The World is Facing a Triple Crisis: What is (not) to be done?

May 2, 2011

by Raju J Das

We are now experiencing at least three kinds of crisis in the world. There is, of course, an economic crisis, and a consequent livelihood crisis. There is an ecological crisis, the latest manifestation of which emanates from Japan. And, finally, there is a crisis of revolutionary leadership. All countries, including major capitalist democracies such as India, are facing these crises, to varying degrees.

Economic Crisis

Underlying the first two crises is the profit-system. Much has been written about how the structurally determined ‘greed’ – the endless desire for accumulation for the sake of accumulation — of the financial elite contributed to the US mortgage crisis and consequently the financial crisis. This crisis is not the first. It will not be the last. Some people are saying that another meltdown in the housing market in the US is coming. Crisis is permanent in capitalism. Massive unemployment and austerity measures on the one hand and extremely high level of concentration of wealth in the hands of the financial elite, and indeed top corporations, on the other are the immediate outcomes of the crisis. Millions of people in the richest countries of the world – close to 30 millions in the US only — are food-insecure. The level of unemployment in these countries is colossal. 26 million people are un- or under-employed in the US. Forget about food insecurity, unemployment and similar problems in poorer countries such as India. When the political elite in these countries say that they are going to remove poverty by the midnight of such a date in such a year, we should say: ‘have you seen your masters achieve this feat?’ In the years when the US was experiencing its highest level of prosperity, one in five was in poverty. When society’s resources are concentrated in the hands of an elite and when these resources are used for making profit for this elite, then unemployment, poverty and all other social problems are the definite and expected consequences.

Ecological Crisis

The same profit-driven system underlies the massive ecological crisis. Japanese nuclear disaster is the latest manifestation of the ecological crisis. Japan is using a nuclear technology that is 30-40 years old. Such an obsolete technology is used to cut costs and increase profits of the nuclear companies. These are a part of the global network of nuclear companies that lobby for publicly-subsidized private investment in nuclear power in major countries. They played a significant role in the so-called US-India strategic partnership, an imperialist framework, as the India’s Left and progressive forces have consistently pointed out. To implement such a partnership, our pro-business prime minister even staked his job; and for this, votes were perhaps bought and sold in India’s famous talking-shop (the Parliament), a place which has been immensely successful not in terms of helping our masses (workers and poor peasants) but in dis-arming them politically, enthralling them with the fetishism of the vote. See the connection between corruption of democratic values we hold so dear, and imperialism (and capitalism)?

Crisis of Revolutionary Leadership

World-wide protests

The proletarians and the youth have fought valiantly against the authoritarian regimes in North Africa, which are also regimes of high inflation, neoliberal cuts, low wages, poverty and misery. Remember that Egypt was a model neoliberal state, which listened to – obeyed — imperialist institutions such as World Bank in implementing the ‘economic reforms’. The western imperialists had propped up, and/or were cutting lucrative deals with, these regimes. The protests in North Africa and Middle East must be seen as parts of the fight against suppression of democratic rights, poverty, unemployment, land dispossession, and so on in poorer countries of the world. In imperialist countries themselves, workers have appeared on the streets in thousands to protest the suppression of democratic rights (e.g. right to bargain over wages and working conditions). They have been on the street against austerity, the proximate cause of which is the economic crisis: having given trillions of dollars to capitalist companies to bail them out, their governments are forcing the workers to pay the bill. On March 26, 2011 half a million people, the vast majority of whom are workers, marched in London to protest the social cuts in the UK. This may easily be the second largest protest in the country’s history. Protests have also taken place in Japan against the Japanese nuclear disaster. In the world, 2011 will go down as a year of mass struggle.

But have people won any significant democratic freedom? Have they won any improvement in their economic conditions, without which democratic freedom has only limited worth? No. Indeed, in North Africa, because the masses fought and because the imperialists thought that their fighting could take a radical turn, they are now being crushed under the wheels of an imperialist war, shamelessly justified on the basis of humanitarian aid. The imperialist governments have all of a sudden found billions of dollars for the unjust war when they have been saying that they have no money for welfare and to create jobs for the unemployed.

