Wednesday, June 29, 2011


What can stop austerity? Resistance!

Published Jun 29, 2011 4:52 PM

Greek unionists see the class struggle clearly.
Photo: KKE

At first glance it would seem that Athens, Ohio, and Athens, Greece, are worlds apart. Not only does language separate them, but more than 5,100 miles of land and ocean stand between them. The only thing they seem to have in common is a name.

But the workers in Ohio and throughout the U.S. have an amazing amount in common with the workers in Greece.

In cities, towns and states all across the U.S., workers have had their lives torn apart by draconian budget cuts, layoffs and foreclosures resulting from the loss of income and jobs, and more recently a right-wing assault to strip workers of union rights.

On June 26, with just the stroke of the pen, Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker dismantled state health assistance known as Badger Care, concluded the largest cuts to education in Wisconsin’s history, and attacked public workers’ pensions.

Greek workers resist austerity

In Greece workers are facing a second round of severe austerity measures that are slated to cut more than $9 billion from their services, adding to massive unemployment and poverty.

The big business media has falsely portrayed the plight of the workers in Greece as their fault for “living beyond their means.” This cruel distortion is meant to justify the resultant poverty that the Greek people will be forced to endure and justify the robbery by the banks and the IMF.

The struggle against austerity measures has ignited the mass of people in Greece.

PAME, the All Workers Militant Front, led a successful general strike on June 15. Tens of thousands of people filled Syntagma Square in Athens outside the Parliament, and thousands of workers marched in cities across Greece. Youth and workers held their line despite attacks from riot police, who fired volleys of tear gas canisters into the crowds.

On BBC World News a medical doctor participating in the protests alongside workers and students in the square pointed out: “People will die from these measures. Many will no longer be able to get medical care.”

General Secretary Aleka Papariga of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), also a member of the Greek parliament, put austerity measures in perspective when she declared, “The people must with their own hands take back what they are owed and what belongs to them. [The capitalists] owe the people because of the surplus value they steal in the process of production.” (

The KKE has gone on the offensive, declaring that the working class should sever itself from the European Union, the IMF and the bankers and fight for power.

Same enemy, same fight

The question of power and where this crisis comes from is an important one for workers worldwide, particularly in the United States.

Whether you are a worker in Wisconsin or New York or Athens, Greece, you have nothing in common with the bankers or billionaires wherever they reside. If the present government, regardless of place or type, cannot protect and defend the people, then the issue of workers’ and people power should be placed firmly on the agenda.

The deficit is a fraud. The underlying issue is how the wealth created by the working class is distributed and the inherent contradiction of how production is organized under capitalism, creating a crisis of “overproduction” and resulting in structural and permanent unemployment.

In reality the people of Greece and the United States are fighting the same enemy: the global capitalist system.

In a June 18 article called “Euro Jitters Ricochet Across U.S.,” the Wall Street Journal showed how interconnected the capitalist economy is, with some small towns and major cities in the U.S. already feeling the reverberation of what is happening in Greece through sharp increases in interest on municipal bonds (especially those funded by the Dexia company), resulting in layoffs and cuts.

“‘We are far from Wall Street or Greece, but the impact is being absorbed to the core in small-town America,’ said Kate Reardon, a spokeswoman for Everett, Wash., a city of 104,000 people, where interest costs are rising on a local rink and concert arena. In the Perris Union High School District in Perris, Calif., which already was furloughing workers and considering pay cuts, borrowing costs have risen by $30,000 a month, or about two-thirds of the cost of a first-year teacher, who earns about $46,700.”

New call for general strike — two days

The Greek Parliament is poised to pass more austerity measures on June 28 to satisfy the demands of the European finance ministers and the IMF, so the banks and the rich can receive the next installment of a bailout package due on July 2.

In response, PAME called for a 48-hour general strike, along with resistance to the cuts. Given recent events, tremendous resistance is expected. Regardless of the outcome, it will be an important chapter in the ongoing history of the workers’ struggle in Greece.

And there will be tremendous lessons for workers here in the U.S. The Greek struggle has rightfully placed on the agenda the question of whose crisis this is and who holds the power. PAME noted in its statement: “We call on the working people, the youth, the unemployed and the women to a carry out a people’s uprising. We struggle along with the peoples all over the world against the capitalist barbarity.” (

Workers in Greece are resisting the same capitalist bankers and bosses who are threatening workers here and ultimately endangering the planet. The capitalist system is global. In May 2010 the KKE knew they were facing the combined strength of the European bankers when they hung a banner on the Acropolis ruins in Athens that read: “Peoples of Europe, rise up.”

On June 30 in Britain 750,000 teachers, lecturers and civil servant are set to strike over pension cutbacks. The call on the Greek banner should also be heard in the United States. International solidarity is needed more than ever for the people of the world to prevail.

Articles copyright 1995-2011 Workers World. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.

Youth in revolution

Spread the word: NY City Council 6/28

Text from NYC comrade last night: "20 people arrested at city council. spread the news. crowds blocked vans from taking them. street war. 9:23PM 06/28/2011."

Marxism & "growth slowdown"

Unsteady as she goes

Alex Callinicos

For a while the high priests of capitalism congratulated themselves on the robustness of the economic recovery. Financial markets soared and there was euphoria about the robust expansion of the “emerging market” economies of the Global South. But in the past few weeks it has begun to sink in that the world economy is locked into a crisis that is far from over.

This reality has penetrated even the inner sanctums of the economics profession, where it is rarely admitted that markets can do any wrong. Robert Lucas, who received what is (rather dubiously) called the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1995 for his services to the cult of the market, gave a recent lecture in which he noted that the American economy normally grows by around 3 percent a year. The Great Depression of the 1930s marked an enormous deviation from this trend—real gross domestic product fell by 34 percent between 1929 and 1934. But what Lucas calls “the current US depression” represents another major deviation, though not as great, since growth is just under 10 percent below trend: the “Depression of 1930s and the current one are both much deeper, more prolonged than typical”. 1

Lucas notes that, as in the Great Depression, the present crisis started in the banking system, though this time the American state didn’t sit by, but pumped in vast amounts of liquidity, preventing total collapse. Lucas supports these policies, but he argues that business investment and consumer spending are being held back by the prospect of higher taxes, Barack Obama’s healthcare reform and the imposition of very mild new controls on financial markets, all of which will turn the United States into a European-style welfare state. This is ridiculous. Gavyn Davies points out that, “as yet, there has been no increase in taxation, on the rich or anyone else. Nor have the Obama administration’s medical and financial sector reforms really taken effect. It would take a remarkably farsighted private sector to have already reacted adversely to this set of long-term reforms, even if they might do so eventually”.2

Figure 1: US recession: GDP deviations from trend
Source: Lucan, 2011
figure 1

All the same, the global economic recovery does look like it’s running out of steam. In recent weeks the US, the eurozone and Britain have all released data showing that growth is slowing. There is also increasing evidence that China, whose helter-skelter expansion has driven the recovery, is slowing down, though this means it is forecast by Goldman Sachs to grow at 9.4 rather than 10 percent this year.3

As Lucas points out, the problem isn’t lack of money. Global profit margins are estimated to have risen by 40 percent in 2010, and are forecast to rise by another 11 percent in 2011.4 So companies are flush with money. According to the Financial Times, “less than three years on from the dark days of the financial crisis, companies are sitting on a bulging war chest of several thousand billion dollars of cash”. But it also reports that, burned by the financial crisis and worried about the future, they are wary about opening their coffers to spend on takeovers or new investments.5

The official explanation for the growth slowdown is the impact of various external “shocks”—the rise in the oil price, for example, and the disruption caused to global supply chains by falls in Japanese production after the Tohoku tsunami. No doubt these played a part, but the reality is that the world economy is still deeply constrained by the effects simultaneously of the crisis and of the measures taken to prevent it becoming even worse. The financial bubble that precipitated the crisis was driven by massive borrowing by states, banks and individual households. All are now trying to borrow less and save more. Since higher saving reduces effective demand for goods and services, the economic consequences are negative.

Thus take the American housing market, incubator of both the bubble and the crash. Figures released at the end of May show housing prices have suffered a double-dip—in other words, having fallen and then recovered, they are falling again. House prices are now 33 percent below their peak in 2006, a steeper fall than the 31 percent drop during the Great Depression. The problem is partly oversupply—ten million vacant homes, 2.3 million in foreclosure because their owners couldn’t keep up their mortgage repayments. Demand is also falling because the high level of unemployment encourages young people to stay with their parents rather than buy their own home.6 Rising house prices played a crucial role in driving higher consumer demand (since they allowed households to borrow and spend more) during the boom of the mid-2000s.7 So an important engine of economic growth is broken—not just in the US, but in countries such as Britain, southern Ireland and Spain that also experienced property bubbles in the previous decade.

The so-called crisis of sovereign debt falls into the same pattern. Financial markets have been targeting governments that they believe can’t pay back their debts. This process has gone furthest in the eurozone, where Greece, Ireland and now Portugal have been placed under the supervision of the “troika” of the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund to ensure that they implement savage austerity policies in exchange for financial support.

These arrangements represent a significant restriction of national sovereignty: for example, the Financial Times reported in late May that “European leaders are negotiating a deal that would lead to unprecedented outside intervention in the Greek economy, including international involvement in tax collection and privatisation of state assets, in exchange for new bailout loans for Athens”.8 In fact, there are plenty of precedents from the 19th and early 20th centuries, when consortiums of European states took over financial control of indebted states such as China, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire.

