For Marxists elections provide a valuable way of ascertaining certain tendencies in society. It is true that they are not the only way of judging the mood of the masses—nor even the best barometer of the real state of the class struggle. At best they are a snapshot of a certain mood at a given time. But having made these necessary reservations and qualifications, one has to take these indicators seriously, as Marx and Lenin certainly did.
In the last few days we have witnessed at least three elections, all of which bear witness to highly significant processes that are now moving with great speed. These processes are not confined to one or two countries. If that were the case, they might be dismissed as mere accidents, events with no particular significance. But when the same—or very similar—processes repeat themselves in many countries, they can no longer be dismissed as accidents. They are the manifestations of the same phenomenon.
Let us start with a cursory examination of the results of the elections in Iran. We publish a more detailed analysis elsewhere. But here we can say that something fundamental is changing.
Last Friday millions of Iranians voted to elect the 290-seat parliament as well as members of the Assembly of Experts, the 88-member assembly that appoints Iran’s Supreme Leader. Turnout was more than 60 percent. Voting was extended three times on Friday as crowds reportedly flocked to polling stations. This in itself was a sign of political ferment. But the final result was little short of an earthquake.
As usual, the regime interfered blatantly in the selection of candidates, ruthlessly eliminating those perceived as being too liberal. Of 12,000 people who registered as candidates, only half were allowed to stand, including just 200 “moderates.” Yet, despite all these measures, allies of President Hassan Rouhani have won a landslide victory in Tehran.
The pro-Rouhani List of Hope has taken every one of the 30 parliamentary seats in the capital. Gholamali Haddad-Adel, a leading figure of the most reactionary faction, was pushed into 31st place. This represents not a defeat but a humiliating rout for the conservatives. Lyse Doucet, the BBC News international correspondent, referred to it as “this stunning election result.”
As regular as clockwork, at every major turning point in Iranian politics, Akbar, the figure of Hashemi Rafsanjani, reappears to intrigue, balancing between the different factions with the skill of an experienced acrobat. This crafty opportunist, a former President, acts like a political weathervane, pointing in whatever direction the wind is blowing. His actions provide us with a fairly accurate idea as to the direction politics in Iran are moving.
Nowadays Rafsanjani is presenting himself in the guise of a “moderate conservative.” With one foot in the regime, he tests the water with the other one. The “moderate” faction, led by himself and and Rouhani amongst others, now has the most votes for the Assembly of Experts, which is composed of mostly elder and senior clerics.
Lyse Doucet earnestly hopes that this result “will make a difference in Iran’s engagement with the wider world.” She is faithfully expressing the wishes of the bankers and capitalists of the US and Europe, whose mouths are already watering at the prospect of highly profitable contracts, trade, and investment.
Iran’s “dialogue with the West” already began with negotiations on the nuclear deal. Obama was anxious to secure Iran’s help in the war against ISIS in Syria, where the combination of Iranian troops on the ground and Russian airpower has dramatically changed the balance of forces.
Rouhani said on Saturday, “The competition is over. It’s time to open a new chapter in Iran’s economic development based on domestic abilities and international opportunities. The people showed their power once again and gave more credibility and strength to their elected government.”
But despite their sweeping victory in the capital, things are not yet so clear cut. The Reformists did less well in constituencies outside Tehran and in the more backward rural areas where the mullahs still maintain their influence among the more backward and conservative peasants. And the Revolutionary Guards and their Supreme Leader continue to exercise a grip on the state.
There are limits to what the bourgeois reformers can achieve against a powerful and entrenched regime. Rouhani himself has his roots in the same regime and will only challenge it so far. Real change in Iran will only come as the result of a powerful revolutionary movement from below. The conditions for this are now being prepared.
The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is 76 and is known to be in poor health. His departure from the scene will be the signal for a ferocious struggle for power, splits in the regime, and a sharp political crisis. But in reality any accident can provoke a new social upheaval. The slow pace of reform, which will meet with the stubborn resistance of the mullahs at every step, will sooner or later coalesce with the discontent of the masses at the slow pace of improvement in living standards and employment.