Failure of the protests

The fight for democratic freedoms and real freedom from imperialism cannot be successful without a revolutionary leadership, a leadership that sees that the fight for democracy is only a part of the fight for a society without exploitative private property relations. Why?

First of all, even if masses fight for democracy, democratic rights may not be granted because un-democratic practices and relations are used by capitalism. This is more so when capitalism – in imperialized countries — is at a lower level of development of productive forces (this is a capitalism, which is wrongly, seen by some on the Left as some kind of feudalism). Indeed, how many Third World capitalist countries have even liberal democracies? Secondly, even if some democratic freedoms are granted and maintained due to an intense pressure of the masses, they can be withdrawn anytime the masses turn more vigilant and more militant. Consider India’s case in the 1970s under Indira Gandhi, the emergency. There are mini-emergencies countless times in India (and in other poor countries): when masses fight for their social rights (e.g. for land, for a decent wage, etc.) in the democratic and peaceful way, repressive measures are often launched. Even in advanced capitalist countries, workers’ right to bargain are being crushed, and various forms of civic freedom are being limited. Thirdly, what is the record in terms of actual practice of liberal democracy? In such liberal democracies like the US or even India, the darling of the West now, what percentage of parliamentarians can present a vision on behalf of the workers and poor farmers/peasants, a vision that goes against big companies and big landowners (or agri-business)? In such liberal democracies, how many people from working class and poor peasant type backgrounds can fight in national and provincial elections and how many can win? These are not inconsequential questions to ask: we need to seriously consider the severe limits that capitalism puts in front of the realization of even basic democratic rights, and how capitalism undermines any fight for democratic rights.

The North African situation at the global scale and the story of the regular struggles of the masses in every country indicate that proletarians do fight for their rights. They are not passive, as some on the Left – the so-called ‘postmodern Left’ — suggest. The history of human society – in terms of macro-scale events and processes — is always a history of struggle against injustice on the part of direct producers. In an important letter written to a group of activists on September 17-18, 1879, Marx said this: ‘For almost 40 years we have emphasized that the class struggle is the immediate motive force of history… hence we cannot possibly co-operate with men who seek to eliminate that class struggle from the movement.’ But struggle is one thing. Success is another. The success of proletarian struggle is never guaranteed, as Marx had suggested in the Manifesto.

As long as workers and the youth remain tied to this or that bourgeois or petty-bourgeois party-formation/movement, as long as they lack a truly democratic and anti-capitalist vision — and this is what I mean by the crisis of revolutionary leadership — the chances of success in achieving even democratic freedom are rather limited. Not that some success here and there will not happen. Not that the system will never allow a two-party or multi-party-system. Not that an industrialization project based on peasants’ dispossession will not be withdrawn here and there in the face of a fight. But such occasional concessions are more likely to contribute to the reproduction of the system itself, unless the politics of opposition is guided, in theory and in practice, by an anti-capitalist revolutionary agenda. The politics opposition to aspects of the system, the capitalist totality, is not the same as the politics of opposition to the system itself, to the totality, as such.

Even the so-called opposition groups, as in North Africa, with whom the imperialists tie up, are just that: as in any other country with a semblance of democracy, these opposition groups merely oppose the current ways in which the booty of the nation – the blood and sweat of the workers and poor peasants – are divided between different fractions of the national property-owning class and between them and the imperialists. Indeed, these opposition groups have an agenda which is no less neoliberal, no less capitalist than the current agenda of the government they are trying to overthrow. If things were otherwise, the imperialists would not want to support these groups. The aim of the imperialists is clearly to put in place a regime (with or without the Gaddafis), which will be more subservient to them. Their aim is to signal that they will not tolerate any oppositional politics going beyond a change of the current political character of the regime, i.e. it will not allow revolutionary politics to take root. This is all the more the reason why there is a need for a revolutionary politics in the global capitalist periphery: one that will fight for democratic rights and the right to national self-determination in political and economic matters (i.e. anti-imperialism in the true sense) as a part of a fight to root out capitalist property relations as such. What is needed is truly radical politics. To be radical is to go to the root of the matter. And the root of the matter is capitalist class relation. But we do not have such radical politics in most places. There is a crisis of revolutionary leadership.