Predictably, the “rescues” have simply made it harder for the victim states to repay their debts. Austerity measures cut economic output and so debt rises in comparison with national income, pushing the burden of repayment to impossible levels: the Greek economy is forecast to shrink by 3.5 percent this year, after contracting by 4.4 percent in 2010.9 Greece is universally expected to default on its debts. This is a problem for the German and French banks that lent heavily to Greece and the other smaller eurozone states during the credit boom of the 2000s.

Moreover, if default spread beyond Greece, it might wipe out a large chunk of the capital of the ECB, the eurozone’s ultra-orthodox guardian of stability. As part of the highly dysfunctional “rescue” of Greece in May 2010, the ECB agreed to prop up the weaker eurozone governments by buying their bonds. According to the Financial Times:

Under the securities markets programme, it acquired €75 billion in government bonds, almost two-thirds of which are Greek. It also has on its books perhaps €150 billion in other financial assets put up as collateral by Greek banks, much of which is backed by Athens.

Should Greece default, the value of those holdings would decline sharply. The ECB bought the bonds at market prices, which assumed some risk of default, so the immediate losses might be manageable. JPMorganChase calculates that, with €81bn in capital and reserves, eurozone central banks could withstand even a 50 percent “haircut”, or discount, on Greek bonds. But if write-downs on Portuguese and Irish bonds followed, eurozone governments might be forced to provide billions of euros to rebuild the ECB’s balance sheet.10

Both the eurozone crisis and the US housing double-dip demonstrate how badly damaged the global financial system was by the bubble and the crash. But we can also see how state policies—particularly the drive to austerity—have complicated the situation. Elsewhere government intervention has had different but also destabilising consequences. Chinese banks—under government orders—made $1.4 trillion worth of new loans in 2009, which helped to drive the economy, along with those supplying it with raw materials and components, out of recession.

The apparent success of China and other “emerging market” economies in weathering the Great Recession has played a critical role in boosting financial markets after their recovery from the crash. A fair chunk of the cheap money created by Western central banks has flowed into the big economies of the Global South, pushing up their exchange rates and thereby increasing the problems with which their industrial firms have to grapple in fending off cheap imports from China (whose currency is, of course, pegged against the dollar). Much of the excitement in the financial markets this year has been generated by firms trading in commodities—for example, the stock market launch of the Swiss-based trader Glencore.

Fast growth in the “emerging market” economies has helped to pull up the prices of food, oil, and other raw materials. In 2010 China became the largest consumer of energy, with 20.3 percent of global consumption (the US share was 19 percent).11 The IMF commodity price index rose by 32 percent between July 2010 and February 2011, with the food price index rising even faster, by 41 percent.12 The resulting pressure on living standards helped to precipitate the revolutionary wave in the Arab world. This is a political and economic problem as well for the countries at the heart of the recovery. The Financial Times recently reported: “Year to year figures for the latest months available show inflation in fast-growing BRIC nations of 6.5 percent in Brazil, 8.7 percent in India, 9.6 percent in Russia and 5.3 percent in China. The International Monetary Fund predicts this year’s emerging market average rate will be 6.9 percent, compared with just 2.2 percent for the developed world”.13

In China food prices are rising at twice the overall inflation rate, and a bubble has developed in the property market. The inflationary surge is stoking social tensions—thus higher fuel prices goaded lorry drivers in late April to go on strike, and blockade Shanghai’s port of Baoshan, clashing with riot police. Then in mid-June migrant workers clashed with police in the southern factory town of Zengcheng after security guards attacked a pregnant street hawker. The government, nervous about the forthcoming handover to a new generation of party leaders, is trying to cool the economy down by, for example, increasing interest rates. But there may be a bigger bust on the way. Nouriel Roubini, respected for his accurate forecast of the financial crash, has been arguing for some time that China has been developing its own bubble:

China’s economy is overheating now, but, over time, its current overinvestment will prove deflationary both domestically and globally. Once increasing fixed investment becomes impossible—most likely after 2013—China is poised for a sharp slowdown… China has grown for the last few decades on the back of export-led industrialisation and a weak currency, which have resulted in high corporate and household savings rates and reliance on net exports and fixed investment (infrastructure, real estate, and industrial capacity for import-competing and export sectors). When net exports collapsed in 2008-2009 from 11 percent of GDP to 5 percent, China’s leaders reacted by further increasing the fixed-investment share of GDP from 42 percent to 47 percent.

Thus China did not suffer a severe recession—as occurred in Japan, Germany, and elsewhere in emerging Asia in 2009—only because fixed investment exploded. And the fixed-investment share of GDP has increased further in 2010-2011, to almost 50 percent.

The problem, of course, is that no country can be productive enough to reinvest 50 percent of GDP in new capital stock without eventually facing immense overcapacity and a staggering non-performing loan problem. China is rife with overinvestment in physical capital, infrastructure, and property. To a visitor, this is evident in sleek but empty airports and bullet trains (which will reduce the need for the 45 planned airports), highways to nowhere, thousands of colossal new central and provincial government buildings, ghost towns, and brand-new aluminium smelters kept closed to prevent global prices from plunging.14

The fact that Roubini got the financial crisis right doesn’t mean he will also get China right. There is an alternative scenario—very much pushed by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party—according to which the economy will gradually reorient towards the domestic market on the basis of a new model that gives priority to consumption over investment and exports. But this isn’t a simple matter of shifting policy. Institutionalised class interests are also involved. Herman Schwartz writes:

The largest economic benefits from growth have gone to the children of the party elite, who have constituted themselves as a new economic elite… These children also hold 85-90 percent of the key positions in the five most important industrial sectors: finance, foreign trade, land development, large-scale engineering and securities. Their control over these positions has assured their wealth in a society in which markets largely function via contacts, not contracts. From their point of view, profitability ultimately rests on exports rather than on a brutal struggle in a Chinese market characterised by no brand loyalty, no product differentiation, and workers’ emerging ability to push wages up.15

Now there are counter-trends. The Chinese authorities are nudging the renminbi very slowly up on the foreign exchanges and beginning to allow it to be used in bond issues and the like, primarily in Hong Kong, which still has its own financial system. Renminbi deposits in Hong Kong have risen from 90 billion in the middle of last year to 510 billion ($78.7 billion) at the end of April, though this still represented only 7 percent of total deposits.16 These are essential steps if the renminbi is to join the dollar and the euro as an international reserve currency used by foreign investors, which would also require a move away to pegging it to the dollar at an exchange rate that favours exporters.17 The sheer scale of China’s growth is widening the domestic market, and encouraging both local firms and transnationals to fight for market share. But whether changes of this kind will turn the super-tanker of the Chinese export economy round quickly enough to avoid the crunch predicted by Roubini is quite another matter. And if China does suffer even a significant growth recession, where output doesn’t fall but the rate of growth does, all bets are off.

Worries about the state of the Chinese economy were one factor in the abrupt sell-off in early May that saw the prices of oil and other commodities fall sharply (though oil rose again a month later after Iran and Venezuela blocked Saudi Arabia’s attempt to get the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries to agree to raise output). There is increasing evidence that the global commodities market is now well integrated in the financial markets. A recent study has found that the futures prices of non-energy commodities have tended to rise and fall since the early 2000s in line with the price of oil, something that hadn’t been seen since the years of high inflation in the 1970s and early 1980s. Part of the explanation may be the increasing investment (up from $15 billion in 2003 to $200 billion in 2008) in bets on the commodities markets.18

Price movements in other words are becoming driven less by changes in supply and demand than by flurries of speculation—something that was already evident in the sharp fall in the oil price as the financial crash gathered pace in the autumn of 2008. The commodities sell-off is therefore a sign that the markets themselves are beginning to get worried.

This situation poses a dilemma for the US Federal Reserve Board and the other leading central banks that now play the main role in managing advanced capitalist economies. The uptick in inflation is putting them under pressure to move away from the ultra-cheap money policies that they embraced in response to the 2008 crash. The ECB has already started to push up interest rates. But an end to cheap money might kill off an already fragile recovery. The Fed’s quantitative easing programme (QE2), under which it decided to pump $600bn into the financial system, is due to finish at the end of June. But, given complete gridlock in the US Congress (where Republicans who won control of the House of Representatives thanks to the Tea Party movement are demanding massive spending cuts), the electronic equivalent of printing money may be the only way of propping up the economy if it looks like sliding back into recession. There is growing talk of “QE3”. The managers of global capitalism have a very limited set of options.

Britain: intimations of mortality?

Britain is very much part of this broader economic picture. In the first quarter of 2011 even the Greek economy grew faster. Growth in manufacturing, which had been stronger than in the rest of the economy because the 25 percent fall in the pound since 2008 has cheapened exports, is slowing down. The combination of spending cuts, wage freezes, tax increases and higher inflation is squeezing living standards brutally. Even the government’s tame Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that spending in 2015 will be only 5.4 percent higher than the peak of 2008. The Financial Times commented:

In fact, before the 1970s, you have to go back to the 1900s for a similarly slow improvement in living standards… Before the early 1900s, only the 1840s saw similarly slow spending growth, although figures available for the period are sketchy. A slowdown in international trade and a sharp reduction in overseas demand for British goods, combined with a series of poor harvests, helped to produce a deep recession from 1840-42.19

The rationale for the Conservative-Liberal coalition’s austerity programme was that the economic slack creating by making sharp cuts in public spending would be taken up by more robust private sector growth. But all the signs are that the private sector is being dragged down by the squeeze in the public sector. By early June the Observer was reporting:

Some of Britain’s leading economists are warning the chancellor, George Osborne, that the economy is too fragile to withstand his drastic spending cuts and that he must draw up a plan B.

