las experiencias del pueblo”. Fin de ciclo, progresismo e izquierda. Entrevista con Miguel Mazzeo”, Contrahegemonía, September 2015.

[17] Miriam Lang, Belén Cevallos and Claudia López (comp.), La osadía de lo nuevo. Alternativas de política económica, Quito, Fundación Rosa Luxemburg/Abya-Yala, 2015, pp. 191-192.