With sanctions lifted and Western investors beginning to return to Iran, the masses are hoping for an improvement in daily life. But these hopes will be far greater than what the Iranian bourgeoisie can fulfill. Reformers and “Moderates” are making promises they cannot keep. They say that greater foreign investment will create jobs for young people. But when the time comes for these promissory notes to be cashed, they will be exposed as fraudulent.
Having arrived at a compromise with Washington, the regime will no longer be able to blame the Americans and foreign sanctions for all the problems of the Iranian people. After an inevitable period of “wait-and-see,” the stage will be set for new explosions that will transform the whole region.
The Irish general election was yet another political earthquake. It resembles in many ways the referendum and electoral overturn in Scotland and the December elections in Spain. The old established parties suffered a humiliating defeat that has transformed the Irish political landscape, probably forever.
The public dissatisfaction with traditional politicians finds its reflection in the growth of support for anti-austerity and independent candidates. The burning desire for change was already shown in the referendum on equal marriage that dealt a shattering blow to the dictatorship of the Roman Catholic Church over the legal and spiritual life of the Irish nation. That was another earthquake. The tremors are now spreading rapidly to the arena of politics and are shaking the political establishment to its foundations.
The coalition government of Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party, headed by Enda Kenny, has carried out a program of deep cuts, slavishly obeying the dictates of Brussels and Berlin. This is supposed to have been a great success, and so it was—for the bankers and capitalists and the EU bureaucrats who represent their interests. The Republic of Ireland has had the fastest growing economy in the eurozone for the last two years. But for the great majority of Irish working people, it was an unmitigated disaster.
The results of these elections were a massive vote of no confidence in the government and its austerity policies. Fine Gael suffered defeat. Its deputy leader, and children and youth affairs minister, James Reilly, lost his seat in Dublin Fingal. The party’s former justice minister, Alan Shatter, also lost his seat.
The other bourgeois party, Fianna Fáil, recovered partially from the collapse at the 2011 election, when people blamed them for the Republic of Ireland’s economic crisis. Then many people looked hopefully to Labour for an alternative. But these hopes were cruelly dashed when the Labour leaders jumped with indecent haste into bed with Fine Gael. Still, the result of Fianna Fáil was its second worst ever.
The most devastating defeat was suffered by the Irish Labour Party, which suffered a well-deserved kick in the teeth as a result of its participation in the coalition government. Its vote collapsed from nearly 20% down to 6.6%.
Fine Gael had hoped to continue with the current coalition, but the Labour Party’s vote collapsed. Alex White, the Labour Party’s communications minister, lost his seat, while Alan Kelly, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, only avoided losing his by the skin of his teeth.
At a count center in Dublin, Labour campaigners looked shell shocked. But it was hardly a surprise. The Labour leaders have been punished by the people for years of painful austerity. As in other countries, the right-wing Labour leaders showed themselves eager to take on themselves full responsibility for managing the crisis of capitalism. Now we see the consequences of this.
The leaders of Fine Gael now find themselves in an awkward position. The party’s vote has collapsed (from 36 to 25%), yet it is still the biggest party. That leaves its leader, Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, with the responsibility of trying to form a government but without the power to do so. As a result, the Republic of Ireland now has no government. This follows very similar pattern to that we saw in Spain after the December general election.
The Irish ruling class requires a stable government in order to continue with its policy of cuts and austerity. From its point of view the best chance for this would involve Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael working together. The problem is that this scenario would ultimately lead to the shattering of both parties. And since the Irish bourgeoisie has always based itself on these two parties, both of which stand firmly for capitalism, the ground is being prepared for a radical realignment of Irish politics.