Experts, including two former Whitehall advisers and two signatories of last year’s high-profile letter backing the Tories’ cuts, have told the Observer that they have profound concerns about the direction of Treasury policy.20

Osborne continues to dismiss the necessity of a plan B for stimulus measures if the economy slid back into slump, an idea first mooted by the cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell, in December. But the pressure on the government to change course is likely to grow. Its other big area of vulnerability is, of course, the National Health Service, where Andrew Lansley’s proposals massively to extend the market have run into huge opposition. The Liberal Democrats have made rolling back these plans the test of their new assertiveness after the massacre they deservedly suffered in the May council elections.

But the Tories’ hand within the coalition has been strengthened by the election results. After losing nearly 700 seats, the Lib Dems are in no position to threaten to bring the government down, since they would be massacred in the subsequent general election. Labour was the main beneficiary of the Lib Dem wipeout, ending up narrowly ahead in vote share, with 37 percent to the Tories’ 35 percent and just short of a majority in the Welsh Assembly. But the Tories could still take some comfort from the results. Not only were they satisfied, as the most wholehearted opponents of the Alternative Vote, with the crushing victory of the No campaign in the referendum but, as John Curtice points out:

At roughly 800 seats, Labour’s net gains fell short of the target of 1,000 seats that some commentators suggested the party needed to show it really was back on the road to recovery. Part of Labour’s problem was that its vote increased most in traditional Labour territory—the north and working class seats with relatively large levels of unemployment—a pattern that reduced the yield its advance produced in terms of seats.

The Conservatives suffered in Scotland too, leaving the party with its worst ever result in Scotland. But in Wales the party enjoyed a modest increase in support and claimed second place in the Assembly from Plaid Cymru. Meanwhile its performance in the local elections was on a par with last year’s. For every seat it lost to Labour it seemed to gain one from the Liberal Democrats, leaving the party with a surprise net increase in seats. For a party in government, the Conservatives will doubtless see this as an achievement.21

And of course in Scotland, where the polls initially predicted a Labour victory in the elections to Holyrood, instead it suffered a thumping defeat at the hands of the Scottish National Party. The result was a triumph for Alex Salmond’s strategy of carefully positioning the SNP slightly to the left of a lacklustre Scottish Labour leadership, and therefore harvesting the strongly social democratic loyalties of the Scottish electorate. But it also underlined that the electoral base of the two big parties remains much weaker than it was in the decades immediately after the Second World War. Because they are less tightly bound to one of these parties, voters are much more volatile. Richard Seymour elsewhere in this journal emphasises the limits of the revival in Tory fortunes under David Cameron. Using Nick Clegg as the fall guy worked this time for the Tories, but it may not work again. A succession of U-turns, over not just the NHS but also, for example, sentencing policy and benefit cuts, has underlined the fragility of the coalition despite the front offered by Cameron and Osborne.

All the same, Labour’s less than stellar performance is increasing the pressure on Ed Miliband from the Blairite right. Never really reconciled to his victory in the leadership election last autumn, they continue to repeat the mantra that the only way to beat the coalition is to press on with Blair’s agenda of neoliberal “reform”. His response, to embrace the “Blue Labour” agenda of Jon Cruddas, Maurice Glasman and others, seems like an alternative way of tacking right, by adopting a Labourist version of Cameron’s Big Society emphasis on community, and in the process pandering to the reactionary prejudices that the “Blue Labour” stereotype attributes to white working class people.22

This means the developing resistance to austerity can’t look to the leadership of the Labour Party for support or direction—though huge numbers of Labour supporters are involved in this resistance. The trade union leaders, by contrast, have been forced to move because of the very direct threat that Osborne’s cuts represent to large portions of their base. The giant TUC march on 26 March brought the organised working class onto the streets in unprecedented numbers. The critical question, as ever, remains whether the very broad opposition to austerity can be translated into real collective action in which workers use their economic muscle to block the coalition’s offensive.

As Martin Smith shows elsewhere in this journal, the conservatism of the union bureaucracy remains a huge obstacle to such action developing. But the bureaucracy is itself divided and under pressure to act. As we go to press, large numbers of public sector workers are due to go on strike on 30 June, mainly in response to attacks by the government and employers on their pensions. The signs are that the British workers’ movement is entering a more turbulent phase.

These developments coincide with a more general uptick in resistance in Europe, with the massive youth protests in Spain and Greece, and, of course, as Anne Alexander’s article on Egypt reminds us, the revolutions in the Arab world continue. In Britain the same radicalisation that was expressed in the student protests at the end of last year has been in the efforts at direct action on 26 March and the wave of SlutWalk anti-rape demonstrations.

One striking feature of the Spanish protests was the rejection of political parties and even the trade unions. This no doubt has much to do with the fact—in Spain as elsewhere—that the political elite remains locked into the neoliberal consensus, and with the failure of the union bureaucracy (despite last autumn’s general strike) to mount sustained resistance to austerity.

But there is a broader factor at work as well. Recent mass struggles—including the student movement in Britain and the Arab revolutions—have been marked by the relative lack of involvement of substantial political forces (with the important, but complicated, exception of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). The problem here isn’t simply the general weakening of political parties, but also the fact that what were the great ideologies of emancipation in the 20th century—socialism (the workers’ movement), nationalism (the anti-colonial struggles), liberalism (the revolutions of 1989)—have much less of a hold than they did a generation or two ago. Liberalism has been discredited by the experience of neoliberalism, and in the Middle East by its association with US imperialism; socialism has had to carry the burden of Stalinism and social democracy; and nationalism has been caught up in the failure of so many postcolonial regimes. These experiences are part of the story of the erosion of mass parties in recent decades.

None of these ideologies are in any way dead, and all are capable of revival. But the weakening of their influence means that mass movements tend not to have any clear ideological articulation. This doesn’t mean that these movements are purely spontaneous or that no political activists are involved in them. On the contrary, revolutionary socialists, for example, can be proud of the role they have played in struggles as diverse as the British student movement and the 25 January Revolution in Egypt. But, for much wider layers, suspicion of all political organisation and the belief that movements can sustain themselves through their own horizontal networks have become a kind of common sense. This then helps to sustain the kind of illusions in social media so effectively criticised by Jonny Jones in our last issue.23

None of this alters the fact that we are experiencing an international renewal of struggle that continues the process of radicalisation beginning with the Seattle protests in November 1999. But revolutionary socialists have to recognise that this radicalisation doesn’t automatically lead those affected towards Marxism in the way that tended to happen during its predecessors in the 1930s and the 1960s and early 1970s. We have to fight to make our voices heard. This is no great injury—no one has the right to imagine they are the voice of history, but it is a challenge.

hr. Notes

1: Lucas, 2011.

2: Davies, 2011.


4: Jackson, 2011.

5: Milne and Sakoui, 2011.

6: Harding, 2011 and Kapner and Politi, 2011.

7: See, for example, the data in Duménil and Lévy, 2011, chapter 10.

8: Spiegel, Peel and Atkins, 2011.

9: Hope, 2011.

10: Atkins, 2011.

11: Pfeifer, 2011.

12: IMF, 2011, pp30, 37.

13: Wagstyl and Wheatley, 2011. In April South Africa joined the four original BRIC states (Brazil, Russia, India, and China).

14: Roubini, 2011.

15: Schwartz, 2009, p168.

16: Konyn, 2011.

17: See the analysis, sceptical about the claims that the renminbi is set to replace the dollar as the main reserve currency, in Eichengreen, 2011, pp143-147.

18: Tang and Xiong, 2011.

19: Pimlott, 2011.

20: Stewart and Boffey, 2011.

21: Curtice, 2011.

22: Wintour, 2011. For a critique of “Blue Labour”, see Rooksby, 2011.

23: Jones, 2011.


Atkins, Ralph, 2011, “Eurozone: Frankfurt’s Dilemma”, Financial Times (24 May).

Curtice, John, 2011, “Mixed Messages for Everyone—Except Salmond and Clegg”, Independent (7 May),

Davies, Gavyn, 2011, “The Classical View of the Global Recession”, 31 May 2011,

Duménil, Gérard, and Dominique Lévy, 2011, The Crisis of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press).

Eichengreen, Barry, 2011, Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar (Oxford University Press).

Harding, Robin, 2011, “US Home Price Double Dip Erases Post-Crisis Gains”, Financial Times (31 May).

Hope, Kerin, 2011, “Greek Growth Expected to be Short-Lived”, Financial Times (13 May).

International Monetary Fund, 2011, World Economic Outlook April 2011,

Jackson, Tony, 2011, “Soaring Profit Margins Are Hard to Sustain”, Financial Times (15 May).

Jones, Jonny, 2011, “Social Media and Social Movements”, International Socialism 130,

Kapner, Suzanne, and James Politi, 2011, “US Housing Glut and Weak Demand Depress Prices”, Financial Times (1 June).