The question is: what is to be done about this crisis? Before addressing this, we should know: what is not to be done about the crisis of the revolutionary leadership?

What is not to be done?

Let’s analyze the concept of ‘the crisis of the revolutionary leadership’. A crisis is more than a problem. It is a problem which needs to be urgently addressed. This urgency lies in the fact that: the current leadership (in the form of various Left parties) of the workers and semi-proletarians is not as effective as it should, and the new leadership is not yet born at a large enough scale. A leadership is necessary which will: analyze the objective conditions in the world and explain the nature of the crises to be fixed and it must offer up a solution by using that explanation.

As far as the Left is concerned, the lack of appropriate government regulation is often an explanation of the world’s problems. This partly explains the rise of neoliberalism as an object of theoretical critique. A better regulated capitalism is still capitalism. And given the global nature of capitalism, it is often practically difficult to regulate it within national borders by mechanisms that are based within those borders. Therefore, all the forces which merely fight against neoliberalization of capitalism and of its state in abstraction from the real content of capitalism (its exploitative class character) cannot assume revolutionary leadership, although fights against neoliberalization are crucial starting points. Many critics of neoliberalism and indeed of capitalism would like the latter to be regulated and kept in check by non-state forces (NGOs; local communities). This would not do either, in part because NGOs themselves depend on the state and/or capitalists for their existence. NGO-ization is the bottom-up aspect of neoliberalization: their origin lies partly in the need to clear up the mess created by neoliberal capitalism and to keep a lid on the anger of the poor (as James Petras has suggested). In other words, any leadership rooted in a vision of social democracy of any type is not revolutionary.

There are still others who believe that capitalism can be regulated, and the problems of poverty and the environmental degradation, etc. can be addressed by, the working class unions – or indeed by their bureaucracy. The union bureaucracy – in part, given its economism — has often been deeply complicit in the reproduction of capitalism (and in the context of advanced countries, of imperialism). In the USA recently, the union bureaucracy said to the government in a province (Wisconsin) that: ‘we will agree to the cuts you are suggesting but allow us to exist and collect union dues’. Well, if you agree to the class-onslaught on the working class launched by the ruling class, what is the point of remaining as unions? Given its income and privilege (e.g. access to administration, company bosses), the union bureaucracy is a class-like force which does not, and cannot have, the interest of the working class, unless, the unions are directly controlled by rank-and-file workers in democratically organized committees in factories, offices, on farms and in neighbourhoods. So neither the state, nor NGOs, nor the existing union bureaucracy can solve the massive problems facing the working class and poor peasants of the world. They are not revolutionary.

What is to be done then?

The root of the problems is capitalism

Who/what is revolutionary then? A person or a group of persons or an organization is capable of taking up the role of a revolutionary leadership when it absolutely asserts: that capitalism is a system, which works at local, regional, national and, most fundamentally, international scales, and which is the most fundamental cause of most important socio-ecological problems, that capitalism must be replaced for us to truly begin to address the world problems nationally and internationally, that it can only be overthrown by the class that produces surplus value (i.e. proletarians), in an alliance with other working masses and with semi-proletarians (e.g. poor peasants in agrarian economies), and that this fight against capitalism must be coordinated not only nationally but also internationally, and that all the bigger or smaller fights against this or that aspect of capitalist injustice must be inter-linked and become parts of the project of establishing a democratic society beyond capitalism.