For almost a century, since the end of the country’s bitter civil war, two bourgeois parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have dominated Irish politics. In 1982 they jointly held 84% of the vote. But that epoch is now drawing to a close. The old parties are increasingly seen as part of the country’s establishment, while Labour has disgraced itself by the class collaboration policies of its leaders. People can see no real difference between the existing parties, and they are not mistaken, for, barring the usual clique rivalries, there is none.
Fianna Fáil received slightly less votes than Fine Gael. But its leaders would consider the idea of serving as a junior partner of that party far from appetizing, especially after what happened to the Labour Party. Moreover, there is the little problem of who takes what ministry (that is to say, who gets his or her snout into the juicier parts of the pig trough). For any negotiation on such an important question, being in second place is a severe disadvantage.
Moreover, an alliance between those parties would make Sinn Féin the main opposition party. That is another reason why both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would think twice or three times about the prospect of a so-called “grand coalition.” The leaders of these parties will therefore not be in any hurry to join a coalition.
The complete bankruptcy of the Irish Labour leaders is shown by the comments of Labour Party deputy leader Alan Kelly, who said Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should “cop themselves on now” and form a government: “All of this pretending that there are massive issues between them is rubbish. They need to come together, work together and put a government in place for the good of the people.”
In what way two capitalist parties can ever represent the “good of the people” is a mystery, the solution to which can only be known to Mr. Kelly. As a result of the sellout of of the Irish Labour Party, it is undoubtedly the case that Sinn Féin has carved out a role for itself on the left of Irish politics. It did well in these elections, as did independents and smaller parties on the left.
Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, has declared that his party would “not prop up either a Fine Gael or a Fianna Fáil government.” Instead, he insisted, “Sinn Féin wants to lead the next government.” That remains to be seen, but it is clear that the party has just increased its vote by four percentage points and will return with a greatly strengthened Dáil (Irish parliament) team. In opposition its support will grow, especially if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil finally reach some kind of deal.
Although a grand coalition cannot be ruled out, the most likely outcome of the Irish situation is a return to the polls. But what would that solve? The question remains: can a coalition be formed? Over two months after the December election in Spain, no government has yet been formed. If no government is formed, new elections will have to be called. But that will certainly mean a growth in the vote for Podemos. One thing is sure: the next Irish parliament will be a divided one, with a definite split between left and right. This is a faithful reflection of the growing polarization between the classes and further social and political upheaval.
On the other side of the Atlantic, also, things are moving fast in the US. Only one year ago, hardly anybody knew the name of Bernie Sanders, while there was nobody who did not know Hillary Clinton. Then she enjoyed a 52-point lead over Sanders, with 55 percent of support to his 3 percent. In Fox News’ last poll, conducted shortly before Iowa, she still led by 12. But the gap was narrowing. Later Fox News announced that Sanders had a 3-point lead.
On February 18 The Washington Post wrote, “This poll is pretty remarkable in that every demographic has shifted in Sanders’s favor, with him increasing his support and Clinton losing hers. In every single one. Where Clinton used to lead big, now the two are often tied. Where they were basically tied, Sanders has surged forward.”
Subsequently, Sanders suffered a setback in South Carolina. That was expected. Then on March 1 (Super Tuesday) the fate of about 880 Democratic delegates was decided, the largest number on any single day during the primary. In the end Clinton won in seven of the 11 states holding Democratic events. Sanders won Oklahoma, Colorado, Minnesota, and his home state of Vermont, and lost Massachusetts by a very slim margin.
The media immediately concluded that the race for the nomination was all over. But that is a premature deduction. Bernie Sanders said he intends to fight to the Democratic convention in July. A series of setbacks in the primaries could make it nearly impossible for Sanders to win the nomination. But it is still not entirely ruled out. Southern states, where the Clintons were sure to win, have already voted. The outcome in other big states, including California and New York State, is still far from clear.
It is true that Sanders faces an implacable obstacle in the form of the Democratic Party machine. But many things can happen before the Democratic convention in July. It is also true that the media exercises a big influence. But the Sanders campaign has struck a chord that will resonate among many people, and it is spread by Internet and an army of volunteers who have raised huge amounts of money to keep his campaign moving on.