Lucas, Robert E, 2011, “The US Recession of 2007-201?” (19 May),

Milne, Richard, and Anoushka Sakoui, 2011, “Corporate Finance: Rivers of Riches”, Financial Times, (22 May 2011).

Pfeifer, Sylvia, 2011, “China Becomes Leading User of Energy”, Financial Times (8 June).

Pimlott, Daniel, 2011, “Seven Years of Sluggish Growth Forecast”, Financial Times (31 May).

Rooksby, Ed, 2011, “Don’t Underestimate Toxic Blue Labour”, Guardian (21 May),

Roubini, Nouriel, 2011, “China’s Bad Growth Bet” (14 April),

Spiegel, Peter, Quentin Peel, and Ralph Atkins, “Greece Set for Severe Bail-Out Conditions”, Financial Times (29 May).

Schwartz, Herman M, 2009, Subprime Nation: American Power, Global Capital, and the Housing Bubble (Cornell University Press).

Stewart, Heather, and Daniel Boffey, 2011, “George Osborne Plan Isn’t Working, Say Top UK Economists”, Observer (4 June),

Tang, Ke, and We Xiong, “Index Investment and Financialisation of Commodities”,

Wagstyl, Stefan, and Jonathan Wheatley, “Global Economy: A High Price to Pay”, Financial Times (30 May).

Wintour, Patrick, 2011, “Ed Miliband Endorses ‘Blue Labour’ Thinking”, Guardian (17 May),

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Gramsci and revolution: a necessary clarification

Roberto Robaina
The name of Antonio Gramsci is regularly invoked internationally by people looking for a version of Marxism that avoids references to revolution. Roberto Robaina challenges this approach, criticising fellow Brazilians who use it.

Brazil was one of the first countries in Latin America to rediscover Antonio Gramsci. This was important in itself, but it was also attended by the theoretical distortions of a left that, although it was breaking with Stalinism, still resisted the alternative of a revolutionary perspective.

The first disseminators of Gramsci’s thought, particularly Carlos
Nelson Coutinho, extended the discussion about the state to include questions of hegemony, the accumulation of forces and the necessity or otherwise of insurrection. And it was precisely on these questions that Gramsci has been most misused within the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), where his work has been represented as reformist. Concepts like hegemony and historic bloc, for example, have been consistently distorted. Some
leaders of the PT, indeed, are still using these concepts to defend a politics of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie, or at least sections of it.

The concept of the historic bloc, for example, has nothing to do with alliances with the bourgeoisie, nor can hegemony be transformed into a justification for concessions to the exploiting classes or a search for consensus with them—at least not in the name of Gramsci. When he led the Italian Communist Party, before he was imprisoned, Gramsci left no room for doubt as to the necessity for the movements of industrial and agricultural workers to build alliances with the peasants of the south and the islands.1 He affirmed the decisive role of intellectuals in the formation of these alliances, arguing that they played a key role in binding the peasantry to the big landowners, and arguing the urgent need to break that link by building a left current amongthe intellectuals. Gramsci certainly pointed to the need for consensus among the broad peasant masses as a prior condition for mobilising them against capitalism—a consensus among the peasants, be it noted, rather than with the capitalists, with the purpose of breaking the links with the landowning class. This was the historic bloc that would have a determining role in social
change—it has nothing to do with collaboration between workers and capitalists, nor between their parties, be they populist, liberal or anything else.

Gramsci also made a clear distinction between hegemony and domination, affirming that domination was not enough, but that the object was hegemony—that is, a real capacity to lead, employing a complex network of relationships not based on coercion. The essence of his concept of hegemony is that it responds to the proletariat’s need to raise itself into a class
capable of leading its class allies in the struggle against capitalism:

Mass action is not possible while the masses remain unconvinced of the purposes it is pursuing or the means to achieve them. If it is to become a governing class, the proletariat must rid itself of all the residue of corporatism, of every syndicalist prejudice. What does this mean? It means that not only must the divisions between different jobs be overcome, but that to achieve consensus and to win the trust of the peasants and some of the semi-proletarian urban masses some prejudices have to be addressed as well as elements of egotism which still persist among workers even when they have left behind craft particularisms. The metal worker, the carpenter, the building worker will need to learn to see themselves as members of a class that will lead the peasants and the intellectuals, a class that can only win and build socialism if it is supported and followed by the majority of society. If it does not achieve that, and the proletariat does not become the leading class and those sectors,
who are still the majority in Italy, remain under bourgeois control, it will give the state the possibility of crushing the rising tide of workers’ struggles and breaking the movement.2

Gramsci was against the state. That could hardly be clearer. The
strategy of seeking democratic changes in the bourgeois state or seeking consensus with sectors of business or with public opinion in general appears nowhere in Gramsci’s work.

The discussion of the war of movement and the war of position
adds a rich new dimension to the discussion of revolutionary strategy. Gramsci took these concepts from discussions about the art of war: ‘In the East, the state was everything, and civil society was primitive and sticky. In the West, there was an appropriate relationship between state and civil society, and when the state was in turmoil, the robust structures of civil society became evident.’ The state was a frontline fortress ‘behind which sheltered a robust system of inner keeps and walls’. From that Gramsci deduces that in the East the war of manoeuvre is more appropriate while in the West it is the war of position, with much greater emphasis on the accumulation of forces within the institutions and civil society.

Vladimir Pomar set out to synthesise these two concepts—the war of movement or manoeuvre would be the participation of the social movements, of all the struggles which produce tensions in the domination of capital, even the most reformist and localised: ‘The principal effort should be directed towards unifying these movements on an increasingly broad base— regional, provincial and national—so they converge in a social movement capable of achieving social transformation.’ The war of position, in this sense, would be the participation in and contestation of the apparatus of civil society and the political system ‘through trade unions, parliaments, governments, with the central purpose of interacting with the working class…mobilising them and working to resist their fragmentation and division’.

Some scholars, like the Argentinian sociologist Atilio Boron, define Gramsci’s position as giving priority to the war of position in returning to the arguments presented by Engels in his introduction to The Class Struggles in France,3 and more specifically to an approximation to the arguments of social democracy for wearing down the state. Given that Gramsci elaborated most of his ideas in the wake of the defeat of many of the revolutionary movements inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, it is possible that the Italian communists did take some inspiration from those ideas, although this is never explicit. The most probable explanation is that they derived them directly from discussions within the Third International concerning the workers’ united front.

The differences between the Russian Revolution and those in Europe had been forcefully argued by Lenin in 1918. Lenin, it should be remembered, never opposed the tactic of wearing down the state, but understood it is as a tactic and not as a strategy, in the way that Bernstein had argued it. His words at the Seventh Extraordinary Congress of the CPSU could not have been clearer:

The revolution will not come as quickly as we had hoped. History has spoken, and we have to know how to recognise the reality, we have to recognise that in the advanced countries the socialist revolution will not begin as easily as it did in Russia, the country of Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas, and where for a majority of the population it was a matter of indifference what kind of people lived on the periphery or what was happening there. In countries like these, starting a revolution is as easy as lifting a feather. But in a country where capitalism has developed and produced a democratic culture and organisations that involve every last person, it is absurd to imagine that the revolution can begin without proper preparation. If we fail to do that, we will destroy the socialist revolution before it begins. That is the reality.4

So Gramsci had learned from Lenin and was trying to develop his
ideas. It is possible that Kautsky also had some influence, but not the renegade Kautsky, still less the so-called legalistic and pacifist Engels, who exists only in revisionist falsifications. Yet Gramsci was to fall victim to the same falsifications, confirming once again the anxiety of reformists to find in the arguments of Marxists a justification for their abandonment of revolutionary theory.

A useful contribution to the discussion about the war of position has been transformed by reformist intellectuals into a negation of insurrection at the key moment of revolution and thus into the negation of revolution itself. Taking Gramsci as their starting point, intellectuals like Carlos Nelson Coutinho have argued that a country as complex as Brazil should be considered ‘Western’ (which we agree with), in order to legitimise a conclusion we find unacceptable—namely, that the war of position should define the political activity of the workers, while abandoning the perspective of insurrection. As we shall see, nothing in Gramsci justifies such a conclusion.

Two confusions

Gramsci’s writings certainly do leave some room for confusion and reformist reinterpretation. There is room for debate about his view of the capacity of the workers to achieve cultural hegemony before they have conquered state power, for example. The confusion arises from the analogy he draws between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions, without making it clear that the proletariat cannot achieve cultural hegemony in a bourgeois society precisely because of the nature of bourgeois hegemony and its domination of the most powerful ideological apparatuses—a very different situation from that of the bourgeoisie in its battle against feudalism.

According to reformist logic, then, the task would be the accumulation of forces until that hegemony was achieved. Elections would be the barometer of progress in this regard, and successive elections alone would provide the proof or otherwise of the level of consciousness of the citizens. This one-dimensional vision overemphasises the significance of elections and suggests the possibility of conquering hegemony over the whole of society, but without mentioning its class character, the very reason why the working class cannot achieve a position of leadership over the dominant classes and the upper middle classes, given that their interests are neither the same, nor even similar.

