The pandemic, wars, and socialism

Submitted by martin on 12 April, 2020 - 3:34 Author: Stuart Jordan
November 1918: revolution in Berlin after World War One

Martin Thomas' article on the similarities and differences between this pandemic and the Second World War omits several major differences that make the pandemic more favourable for socialist politics.

First, wars are fought against other nations and the capitalist class has to work hard to whip up nationalist spirit. The power of nationalism during first World War mobilisation was sufficient to break the mighty Second International as workers rallied around their capitalist leaders. By contrast the pandemic is an attack on the human species by another organism. The frontline soldiers of our current "war" against Covid-19 see themselves as part of a global effort. Far from beating the drums of nationalism the bourgeois authorities are actively promoting socialist values. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tells us: "Compassion is a medicine. Supporting other in your community can help you as much as it helps them." In the UK, official government guidance for getting help if you are self-isolating is to contact your local mutual aid group, not something that is being handed down from the state or the open marketplace.

The early stages of the pandemic has seen racist attacks on East Asian people and attempts by Trump and others to tag the virus as the “Chinese virus". But compared to a war mobilisation there is an overwhelming internationalist logic of the pandemic. The socialist and workers movement need to give some thought to how we might develop this organic internationalism into more lasting international organisation.

Second, a war mobilisation calls for military discipline and self-sacrifice and for top-down change to the economy. Many workers have been thrown out of work in this crisis, as they were during the war. But that is really the only measure that the capitalist class has initiated for the current “war effort". Initiatives to slow the spread of the virus and impose social distancing have invariably come from below, often with bosses being an obstacle to introducing these measures. There have been lots of short sharp walkouts using health and safety legislation from Medway refuse workers to posties in Warrington, Lambeth librarians and security guards in central London. But there has also been much more low key action driven from the shop floor, such as the London bus drivers who taped up the front doors insisting passengers entered at the back door, or the agitation among healthworkers for adequate PPE and testing. No workers, to my knowledge, demanded that their factories were converted to make bombs and tanks during WW1 or WW2. However workers, such as the General Electric workers in the USA have demanded their factories are converted to make ventilators.

Third, management during the pandemic are physically absent from the workplace. A very stark divide has opened up between those who have to be physically present in the workplace and our managers who controlling the money supply and trying to maintain control of work processes from the safety of their private residences. The illusion that we are “all in it together" is very hard to maintain. Today, there are people risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones to ensure everyone has food to eat, water in their taps and access to healthcare. And there are people who are in charge who do nothing except create unnecessary obstacles to adequate safety measures.

The important similarity with war is that the pandemic has stripped social life back to its bare necessities. It has raised in sharp relief what is usually only vaguely perceived by small groups of socialists: that we are extremely dependent on one another; that some work is essential for survival and other work, often more highly paid work, is unnecessary or a luxury; that economic life isn't something that happens in banks and the stock exchange but is something that happens when fit and healthy people go out to work and produce useful things and services; that we can organise our society for social good and not just for the profits of the few; that workers have common interests against capitalists.

The days and weeks ahead will be full of fear, misery and grief, like any war. The class struggle will continue like in any war and the capitalists are still very much in control.

But we should be alive the possibilities for a renewal of working-class politics and workplace organisation and recognise that the objective conditions are more favourable that those that confronted our comrades in 1914 or 1939.

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