Most important of all is a deep-seated desire for change. Clinton represents the status quo, while Sanders offers a change. Clinton is the creature of Wall Street, while Sanders attacks Wall Street and big business. Every time he attacks Wall Street and big business and calls for a $15 minimum wage, his support grows. This has been noticed by the serious representatives of the ruling class. The Financial Times comments, “All the talk is of students reeling under unpayable debts and of parents having to work at two or three low-paid jobs to make ends meet.” When Sanders speaks of “political revolution” it strikes a note that resonates everywhere, especially among the youth and the low-paid.
To the degree that Sanders’ message becomes well known, his support will grow, while that of Hillary Clinton cannot be taken for granted. Even though South Carolina was a difficult state for Sanders to win, he struck a chord with younger people, including many young African-Americans. Once again he addressed big meetings, drawing enthusiastic applause for his radical-sounding policies. Many people hate Wall Street and warm to Sanders’ attacks on inequality.
This is why he keeps attracting large crowds. In Texas, 10,000 people turned out in Austin to hear him, and a further 8,000 in Dallas. People do not want the status quo. In a distorted, reactionary way, that is also reflected in the person of Trump. That explains the seeming paradox that many of Trump’s supporters are also very open to Sanders’ message. In Trump’s celebration rally in New Hampshire, while there were angry shouts and catcalls when Clinton appeared on the giant TV screen, when Sanders appeared there was a respectful silence.
There are many ways in which the Democratic Party establishment can block him. But the real significance of this challenge cannot be expressed in the arithmetic of delegates. It is something that goes far beyond the presidential nomination. Sanders says, “What this campaign is about—is not just electing a president, it’s about transforming America . . .” And whatever the final outcome of this contest, politics in the USA will never be the same again.
It was Trotsky, that great revolutionary dialectician, who coined the phrase “the molecular process of socialist revolution.” Long before it erupts to the surface as an explosive phenomenon, revolution matures slowly and silently beneath the surface. It is strikingly similar to the processes that are taking place all the time in a sea of molten rock beneath the earth’s crust. Unimaginable temperatures and pressures are building up and seeking an outlet.
These subterranean forces can be held in check for a long time by the layer of solid rock that has been left over from past explosions that have been long forgotten. But sooner or later, these forces will find a weak spot in the crust, a fault line, and explode in the most violent cataclysms known to humankind. In society such events are known as revolutions.
However, in the same way that men and women cannot see the buildup of explosive forces that are accumulating under their feet, so they have only a very dim awareness of the anger that has been gradually accumulating in the entrails of society. The inhabitants of Naples and San Francisco go about their daily business as they always have done, unconcerned about the dangers of living on the edge of catastrophe of which they have been told many times but which seems to be a very remote prospect.
The international parallels are strikingly obvious, as left-wing broadcaster Paul Mason has pointed out: “What does it mean?” he asks. “Quite simply that the radical progressive sentiment that’s swept Greece, Spain, Scotland, and the British Labour movement has now hit America.” (My emphasis.)
It is true that these processes do not take place everywhere at the same time, with the same speed, or with the same intensity. Different conditions in different countries will shape the consciousness of the masses, which will manifest itself in different ways. But it is the task of science to eliminate all accidental, secondary features and look beyond the superficial differences to lay bare the general laws that lie beneath the surface.
Everywhere people are beginning to draw the same conclusions. From Tehran to Vermont, from Athens to Madrid, from Dublin to Lisbon, from Glasgow to London the accumulated anger of the masses is seeking a political expression. How, when, and where they find it will be different in each case. But one thing is absolutely certain: at a given moment it will force its way to the surface and sweep everything before it.
Despite many differences, we are entitled to compare these three elections, taking place in three continents, and draw the conclusion: the tectonic plates are moving, not only beneath the earth’s surface, but in the depths of society. Sooner or later, explosions will follow.
London, March 2, 2016