A more careful reading shows that Gramsci lays great store by the achievement of cultural hegemony by socialists, not over the whole of society but over the classes exploited in one way or another under capitalism, with whom the workers and their organisations must build links and seek the strategies that will win them leadership. This is a very different position, even if it still leaves much room for question insofar as the struggle for cultural hegemony involves major areas like values, ethics and world view. It requires a very high level of class consciousness and maturity in a context in which even the best organised workers are not particularly well educated and in which political power has yet to be won.

And even if it were possible to exercise cultural hegemony prior to taking political power, the reformist conclusion that this would eliminate the need for an act of force to change the social relations of domination is plainly wrong. Even the bourgeoisie, whose cultural hegemony as a class over its allies enabled it to become the dominant class, was not able to take power by democratic or peaceful means, but had first to destroy the political apparatus of the feudal monarchy. This lack of clarity in Gramsci’s thought regarding cultural hegemony takes nothing away from the sharpness of his opposition to the illusion that the working class could lead or represent the interests of the whole of society prior to taking power. And it does not negate the need to incorporate Lenin’s key notion of the struggle for the hegemony of revolutionary strategy. The conquest of political hegemony refers to the capacity of the working class to lead political alliances and win its slogans and proposals for the intermediate classes (the peasantry and the impoverished middle class in particular)—that is a precondition for victory.

There is a second basis for confusion in Gramsci’s writings, revealing either a prejudice against or an ignorance of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. In formulating his theory of the war of movement and of position the Italian directly attacks Trotsky’s theory. These attacks were repeatedly used by reformists subsequently, as if permanent revolution referred to a continuous frontal assault on the bourgeois state. To place this
discussion in context, we should return to the last debates in the Third International before Lenin’s death.

As is well known, in the early 1920s Lenin proposed the united front tactic in opposition to the theory of the revolutionary offensive, which argued that the permanent task of the mass movements in Western Europe was to prepare for the insurrection. The united front tactic, by contrast, proposed the unity of working class parties, the unity of Third International
revolutionaries with the European Mensheviks, a politics of the accumulation of forces which would allow the majority of the working class to be won over before an insurrection. The so-called ‘offensivists’ accused Lenin of giving up on the very strategy the Bolsheviks had pursued in Russia, without stopping to consider the downturn the revolutionary movement had undergone since then—which Trotsky emphasised in his contribution to the debate.

The caricatures of Trotsky’s position fabricated by the Stalinist apparatus tried to suggest that the theory of permanent revolution and the revolutionary offensive were one and the same. And Gramsci repeated the accusation when it was clear that the founder and leader of the Red Army always defended the need for the accumulation of forces rather than the suggestion of a frontal assault on the state. Gramsci’s misunderstanding is
exposed when he points to the united front as the classic expression of the war of position and then argues that Trotsky is only concerned with the war of manoeuvre. Yet Gramsci must have known that it was Trotsky who presented the concept at the Congress of the International, and that he was always its most fervent defender. In fact, his most serious disagreement with
the Soviet leadership came on this very issue. The refusal of the German Communist Party to build a united front against Nazism was the direct cause of his final break with a now wholly Stalinised Third International.

Trotsky defended the united front in all the debates in the International, in his writings about the German situation in 1923, his articles of 1933 and his analysis of France between 1934 and 1936. Throughout his life he fought the parliamentary cretinism that refused to use bourgeois parliaments, proposing instead a combination of Gramsci’s war of manoeuvre and war of position according to the correlation of forces. If Gramsci argued that the united front was an illustration of the war of position, and Trotsky was one its principal defenders, how could Gramsci attack Trotsky?

Stalinist propaganda played its part. The debates about permanent revolution began in 1923. In 1926 Stalin elaborated his theory of socialism in one country, but the bureaucracy had already launched its attacks on socalled Trotskyism well before that, describing Trotsky’s politics as adventurist and irresponsible, claiming he was proposing an immediate international revolution when the conditions did not exist for it. In this period Gramsci wrote to the Executive Committee of the International criticising the opposition led by Trotsky. There is nothing to indicate that he did not understand the reactionary nature of the theory of socialism in one country or that he might even have identified that theory with the war of position. In the same letter he expressed doubts about both Bukharin and Stalin’s methods, indicating his independence from the Stalinist bureaucracy. It was sufficient reason for Togliatti, the Italian Communist Party representative at the Third International, not to deliver the letter—it was the source of the split between the two men, and the origin of Gramsci’s relative isolation within the PCI leadership. It is worth adding that at this stage Stalinism had not yet revealed its true horrors—and future Trotskyists like James Cannon and Andres Nin were at this stage still supporting Stalin against Trotsky.

It is also well known that Gramsci, in contrast to Trotsky, paid little attention to the art of insurrection. On the other hand, we cannot forget the conditions under which Gramsci was writing—under the eye of the Fascist censors. Jailed in 1926, he was virtually excluded from the debates in the International from then on. And after Trotsky’s expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1929 Gramsci had no access to Trotsky’s writings, even though he repeatedly asked to see them.

Against this background, it cannot be argued either that Gramsci
defended reformist positions, or that he was identified with Stalinism. There were certainly people who used Gramsci to deny the need for insurrection or the struggle against bourgeois power—there were sectors who wrote in conditions which would have enabled them to face reality, but they did not. So the discussion is not simply about Trotsky’s positions. It is Lenin himself and the strategy of the Russian Revolution that are called
into question when the different characteristics of the revolution in East and West are emphasised to the point where they deny the very idea of revolution and of insurrection as its decisive moment, as if this contradicted the idea of hegemony and the accumulation of forces.

There is a new attempt to confuse Marxism with Blanquism. Carlos Nelson Coutinho says that ‘Marx and Engels defended the Jacobin paradigm put forward by Auguste Blanqui—that is, of revolution as the product of the actions of a small battle-hardened and courageous vanguard… To consider the revolutionary strategy proposed in The Communist Manifesto as valid today is clearly an anachronism.’ An anachronism?! The writer is not only abandoning Marxism altogether—he is slandering Marx and Engels. How can Coutinho still call himself a Marxist? And his calumnies are not even original—he is simply repeating Bernstein’s allegations of nearly a century ago. Lenin said, ‘Bernstein, the leader of the reformists, has won a sad notoriety by accusing Marxism of Blanquism’.5

How did Lenin respond to Coutinho’s progenitor, Bernstein?

First, a successful insurrection must rest not on a trick, nor even on a party, but on an advanced class. Secondly, insurrection can only be based on the revolutionary rise of the people. And thirdly, it must arise at that turning point in the history of the growth of the revolutionary movement when the activity of the vanguard of the people is at its highest point, when the ruling class is at its most divided, and the weak supporters of revolution are at their most indecisive. These are the three conditions for determining when and where the insurrection shall take place—and which distinguish Marxism from the ideas of the Blanquists.6

For Marxism, revolution can only be the act of the masses, not of a small minority, and insurrection is the culminating point of the process, a qualitative leap organised as art. And to win the masses, to convince them of the socialist revolution, an arduous day to day activity will be necessary, wearing down the bourgeois political regime and accumulating forces within the working class. Engels devoted his whole political life to arguing this—in fact he was accused not of Blanquism, but of yielding to reformism towards the end of his life, an accusation as unfounded as the first. When he wrote his often quoted introduction to a new edition of Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, Engels analysed the German SPD at length and offered some important reflections on the revolutionary struggle. He showed that universal suffrage had been an important victory for the working class, and was an essential tool in the struggle. He argued that the struggle on the barricades would become less important in the future, but he never for a moment denied the necessity of revolution, the preparation for which must start with an understanding that the workers cannot be sent into the streets just like that—because defeat would be inevitable.

Extracts from this introduction were later republished to give the impression that Engels was a defender of the peaceful legal road. Engels himself, however, wrote to Kautsky protesting at the cuts made in his text and demanding its publication in full ‘to dissipate any possible misunderstandings’. His demands were ignored.

The defence of the socialist revolution, of the necessity for revolutionary violence to destroy the bourgeois state and establish the workers’ state, does not imply, however, any defence of ultra-left adventures that take the working class into the street only to be defeated. A revolutionary organisation has to know how to distinguish between the time for accumulating forces and the time to employ these forces in revolutionary actions. The terrible error of social democracy was to transform the need to accumulate forces into a permanent strategy, in which standing for elections became a strategy for taking power rather than a tactical instrument for accumulating forces, making propaganda for the party and convincing workers of the need to destroy capitalism, fighting ceaselessly for its immediate demands against whichever government was in power.

When we assert the actuality of revolution, this does not mean that we consider the victory of the working class to be an easy thing to achieve. The destructive capacity of the US military state was never as great as it is today, for example. If Engels emphasised the importance of accumulating forces before launching decisive offensive actions, and foresaw great difficulties for the insurrection given modern armaments, modern technology and even the new urban architecture which replaced the narrow streets of Paris with wide avenues which made it more difficult for workers’ insurrections, how much greater those difficulties are today. The whole 20th century has been devoted to developing new military technologies—the internet itself arose out of those experiments. In the 1990s pilotless planes were used for the first time in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. There have been great advances in computer technology, in the use of sensors, to the extent that the Pentagon’s strategy is to generalise remote control warfare.

That is why today more than ever mass mobilisations and a growing consciousness of the working class and the people of Europe and the US in particular are critical. No military response to imperial aggression can be determined centrally, yet preparation in these areas is crucial. The defeat of imperialism must be political, seeking above all to undermine internal
support for its external interventions. Internationalism and the solidarity of peoples in struggle have become a matter of life and death.