Uninterrupted multi-scalar struggle

The revolutionary leadership must accept that: capitalism is a system that not only makes use of, and subordinates various types of relations and processes which pre-date capitalism (e.g. gender and caste relations; various feudal type remnants; extreme forms of inequality in land distribution) and various forms of political authoritarianism, but also it makes use of national domination. In contemporary, neoliberal, times, the latter takes the form of domination of poorer countries by such institutions as the World Bank. This is the stuff of new-imperialism. Therefore, the revolutionary leadership must accept that to successfully fight against undemocratic practices, feudal remnants, and imperial domination, you must fight against capitalism as well. This means a revolutionary leadership cannot confine its theoretical and political work to a fight against feudal remnants or caste/racial oppression and against imperial domination, and then rest and allow capitalism to stabilize, and plan an anti-capitalist struggle in the indeterminate future (when perhaps productive forces have developed to a ‘high’ level inside a country).

A revolutionary leadership is therefore one that mobilizes and unites geographically and socially fragmented class-forces to fight for achieving various democratic tasks, including the resolution of the agrarian question in the less developed countries as a vital democratic task. The leadership will, on the basis of these struggles, launches an attack on capitalism itself in an uninterrupted fashion and nationally and internationally. After taking power the revolutionary leadership, can the vanguard of the proletarian forces stop at merely democratic measures? If, for example, a proletarian party comes to power and passes a legislation forcing private owners to reduce the working day and/or introduces a legislation for the state to pay for childcare from a fund created from the taxes on corporate profits (these are arguably democratic measures), will the private enterprises not respond by closing the factories? And if yes, what then is the proletarian leadership to do? If it is revolutionary, must it not be prepared to immediately fight against the bourgeoisie and dispossess them (at least the monopolies)? But a leadership whose vision is confined to merely democratic tasks cannot fully achieve the democratic tasks (because the bourgeoisie will not allow it to), nor can it fight against the bourgeoisie. This is what Trotsky and Lenin realized and asserted based on historical analysis of Russian revolutions and the world situation. In addition, a revolutionary leadership must accept that socialism cannot be achieved within the confine of a country or a world-region, let alone within a province of a country (e.g. West Bengal or Kerala), although anti-capitalist struggle can and must start at all scales and in as many places/countries as possible. Given the global nature of inter-dependence among countries, created by capitalism that Marx admired in the Manifesto, productive forces do not have to be developed in a specific country to support socialist measures in that country.

Political nature of revolutionary leadership and radical needs

The revolutionary leadership is one which must mobilize people to enable their entry into the public political process and must help them shed their reliance on experts such as union bureaucracy, law-makers, lawyers, professors, journalists and so on, and must mobilize the working class independently and not attach them to petty bourgeois and bourgeois formations (e.g. democratic party of the US or labour party/government of the UK). A revolutionary leadership identifies proletarian as the leader of the revolution and mobilizes them through a party that is centralized and whose affairs are conducted in the most democratic manner. It launches class struggle, in the most democratic manner the system allows it to, and inside and outside the state institutions such as the parliament, but it does not have an obsession to win seats in the parliament through various deals with petty bourgeois and bourgeois parties. It has no illusions about the parliamentary road to socialism.