Marxists are always aware of the need to accumulate forces. Lenin more than anyone was always concerned with the issue of hegemony, with the party’s ability to lead. That is why the Bolsheviks did not take power in July 1917 when 500,000 workers were demonstrating in the streets of Petrograd, many of them with arms in hand. They did not take power because they did not have the forces to maintain it, and that July the Bolshevik line had the full support of Trotsky.

The prejudice against the Bolsheviks led to caricaturing the position of the revolutionaries as if their only concern was leading an assault on the Winter Palace. That is absurd. The assault on the palace was certainly a decisive moment, carefully and deliberately chosen. That was Lenin’s genius, knowing the exact moment when there was the greatest support for turning the country around, and breaking down the power of the bourgeoisie—a genius that Daniel Bensaid underlines in his essay ‘Lenin and the Politics of Time’. Such was Lenin’s achievement that there was minimal violence. The power of the bourgeoisie was broken with a minimum number of casualties, so mature and appropriate were the conditions for the ‘assault on heaven’.

This strategy will only be questioned if the objective is the conquest of hegemony over sectors of the bourgeosie. And that is incompatible with Lenin and with Gramsci. Here Gramsci shows that he is a revolutionary Marxist. In an article called ‘Revolutionaries and Elections’ he responds to the question of what revolutionaries, workers and peasants expect from
parliamentary elections:

They certainly do not expect half plus one of the seats in a parliament characterised by dozens of laws whose purpose is to blunt the sharp angles and facilitate cooperation between the classes—between the exploiters and the exploited. On the other hand, they do expect working class electoral activity to carry into parliament a good number of Socialist Party militants who will stand in the way of every move the bourgeoisie try to make, make it impossible to establish a strong and stable government, in a word force the bourgeoisie out of the democratic compromise, abandoning bourgeois legality and making possible a rising of the whole working class against the oligarchy of the exploiters.7

The caricature of Lenin, therefore, is also a caricature of Gramsci. But it is an expression of those who do not want to break the existing machine but want only reforms of the state. In this case, insurrection is irrelevant and the strategy becomes the search for 50 percent plus one of the parliamentary seats—the opposite of the strategy argued by Gramsci.

None of this means that we should deny the differences between East and West, nor ignore the differences between more and less developed countries, nor fail to recognise that the instruments of cultural hegemony, as well as coercion and control, have become increasingly sophisticated. In that sense the bourgeois state is stronger than it was at the beginning of the 20th century, and thus more difficult to destroy.

Gramsci foresaw a problem which we in Latin America have come to know well, since the majority of military regimes were overthrown and replaced by bourgeois democratic governments which have continued the super-exploitation of the working class, yet they have survived for years without the working class articulating any kind of alternative institutional order. Gramsci did offer a not altogether happy solution to the problem of how to fight such states with his formulation of the war of movement and the war of position, without showing more precisely the necessity and manner of their articulation. That allowed others to take his ideas to places where they did not belong.

Bourgeois democracy and dictatorship

The discussion of the difference between East and West was one of Gramsci’s important contributions. Apart from the differences in economic structures and in the levels of industrial, technological and cultural development, the point can be developed to make clear the differences between dictatorial and bourgeois democratic regimes—and this has important implications for the different mass struggles as they confront a dominant bourgeois class.

In democracies, the weight of the ideological apparatus, of the mass media, of common sense, of the illusions of the masses and the capacity of the ruling class to achieve hegemony, are fundamental. Dictatorial states, on the other hand, rest more on the use of force, on coercion and domination, yet even they need some level of consent and shared illusion, one expression of which is fear.

In bourgeois democracies there are many institutions, and so the capacity to convince, hegemony, has a greater weight. But this does not change the nature of the state—it is still bourgeois. And when consensus is not achieved, it strips the bourgeois state of the ability to be what it also is, a dictatorship of capital, so that the repression of the masses is then lived out equally in both regimes, albeit in different forms and with different intensity—
although in bourgeois democratic regimes violence is widely and
systematically used when the mechanisms of consensus and hegemony fail to function.

In confronting these situations there must be a response from trade unions and mass organisations. That much is obvious. But the question is what the purpose of that activity is. The issue is not whether or not we fight for spaces of struggle against hegemony, but rather that interests we intervene to support, and over which classes we wish and are able to establish hegemony, whether we seek class conciliation or ‘the rising of the widest layers of workers against the oligarchy of the exploiters’.

In dictatorships the struggle for the machinery of civil society is much more difficult, and these apparatuses are often less important in defining the correlation of class forces. This is because it is rigidly controlled by the regime, or because it is simply absent—in dictatorships even the institutions of parliament often do not exist. Yet there are always spaces, mechanisms which can be contested. In regimes of this kind the process of defeating them develops through a slow, clandestine accumulation of forces until they erupt in influential sectors, be it the student movement, in emerging organisations (as was the case of UNE, the Brazilian student union), in trade union or
popular movements. It is not important which sector initiates the movement. In general, it takes on the character of a mass mobilisation after a long period of underground preparation driven by democratic demands—‘Down with the dictatorship’, ‘Down with the government’—which eventually alter the correlation of forces, finally undermining the dictatorial regime.

At first sight this appears to be a war of movement but, as always, it takes a combination to bring about an explosion—the rise of great struggles, the deepening of social contradictions. The social and political subjects of change win spaces, recover institutions and rebuild them, accumulate forces and thus stimulate in one way or another offensive actions. Although
the possibilities are fewer, it is also a matter of occupying spaces to demonstrate, with examples, propaganda and actions, the incompatibility between the interests of the working classes, the poor and the repressive regime.

These mass mobilisations in dictatorial regimes are usually multiclass in character, and even include sectors of the bourgeoisie. Yet the bourgeoisie as a class is inconsistent even in the struggle for democratic demands—it does not want any kind of revolution at any price for fear that the masses might go on to demand more than merely changes in the forms of domination. Despite this fear, sections of the bourgeoisie do participate at points during the struggle for democracy, generally when those struggles are approaching their high point, and in order to keep them within the framework of the capitalist mode of production. In the democratic revolutions, therefore, the bourgeoisie can use its economic and social power to manoeuvre and divert the revolution, freezing it in its democratic stage. This understanding was one of the Trotskyist leader Nahuel Moreno’s important contributions to the strategic analysis.

To unleash a revolutionary offensive of this sort—that is, a democratic revolution—it does not matter whether or not a revolutionary party has an influence among the masses, let alone leads it, although history suggests that in practice that influence has always been key to the achievement of democratic demands. Nor is it necessary that there should exist at that stage organs of workers’ power like workers’ and peasants’ councils, centralised or not.

And that is the qualitative difference in comparison with revolution in bourgeois democratic countries, where going beyond bourgeois democracy implies a completely different movement. Here the construction of organs of workers’ power is definitive, even when the bourgeois regime is exhausted and its hegemony in crisis. Marx always argued that the revolution would begin in France, England or Germany, yet it began in Russia, and no successful socialist revolution has occurred thereafter in any bourgeois democracy. This should not make us sceptical of the project. There have been rehearsals—May 1968 in France, the Portuguese Revolution of 1974—and today we are witnessing deepening contradictions at the heart of the system.

The fact that insurrections in bourgeois democratic regimes have not succeeded, however, should lead us to reflect on the preconditions for their success. It is particularly worthwhile to look at the Latin American experience of bourgeois democratic regimes from the 1980s onwards, and to clarify the differences between them and the experience of Russia. This raises an
important issue regarding the institutions—because only in the Russian Revolution of 1917 was an insurrection able to overcome a recently established bourgeois democracy. The first revolution which brought down Tsarism had at its disposal a revolutionary party and organs of mass mobilisation and self-determination, workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils.

What was peculiar about Russia was that a workers’ party was contesting the leadership of the revolutionary democratic struggle against Tsarism. Later, after February, it was able to assume the leadership of the whole process and drive forward a second revolution in the space of a single year. It was unique because the soviets already existed (having been created in 1905) and re-emerged at this time, and because there existed a revolutionary party with influence among the masses. So the victory of the democratic revolution, against a Tsarist regime which rested on the army and repression, could not be diverted by the liberal bourgeoisie in a direction that enabled them to build their own castles to replace the old ones. The soviets were already the main institutions, and the evolution of the internal struggle was decisive in shaping the new type of state.

The Russian experience was not repeated in the course of the collapse of the Latin American military regimes. In Brazil in 1984, for example, revolutionary pressure from below was combined with a self-reform from above which produced a negotiated transition and guarantees of civilian bourgeois domination. The repressive machinery of the previous regime was not even dismantled, though its role was much attenuated by the new constitution of 1988 which established a new legal order incorporating the popular democratic demands of the time. There were no mass organisations of any weight in the society, and the working class did not have an independent role, dissolving into the more general democratic movement. The bourgeoisie was able to set up its ‘new democracy’ and create an electoral process that was able to persuade the people that it was they who were determining the economic and political direction of the country.

A revolution began in Argentina in 1982. The military were literally driven out of power, which also explains why the military were unable to intervene in the crisis of December 2001. The fall of the military was not accompanied by the rise of soviet-type organisations, that is, organs of dual power. Nor did there exist any party with mass influence, although Argentinian Trotskyism was very influential among the vanguard. So the Argentinian democratic revolution of 1982, the Argentinian February we might call it, did not become the Argentinian October, when the workers eliminated the bourgeois state. The sector of the bourgeoisie that took power was then able to create its own machinery of control and its own means of deluding the masses.

The Argentinian example is in no sense unique. The whole of Latin America experienced similar processes—the fall of the dictatorships in the absence of alternative organs of power, and a ruling class that was ready to use the institutions of bourgeois democracy to divert the mass movement and freeze the revolutionary process at its democratic stage.

The exception, many years earlier, had been the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and, to a lesser degree, the Nicaraguan Revolution 20 years later. In neither case did there exist any organs of mass self-determination, yet in both cases there did exist a situation of dual power in which a guerrilla army confronted a dictatorship. In both cases there was a democratic
revolution with the participation of the mass movement and, albeit reluctantly, some bourgeois sectors too. The bourgeois regimes were dismantled, and so too was the army and with it the bourgeois state, leaving room for the creation of a new type of state. This is what happened in Cuba. The US would not accept even minimal capitalist development, which drove the Castro regime to expropriate the bourgeoisie. In this way a new state was created, although one without mass democratic organisations. The deformations of Castro’s Cuba arise from
this limitation as well as the criminal US economic blockade and the no less criminal Soviet foreign policy, which gave aid to Cuba in exchange for its moderation on the Latin American and world scene. In Nicaragua, of course, it was a different story. The Sandinistas did not expropriate the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeois state was rebuilt, albeit in a state of continuing crisis in which it remains today.

These were the experiences of struggle that began with democratic demands and revolutions against dictatorial regimes. In general there were no organisms of dual power and, when there were, they were not mass democratic organisations but guerrilla armies. Yet there were mass mobilisations against dictatorships and they were victorious because the mass
democratic movement proved superior to a state based on a regime of fear and repression.

In bourgeois democratic regimes, however, the barricades and
fortresses, to use Gramsci’s phrase, are much more powerful—bourgeois hegemony and domination are surrounded by a network of defences. To overcome electoralism and the illusion among the masses that parliament is the only means through which to express their political will, even when bourgeois democratic institutions themselves are falling apart, the decisive
thing is to build alternative organs of power in the mass movement. Without them it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to overcome bourgeois domination even against the background of a hegemonic crisis of the bourgeois state. This largely explains the long period of bourgeois democracy that we have had in Latin America, although many of these regimes are now entering a period of crisis.

The process is a slow one. The bases of a different type of state are to be found in workers’ self-organisation, the factory committees, the organisations of the peasant movement like Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST), the popular mass organisations like the MNLM in Brazil, which fights for the right to housing and against homelessness, in sum in the structures
and superstructures of the movements of those at the bottom of the social scale. In Ecuador we have recently seen clear embryos of dual power with the emergence of the People’s Parliament, and similar developments in Bolivia, with the Cochabamba Coordinadora de Agua (Coordinating Committee against Water Privatisation), and in Argentina in the local popular assemblies.

The fact that the traditional leaders of the mass movement are often unhappy with these developments and often work to dismantle them is certainly one obstacle to the radical transformation of society, which is why the urgent task is to build a revolutionary party that does share those strategies. There is no need to fetishise any one form; they might be soviets or councils, cordones industrials like those which arose in Chile in 1972-73, Ecuadorean-style People’s Parliaments or Popular Assemblies like those that emerged in Peru, or indeed any of the new forms that the revolution itself will throw up.

What is decisive is that revolutionaries work within the workers’
movement, among the youth, in the popular and peasant organisations, on the basis of this permanent strategy—to organise from below, to work for unity among them all, and to patiently explain the need to build a new kind of order based on the continuing mobilisation of the masses and on their self-organisation.

1: See A Gramsci and P Togliatti, ‘The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI’ (Lyons Theses), in A Gramsci, Selections from the Political Writings, 1921-26 (London, 1979), pp464-513.
2: The translation differs slightly from that in A Gramsci and P Togliatti, as above, p605.
3: Available on
4: Again the translation varies slightly from that available on
5: Available in a slightly different translation on
6: As above.
7: A Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings, 1910-20 (London, 1977), p188. 07gramsci 14/12/2005 1:24 pm Page 126

Monday, June 27, 2011

Deep ecology’s anti-human core

Deep ecology versus ecosocialism

[Ian Angus will be a feature speaker at the World at a Crossroads II: Climate change: social change conference, in Melbourne, Australia, September 30-October 3, 2011.]

By Ian Angus

June 19, 2011 --This article first appeared at Climate and Capitalism. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Some people believe that deep ecology is not just compatible with ecosocialism, but a way to improve it. That’s a profound misconception that ignores deep ecology’s anti-human core. The following was first posted on the online discussion group that was set up after the founding of the Ecosocialist international Network. I have added some suggestions for further reading.

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Recently, some participants in this list have argued that ecosocialism would be enriched if it incorporated the philosophy and practice known as “deep ecology”. I don’t question their dedication or sincerity, but their argument reflects a misunderstanding of ecosocialism or deep ecology – or perhaps of both.

This is clearly illustrated by the post “Pachamama and deep ecology” by long-time deep ecology advocate Saral Sarkar.

In the course of his superficial and condescending article about the ecological program of the Bolivian government, Sarkar writes:

But if the Bolivian leadership really means what Morales has said … if it seriously takes the task it has given itself, namely, to protect nature against the onslaught of civilization, then it ought to press for the withdrawal of humanity from large tracts of the earth, which is now almost fully occupied by it. Then it ought to demand that such vacated tracts are allowed to again become wilderness. It ought to demand that large parts of the forests, savannahs, rivers and swamps are not changed anymore. And, above all, it ought to tell humanity that it must reduce its own numbers and immediately stop all kinds of economic growth.

It is hard to imagine a clearer illustration of the political and moral bankruptcy of deep ecology.

Since his goal is to protect “forests, savannahs, rivers and swamps” from human depredation, the first to be expelled under Sarkar’s proposal would undoubtedly be the people who now live in such places. Indigenous people, the primary victims of capitalism and imperialism, would become the primary victims of deep ecology.

In order to create an unchanging wilderness that hasn’t existed since cyanobacteria destroyed their own environment by producing oxygen several billion years ago, the world’s poorest and most exploited people must be dispossessed.

Who will decide which human beings must leave the places where they and their ancestors have lived for millennia? Who will enforce the compulsory migrations, and how will they do it? Where will the victims be moved to? Sarkar is silent on such questions.

And, since we must also “stop all kinds of economic growth” – not just capitalist growth, not just ecologically damaging growth, but all growth – how can we possibly meet the physical, social and psychological needs of hundreds of millions of deep ecology refugees? How will they survive in their new homes? Will they even have new homes?

You can call this deep ecology: a better label is ethnic cleansing.

Then he says humans must reduce our numbers. He doesn’t say by how much, but other deep ecologists write of a return to pre-industrial levels, a goal that would treat 90% of all currently living people as dispensable. Does Sarkar favour some global version of China’s mandatory one-child policy? Or perhaps a no-children policy? Once again, who will decide, and how will such draconian policies be enforced?

I have written extensively about the fallacies of populationism, and I won’t repeat those arguments here – but it important to understand that despite its claims to philosophical profundity, deep ecology is ultimately just an extreme version of populationism, the view that the world’s ills are caused by human numbers.

For deep ecologists, people as such are the world’s biggest problem. In her insightful critique of deep ecology, Janet Biehl writes:

Deep ecology … regards the mere biological presence of human beings in any large numbers as intrinsically harmful to first nature … Of paramount importance to deep ecology is a radical and potentially ruthless scaling-down of the human population – indeed, population reduction as an issue has been named the ‘litmus test’ of deep ecology. (“Theses on Social Ecology and Deep Ecology“)

As a result, whatever the illusions and desires of its advocates, deep ecology is profoundly anti-humanist, anti-humanitarian and anti-humane.

That’s why it is incompatible with ecosocialism, and why no attempt to combine the two can succeed.

Further reading

The founder of deep ecology was Norwegian mystic Arne Naess. His first public article on deep ecology was “The shallow and the deep”, published in 1973. He and George Sessions jointly drafted “A Deep Ecology Eight Point Platform” in 1984. In 1995, Sessions edited the anthology Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, which includes essays by Naess and others.

Radical ecologist Murray Bookchin published several very effective critiques of deep ecology. See, in particular, the article “Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement” and the short book Which Way for the Ecology Movement?

Other insightful critiques, each raising different concerns, are Janet Biehl’s “Theses on Social Ecology and Deep Ecology” George Bradford’s How Deep is Deep Ecology?, Frank Rotering’s “My Second Crack at Deep Ecology” and Brian Morris’s “Reflections on ‘Deep Ecology’”.

Too Many People? by Ian Angus and Simon Butler, discusses deep ecology among other populationist currents. It will be published in October by Haymarket Books but can be pre-ordered now.

Finally, Climate and Capitalism has published many articles on populationism. Click here for a complete list.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dubious methods of smearing Chinese workers' state

Revisiting Alleged 30 Million Famine Deaths during China's Great Leap
by Utsa Patnaik

Thirty years ago, a highly successful vilification campaign was launched against Mao Zedong, saying that a massive famine in which 27 to 30 million people died in China took place during the Great Leap period, 1958 to 1961, which marked the formation of the people's communes under his leadership. The main basis of this assertion was, first, the population deficit in China during 1958 to 1961 and, second, the work of two North American demographers, A J Coale (Rapid Population Change in China 1952-1982, 1982) and Judith Banister (China's Changing Population, 1987). No one bothered to look at the highly dubious method through which these demographers had arrived at their apocalyptic figures.