It mobilizes proletarian and semi-proletarian forces around day-to-day issues that affect them, including neoliberal cuts. It mobilizes these forces to demand the fulfillment of ‘radical needs’. Radical needs are the real needs of the masses, not the needs which the system says it can afford to meet. So the revolutionary leadership mobilizes people around the demand for the fulfillment of the following rights to ensure that their radical needs are met: the right to employment (including the right to land and other farm inputs for poor peasants in agrarian economies), a living wage, a reduced working day and leisure, decent and affordable housing, high-quality health-care and education as well as culture (films, televisions programmes, music, museums, and the like not controlled by big business and its politicians). These rights also include the right to decent financial support for the elderly and the disabled; and the right to a healthy and safe environment at work and in neighborhoods. In the specific context of the global periphery and in its rural areas, the revolutionary leadership mobilizes middle and poor peasants around their specific needs: land distribution, and sate-provision of means of production, complete freedom from landlord, usurious and mercantile exploitation. The revolutionary leadership also fights for the defense of democratic rights, including those of minorities and aboriginal populations. And it fights against militarism and war, imperial domination and peripheral countries entering into global strategic partnerships with imperialist countries. The revolutionary leadership must put the agenda of workers’ democratic control over landed and financial aristocrats and over major capitalist monopolies as immediate steps necessary to satisfy the fulfillment of the social needs of the masses, especially those monopolies which control the production of things and services (e.g. food items and seeds, medicines, houses, clothes, utilities, etc.) without which radical needs cannot be met and people cannot live like humans.

The revolutionary leadership must mobilize proletarian and semi-proletarian forces based on a socialist agenda, a part of which is, as just mentioned, a fight for the achievement of the democratic and national tasks as well as the tasks necessary to save the planet on a most urgent basis (if a few more Russian and Japanese type nuclear disasters happen, we may not be around to even talk about capitalism and anti-capitalism). The aim of this mobilization will be socialism – a democratic humane control over world’s resources and to use them democratically to satisfy human needs in an ecologically sustainable manner – and not a better regulated, more humane, more democratic, capitalism without feudal remnants and foreign intervention.

Role of theory and education

As classical revolutionaries have said, the time of revolution comes when the existing ruling class cannot rule in the way it has been ruling and when the masses do not want to live the way they have been living and would like to be on the public scene to force a change. The revolutionary leadership must demonstrate its sheer collective intellectual power to be able to anticipate revolutionary crisis caused by the conflict between production forces and relations at the world scale, prepare for the revolution and lead and sustain the revolution, all based on the objective analysis of objective conditions at the global scale, not necessarily inside a country.

The Marxist Left, in India or elsewhere, must first launch a massive theoretical education on the dominant role of capitalism as such, i.e. the dominant role of capitalist economic, political and ideological systems (and not neoliberalization per se, not some pre-capitalist remnants per se, and so on, although these things are extremely important causes of suffering and must be critiqued). A minimum requirement for this to happen is also widespread comradely and polite non-sectarian discussions of various Left and communist party views on capitalism and anti-capitalism, in India and elsewhere. Capitalism is a totalizing and global system. The force that can fight it has to fight capitalism as a global system and has to fight every way in which capitalism impacts us, including the ways in which it makes use of, as suggested earlier, pre- and non-capitalist processes. A fundamental theoretical requirement for a leadership to assume revolutionary status is first be convinced, and to convince others, that it is capitalism that is the problem, and that it is capitalism that must be the target. Revolution is an incessant struggle against all forms of class relations and at all scales of the global society. It requires revolutionary, radical, ideas. These ideas must grip the minds of the masses. To make this happen is the role of the revolutionary leadership. Or, only a revolutionary leadership can help in the production and dissemination of these ideas.


Therefore, it is not a question of which political formation can carry the promise of a revolutionary leadership. It is not for me or any other person to identify the political formation out of many existing possibilities. It is for the political formations that exist today and that will exist tomorrow to identify, from among many seemingly-radical perspectives, the most revolutionary perspective. Only such a formation – or a group of formations – can assume the leadership of the revolution against capitalism and stop its multiple forms of violence against the masses.

Whether this can happen will determine how long we will continue to experience barbarism in many forms such as massive destruction of livelihood, land-dispossession, intensified level of exploitation on the farms, factories and offices, massive ecological disasters, unheard-of levels of income inequality, and heightened and widespread level of alienation, eternal threat of imperialist war, and so on. The choice is once again: continuing barbarism or socialism. And the choice is between a reformist leadership or one that is truly revolutionary.

[Raju J Das teaches radical political economy and social theory as well as international development at York University, Toronto, Canada.]