The 'estimate' was later widely publicised by Amartya K Sen, who built an entire theory saying that democratic freedom, especially press freedom, in India meant that famine was avoided while its absence in China explains why the world did not know that such a massive famine had taken place until as much as a quarter century later when the North American demographers painstakingly uncovered it.

The capitalist press was happy to reciprocate the compliment by repeatedly writing of "30 million famine deaths," to the extent that a fiction was established as historical fact in readers' minds. The London Economist had a special issue on China some years ago, which repeated the allegation of 30 million deaths in three separate articles and refused to publish the Letter to the Editor this author sent contradicting the claim. More recently, in his Introduction to the book Mao Zedong on Practice and Contradiction, which he edited and published in 2006, Slavoj Zizek also mentioned the figure of 30 millions as though it were a given fact. Well-known intellectuals have to be taken seriously and the claim examined.

There are two routes through which very large 'famine deaths' have been claimed --firstly, population deficit and, secondly, imputing births and deaths which did not actually take place. Looking at China's official population data from its 1953 and 1964 censuses, we see that if the rate of population increase up to 1958 had been maintained, the population should have been 27 million higher over the period of 1959-1961 than it actually was. This population deficit is also discussed by the demographers Pravin Visaria and Leela Visaria. The population deficit was widely equated with 'famine deaths.' But 18 million of the people alleged to have died in a famine were not born in the first place. The decline in the birth rate from 29 in 1958 to 18 in 1961 is being counted as famine deaths. The Chinese are a highly talented people, but they have not learnt the art of dying without being born.

There is a basic responsibility that everyone, and more particularly academics, has to be clear and precise about. To say or write that "27 million people died in the famine in China" conveys to the reader that people who were actually present and alive starved to death. But this did not actually happen and the statement that it did is false.

China had lowered it death rate sharply from 20 to 12 per thousand between 1953 and 1958. (India did not reach the latter level until over a quarter century later.) After the radical land reforms and the formation of rural cooperatives, there were mass campaigns to clean up the environment and do away with disease bearing pests while a basic rural health care system was put in place. That a dramatic reduction in the rural death rate was achieved is not disputed by anyone. During the early commune formation from 1958, there was a massive mobilisation of peasants for a stupendous construction effort, which completely altered for a few years the normal patterns of peasant family life. Women were drawn into the workforce, communal kitchens were established and children looked after in crèches as most of the able-bodied population moved to irrigation and other work sites during the slack season. We find a graphic description of this period of mass mobilisation in Wiliam Hinton's Shenfan. When this author spent three weeks in China in 1983, visiting several communes -- which still existed at that time -- she was told every time that "we built our water conservation system during the Great Leap." The birth rate fall from 1959 had to do with labour mobilisation, and not low nutrition since the 1958 foodgrain output was exceptionally good at 200 million tons (mt).

There was excess mortality compared to the 1958 level over the next three years, of a much smaller order. Let us be clear on the basic facts about what did happen: there was a run of three years of bad harvests in China -- drought in some parts, floods in others, and pest attacks. Foodgrain output fell from the 1958 good harvest of 200 mt to 170 mt in 1959 and further to 143.5 mt in 1960, with 1961 registering a small recovery to 147 million tons. This was a one-third decline, larger than the one-quarter decline India saw during its mid-1960s drought and food crisis. Grain output drop coincided in time with the formation of the communes, and this lent itself to a fallacious causal link being argued by the academics who were inclined to do so, and they blamed the commune formation for the output decline. One can much more plausibly argue precisely the opposite -- that without the egalitarian distribution that the communes practised, the impact on people of the output decline, which arose for independent reasons and would have taken place anyway, would have been far worse. Further, without the 46,000 reservoirs built with collective labour on the communes up to 1980, the effects of later droughts would have been very severe. Recovery to the 200 million ton level took place only by 1965. Throughout, however, the per capita foodgrain output in China even during the worst year, 1960, remained substantially above that in India.

As output declined from 1959, there was a rise in the officially measured death rate from 12 in 1958 to 14.6 in 1959, followed by a sharp rise in 1960 to 25.4 per thousand, falling the next year to 14.2 and further to 10 in 1962. While, clearly, 1960 was an abnormal year with about 8 million deaths in excess of the 1958 level, note that this peak official 'famine' death rate of 25.4 per thousand in China was little different from India's 24.8 death rate in the same year which was considered quite normal and attracted no criticism. If we take the remarkably low death rate of 12 per thousand that China had achieved by 1958 as the benchmark, and calculate the deaths in excess of this over the period 1959 to 1961, it totals 11.5 million. This is the maximal estimate of possible 'famine deaths.' Even this order of excess deaths is puzzling given the egalitarian distribution in China, since its average grain output per head was considerably above India's level even in the worst year, and India saw no generalised famine in the mid-1960s.

Relative to China's population, this figure of plausible excess mortality is low and it did not satisfy the academics in northern universities who have been always strongly opposed to socialised production. Coale's and Banister's estimates gave them the ammunition they were looking for to attack the communes. How exactly do Coale and Banister reach a figure of 'famine deaths' which is three times higher than the maximal plausible estimate? Examining carefully how they arrived at 30 million 'famine deaths' estimate, we find that the figure was manufactured by using indefensible assumptions and has had no scholarly basis.

In the 1982 census, there was a survey on fertility covering one million persons or a mere 0.1 per cent sample of the population, who were asked about births and deaths from the early 1950s onwards. The very high total fertility rate obtained from this 1982 survey is used by them to say that millions more were actually born between the two census years, 1953 and 1964, than were officially recorded. They ignore the birth rate of 37 per thousand derived from a very much larger 1953 sample which had covered five per cent of all households and was specially designed to collect the information on births and deaths used in the official estimates. Instead, they impute birth rates of 43 to 44 per thousand to the 1950s, using the 1982 survey. There is no justification for such an arbitrary procedure of using a much later reported high fertility rate for a long distant past. We know that a distant recall period makes responses inaccurate. These imputed extra births between 1953 and 1964 total a massive 50 million but according to them did not increase by an iota the 1964 population total, 694.6 million, the official figure which they assume as correct. Thus, although all official birth and death rates are rejected by them, the official population totals are accepted. This opportunistic assumption is clearly necessary for their purpose because it allows them to assert that the same number of extra people died between 1953 and 1964, as the extra people they claim were born.

But the demographers are still not satisfied with the 50 million extra births and deaths that they have conjured up. Fitting a linear time trend to the falling death rate of the early fifties is done to say that deaths should have continued to decline steeply after 1958 and, since it did not, the difference from the trend meant additional 'famine deaths.' Such straight-line trend fitting is a senseless procedure since the death rate necessarily shows non-linear behaviour. It cannot continue falling at the same steep rate; it has to flatten out and cannot reach zero in any population -- not even the inimitable Chinese people could hope to become immortal. The final estimate of extra deaths in both authors is raised thereby to a massive 60 million, a heroic 65 per cent higher than the official total of deaths over the inter-censal period.

Having created these 60 million extra deaths at their own sweet will out of nothing, the authors then proceed to allocate them over the years 1953 to 1964, arbitrarily attributing a higher portion to the great leap years in particular. The arbitrariness is clear from the variation in their own manipulations of the figures. Coale's allocation raises his peak death rate in 1960 to 38.8 per thousand while Banister is bolder and raises it to 44.6 compared to the official 25.4 for that year, and 30 million 'famine deaths' are claimed over the Great Leap years after all this smart legerdemain. Having violated every tenet of reason, these 'academics' may as well have allocated all their imaginary deaths to the Great Leap years and claimed that 60 million died -- why hang themselves only for a lamb rather than for a sheep! Seldom have we seen basic norms of academic probity and honesty being more blatantly violated, than in this travesty of statistical 'estimates.' And seldom have noted intellectuals, who might have been expected to show more common sense, shown instead more credulous naïveté and irresponsibility, by accepting without investigation and propagating such nonsensical 'estimates,' giving them the status of historical fact. In the process, they have libelled and continue to libel Mao Zedong, a great patriot and revolutionary. They have unwittingly confirmed the principle attributed to Goebbels -- that a lie has to be a really big lie and be endlessly repeated; then it is bound to be believed.

Thirty million or three crores is not a small figure. When one million people died in Britain's colony, Ireland, in 1846-47, the world knew about it. When three million people died in the 1943-44 Bengal famine, the fact that a famine occurred was known. Yet 30 million people are supposed to have died in China without anyone knowing at that time that a famine took place. The reason no one knew about it is simple, for a massive famine did not take place at all. The intellectuals who quote the massive famine deaths figure of 30 million today are no doubt outstandingly clever in the small, im kleinen, but are proving themselves to be rather foolish im grossen, in the large. A person has to be very foolhardy indeed to say that 30 million people died in a famine without anyone including the foreign diplomats in China and the China-watchers abroad having the slightest inkling of it. And those who credulously believe this claim and uncritically repeat it show an even greater folly than the originators of the claim.

Utsa Patnaik is a Marxist economist in India. This article was first published in People's Democracy on 26 June 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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